Suicidal Libertarianism (Part D’oh)
When it comes to the libertarian suicide race, Bryan Caplan leaves Don Boudreaux in the dust. Caplan takes the Non-Aggression Principle and runs with it, all the way into a maximum-velocity self-directed death cult. (Self-directed, solely in the ideological sense, of course.) Given the considerable merits of this book, in particular, it’s a sad thing to see.
American libertarianism has always been vulnerable to neo-puritan spiritual extravagance. Caplan systematically pushes this tendency to its limit, divorcing its arguments from any realistic estimation of consequences, and transforming it into a form of deontological moral fanaticism, in which self-defense, retaliation, and boundaries are strictly prohibited. He envisages a world of games in which only unilateral altruism is permissible to the libertarian player. It would be fun to go a few rounds of prisoner’s dilemma with him.
Naturally, when it comes to unconditional support for open borders irrespective of political consequences, Caplan rushes to Boudreaux’s defense. Helpfully, he links into his own extensive archive on the topic, via a gateway into a series of extremely repetitive posts (here, here, and here — reading any one will do).
Perhaps Caplan really believes his own arguments, but if so he has driven himself insane. If you doubt this for a moment, it’s only going to be a moment — try this:
If you care as much about immigrants as natives, this is no reason to oppose immigration. Consider the following example:
Suppose there are two countries with equal populations. The quality of policy ranges from 0-10, 10 being best. In country A, bliss points (people’s first choice for policy) are uniformly distributed from 2-6. In country B, bliss points are uniformly distributed from 4-8.
What does democratic competition deliver? When the countries are independent, country A gets a policy quality of 4 (the median of the uniform distribution from 2-6), and country B gets a policy quality of 6 (the median of the uniform distribution from 4-8). Average policy that people live under: 50%*4+50%*6=5.
Now suppose you open the borders, and everyone moves to country B (the richer country). The median of the whole distribution is 5. Result: The immigrants live under better policies, the natives live under worse policies. The average (5) remains unchanged.
Speechless yet? (I’m halfway through a blogpost, so I can’t afford to be.) The argument: Any attempt to live under a regime that is anything other than the averaged political idiocy of humanity as a whole is a gross human rights violation.
You don’t like the way Pakistanis manage their national affairs? Too bad. Libertarianism (Caplan style) insists that it’s your duty to promote the homogenization of the world’s political cultures because, after all, if there’s anything at all good going on at your end, think how happy it will make the Pakistanis when it gets shared out. Heading into a stirred gruel of deeply degenerated liberal capitalism and Islamo-feudalism is best for everybody, taken on average. If it’s not tasting right, it’s because you’ve not yet thrown in enough African tribal warfare and Polynesian head-hunting for the full moral hit. Or how about mixing Singapore and Bangladesh into a human paste? Anything less is tantamount to genocide.
This argument is so bad that the very idea of responding to it makes me throw up a little in my mouth, but duty calls. Since Caplan claims to be a libertarian, let’s start with an unobjectionable principle — competition. If any institution is to work, it’s because competition keeps it in line. This requires a number of things, all of them incompatible with homogenization: experimental variation, differential support for comparison, local absorption of consequences, and selection through elimination of failure.
Consider two companies: Effective Inc. and Loserbum Corp. Both have very different corporate cultures, adequately reflected in their names. Under market conditions, Loserbum Corp. either learns some lessons from Effective Inc., or it goes under. Net benefit or no great loss to the world in either case.
But along comes Caplan, to bawl out the stockholders, management, and other employees of Effective Inc. “You monsters! Don’t you care at all about the guys at Loserbum Corp.? They have the same moral status as you, don’t you know? Here’s the true, radical free-market plan: All managers and workers of Loserbum get to enter your company, work there, introduce their business strategies and working practices,until we reach equilibrium. Equilibrium is what markets are all about, see? Sure, Effective Inc. will degenerate significantly, but imagine all the utility gains of the poor Loserbums! It all comes out in the wash.”
But … but … countries aren’t companies. Well, maybe not exactly, but they’re competitive institutions, or at least, the more they are, the better they work. The most important thing is true equally of both — to the extent they are able to externalize and pool their failure, the less they will learn.
In a world that has any chance of working, the Loserbum culture has a choice: learn or fail. Caplan introduces a third possibility — share (average out, or homogenize). His maths is idiotic. The contribution that Singapore makes to the world has almost nothing to do with the utility gains to its tiny population. Instead, it is a model — Effective Inc. — whose contribution to the world is to show all the Loserbums what they are. Swamp it with Loserbums, destroy it, and that function is gone. If that had happened before the late 1970s, the PRC would probably still be a neo-Maoist hellhole. It didn’t flood Singapore with 300 million poor peasants, instead, it learnt from Singapore’s example. That’s how the world really works (when it does). Institutional examples matter. Caplan’s world would annihilate all of them, leaving fairly averaged, three-quarter Loserbums grunting at each other in a libertarian-communist swamp. Nothing would work anywhere. There could be no lessons.
Still, Caplan has other arguments. The best, by far, is that wrecking a society to the point of generalized mutual detestation is the best way to shrink the welfare state. It goes like this:
Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to “take care of their own”; that’s what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.
As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform.
This argument is so freaking Mad Max that I actually quite like it. Burn down the world and you take the welfare state with it. Yeeaaaahhhhh! (I’ll leave it to more responsible voices to point out any possible flaws.)
Then there’s the “non-natives are markedly less likely to vote than natives” argument (from the same post, and all the rest). It makes you wonder what a large population of enfranchised but non-voting anti-capitalists engenders. Something good, surely?
Best of all is the capstone contortionist analogy: “Native voters under 30 are more hostile to markets and liberty than immigrants ever were. Why not just kick them out?” Oh yes, oh yes, could we? Or at least stop them voting. Without some arrangement for the mass-disenfranchisement of leftist voters there’s no chance of anything except continuous decay, and age restriction might be as good a place as any to start.
My position in a sentence … is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.
Thank Gnon that no one listens to libertarians.
ADDED: Caplan doubles down, with some mouth-watering hypotheticals. If States ever made these kind of choices, they’d be fun to keep around, but the whole point is that of course they never would. (Don’t miss the darkly-infiltrated comments thread.)
… and yet more attractive counter-democratic hypotheticals. By the time the deontological libertarians have finished with this, they’ll have designed a minutely-detailed neoreactionary policy platform for us.