Tyler Cowen Must Try Harder to Think Clearly

Tyler Cowen is a remarkable thinker. He is a sponge for information and a great summarizer, categorizer, and synthesizer thereof. It is a service in which our age, with its sprawling clamor of disparate thought, greatly needs. Perhaps Cowen’s gifts are inseparable from his compulsive moderation, which often spills over into muddle-headedness. Cowen couldn’t be such a good listener if he didn’t give muddle-headed people a hearing. If he was as lucid and logical a thinker as Bryan Caplan, he’d see through nonsense too quickly and wouldn’t have the patience to read/blog it so that we don’t have to.

Nonetheless, with all due respect, I must remark that a recent post in which he goes after Bryan Caplan as a “False Cosmopolitanite” is singularly demonstrative of the inferiority of Cowen’s philosophical and logical acumen relative to Caplan’s. Caplan hasn’t responded to it yet– perhaps he won’t, either because he’s busy or because it would be so embarrassingly easy– but I think I have a pretty good idea what his response might be. Cowen writes:

Enter the intellectuals, whom I call The False Cosmopolitanites… The intellectuals… push for marginal moves toward a stronger cosmopolitanism, even though in a deconstructionist sense their inflated sense of superiority and smugness, while doing so, is its own form of non-cosmopolitanism… Sailer can skewer The False Cosmopolitanites, who serve up a highly elastic and never-ending supply of objectionable, fact-denying, self-righteous nonsense… Embedded in all of this, Caplan is more particularistic than he lets on, embodying and glorifying a form of upper-middle class U.S. suburban culture of which I am personally quite fond. Sailer is… a non-conformist and smart aleck who plays at the status games of The False Cosmopolitanites.  Sailer insists on relativizing and deconstructing The False Cosmopolitanites, which is fine by me, but at the same time he overestimates their power and influence…

There is not the slightest inconsistency between “embodying and glorifying a form of upper-middle class US suburban culture” and favoring open borders. Cowen’s critique is a complete, unmitigated nonsequitur. No reconciliation of Caplan’s two positions (pro-suburbia and pro-open borders) is really needed, but if he felt the need to dispel any slight persuasive force Cowen’s remarks had on weak-minded readers, Caplan could answer in either or all of the following ways.

  1. Open borders will not disrupt the upper-middle class suburban culture of which he is fond. There’s little reason to think it would lead to more crime. If it did, the boost to GDP from open borders would easily fund a few more police. Many immigrants might integrate pretty easily into upper-middle-class suburbia, but if it takes soaring new tenements and sprawling shantytowns to house the immigrant multitudes, there will be plenty of land on which to build those while leaving room for a lot of upper-middle-class suburbia, too.
  2. Open borders will, moreover, give more people access to the American suburban life Caplan is so fond of. If Caplan thinks so highly of middle-class suburbia in America, by all means let’s try to give as many people as possible access to this fortunate existence.
  3. Even if open borders did threaten the American suburban lifestyle, it is not in the least inconsistent to say that protecting that lifestyle is not an adequate motive for immigration restriction policies that is by far the greatest cause of dire poverty in the world. Americans probably wouldn’t need to sacrifice suburban comfort to accommodate open borders, but if they did, that would be a small price to pay for the global gains that could be expected.
  4. Doubtless, there are counter-arguments to all these claims, but that’s beside the point. If Caplan believes (1), (2), and/or (3), Cowen’s suggestion that Caplan is a “False Cosmopolitanite”– inconsistent– for being pro-suburbia and pro-open borders, fails.

    Whether or not Caplan, or open borders advocates generally, are guilty of “smugness” or an “inflated sense of superiority” is entirely beside the point. Really, we all have better things to do than talk about the tone in which the arguments are stated. Our business is to evaluate their truth. Are governments justified in using force to prevent peaceful migration, or not?

    The answer to that question has nothing to do with whether one is “cosmopolitan” in the sense of liking multicultural art, or having foreign friends, or liking foreigners, or thinking that all cultures are equally valuable or anything of the sort. It is entirely consistent to think most foreigners are morally inferior to Americans and still think we ought not to coerce them to stay in foreign countries. For that matter, it would be eminently consistent to support open immigration because one thinks most foreigners are morally inferior to Americans, in hopes that exposure to the moral influence of American society will improve them.

    I doubt that Cowen could even define his terms “particularist” and “cosmopolitan” in a minimally satisfactory way. The suggestions that being “smug” is “non-cosmopolitan” and that “glorifying suburbia” is “particularist” suggest that whatever Cowen means by the terms is so stultifyingly subjective that they couldn’t do any real work in any sensible argument about open borders. Is my meta-ethics of universal altruism plus division of labor “cosmopolitan?” I do insist that we should ultimately place equal value on the welfare of foreigners. But I am not at all “cosmopolitan” in the sense of airy detachment from “particularist” cultural traditions: on the contrary, I’m a Christian, and support open borders partly from Christian reasons. But then, does the fact that Christianity is global and universalistic religion– Jesus said to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19)– make me cosmopolitan again? Such questions are unanswerable and fundamentally silly.

    Cowen says that “Sailer insists on relativizing and deconstructing The False Cosmopolitanites, which is fine by me.” Why is it fine by him? We intellectuals have a primary duty to truth. Part of that duty includes taking the claims of other scholars seriously, answering argument with argument, not engaging in ad hominem attacks and low blows against one another’s motives. Cowen should know better than to approve of Sailer “relativizing and deconstructing” Caplan.

    By the same token, calling Caplan a “False Cosmopolitanite” ought to be beneath Cowen. Has Caplan ever claimed to be “cosmopolitan” in any sense, let along Cowen’s strange subjectivist sense? If he hasn’t claimed to be a Cosmopolitanite, he can’t be a false one. In general, while I often disagree with Caplan– I find his “common-sense case for pacifism” very naïve, for example– “false” is a very inapt description of him. On the contrary, much of his charm lies in his extreme ingenuousness. But the “False Cosmopolitanite” label is especially fatuous because Cowen’s concept of “cosmopolitan” is so confused, and its logical connection to open borders, for or against, so non-existent.

    Cowen says that his “perspective is a synthetic one,” but the post is calculated to give “synthetic perspectives” a bad name. There can be a conflict between synthesizing and seeking truth. In this case, Cowen’s attempt to be a sort of hybrid of Bryan Caplan and Steve Sailer yields a singularly muddled contribution to the debate. Tyler Cowen must try harder to think clearly.

    Nathan Smith

    Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

    See also:

    Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
    All blog posts by Nathan Smith

6 thoughts on “Tyler Cowen Must Try Harder to Think Clearly”

  1. No offense, but you are totally missing the point.

    1. Cowen acknowledges Caplan’s moral case as correct. He says he has “the high moral ground but not a practicable proposal.”
    2. Cowen’s post is in the context of an argument about whether nativist backlash to high levels of immigration is inevitable. Caplan says no — “The main hurdle to further immigration is insufficient immigration. If countries could just get over the hump of status quo bias, anti-immigration attitudes would become as socially unacceptable as domestic racism.” So, the question isn’t “are open borders a good idea” or “are open borders moral,” it’s “will open borders inevitably lead to a nativist backlash.”
    3. Cowen thinks nativist backlashes, like the one in Switzerland, will always happen because all people prefer their own culture to near the same extent. No one is or ever will be truly cosmopolitan. The argument isn’t that Caplan should or will oppose open borders, it’s that even people *like* Caplan are very tied to a specific culture, and if immigration threatens that culture then enough people like Caplan will turn, as the Swiss turned, on immigration. You can’t count on the mass of modern, generally pro-immigrant intellectuals to stay that way when immigrants start being around 30 percent of the population;there is no reason to think we will behave differently from the Swiss. You debate this empirically, but miss the point. Cowen isn’t saying “high quality suburban living will go away,” he’s saying “a specific and unique suburban culture will go away. Little leaugue and Starbucks replaced by cricket and kava, say.” It’s an empirical question about how people behave when their culture is changing radically, and Caplan does not, to me, seem obviously right.
    4. Most importantly, Cowen thinks a unified, national cultural sense is needed for a modern nation to work, and that a cosmopolitan world view would undermine that. Caplan’s answer to “immigrants hurt the efficient production of public goods by undermining some aspect of democracy or civil society” has always been, “if that’s true we can just disenfranchise them and deny them public goods.” But now he’s saying open borders require a cosmopolitan world view on the part of the citizenry — they have to treat discrimination against immigrants as we now treat slavery. It seems to me that puts considerable pressure on Caplan’s claim that we don’t have to worry about how immigrants impact democracy, civil society, and the welfare state because we can always just discriminatorily exclude them from those things.

    Either way, again, the extent to which cultural homogeneity aids or is necessary for the production of public goods is an empirical one about which Caplan is not obviously right, as evidenced by his repeated claim that there are solutions to the problem better than immigration restriction.
    5. Caplan would never agree with you that Tyler isn’t a lucid thinker. That’s probably why he isn’t as quick to respond.

    1. Nathan might respond to the content of your comment, but a quick note: Nathan was addressing the specific part of Cowen’s argument where Cowen called Caplan a False Cosmopolitanite. One of our other bloggers is drafting a post to discuss Cowen’s claim of a numerical threshold for nativist backlash (exploring this has been on our backburner for a while, even before Cowen’s post, but the post spurred one of our bloggers to give this higher priority). We also have another draft post that addresses more explicitly the moral vs. practical distinction (or lack thereof).

      Basically, Cowen alluded briefly to a lot of points (not all of them original, but with a somewhat different formulation from what we’ve dealt with), but it’s not possible to do a single post that does justice to all of them, which is why different bloggers decided to address different aspects of the issues raised by Cowen.

      1. Fair enough, but I think it’s a giant mistake to treat his claim that no one, including Caplan, is truly cosmopolitan as separate or tangential to his claim that nativist backlash is inevitable. He wasn’t making some random ad hominem, he was illustrating why nativist backlash is inevitable: it’s rooted in an impulse not even Caplan, an arch immigration advocate, has eliminated.

        1. Well,

          1. Caplan hasn’t claimed that people should try to eliminate impulses that prefer certain lifestyles to others — his general point has been to “build your own bubble” through voluntary choices rather than forcing others to leave or conform to your wishes. See for instance http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2013/04/immigration_and_4.html
          2. Almost any desire can further a bad cause. People’s desire for material comfort and purchasing power can justify theft and fraud. This doesn’t mean that anybody who expresses a desire for certain forms of material comfort or for the benefits that wealth provides would be hypocritical for condemning theft, nor does it mean that there is some threshold value of income inequality beyond which theft would plague society. There may well be a threshold value of income inequality at which theft would plague society, just as there may well be a threshold value of migration at which a nativist backlash would lead to heavy immigration restrictions. But this is a fairly separate issue from either theft or support of migration restrictions being moral, or opposition to either being hypocritical.
          1. And it is purely coincidental that the “bubble” caplan built includes an affinity for the American suburban culture he was born into? His preference has no bearing on the claim that people instinctively fight to preserve their “native” culture?

            To be clear, Cowen has never said it is hypocritical to argue for open borders while preferring your own culture. Rather, he argues it is hypocritical to pretend at a cosmopolitan world view where culture is irrelevant and we all associate freely while also expressing a huge preference for your native culture and primarily associating with members of that culture.

    2. Thanks Robert H., very astute comments.

      On Cowen not being a lucid thinker, I didn’t say that, but rather that Cowen isn’t as lucid and logical as Caplan. That’s a very high bar. By any less sky-high standard, I’d readily call Cowen a lucid thinker. Caplan might not make the same claim, since it would come across as very arrogant if he said it.

      Your defense of Cowen is somewhat persuasive, and I hadn’t seen it in that light. The trouble with it is that Cowen DIDN’T say, “Caplan is taking a new line in this post, which commits him to the view that immigration will naturally make people more cosmopolitan…” or anything like that. If he had made it clear that he was responding, not to Caplan’s general position, but specifically to his argument in the Switzerland post, your defense of Cowen would work.

      But Cowen struck me as responding, not mainly to one particular post, but to the long-running argument between Caplan and Steve Sailer. To the extent that that’s what he’s doing, I would say that your defense doesn’t work so well, and my criticisms stand. There’s no strong logical link between open borders and “cosmopolitanism,” whatever that means.

      I suppose the charge that Caplan is a “False Cosmopolitanite” was what provoked me to write this post. And again, such a characterization would be much too sweeping if all Cowen meant is that Caplan overreached a bit in his Switzerland post.

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