Where I Dissent from Bryan Caplan

Since Bryan Caplan has been a sort of godfather/patron figure for this blog from the beginning, I thought it might be of interest to readers to outline a few points where I dissent from him. In general, I admire Caplan as a writer whose lucidity, range, and right-mindedness on most issues has few peers today. That’s not just one libertarian admiring another. Caplan’s writings on family, public choice, and free will, though not inconsistent with libertarianism, are largely independent of it, and here too I admire and largely agree.

I also like Caplan’s choice of which libertarian causes to champion and to neglect, which to carry to extremes, and which to be compromising and squishy about. Mainstream libertarians are wrong (in my view) about gay marriage and abortion, and they overvalue gun rights. Caplan doesn’t promote those causes much. Caplan is also right not to champion Austrian monetary austerity and the gold standard, as some libertarians do. Immigration, meanwhile, is the issue on which libertarians most dominate the moral high ground, and on which extreme libertarians are more correct than the moderates and compromisers, and here Caplan is most vocal and purist.

It feels odd to call Caplan “wise,” since he always somehow has the air of a smart-alek teenage kid with pimples and a baseball cap. (I think it’s because he engages in intellectual debate with in the same spirit of light-hearted, competitive fun that kids play baseball.) But I’ll do it anyway. You don’t get so many issue positions right on the basis of analytical cleverness alone. It takes wisdom. Caplan’s pacifism is the part of his intellectual agenda I have the least sympathy with, but even here, his frank naivete is calculated to be a useful provocation to gutsy, nuanced thinkers with more of the truth here than Caplan has, to explain themselves better.

Nonetheless, the deep philosophical differences between myself and Bryan Caplan are really rather large. Let me start with the topic of “cosmopolitan tolerance.” In a recent post, Caplan called cosmopolitan tolerance “the sweet spot of freedom.” He argued that free societies are best served when people don’t feel disgust or hatred for their fellow human beings (obviously, since that would make them want to oppress and persecute them), nor indifference, nor love, but moderate benevolence. Indifference is better, but freedom, after all, benefits one’s neighbor as well as oneself, so moderate benevolence towards others is likely to strengthen a person’s commitment to the values of a free society. But why not love? Because

default emotions like love and devotion are also inimical to human freedom.  If you love every stranger like your own child, the idea of respecting their freedom to make their own mistakes is hard to stomach.  You’ll want to give strangers what they need, regardless of what they want.  This yearning makes both paternalism and the welfare state quite enticing.

That’s a very interesting argument, but I would take the Christian view that the ethical ideal is to love one’s neighbor as oneself, where one’s neighbor– as the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) illustrates– means anyone you happen to come in contact with, who is in evident need. Is that “inimical to freedom?” Surely, it’s evident that the Good Samaritan’s benevolence is not inimical to the freedom of the robbed man. He wasn’t helped against his will. Nor did the Good Samaritan aid the wounded man with other people’s tax dollars, but out of his own generosity. But mightn’t the Good Samaritan’s general attitude of generosity towards strangers induce him to support paternalism and the welfare state? I doubt it.

First, an immediate response to an unmistakable need is quite a different matter from a programmatic purpose of bettering the human condition, and I don’t think the psychological motives of the two are very similar. Second, the Good Samaritan’s attitude is consistent with epistemic modesty and respect for the rights of others, and I believe it is those traits that a judicious anti-paternalist should seek to encourage. Don’t seek to restrain people’s benevolence for their fellows. Instead, stress the need to respect the rights of others, to let them live their own stories, and have their own adventures. Let us remember that man does not live by bread alone, that adversity is often a good teacher, and that kindness, clumsily and patronizingly bestowed, can corrupt and demoralize a person. Let us remember Gandhi’s critique of philanthropy, and his saying that

“Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”

Exactly. Or as G.K. Chesterton put it, the philanthropist differs from the lover of humanity because he may be said to love anthropoids, whereas the lover of humanity loves men. Certainly, we should restrain out benevolent impulses when they tempt us to violate the demands of prudence or justice. Certainly, we should make sure that our service is rendered joyfully, and with a view to the real flourishing of our fellows, and not simply because we want to remove their suffering as an eyesore. We should never forget that it is infinitely more important for our fellows to be virtuous, than to be well-fed, and that it can be an injury to a man to encourage his vices by giving him help that he does not deserve and is sure to abuse. But our attitude towards our fellows ought to be love, and the more of it there is, the better.

If anything, I think people support both the welfare state and immigration restrictions because they don’t want to be Good Samaritans. They don’t want to see unmistakable needs and feel they ought to help with their own resources, so they demand that the government mitigate poverty domestically, and they erect the border as a blindfold. The border is their way of walking to the other side of the road and pretending not to see, like the priest and the Levite in the parable. I sometimes joke that “I support the abolition of private property rights, by moral suasion.” That is, by all means, let money be redistributed from rich to poor, but let it be voluntarily given, not taken by the government. By all means, let goods be shared and held in common, but let that be because their owners share them freely and with a good will, not because they are taken from the owners by force.

Caplan has championed “cosmopolitan tolerance” as one of the advantages of open borders, arguing that “immigrants are good for cosmopolitan tolerance,” and, assuming this point is accepted, adds:

I can’t even figure out what social disasters nativists will try to pin on cosmopolitan tolerance.

So I ask them: What country has ever suffered from cosmopolitan tolerance run amok?  From focusing on people’s common humanity rather than superficial differences?  From judging people on their merits instead of their origins?  From living and letting live?

This is an interesting challenge. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek cosmos=world and polis=city, but in the sense of the city-states of ancient Greece, so “country” would be almost as good a translation. A cosmopolitan, then, is someone who feels that “the world is my city.” But is it possible to feel that way, without a certain loss of the fond attachment to hearth and home, which is also one of life’s pleasures? A sturdy peasant for whom every stone of his native village is sacred, and whose enjoyment of it is proportional to his love, is not very cosmopolitan, yet may have a greater share of wholesome and fruitful happiness than most urbane citizens of the world. If anything, I’m inclined to think that being cosmopolitan is correlated with being discontented, restless, and easily bored. Not that cosmopolitanism is a vice. It’s probably a minor virtue, though a costly one to acquire, and hard to separate from associated vices like superciliousness and indifference. Rootedness is also a virtue, and a more important one. It’s good to love one’s own home, and also to have such broad exposure to the common heritage of mankind that one really feels the whole world is one’s city. But to combine these opposite virtues is a rare attainment, and if cosmopolitanism comes at the cost of not feeling at home anywhere, it is too dearly bought.

As for tolerance, it is subject to this paradox: that a society cannot be tolerant without being intolerant of intolerance. To see why, imagine a society where 95% of the population is highly tolerant both of homosexuals, and of violence against homosexuals. Gay people in this society can take pleasure in the knowledge that the vast majority of their fellows look upon their lifestyles with perfect equanimity, and do not judge or condemn them in the least. Alas, the tolerant majority looks with the same equanimity on a small minority of self-appointed divine avengers of sodomy and perversion. When such thugs attack a homosexual in the street, the crowds will not sympathize, but will reflect that, after all, who are they to judge? How can they condemn the sincere expression of someone else’s ethical beliefs? Clearly such tolerance is hardly worth having. Gay people would probably prefer to live in a society which is moderately intolerant, as a matter of morals though not in law, of homosexual behavior, but is also uncompromisingly and aggressively intolerant of violence against homosexuals.

American society today is intolerant of aggression; of racism; of proposals for ethnic cleansing; of the Inquisition; of fascism and communism; of polygamy. It harbors a propensity to lash out against “sexism,” even though this word does not, as far as I can tell, refer to any actual coherent concept, but means whatever a person who chooses to be offended wants it to mean at a given moment. Some parts of American society are becoming intolerant of the idea that marriage necessarily refers to an attachment between a man and a woman. I regard some of these intolerances as bad, but to regard intolerance in general as bad doesn’t fundamentally make sense. You can’t really even make a coherent distinction between moral progress and intolerance of the moral evils that moral progress overcomes. As an open borders advocate, I don’t want to make America more tolerant, but in a sense, less so. I want people to be fervently intolerant of the use of force to exclude or remove immigrants.

And that does not apply only to moral evils. A useful reductio ad absurdum of the idea of tolerance is to imagine a tolerant classroom, in which the teacher scrupulously avoids imposing her views, instead tolerating any opinion that might be expressed. She might humbly suggest that the derivative of sin x is cos x, or that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, but far be it from her to repress or punish a student who, on an exam, expresses a different opinion. The lesson here is that one can’t pursue excellence without being intolerant of mediocrity, and this applies at the societal as well as the individual level.

Historically, the societies most notable for the successful pursuit of excellence fulfilled very imperfectly the desideratum of cosmopolitan tolerance. Victorian Europe, the wellspring of such dazzling progress in science and exploration and economic productivity and literature as the world had never before seen, was notoriously disdainful of non-European peoples. Classical Greece, birthplace of philosophy and democracy and geometry and the proto-scientific study of nature, classified the rest of mankind contemptuously as “barbarians” and was sometimes even ready to regard them all as natural slaves to the free and enlightened Hellenes. Western Europe in the High Middle Ages, birthplace of scholastic philosophy and natural science and the university and the Gothic cathedral and great modern nations like England, France, and Spain, as well of the common law and proto-democratic representative institutions of England that in due course became the basis for modern political liberty, was admirably international as far as Western Christians were concerned, but regarded everything outside “Christendom” as more or less evil and benighted.

By contrast, in response to Caplan’s challenge to find a society of excessive cosmopolitan tolerance, I would name the Roman Empire. There, the many nations of the ancient Mediterranean met and mingled, promiscuously exchanging myths and gods and cults and light philosophical ideas and goods and slaves. They called it the Pax Romana, but it was a time when Roman republican liberty surrendered to the tyranny of the Caesars, and the intellect atrophied and descended gradually into mediocrity. Of course, the late Roman Empire wasn’t entirely tolerant as we mean the word. Thousands of Christian martyrs died gruesome deaths merely for refusing to engage in the nominal emperor-worship which the rest of the population indifferently and ironically engaged in. But principled religious toleration hadn’t been invented yet. The Roman Empire acted to defend the civic unity expressed in the imperial cult, but its general attitude was one of tolerance, of live and let live. It tolerated a labyrinth of religions and cults, it tolerated prostitution, it tolerated social practices like slavery and infanticide. And it gradually ran down, degenerated, and fell apart.

The Christian Church, which took over at the last minute and carried the torch of the classical Mediterranean civilization through the Dark Ages, is often blamed for its intolerance. That this is a somewhat unfair charge is easily seen in the fact that pagans fed Christians to the lions, not vice versa. But Christian emperors did eventually close pagan temples, prohibit pagan sacrifices, remove the pagan Altar of Victory from the Senate, and suppress the ancient Olympic Games. All these changes were perceived by pagans as attacks on their ancient rites, and rights, but to charge the Christians with persecution in the modern sense is complicated by the statist nature of paganism. Thus, as pagan temples had generally been built, maintained, and operated to a large extent at public expense, their closure could be seen as a measure to improve the public finances by cutting spending on things the majority no longer wanted much. Morally, though, the charge of intolerance is apt. Christian churches were intolerant of infanticide, crucifixion, suicide (which had sometimes been ordered by the state), and sexual exploitation of slaves, and the process of moral improvement that it initiated led on to the near disappearance of slavery from medieval Europe. It’s a good thing the Christian churches dispelled the corrupt and enervated cosmopolitan tolerance of the Roman Empire, and replaced it with a moral fervor to better the human condition.

One more critique of Bryan Caplan probably deserves to be the topic of another post, but I’ll add it here briefly, because I might never get around to writing that post. In his book Myth of the Rational Voter, Caplan writes as an unabashed epistemic elitist. His thesis is that democracy is vitiated by the “rational irrationality” of voters, who indulge their biases (the make-work bias, the anti-market bias, the pessimistic bias, and the anti-foreign bias) because their vote won’t affect election outcomes anyway, so they have no incentive to make sensible choices at the ballot box, as opposed of doing whatever feels good. That voters have these particular biases, Caplan establishes by looking at survey data and showing how the views of ordinary people on the economy deviate from those of economists, who presumably know better. His assumption here is that experts know best, and that voters’ disagreements with the experts are evidence of voters’ (not experts’) mistakes.

But lately, Caplan seems more and more to position himself as a champion of common sense. He extols philosopher Michael Huemer for building a political philosophy on “common-sense morality,” and makes a “common sense case for pacifism,” which strikes me as merely evasive since it isn’t utilitarian, but rather seems to take a type of natural rights line that would lead to something close to Tolstoyan pacifist-anarchism, which however he arbitrarily stops short of, calling it “too broad.” This common-sense philosophy seems to be the platform from which Caplan attacks theories favored among the elite, such as John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Now, if Caplan had simply said that sometimes the common sense of ordinary people is right, against the experts, and sometimes the experts are right, against the common-sense of ordinary people, there would be no inconsistency. We’d presume that neither source of knowledge is epistemically foundational in itself, and look for other sources that are. But as general epistemic principles, “trust the experts” and “rely on common sense” are a bit inconsistent. If they are to think clearly and follow the evidence where it leads, experts need to be able to reject common-sense opinions sometimes. Conversely, if a maverick intellectual like Caplan wants to reject this or that elite consensus with an appeal to common sense, isn’t he obliged to defer to the opinion of the common man on other questions, too, including questions where common sense doesn’t support him?

This strikes me as a fatal flaw in the Caplan-Huemer project to found an anarcho-capitalist political philosophy on common-sense morality. Yes, the non-aggression principle has a basis in common sense, but so do the notions that governments make laws and citizens should obey them. If one’s epistemic starting place is that common sense is reliable, one has surrendered ex ante the option of rejecting things like governments or migration restrictions that everyone nowadays takes for granted. I would advocate a more critical approach to common sense, distinguishing intuitions about natural rights, which are an indispensable source of ethical insight, from customs and tradition, which are a fallible but very valuable repository of lessons mankind has learned, and to which great but not unlimited deference is due, from self-serving prejudices, rationalizations, and bad habits, which can pass easily and perhaps validly for common sense, yet which need to be smoked out and rejected. I think respect for common sense is an amiable, humble, and often useful habit for a thinker to have. It reminds a thinker of the complexity of the world. But one can’t articulate anything clearly, or follow any sophisticated chain of logic, or conduct an experiment, without departing somewhat from common sense, and entering the rarefied, elite world of theory and expertise.

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

4 thoughts on “Where I Dissent from Bryan Caplan”

  1. I think the problem here lies in the fact that the term “common sense” is very vague. It seems that Caplan and Huemer picked this terminology in order to convey a certain simplicity and obviousness to their premises. However this had the unfortunate effect of their argument being misinterpreted.

    What I think they mean by common sense is not necessarily the moral and political “wisdom” of the common man, which could be laden with biases and generally simplistic thinking, but a set of clear premises that seem prima facie true to most people, commoners and elites alike. The idea is essentially to deconstruct various problems in political economy down to their fundamental components and evaluate these components for their basic validity.

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