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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.