I Can't Tell a Stop Sign...

from a gun, and I can't tell a green card from a "No Negroes Wanted" sign.

Or so says Bryan Caplan. Bryan asks, "What is the moral difference between Jim Crow and immigration restrictions?" He doubts that anyone can point to anything of substance.

Well, try this out for starters, Bryan: Let's say I have a house. My family lives in it, as well as a couple of invited guests. If I declared that the one guy who lived with us who happened to be black had to do all of the crap jobs in the house just because he is black, I think we can all agree that would be pretty bogus. Similarly, if I tell him that he is the only person who can't go in the living room, just because he is black, my bad!

But now ten people show up, uninvited, and slip into the house. I find them in the living room having a party. I tell them they not only can't be in the living room, but they can't, in fact, be in the house at all. This is most decidedly not bogus. You see, the thing is, these people are not members of my household. They are uninvited trespassers. I am not discriminating against them based on some fact about themselves that they can't control, but because they busted in uninvited, something they certainly could control.

But Bryan has an answer: "Another possibility: You could say that the treatment illegal immigrants receive is an appropriate punishment for their law-breaking.  This position would be plausible if legal immigration were easy. But for the typical low-skilled immigrant, legal immigration is virtually impossible."

Ah, now I see where Bryan is going! Let's imagine the possibility of the average Princeton-graduating, GMU econ professor sleeping with Angelina Jolie by invitation. That ain't just virtually impossible: it's like dividing by zero or something of the sort. Therefore, there should be no problem with such a person sleeping with her without an invitation, since his chances otherwise are nil.

Or, since Jolie is not a group, let us consider the New York Knicks. I'd really like to go have a shoot-around with them. You know, I'd be happy to do it by invitation, but getting drafted by the Knicks ain't easy. Therefore, it's perfectly OK for me to sneak into their practice and challenge Jeremy Lin to a little one-on-one... and if they kick me out? Well, that would be just like... no, even worse, than... making blacks sit on the back of buses in the pre-1960 South.

The fact of the matter is, if you're going to have a group, there must be some criteria for who gets in and who is kept out. If the Knicks simply let anyone who wanted to do so wander out on the court at any moment and join in the fun, there would simply be no New York Knicks, but merely an on-court free-for-all. If GMU let anyone who chose to do so simply show up on campus, walk into any classroom at any time, and begin lecturing, there would no longer be any GMU.

And that, I suspect, is what Caplan is actually after: as an anarchist, he doesn't believe there should be any entity such as the United States, and, as such, he wishes to wipe out any boundaries between being an American and not being an American. And that is an interesting (although I believe flawed) position. But then, Caplan should be more upfront here: we should have no immigration laws because he would like to see the United States cease to exist as a definable group. But that position, obviously, has nothing to do with equating Jim Crow laws with immigration restrictions.

Footnote: I am quite sympathetic to arguments saying that we currently have immigration laws that are perverse and/or too restrictive. And I am quite sympathetic to treating illegal immigrants gently. But Caplan's argument is not a case for moderation, but for the complete elimination of any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants: a case for nullifying the ability of the United States to make laws within its own jurisdiction, and, as such, a plea for the dissolution of the US as a political entity.


  1. There is a wide gaping hole in your argument. What if Caplan loves the US as a political entity, and thinks Jim Crow laws were awesome?

  2. Sometimes I have difficulty believing Caplan is not a teenager. After I read this, I could never take open borders people seriously again.


    I agree with people who regard breaking the power of the USG as top priority, and I can imagine an argument that an open border policy would further that goal, but I also think that if it succeeded the world could very well be a worse place even by the amoral robot utilitarian standard Caplan seems to like, and if it failed it would certainly be so.

    1. Gabe,

      Did you read this?


      I think you miss the argument of open border people like Caplan.

    2. sklien, Bryan has explained what is behind his stance very well, in a blog post today: He absolutely hates American society. It pretty much disgusts him.

      Therefore, of course he wouldn't care if it was destroyed by an overwhelming flood of immigration.

      And by the way, the argument in the first two paragraphs of Caplan's Cato paper is absurdly bad.

    3. Gene, are you saying that,
      - because Bryan explains his isolated lifestyle based on a stupid test which might easily say that also you would live in quite a thick bubble,
      - because he is an anarchist,
      - because he doesn't like Nascar or other American sports
      - because he doesn’t like TV shows and being bombed with commercials
      - because he sees so many things running wrong in American society (don't you too?),
      - because he thinks it's largely futile trying to make things better but instead trying to live a nice live he likes, that this means,
      - he is indifferent to other people's well being in American society,
      - he has an evil hidden agenda to destroy/dissolve the US via uncontrolled open borders
      - he'd rather see the world around him going down in flames, if he cannot have it his way?

    4. BTW: Jeremy Lin is awesome! Not to find him awesome really is nearly a crime ;)

    5. After reading that post, I truly think that he has no concern over what effect his policy might have on "his" society, because he doesn't consider it his anyway.

    6. Gene,
      I think you are way off base here. Not to consider a society “his” doesn't mean that you do not have a problem seeing those people suffer, or even worse that you want to see those people suffer. I don't consider the American society mine (I am not an American), but I hope that Americans have a decent life and that they are well and can live their life as they see fit (outside or inside a thick bubble), as I wish all other people/societies on earth the same.

      Then you have to distinguish between a society as a nation and the culture of it. As he wrote he cannot identify with what the typical American likes (sports, TV and stuff). Yes he would surely prefer if people on TV started talking more about political philosophy than Jeremy Lin, but that doesn't mean it makes sense to dissolve the US. Why should interest of people in sports shift to something Bryan likes just because the US is dissolved? That really doesn't follow.

      You either didn't read this or must think Bryan is lying when he writes:
      “Many people will find my attitude repugnant. They shouldn't. Yes, I step to the beat of my own drummer. But I'm not trying to push my lifestyle on others. I don't pester people who identify with America as it is. Indeed, I wish outsiders the best of luck. My only request: If you're not happy with your world, don't try to pop my beautiful Bubble. Either fix your world, or get to work and make a beautiful Bubble of your own.”

      Another point is that your criticism of Bryan is that you equate the walls around your living room with the borders of the US. If one of those intruders into you house was a pregnant wife, who gave birth to a baby on your living room carpet, would this child then (no matter if you liked it or not) automatically be a member of your household? Would those baby automatically has to obey all the rules you have set up in your household even if it later in life owned its own part of the house within this household? Would it be subject to give part of his income to your household as long as it lives no matter where it lives? Finally what if it was a member of your household in the first place who actually did let them into your living room?

      The laws that govern your household and the laws that govern the borders of the US are quite different. Therefore your reductio ad absurdum does not work here.

      I am with you though on your reductio ad absurdum “if legal immigration was easy”, there it works. But I am not with you when you jump to your interpretation that in fact Bryan is only pushing his agenda to dissolve the US. To argue that people should have the general legal opportunity to be within the US and work there (if they find a place where they are welcome to work and live), has nothing to do if they ever should be allowed to get the citizenship or welfare. It has also nothing to do with questioning the whole US jurisdiction. If I say I think the death penalty is immoral, that doesn't mean I want the US to dissolve.

  3. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the greatest injustices are the ones whose remedy would lower the expenses of employers.

    1. But Jim, don't the injustices whose elimination would open new markets to employers rank about as high on the badness scale?

  4. Apparently the two things you can't distinguish between are your house on one hand, and an imaginary line on the ground drawn by an overgrown street gang on the other.

  5. Hey, Tom, the imaginary line showing my property boundaries on the town survey was drawn by the exact same overgrown gang!

    1. Hey, Gene, I didn't say anything about property boundaries on a town survey. What, you can't tell the difference between a house and THOSE imaginary lines, either? You might want to check in with your opthamologist.

    2. So, private property in houses (which is defined by the state, right now) is fine and all objective but private property in land is just imaginary lines? So it would be fine for others to build houses all around mine in a way that boxes me in, but not fine for the to come in my house? You might want to check in with your psychiatrist, Tom.

    3. And you might want to check in with your dictionary, and perhaps a primer on basic logic.

      All I said is that I didn't say what you said I said.

    4. Thomas... Thomas... There are certain *implications* which a normal reader is entitled to read into what is written, and I don't think I went beyond those implications.

      You're being a very naughty boy, Thomas! If you don't stop, you shan't have your Christmas pudding.

      (Hey, I'm watching an English murder mystery set at Christmas-time, so I can't help it.)

    5. Enjoy your mystery!

  6. Skylien,
    The argument is not complicated. I do not misunderstand it, I think it is inaccurate. The beginning of that paper is further evidence that Caplan has the moral development of a teenager (especially the opening argument). The first point of his argument is also the weakest (a good rhetorical habit, getting the dicey stuff out of the way early).

    Jim, since you're a pinko, I was pretty sure your first comment was sarcastic. If it wasn't, could you clarify that?

    1. Gabe: Sure.

      I am probably more "liberal" than you or our host in re immigration, legal and non. However, there's a thing that crops up in libertarian argumentation around income inequality, as it touches issues of immigration and offshoring that rankles me. I've seen variants of it from, among others, Caplan and/or Robin Hanson (I have trouble keeping them straight), and Will Wilkinson.

      The argument is that there is a morally scandalous inequality of income one should care about, and that is between American wage-earners and the global poor. We owe it to the global poor to remove barriers that keep them from earning money currently going to America's hourly employees. If you do not favor policies to do this, you are heartless. Foreigners whom America's wealthy wish to hire, either here or abroad, are the only less advantaged class on whose behalf libertarian-oriented economists express outrage.

      Now, as a social democrat, I'm pretty eager to uplift the station of the global poor! The thing is, there are all kinds of ways one might try to do that. I find it striking that the Caplan Tendency fixates on the two methods - unrestricted immigration and unrestricted offshoring - that not only cost America's wealthiest nothing, but even profit them. The two ways, in other words, that involves shifting income from American workers to American owners.

      Because the accident of birth that enables one to join America's bottom 3-4 income quintiles is intolerably undeserved luck, but the accident of birth that enables one to join America's top 1-10% is, hey, who's counting?

  7. That's what I thought you meant, but your follow up response made me less sure the original was sarcasm.

    I agree with you. While the retched of the earth for the most part do not reside in the US, it ain't the softness of their hearts that leads our global elite to try to help them.


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