Bryan Caplan  

Open Borders and The Walking Dead

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I just finished volume 13 of The Walking Dead.  It's my favorite comics discovery since Barefoot Gen.  At first glance, it's mere genre fiction - an unexplained zombie plague destroys civilization in a matter of weeks, leaving a handful of desperate survivors to face the horrible aftermath.  But before long, you know you're reading something special.  The Walking Dead isn't a zombie story; it's a story of human nature - how people think, feel, and interact when their lives are on the line. 

As you'd expect, evolutionary psychology plays a huge role - inclusive fitness and group-serving bias are omnipresent.  But awkwardly for me, the series also makes a compelling case for immigration restrictions.  When the zombie plague first hits, normal humans readily band together for mutual aid.  But before long, society gets ugly.  Within groups, the shortage of food and other resources soon leads to division and strife.  But most of the atrocities are between groups.  Murder, rape, sadism, and cannibalism swiftly emerge. 

Before long, every group is afraid to admit new members.  Who are these strangers who want to join your tribe?  Are they scheming to rob you and flee?  To kill your dominant males and take over?  To betray you to the group that really has their loyalty?  Before long, every group has rigid immigration restrictions.  This is especially true for groups that occupy secure locations.  And I've got to admit - in their shoes, I'd probably do the same.

Also noteworthy: In The Walking Dead, Julian Simon's logic holds more than ever.  There are massive positive externalities of boosting population: More ideas, better division of labor, better risk-sharing, and above all greater safety in numbers.  The problem is capturing those externalities without getting stabbed in the back.

Still, on reflection, The Walking Dead doesn't show that immigration restrictions are a good idea.  It shows how desperate conditions would have to be before immigration restrictions became a good idea.  If one-in-three immigrants were a serial killer, a rapist, or a secret agent planning to smuggle in an enemy army - not too far from humans' ancestral environment - fear of immigrants would be justified. 

Fortunately for us, the modern world is utterly different.  Modern immigrants don't want our blood - just an employer, a landlord, and a grocer.  Unfortunately for would-be immigrants, we still haven't emotionally accepted modern realities.  Human potential is all around us.  But unless it shares our national of origin, we see zombies.

P.S. I'll be giving a Provocative Lecture on immigration in San Jose, California on Tuesday.  If you're there, stop by and say hi.



COMMENTS (18 to date)
Jeff Peterson writes:

I assume you've previously answered John Derbyshire's "Libertarianism in One Country"? (Executive summary: "[L]libertarianism is a peculiarly American doctrine, with very little appeal to the huddled masses of the third world. If libertarianism implies mass third-world immigration, then it is self-destroying. Libertarianism is simply not attractive either to illiterate peasants from mercantilist Latin American states, or to East Asians with traditions of imperial-bureaucratic paternalism, or to the products of Middle Eastern Muslim theocracies"; see http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/219463/libertarianism-one-country/john-derbyshire) I'd be interested to see the answer, 'cause on the face of it I'd think Derbyshire's objection fatal to a libertarian-motivated advocacy of open borders.

Jacob Oost writes:

Dr. Caplan, you're not going to become the anarcho-capitalist version of those pseudo-eco-feminist-Marxist "critical theorists" who spend all of their time "analyzing" literary works through a political lens, deconstructing the heck out of everything and categorizing every character, plot point, font choice, etc. according to its Marxist-Leninist-eco-warrior interpretation, are you?

I get the feeling that humanities professors ran out of things to say a long time ago and have turned to quasi-Marxist interpretations of everything under the sun for lack of anything better to do. My question is: who the heck pays them to do this?

Evan writes:
If one-in-three immigrants were a serial killer, a rapist, or a secret agent planning to smuggle in an enemy army - not too far from humans' ancestral environment - fear of immigrants would be justified.
Agreed. If a bunch of Orks from Warhammer 40K wanted to emigrate here, I don't think I'd approve. The amount of damage they'd do would far surpass the benefit everyone would get out of the deal.

Of course, in the real world, the amount of suffering caused by the negative externalities of immigration is dwarfed by the benefits, both those the immigrants get, and the positive externalities they produce. The only way you can oppose it is if you adopt one of those sick, perverted forms of morality where the happiness of someone who got squeezed out of their mom on your side of the border somehow counts for more than the happiness of someone who had the bad luck to be born on the other side. And that's just plain wrong.

John Fast writes:

@Jacob Oost My favorite English literature professor complained about Marxists and suchlike folk who thought that all literature was political. I replied that as a political theorist, all literature is political to me as well. The difference is that I understand that it's not *only* political.

@Evan You're nothing but a rampant anti-Ork bigot! Waaagh! Other than that, I agree with you.

Bryan Caplan Barefoot Gen, The Walking Dead, Dexter . . . Do you enjoy Warren Zevon, Masters of Horror/Fear Itself, and the revived version of The Outer Limits, too? And I don't understand why you haven't played Mage or any other World of Darkness game yet.

TimG writes:

Even Writes
Of course, in the real world, the amount of suffering caused by the negative externalities of immigration is dwarfed by the benefits, both those the immigrants get, and the positive externalities they produce.

Of course in the real world, US immigration is heavily restricted, the billions of poor in Asia/Africa have almost no chance of getting to migrate to the US, legally or illegally. We have no useful empirical evidence on what would happen to the US with truly open boarders and modern transportation. But hey what could go wrong!

Pandaemoni writes:

Some of the behaviors in the Walking Dead seemed counter intuitive to me, particularly fighting over most resources. One good thing about zombies, they don't use many resources, so (at least for the first few years) there should be a lot "laying around". There certainly might be local shortages of particulars, but basics like canned food, gasoline and even guns and ammo should be relatively easy to find in America after 99.99% of its population is dead.

Why should I fight with and possibly get injured by some other tribe, unless the resource is very special (and even then, how special would it need to be).

In any event, that's not the world of The Walking Dead, where shortages can be all too common. Perhaps there are just a few people out there hoarding truly massive amounts of everything, but I'd imagine that most survivors could only hoard so much before mobility became an issue.

Evan writes:
We have no useful empirical evidence on what would happen to the US with truly open boarders and modern transportation. But hey what could go wrong!
I've heard radical environmentalists make a similarly structured argument when they argue that we should stop the introduction of any and all future technology because there's no way to account for every possible effect it could have. The argument falls flat because to be convincing the person hearing it has to have the same irrational fear and suspicion of technology as a radical environmentalist. Your argument doesn't work either because I lack the same level of fear and suspicion of poor foreign people as you. You seem to think it would work on me because you don't realize that the "scaryness" of poor foreign people is a property of your brain, rather than a property of those people.

And we do have meaningful empirical data on open borders between poor and rich places. It's called the US of A. The USA has poor areas, and rich areas, and completely free migration between them. Have you noticed anything really awful happening because of it? I haven't. Open immigration between Detroit and Ann Arbor hasn't turned Ann Arbor into Detroit, to name only one example.

MikeP writes:

Still, on reflection, The Walking Dead doesn't show that immigration restrictions are a good idea. It shows how desperate conditions would have to be before immigration restrictions became a good idea.

Rand called such scenarios "lifeboat questions" and pointed out that you cannot validly answer moral questions based on them.

Morality is about living in the real world under real circumstances -- not about living in contrived worlds under contrived circumstances. You cannot use situations in the latter to prove moral questions in the former.

Steamer writes:
The only way you can oppose it is if you adopt one of those sick, perverted forms of morality where the happiness of someone who got squeezed out of their mom on your side of the border somehow counts for more than the happiness of someone who had the bad luck to be born on the other side. And that's just plain wrong.

Why, for starters, don't you try to give a coherent logical argument about why this is wrong? And, remember, that includes giving definitions of right and wrong without using quasi-metaphisical moral blabbering.
You can't? Welcome to post-Wittgensteinian moral nihilism 101.

And, you know, there is a compelling non-moral argument for prefering most of your copatriots to most immigrants. It's called genetic interests.

John writes:

If you like that type of genre you might also like E.E. Knight's Vampire Earth series. It also has a certain insight to share on the same line of thought you take above.

Evan writes:
Why, for starters, don't you try to give a coherent logical argument about why this is wrong? And, remember, that includes giving definitions of right and wrong without using quasi-metaphisical moral blabbering. You can't? Welcome to post-Wittgensteinian moral nihilism 101.
That's ludicriously easy. Morality based on citizenship causes more suffering than morality based on being human. Therefore it is wrong. Learn more here. Simple, easy, and not requiring any fancy logic. And before you ask how I can be a libertarian and a consequentalist, I think that libertarian moral rules are excellent heuristics that tend to produce the greatest preference satisfaction for the greatest number of people. Moral nihilism is a position people adopt when they really want to do or believe something that all real morality heuristics condemn.

You aren't really a moral nihilist. In your previous comments you've expressed anger and frustration that libertarians don't seem to care about the future of their race. If you were a moral nihilist, you wouldn't see any problem with that. It would be like caring whether they have corn or green beans for dinner. If you were truly a moral nihilist you wouldn't get this upset when people expressed other moral views, you wouldn't care at all.

And I do care about the future of my race: The Human Race. Morality based on smaller subsections of the human race, such as ethnic nationalism, is of course, evil, since it has been proven to have caused massive suffering in the past.

And, you know, there is a compelling non-moral argument for prefering most of your copatriots to most immigrants. It's called genetic interests.
You fail biology forever. Humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. We aren't programmed to care about our genetic interests. We're programmed by natural selection to want to take actions which, in the Stone Age, would have preserved our genetic interests, without knowing why we do that. And claiming we're morally obligated to protect our genetic interests is an awfully weird thing for a moral nihilist to say.
MikeP writes:

Why, for starters, don't you try to give a coherent logical argument about why this is wrong?

Evan's statement was considered self-evident 235 years ago by the founders of the country you claim to be so interested in protecting.

Steamer writes:
That's ludicriously easy. Morality based on citizenship causes more suffering than morality based on being human. Therefore it is wrong. Learn more here. Simple, easy, and not requiring any fancy logic. And before you ask how I can be a libertarian and a consequentalist, I think that libertarian moral rules are excellent heuristics that tend to produce the greatest preference satisfaction for the greatest number of people.

This does not answer my question even a bit. You cannot define basic moral concepts and tenants without using void circular references and/or metaphysical constructs and/or reducing the postive to the normative. I am appalled by the fact that almost a century after Wittgenstein, people are still falling for this crap.

You aren't really a moral nihilist. In your previous comments you've expressed anger and frustration that libertarians don't seem to care about the future of their race. If you were a moral nihilist, you wouldn't see any problem with that.

I'll put it simple for you: you do not understand moral nihilism. Moral nihilists have their own values (like every person). They simply recognise that values as a whole do not have true/false (meaning moral/immoral) properties. There is a subtle difference between moral nihilism as a methodology and moral nihilism as a behaviour (which apparently you do not grasp) - the former is compatible with any system of conduct, the latter manifests itself as rational egoism, not the caricature of a man without integrity and consistent behaviour you apparently imagine every nihilist should be.


You are so bend on a certain form of utilitarianism without even realising it that it hurts.

You fail biology forever. Humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers.
What has that to do with my argument? I am not arguing that humans act as if they are protecting their genetic interests. What I am saying is that people who do that benefit in evolutionary terms (positive reason) and that rational, emotionless reflection on the matter leads to the conclusion that this strategy is the best form of behaviour most of the time (quasi-normative reason for people who think rationality should dictate behaviour).
And claiming we're morally obligated to protect our genetic interests is an awfully weird thing for a moral nihilist to say.
Where did I say that? I said:"And, you know, there is a compelling non-moral argument for prefering most of your copatriots to most immigrants." I think you could do with more reading comprehension.

Evan's statement was considered self-evident 235 years ago by the founders of the country you claim to be so interested in protecting.

Oh, great, argument from authority! I won't even start explaining to you why this is a logical failure. If you do not see it yourself, it is meaningless anyway.

MikeP writes:

Oh, great, argument from authority! I won't even start explaining to you why this is a logical failure.

I was not making a argument. I was simply stating a fact.

The belief that all men are created equal is pretty fundamental to the American worldview. My brief point was to wonder what you are defending if you are not defending that.

But I see that you aren't defending ideas -- only defending tribes -- so my point is irrelevant.

Evan writes:
This does not answer my question even a bit. You cannot define basic moral concepts and tenants without using void circular references and/or metaphysical constructs and/or reducing the postive to the normative. I am appalled by the fact that almost a century after Wittgenstein, people are still falling for this crap.
Why do you keep referring to Wittgenstein, it was Hume who discovered the "is-ought problem?" Wittgenstein, as far as I can see, mainly focused on language, and like many people made the mistake of assuming words can mean anything to anyone. If Wittgenstein's work shows that I should undetake actions that cause suffering, then he can go jump in a lake.

If you want to know where moral claims come from, they don't come from abstract logic, they come from the human conscience, it's as simple as that. And since humans are pretty much identical, psychologically, we all have nearly identical consciences (except maybe for sociopaths). Only consequentialism can coherently satisfy all the moral intuitions that emerge from the human conscience, every other form of ethics ends up being inconsistant. If it seems wrong to you, that is because you have not thought your moral intuitions through thoroughly enough.

You would not have intuition that your race deserves more loyalty than your species does if you thought the intuitions of your conscience through more thoroughly. Or maybe I'm wrong and you're some sort of "meta-sociopath" who disapproves of the actions of sociopaths who only serve their own interests, but has no problem with races acting in a sociopathic fashion. I doubt that though, I think there's a moral person inside you somewhere.

If you want me to prove that there is a rational reason to do things without the background of the evolved human mind, well, that is nonsense. If we had no emotions or conscience we would all just lay down and die. But since we do have them, we can learn to agree on things.

the latter manifests itself as rational egoism, not the caricature of a man without integrity and consistent behaviour you apparently imagine every nihilist should be.
If you're a rationnal egoist you should support more immigration, since economics proves it benefits everyone.
Moral nihilists have their own values (like every person). They simply recognise that values as a whole do not have true/false (meaning moral/immoral) properties.
So when I make a moral claim its meaningless and nihilism destroys it, but when you make a moral claim it's a value and I can't touch it. Then if I say universal moral equality is a "value" will you accept it? Or will you get mad at me for betraying my race?
What has that to do with my argument? I am not arguing that humans act as if they are protecting their genetic interests. What I am saying is that people who do that benefit in evolutionary terms (positive reason) and that rational, emotionless reflection on the matter leads to the conclusion that this strategy is the best form of behaviour most of the time (quasi-normative reason for people who think rationality should dictate behaviour).
Genetic fitness isn't rational, at all. If I discovered I was adopted, and that I was an unusually pale Indian instead of a Caucasian, I would not break up with my Caucasian fiancee to find an Indian one, or disown my Caucasian friends and family in favor of Indian ones. Evolution is not a justification for anything. If you'd never heard of it you'd still oppose immigration.
Evan writes:

Although, thinking about it, you could argue racial intermarriage increases genetic fitness. Genetic diversity is good for genetic fitness, after all. The world would be a much more fit place if we were all so interbred that everyone was a shade of light brown and had small epicanthic folds over their eyes. Not only because it was more genetically diverse and intermixed, but because it would have less racial strife and war. So maybe Hypothetical-Indian-Evan is being fit after all.

And if you get mad at me for saying that you aren't a moral nihilist.

Saracen writes:

The USA has poor areas, and rich areas, and completely free migration between them. Have you noticed anything really awful happening because of it? I haven't. Open immigration between Detroit and Ann Arbor hasn't turned Ann Arbor into Detroit, to name only one example.

It did turn 1950s Detroit into modern Detroit. Which is a pretty awful thing. There's also no reason to believe that Ann Arbor gained more than Detroit lost.

Same thing can be said about rich and poor areas of southern California.

The big immigration success story is Silicon Valley. Why? Because many of its immigrants were high-skill, certainly by the second generation.

Why don't you focus on broadening the policy which actually WORKS? While acknowledging that, however nice it may look to you in your theories, nobody has yet demonstrated how to make low-skill immigration work in modern America so a hiatus is appropriate while you work out the bugs? Maybe the vast majority of Americans won't correctly hate you for trying to degrade their country, then.

The Man Who Was . . . writes:

Is California better or worse off for the massive influx of low skill workers? The question answers itself.

Not only that, but it doesn't even make sense on Bryan's own terms:
http://www.parapundit.com/archives/003344.html

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