Bryan Caplan  

The Bizarro Blitzer Interview

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Since you're nerdy enough to read EconLog, I assume you're familiar with Bizarro World, Bizarro Superman, and Bizarro Jerry.  Now imagine adding a new figure to this mythology: Bizarrro Wolf Blitzer.* 

In Bizarro World, the masses and the mainstream media (Blitzer included) are thoroughly libertarian.  Statists are just a handful of hard-blogging oddballs.  To signal his open-mindedness, Bizarro Blitzer invites a leading statist on his show.  But he has a "gotcha" up his sleeve:

Bizarro Blitzer: Let me ask you this hypothetical question.

A healthy 30-year-old young man has a good job, makes a good living, but he's what you statists call a "Mexican citizen" living in the "sovereign country of America."  You call his cell phone and tell him to "go back to Mexico," but something terrible happens.  Instead of packing his bags, he says, "No thanks, I prefer to live and work right here."  What would you do about a case like this?
The leading statist of the Bizarro World stutters all over himself.  Like so:
Y'know it's our country so if we tell him to go home he really ought to.  Using force is ugly, but...  There'd be plenty of charity down in Mexico to help him settle down in comfort.  And he'd probably be better off in Mexico, anyway, cause they speak more Spanish there.  Well, if you asked the him nicely he'd probably be happy to go.
Meanwhile, millions of Bizarro viewers furrow their brows.  Most aren't paying close attention, so they just hear a lot of wishful thinking about Mexican charity and the joy of Spanish.  But the attentive minority recoils in horror.  "Wait, is this statist actually saying the police should use force to expel an innocent man from his home and job just because he's 'Mexican' and this is 'America'?  What a monster!"

My claim: The people of Bizarro World have a far better understanding of right and wrong than the people of the real world.  In Bizarro World, people know that it's morally permissible to refuse to help a total stranger who failed to purchase health insurance, and morally impermissible to treat a peaceful immigrant like a criminal.

* Inspiration here.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
mtraven writes:

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Pandaemoni writes:

To play Devil's edvocate: You can, however, liken being an illegal immigrant to being a trespasser, being within the boundary of the country without permission or legal license. In that view, it is no more immoral to remove an illegal immigrant than it is to remove a squatter who first snuck in and now refuses to leave my home.

I don't know if your pacifism would require that I suffer the presence of the squatter, rather than use force (or have the police use force) to eject him, but it seems difficult to defend my property right without some ultimate right to have him physically removed.

On the other hand, the uninsured man is unwise, but not malicious, and we are a social species. When our ancestors stepped over the starving bodies of their compatriots rather than share their food, they were disproportionately driven to extinction. The morality of the crowd in this case comes, I believe, from our inability to separate the charitable impulse that was bred into us from society-wide/governmental action Blitzer was suggesting.

The answer I thought Paul should have given was along the lines of:

"Wolf, if any man found himself in that sort of situation, I'd be the first to extend my hand to him and help him, and I'd hope most people watching tonight would do the same, but I would not coerce anyone into offering that help if they did not freely decide to do so. Genuine charity is a blessing and a wonderful thing, forced 'charity' isn't charity at all."

allan henderson writes:


Michael Huemer's arguments presume that individual Americans have substantive property rights in land. If instead the state owned the country, so to speak, then the state's refusal to admit a migrant would not be a 'prima facie rights violation,' in his words; the state might yet have a moral duty to admit migrants, either in general or under specific circumstances, but that duty would arise from other considerations.

As for the case of the indigent, uninsured man who is hit by a bus, in most cases he would be able to obtain credit in order to pay for his medical care, unless he was so injured that there was little hope of him recovering and becoming productive enough to pay the debt. In that case charity would be necessary, both to treat his injuries and sustain him through the rest of his unproductive life.

kyle8 writes:

Your bizzaro hypothetical ignores a lot of issues associated with immigration. One issue is that there is a legal way to enter the country and an illegal one, so your hypothetical is actually a criminal, otherwise he would have the protection of the law.

His presence also has dispersed costs to society. The wonderful bizarro immigrant has children and family members who come from Mexico, they have low skills,low education,and lots of poverty.

They cost society in schooling, emergency services, and just the overall crowding in the few cites where they stack up.

To be sure they also make their contributions to society. But isn't it incumbent on a state to enforce it's borders and laws and make provision for the peaceful movement of people?

Isn't it a good thing to actually know who is entering the country for reasons of crime and disease control?

I found you hypothetical a bit simplistic.

Pandaemoni writes:

@ Allan Henderson:

You are right on the notion of credit, although Blitzer's hypothetical involved a man in a coma. Such a man would be unable to affirmatively agree to repay any debt. People would need to decide whether it was worth the risk of helping the man, given that they would not have his promise to repay them and given that they they may or may not have an adequate understanding of the credit risk he poses.

One of the problems we have today is that hospitals who treat the uninsured, in effect, do so on credit. Those bills often go uncollected (and then are in part shifted to other patients).

My more basic point was to say that, as a political matter, I thought the question could have been answered better, because we all (even libertarians) care about the suffering of others, even when the suffering arises from poor decision making by those others. The real crux of the question was to make Paul look heartless — Blitzer in effect could have asked "Why don't you care about sick people who are uninsured?" The answer, "Have they no credit cards?" probably would have served to deflect that implication about as well as, "Let them eat cake." (Even though it is a perfectly reasonable answer.)

On the issue of the refusal to admit immigrants, I suspect most Americans (if not most people) feel that the government does have a right, and some/most would say an obligation, to control access to the nation. Some take this view as far as paying the Constitution requires the federal government to protect the States from "invasion" and to suggest there is no distinction between unlawful immigration and "invasion" as used in the Invasion Clause. States have even sued (and lost) the federal government seeking reimbursement for the costs they incur as a result of illegal immigration.

That is certainly not to say the argument is correct, but it's clear that many feel the government should "protect" the country from illegal immigrants. This is almost certainly an outgrowth of the social aspects of humanity again, since we are quick to define in-groups and out-groups and both (A) act on the basis of our intergroup biases and (B) deem members of the in-group who refuse to act in a manner consistent with that bias as worthy of social opprobrium. We are, basically, quick to assume that the government should defend "our" (collective) property rights from what we perceive as "them."

If we think that is wrong and want to change it, then I believe we need to win a difficult fight against very deeply ingrained aspects of human psychology. That is a noble war to wage, but it may not be a winnable fight.

Nathan Smith writes:

Well said, Bryan! Maybe someday people will get their heads straight on this issue. Meanwhile, the tedious work remains of fighting against this kind of disinformation:

"One issue is that there is a legal way to enter the country and an illegal one, so your hypothetical is actually a criminal, otherwise he would have the protection of the la"

There is a legal way to enter the country ONLY FOR A PRIVILEGED FEW. As far as I know, anyone can apply, but the State Department can reject petitions for visas. Or it can delay for years. Most of those who come here illegally would LOVE to come here legally but never had the chance.

In an alternate universe where everyone COULD get a visa to the United States, with permission to work, and at the cost of only minor inconvenience, people like kyleB would perhaps be justified in some minor annoyance at them for not taking the time to participate in a harmless registration process which might generally helpful information for US policymakers.

What's striking is that kyleB *appears to believe there is a right to migrate.* There indeed OUGHT to be a right to migrate. It's a disgraceful injustice, which the Founding Fathers would have been horrified by if they had been morbid enough to imagine it, that we shut most of mankind out of this country permanently based on their place of birth. Americans are ordinarily decent people, so I can understand why people who know nothing of the matter-- why should they? they'll never be subject to these laws themselves-- assume that that pattern of ordinary decent behavior extends to our immigration policies. But it most emphatically does not.

Now consider this: people who think like kyleB, who are so ignorant that they think illegal immigrants had the option of migrating legally, get to vote to make our laws, while illegal immigrants, who know so much more about the system, don't. Democracy is a pretty good system because the people living under the laws get to have a say in making them. Immigration restrictions, which are made by the exact inverse set of people from those who will be on the receiving end of them, are the logical limiting case of undemocratic law.

Immigration restrictions are the slavery of our time. It seems crazy and horrible today that anyone ever justified slavery, but at the time the institution, as it were, made a nest of corruption and cynicism for itself, poisoning the minds of those whose self-interest was served by it, or at least seemed to be. Hopefully posterity will have the luxury of looking back in bewildered contempt on the three or four generations of Americans who thought it was somehow tolerable to exclude their fellow men, from birth, by force, from this great country.

Nathan Benedict writes:

To kyleb--every objection you raise can also apply to intrastate migration. Shouldn't California be able to exclude thousands of Okies who have few skills, and bring with them large families that society will need to support?

Why should a state like Vermont, with a low crime rate, be forced to accommodate thousands of Alabamans, who commit murder and mayhem at a much higher rate?

Shouldn't Oklahoma be able to erect a border fence, so foreign terrorists can't come in with Ryder trucks and blow up its buildings?

If you argue that the Constitution guarantees a right of travel between states, you win on a legal technicality, but must now answer the question of why you think that *that* is a good thing, rather than something that we should try to amend.

The bottom line is that all movement of humans carries with it both positive and negative consequences. In general, the good outweighs the bad, and it's not like a centralized bureaucracy is in any position to make individualized determinations anyway. But when it comes to immigration, most people have been brainwashed by statism so that they view movement of people from A to B as perfectly acceptable as long as A and B are within a particular set of imaginary lines, but not OK otherwise.

This ties in to Pandaemoni's last point, about how this is a fight against human psychology and thus not necessarily winnable. I disagree. What needs to change is not the human mind, but rather the perception of what our imagined community is. Consider the EU, which replaced dozens of imaginary lines with one much bigger one. The goal is to just keep expanding that line, so that one day finding out that your new neighbor just moved from Nigeria elicits no more of a response than finding that he moved from Maine, or Florida, or Hawaii.

Tom Dougherty writes:

In Bizarro California, with no restrictions on immigration, 30 million Mexicans migrate to Bizarro California. In the next election the newly formed pro-Mexico party wins in a landslide. The pro-Mexico party quickly secedes Bizarro California from the union and joins Mexico. Sounds good, right?

Steve Sailer writes:

So, Dr. Caplan, how did you talk Mrs. Caplan into taking all the locks off the doors of your house and letting drifters sleep on your couch?

James writes:

Steve Sailer,

There may be some inconsistency in the position you want to disagree with, but there is no inconsistency in the position that open borders libertarians actually hold.

I object to Wal-Mart employees using force to deter people from entering the US without first obtaining their permission. You probably do too. This does not imply that we should also take the locks off our doors, right? It just doesn't follow logically.

Since the same rules of logic apply when we replace "Wal-Mart employees" with "US government employees," it's just as much a non sequitur to say that Bryan's opposition to US goverment employees using force to deter people from entering the US without first obtaining their permission implies that he should want to get rid of his own door locks.

Steve Sailer writes:

Right. Saying, "I am glad the United States government has fighter jets" is the logical equivalent of saying "I am glad Wal-Mart has fighter jets."

Nathan Benedict writes:

Mr. Sailer--in Bizarro World, there is no constitutional provision mandating that the states open their borders to each other. Virginians who wish to immigrate to California for work, or Minnesotans who want to retire to Florida, or Arizonans going to college in New York, must fill out hundreds of pages of paperwork, go through background checks, get specialized visas, etc. Bizzaro Bryan Caplan proposes we eliminate all these things and turn all 50 states into a giant free-movement zone.

Bizzaro Steve Sailer asks on Bizzaro Econolog:

"So, Dr. Bizarro Caplan, how did you talk Mrs. Bizarro Caplan into taking all the locks off the doors of your house and letting drifters sleep on your couch?"

Do you consider his analogy good or not? How would you respond?

david nh writes:


" Do you consider his analogy good or not? How would you respond?"

I would say that his analogy depends on whether, in a world in which not all property was private (i.e., the state exists and controls some property or, alternatively, citizens control property through the state), citizens can be said to have property rights in collective property. I believe Hoppe has framed it that way (or some way similar).

James writes:

Steve Sailer,

Your non-sequitur concerning door locks is what it is.

You may believe that the US government is a special case, but to reach a conclusion that pertains only to the US government, you need a premise that refers specifically to the US government. Instead of sarcastic quips, please just state that premise explicitly. You probably disapprove of all parties other than the US government imposing immigration restrictions by force and I'm sure you have good reasons for your disapproval. Why don't those same reasons apply to the US government?

Your last remark seems to take as given the view that Wal-Mart having fighter jets would be a bad thing and the US government having fighter jets is a good thing. Do you believe that the current and future management of the US government is less likely than the current and future management of Wal-Mart to use fighter jets in bad ways?

James Wilson writes:

Regarding the paper Mr. Caplan linked to (.pdf): has this been published anywhere? There isn't even an author's attribution.

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