Bryan Caplan  

Reciprocity and Irony: A View from My Bubble

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Steve Sailer has a revealing comment on my Bubble post:
Of course, if there were a big war, it would be nice to be defended by all those dreary Americans you despise.

And, the irony is, they'd do it, too, just because you are an American.
I'd expect Steve to have a lot more sympathy for my self-conscious detachment from our society.  Consider his rave review of Idiocracy - and his reaction to its DVD release:
Unfortunately, when watching it [Idiocracy] at home on DVD, you miss experiencing the horrifying Charlton-Heston-and-the-Statue-of-Liberty moment when "Idiocracy" is over and you emerge from the theatre into the mall full of shiny logos and sniggering pedestrians and you realize that reality today looks just like 2505 does in the movie.
I can understand how Steve might conclude that I "despise" the people around me, but I don't.  They don't live up to my standards, but I still wish strangers well.  Indeed, I regard misanthropy as a strong sign that you are on the wrong track.  Stop dwelling on others' failings, and build a beautiful Bubble for yourself.

But doesn't Steve make a good point about my lack of reciprocity?  All these Americans stand ready to protect me.  Don't they deserve my appreciation?

Frankly, this is the kind of attitude I entered my Bubble to avoid.  Three points:

1. I pay good money for these protective services.  So I don't see why my American defenders deserve any more gratitude than the countless other people - American and foreign - I trade with.

2. Since my American defenders are paid by heavy taxes whether I like it or not, they deserve far less gratitude than my genuine trading partners, who scrupulously respect the sanctity of my Bubble.

3. In fact, I think my American "defenders" owe me an apology.  My best guess is that, on net, the U.S. armed forces increase the probability that a big war will adversely affect me.  While they deter some threats, they provoke many others.  If I lived in a Bubble in Switzerland (happily neutral since 1815), at least I'd know that I was getting some value for my tax dollars.



COMMENTS (43 to date)
Justin writes:
1. I pay good money for these protective services. So I don't see why my American defenders deserve any more gratitude than the countless other people - American and foreign - I trade with.

War is n extreme edge case of a job in which incentivizing pay does not work. (A) the work is dangerous, and (B) monitoring individual soldiers is extremely difficult when the monitor (officer) is in extreme danger himself, and (C) job duties are highly flexible and easily evaluated by a rubric.

As in all these types of careers, performance is maintained through pro-social traits that create a culture of trust - an [i]esprit de corp[/i]. Canice Prenergast (1999) has a good review of the literature of incentives and work performance although she does not talk about war (I believe Akerlof does in [I]Identity Economics[/i]).

It is another case in which the strict libertarian world based on pay and incentives for self-interest does not work. Prosocial traits are essential. A culture of Homo Economicus would be a culture of shirkers and cowards. The coward part seems appealing until you realize it is not an evolutionarily stable strategy.

On

Marc writes:
the strict libertarian world based on pay and incentives for self-interest

Has any libertarian ever held this view? I don't recognize it.

David N writes:

Please tell me this was supposed to be funny.

shecky writes:

I've always thought it curious that conservatives, and even many self described libertarians seem to hold military service in such high regard, sometimes approaching quasi-religious reverence. Those American defenders certainly have a justifiable mission. However, in practice, they've been mostly enablers of big government, and the tremendously bad decisions from which spring forth.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Thanks, Justin. And let me point out that Machiavelli's analysis centuries ago has never been gainsaid:

http://www.constitution.org/mac/prince12.htm

Mercenaries and auxiliaries are useless and dangerous... unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies; they have neither the fear of God nor fidelity to men, and destruction is deferred only so long as the attack is; for in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy. The fact is, they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers whilst you do not make war, but if war comes they take themselves off or run from the foe...
The mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not; if they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skilful, you are ruined in the usual way.

As for whether the present US armed forces are more likely to deter or to provoke war, even though I think those forces are too large, so large, in fact, that cretins like Bush and Obama cannot resist using them to attack foreigners who we ought better to leave alone, I would not dispense with them entirely, because to be disarmed is to be despised.

Anyone who reads a little history, say of the Viking depredations in the 10th Century, will learn that pacifists subsist only when shielded by a force of normal people. Having an army does not guarantee safety (a predator with a bigger or better army may appear), but lacking an army clearly ensures the harshest possible mistreatment.

[link fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Sailer writes:

Justin writes:

"War is an extreme edge case of a job in which incentivizing pay does not work."

The absurd privatization scheme employed in the Iraq War in which Blackwater would take taxpayers funds to induce sergeants to quit the Army or Marines by offering to triple or quadruple their pay to be a mercenary is an interesting example of the cost savings brought about by patriotism.

The Italians city-states had a lot of experience with paying for defense: look up "condottieri." In contrast, the Swiss army of the last 200 years that Bryan rightly admires succeeded because of things Bryan dislikes, such as patriotism, national solidarity, xenophobia, and conscription.

Kenneth A. Regas writes:

Things turn nasty when and where the Caplans are on vacation. They appear at the gates of the American embassy, not far in front of an angry mob. A Marine Corps officer meets them.

"Let us in, we're Americans."

"Oh, hello, Professor Caplan. I used to be your student. What seems to be the problem?"

"There's an angry mob coming, out to kill Americans. Let us in!"

"Let you in just because you're an American? Surely you of all people would be the last to claim some special right just because of the accident of your birth location. I'm sure that the authorities here will soon restore order and you'll be safe, like all the other residents of this fair city."

"They're out to kill us! You must let us in!"

"But if we let you in, we'd have to let everyone else in too and there isn't enough room. Have you not made private security arrangements? Surely you didn't come to this country unprotected."

"But you're our protection. We're American citizens. We pay your salary!"

"Funny you should mention that. You probably imagine that I'm here at my post strictly for the working conditions, pay, and benefits - a cold commercial transaction. But actually I have other reasons - call it patriotism, or call it the thanks of a grateful nation. I realize that this is all very foreign to you but you must have read that wonderful paper explaining people like me to libertarians like you: The Peoples' Romance it was called. Most of my "pay" comes in the form of the respect that I receive from fellow Americans. So, when was the last time you bought a soldier or sailor a drink or a meal, marched in a patriotic parade, or gave to the USO? If you think you pay my salary, tell me how you did."

"Oh, please, you can have anything you want. I'm not rich but I did write some well-received books."

"That's an idea I hadn't thought of. I can just raise a little private tax here on the spot. But you're going to have to move along. I think I see Mr. Gates and his family approaching. Unless he's been very patriotic, this is going to be my lucky day. Good luck, professor."

Ken

p.s. If Professor Caplan was born and raised in happy, neutral, well-armed Switzerland, he'd be a slave, to hear him tell it. They have compulsory military service, you know.

Martin writes:

"If I lived in a Bubble in Switzerland (happily neutral since 1815), at least I'd know that I was getting some value for my tax dollars."

I already look forward to the comments and responses on this one.

Bryan,

I understand the point you're making, but I am not sure whether I could have said it in a more antagonizing way myself. Congrats :P.

Neuroskeptic writes:

Isn't there something inherently problematic about a bubble of economics PhDs? If it were physics or math PhDs, being in the bubble wouldn't pose any problems; the laws of physics are the same everywhere. But economics is about the world outside the bubble.

Tom West writes:

Indeed, has *any* country that entrusted their defense to people motivated entirely by mercenary instinct ever not ended up being looted by them?

Society's natural outcome is that the people with the biggest weapons and the willingness to use them own everything, and in much of the world, they do.

For better or worse, patriotism and nationalism are one of the primary ways of avoiding this outcome. Moreover, so is social standing (i.e. expressions of gratitude).

I think Bryan relies far too much on the belief that people want to maximize absolute wealth rather then relative wealth. Unfortunately, for those most capable and willing of pulling down the pyramid that Bryan and most of us are atop of, that's not necessarily the case.

[Let me make it clear, it's not Bryan's actions that I find disturbing, but his words. However, when dealing with human beings, words are often *more* important than one's actions.]

joeftansey writes:

National defense... really?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_number_of_troops

Iceland has 130 troops in their paramilitary. There are a TON of "wussy" countries that do just fine without any national defense whatsoever.

This isn't Command and Conquer. You don't need to indefinitely start spamming goliath tanks at the 12 minute mark to stay alive.

It's also a really lousy argument that national defense is "necessary" and therefore I have to pay homage to the people "dieing for my freedom" even if they're a bunch of immoral braindead hicks who joined because they were too anti-social to get a job in the regular workforce. The patriotism is always ex post facto.

IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARMERS YOU'D BE DEAD SO YOU SHOULD WORSHIP ALL THE FARMERS WHO DEDICATED THEIR LIVES SO YOU COULD EAT

What does "marginal" mean?

Ted Craig writes:

Bryan Caplan - the "strict libertarian" who has spent most his adult life as a tenured professor at a public university,

Curtis writes:

I just took the bubble test myself and scored 0-4 (I only answered two "yes"es and one was qualified). I'm okay with it.

The "How Thick Is Your Bubble?" test is, of course, ridiculous. It implies that bubbles only go one way. To make an example of the first three questions on the test, NASCAR-loving factory workers who are physically tired at the end of the day have bubbles of their own.

(Warning: Tautology ahead.) I enjoy the things I like. As the saying goes, you can choose your friends.... That's the whole point of freedom, choosing who you hang out with and what you get to do. If that means being bubbly, then so be it.

Ken B writes:

In your remarks you have confused contempt and animosity. Wishing strangers well is quite compatible with contempt.

Slim934 writes:

To Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Given that Machiavelli's entire opportunistic working life was working to ingratiate himself to the military conquerors of his day, I see very little reason as to why I should take his advice on what is a desirable military in a genuinely free society.

The nice thing about genuinely Mercenary armies is that they are typically rational. You seem to see this as a failure, while I see it as an obvious feature. Back in the days of Mercenary armies you were much more likely to have reasoned diplomacy on the battlefield than an all-out killing spree like you see in wars based on ideology. Military Historian J C Fuller said the same thing. Just compare the kinds of combat which mercenary armies engaged in, compared to the combat which occurred in ideological wars like say World Wars 1 and 2.

Ken B writes:

Who else is up for a Deirdre McCloskey - Bryan Caplan debate?

Bob Montgomery writes:

Bryan, you are spinning a bit when you write

I can understand how Steve might conclude that I "despise" the people around me, but I don't.
Since in the referenced post, you wrote:
I find my society unacceptable. It is dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked.
And in this post you write that your "defenders" owe you an apology!

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Becky Hargrove writes:

Ow! Bryan, one day you're going to wake up and think, you know, back in spring of 2012, I took things a little far...

DK writes:

I pay good money for these protective services.

You are not. We are paying for your bubble! You are a parasite on a body of our society. 75% of college professors and 95% of economics professors are. You are among them. And you know it's true.

SFG writes:

What some of the commenters above are alluding to is that you're comparing your safety thanks to the US military to an ideal US military, not to no US military at all. While an ideal US military might cause a lower risk of attack by people angry with our foreign policy, with no military at all we'd be subject to attack by any random nation (or nonstate actor) that wants our stuff.

In short, in its attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan (which I think is largely the fault of the politicians rather than military itself) the US military functions suboptimally, like any other human institution. But it is much, much, much better than nothing, and hence has considerable value. Buy your local seaman, sailor, or airman a drink. Heck, given what they go through, buy them a steak dinner.

Tino writes:

1.“I pay good money for these protective services. So I don't see why my American defenders deserve any more gratitude than the countless other people”

Approximately 8% of American men still join the military, though pay is low. Why? To a considerable extent due to patriotism, which is part of the reciprocity that developed organically in nations over hundreds of years. Taxes only cover part of the cost of having people die for you.

2. “My best guess is that, on net, the U.S. armed forces increase the probability that a big war will adversely affect me.”

The fact that there are no threats against the U.S is caused in general equilibrium by the U.S defeating Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, and because you are so powerful it makes no sense even to start challenging you. This is the same level of logic as saying you don’t need locks in banks valve because burglaries so rarely try to break in.

Further, the question is not the size of the army, but having an army at all. With no patriotism and no armed forces, the United States would currently not exist.

3. Your analyses of low-skill immigration and patriotism are much weaker than everything else you write because you insist on relying entirely on primitive models. You can’t analyze the military using the first-year micro-textbook and pretend that soldiers are behaving based on the same incentives as plumbers.

Nor do economists have to be autistic. Neoclassical micro is flexible enough for reciprocity and patriotism as motivations besides money.

Yet you have no place in your theories of nations and armies for the reciprocal ties which hold them together, which you should be able to observe around you even if you don't share them personally. Your incomplete models thus fail badly in explaining people’s real life behavior. Yet this doesn’t stop you making bold policy-recommendation like e.g. open borders based on your incomplete models of society, a case of ideological overconfidence.

Your analyses of wars/immigration are lower quality than asking the random guy on the street.

The random guy would not be confused over why people are grateful to soldiers and would not confidently claim that replacing Americans (among the most pro-freedom cultures in human history) with low-income, empirically left-leaning Latinos will magically make the U.S more libertarianism.

Tino writes:

Switzerland “happily neutral since 1815”

Were they happy when they denied tens of thousands of Jews entry for fear of the Nazis? Would Switzerland exist if Americans and Soviet soldiers didn’t believe in patriotism?

When Milton Friedman wrote about the military in the 1960s, he used the full spectrum of human motivation, and seriously considered national security using economic reasoning.

“To rely on volunteers under such conditions would then require very high pay in the armed services, and very high burdens on those who do not serve, in order to attract a sufficient number into the armed forces. …Hence, for a major war, a strong case can be made for compulsory service. And indeed, compulsory service has been introduced in the United States only under such conditions—in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II."

P.S

During WWII Milton Friedman voluntarily helped the war-effort, according to his autobiography motivated by patriotism.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Dear Slim934,

I don't think your view of Machiavelli is well supported. Machiavelli was upset with the destruction wrought by constant undecisive war in the Italian peninsula and believed that the only way to stop it (in his era, remember) was to promote an Italian power strong enough to deter invasions by powerful foreigners like the French king and put down constant low-level warfare by microstates with mercenaries, which never settled anything of importance but continually devastated town and countryside, impoverishing everyone on the peninsula.

Similar baneful effects of prolonged, inconclusive "struggles" between armies of mercenaries which harmed the residents of the areas where they campaigned more than they ever harmed their nominal enemies characterized the Thirty Years War.

I don't like mass ideological warfare any more than I like constant predatory warfare, but I don't consider them simple alternatives, either.

As I mentioned, I think reading a little history will rapidly convince the student that to have no army or an ineffective army is worse for any group of people than to have a respectable army, which needn't be used for conquest.

nb writes:

Switzerland - neutral since 1815 and so heavily armed that even Hitler thought better of tangling with 'em.

Dave in Seattle writes:

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Rex May writes:

This is the point at which libertarian thinking goes haywire. Much like applying newtonian physics when travelling through space, it works in the cosiness of Earth, but sends you flying into the sun when in the really big reality of the Universe. In like manner, libertarian thinking functions very well in the confines of Western Civilization, which shares most of its basic assumptions, but breaks down when the rest of the world comes in, as their thinking finds libertarianism totally inappropriate and repulsive in many cases. A libertarian society can only function if it's made up of libertarians. Because of this, I prefer to call myself a Libertarian Nationalist. This diagram may help:
An Attempt at a Venn Diagram

Anton Sherwood writes:

There's an interesting pair of assertions here:

• For defense against foreign threats, your choices are the state's military force (which serves the interests of the state) and mercenaries (who serve Mammon).

• Our gallant soldiers are motivated less by their wages than by loyalty to their society.

In light of the latter assertion, why not imagine a non-state military organization motivated by loyalty, perhaps organized by a nonprofit foundation?

J. Cohn writes:

Bryan, I think it's sometimes dangerous to be so blunt about such matters, true as your conclusions are and as much as I may agree with the spirit of your position. The charge of elitism and disloyalty is one that has a way of sticking. Even your bubble may not be safe from an inevitable reaction to the attitude your words reveal.

Please be careful.

Dan writes:

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Carin writes:

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jh writes:

lol at a cohn telling a caplan to not be so brazen about this sort of thing

please... stay safe

Remke writes:

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Mitchell McConnell writes:

Although I am a fan of Steve Sailer, on the whole, I agree with Mr. Caplan on this issue. Sailer's comment makes it sound like people like Caplan are expecting the hoi polloi to protect them. In fact, the true libertarian position is to defend oneself. If the U.S. is attacked (not some trumped up over-extended fiasco) then libertarians will take up their many arms and defend the country and by extension themselves.

Neuroskeptic writes:

Mitchell McConnell: Well they might do, but it depends on the war.

Say you live in Montana, and Mexico attacks the USA to try and annex California.

Even if Mexico wins, Montana is safe, so you wouldn't be defending yourself if you fought. Quite the opposite, you'd be putting yourself in harm's way for the sake of Californians.

Floccina writes:

Bryan, I agree with you on economics and policy more that just about anyone else, but I have to disagree here with what I see as your blaming the soldiers. They are just doing a job like you working for a public university. You could blame the median voter, the politicians and media moguls for the excessive military actions but not the soldiers. Evidently many of them vote for Ron Paul because the see the craziness of USA foreign policy.

Floccina writes:

OT but Justin's and Steve's points are why though I am very libertarian do not like privatization of prisons.

johnny reoch writes:

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Anonymous Mike writes:

I've come into this conversation late but after reading Bryan's postings a few thoughts...

I wish Bryan well and will leave aside any thought of why he has still not outgrown that "great unwashed" mentality that most of us junked in grad school. Being in a bubble is an acceptable choice; I can relate somewhat to walking the world as a tourist though not to the extent of Bryan. As a Christian I constantly remind myself that I am in the world but not of it and seek to order my personal world in accordance with a different structure

However his postings reveal, maybe not so much a flaw, a set of implicit assumptions. His ability to construct a bubble, conduct relationships with outside people and import what he needs, and choose how and when he interacts with the outside of the world is completely dependent on how much that outside world "lets" him. Leave aside the majority voting themselves Bryan's property, anybody who is part of a "thin blue line" can you tell that there is a limit to what the police can do to stop violence.

So I think Bryan has an interest, perhaps a latent one, in what that repellent and unwashed world thinks. The safest way to make sure the world leaves you alone is to engage it and persuade others as to the advantages of your view, a difficult and perhaps impossible task to be sure but as any pastor will tell you all the more important. However to engage and persuade means dealing with people you dislike not in a strictly transactional way, but with empathy and respect and... yes love which is also the best way to learn.

I do wish Bryan the best because I will deny no person their personal happiness but it seems a shame at his tender age to close the world off like that. Perhaps he would have a good experience if he could hoist a few with some of my old buddies from the 7th Marines and he might learn, from some frightfully smart men, about how part of the world really works

Randall Parker writes:

Bryan, get out of your bubble and find out how much patriots do for you for far less than it would cost to get mercenaries to do the same.

You can not afford a mercenary-based protection service.

You want a pure transaction-based society (not clear why). Yet such a society can't work. We need the desire for altruistic punishment and other seemingly irrational impulses to make a society work well. We can't get a society to work as well as our current society with everyone behaving like homo economicus.

RA writes:
1. I pay good money for these protective services. So I don't see why my American defenders deserve any more gratitude than the countless other people - American and foreign - I trade with.

2. Since my American defenders are paid by heavy taxes whether I like it or not, they deserve far less gratitude than my genuine trading partners, who scrupulously respect the sanctity of my Bubble.

What exactly do you do for a living? You must work in a field that receives no subsidies or benefits from government.

Joshua Lyle writes:

Randall Parker,

the fact that mercenaries charge to perform atrocities that patriots perform for free is the best feature of mercenaries.

Sensei writes:

It isn't the soldier who put you in harm's way. Thee fault lies with the elected official who controls them. Be most concerned when you have a politician who does not understand the military's proper role, because that is a man who will embolden evil men.

[broken url fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Philip writes:

This is a great example of everything that's wrong with Libertarianism: they refuse to consider the idea that there's a common good of a whole society.

In other words, they can't understand politics, they hate politics.

But there is no community without sacrifices for the common good. And there is no economics without the social stability brought by politics.

I love libertarians and find the ideas very rich. But they always make this elementary mistake, always have the same blind spot.

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