Bryan Caplan  

Brink, Me, and Human Capitalism

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Brink Lindsey replies to my comments on an earlier draft of his new book, Human Capitalism.  Highlights and brief rejoinders follow.  Brink's in blockquotes, I'm not:
Thanks to Bryan I dove into that literature and found that it does indeed offer support for the view Bryan has called "parental irrelevantism." But, as Bryan fails to acknowledge, those findings are subject to serious caveats and, in any event, there are other findings in that same literature which show an important effect of upbringing. In addition, other important lines of evidence that Bryan ignores point to the considerable impact of the upbringing environment. I came away with my initial common-sense verdict undisturbed: nature is important, but so is nurture.
I can understand how someone might find the behavioral genetic literature less than 100% convincing.  I can't understand how someone could fail to find the behavioral genetic literature disturbing.  Twin and adoption evidence is deeply inconsistent with what Brink calls the "common-sense verdict."  How can this evidence at least fail to make him sharply less confident in that verdict?
I believe the fundamental problem [with the breakdown in responsible behavior among the working class] is mass affluence, not the welfare state. Clearly we have to engage in speculation when imagining what life would be like in the absence of government-provided income support -- given that such support has been around in the English-speaking world for over 400 years. But my assumption is that private charity in our rich, liberal, humanitarian, soft-hearted society would provide some decent "social minimum" for poor children and by extension for their parents...
I agree that if the welfare state were abolished, charity would pick up some of the slack.  But far from all.  There's every reason to think that this marginal difference would be a major impetus for more responsible behavior - especially when you remember that private charities usually try harder than governments to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving poor.
But I don't really think moral desert has much relevance for public policy, at least not here. If public policy reforms can change conditions and incentives in a way that ensures that a higher percentage of morally blameless infants grow up to be morally praiseworthy adults, then we ought to make those reforms -- even if they soften the blows of their own folly for some morally unpraiseworthy adults.
Paragraphs like this sound great.  But they're fundamentally wrong-headed.  Key problems:

1. There's plenty of reason to think that the social ills Brink is talking about are, to a large degree, caused by government.  So as a liberaltarian, shouldn't he at least start by saying, "Let's get rid of all the government programs that make these problems worse, then see what happens," rather than calling for a bunch of new government programs?

2. Yes, everyone used to be somebody's morally blameless baby.  It's a great Pat Benatar song.  How does that change the fact that plenty of people are now morally blameworthy adults who should be treated accordingly?  We all consider moral desert in our private decisions; why should public policy be any different?  If you find this intolerant, I'd say that the real intolerance is coercing people to support total strangers in the first place.

3. Suppose you think we should help people even if they're undeserving.  The fact remains that resources are scarce.  So shouldn't we at least start with the deserving poor, then see if we've got any resources left?

4. There's a trade-off between the living standards of the American working class and low-skilled foreigners.  Right now we have a massive government program - immigration restrictions - that heavily tilts the trade-off in favor of the former, even though the latter are far poorer and more deserving.  Under the circumstances, I just can't see why a liberaltarian would call on government to do even more for the American working class instead of doing less to low-skilled foreigners.

When Tyler Cowen published The Great Stagnation, I asked him, "Why are you complaining about stagnation in the United States after what could easily have been the world economy's highest growth decade ever?"  I have a similar challenge for Brink: "Why are you complaining about the plight of relatively poor Americans when the First World's immigration restrictions are holding hundreds of millions of absolutely poor foreigners in poverty?"  Choosing the wrong question is often as misleading as reaching the wrong answer.

COMMENTS (14 to date)
stephen writes:

"But I don't really think moral desert has much relevance for public policy, at least not here"

The reason (or one of) for moral stigma is to reduce behaviors that require public support. There used to be more stigma to having children that one could not afford, but "public policy" has helped change that. How does Brink not see this? Does he think that future moral blame worthy-ness is randomly distributed amongst the nation's children?

RPLong writes:

Prof. Caplan -

Your last paragraph here is pure gold. I wish you had started with that paragraph and elaborated further.

collin writes:


Question: I know you support people having more children but no government assistance for these kids:

If we make it harder for the American low classes and younger people, to get set up in a career (not just a job), won't that in the long run slow down the marriage and birth rate? Hasn't the US already fallen ~9% from 2006 and if weren't for (fertility purposes >35) older women, the birth would even fall more?

It seems there is contradiction in the modern economy, the more that is produced, the less likely people comfortable having children. How would fix this?


Tom West writes:

"Why are you complaining about the plight of relatively poor Americans when the First World's immigration restrictions are holding hundreds of millions of absolutely poor foreigners in poverty?"

Because the people who valued all non-family equally were evolutionarily selected against compared to those who valued others based on their genetic, social and geographic proximity?

(i.e. because he and his audience care more about Americans.)

t3 writes:

You may have picked an okay Pat Benatar song about people who are/were innocent children. But you should have included "Hell is For Children".

Also, I understand that you don't believe wealthier Americans and America owe poor Americans anything more than they owe poor anyone elses.

Most of your commenters object to that, not only because they believe America may have a greater moral obligation to fellow citizens, but because it seems pie-in-the-sky. You seem to say that you would simply allow in everyone who wants to come. Is that it? Would you make citizenship irrelevant? Do you think there is any way that could work in America?

Many people would probably agree with you if you said you would allow people to buy their way into our swim club (like through an auction of 1 million spots per year to the highest bidders). But it seems like you you advocate making the pool open to everyone.

Also, would you only support open immigration if we eliminated welfare protections for new immigrants? If that was impossible, would you agree that we should not have unlimited immigration?

You may have already answered these questions in another post. But I don't remember seeing it, and I think my questions are shared by a lot of Econlog readers (I would guess even reader Kling.)

Jacoby writes:

t3, my own impression of Caplan is that he is at least approximately an anarcho-capitalist, which means he prefers no states at all. So, my guess is that...

  • Yes, Caplan is in favor of allowing completely open immigration. Period.
  • Yes, Caplan is in favor of making citizenship irrelevant.
  • No, Caplan would still be in favor of completely open immigration even if there were no "welfare protections for new immigrants".

I hope I'm not projecting my own beliefs onto Caplan though.

MikeP writes:

You seem to say that you would simply allow in everyone who wants to come.

Of course, modulo specifically applied public security and health concerns. Anything else is a blatant violation of the individual rights on which this country was founded.

Would you make citizenship irrelevant?

No. Citizens would still be special in that they could vote, hold elected office, serve on a jury, and not be deported. What would be different is that noncitizens could have 98% of what makes US citizenship valuable -- living and working in the US.

Do you think there is any way that could work in America?

Only the same way it worked for the first 300 years of its history. The last century's immigration policy is the exception in America.

Colin Fraizer writes:

Thanks, MikeP, for writing exactly what I'd planned to write.


yet another david writes:
everyone used to be somebody's morally blameless baby. ... How does that change the fact that plenty of people are now morally blameworthy adults who should be treated accordingly?

One might even ask what sort of programs turn blameless babies into blameworthy adults. And what sort of programs cause blameworthy adults to have babies but discourage responsible adults from having babies. Hint: programs that turn babies into revenue generators for the former.

1. Value is determined by supply and demand. A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.
2. The world's human population cannot grow without limit.
3. The world's human population will stop growing when the birth rate falls to meet the death rate or the death rate rises to meet the birth rate.
4. The world's human population will stop growing as a result of (a) deliberate human agency or (b) other.
5. Deliberate human agency is (a) democratically determined or (b) other.
6. All human behavioral traits are heritable.
7. Voluntary programs for population control selectively breed non-compliant individuals.
8. The world's maximum possible instantaneous human population is greater than it's maximum possible sustainable human population.
9. The world's maximum possible sustainable human population leaves little room for large non-human terrestrial animals or wilderness.

Where doe you disagree?

Build a wall.

MikeP writes:

I disagree with 1.

The greatest value of a human life accrues to the living person himself. The second greatest value of a human life accrues to those whose decision it is to bring that life into the world -- i.e., parents. These effects utterly swamp the concerns you implied by the rest of your statements. It is pretty obvious that the more life there is, the more value there is.

The non sequitur "Build a wall" after a discussion of world population is beyond odd.

Ari Tai writes:

Maurice McTigue tells the same story from an earlier era - when NZ hit the (debt) wall with no more assets to borrow against.

He's an entertaining speaker (now getting on in years) but he makes Bryan's points over and over (that it's senseless to sustain programs that demonstrably don't work - and to assume that success is just a matter of increasing the funding 10x until it works) - better to have result-based objectives and reward what works and end what doesn't. Governance doesn't have to be emotional - even difficult if you pick common sense and inarguable metrics.

Of course it would be much better to adhere to the contract that is the U.S. Constitution and leave all this to the States - even better would be something closer to the size of the largest of the 13 original states - something less than 300K people (VA and PA). Perhaps split every congressional district into three and deem them sovereign. A special-interest would by definition no longer be "special" if it convinced a reasonable fraction of our new 1500 states to adopt something. Unlike today's situation where there's only one small group sway.

Note that the Swiss Cantons range from 15K to 1.5M and they do it all (locally) – write and enforce the law, tax and manage everything. Their federal government can’t even build a highway without them agreeing to do the work. Granted, some cantons resemble the housing-association-from-hell but the Swiss can vote with their feet. A small price to pay for government and accountability close to the people. And civil peace - imagine the bay area no longer able to tell the central-valley farmers how to live - and vice versa.

Tom West writes:

MikeP, I have to admit I hit a level of internal dissonance here, and I don't have a resolution.

I absolutely agree that mass immigration would dramatically improve the life of those who enter.

However, I am also unwilling to have a large number of second-class (non-voting) citizens in my country, nor am I willing to see labor standards drop, which is where many of the benefits to such immigrants would come - their life would still be immeasurably improved by taking jobs too dangerous and too low paying for North Americans.

The trouble is that my experiences in countries that had huge divisions (or with ex-patriots from such countries) is that it tends to have a strong effect on the individuals. There seems to be a strong tendency (not universal, but fairly common) to view the economically deprived as less than human, in order to justify one's success.

Even with those that don't, being in close proximity to heavy poverty can reinforce a mentality that the life boat won't hold everyone, and thus one's personal responsibility is to ensure the survival of one's family, which sounds okay until you realize that playing "within the rules" is a luxury for those for whom failure is not catastrophic. When the stakes are high enough, everything is on the table.

Admittedly, exposure to this attitude when I was a naive young man may mean it's less common than I think, but I still find the attitude fairly common (at least after a few beers) in those from countries with huge economic disparities.

I fully understand the attitude - I certainly don't fault the holders, but I'm pretty certain I wouldn't want to see it take hold here, where we have the luxury of viewing every individual as valuable, even if it's at the expense of depriving large numbers from improving themselves.

As I said - internal dissonance.

(Which is why I'm in favor of the largish immigration policies of Canada, but so far still on the fence about the open immigration that you describe.)

(MikeP): "The non sequitur "Build a wall" after a discussion of world population is beyond odd.."
Only if you suppose that policies must apply globally. US politicians and voters can address their piece of the problem. I sometimes add to the list above...

"#__. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber)."

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