Bryan Caplan  

We're Going Too Far

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Question for you: When was the last time you openly worried about "your side" treating "their side" unjustly?  This could mean:

1. "Your side" intellectually misrepresenting "their side."

2. "Your side" politically oppressing "their side."

3. "Your side" embracing positions that, taken seriously, justify politically oppressing "their side."

To answer my own question, I never worry about #2, because the group I identify with - libertarians - has essentially zero political power.  However, I do occasionally worry about #1 and #3.  I cringe when libertarians e.g. attack Card and Krueger's work on the minimum wage as "fraudulent" or talk as if Paul Krugman knows no economics.  Similarly, when radical libertarians daydream about waging a guerrilla war on the state, I fear this will end in mass murder of innocent civilians.  And when I say "innocent civilians," I emphatically include the minor children of the guiltiest war criminal.

But enough about me.  How about you?  Answers from citizenists are especially welcome.

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

I'm an open borders advocate, and am often worried about open borders advocates treating restrictionists unfairly, and in fact, have blogged this issue at least two times, and I've tangentially brought this up in other places as well.

I also think that open borders advocate underestimate the sophistication of restrictionist arguments, by concentrating too much on the median restrictionist. For instance, confusing citizenism with the collective property rights idea is common, though I have tried to clarify the difference. To be fair, though, part of the reason is that restrictionists often provide multiple different arguments in such quick succession that it requires a lot of effort to separate out the individual strands.

Also, open borders advocates often refuse to respect restrictionists by using restrictionist self-descriptions. For instance, many restrictionists such as Mark Krikorian describe themselves as pro-immigrant. But open borders advocates often call them "anti-immigrant" which is disrespectful to the self-labeling of restrictionists. Also, words like "nativist" may not be correct to apply to all restrictionists, though there may be some restrictionists who embrace the term (I haven't encountered any so far). [PS: To my knowledge, most restrictionists haven't expressed any issues with being labeled "restrictionist" but I'd be happy to avoid or stop using the term if cogent objections to the term are raised]

john hare writes:

A couple of years ago we went to a few local "912 project" meetings. Although a supposedly conservative group worried about freedom and constitution issues, they were more into #1 and #3 than we could put up with.

I don't know if that qualifies as us worrying about our side vs theirs because we decided that the 912ers weren't our side after all.

In business, it is important to make sure that you think about fairness to the other side. Disgruntled customers, suppliers, or employees will take you down given sufficient opportunity.

Neal writes:

Sometimes I wish I had a side. But then I think, nah...

[non-aligned contrarian]

Gary writes:

A lot of my fellow libertarians take a simplistic position on foreign policy. They only focus on the costs of war without ever considering the real possibility that it eliminates genuine threats. It reminds me of typical Leftist thinking that only looks at one side of the equation.

In general, I don't believe any average civilian is qualified to talk about the intricacies of foreign policy.

Shane L writes:

I'm still learning and not confident enough yet to identify with a particular political stance. Instead I find myself seeing these worrying tendencies (especially to denounce the identity of people with differing views, instead of just criticising their views) among friends of different persuasions. I am like Joseph Heller's pathetic Clevinger in Catch-22 in this respect:

"He was constantly defending his Communist friends to his right-wing enemies and his right-wing friends to his Communist enemies..."
Although I don't have enemies and am hopefully not "detested by both"!

But, yes, I fairly often see friends demonising people who have different beliefs. One recently told me he thought right-wingers were 'just mean'. That individuals can change their political views and still be the same decent people seems an important response.

Art Carden writes:

Here's a brilliant term coined by Mike Hammock, my former colleague at Rhodes and now at Middle Tennessee State: "placism." He defines it as a taste for discrimination based on origin ("buy local," for example). I can't recall if he would include "citizenism" as part of the definition, but it definitely works.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I worry about #1 all the time. I worry if I'm guilty of #1 all the time and try my best not to be.

I don't really worry about #2 and #3. #2 because it's never appeared to be a problem, although it could be (but in that case I'd have to wonder whether they're "my side" in any meaningful sense of the word). #3 is interesting... I'm not sure what of my ideas could be extrapolated to oppression. I know "the other side" often tells me that's the case, but I don't see it. People can make mistakes, of course. I don't have a problem with certain military interventions and I think drones are a decent way to do interventions if you're going to do it. Now obviously some leader, not properly disciplined by the Congress or the law, could wage a terrible war (e.g. - Bush going into Iraq), but I have a hard time seeing how the mere fact of my support for war under some circumstances "justifies" it in other circumstances. I'm no more in support of an unjustifiable war than a pacifist is.

Salem writes:

I think the problem is that when your side goes too far, it's very easy to act like Daniel Kuehn does above, and say that's not really my side any more. This allows people the self-indulgence of choosing micro-sides to paint themselves in the best light - e.g. "I'm a left-libertarian, so although I voted for Obama, I'm against the ACA." Whereas in reality that's the direction you were pushing in. So your own side never goes too far by definition, but the other side is always going too far. Psychologically convenient, if nothing else.

On my own sides: I'm not religious, but I think atheists constantly do (1) and (3), and occasionally (2). I'm opposed to racism, but I think (1), (2) and (3) are in full effect (I live in the UK). I think (1) goes on a lot on both sides of almost every debate.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Salem -
Yes and no. So I'm not a pacifist because I think a pacifist stance for the U.S. would result in a much less peaceful world. As a non-pacifist I have to (and do) accept that bad wars might happen and that is less bad than what would happen under pacifism. So the Iraq war is a great example. I didn't like it from the very beginning, but it didn't turn me into a pacifist either. I accept that non-pacifism may result in these sorts of things. Non-pacifism isn't perfect - it's just better than pacifism (which would result in a lot more depredation).

Fine. I accept all of that.

But does that mean George Bush was on "my side". I don't see how. One of the major reasons he fought that war was because he does not agree with a lot of the things I think.

So I think there's a big difference between recognizing the risks posed by what you think and thinking that everyone who brings those risks to fruition is on "your side".

"My side" does risk wars I don't like. That does not mean the ones who make those wars agree with me on things or are on my side.

Hope that's clearer - I am definitely not trying to make a "if it's not what I like it's not what I support" sort of argument. I hate that sort of argument when its made by pacifists or libertarians or anarchists and am not intending to make that sort of argument myself.

Steve Z writes:
1. "Your side" intellectually misrepresenting "their side."

2. "Your side" politically oppressing "their side."

3. "Your side" embracing positions that, taken seriously, justify politically oppressing "their side."

I'm constantly worried about (1). When I see it happen, it makes me think that maybe the people on my side are too dumb to accurately state the arguments on the other side, and it makes me wonder if I chose the right side. Relatedly, I think it's disrespectful and harmful to everybody to intentionally misstate the arguments of others. However, I think that in the open borders context, we're largely in what Haidt would call "elephant" territory, not "rider" territory, and so we're mostly stating post-hoc rationalizations anyway.

For example, in the last omnibus post and comments thread on open borders here: (a) it was hard for me to believe someone as smart as Bryan Caplan could make such tendentious analogies; and (b) I was shocked that Vipul Naik (sic?) thought I was making an argument that turned on the act/omission distinction; but (c) Steve Sailer's humorous comment about how we're not "letting [Mexicans] die" because so many of them are obese struck me as base propaganda which didn't respond to Naik's flawed argument.

I don't know what to make of (2) or (3). To my ear, the phrase "political oppression" means persecuting someone for their political beliefs, particularly disenfranchising them. But in context, Caplan seems to be using "political oppression" to mean "anything bad" or "any violation of the NAP" or something like that. This is precisely the sort of sloppy use of language that leads to a category (1) violation.

Bostonian writes:

I am a "citizenist" who supports restrictive immigration policies. One argument made by restrictionists that I think is weak is that "immigrants are taking all the jobs". Obviously there is not a finite number of jobs. Immigrants who come here and "take" jobs also create demand for jobs that serve them.

Immigration may lower wages in certain sectors, and they are turning the country leftward. Those are reasonable anti-immigration arguments.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I don't think of myself as a "citizenist". I don't think we shouldn't consider the welfare of non-citizens. But I do think it's odd to claim that a government representing the American people should represent the rest of the world. That's a little different from citizenism, because presumably the American people want the welfare of non-Americans to be taken into account.

But if we think the government should actually represent the interests of non-Americans we oughta just transition to a world government. We shouldn't pursue international goals with national governments.

Dave writes:

#1 especially, and IMO libertarians are much more guilty of doing this to the "left" than the "right." This is what gets us labeled as shills for right-wing, white male privilege (sometimes fairly, sometimes not).

Ken B writes:

This could be a trap but ....

Quite often I think. If you look at my postings here, or FreeAdvice, or Landsburg's blog, you can see I am often tough on small government types. Of which I am one. I spent a lot of pixels defending Paul Krugman at Murphy's. I am very tough on Bryan Caplan on immigration here but I favour more liberal immigration (in most ways). David Henderson and I get testy over WWII and Ron Paul but I agree with him more often than almost anyone on the web.

John Thacker writes:

I feel like libertarians do #1 for social conservatives as well, in plenty of cases where I find social conservative opinions completely unpersuasive, I still feel that my fellow libertarians argue against strawmen,

On another note, I'm a Bayesian, but today's xkcd really misrepresents frequentists.

Ken B writes:

Not everyone does well on this test. Guess who wrote this:

And it's also the election that lets us ask, finally, "Who cares what's the matter with Kansas?"
For a long time, right-wingers--and some pundits--have peddled the notion that the "real America," all that really counted, was the land of non-urban white people, to which both parties must abase themselves.

I'd say this fellow does poorly on 1,2, and 3, all in just a few words!

Finch writes:

Feeling a little uneasy about likening the denial of visas to non-starving non-repressed Mexicans to the murder of children, hey Bryan? That was a rhetorical doozey. A category (1), if I'm not mistaken.

As a believing libertarian, I worry about my own behavior in conversation with statists. I can fall into being critical without empathetic consideration. But my worry does not seem to fit into any of Bryan's three categories. So I offer a fourth:

4. "My side" failing to understand that all humans are necessarily and justifiably ignorant. Even though some results are well established within particular specialties, it is unfair to expect a person who has chosen a different specialty to be familiar with the results of "my side".

Besides, statism clearly works. Broad classes of people thrive for generation after generation without questioning the legitimacy of the state, it seems to me. But I am not aware that "my side" has an accepted theory to explain the economic success of the state.

Motoko writes:

1. All the time. The Libertarian movement has more than its fair share of... lowest common denominators.

2. Never. We have no political clout!

3. Well, technically libertarians can never "oppress" the other side. But the other side might feel oppressed if we told them no more "free" education and healthcare.

Re Guerrilla Warfare: I suppose there are some libertarians who think like this, but I have never openly *worried* about it.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Richard -
re: "As a believing libertarian, I worry about my own behavior in conversation with statists."

This may just be me, but I think using the word "statist" is a strong predictor of being guilty of #1 on a regular basis.

Johnson85 writes:
1. "Your side" intellectually misrepresenting "their side."

2. "Your side" politically oppressing "their side."

3. "Your side" embracing positions that, taken seriously, justify politically oppressing "their side."

Taking my "side" to be Republican, although I'm only there for a lack of a reasonable alternative:

I'm not worried about number two. There is an element of republicans that would oppress the "other side", but the only issue where they come close is restricting freedom of contract in the context of marriage.

Most of the worst policies of Republicans with respect to oppressing people are pretty much embraced wholeheartedly by democrats (such as prohibition, unchecked police power, oppressive taxes to redistribute to politically connected persons), so there is no "other side" to oppress, just fellow humans.

For Number 1, Democrat politicians don't honestly represent their side. They claim to be for the little guy but are all about statism and corporatism and advancing through political connections rather than creating value for your fellow humans. So while I'm sure I could pick many instances of slight misrepresentations of Democrats' positions, I don't worry too much about it.

Also, the sad fact of the matter is that when there is a Democrat in the Whitehouse, Democrats don't bring much of value to the political discussion. The things they supposedly care about that actually bring something to the political debate (like civil liberties) become suddenly unimportant and all they offer is a combination of the worst of Republican and Democratic policies. Socially and Economically illiberal, except that there may be some modest improvement for gay people solely with respect to gay marriage.

For Number 3, I don't care for the rhetoric around illegal immigrants. I don't really understand why the Republican party wouldn't lining up to embrace people that actually had to make a serious effort to come here and work. A big pet peeve of (and threat to) the Republican party seems to be people born here that think the great blessing of being born in the USA is not the opportunity to work in the most prosperous and fair economy in the history of the world, but the opportunity to vote yourself other people's stuff. It seems like immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are for the most part the polar opposite of that problem and should be wooed by the Republicans. Otherwise, see number 2. The Reupblican party just doesn't have the political power to oppress anybody without the committed help of the democratic party, so there's not really a position that bothers me that's not also held by the Pepsi party, so that there is no "other side".


It seems to me that each specialty, each worldview, has its own vocabulary. I was writing in terms understood by libertarians, hoping to introduce some worthy dialog among libertarians.

As such I was being rude, perhaps. Certainly I was disobeying one of George Washington's rules for civil behavior, that rule being to always address all who are present.

An open question I have is this: To what extent am I required to use the terminology of my opposites when I am in conversation with my opposites? Often it seems like a concession, perhaps an unjustified concession, to speak in the terms of my opposites.

Mark Crankshaw writes:

1. "Your side" intellectually misrepresenting "their side."

2. "Your side" politically oppressing "their side."

3. "Your side" embracing positions that, taken seriously, justify politically oppressing "their side."

I stand alone.

I have no side. Never have, never will. I will not take any responsibility for the thoughts or actions of anyone who is not me.

I don't believe that I intellectually misrepresent my legion of political opponents. I can't say my political opponents have returned the favor.

I can politically oppress no one.

I embrace no positions that, even if what I thought mattered to anyone, would justify politically oppressing my political opponents. However, my political opponents are certainly dishonest enough to feign otherwise. They are like soccer players who, even without the slightest bit of contact, flop to the ground and start to writhe with pain. The probability of me marching my political opponents off to death camps, or me taxing their money away, or me creating some rent-seeking racket is zero. The probability of them doing the same to me: if history is any guide, substantially greater than zero.

As for citizenism, that strikes me as an odd idea. I've far, far, far more in common with your average native of Toronto or Manchester than I do with your average native of The Bronx. Why should I be biased in favor of either?

egd writes:

By "political oppression" do you mean:
A) oppression by political means; or
B) real oppression because of their political beliefs?

I assume you mean A.

I take #1 pretty seriously. I don't try to intellectualy misrepresent the other side and will listen to serious accusations of misrepresentations. Often the problem lies with expression, not how I understand their side and I will attempt to correct any misrepresentations. I want people to accept my views because they believe them to be correct, not because they don't perceive the other side's arguments.

I don't consider #2 to be a serious concern. The purpose of making political arguments is to politically oppress the opposition. If I can make sufficient arguments to make progressivism politically unfeasable, I consider it a job well done.

I haven't really ever considered #3. In hindsight, I don't see any political positions I have taken that, if taken seriously, would justify actual oppression.

ajb writes:

I am restrictionist, but I am upset when restrictionists focus on race and not on behavior. The point of restrictionism is to have fewer but higher quality immigrants. Racial antipathy should not be the norm. But that does not mean one should be unable to judge and even critique other cultural norms that are common for people from certain groups, nations, or subcultures. And we should have the right and the duty to impose the values that the median American feels are correct on immigrants.

Mercer writes:

As a "citizenist" I don't think the US is going to become bilingual.

Meanwhile from a open borders propaganda outlet I learned this:

"California. Not only did Democrats there win voter approval to raise the top tax rate to 13.3%, but they also received a huge surpriseā€”a legislative supermajority."

Naturally the WSJ does not mention that the rise of Latino voters, many who were granted amnesty in 1986, has caused the collapse of the GOP in CA.

Steve writes:

I am most worried about #1, as it seems most people on here are.

The most frequent type of misrepresentation I see is assumption of motives. You will get a lot further in arguments when you realize that most (if not all) people really do believe their policies will make the world a better place.

Obama did not implement health care reform because he hates capitalism and markets. He genuinely believes that he is addressing market failures using the powers he and Congress have been given.

Romney does not want to lower marginal income tax rates because he owes his rich friends a favor. He genuinely believes that reducing tax burdens for everyone will result in more productive activity for the economy as a whole.

These are just two examples of many false representation of motives behind common liberal/conservative policies. You can get so much further in arguments with your liberal/conservative friends if you give up on attacking motives and go straight to the facts. Do the current shortcomings of the health care market stem from true market failures? Which side of the Laffer curve are we on? These are the arguments you need to start with if you want to have any hope of changing opinions.

(For the record I don't necessarily see Libertarians frequently making these errors, but sometimes in the heat of the moment you can regress to these cheap tactics if you aren't aware of them.)

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Richard -
I'm just noting a correlation I've observed, and it may not even apply to you. But I think it's more than just a vocabulary issue. I know lots of libertarians that talk amongst each other without talking like that (that's the beautiful thing about social media - you can peak in on others' conversations). I've noticed that even using that word as a coherent way of talking about non-libertarians is a strong predictor of regular violations of #1. You may very well be an exception.

Steve writes:
I've noticed that even using that word as a coherent way of talking about non-libertarians is a strong predictor of regular violations of #1. You may very well be an exception.

It's sort of like the use of the term 'socialist'. It is rarely used correctly anymore. A sampling of 25 statements using it in a sentence will yield a large amount of ignorance.

However correct (and convenient) it may be to refer to someone who trusts in the power of the state to affect positive outcomes on human problems, 'statists' has become devoid of most meaning and is usually taken a little too pejoratively to contribute to rational debate.

See also 'the n-word'.

Silas Barta writes:

Just last week I blogged about my side unfairly representing the hurricane stimulus argument from Keynesians. (To the extent that Landsburg is "my side" -- I often find him being unfair.)

Not sure how "open" that is, since no one reads my blog and there were few links to it, but there you go.

Joe Cushing writes:

When everything the statists argues for involves sending men with guns to my home; who will put me in chains, throw me in a steel cage, and shoot me dead if I attempt self defense; in order to gain compliance from me for things as small as they want me to pay $50 a year for a library I will never set foot in, the idea that anything I advocate is repressive is just ridiculous.

The statists policies are clear and easy to understand, as they have been shoved down our throats our entire lives starting in kindergarten. It is the libertarian/anarchist that gets misrepresented. We all know the many ways. If you aren't for using force to pay for charity, you are against (name that cause) impoverished people, children, etc.

If I thought for a moment that a revolution had a snowballs chance of bringing us freedom, I'd be for it. A revolution would not be repressive or an initiation of force, it would be self defense. History shows us that revolution rarely brings about freedom, so I'm against it. It makes sense that it wouldn't work. The leader of a movement powerful enough to overthrow a government is also powerful enough to become the new government. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

We live in a time where technology makes peaceful anarchy far easier to work than it ever has been. Take, for example, the holy grail of statists; "but how will we pay for roads without [sending men with guns to your home to take money from you]?" That's an easy answer today. There are several electronic solutions. Probably GPS or RFID would be used. All roads could be private and people could pay based on their use.

libfree writes:

Voter ID laws. I'm in favor of them but I'm always concerned about them being used for number 2.

Tom West writes:

I've more concerned about my side *emotionally* misrepresenting the other side. At least on the right, it's mostly the cranks (albeit a few high profile) who are convinced that the left are power-mongering Mao wannabees. The right majority seem to just assume the left is stupid and doesn't realize how destructive their policies are.

On the left, however, I find attribution error runs rampant (the right isn't just wrong, they're evil!), which is highly disturbing. As such, I worry about #3.

Of course, this may be because I've found several right-ish sites like this (yes, I can hear the objections) that treat the "other" courteously, but haven't found the equivalent on the left.

As far as citizenism is concerned (and I stand in favor of more open borders, but believing citizens have a moral right to control their borders), I see spirited debate, but not a lot of misrepresentation or oppression.

Bringing in the specter of 400 millions immigrants seems a legitimate way of attacking a moral stance. Arguments against the consequentialist stance should limited to likely outcomes. (i.e. a moral argument can't change just because 400 million decide to come, a consequentialist can simply say that if it's not turning out well, then we'll change the laws).

John writes:

Daniel, Steve, others:

Daniel's impression that the use of the word "statist" strongly predicts violations of type #1 might be right for some people, but hopefully not for many. I use the word "statist" to refer to someone who holds the political belief that a monopolistic state is valid, just, and necessary, and I go so far out of my way to avoid mis-characterizing liberals and conservatives that I'm probably too wishy-washy, non-committal, and uninteresting most of the time, so I think my use of "statist" certainly isn't related to any type-1 violations. "Statist" and "statism" are usually just a lot more convenient and relevant and precise than "liberals and conservatives", "non-libertarians", "non-anarchists", etc.

I would compare the word "statist" to the word "anarchist". Anarchists like myself and Bryan not only don't object when others label us as such, we proudly use that word ourselves. An anarchist believes monopolistic government is unjust (or at the very least, ineffective, inefficient, and unpreferable), and a statist believes that states are just and preferable to anarchism. Shouldn't statists be as proud to be called statist as anarchists are to be called anarchist? These *should be* neutral words, and I wish people would treat them as such by default to the greatest extent possible.

Steve Sailer writes:

Dear Bryan:

I appreciate your devoting so much space a couple of days ago to quoting a little-remembered argument I had made seven years ago. I did not find your Poisoning Children argument terribly persuasive, but I appreciate the publicity.

Here's a longer statement of the case for citizenism I made six years ago:


Bill Callahan writes:

It is precisely these questions, especially the first that have led me from being an unthinking "liberal" to a principled libertarian. I realized that many people I agreed with were picturing their opponents as these sinister cartoonish villains who ran around harassing women, oppressing minorities, and raping the planet because they could. There is actually a huge portion of people on the left who believe that others oppose the entitlement state because we actually hate the poor, elderly, and disabled and want them to die in the streets so we can watch while laughing maniacally. Thinking about this led me to research what other solutions there might be to social problems, and the research eventually persuaded me of the efficacy of market solutions and later, their moral superiority.

awp writes:

my main problem is when,

"my side" uses bad arguments to reach our similar conclusions.

Chris H writes:

I think #1 is almost an inescapable problem for every side. After all, for every side there's always the fear that if you represent their arguments clearly, they might be more persuasive than your own. Anyone who doesn't worry about #1 is almost assuredly fooling himself.

For #2, yea that's pretty easy to not worry about when you're a tiny minority with no influence.

For #3, I have to admit I do worry about that. When some broaches the idea of libertarian nuremburg trials I have to admit quite a bit of unease at the concept. When generations of people have been taught that a gang of thieves is in fact benevolent protectors I find it hard to blame them for their support, even for the politicians in charge as they grew up in this same system.

Beyond that though, I think it's a good idea to every now and then go back to my definition of "oppression" and make sure it's something I'm still willing to stand by. Even if my beliefs would never lead to something I call "oppression" that doesn't mean I shouldn't be concerned that I've mis-defined "oppression."

All this said, I wouldn't disassociate myself from people who I agree with on many fundamentals but who I think come to some conclusions that could lead to oppression if enacted. I prefer instead to stay with them and if possible convince them of the error of their ways. However, the minute that #3 morphs into #2 that is when I would break off and consider myself part of the opposition.

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