Bryan Caplan  

Egoism, Libertarianism, Persuasion, and Worthy Arguments

The Dirty Laundry of Instrumen... Tocqueville's Tweeters...
Vipul Naik drew my attention to Brian's comment on my last immigration post:
If you are a good libertarian, you will care only about your own freedom and well being. The freedom of others is only of concern to the extent that it enhances your freedom and well being. Any concern about the freedom of abstract Haitians is the essence of "soft head, soft heart" reasoning. As other posters have noted, that will get you nowhere in convincing others. And it SHOULD get you nowhere. It's muddle-headed thinking and not worthy of you. Make your arguments, instead, on how more open immigration will benefit the people you're trying to convince.
This comment is mistaken on six different levels.

1. A "good libertarian" would certainly not care only about his own freedom and well-being.  Egoism and libertarianism are not the same; indeed, as Michael Huemer shows in an elegant hypothetical, the two views are incompatible.

2. If I cared only about my own freedom and well-being, I wouldn't bother making political arguments of any kind.  Per the logic of collective action, my probability of affecting policy is trivial.  I'd be far better off milking my tenure for all it's worth, doing my bare minimum 150 hours of teaching per year to keep my paycheck, and dividing my remaining time between consulting and apolitical hobbies.

3. My concern for Haitians would only exemplify "soft head, soft heart" reasoning if my favored policies were bad for Haitians.  That's the whole point of the hard/soft head/heart distinction: a "hard head" indicates concern for effective means, a "soft heart" indicates concern for other people.  In slogan form: The minimum wage is "soft head, soft heart"; GiveWell is "hard head, soft heart."

4. The view that appeals to self-interest are more convincing than ethical appeals is totally false.  A massive empirical public opinion literature shows that objective self-interest has almost no effect on people's policy viewsIdeology and group identity are what really matter.

5. For many important issues, libertarian appeals to self-interest are factually incorrect.  All things considered, abolishing slavery was probably not in the self-interest of American whites.  The best argument against slavery was ethical.  Case in point:


6. For many other important libertarian issues, appeals to self-interest are factually correct but, to use Brian's word, "unworthy."  Immigration is such an issue.  Yes, doubling GDP by opening world borders will enrich most people in the First World.  But these economic benefits for First Worlders are not the main reason why I advocate open borders.  The main reason I advocate open borders is that immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice against people from Third World countries.  Once someone retreats to, "Yes, immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice, but doing the right thing would be very costly," I'm happy to delve into the social science with them.  Until then, they're just missing the point.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
Matt Reardon writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance. --Econlib Ed.]

Adam writes:

If all who would immigrate in the absence of restrictions were libertarian angels, then the world beyond the borders would already be a libertarian paradise.

Humans are no angels. Some are evil and others are wonderful, charitable beings. Immigration restrictions should be structured to separate out the different types and protect those already within the borders from those who would do them--or their institutions--harm. In this sense, well-constructed immigration restrictions are a non-aggressive form of national defense. Defense is not immoral.

Jacob Lyles writes:

How could any group foster a wealthy and just society from scratch when any advance would trigger an incoming surge of the world's most poor and desperate? Social norms are fragile things, and in social norms lies the foundation of growth.

Caplan is in the group that needs more history, less theory.

Tom Jackson writes:

I'm fine with barring admission for people convicted of violent crimes, but beyond that, I have zero faith that the government would be able to effectively distinguish between "good" immigrants and "bad" immigrants. Rather than picking winners and losers, why not admit everyone?

NCWolf writes:

Turning the US into Haiti isn't good for natives or for Haitians.

The question is how many immigrants can we let in without destroying the institutions and culture that make the US such a wonderful place that others want to immigrate to.

I agree that not letting them immigrate is an injustice, but as you and Huemer have pointed out sometimes a libertarian injustice is acceptable if the consequences are bad enough.

I can't see how anyone could claim that there is NO level of immigration that would severely impact US institutions and culture . The real argument needs to be what level can be absorbed without major consequences and how best to integrate immigrants into the existing culture.

I am pro immigration right up to the point we start to kill the goose that is laying the golden eggs.

johnleemk writes:
In this sense, well-constructed immigration restrictions are a non-aggressive form of national defense.

Isn't advocating the deportation of people who do not share your political views a similar non-aggressive form of self-defence then? What about preventing people who mildly agree with you from hearing or reading the opinions of those who disagree with you? Doesn't that also serve the cause of "liberty"? Why are human beings only angels if they share your political beliefs, and devils otherwise?

How could any group foster a wealthy and just society from scratch when any advance would trigger an incoming surge of the world's most poor and desperate? Social norms are fragile things, and in social norms lies the foundation of growth.

Where are the many people trying to foster wealthy and just societies from scratch? As far as I can tell, there are plenty of long-standing wealthy and just (relative to most other societies that have ever existed) societies in existence, and most other societies are clearly not starting from scratch. At best, this "infant country" argument works for newly-decolonised or rebuilding countries -- it doesn't work for the vast majority of people or countries in the world.

I would also like to see some evidence that "social norms are fragile things" in long-standing societies.

Brian writes:


Wow, I managed to make a six-fold error? Surely that's an Econlog record! I'm not surprised you disagree with me--we can't even seem to agree on how best to spell our first name. ;)

Here are some quick responses to your points:

1. I wasn't claiming that egoism and libertarianism are the same thing. I'm really asserting that egoism and RATIONALITY are effectively indistinguishable. I can't do what's best for me without considering rather deeply what others think is best for themselves. My claim is that good libertarians, like good conservatives and good progressives, should strive to be rational.

Huemer's hypothetical doesn't prove that egoism is immoral. The homeless person cannot be reduced to the equivalent of a piece of trash because he/she is a rational player; a piece of trash is not.

2. Nonsense. By making political arguments you are getting people's attention and (presumably) enhancing your career. Rational players never just mail it in. Besides, even though your vote (and other such actions) have no significant effect, talking about such things can focus people's attention on issues they haven't considered before and even change minds. These things are all potential benefits to you.

3. If "hard head" indicates concern for effective means, wouldn't that effectiveness have to extend to everyone involved, not just Haitians? More importantly, I characterized your position as "soft head" because it doesn't engage with the broader consequences of the proposal. Therefore, the effectiveness of the proposal is unknown. It's not rational to choose a new course of action without knowing the consequences.

4. Since when are ideology and group identity not about self-interest? In fact, all people act according to their own self-interest, even if they couch it in different terms. Look at the current debate over immigration reform. Republicans are hesitant out of fear that an influx of immigrants will make them a permanent political minority. The Democrats are enthusiastic for the same reason. It's all about self-interest. Arguments over fundamental principles of equality plays no role except possibly rhetorical.

5. Abolishing slavery absolutely was in the self-interest of whites. Imagine adding millions to full participation in the nation's economy. Everyone benefits through a huge increase in per capita income. Think specifically of a storeowner in the Jim Crow south. Wouldn't the storeowner benefit from the increased business of having blacks shop there? The only reason storeowners didn't rise up to overthrow segregation was because they were either (ideologically) blind to the benefits or feared reprisals from their white customers.

6. Self-interest is always a worthy criterion. Think of it as a responsibility. You have a moral responsibility to yourself to do the best you can for yourself, just as you have a moral responsibility to your employers to do your best for them. But your responsibility to them is always indirectly fulfilling your primary responsibility to yourself. If it did not, you would quit.

Consider how you behaved when you accepted GMU's job offer. Did you behave immorally by not considering that your decision to accept was depriving some other job candidate of the job? Of course not. Had you made your decision based on the needs of the other job candidates, you would have deprived yourself of your dream job and deprived GMU of their preferred candidate. Acting in the other's interest would have been a terrible mistake, in all likelihood.

Generally speaking, acting in one's genuine self-interest is moral.

Ross writes:

A very minor quibble with #5. If the work by Genovese on the Political Economy of Slavery is considered, it can be argued that 19th century chattel slavery in America actually benefited Southern white aristocrats at the expense of all other white Americans (North and South).

Capt. J Parker writes:

When the subject under consideration is fundamental human rights, it seems to me that morality, ideology and self interest become inextricably intertwined. For example: If the banner under the picture of the slave said “If I can be kept in chains, you can be kept in chains.” It might seem to change the discussion about slavery from one about morality to one about self interest. But, would it really? Because I ascribe to an ideology that says ”all men are endowed by their creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” I would argue that both the original picture and one with my hypothetical banner ask you to; 1) Recognize the essential humanity of the slave; 2) Recognize that a fundamental human right is being denied him and; 3) Consider what the implications of this denial of rights means to you personally.

I guess my point is that even if I agree that an appeal to morality is a stronger argument than is one to self interest as Dr. Caplan says, when it comes to inalienable rights it’s usually easy to argue for morality and self interest together. Wouldn’t that be stronger than either morality or self interest alone?

A.West writes:

Huemer's hypothetical isn't elegant, other than perhaps elegantly showing that he didn't make much of an attempt to understand Ayn Rand's ideas.

Libertarians think egoism involves killing people who get in your way?

No wonder libertarians mostly write papers to one another, rather than best selling novels.

Handle writes:

[Comment removed for crude language. Email the to request editing your comment. We'd be happy to publish your comment.--Econlib Ed.]

Matt Skene writes:


I'm not sure what you mean by egoism or rationality here. Egoism is probably best understood as a view about the locus of moral relevance. I would describe it as the view that the only thing that is intrinsically important in moral deliberation is one's self-interest. Any other moral consideration is relevant only insofar as it affects one's self-interest. Huemer's argument shows that if this is true, then many people ought to have no more moral relevance than a piece of trash in your deliberations because they have no more ability to affect your own self-interest than a piece of trash. I don't see how merely being a rational player changes that. It certainly doesn't seem to follow from the mere fact that a rational being exists that they will affect your self-interest. Saying that rational agents can't be equated with a piece of trash in the process of moral deliberation seems to require either some reason to think it does or else a different understanding of egoism.

As for rationality, I am again not sure what you mean here. I would think that the rational action is the action you have the most reason, all things considered, to do. But, again, Huemer's example seems to show that equating egoism and rationality is a mistake on this meaning of "rational." Huemer's example shows that the wrongness of killing the homeless man gives you an all things considered reason not to act that trumps your own self-interest. The fact that this type of reason exists and that it can overcome self-interest shows that rationality and egoism can't be equated with one another. Of course, if all you mean is that the action an egoist should do and the action in accordance with rational self-interest are the same, this is true, but not informative. You need the stronger claim that egoism is equivalent to all things considered rationality to show there is something wrong with Bryan's reasoning. But I see no reason to accept this sort of equivalence. Indeed, since the debate between egoists and almost everyone else is largely about whether or not these things are different, equating them seems to beg the question.

Bryan Pick writes:

Jacob Lyles: "How could any group foster a wealthy and just society from scratch when any advance would trigger an incoming surge of the world's most poor and desperate? [...] Caplan is in the group that needs more history, less theory."

Yes, how did America become an increasingly just country and a world power while importing penniless people from all over the world?

Randall Parker writes:

Opening borders to double GDP will lower per capita GDP for most of the population. The upper classes pay the lower classes less and less. Increasing the supply of less skilled labor will just accelerate that trend.

This is just plain wrong:

If I cared only about my own freedom and well-being, I wouldn't bother making political arguments of any kind.

Since I care about my own freedom I try to convince people to stop letting changes to the US population create a population that is more supportive of infringing my freedom. Arguments to convince other people are about my own tool to prevent the gradual erosion of my freedoms.

Randall Parker writes:

The biggest challenge for libertarians is that the majority is not libertarian. That is true of the majority domestically. It is even truer of the majority of the people in the world. Limited government is just not that popular.

Immigration is shifting the demographics of the United States further away from supporting libertarian policies domestically. The growing lower classes support more state intervention and more taxes on the most productive. Hispanics vote Left. They vote for the welfare state. They are heavier uses of the welfare state.

Open Borders would cause a much larger influx of people who would want to use the welfare state.

Thomas May writes:

Can you please tell me why admitting people to live and work in the US entails giving citizenship (understood to mean voting and welfare) rights to them and their children? If you don't think it does, can you explicitly state that you don't support this?

Greg Jaxon writes:

Those who advocate ordinary "immigration policy" intend to enforce it at "the border". Borders are legal discontinuities near which very large differences in economic value become concentrated. Black-market arbitrageurs therefore work the large spreads and risks that "border policy" produces. Tax monies spent on border coercion enrich a criminal class of smugglers, people traffickers, & money changers, and tend to inflate (if not outright corrupt) immigration/customs bureaucracies. Immigration reform is little more than an attempt to spread this coercive power to employers of guest-workers, their banks, the welfare bureaucrats, etc (depending on the reform) - anyone who wants to pick the guests' pockets.

Liberty shuns borders.
Don't be distracted by queue-jumping econ puzzles
and relativist Libertarians; there's a reason you don't want "the border" in your back yard.

NZ writes:

@Tom Jackson:

Why don't you have faith in the government's ability to sort out good from bad immigrants? I mean, obviously no system is ever going to be 100% effective, and obviously some government administrations are going to be more faithful and less corrupt to this goal than others, but I take your statement to mean that you don't believe any government could ever properly sort out good from bad immigrants. If that is what you meant, what is your basis for believing that? Aren't there examples of governments which fairly effectively filter out good from bad immigrants--if not on the national level then on the state or local level?

There is also the matter of how you define effective sorting. For instance, if you fail to let in a good immigrant, is that just as detrimental as letting in a bad one? I would say no. Thus, the cautious starting point of immigration policy is to not let in any immigrants. The next step is to let in only good immigrants and keep out bad ones. Failure in the second step strikes me as reason to regroup back to the first step, not to move hastily on to the third, which is letting in all immigrants.

Brian writes:

Matt Skene,

By "rational" I mean the usual definition from game theory. A rational player is one that always chooses his or her highest payoff GIVEN WHAT THE PLAYERS ARE DOING. The Nash equilibrium is obtained, of course, when every player has chosen the best they can for themselves and no one has a unilateral motivation to switch. Rational players don't "care" if the other players get a low payoff--they don't switch to make others better off--but they are keenly aware of what the other players' payoffs are, knowing that those players want to maximize their own payoffs. Rationality defined this way is strictly egoistic.

Regarding the homeless man, the preceding definition implies why he can't be reduced to the equivalent of a piece of trash. Pieces of trash are not sentient, much less rational, and therefore cannot change their strategies (or my payoff) based on what I choose. Indeed, they have no strategies at all. A homeless man, however, is capable of altering his strategy choice in response to mine, thereby changing my expected payoff. Rational players by definition must consider the potential strategies and payoffs of ALL players, which include homeless people but not trash.

You might argue that once that particular homeless man is dead, he can't change his strategy and so is of no concern. Huemer stipulates that in his hypothetical society, no one cares about homeless people. But what about the other homeless people? Surely they will recognize that they are ALL at risk from laser-ray toting commuters like me? Their best strategy is then to eliminate ME. Ultimately, this is not my best outcome.

And even is you propose that no other homeless exist, the reality is that cleaning up the body, or paying to clean up the body, or letting the body rot and possibly spread disease are all worse outcomes for me. There's really no way that killing him is the best outcome for ME. It wouldn't be rational, and that's why it wouldn't be moral.

If I'm late my best strategy is probably to run faster and maybe risk knocking him out of the way. Rude? Yes. Immoral? Hard to say. I am in a hurry after all.

johnleemk writes:


If it is so easy to evaluate human beings in all their complexities and assess them to be "good" or "bad", then it's surely a breeze for government to evaluate relatively one-dimensional inanimate objects, like cars or TV sets. So if big government gets the unlimited power to screen human beings trying to enter our country because it's sufficiently competent, surely it merits that same power to screen goods because it'll be even more competent there?

Although some open borders advocates reject all government authority to screen immigrants, there are many others (myself included) who are more willing to allow screening for reasons of public order or health. These restrictions are similar to those preventing wild-and-woolly importation of AK-47s or poliovirus. But going beyond that, I am strongly skeptical of a central government's ability to assess the worth of a human being, or even an automobile.

Local and provincial governments already have the authority to discourage or even prohibit goods, services, or people which they regard as undesirable. It's unclear to me why certain individuals or localities feel a need to demand that their own beliefs about what a "good" person is should be coercively imposed on other communities who don't share these values using national immigration policy.

And regarding baselining immigration from zero, you're making the ridiculous assumption that a zero-immigration policy is costless. It's also unclear to me why you believe the cost of not letting in an immigrant who might be worth $800K should be treated as less than the cost of letting in an immigrant who might be worth -$8K (again, making the highly questionable assumption that national governments are competent to assign a dollar value to immigrants, or that this is even a moral basis for immigration policy in the first place).

JW writes:


Would love to hear your thoughts on these anti-immigration arguments:

Mark Bahner writes:
I have zero faith that the government would be able to effectively distinguish between "good" immigrants and "bad" immigrants. Rather than picking winners and losers, why not admit everyone?

I'd say, bring in every Indian and Chinese person with a university degree, owning a small business in a technical area, and with a net worth of more than $50,000. There's no question in my mind that those are "good" immigrants.

To put it more broadly, I can't understand at all the limits on H-1B visas...nor why they wouldn't lead to the opportunity for citizenship in very short order.

Paul O'Connor writes:

If libertarianism is indeed in conflict with egoism, wouldn't the disturbing corollary be that it would be impossible to create a stable societal equilibrium along those lines?

Brian writes:


You are exactly correct. Though no one else seems to recognize it, a Nash equilibrium of rational players implies that all act as egoists. The claim of incompatibility with egoism is especially problematic for libertarians since they tend to reject the limits on freedom that allow stable structures in the absence of an equilibrium.

yet another david writes:
The view that appeals to self-interest are more convincing than ethical appeals is totally false. A massive empirical public opinion literature shows that objective self-interest has almost no effect on people's policy views. Ideology and group identity are what really matter.

I wish the consequentialists understood this - they usually make the reverse argument.

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