Bryan Caplan  

Bastards, Immigrants, and Misanthropes

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In the Game of Thrones series, people use the term "bastard" literally.  If your parents weren't married when you were born, you're a bastard.  While bastards are common in Westeros, everyone looks down on them for the crime of existing.  In one scene, Catelyn Stark meets a charming mountain guide, but her delight suddenly turns to disgust:
She sounded so cocky that Catelyn had to smile.  "Do you have a name, child?"

"Mya Stone, if it please you, my lady," the girl said.

It did not please her; it was an effort for Catelyn to keep the smile on her face.  Stone was a bastard's name in the Vale, as Snow was in the north, and Flowers in Highgarden; in each of the Seven Kingdoms, custom had fashioned a surname for children born with no names of their own.  Catelyn had nothing against this girl, but suddenly she could not help but think of Ned's bastard on the Wall, and the thought made her angry and guilty, both at once.  She struggled to find words for a reply. (A Game of Thrones)
Why exactly do the people of Westeros so despise bastards?  Stereotypes say they're not to be trusted:
They still think me a turncloak.  That was a bitter draft to drink, but Jon could not blame them.  He was a bastard, after all.  Everyone knew that bastards were wanton and treacherous by nature, having been born in lust and deceit. (A Storm of Swords)
As you read the stories, though, two things become clear: First, moral standards are so low that bastards couldn't be much worse on average than non-bastards.  Second, bastards endure more scorn for merely being bastards than non-bastards endure for blatantly heinous behavior. 

What then is the real reason why the people of Game of Thrones loathe bastards?  Given the cultural chasm between our world and theirs, the answer is obvious: Misanthropy.  The people of Westeros loathe bastards for existing.  Complaints about their "treachery" are little more than rationalizations for blanket negativity toward people who were born the wrong way. 

Yet why would people want to impugn the very existence of bastards?  Given the cultural chasm, the answer is again fairly obvious.  Bastards serve crucial psychological and social functions.  Psychologically, every non-bastard can automatically feel superior to every bastard.  Socially, every non-bastard can automatically expect the people around them to affirm their sense of superiority.  If you call a particular person a bastard, there's a slight chance he'll push back; but I can't recall a single sentence where someone stood up for bastards in general.*

In our society, we're more likely to feel slightly sorry for bastards than scorn them.  Political correctness has strangely failed to banish the word "bastard"; Google Ngram actually shows that the word has enjoyed a major comeback in recent decades.  But almost no one denounces people because their parents weren't married on the day they were born.

Before we pat ourselves on the back, though, we should reflect.  We may be largely free of contempt for bastards.  But does our society have a substitute target for misanthropy?  I say we do.  Illegal immigrants - actual and potential - serve the same psychological needs and fill the same social role in the modern United States as bastards do in Westeros. 

Consider how the typical American reacts when he discovers that someone is an "illegal immigrant."  He's a lot like Catelyn Stark when she discovered that Mya Stone was a bastard.  What suddenly matters is not the content of the person's character, but how the person came to be.  The fact that the person is helpful, even charming, does not redeem him. 

In both cases, again, there is a long list of specific complaints.  But our double standard is as plains as theirs.  The clearest proof: Americans would rather exile a peaceful, hard-working foreigner than a native-born violent criminal.  Indeed, most would strongly favor the former and strongly oppose the latter.

George R.R. Martin still has two Game of Thrones books left to write.  Before the end, perhaps a character will finally proclaim the truth: The bastards of Westeros are far more sinned against than sinning.  Most bastards are neither "wanton" nor "treacherous," but everyone who scorns bastards is morally blind at best.  If the first five books are any guide, though, this isn't going to happen.  Martin's fantasy world is like the real world: Human beings habitually make half-baked misanthropic complaints - and almost never take a good hard look in the mirror.

* I'm currently 300 pages into book five, so any counter-examples in the final 700 pages impugn my forecasting, not my memory.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
Cimon Alexander writes:

It's fairly clear from the book that Catelyn doesn't like bastards because her husband has one with another woman whom she viewed as competition for her legitimate children. Also, given the prevailing norms regarding property ownership and succession, it would make sense for such a society to stigmatize bastardy. It keeps the implicit contract between husband and wife that their inheritance will benefit both of their family lines equally and that one of them will not attempt to backstab the other by inserting a bastard into the line of inheritance.

This post lacks any serious inspection of the topic at hand.

8 writes:

Contempt for bastards was one way of keeping people from having affairs. If there was real widespread hatred of illegals, there wouldn't be many of them.

In a world of low GDP growth, passing on accumulated assets via inheritance was very important, enough to cause battles within families. All the worse to have a potential competitor from without.

In a world of low GDP growth, importing foreigners who are not net contributors (at the local, state and federal level) drain the resources of the people.

I haven't encountered actual hatred of illegals as individuals, mainly anger at the concept/group and that they can receive welfare benefits. Similar to the reaction to news stories about violent criminals getting sex change operations or other "wastes" of public money.

It's also worth noting that in Martin's novels, the word bastard takes its older meaning of an illegitimate child of nobility and while they do have diminished standing, they still rank above commoners, who lack last names altogether.

It's also worth noting that stable or shrinking populations in particular have good reason to be nervous about the encroachment of fertile ones onto their land if they hold the continued existence of their lines in any value. It's true that American Indians haven't been totally eradicated, but I doubt their ancestors would envy their geographically and demographically limited mongrelized state of today.

James A. Donald writes:

Have you considered that the major reason people do not like illegal immigrants is that the typical illegal immigrant is not your maid and your gardener, but a short fat woman clogging up the emergency room with her numerous bastard spawn, receiving large amounts of welfare money for these anchor babies, much of which she gives to her boyfriends, who live on crime and the welfare she receives.


Most illegal immigrants are low IQ mestizos who are seriously allergic to working.

Most illegal immigrants do not work and have no interest in working. A very large proportion of them drive drunk, probably less than half, but more than a quarter. Most of them drive with no license and no insurance. Most of them are alarmingly bad drivers. A significant minority of them are dangerous thugs.

Brad D writes:

Ishmael was a bastard child. Perhaps he gave them a bad name.

MikeP writes:

Most illegal immigrants do not work and have no interest in working. A very large proportion of them drive drunk, probably less than half, but more than a quarter. Most of them drive with no license and no insurance. Most of them are alarmingly bad drivers. A significant minority of them are dangerous thugs.

But enough about the Irish.

S writes:
Consider how the typical American reacts when he discovers that someone is an "illegal immigrant."

This analogy is straining just a bit, no? I think this impression you have of who illegal immigrants are, and how Americans react when we "discover" (i.e. glance at briefly?) them is the product of the Bubble. Of course, maybe you have some scenario in mind, other than casual day to day interaction, that I am just not picking up from reading this post.

The clearest proof: Americans would rather exile a peaceful, hard-working foreigner than a native-born violent criminal.

There are many Americans who would like to send illegal immigrants back to their home countries, but I can't think of any who want them exiled (the two seem mutually exclusive). Most Americans (the reasonable ones anyway) want violent criminals locked up. And I would say if they had to choose between locking up a violent criminal and deporting a peaceful immigrant they would choose the former. But that is just the impression I get.

RPLong writes:

Wow, I'm impressed. Bryan Caplan suggests that misanthropy is at the core of anti-immigration sentiment, and James A. Donald quickly rises to the occasion to demonstrate by example.

How odd, then, that he sounds like he's disagreeing with Caplan.

It's fairly clear from the book that Catelyn doesn't like bastards because her husband has one with another woman whom she viewed as competition for her legitimate children.

Or, more precisely, Catelyn believes her husband has one with another woman. Though the books hint fairly loudly that all is not as it seems.

Hazel Meade writes:

@Roderick: I have reached the same conclusion.
Avoiding revealing an spoilers ... I suspect that Jon Snow is not Ned Stark's child. I think he's (blank)'s child by (blank). Which makes him (blank).

Aaron Zierman writes:

Is there really no difference between legal and illegal immigration?

Most people that I know are for legal immigration and against illegal immigration. It has little to do with the people involved and more to do with the process. Also, most believe that the system is quite convoluted and should be more simple (many possible ways to do that).

The simple stigma is against "illegal" more than it is "immigrant". The same as if you found out that your neighbor skimmed funds from his company or something - it changes your opinion when you realize someone is a law breaker.

Emily writes:

It is cruel to stigmatize people who were born out of wedlock. Obviously they bear no blame for their parents' choices. Not stigmatizing having children out of wedlock is also cruel if it means significantly raising the chance that children will not be raised by both of their parents. (It seems to in some contexts and not in others.) You could certainly argue that the stigma on the child is misplaced, and we should be talking about their parents instead. I would agree with that - but part of the question then is which is more effective, and I don't have an answer to that.

The bulk of illegal immigrants to the United States came here not to engage in criminal activity but to work honestly and to provide better lives for their descendants. I respect that. But people doing that in great numbers is not compatible with moral responsibilities that I think we bear as a country to our current citizens and their descendants. I do not feel superior to someone who came here illegally, I feel lucky that I never faced that particular set of constraints. But that's not relevant to the question of whether it is a good idea for the country to have lots of unskilled immigrants with low prospects for assimilation. It isn't. So this behavior, even though it comes from a set of motivations that I respect, has very bad effects.

For most of us, it would be more pleasant to never say "this behavior being engaged is not conducive to the kind of society we want to live in." But that's not always the nicer thing to do. This is a "seen and not seen" issue - if you only look at the people being criticized in both of these contexts, it looks only like cruelty. But they're not the only ones being affected.

August writes:

Oh, how I tire of Game of Thrones examples! Martin does this sort of thing on purpose. Almost all of the ills the bastards suffer seems to come from their being called bastards, yet we know, in real life, bastards suffer due to the poor choices of their parents. People who marry to have children tend to think a little farther ahead and tend to provide their children with enough provision for a future. The societal value of delineating between bastards and other people is not misanthropy but to encourage those with the potential to create more bastards to think ahead.
Meanwhile, Schneier is out there giving feudalism a bad name by assuming Game of Thrones somehow shows an accurate picture of it, which then can be applied to our modern corporatist nightmare.
Yes, I understand both points, but they are poorly made, because if Game of Thrones were food it would be that questionable sort of nacho cheese sauce that seems to be extremely addictive, but not actually cheese. Just imagine that smelly, yellow plastic stuff all over your point about illegal immigrants. You don't want to do that to your points, do you?

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Jame A Donald:

And yet, you fail to provide a shred of evidence for your claims...

Jeff writes:

The first couple of commenters have it right. Stigmatizing bastards is a way for society to dissuade people from having children out of wedlock. It makes it clear to men and women who might be tempted to go down that road that their children will be of low social status and, as you put it, sinned against, so they should avoid having any such children if at all possible.

Is this cruel? Somewhat, yes. But society has a legitimate interest in preventing/minimizing out of wedlock births, particularly poor one's. Are there kinder, gentler alternatives for accomplishing this? I don't know.

I agree with 'S' above: your attempt to turn this into another immigration-morality parable was a stretch.

DougT writes:

Have you considered the ties of blood?

Bastards were stigmatized because they didn't have the same blood-loyalty. They couldn't share in the inheritance of the legitimate heirs, so their loyalty was suspect. Think of Edmund in King Lear.

To move this on to the immigration issue, it seems that the question of illegal immigration isn't really an issue of misanthropy. That's too facile. Loyalty and respect for law is a question on Kling's "civilization axis." People who flout one set of laws may not respect others.

Bastards are necessarily disloyal, but their incentives, on the margin, are different than that of legitimate heirs. Illegal immigrants are necessarily a threat, but their incentives, on the margin, may be different than that of full citizens.

Daublin writes:

I read it as having to do with the social structure. Think more about Catelyn's position. She is a very loving person, but Jon is a total burden. He's worse than a stranger: he sucks attention and resources from Ned, which indirectly sucks attention and resources from Catelyn. Catelyn feels like she is *supposed* to be nice to bastards, but her intelligent side can't help but see the negative consequences for herself.

Broadly, bastards in Westeros do not fit into the social structure and do not have many defenders fighting for them. They just have the one parent, and that parent has a weakened position due to running into direct opposition from their spouse.

There is a similar but lesser situation with wards, such as Theon and Sansa. When they are with their host families, wards have very few defenders, and they are treated rather coolly. At least they have a real family somewhere, though, one that is sure to fight for them. The existence of that real family somewhere else means they get somewhat better treatment than bastards. Who's going to retaliate if you do something to a bastard?

MikeP writes:

Most people that I know are for legal immigration and against illegal immigration.

Everyone is for legal immigration and against illegal immigration. It's just that some people want less illegal immigration through greater enforcement and other people want less illegal immigration through fewer restrictions.

The simple stigma is against "illegal" more than it is "immigrant". The same as if you found out that your neighbor skimmed funds from his company or something - it changes your opinion when you realize someone is a law breaker.

Just to clarify: You would hold a fugitive slave in lower standing than a slave that was freed legally?

NZ writes:

I don't know about the statistics on illegal immigrants using welfare, public schools, or emergency rooms, but I'm pretty sure they are more likely to drive without a license or insurance. That's been a big topic of discussion in California for the past few years. When I moved here my insurance automatically got hiked up by 200-300%, and that was a big part of the reason.

Other commenters have pointed out the usefulness to society of stigmatizing illegitimacy. It's cruel and unfair, perhaps, but it works: we no longer stigmatize illegitimacy, and illegitimacy is now rampant. Cost goes down, consumption goes up.

Like any design, optimizing the features for one set of users means another set of users will have a less ideal experience. Trying to design for all users as if they are the same (in the name of Tolerance, or Natural Rights, perhaps) is a recipe for a design prone to failure.

NZ writes:

PS. Illegitimacy, by the way, isn't just bad because of unknown blood lines or some abstract thing like that. Bastardhood has very real, statistically evident externalities that everyone around has to deal with. Bastards are more likely to get into crime, drop out of high school, use drugs, become parents of their own bastards, etc.

Thus, stigmatizing illegitimacy doesn't make you a misanthrope, it simply makes you someone who doesn't want to raise your kids around a bunch of illiterate criminal drug users.

Scott Scheule writes:

"I'm currently 300 pages into book five, so any counter-examples in the final 700 pages impugn my forecasting, not my memory."

Yeah, I'm pretty sure in one of the last chapters Martin says something like, "BTW, anyone attempting to link the bastardy of Jon Snow with the treatment of illegal immigrants is clearly reaching. Such a person could probably stare at the contents of his medicine cabinet in the morning and by afternoon have created a parable teaching that the exclusionary behavior of the shaving cream towards the toothpaste implies those who want immigration laws enforced are crypto-racists."

Then follows twenty pages describing a banquet, at the end of which Dany is still not in Westeros.

Spoilers above...

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Merriam-Webster's definition of exile: (1)(a) the state or a period of forced absence from one's country or home; (1)(b) the state or a period of voluntary absence from one's country or home [emphasis added].

Illegal aliens are only "exiles" from their own countries. Indeed, if exile is so bad, Americans could do illegal aliens a favor by repatriating them!

(Caplan often (mis-)uses the highly-emotional term "exile," perhaps because it might distract readers from weaknesses in his logical arguments?)

Other people have pointed out that, apart from the purely-fictional matter of bastardy in "Game of Thrones," in history the stigmatization of bastards was one way societies tried to discourage childbearing out of wedlock (for very sound social and economic reasons--heck, even today illegitimacy is nearly the strongest predictor of welfare dependency in the US). It's a classic problem in ex-ante deterrence by ex-post sanctions. Few people wish their own children to be despised, so despising bastards discourages their production.*

To the extent (and contra Caplan I do not think it is very great) that people impose social sanctions on illegal aliens such as treating them less warmly ("It did not please her; it was an effort for Catelyn to keep the smile on her face"), what could be more libertarian? Libertarians frequently argue that all sorts of antisocial behavior should be managed, if at all, by shunning or shaming rather than government coercion!

Sadly, social sanctions are insufficient to deter illegal immigration. Caplan airly dismisses "specific complaints" against low-IQ illegal aliens (like, for just one, the fact they steal billions of dollars each year from taxpayers-- per Obama's Treasury Inspector General) but such complaints are not mere window dressing for irrational predudice, much less "misanthropy."

Americans who want to preserve their standard of living and that of their children and grandchildren are not misanthropes, they are normal human beings. People who want to drown advanced societies under a flood of low-IQ migrants may not be misanthropes either, but they sure seem odd (Caplan often cites Michael Clemens for the proposition that mass migration would instantly "double world GDP," even though Clemens' actual estimate is a 20-60% gain at the cost of moving 3/7 of world population and quadrupling the populations of all advanced countries, supposedly without disturbing those countries' "institutions." I find it astonishing that PhD economists neglect declining marginal returns).


*And not despising them does the opposite. Sometimes people ask, "why do we punish criminals so harshly? After all, imprisoning a murderer won't bring his victim back to life, it just deprives the murderer's children of their own father!" The answer, of course, is that deterring crime requires harsh punishment; the expected value of the punishment (harshness times probability of imposition) must exceed the expected value (to the criminal) of the crime. Softhearted failure to impose punishment amounts to softheaded failure to deter.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Bastards in Martin's world are normally unlikely to receive any inheritance. And frequently, they live in poor and desperate circumstances. In Martin's world these bastards are likely to grow up without an appreciation of family or the importance of working together or sharing. So, bastards do not share the values of most families, either of the lords or the merchant class. That is one reason they are looked down on.
I'm rather surprised that none of the comments discussed the fact that most of the royals in Game of Thrones have arranged marriages. Arranged marriages are actually pretty common in human history, but they are extremely important in Martin's world as they provide a means of assuring political alliances and reducing risk of war. But they do increase the probability that men will have illegitimate children.
Regarding illegal immigrants, many Americans mistakenly believe that the illegal immigrants do not share our values. In a few cases, they don't. But I see a lot of latinos out walking to work on Saturday and Sundays mornings when people who were lucky enough to be born here are just sleeping in. I think I share more values with these illegals than I do with the people who are sleeping in.

Foobarista writes:

In low-trust, family-centric societies, bastards aren't trusted since they have no obvious family identification. They're completely free agents, both in good and bad senses, with no family honor to maintain and no family allies.

If family ties are required for effective business (as they still are in much of the world), bastards start with a massive disadvantage.

Aaron Zierman writes:

@ Mike P

You stated:

"Everyone is for legal immigration and against illegal immigration. It's just that some people want less illegal immigration through greater enforcement and other people want less illegal immigration through fewer restrictions."

I would argue with "everyone" being for this. Some want there to be no real barrier (open borders), while others want severely limited legal immigration while attempting to end illegal immigration. This is why I said most rather than everyone. Personally, I'm for fewer restrictions and greater enforcement.

You also asked:

"Just to clarify: You would hold a fugitive slave in lower standing than a slave that was freed legally?"

I really don't think we can equate slavery with immigration. But I will attempt to turn the question on it's head: If you were a slave, would you rather be freed through a change in law or by escaping and being on the run?

I'm guessing immigrants would prefer to be here legally through a simplified process than to be here illegally and fearful of being caught.

Andrew writes:

What is the point of this post? Are immigration-restrictionists such as Thomas Sowell and Steve Sailer going to read your post and say to themselves, "By golly, Caplan's right, I have been anti-immigration this whole time due to an irrational hatred of immigrants! Thanks for opening my eyes Bryan!" Really?

Scott writes:

Most of the objections to the illegal immigrant analogy take the form of "Immigrants are more likely to be a drain on the welfare system," or "Immigrants are more likely to steal, murder and rape." Regardless of whether these arguments are true or not, they do not touch on the issue Bryan raised.

Assuming that, for example, illegal immigrants are indeed more likely to be a drain on the welfare system than native born Americans, meeting someone and learning that they are an illegal immigrant still should not significantly change your feeling towards them. If you know that they support themselves then they are no drain on the welfare system then they do not deserve your hatred on this count. If they leech off the welfare system then they are no different to native-born Americans who do so. Your opinion should not change either way.

Now it might be the case that you do not know whether or not they are a drain on the welfare system and the fact that they are an illegal immigrant may be used to make an educated guess. We all make this kind of inferrence to some extent - talking slightly louder to elderly strangers, crossing the street to avoid a group of 'urban youths' but walking right by a gaggle of middle aged, middle class people, suggesting a romantic comedy to a woman we are about to go on a blind date with. But we do not and should not form firm opinions of people on the basis of such indicators. It would be wrong to hate a black stranger as if he were a criminal just because African Americans are statistically more likely to be criminals than other races.

That does not mean that we ought to open our borders. But it might mean that a lot of the opposition to open or more open borders is predicated on an irrational hatred as opposed to disinterested consideration of policy.

Finch writes:

> I have been anti-immigration this whole time due
> to an irrational hatred of immigrants!

When Bryan last asked people whether they found his immigration arguments convincing, most people seem to have stuck with opinions they had prior to reading Bryan, but there were some converts. So while it might not be the best strategy, calling immigration restrictionists jerks, rejecting a citizenist or self-interest frame on a philosophical basis, and refusing to be drawn into quantitative detail seems to work for some people.

Sailer recruits some people into the pro-immigrant camp purely because they find his arguments distasteful and they want to be on the opposite side. Bryan is helping that along when he writes things like this. He's effectively saying "Look how distasteful Sailer is!" And that works, even if he doesn't engage in directly rebutting Sailer's arguments. So if Bryan has a political goal, and isn't so much interested in the discourse, this sort of writing has a purpose. He knows he's never going to convince Sailer, but he might get some people on the fence.

And in fairness, not all Bryan's writing on the topic is like this. He does try to engage in a high-level moral argument (basically that your obligation to help strangers from Mexico a lot is greater than your obligation to help strangers from Michigan a little), and he sometimes refers to others who have at least attempted numerical arguments. tGoCP above refers to Clemens, which is Bryan's primary citation on the matter, at least in blog postings.

Troy Camplin writes:

I think misanthropy is much more widespread than just with illegal immigrants:

http://zatavu.blogspot.com/2013/06/a-few-observations-on-misanthropy.html

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