Bryan Caplan  

Misanthropy by Numbers

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Suppose you're a self-doubting misanthrope.  You want to malign a group of people, but don't feel up to the job.  I'm here to help.  If you stick to the following four easy steps, you can and will craft a rhetorically effective case against those who displease you.

Step 1: List as many negatives as possible.  Start by rattling off all of the popular complaints against your chosen group.  Then brainstorm.  Don't bother quantifying your complaints.  Even if you have scary numbers, it's more rhetorically effective to spend your energy lengthening your list than fleshing out details.

Step 2: Studiously ignore all positives - or twist them into negatives.  Listing positives, then refuting them, is more trouble than it's worth.  When you enumerate negatives, most listeners will be too lazy to devise their own objections.  Yet when you enumerate positives, most listeners will be too lazy to follow your objections.  The ideal approach, though, is to twist positives into negatives.  If the maligned group is hard-working, call them "coolies" or "helots."  If they're respectful, call them "slavish" or "docile."  If they're frugal, call them "greedy" or "cheap."  If they raise property values, say "They're making housing unaffordable."  This makes lazy listeners feel like you've covered all your bases, and deprives your opponents of their best arguments.

Step 3: Ignore all remedies other than exclusion, expulsion, and extermination.  Every specific problem has many specific conceivable remedies.  But if you've followed Steps 1 and 2, most listeners will barely remember your specific complaints.  All they'll know is that your target group is awful.  And if a group is sufficiently awful, "getting rid of them" is the obvious one-stop solution.  In relatively civilized countries, this means keeping the maligned out or sending them back where they came from.  In relatively uncivilized countries, this means discouraging the fertility of the maligned, or actually killing them.  (If you don't mind a little cognitive dissonance, you can enslave them instead).

Step 4: Ignore the welfare of the maligned group, or the possibility that the maligned might have valid complaints against you.  If you've followed Steps 1 and 2, listeners will have little sympathy for the maligned group.  Anyone who inquires about the well-being of the maligned will seem "soft on awfulness." Indeed, even the most draconian actions on your part will seem like self-defense.

Warning: These techniques are likely to backfire unless your audience already finds your target group somewhat annoying.  In the modern United States, low-skilled immigrants, Muslims, and Arabs are the only promising candidates.  But don't despair.  In other times and places, misanthropes have used these four steps to malign Jews and Germans, blacks and whites, rich and poor, even intellectuals and illiterates.  Misanthropes who hone their skills and bide their time may yet realize their dreams.

COMMENTS (37 to date)
Various writes:

Bryan, a very edgy and Machiavellian post. I didn't know that such a nice guy as yourself had it in you. I don't know if your objective was to entertain, but nevertheless I enjoyed your post.

Hanako writes:

Yes Bryan you are right. In the US over the last 40 years, 50 million individuals lives were ended before they could even begin. In aggregate they would have contributed and would be still contributing trillions of dollars to the US economy. But don't worry, the government under the Affordable Care Act wants to continue to subsidize the extermination of these potential taxpayers. It may annoy you to think of them, but they represent the greatest waste of American assets ever. Abortion should be taxed, not subsidized. Every life ended had the potential for greatness.

ajb writes:

Sadly, Bryan has gone from defending his arguments to attacking the motives of his opponents -- especially on immigration policy. Didn't Arnold Kling once argue against this sort of post?

How mean honestly, how different is this from all the Lefty PC people who say that those against minimum wage just hate the poor or those who study IQ are just racists? I remember an anthropologist telling me outside of class in college that even if some races were provably prone to violence and bad behavior we should shun those studying this subject because of whom it would support.

nzgsw writes:

As someone who isn't yet convinced by Professor Caplan but wants to be, I find this post to be completely ineffective, mildly offputting, and a bit saddening.

Brad D writes:

I thought this was a bit funny. Now I know where the current administration is getting its playbook. Mr. Carney, play close attention.

Because most people's System 1 is lazy and jumps to conclusions, we never call on System 2 to actually fact check and investigate the truth. It's much easier and quicker to stereotype.

Steve Z writes:

Should we all take this as an opportunity to subtly ad hom our political opponents? Let's see. I hear that this Professor Caplan guy believes that race is correlated with IQ, and that both are real concepts (re: measurable, with predictive validity). He also supports free open immigration. Draw your own conclusions.

In seriousness, though, this post appears to rest on the notion that every political opponent must just be a less-evolved version of the author. "You don't agree with me about a matter of national import? Well, it's okay, I went through a phase of misanthropy as a child, and apparently you are going through it now. Eventually I hope you'll come around." It seems a bit jejune to me, as if Bryan Caplan has a teleological view of the stages of human development where the most evolved stage is current Bryan Caplan. (And I say this as somebody who has been persuaded by Professor Caplan's view that unlimited immigration wouldn't be so bad if coupled with disenfranchisement and lack of entitlements enforced through a constitutional amendment, which may or may not make me evolved enough to judge.)

matt writes:

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matt writes:

I recall a post by Professor Caplan where he claimed that some of us who object to open borders do so because of a fear of living in a racially diverse neighborhood where people don't look like us (of course by "us" I mean white people).

Now I am rather attached to my own neighborhood which coincidentally is filled with nothing but white people (eek!), but it seems to me the main reason citizenists (like myself) object to Professor Caplan's position is quite simple: as American citizens this is our country and it suits us. Misanthropy has nothing do with it.

FredR writes:

But isn't Bryan's style of arguing the mirror-image of this strawman?

Hazel Meade writes:

You are missing the most essential ingredient. Disease metaphors.

Be sure to describe the target group with words like "parasite", "sick", or "cancer". Describe them as rodents or insects, and make certain to imply that associating with them will risk your becoming contaminated with whatever disease they possess. That way, your listeners will be disinclined to interact directly with your target group to find out for themselves what they are like and will be even more dependent on your descriptions of them to form opinions about them. Once you perform this step you can pretty much get away with telling any absurd lies about them you want and won't have to worry about anyone pointing out that they are blatantly wrong.

Jeff writes:
Step 3: Ignore all remedies other than exclusion, expulsion, and extermination. Every specific problem has many specific conceivable remedies.

I have to agree with the commenters above. You have gone Godwin on us without actually mentioning Hitler's name. A stealthy, clever fulfillment of Godwin's Law maybe, but still rather juvenile nonetheless. Nobody on the anti-immigration side of the debate wants to exterminate anybody for God's sake, but string a handful of words together that start with 'ex,' one of which immediately calls to mind the Holocaust, and you've created the Nazi association you wish to use to disparage your opponents. Who is deploying the rhetoric of demonization now, Bryan?

I just want to add that I think you've also studiously ignored the negative externalities that immigration skeptics have mentioned or just brushed them off. I did a quick google search for 'Bryan Caplan Robert Putnam' and didn't really come up with anything. The only Econlog post on the subject seemed to be by Arnold Kling. Perhaps you've addressed this elsewhere and I just didn't dig deeply enough. But your comments recently on the rapid conversion of Detroit from majority white, middle class, 'Arsenal of Democracy' industrial center to majority black, impoverished, post-industrial wasteland seemed pretty darn misanthropic in their own right.

Bostonian writes:


The comments at on Detroit are those of Brad Thun, not Bryan Caplan, who disgrees with him.

Clay writes:

How to be a smug pro-bubble pro-immigration professor:

1) Boast about how you compete fairly against the global population while enjoying one of the top elite jobs of the world that is completely institutionally protected and guaranteed for life.

2) Live mostly in a headspace blogosphere academic bubble. Raise your family and conduct your physical life in a neighborhood and school system of homogeneously well behaved affluent types that is physically separated from dysfunctional culture and populations. Condemn the practical efforts of others to reach the same goal without the privileged professor lifestyle.

3) Condemn peaceful segregation, while gleefully advocating your own self-serving "bubbles". Deny the equivalence of the two.

4) Condemn opponents for lacking stats data to back up their arguments. Dismiss or ignore the stats-backed arguments that they do make. Make most of your own points with qualitiative reasoning rather than stats and data.

Despite this criticism, I am a devout Bryan Caplan admirer. He has a brilliant mind, he's a brilliant philosopher, and highly entertaining. But on a few issues, I think he is wrong, and I'm eager to see this type of issue explored and debated further

Clay writes:

@Bostonian, I reread that link. Bryan was debating Brad, they both made comments on Detroit, and Jeff accurately quoted and responded to Bryan's comments.

@Jeff, I nominate you as the most eloquent dissenting voice for a more full debate with Bryan Caplan.

Jeff writes:

Why thanks, Clay.

I agree, by the way; Bryan has a formidable intellect and potent powers of reasoning. He is refreshingly honest and unpretentious, as well, for an academic. But on immigration issues, these qualities seem to desert him and he thinks and reasons with his heart.

Russ Nelson writes:

These sound more like instructions for the malanthrope than the misanthrope.

johnleemk writes:
Condemn peaceful segregation, while gleefully advocating your own self-serving "bubbles". Deny the equivalence of the two.

I'm not clear on how immigration restrictions are peaceful segregation. Peaceful segregation would be living in a neighbourhood that is free of foreigners. Once the government enforces segregation, I do not see how you can call that peaceful. It is violent towards foreigners, and it is also violent towards citizens who wish to interact with those foreigners.

Consciously living in a space of your choosing is peaceful segregation. Demanding that others live in a space of your choosing and that government enforce this by violence strikes me as something quite different.

guthrie writes:

I hesitate to speak for Bryan, but I can't help myself today...


I disagree with your Godwin assessment. My assertion is that the number of anti-immigration proponents who would seriously favor extermination is greater than zero. He may be pushing the logical extreme, but he's not invoking Godwin.

I also disagree that he's either 'ignored' or 'brushed off' serious arguments against open borders/relaxed immigration. He has taken on the serious challenges to his position head on. Indeed, it was because of his doing so that has brought me around 180 degrees (more or less). If he finds most anti-immigration rhetoric misanthropic, and not worthy of a serious response (if any at all), then it likely is.


Picking at Bryans profession or neighborhood is tired and old. He is likely to hold his opinions regardless of his family or work environment. Take me, for example. I hold many of Bryans same opinions, however I do not have nearly the income he has, nor do I live in nearly as nice of a neighborhood. Explain me.

He clearly does *not* oppose what you call 'peaceful segregation'. In fact, that is why he *advocates* open borders. The freedom to associate cuts both ways.

Also, the segregation at the border of this country is anything but peaceful. Just try getting in w/o a passport. If it were, he would have a diminished intellectual/moral platform.


Lighten up. This post is puckish, and likely only insulting those who have entrenched into their positions. If you notice, Bryan remains light-hearted throughout. May we, here, take a cue from this example.

cimon alexander writes:

When immigrants are failing to integrate, burning cars in the streets and turning your great cities into dangerous areas, don't forget to include their utility in the calculation of the net effects of your immigration policies! After all, they are probably much better off than they were in Baghdad.

It becomes more and more apparent to me that liberalism/libertarianism is not compatible with a sustainable and happy social order.

johnleemk writes:

guthrie, to your point, I am surprised how many people are taking this post as a personal attack on them and/or their arguments. It seems to me that even if you are an exclusionist or restrictionist, you would only find this personally offensive if Bryan's steps #1 (focus more on laundry lists of harms than any meaningful quantification of those harms) and #2 (ignore any possible counter-arguments or find pejorative ways to characterise those counter-arguments) strike you as accurate depictions of your rhetoric. (If you do find that those depictions are accurate, surely it behooves you to consider *why* you tend to use that kind of rhetoric.)

As an open borders advocate, I don't like it when immigration liberals use unquantified brainstorming laundry lists of benefits as a response to restrictionism. Neither do I appreciate the common tendency to downplay some potential negative impacts of immigration. (Bryan may do this occasionally but he is far from the worst offender.) The fact that others who happen to agree with me might also use this rhetorical style doesn't mean that I am the target of this critique, or that I should take this as a personal attack on my rhetoric or my arguments.

nzgsw writes:

I, for one, didn't take it personally. But I also didn't take it as anything resembling an attempt to convince someone who didn't already agree with Professor Caplan.

In general, I find arguments ascribing negative motives to ideological opponents distasteful, and as someone who wants to be convinced by Professor Caplan, I wish he would not engage in them.

Aaron Zierman writes:

Bryan has a point that is largely being missed. These "shotgun" type of arguments are everywhere They are not limited to one side of any argument. Also, they work extremely well.

How can you argue against someone who has just rapidly shotgunned out 17 different ways why they are right and you are wrong? You could try to go back to the start and argue point by point, fully developing your ideas, but that might take you three days just to somewhat explain your side. Meanwhile, those 17 points (which took all of 45 seconds) hit the media because they have strong shock value, the masses hear them, and lacking the incentive to spend three days searching out the truth are at least somewhat moved by these points.

Until they hear the 19 shotgunned points that another opponent fires off... and so we are stuck in never-ending rounds of poorly developed arguments being thrown back and forth.

As for immigration arguments specifically - of course this happens all the time! I'd be shocked if it did not.

Is this effective? Absolutely. Is this good? Absolutely not.

Addison writes:

Bryan, a misanthrope hates ALL humankind. Someone who hates other groups, but not EVERYONE is called a bigot.

Steve Sailer writes:


I understand that it's frustrating to you to constantly lose debates over immigration to people who know more about the subject and have stronger logical reasons for their positions, but this post is just getting embarrassing. As Will Rogers said, the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is: Stop digging.


MingoV writes:

cimon alexander wrote:

It becomes more and more apparent to me that liberalism/libertarianism is not compatible with a sustainable and happy social order.
Libertarianism is great concept that cannot work unless the vast majority of the population truly are libertarians. Libertarianism cannot be imposed on an existing society--how can one impose honesty, fair dealing, a sense of responsibility, self-reliance, and a belief that the best government is the least government? That's why Ayn Rand's John Galt created a small, new society that admitted only libertarians.

Jeff writes:
It seems to me that even if you are an exclusionist or restrictionist, you would only find this personally offensive if Bryan's steps #1 (focus more on laundry lists of harms than any meaningful quantification of those harms) and #2 (ignore any possible counter-arguments or find pejorative ways to characterise those counter-arguments) strike you as accurate depictions of your rhetoric.

I didn't find it personally offensive. I just think Bryan, as I alluded to previously, is guilty of using the same tactics he's deriding.

ajb writes:

This is the second time that Caplan has directly used ad hominem while trying to seem clever. The first was in arguing that Richwine should not have been fired for his views on IQ but his views on immigration. This is the second.

It is odd that the defenders of Caplan's ad hominem now say it is not particularly offensive. Oddly this seems to have been the tactic of those on the left who call out minor statements about violence or force while using such metaphors themselves. I guess offensive statements are always less offensive and more rational when YOUR side uses them.

But this is not irrelevant to the debate over immigration. The more varied the groups you invite and the more powerful in group identity (as with Latinos) the more likely that frictions will increase, often from what are considered innocuous statements by other groups. If one could promote assimilation as the norm -- as was done over 50 years ago -- it would be easier to allow wider immigration.

The more we have affirmative action, welfare states, and multiculturalism, the more problematic low skilled immigrants with protected "tribal" identities become. While Caplan is against many of those other things, he's willing to encourage greater immigration without regard to needed changes on the other issues and no concern for what should be done in the event he is wrong about the consequences for others. That is why his choice of residence is relevant. It is not because of narrow self-interest so much as an indifference to the plight of those who have to live directly with the consequences of low skilled immigration. He is insulated from the negatives to a degree many Americans are not.

Evan_S writes:

I can only speak for myself, but as a former restrictionist, Caplan's arguments (along with those of Walter Block) have converted me to an open borders position. For me, this is just a provisional position, as I would prefer universal abolotition/privitization of "public" property. But if the choice is between open borders and government-managed immigration, I'll take the former all day.

I agree that there are some deontological arguments against open borders, like Hans Hoppe's, that may have some merit. But regarding the economic and consequentialist arguments, I have to agree with Caplan that the ones given are generally very weak and often do conform to the pattern he describes in this post. In fact, many seem to resurrect the long-debunked fallacies of mercantilism (e.g. "We can't trade with poor countries, or else we'll become poor ourselves.")

guthrie writes:


My understanding of 'ad hominem' is that it's an attack on an individual's character (as opposed to their arguments). Who is the individual here? Is he not imagining an extreme example and satirically supplying support for this position? Satire and irony can sting, but it’s not aimed at anyone in-particular here, in my view. Perhaps you could help me understand what you're meaning when you categorize Bryan's statements as 'ad hominem'?

I mentioned before that I was once an opponent of even relaxed immigration (meaning, I suppose, that I was on 'YOUR side' at one point, ajb). Reflecting back, I can say this post might have been offensive to me, but only because I would have identified personally with the positions he is denigrating, and not because he is actually insulting me (or is actually wrong). This is the reason I posted 'lighten up'.

‘The more varied the groups you invite and the more powerful in group identity (as with Latinos) the more likely that frictions will increase.’ Really?

Whereas we promote ‘exportation’ these days, getting back to ‘promoting assimilation’, I’m guessing, would be a welcome change in the ‘right’ direction from Bryan’s perspective. It certainly would be from mine. Would you favor a more relaxed stance on immigration should we return to ‘assimilating’ the immigrants? What would your assimilation program include?

Isn’t it possible that relaxed immigration can be used as a *strategy* to dismantle the welfare state (which, I believe, was suggested by Bryan in an earlier post)?

I doubt very seriously that his ‘concern’ or ‘regard’ for those who might ‘suffer’ from a ‘wrong’ immigration policy is zero. I would suggest that he does have *some* concern there, but his concern is *greater* for those whose lives are currently destitute, but would improve should they be allowed to emigrate here. So, no, I strongly disagree... his residence is of no relevance to this debate. There are plenty of folks, like myself, who are in no position to ‘insulate’ themselves from any adverse, unintended consequences stemming from relaxed immigration. I would welcome the changes and challenges with open arms. Just give me a chance.

ajb writes:

You may welcome the challenges. Others, especially those whose schools and communities are affected, are not unanimous in this regard.

Moreover, Caplan is not even sure that policies supported by the immigrants will not push the US to worse positions. And there is plenty of evidence from Putnam and others that ethnic frictions increase distrust and weaken state capacity.

Finally, Caplan is willing to say that citizens should have no right to restrict entry and he has no respect for "rights" which are not simple property rights. By that same token many socialists think that his property rights were established in an illegitimate way, and that many families could be helped by having him share his wealth with the poor. Yet he would resist that claim strenuously. He openly advocates violating whenever possible current rules on immigration that would allow more to stay. When you treat these disagreements as so morally reprehensible that they justify civil disobedience, don't be surprised if others treat the rights you hold sacred as equally dispensable.

In my view, this is truly ad hominem and arguing in bad faith. He just does it in a more roundabout fashion. He is not making rational arguments, just asserting his values as prime.

ajb writes:

I will just add that if some have come around to Caplan's view on immigration, I will say that Caplan has convinced me to rethink much of my support for market liberalism in general. The mix of naivete and mean-spiritedness I see in Caplan has made me feel that liberals don't understand the social foundations that make liberal capitalism sustainable in practice and not just in theory. I now find that I am willing to bend on market principles a lot more in the interests of maintaining the sorts of societies that I know have worked to promote realistic prosperity in history given the real world demand for nationalism, ethnic affiliation, and community spirit, and not just in the dreams of some anarchist/libertarian/or market utopian.

If I must err, I choose to err on the side of conservative history that promoted the lifestyles I approve of and I'll let academic philosophers decide after the fact why seemingly contradictory elements might or might not mesh with each other.

In that sense, I am grateful that his writing has brought clarity to my views.

Evan_S writes:

"If I must err, I choose to err on the side of conservative history that promoted the lifestyles I approve of"

Does this mean you would have defended slavery in 1850?

cimon alexander writes:

I'm struck by how much the consequentialist arguments for open borders rest on the use of very abstract and simple economic models populated by ideal economic man. It almost falls to the level of "voluntary exchange is always mutually beneficial".

Hard to quantify variables like culture, group cohesion, and ethnic tensions are simply ignored. They don't fit into the model. But they are important pieces of reality as it exists.

Libertarianism has become unmoored from reality as it exists, and so I no longer trust it to make beneficial policy recommendations.

cimon alexander writes:


I have rarely seen someone so clearly state my own minority of a minority views. Do you write anywhere else online? I want a post-libertarian community.

guthrie writes:

There were those who opposed ending segregation on the same grounds. By no means unanimous, but morally questionable at best, nonetheless.

Actually I believe he’s argued that *open borders* (as opposed to ‘policies supported by the immigrants’, whatever that means) will actually *benefit* the US.

I’m not familiar with Putnam, so I’m happy to look into his evidence. My own experience in multiple cosmopolitan cities across the US does not mesh with the idea of ‘ethnic frictions’, but I’m just one guy.

The more correct description of the belief is ‘the State ought not have the right to restrict the voluntary exchange of goods or labor between human beings’. IOW if a person in this country wants to employ a person from France or Israel or Canada or Mexico, and that foreigner wants to work for that employer, the State ought not interfere with this transaction. This is a very different characterization than what you declaim above. And it is the same action of the State which is objected to when wealth or property is coerced from some to give to others. It’s the same objection. There isn’t any ‘gotcha’ there.

Is it more moral to force a person to suffer and die in ignominy or to disobey the laws that force that ignominy on that person, in order for that person to save themselves from said ignominy?

So if you must err, you’d rather be a conservative socialist? Bully for you. If I must err, I choose to err on the side that considers human freedom above all other considerations. Whatever that makes me. And I am grateful that Caplan’s writing has helped to bring clarity for me in this regard as well.

cimon alexander writes:


I support policies that create places where humans can thrive and that can last. That's why I moved away from being an ethical libertarian to an economic libertarian - ethical values contradict each other, and supporting an ethical value absolutely always leads to some distasteful consequences. Ultimately I came to the realization that basing your political philosophy on any sort of ethical absolutism doesn't let you build places that are nice for humans to live in.

But now that I see how naive economic libertarianism is, how it ignores uncomfortable facts that undermines its plans to create good society, I also move away from economic libertarianism.

Ethnic tensions are one of the two main reasons for civil war in world history (conflicts of succession being the other). For a society that doesn't have ethnic tension to import it is sheer madness (like Sweden 20 years ago). I'm not saying that Sweden will have civil war, but Stockholm has gone from the list of the greatest cities in the world to a city that is kind of dangerous where you don't want to walk alone at night. And libertarians view this as a good thing because it maximizes some utility calculation or it fits some absolutist ethical principle.

How far should we take our war on the good things in search of the highest point of some economist's social utility curve?

guthrie writes:

‘I support policies that create places where humans can thrive and that can last’. Bully for you.

‘…ethical values contradict each other, and supporting an ethical value absolutely always leads to some distasteful consequences.’ Can you point out the contradicting ethics in this debate, please? What distasteful consequences? ‘Always’? Really?

What uncomfortable facts are you referring to? ‘Plans…’? Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my understanding of Libertarianism is that it centers on a distinct *lack* of planning, due to the fact that attempting to *plan* an economy or society usually results in coercion. Cf Hayek. You’re speaking past me here.

‘Ethnic tensions are one of the two main reasons for civil war in world history (conflicts of succession being the other)’. I assume you mean ‘aside from the US Revolutionary and US Civil War’, as one had absolutely nothing to do with race, and in the other ‘race’ was only very tangentially involved. And neither had anything to do with ‘succession’. Of course these may be outliers… :)

‘Stockholm… is kind of dangerous where you don't want to walk alone at night. And libertarians view this as a good thing because it maximizes some utility calculation or it fits some absolutist ethical principle.’ This is very uncharitable. I know of no person, libertarian or otherwise, who would view this as a ‘good thing’. I also am unconvinced that you can trace the slide of Stockholm exclusively to ‘importing ethnic tension’ (whatever that is). If you are suggesting that increased immigration into Stockholm is the only reason for the increased danger, then I would challenge you to produce evidence to that effect. Correlation does not equal causation.

‘How far should we take our war on the good things in search of the highest point of some economist’s social utility curve?’ Well, first of all, Libertarians oppose war, so your (again fairly uncharitable) characterization is a non-sequitur to begin with. What do you mean by ‘good things’?

‘I moved away from being an ethical libertarian… I also move away from economic libertarianism.’ Sorry to see you go. My hope is that it’s not because of any misunderstanding.

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