Bryan Caplan  

Drowning Redheads is Wrong Even Though Water is Wet

A Private Non-Subsidized U.S. ... Why So High? Economics and th...
Suppose we lived in a society split between the following intellectual package deals:

Package #1: Water is wet, so we should drown redheads.

Package #2: Water isn't wet, so we shouldn't drown redheads.

What would happen if a lone voice of common sense emerged to say, "Water is wet, but we shouldn't drown redheads"?  No doubt he'd be attacked from both sides.  Believers in Package #1 would shake their heads and say, "Once you admit that water is wet, you'd have to be a fool to oppose the drowning of redheads."  Believers in Package #2 would say, "Once you admit we shouldn't drown redheads, how can you continue to maintain that water is wet?"  Believers in Package #2 might even accuse you of being a troll: "You're feigning sympathy for redheads in order to lure us into the absurd view that water is wet."

This scenario captures the way I felt when Noah Smith tweeted:
When challenged to explain his suspicions, Noah added:
I see where Noah's coming from.  Our society is split between the following intellectual package deals:

Package #1: IQ is real, so we should exclude immigrants with below-average IQ.

Package #2: IQ is fake, so we shouldn't exclude immigrants with below-average IQ.

When I talk about ("harp on") IQ research, then, my support for open borders is understandably hard for Package #2 folks to take at face value.  At the same time, my support for open borders makes it hard for Package #1 folks to believe that I genuinely grasp the realities of IQ.

As I've argued repeatedly, though, both popular packages are silly - scarcely better than the imaginary packages about the wetness of water and the drowning of redheads.  In particular:

1. You don't need an above-average IQ to be a valuable member of society. See here, here, and here for starters.

2. Even if you aren't a valuable member of society, Third World exile is not a morally permissible response.  See here, here, and here for starters.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

COMMENTS (33 to date)
Noah Yetter writes:

[Comment removed for being ad hominem. Email the webmaster at to request restoring your comment priviledges. --Econlib Ed.]

Daublin writes:

Based on your title, I thought of global warming. Just because CO2 is a greenhouse gas doesn't mean we should all drive $50k electric cars. There are many fallacious steps in between those two claims, but try saying that electric cars are scam and see what people ask you.

Vipul Naik writes:

That's a reasonable explanation from your point of view. At the same time, it's probably true that Noah Smith genuinely doesn't believe the analogous statement to "water is wet" in the context of IQ -- for instance, he may believe that IQ is a fictitious construct. Coming from the angle that he does, therefore, it might seem that you're embracing false antecedents and the only legitimate reason you might be doing that is to push anti-migration conclusions.

Vipul Naik writes:

That said, I think he's being overly uncharitable -- even if he believes you are mistaken about your beliefs in IQ, it's a leap to go from there to believing that you are articulating these beliefs for the explicit goal of opposing migration, particularly when you're such a vociferous supporter of open borders.

LemmusLemmus writes:

A point often made by Steven Pinker. For example:

"Anyone who takes an honest interest in science has to be prepared for the facts on a given issue to come out either way. And that makes it essential that we not hold the ideals of feminism hostage to the latest findings from the lab or field. Otherwise, if the findings come out as showing a sex difference, one would either have to say, "I guess sex discrimination wasn't so bad after all," or else furiously suppress or distort the findings so as to preserve the ideal. The truth cannot be sexist. Whatever the facts turn out to be, they should not be taken to compromise the core of feminism."


Pajser writes:

If USA pays to Tanzanian medical doctor to leave his hundred of thousands patients treated for dangerous diseases, malaria, cholera ... and start making plastic surgeries in LA, it will marginally help US silicone breasts consumers, marginally harm others US doctors, significantly help to that single Tanzanian medical doctor and cause premature death of tens of thousands of poor Tanzanians.

Floccina writes:

I go one further and say, yes immigrants might have significant negative effects, but letting them immigrate is still the right thing to do. If people think that 2nd and 3rd generation Mexican Americans will fall into crime and relative poverty here in the USA they should try to convince would be Mexicans immigrant to stay in Mexico. Tell them, you are better off to stay in Mexico.

Floccina writes:

@Pajser your pretty sure of that eh? It is not so hard to train people to give vaccinations or meds. I am not so sure that the MD sending money home would not out weigh the effect of one less MD see below.

the doctors' strike in Saskatchewan lasted 23 days and gained worldwide attention. While the doctors agreed to maintain emergency services and the provincial hospitals remained open with reduced staff, most private practitioners closed their offices. Ironically, the mortality rate in the province declined during the strike, primarily because of the decline in surgery.
RAND Health Insurance experiment. In late 1970s, U.S. Government created a randomized experiment. Previously people had looked at correlations with health--exercise, sleep, wealth, diet, pollution--but you don't see a correlation with medicine! Puzzle. True in both developed and undeveloped countries. Can be criticized for not controlling for enough things. RAND experiment was to test overall. 7000 random people in many cities, let half the people get free medicine and half had to pay full price. Those who had to pay didn't take as much--so far as expected, demand curves slope down. Health care demand is relatively inelastic--that is, relatively unresponsive to price. Dropping full price to 0 resulted in a 40% increase in quantity. Did the people who got more medicine get any healthier? You'd think it would make a difference. But maybe people who got it free mostly just used that free aspect for trivial things like the sniffles or a twisted ankle. Turned out that comparing the extra care people got when it was free to the care bought at full price, doctor evaluations were the same. Looked afterwards at the case and evaluated appropriateness (failed 1/4 of the time), severity of diagnosis--same percentages in both halves of the population. That is, both groups went in for medical care for the same mix of things, same severity levels, and got the same care. Bottom line: quality of health care wasn't any different by any standard. One qualifier was eye glasses. People in the "free" group got free dental and eye care as well. Those who got free glasses could see better--no surprise. If you count that as medicine, then more medicine is correlated with improved health. But if you take glasses out of the sample, there was no effect. How did they measure effect? Previous studies looked at death rates. RAND study looked at 25 measures such as blood pressure, other overall measures. Treated children and the elderly separately. No tangible measure of health showed that amount of medical care had any impact. Inconsistent with previous correlation experiments that had apparently shown that countries or states that spent more on health care had healthier citizens.

[html revised. Too much blue, eh? -- Econlib Ed. ]

Tiago writes:


I think the analogy holds. Package 2 is exactly "IQ is fake, so we shouldn't exclude immigrants with below-average IQ."

What I find weak about Noah's point is that Bryan's sincerity should not matter. He isn't asking us to trust him, he is presenting arguments which should be attacked or supported on their own.

Now if Noah had showed that open borders would produce terrible welfare consequences over and over again and Bryan insisted on defending it, bringing up his motives might be a way to explain how an otherwise intelligent person insisted on obviously bad policies.

But I don't think Noah has ever done that (I follow his blog, but it may have escaped me). What I'm pretty sure is that he has not showed that it is an outrageous policy from the point of view of the world.

[comment edited with commenter's permission.--Econlib Ed.]

blighter writes:

Two questions on that:

1) On "exile to the third world", let's say we have open borders. And then in a little corner of it, a small group separates themselves and creates a set of laws/cultural beliefs/whatever that allow them to create dramatically more wealth and much higher living standards for themselves. Have they then exiled the rest of the world to a lower-standard hellhole?

I know, you're probably thinking why would they keep their marvelous invention to themselves? Why not let the rest of the world join in? What if they're not keeping it a secret but rather their success requires things that much of the world lacks -- not natural resources but particular human capabilities? What if it's perfectly easy to replicate what they're doing but it requires a sufficient amount of intelligence/capacity for delayed gratification/lack of interpersonal aggression/whatever to maintain it long enough to reap the benefits and most of the world simply doesn't have the requisite attributes?

This leads to the second question:

2) What if all of the wonderful benefits of the first world require a sufficient IQ not of everyone but of a large-enough segment of the population? What if having a country in which, say, a third of the population has a decently high IQ can sustain a modern economy indefinitely but having a country in which only 5% of the population meets the same bar results in collapse back to malthusian disaster -- the disaster that the third world is currently "exiled" to and in which all of humanity lived up until very, very recently in our history?

What if having open borders means that the vast majority who lack -- through no fault of their own, mind! Life's not fair! -- the capacity to maintain modern civilization if they are too much of the population flood into those few areas that have set up modern civilization and collapse it? Does ethical living mean that we must never have any group smaller than "all of humanity" develop any higher standards of living if maintaining those standards means excluding anyone?

That doesn't strike you as monstrous & stupid? Condemning everyone to live at the lowest common denominator rather than allowing progress through segregation? Segregation is so terrible that it mustn't be allowed even at the cost of all progress?

Now, I know you think the lands currently housing modern economies are magic such that if the populations on them were completely & instantly replaced with populations who have never developed or meaningfully participated in modern economies, those lands would thrive and prosper just as they had before but the idea that geographies could have such power seems outlandishly untrue on its face.

Michael Kolczynski writes:

My car cannot even take an IQ test. Yet I value its labor. And I prefer to drive it to work instead of a horse that might be able to count to twelve.

I've heard a lot of standards-based immigration requirement arguments. Already having an employment opportunity is one of them. I've never heard a proposed minimum IQ before. This is new to me.

Foseti writes:

Great story. Presumably then, you can think of one first world country filled with people of below average IQs (Rhodesia, comes to mind, but I'm guessing that's not where you're headed). Otherwise, of course, the story just condemns everyone to third world exile. Obviously, a morally superior position!

MingoV writes:

Inundating the USA with tens of millions of poor, uneducated, non-English language speaking, unskilled people is a recipe for disaster. If you don't want them to be third world exiles, then spend your efforts bringing their nations to second world or first world standards of living. We're better off fighting kleptocracies than trying to remove the people ruled by the kleptocrats.

I'd be more impressed if the people saying that water is wet weren't holding containers of gasoline.

In other words, even if the advocates for an opinion have both theoretical and empirical reasons for their conclusions, when an earlier generation of people with similar theories turned out to be wrong and when some of the most fervent advocates for the claims are would-be totalitarians, it makes sense to be skeptical.

But enough about global warming...

Benjamin Swan writes:

Not really fond of the water and redheads analogy as it is essentially a non sequitur...I would be a little more charitable the IQ argument than that. Better would be: "Redheaded babies are (are not) more likely to grow up to be criminals; therefore, we should (shouldn't) drown them".

That being said, I think the IQ argument against immigration (or for IQ based restrictions) has a number of weaknesses. (as a side note, I would argue that observed "racial" differences in IQ are really developmental and cultural differences...look to adoption studies, the fact that northern blacks tested as well or better than southern whites during WWII, etc)

1) Is the immigration of those with below average IQ (as a realistic percentage of total immigration) a net harm to the US & its economy? As Dr. Caplan pointed out, one does not have to be high, or even average, IQ to contribute to society. If this was such a concern, than certainly the burgeoning industrial cities of the Midwest and Southern California should have fought off attempts by low IQ southerners to move there. Similarly, the development of the whole US surely must have been retarded in the 19th and 20th centuries by letting all those Irish and southern Europeans in.

2) If there is net harm, is it actually substantial? Calling to mind the argument concerning immigrants lowering native wages, I would give far more weight to the tremendous gains for the newcomers than I would to the slight potential losses for natives.

James writes:

Noah Smith seems to make a regular habit of questioning the motives of libertarians. This time, Bryan Caplan is presumed to be running a false flag operation in campaigning for open borders. Previously he has suggested that libertarians only oppose big government because they don't want any organization in society powerful enough to stop bullies.

If I were into doubting the sincerity of those with whom I disagree, I'd say that Noah does this out of convenience; By ignoring the beliefs which libertarians state, he can avoid dealing with those beliefs as debatable propositions to be decided by a body of evidence which he knows is far from decisively on his side. Attacking motives is just easier and leaves less uncertainty.

But I'd rather assume Noah is sincere when he attributes insincerity to libertarians. Maybe he is equally as skeptical of the motives of progressives but he keeps that to himself. Maybe he has better reasons which he has yet to share for doubting the sincerity of libertarians.

Pajser writes:

    Floccina, assumption that —(1) in reasonable health system there is a causal relation between number of doctors and life expectancy & quality and (2) diminishing returns — is enough to conclude that doctors are more useful in Tanzania than in USA. Maybe replacement of some physicians with less educated stuff can cause little harm in countries with many doctors. In Tanzania, it is already done; there are few regular doctors relatively to other medical stuff so quantity and quality of the service suffers. Some hospitals are without single regular medical doctor. That is the reason I use example of Tanzania. Hypothetical emigrants will send money to Tanzania — to their families, not to health system. The effects on whole economy cannot be large. If all (~1000) Tanzanian physicians move to USA and send average remittance, $1500 for developing countries, it is negligible total of 1.5 millions dollars, 0.002% of Tanzanian GDP.

Christopher Chang writes:

The obvious question for Noah Smith to ask himself is, would he still support open borders if he was confident Caplan was right about IQ?

My own opinion is that Caplan's "moral reasoning" is utterly bizarre since it depends on the absence of better alternatives to mass low-skill immigration for improving the welfare of people in the Third World, when the success of such alternatives (trade, foreign direct investment, technology transfer...) is arguably the most important economic event of the last half-century. Taking for granted a moral imperative to help the foreign poor, the empirical evidence is overwhelming that "exporting prosperity, not importing poverty" is an efficient way to meet it, and given limited political capital, it can even be massively harmful to push for a policy mix with too much unpopular immigration and too little still-unpopular-but-less-so trade/outsourcing. As I pointed out recently, even the revealed preferences of bloggers back up this claim: not a single one of them has cared to work with non-hellhole countries with citizens friendly to border liberalization, even though the "double world GDP" story they profess belief in asserts that it's a source of abundant opportunities for them to profit while doing good, it improves life for the separated employer-worker pairs they claim to care about by expanding the selection of good places for them to work together, and they've done other things (e.g. write entire books) which don't require much less effort.

With that said, I am sympathetic to the cause of building a world where many countries *voluntarily* choose open borders, and I hope a future generation of altruists more intellectually serious than Caplan and the folks currently are can make it happen.

John Becker writes:

IQ does not seem like a useful predictor of whether someone will be valuable to society. A better predictor is probably the ability to delay gratification as shown in the famous marshmellow experiment. I'm sure everyone here has known people with incredible intelligence who underachieved because they were slaves to instant gratification. Intelligence-assuming IQ tests are an accurate measure-is unimportant compared to this.

I respectfully think Professor Caplan is overemphasizing the importance of IQ, marriage, and schooling. I believe that these are correlation while the ability to delay gratification is causation.

DrC writes:

These sorts of logical failures are inherent in any political system in which two parties vie for supremacy. Each party will form a coalition of different groups, many of which hold views that are logically incompatible with the views of other allied groups.

Even dumb people feel compelled to rationalize their views, so when they form an alliance with another group they end up making these logical leaps of faith that just don't follow from the facts.

Republicans typically unite the pro-war and pro-life groups. Pro-life groups call abortion murder and clearly murder is wrong. War leads to murder so Republicans have to rationalize their pro-war stance by arguing that the countries the US plans to invade are on the verge of developing nuclear weapons and using them against us. Killing is not murder if done in self-defense so the two views have been successfully rationalized.

Democrats typically unite the health conscious and supporters of socialized medicine. The health conscious want longer life expectancy. Countries with more socialized healthcare systems have longer life expectancies than the US so Democrats assume causation and leave it at that. However, a careful examination reveals that the US healthcare system is better at saving lives from cancer, heart disease, etc. than every other healthcare system. Our lower life expectancy is due to factors outside of the purview of the healthcare system.

gene marsh writes:

Cheap labor. Open borders and low IQ's. Cheap labor.

isomorphismes writes:

Very nice Bryan.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Pajser, if there is enough incentive to train one individual to provide medical services and that individual leaves, why are those incentives not enough to train another? Or say after open borders, 50% are leaving, why are the remaining incentives not enough to lead to a training of twice the number to leave the same number working locally? Also, might the higher possible rewards of working abroad actually lead to higher numbers of medical trainees? If doctors were no longer allowed to leave the country might that reduce the number of trainees? I guess there are many possible stories but typically the road to wealth is through liberty rather than restriction.

James writes:


In an open borders world, you could still hire people to forcibly return any expatriated Tanzanian doctors. You wouldn't get to force others to fund your program and people might judge such behavior as being immoral if you did it, as opposed to when a government does it. But unless you object for some other reason, your issue isn't with open borders.

Whether you are right about Tanzanians doctors, I'm sure you could find cases where allowing people to leave their country of origin would make the world worse, rather than better. Are you saying the existence of such examples supports a nearly 100% closed borders policy? History provides examples where people advocating for non-libertarian ideas made the world worse, rather than better too.

DougT writes:

What constitutes a "Third World" country? Income? Economic freedom? Rule of law? Some definitions might be helpful before we start discussing "Third World exile."

Pajser writes:

    Simon Cranshaw, there are enough incentives for studying medicine in Tanzania. The most important reason for shortage of physicians is capacity of the educational system. Education of physician is long and expensive. Second most important reason is migration which is already high.

    James, if someone hires people to forcibly return Tanzanian doctors from wealthy countries, he will break freedom of association of those Tanzanian doctors and wealthy countries. I advocate that wealthy countries (individuals, institutions) exercise their freedom of association, and do not associate if it causes more total harm than good. I advocate united world as goal (open borders as sub-goal) but it doesn't override other concerns. Open borders are not the root of the problem. However, sudden opening of the borders of wealthy countries aggravates it. There are many degrees in between open and closed borders and there is little need to insist on single uniform decision for all cases.

ray writes:

Let us suppose for a moment that IQ is a good predictor of whether a person will be a net value to those around him, and below a certain point his net value would be negative. Why would we expect that point to be average-intelligence?

Bryan, my guess is that you believe that point to be significantly below average intelligence, and that this belief informs your views about immigration.

James writes:


Does your comment on 1/18 at 12:57 have any implication for immigration policy?

Pajser writes:

James, I think it should have implication for immigration policy. That immigration policy should be decided on the case by case basis, and that wealthy countries should think not only on good of their citizens (as advocates of closed borders do) and potential immigrants (as advocates of open borders do), but also on those who stay in the poor countries. All that should be taken in consideration.

TallDave writes:

A "burden on society" isn't someone who produces less than average; it's someone who consumes more than he produces.

The inverse of the income inequality fallacy that implicitly argues the existence a Steve Jobs makes everyone's life worse.

In any case redheads cannot be blamed for succumbing to dihydrogen monoxide as it is well-established as the deadliest chemical on Earth, industry claims otherwise notwithstanding. Please support the various petitions banning this toxic substance!

TallDave writes:

Pajser -- the scenario is unrealistic as there is little overlap in training for those medical services. Cholera and malaria mortality are much more effectively addressed through improved provision of basic services.

blighter -- That tends to be a function of institutions, and the distinctions tend to turn on matters of incentive. The future Independent Republic of Greater Texas, faced with large disparities in prospects for income at all its borders, could mitigate unproductive immigration simply by modifying welfare provisions -- and leave its borders wide open.

Pajser writes:

TallDave, what is unrealistic? That doctors are more useful in Tanzania than in USA? Most certainly they are. Or that number of deaths 10000 is unrealistic? I don't know. Pick your number. Point will likely stay the same.

TallDave writes:

Pajser -- Plastic surgery is very specialized, Tanzanian doctors are not going to transition from their cholera treatment practices to tuckpointing Beverly Hills socialites without years of training.

And again, Tanzania's lack of basic services is a much bigger public health problem than the lack of doctors. Scarce funds should be allocated most effectively.

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