Bryan Caplan  

I'm Too Busy Fighting Tyranny to Feed My Family

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Self-Harm is a Luxury... Keynesian confirmation bias...
Suppose your Facebook friend, John, is a political junkie.  Every day, he floods your Newsfeed with the latest political news and op-eds.  He provides play-by-play coverage of protests and rallies around the globe.  He travels hundreds of miles every week to personally attend these events.  In virtually every case, you agree with John.  If we all listened to John, you're sure the world would be a far better place. 

After a while, though, you start to wonder about John.  How does he hold down a job?  You soon discover that John lost his job years ago - and hasn't bothered to find another.  Anytime John gets a little money, he spends it on bus tickets, computer upgrades, and other activist paraphernalia.  As a result, his children are hungry and ragged.  When criticized, John angrily responds, "I'm too busy fighting tyranny to feed my family."

I think you'll agree that John is a terrible human being.  Why?  Because his priorities are demented.  Political activism is a luxury.  Before you engage in this luxury, you must satisfy your basic responsibilities to provide for yourself and your family. 

Now if John's activism had a high probability of drastically changing the world for the better, his behavior might be defensible.  Maybe it was OK for von Stauffenberg to endanger the lives of his five children to overthrow Hitler and end World War II.  But if John is merely a run-of-the-mill political junkie, one voice out of millions, letting his children go hungry for the cause is inexcusable. 

Why bring this up?  When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, "They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!"  In other words, my critics are admonishing the global poor to heed the example of John the feckless activist.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids.  Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches.  Noble?  No more than John.  The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

The case against activism is even stronger if, as usual, the activist is deeply confused.  Knowing that your country's policies are awful doesn't magically tell you how to improve them.  In the real world, activists who successfully "stand up to tyranny" often end up making bad situations worse.  Indeed, triumphant activists routinely give new meaning to the word "tyranny."  See Lenin, Hitler, and Mao for starters.

When critics of immigration urge desperately poor people to stay home and fix their political systems, they're doubly obtuse.  Not only are they urging people to neglect their basic responsibilities in favor of the luxury of political activism.  They're urging people who know virtually nothing about policy or politics to "get involved" - and quite possibly make their countries even worse. 

What should humble people born into Third World misery do?  Stay the course.  Do your best to provide for your family.  Keep trying to escape to the First World and get the best job you can.  Remember that activism is a luxury if you know what you're talking about - and a pestilence if you don't.  The people who follow this advice aren't just fulfilling their basic responsibilities.  They're doing far more to improve their homelands than the vast majority of political junkies ever will.



COMMENTS (34 to date)
chris writes:

One of my favorite posts. Thanks Bryan.

BLM4L writes:

I read the whole post expecting a Marx reference that never came. How can you pass up mentioning the most infamous "liberation first, family basic needs second" ideologue of all time?

Christopher Chang writes:

Well, at least it's an attempt to address the argument. But it's a bit off the mark--I don't know many people who blame Third World folks who don't yet know how to build and maintain high-functioning political and economic systems to take the best incremental opportunities available to them.

It's the responsibility of folks in the First World to figure out how many opportunities of this sort they can afford to grant without damaging their own systems, and coordinate among themselves to grant those opportunities in a fairly efficient manner. For example, the US could change its policy to be more similar to Australia and Canada's--both of them manage higher overall immigration levels with less public opposition, by effectively enforcing restrictions against types of immigration not perceived to benefit existing citizens.

There would be a moral problem here in an alternate universe where the entire First World was not willing to grant enough opportunities to enable Third World countries to develop. But the economic history of the past 65 years, especially that of China and other East Asian countries, provides very strong evidence that we do not live in such a universe; the historical level of immigration from East Asia, if extended to the rest of the world, does not exceed the number of poor-country immigration slots First World citizens are willing to voluntarily grant.

Note that this is not a general argument against open borders; it is merely an argument (and as far as I can tell, a practically irrefutable one) against the notion that universal open borders is an immediate moral obligation and should be imposed against the wishes of First World citizens. As a second-generation nonwhite immigrant myself, I support efforts to reduce racial divisions and liberalize migration restrictions in a sustainable fashion.

Enial Cattesi writes:

People who argue for those potential immigrants to stay home and fix their political system don't understand the nature of politics.

It is interesting that Franz Openheimer identified two ways to acquire wealth: economical and political. Politics is aggression. A broken political system means a clique in power far more violent than, lets way, the US government. And before saying that the US government isn't violent, at least toward his citizens, make the following experiment: don't pay a tax, or be late with one. Or better yet, look funny at a policeman.

Jameson writes:

Great post, I love the analogy.

However, it doesn't seem to address the argument that I seem to find more often, which is that high-skilled immigrants should stay home *to help their nation's economy/well-being.* For instance, people bring up doctors a lot: third-world doctors shouldn't come to the 1st world and practice because there are so many people in their own country who need treatment. The political activism part doesn't seem as common an argument.

Nick Rowe writes:

I'm having an evil thought.

Wouldn't imperialism be a better solution? Do people in the third world want to move to the US because they like the scenery in the US, or because they like the legal-economic-political system in the US? If it's the latter, should you move the US to the people, rather than vice versa?

What is a "country" anyway? Is it an area of land, a group of people, or a legal-economic-political system? And can you change one without changing the other two? Which ones can you change?

Thomas Sewell writes:

Shhh...... Nick, next you'll be committing the heresy of considering if "colonialism" was better for the countries colonized than they've had it after they kicked those legal systems and foreigners out of their country.

Down that road leads to madness...

Jon Murphy writes:

@Nick Rowe

Wouldn't imperialism be a better solution? Do people in the third world want to move to the US because they like the scenery in the US, or because they like the legal-economic-political system in the US? If it's the latter, should you move the US to the people, rather than vice versa?

I realize you are being a bit tongue-in-cheek but there are two main problems with this:

1) It imposes the style of the colonizer on those who want it and don't want it. With immigration, those who want the institutions can go to the country that offers them.

2) As my history teacher used to say "The Constitution doesn't always follow the flag." Just because an area is colonized doesn't mean the institutions will follow (or that they will apply equally to all citizens).

Jon Murphy writes:

Revolutions have always been a single man's game.

AS writes:

Bryan, your argument can win on fewer assumptions. Even if one does have a high chance of fixing their political system and can feed their family at the same time, he's not obligated to do so. We all have the right to exit.

Imagine you were working for a failing company. You're underpaid and the management is inept. You can either switch firms or try to stay and fix things. Most likely, you'll just do whatever is in your self interest, and no one expects any more.

What seems selfish is actually more altruistic than what seems altruistic. By leaving the failing system and joining the successful system, the failing one will eventually wither and die while the success will bloom. Evolution is beautiful. Yet again, the invisible hand guides self-interested action to benefit society.

Christopher Chang writes:

I should clarify that "the notion that universal open borders is an immediate moral obligation and should be imposed against the wishes of First World citizens" is worth refuting, despite looking like an absurd strawman, because that's enough to invalidate a remarkably large chunk of Caplan's writing. In particular, his use of statements like "Third World exile is not a morally permissible response", as well as most of his other moral harangues, prove too much, and a lot of people automatically reject the more sane things he has to say because they notice him overreaching in this manner too often.

@Jameson: US official policy of making it easier for foreign students to attend graduate/professional school if they don't express "intent to immigrate" is an interesting attempt at maximizing long-term outcomes for all parties. I admit that I thought this type of restriction was ridiculous when I first heard about it, but the US university system's capacity to educate smart foreigners does plausibly exceed the country's overall ability to assimilate them, and explicitly accounting for this may naturally increase the probability of "enough" doctors, etc. returning to the home country. (It's still not clear to me that the law is a net positive, for a number of reasons.)

In the unfortunate case where mutually beneficial immigration results in the home country being drained of essential expertise, improving home country pay and conditions for those who do return may be an efficient charity target.

@Nick Rowe: imperialism may or may not be a good solution in a crappy alternate universe where economic development was impossible without the White Man's continuing direct overlordship. Fortunately, we don't appear to live in such a universe. A combination of mutually voluntary arrangements like trade, charity, and perhaps charter cities in the future appears to strictly dominate imperialism.

Pajser writes:

Good post. Caplan is right about political activist if he is typical first world citizen; the argument is valid - lot of activism provide little public good over simple voting and very occasional activism. (Although, devoted political activist typically succeed to provide enough goods for their families.)

Citizens of the first world usually neglect another moral obligation; if they perceive their country (or regime only) as criminal, they should leave the country. For instance, the citizens of Nazi Germany, if they were not Nazis, had moral obligation to leave.

If immigrants are utilitarian machines, in typical cases, they'd stay at home. Clearly, most of them are predominately selfish. They should be judged against some "acceptable selfishness," not against utilitarian machine ideal. For most of immigrants, their decision is probably in the range of "acceptable selfishness."

But citizens of the first world have not that privilege. They are objective and they understand that Tanzanian doctor is more useful in Tanzania than assisting during plastic surgeries in USA.


Vivian Darkbloom writes:

1. It is not clear to me if your Haitian immigrant example would be a legal immigrant or an illegal one. Does that matter at all to you in your ordering of priorities? Does one have an obligation to obey the law (even those you may disagree with)?

2. What would you say to someone who argued that the Haitian immigrant (illegal or not) is likely to be a net burden to US taxpayers? If Jacques is shining shoes I doubt he is contributing much to US GDP or the tax base (or, for that matter, to his kids in Haiti). But, if he gets sick... That critic might argue that Jacques is not an immediate threat to *his* children's ability to be fed, but is there an obligation on the critic's part to ensure the best future for *his* children?

3. Is Jacques doing his kids a favor by not being in their lives (your example posits they are in Haiti)? Is his obligation to be with them and the non-material good he would thereby do for them greater than his desire to provide them with financial support from afar? I realize this is a stylized example (that's one of the problems because is seems designed to prove *your* point) but Jacques may not even be doing the financially smart thing (two households to support on a shoe-shining job?).

4. Suppose Jacques is an illegal immigrant. Shall we then criticize him for taking time off his shoe shining job (and indirectly the support of his children) to attend pro-immigration protests?

5. I've always thought that the reality facing illegal immigrants from our Southern border was very well portrayed in this Ry Cooder/John Hiatt song "Across the Borderline", although I think this Willie DeVille version is one of this best:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3AC8XONKoGQ

Like the road to hell, the road across the border is paved with good intentions, but...

I don't have the answer to this, but I think these are questions to ponder.

Richard Besserer writes:

All I'd add is that even when the emigres get involved in the politics of the old country, they can cause more problems than they solve if they aren't well informed.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland, much of it financed in North America, is an example of what I have in mind.

Bill Kaplan (spelled the correct way) writes:

This is an important insight that has consequences that are unexplored. I was talking with a cab driver -- my best sources for economic insights -- who was from Punjab on the Pakistan side. I asked why Punjabis in Pakistan had not been radicalized for the most part. "We are too busy working," he said. Similarly, Russian Marxists found little support from the lowest socio-economic rung in society precisely because self-indulgence is a luxury.

Aaron Zierman writes:

@Pasjer

You've mentioned the Tanzanian doctor before. I am wondering if, in your opinion, it matters what the Tanzanian doctor wants. What is best for him? Does he have the freedom to decide?

Following your logic (if I am not mistaken), shouldn't we force American doctors to go and work in third world countries, where they can work for a "greater good"?

John Strong writes:

Brilliant.

Jeff writes:
Why bring this up? When I point out that would-be immigrants are trying to save themselves and their families from hellish Third World conditions, my critics often respond, "They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!" In other words, my critics are admonishing the global poor to heed the example of John the feckless activist.

Thus, suppose Jacques the desperate Haitian father has an opportunity to escape to Miami, where he can shine shoes and send money home to feed his kids. Instead, he chooses to let his kids go hungry so he stays in Port-au-Prince and fights tyranny with political leaflets and soapbox speeches. Noble? No more than John. The righteous man knows that meeting his family responsibilities is more important than playing Don Quixote.

If Jacques the desperate Haitian's only way to provide for his family is to leave them and work in a different country which is not all the enamored of having him there, one has to ask whether he should have had kids in the first place. If you're willing to tell American adults they should not have kids they can't support financially, and I'd assume you would, should Jacque the Haitian get a pass? If John the political junkie is irresponsible for being too distracted to support his children, don't Jacque's lack of economic prospects makes him an irresponsible father, too? You can make the case that, well, supporting a family in the U.S. isn't difficult given it's first world economy, and so anybody who fails to do so is deserving of condemnation than someone from a 3rd world country where economic opportunities are limited to a small elite. That is fair enough, I suppose, to some extent, but let's consider that the total fertility rate for Haiti for 2005-2010 was 3.55, so more than half of Haitian women are having 4 children or in some cases, more. Given the dire condition of Haiti's economy and its environment, that seems pretty unwise.

My intuition says simply (and I could be wrong here) that the set of traits and behaviors that make first world lower class people with kids on the dole worthy of condemnation is the same set of traits that make third worlders...well, third worlders. In other words, a lot of what separates first world countries from third world countries is the relative frequency of traits like irresponsibility in the population at large. First world countries have relatively low frequencies and third world countries relatively high. This is not the whole story, but it certainly is part of it. Open borders regimes certainly have the effect of reducing poverty somewhat for the migrants, but the long term effect is likely to be that you make the first world look more like the third world in both fact and appearance by altering the character of its population.

"Don't let them vote" "don't give them government benefits" or whatever, as a solution isn't going to cut it for more than a generation or so at most.

Paul Morel writes:

Congratulations for a really well-thought-out and persuasive post!

Robert H writes:

What if John died fighting for the resistance in the Warsaw uprising, or after being struck by a police officer during one of gandhi's peaceful protests, or fighting for the union in the civil war? Isn't volunteering to go into danger and then dying, all for the sake of a political cause, the ultimate in shortchanging your family for politics? Is everyone who has ever done it a terrible human being?

I think You are ignoring the difference between political activism in a democracy, done in service of enacting preferred policy, and political activism in a tyranny, done in service of winning fundamental human rights. People tend to treat the latter as moral regardless of personal or familial cost.

So yeah, the "emigre communities that have lived in prosperous and functional societies are a rescource that help the struggle at home" argument is much stronger than the "no poor person should fight for his freedom ever" argument.

Pajser writes:

Aaron Zierman, yes, I repeat same arguments more less all the time. Will of Tanzanian doctors matters a lot. They have the right to leave Tanzania. If Tanzania prohibits emigration of Tanzanian physician, it would break their freedom of association. But if USA doesn't allow immigration of Tanzanian physician, it doesn't break their freedom of association. Instead, USA exercises its own freedom of association.

I can imagine situation that justify forcing medical doctors to treat patients as "lesser evil". It must be emergency case, and less violent methods should be tried earlier. If USA want to help Tanzania, it has number of less violent, and sufficiently effective methods to try before forcing medical doctors could be justified.

Tom Dougherty writes:

Imagine you have a friend named Cryan. He spends a lot of his time and energy writing about an issue that has an almost zero percent chance of being enacted into law. Meanwhile, kids (not his own, but that doesn’t matter) are starving. Cryan could devote the time and energy spent on advocating this losing issue to earn additional money to send to these starving kids, but instead he wastes his time on this issue. Cryan says that he is too busy fighting the tyranny of government to feed these kids. Is Cryan immoral for spending his time on this issue rather than using the time to earn additional money to send to starving children?

Hazel Meade writes:

I suspect that the only reason John is your facebook friend is because collecting facebook friends and using Facebook to harangue them about his political opinions is part of his activism.

I am sure we have all met people like this.
They are them same people who have a lot of bumper stickers on their cars.

Daublin writes:

Outstanding. I particularly like your motto that activism is a luxury.

An example from a few years ago is the people that attended the 99% rally in Washington. For the most part, these people were not responsible or particularly admirable. They were unemployed, but apparently had independent funding anyway, and it sounds like they had an awful lot of fun.

These weren't freedom fighters making a sacrifice for the greater good of the world. They were youngsters having a good time.

MingoV writes:
"They ought to stay home and try to fix their broken political systems!"
Helping the people in DictatorLand to install a better government would be better than helping millions of DictatorLand residents emigrate here.

The cost of aiding a revolution will be less (we already have sunk capital costs in our massive military) than the cost of accepting millions of emigrants, and everyone in DictatorLand will be better off, not just those with the resources to emigrate.

Boch writes:

Except that not all political 'junkies' have families, nor is it required for anyone to have such responsibilities. Activism therefore, is not a luxury except to those who have familial responsibilities. If everyone had a family and no one did anything else but provide for their families...then there would never be any progress, just consumption. Some have to forgo this responsibility in a healthy society, in order to dedicate their time to the 'luxuries' that the average person cannot afford to spend their time on.

Steve Sailer writes:

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

Henri Hein writes:

Tom Dougherty:

Almost a good point, but you forget that one is obligated to feed one's own kids. One is not obligated to feed other people's kids.

LD Bottorff writes:

Excellent post, Professor Caplan.

Robert H.
I wonder if you and I read the same post. I didn't hear Bryan advocate that we should never risk our lives for a cause; only that we should not expect people in poor countries to put "correcting" the situation in their country ahead of feeding their families - unless they have a very good chance of enacting positive change.
Bryan did not even link to his case for practical pacifism - a position that I do not agree with but that does teach this practical lesson: every fight comes with a cost and it is incumbent on the fighter to ensure that the harm he is causing by fighting is not worse than the tyranny he hopes to destroy.

Tom Dougherty writes:

Henri Hein,

The case against open borders in a nutshell, “[O]ne is obligated to feed one's own kids. One is not obligated to feed other people's kids.”

Robert H. writes:

LD Bottorff

Caplan doesn't say we can't expect people with families to fight for change unless they have a good chance at succeeding, he specifically says that them doing so be immoral. Or, at the very least, that it is demented to engage in likely-unsuccessful political activism that risks your family. Yo:

"I think you'll agree that John is a terrible human being. Why? Because his priorities are demented. Political activism is a luxury. Before you engage in this luxury, you must satisfy your basic responsibilities to provide for yourself and your family."

So, yeah. If a family man in 1936 Germany walked to a park every day to protest the Nazis, and his inevitable arrest hurt his family, under Caplan's logic he would be demented and significantly less moral than people keeping their head down and ignoring the regime. After all, his priorities are backward: family before the luxury of hopeless activism. I posit that that is wrong -- in a good enough cause, hopeless activism against tyrants is often noble, even if costly.

You're right, though, that it's totally unnecessary to his argument for Caplan to go as far as he does. All he need show is that it's wrong to force people to engage in costly, hopeless political activism. "It may be heroic for you to suffer for the cause, but I shouldn't force you to, especially when I'm not willing to myself" is a clearly right position. That's why it is so weird that he argues that it's not just wrong to force people to take daring stands against tyranny, it's wrong to take them.

Like I said, he's conflated political activism in the West, which is mostly about policy preferences, for political activism in countries where it is about something much more fundamental: the rights and dignity of the protestors.

Brian Martens writes:

What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

Though the example given by Caplan is fairly obvious to denounce, there are cases where exuberance takes hold for good reasons.

Ross Levatter writes:

Tom Dougherty fails to grasp a very basic distinction:

He says: "The case against open borders in a nutshell, '[O]ne is obligated to feed one's own kids. One is not obligated to feed other people's kids.'"

But there is a difference between not being obligated to feed other people's kids and being obligated to not forcibly prevent other people from peacefully feeding their own kids.

I am not obligated to feed your children, but if I forcibly prevented you from peacefully working to feed your children I would be committing a great moral wrong. And this would remain true even if by forcibly preventing you from feeding your children I made it marginally easier for me to feed my own children, even though I'm morally required to feed my own children.

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think Jameson had it right. Those that argue for immigrants to stay in their own country to fix it are generally arguing for the educated to help out their own country economically. They aren't arguing that these folks should stay in their country to be activists. Bryan is fighting a straw man.

Having said that, I do agree with two things Bryan seems to be implying that don't argue against straw men:
1) That immigrants don't have the obligation to stay where they are born if they can help their own country. As someone said above, that would imply that all doctors and probably all professionals have an obligation to work in third world countries because they are needed there.
2) Many people seem to think that political activism is the most important thing people can do. I think activism is well down the list of important activities, below supporting ones family, helpful to friends and family, emotionally supportive to family, keeping up one's house, and just trying to be happy.

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