Bryan Caplan  

The Ultimate Incivility

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I've long believed that human beings are overly touchy.  Many actively look for excuses to take offense.  This excess negativity isn't just unpleasant.  Due to the scarcity of attention and patience, unreasonable offense frequently crowds out reasonable offense.  It's no coincidence that straining gnats positively correlates with swallowing camels.

Rather than bemoan our loss of perspective, I'd like to rebalance the scales of offense.  My two central maxims:

First, remain calm when someone questions people's ideas or behavior.  After all, maybe their ideas are false, and maybe their behavior is wrong. 

Second, take offense when someone questions people's presence or existence.  When you complain about a person's being around irrespective of their behavior, you go too far.  Think of Braveheart's King Longshanks sneering, "The problem with Scotland... is that it's full of Scots!"

Do our contemporaries really cross this line?  All the time.  When my kids book came out, plenty of folks remarked, "Well, some people should be having fewer kids."  They weren't joking, and offered no constructive criticism of their fellow men.  Instead, they dreamed of a world where some living, breathing children had never been born.  That is not cool.

The same goes, of course, for mainstream conversations about immigration.  Sure, people enumerate specific complaints about foreigners' ideas and behavior.  But the goal is not to change foreigners' minds or reform their behavior - hence near-universal apathy for keyhole solutions.  The goal, rather, is to rationalize deportation and exclusion of foreigners, regardless of how they comport themselves.

An old adage urges us to "Hate the sin but love the sinner."  My standards of civility are much less demanding but follow the same format.  Getting rid of bad ideas and bad behavior is a worthy goal.  Trying to get rid of people themselves, however, is the ultimate incivility.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Pseu writes:

Equating "preferring some people were not alive" with "preferring some people hadn't come here" is rather stealing a rhetorical base, isn't it?

Brian writes:

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell" -Ed Abbey

All the developed nations are already badly overpopulated. "Well, some people should be having fewer kids," doesn't mean that we want kids to die; it means that we're having more than we have space for.

Rob writes:
All the developed nations are already badly overpopulated.

That's just not true.

But Bryan Caplan misses that some people

a) see being born as a harm at least under certain circumstances, which makes opposition to natalism coherent and sensible, and

b) correctly see the birth of some people as having negative externalities on nonconsenting others (same for some types of immigration).

Lastly, there are entire demographics who have made their identity so linked to certain ideas and behavior that Caplan's distinction dissolves: I wish there were no religious fundamentalists on this planet. Now what? Are you going to deprogram them? Good luck with that project.

john hare writes:

People without the financial means to keep kids alive (send money to save these starving children) should have fewer children. Also people that will not or can not raise children properly should have fewer children.

I think it is quite legitimate to have the opinion that a family with 10 kids, of which 3 starved, and the rest are unable to function in society should have had fewer children. Insinuating that everyone should have as many children as possible regardless, is irresponsible.

Handle writes:

This is a somewhat ironic statement coming from someone who (1) admits - indeed brags about the fact that - he prefers to live in a bubble, (2) and who earns his living in an institution with highly selective admissions, and (3) complains about the nature of most of the students in his classes and admits he wishes they weren't there because they bring down the overall quality of discourse.

All three of these demonstrate some desire to keep undesirable types away from oneself instead of embark on any ameliorative campaign, even in the latter circumstance in which one has the most power and opportunity to potentially reform students who are behaving badly.

People have a common-sense expectation of certain amounts of social frictions above a critical mass of immigration, especially since many interactions in contemporary society are between strangers, which rely on a minimal level of common cultural ground to be pleasant and effortless, and this should have a certain amount of presumptive respect from someone who extolls common sense.

They therefore feel entitled to have some reasonable amount of say regarding changes in the composition of their communities when it comes to these frictions, especially because they believe the behavioral issues are irremediable at low cost, and they know that complaining about them publicly is taboo because it is wrongly associated with animus against particular population groups.

NZ writes:

@john hare:

I think the scenario of kids starving is extreme, at least in this part of the world. Instead what usually happens is that the whole family is "on the dole", programmed with all the entitlement mentality, permanent helplessness, and weird shame-pride that comes with it.

To the general point, though, I don't see why I should take offense even if someone questions people's presence or existence. Taking offense in general doesn't seem productive. If I hear someone question people's presence of existence, I have the following options (sometimes a combination of multiple of these):

  1. Agree with them
  2. Disagree but understand the personal reasons why they'd say that
  3. Disagree but understand the subconscious/evolutionary reasons why they'd say that
  4. Disagree and be dumbfounded why they'd say that
  5. Disagree and see their saying that as a clear indication of a real imminent threat against those people's immediate well-being (i.e. a threat of violence)

Only in scenario #5 would I feel anything close to "offended" but really it wouldn't be a feeling so much as an opportunity to decide whether to act or to not act to stop them (and there could still be plenty of good reasons to not act).

Being offended is really very pointless. What are you going to do with being offended? Where are you going to take that? What will come of it except another note added to the cacophony of whining and whinging we already have to deal with?

Bostonian writes:

Some recent articles, for example "The Recession's Baby Bust" in the Atlantic, have discussed the negative impact of the recession on fertility. People will have fewer children when they cannot afford to have them. Therefore I oppose expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and other financial benefits for the poor, especially those that scale with the number of children they have, because that encourages the wrong people to have more children. I don't think that makes me a monster.

Jeff writes:
When you complain about a person's being around irrespective of their behavior, you go too far. Think of Braveheart's King Longshanks sneering, "The problem with Scotland... is that it's full of Scots!"

Do our contemporaries really cross this line? All the time. When my kids book came out, plenty of folks remarked, "Well, some people should be having fewer kids." They weren't joking, and offered no constructive criticism of their fellow men. Instead, they dreamed of a world where some living, breathing children had never been born. That is not cool.

I don't see any constructive criticism you're making here, either. "That's not cool" is not an argument. What is "cool?" Isn't "cool" basically a synonym for socially desirable? So you're condemning your critics for exhibiting an insufficient level of social desirability bias when expressing the idea, which seems pretty benign, banal, and rather sensible, actually, if you ask me, that they'd prefer a world (or maybe just a nation) populated with fewer but higher quality humans than our present one. I find this to be no small irony, given what an iconoclast you style yourself as.

LD Bottorff writes:

Isn't the most obvious indication of hatred the belief that someone else doesn't have a right to exist?

To the point of having a large number of children, it is not unreasonable to expect people to react negatively when they have been told explicitly and by example that responsible people limit themselves to one or two children. You are right to be offended, but you certainly shouldn't be surprised.

john hare writes:

As far as I can tell we are mostly in agreement. I was responding to Brians' being offended when it is suggested that some people should have less kids.

My take on most situations is not to take action for being offended, but to fail to take certain actions. I will fail to patronize a store, or fail to hire an employee, if it is in my best interest to do so. The store can find other customers and the prospective employee another job. I am offended without recourse when a dole family looks dead into the camera and declares that we are supposed to care for their ten kids as we do our own two.

Delmar Jackson writes:

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Hugh writes:
First, remain calm when someone questions people's ideas or behavior.
Second, take offense when someone questions people's presence or existence

So, if I object to an illegal immigrant's illegal behavior that's OK, as long as I don't object to his presence.

The strawmen in these posts are so many that they are beginning to constitute a real fire hazard.

MamaLiberty writes:

Here is a set of simple ideas that can lead to real solutions...

Everyone mind their own business. Associate with whom you please, and leave everyone else alone to do the same. Why do people believe they must have an opinion on everything other folks do and say - let alone the authority to control others?

Own your life, and take full responsibility for it - and expect everyone else to do the same. Give charity to whom you please, and do not assume that anyone else will be obligated to support you or your children.

Defend yourself against any who aggress, including those who demand that you be robbed to support others against your will.

Life is not "fair." Bad things happen all the time. Utopia is not an option.

Zippy writes:

What if people who behave in a certain way are unable or unwilling to change their behavior?

Suppose there are some people genetically lower in intelligence, and this group also has very short time horizons. On average, these people will have more difficulty in complying with social norms.

One way to reduce anti-social behavior within a particular geographical area is to bar people like to engage in it from that area. If you disagree with this idea, I suggest you invite homeless people or Third World immigrants to camp out in the hall of George Mason University. Or even your own living room.

I also find it an interesting coincidence that your standards of civility just happen to coincide with your policy preferences. And they have the effect of ruling critics out-of-bounds.

Mass writes:

I'd like to see a more basic civility: basic rights to Asians and Europeans in Africa. President Obama's father was a big proponent of government ethnic confiscation from Asians and Europeans in Kenya like the ethnic confiscations in Uganda, Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent South Africa. As a proponent of beneficial mass immigrations, maybe mass immigrating poor Asians into sub-saharan African countries would be a net benefit for all parties involved. Mass immigration of Africans into Europe seems to be a very win-lose proposition, particularly with all the affirmative action and racial politics that accompany that.

Matthew Dunnyveg writes:

Mr. Caplan, this country is a republic, which is derived from two Latin words--res, meaning thing, and publica, meaning citizens. So, this country belongs to its citizens--not to liberals alone, and certainly not to the immigrants. Accordingly, we have the same right to keep the unwanted out of our country as we do our own homes--and for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons at all.

If you really believe you are right, you can set the example by opening up your own home to anybody who cares to move in, and allow them to take whatever they want. Until these things happen, I want America to be a gated community.

John T. Kennedy writes:


""Well, some people should be having fewer kids."

This doesn't seem *that* far from you saying people should finish high school and secured full time employment before having kids. If someone neglects to do those things and has a kid anyway then it would seem to follow they've then had one more kid than they should have.

Mitchell Young writes:

I wonder if the good professor has ever served on a graduate student admissions board. Did he ever exclude any candidate from being at his institution?

I wonder if I wandered into one of the professor's lectures, started asking question (i.e. taking up a valuable resource -- time) , demanding he evaluate my papers, despite my not being matriculated in his course or even his university, would he try to convince me to 'change my behavior'? Or would he call security?

Floccina writes:

David Friedman gives a great talk on population where he talks about people adding up all the negative externalites and ignoring all the positives. He is quite convincing and it is apropos to the comments above.

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