Bryan Caplan  

The Undermotivated Apostate: Two Post-Libertarian Case Studies

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Political irrationality is ubiquitous.  Most people irrationally cling to their political views; most of the rest irrationally revise their political views.  This includes, of course, my fellow libertarians.  I know plenty of unreasonable libertarians, but I also know plenty of "post-libertarians" who changed their minds for reasons no reasonable libertarian would accept. 

Let's consider two case studies of libertarian apostasy I've seen first-hand.

1. Anti-immigration. 

While there are plenty of thoughtful criticisms of fully open borders, libertarian apostates usually just latch onto a mainstream complaint: It's bad for low-skilled Americans, or "You can't have open borders and a welfare state," or "Immigrants will vote to turn the U.S. into a banana republic."  You'd expect them to go through several layers of argument: "I know the standard libertarian reply, but that's incorrect because..."  And you'd expect them to endorse the mildest restrictions required to address their concerns.  But they almost never do.  When libertarians turn against immigration, most become anti-immigration by normal standards, which is very anti-immigration indeed.

Some libertarians have even left me speechless with, "I believed in open borders until I realized that culture matters."  I could say, "So until recently, you believed that culture didn't matter?"  But what's the point?  Culture obviously matters.  Every libertarian I've met admits it.  In fact, libertarians routinely discuss the need to change our culture in a libertarian direction.  So how could the banal "insight" that "Culture matters" possibly lead a reasonable libertarian to rethink anything?

2. Pro-welfare-state.

Libertarians have a standard list of objections to the welfare state.  Some - like opposition to universal programs and concern about disincentives - are very strong.  But the radical objections are much more debatable.  I can easily see someone with libertarian sympathies reluctantly and cautiously advocating a small welfare state.

But when libertarians change their minds, they usually go much further.  Indeed, most apostates seem to love the welfare state.  Before long, they're praising the wonders of Scandinavia, home of massive universal programs - and the massive taxes required to fund such programs.  Isn't it great how Sweden provides a comprehensive safety net, so everyone feels secure?  It's almost like the apostates have forgotten - or never knew - the standard libertarian arguments about the disincentives of the welfare state and the wastefulness of universal redistribution.

Of course, these generalizations don't apply to all post-libertarians; I disagree with Will Wilkinson's defense of the welfare state, but at least he's trying to meet his burden of proof.  But the typical libertarian apostate is as intellectually disappointing as a former socialist who self-congratulates, "But then I learned that incentives matter."  In both cases, I have to say: Your "realization" is well-known to every reasonable proponent of the view you've abandoned.  Though I've often criticized people for their inability to fairly explain their opponents' views, it's far worse if you can't fairly explain views that were once your own.

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Anonymous Bosch writes:

One argument that I don't often see addressed formally, but which applies to both apostasies, is the sort of pragmatism that seems inherently grasped by politicians but rarely fleshed out in an academic setting. The bones of an argument would go something like this:

1. A radically libertarian program which leads to high (relative poverty / ethnic diversity) and lacking even rudimentary (safety net programs / immigration controls) will be extremely unpopular with many.

2. This unpopularity will inexorably lead to a mass reactionary movement seeking the instantiation of a government which will probably address these concerns by doing a lot of (marxist / fascist) stuff.

3. Attempting to directly repress such sentiment by, e.g., moving away from democracy before moving towards libertarianism would ultimately result in a government more invasive than one which simply buys off enough of the populace with minimal (safety net / immigration) laws.

pyroseed13 writes:

"So how could the banal "insight" that "Culture matters" possibly lead a reasonable libertarian to rethink anything?"

Well I think the point here is that open borders is inconsistent with wanting a more libertarian society. If we just had unlimited immigration, this is going to entail letting a lot of people into your political community that don't share your values. Of course, the reasonable solution to this is to have controlled immigration, or perhaps even a more selective process, so that we give newcomers time to assimilate and become more like us. But here's the problem: How many open borders libertarians would actually support this? This seems completely reasonable to me, but to even suggest this is to invite cries of "xenophobia."

Dylan writes:


I think you are too quick to dismiss the insights as "banal." Sure, lots of people probably already would agree on some level that incentives or culture matters, but the weight they can give to those items can vary a lot given personal experience. I think it's fair to say that many on the left would agree that incentives matter, but give much less weight to them (especially on the margin) than someone with a more libertarian bent. If that person later decides, for whatever reason, to place more weight on the value of incentives which changes their overall thinking on other issues, I don't think it is incorrect for them to summarize that view as "realizing incentives matter."

There's also the change that can come from lived in experience that can change something from a more superficial acknowledgement to a more fundamental understanding. I'm probably on the superficial side of the "culture matters" view. Sure, I understand it, but on a basic level I kind of think that humans are more alike than not, and generally expect people to want the same kinds of things if they're given the same options. But let's say I spent a year living among Muslim fundamentalists, it's certainly possible I'd come away from that with a different view, or at least a more informed one.

This is one of the reasons I disagree with your approach to living in a bubble. I've found the limited travel I've done and life with people who don't think like I do has changed my thinking on certain topics in ways that I couldn't really get any other way.

David writes:

So the truth inherent in the old saw "You cannot reason people out of a position that they have not been reasoned into" holds for both their initial positions and their revisions to those positions

Luke Edwards writes:

For point (1), stock libertarianism has a shallow analysis of society. It doesn't include culture at all - hewing to the progressive view that people are all more-or-less interchangeable. For example, you hear this in arguments from libertarians that a more populated world will be more innovative. It doesn't matter at all that the billions to be added this century are in the least innovative areas of the world. "Population has no hair", it is just a number, N.

Some exposure to scholars who do talk about culture, like Murray, Haight, or Putnam, is enough to upset the worldview of most libertarians, because it was heretofore completely unaccounted for.

Philo writes:

So your point is that people initially form and then later revise their political views irrationally. And part of the explanation must be that they know that their political views will have no consequences for the kind of polity in which they live (assuming they face big disincentives to emigrating, and so in practice are stuck in their present country), but that they will have significant social implications concerning which groups they can affiliate with and how they come off at cocktail parties and so on. They can't acknowledge the overriding importance of this social relevance, even to themselves, for it would be discreditable and internally disturbing to be flatly insincere in expressing one's political views. So they mimic rational deliberation; but their hearts and minds aren't really in it, so the results are lame.

Phil writes:

"When libertarians turn against immigration, most become anti-immigration by normal standards"

I'm not really sure how to evaluate the truth value of that statement

I'm someone who roughly meets it, at one point I considered myself libertarian, for the most part I still do

yet have also written a disproportionate share of interest work against immigration


I don't actually think I'm especially anti-immigration, more that I'm bothered by how the debate plays out, and that I don't think both sides have had a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas

I don't know, but suspect, that most people who fall into my rough demo (former libertarians, now immigration skeptics), feel fairly similar

Philo writes:

(By the way, the same lame reasoning characterizes people's thinking about philosophy and religion. The best philosophical and theological reasoning is found in criticisms of the arguments of the writer's opponents.)

Hazel Meade writes:


I have a couple of responses to that.
1. While there are some societies out there that might be a cultural threat to libertarian values, I don't think Hispanic culture counts as one. Most of our immigrants come from Hispanic countries. Muslims might be a threat if we got them in the numbers that Europe gets, but we get very small numbers of them, so we can easily absorb the tiny number of Muslim immigrants without significantly changing US culture.

2. Most of the people who object to Hispanic immigration are fine with European immigration, despite the fact that most of Europe is just as socialist and statist as Latin America. If your goal is to prevent the immigration of people with anti-libertarian tendencies, it seems odd to welcome immigration from Russia or France, but not from Mexico.

3. Once you establish ideological litmus tests for immigration, those tests can be used against libertarian beliefs as well as in favor of them. We already theoretically ban communists and terrorists from immigrating, but if you start getting more culturally specific, it's easy to see where this could go badly. You could end up with restrictions that mandate conformity to a narrow "politically correct" worldview, maybe even support for universal healthcare, the welfare state and other principles which libertarians object to. There is no guarentee that the libertarian cultural standard you prefer wouldn't change to something that you would object to very quickly.

Derrick writes:

I would assume that most libertarians would acknowledge that "Culture Matters" to some degree( although I do believe there are some who are of the opinion that liberty is the only virtue and even if a policy denigrates culture but advances liberty it should be allowed). The issue is ultimately the relative weight that an individual would place on the preservation of culture against other values. Certainly, there is room to note that some people evolve in there opinions as they may perceive areas with the highest concentrations of immigrant to be having negative effects on the culture front. For example, one may note California's rise in immigrants and not view these effects as positive or someone could look at the problems with immigrants in Western Europe and wish to avoid those problems here.

We could also note shifts in opinion as the percentage of foreign born has risen from around 7% in 1965 to 13-14% today. Some may look at the 10% rate of around 1990 or so and consider that optimum but consider our current rates past the tipping point. If an individual considers us beyond a tipping point, that might account for pursuing policies beyond the mere mildest restrictions.

pyroseed13 writes:

@Hazel Meade

I largely agree with your comments, but you are leaving out the fact that libertarians don't actually support the status quo. You say we take in small numbers of Muslim immigrants. Correct, but libertarians want unlimited numbers! I would not be in favor of an ideological litmus test, but I think we could screen for people who are more sympathetic to American values in a broader sense (respect for free speech, separation of church and state, etc.). Your argument that any attempt to do this would be unwise implies, again, that we should just have unlimited immigration (unless you think there are other margins on which we should restrict immigration).

R Schadler writes:

"political irrationality is ubiquitous. Most people irrationally cling to their political views; most of the rest irrationally revise their political views."
This premise seems to undermine any "rational" basis for democracy or self-government. The electorate is, presumably, largely irrational and, when it changes its views, does so irrationally. That's at the political level.
Not sure it leaves much room even for individual liberties. Irrational people can't really be competent in pursuit of their own self interest.

Without confidence in deliberation leading toward improved political decisions, it seems other political systems might be just as rational or irrational.

Does not address the accuracy of the premise. Just the implications.

Weir writes:

Unlimited numbers of college graduates. That's got to be a problem. In theory, all these kids become productive additions to society, but in practice you see kids working as lawyers, making society as a whole poorer and worse off. Or they get jobs in compliance, or writing the regulations in the first place, before they leave government for a lobbying job. The culture of the university just spreads and smothers the rest of society.

This culture is kudzu. The Stanford position, officially, is that students should be able to write out, in words, why they care about this or that. But then if a kid thinks explanations are "inherently dehumanizing" Stanford's impressed by that.

Berkeley culture: Setting fire to things. Middlebury culture: Yanking a woman by her hair. Claremont culture: Pounding against the windows. Yale culture: "It is not about creating an intellectual space!" Instead of rational arguments, there's this orgy of rich kids into violence and shouting.

No explanations. No coming up with reasons and arguments. Just force. No engagement with the ideas in those books you would feel "unsafe" about having to dip into first. This is the culture that apparently doesn't matter, actually, because there is no resistance or pushing back. Not from the administrators, also in unlimited numbers. The culture of the university is this unstoppable steamroller.

And this is the culture of the banana republic itself. The ruling class is itself irrational, so what does it matter about the electorate?

Mark ST writes:

>> You can't have open borders and a welfare state

Looks like this became the slogan of otherwise libertarian-minded people who oppose open borders.
(I don't hear the "low-skilled Americans" argument and the "banana republic" argument as much.)

I guess they take the current welfare state as a given?

Instead of asking those otherwise-libertarian-minded people why they are against open borders, we probably should ask them some of the concrete, implementable changes in the current labour and welfare system they would make so that maximum freedom is preserved for everyone involved.

Hazel Meade writes:


I'm actually sympathetic to the idea that we should avoid allowing people who might be a security threat to immigrate. That's not exactly a "cultural exclusion", but you can make an argument that enough people from a specific extreme religious group might become a security threat if they were allowed to immigrate in large numbers. Personally, I would limit it to specific Muslim sects, not a blanket ban on Muslim immigration (which includes groups like the Sufis) though, like Salafi and Wahabbi sects.

But I don't think we're anywhere near enough Muslim immigration that we need to worry about that, so it tends to really obscure the issue.

The objections to Hispanic immigration are (to my mind) almost entirely motivated by economic competition for low-skilled jobs with domestic labor. Some people are honest about that, and some people don't want to admit that because it would conflict with their professed free-market beliefs. So there are what I feel are a lot of disingenuous and rather offensive arguments that attempt to justify restrictions on Hispanic immigration on cultural grounds. They're going to bring their socialism with them, or vote the wrong way, or it's a secret plot by Democrats to deliberately "import" Hispanics, because they are anti-white, because white people are more naturally libertarian. Etc. etc. (It's just depressing to hear people spew this kind of nonsense. )

I think that many libertarians would be fine with certain security related limits on immigration, but that won't satisfy people whose motivation is the fear that Hispanic immigrants are going to take jobs from American born workers. As long as people keep changing the subject to these cultural arguments and talking about Muslims (as if that was a real problem right now) or pretending that Hispanics are a terrible threat to American culture, we're not really going to get there.

pyroseed13 writes:

@Hazel Meade

In general, I think there is a lot of dishonesty and inconsistency from all sides in the immigration. While I don't agree that the liberal desire for more immigration is necessarily a "secret plot," I am pretty confident that if those groups of voters were more likely to vote Republican than Democrat, their position on immigration would change. I also think what drives Republican perception of immigrants is in part the cultural issues but also the general perception of "unfairness" (they receive a lot welfare, some didn't pursue legal means to get here, etc.). Competition for American jobs does come up a lot though (just go read any comment section on an immigration related article). My own skepticism of more low-skilled immigration is driven by cultural concerns, concerns about wage impacts for vulnerable populations, and impacts on public spending.

It is sort of funny, though, when it comes to the economic concerns of immigration, liberals sound a lot like conservatives and conservatives sound a lot like liberals. I mean the National Review recently published an article by Michael Lind for instance on the costs of immigration, who himself is clearly not a conservative. From liberals, they often talk about the impacts of reducing immigration on prices and employment the way conservatives talk about the minimum wage. They even cite business leaders as evidence for why we need more immigration! For me, these inconsistencies suggest that maybe some level of dishonesty is at play...

Thomas writes:

Bryan seems to believe that libertarians are libertarians because they are rational, and is shocked when they express what (to him) are irrational views. I suggest that a large chunk of self-styled libertarians are in fact that way because it suits them temperamentally (i.e., emotionally).

Libertarianism as a culture? Don't make me laugh. Libertarianism is a negation of culture; it dismisses as "oppressive" the social bonds and social norms that enable people to coexist peacefully. It rejects that which is necessary for true liberty. Some libertarians even applaud the use of state power to override civilizing norms that offend their finely tuned sense of "social justice."

Rogelio writes:

I need to cry foul. Last month Bryan linked to a video where he debated Wellman, who is not a shallow apostate, on this topic. I encourage every libertarian and classical liberal to take the time to watch it.

Bryan clearly lost according to the terms of the debate.

Now he goes off against shallow apostates? Well that should certainly be an easier argument.

In my opinion, if every reader of this blog watched the full debate, despite the biases of the readers, Wellman would win according to the rules. I would even bet that the 1470 economists signing the statement in support of immigration would line up more with Wellman. And yeah, I would be willing to bet money on it.

The sophisticated and reasonable moral high ground to this is not on unlimited immigration or highly restricted immigration. It for substantial but not unlimited immigration along with initiatives for institutional change within the countries alienating their population.

This kind of libertarian extremism is what gives libertarians a bad reputation as impractical dreamers. It isn't so different from the idealism of Socialists. Classical liberals need to understand the limitations and conceits of ideogues. And on this issue, Bryan and the unlimited immigration advocates are the ideologues who are spitting in the face of piecemeal social learning and adaptation.

The statement "I believed in open borders until I realized that culture matters." makes just as much or as little sense as "I believed in free speech until I realized that culture matters."

Jonathan Gress-Wright writes:

I'm rethinking some of my beliefs about immigration and the welfare state precisely because I'm realizing just how bad some of the libertarian arguments are. E.g. according to Caplan's article, there is supposedly a moral presumption against immigration controls because it's unfair that Americans get relatively unimpeded rights of entry while Haitians do not. But the fact that Americans have privileged access only appears immoral if you believe that anytime someone has privileged access to a place, that is ipso facto immoral. But is it immoral to give my children unimpeded access to my home while restricting the access of those outside my family? My children might be born in privilege, while there are millions of strangers out there who were raised in poverty and would jump at the chance to move into my nice home. Yet I feel no moral compunction at denying them free access to the house that I wish to reserve to myself and my family alone; indeed, I believe it is natural and moral to prefer my own relatives above others and to provide for them first.

If you think of a nation state as just a kind of extended family, the objections fall away. Caplan's arguments only work if you insist that I should feel no special loyalty to my fellow Americans and to consider Haitians to have just as much right to enter the country as US citizens. But if I think of my fellow citizens as members of a kind of family, then it is only natural that I should wish to reserve the privilege of US residency to them, while denying or restricting that privilege to non-citizens.

Randall writes:

Anti-immigrationists fret about the culture of immigrants, while simultaneously making it difficult for immigrants to assimilate into the host culture, through prejudice and bigotry.
Many of those in the pro-immigration camp also seek to impede assimilation, treating it as the destruction of the immigrants' identities and heritages.

Despite those impediments, immigrants have largely assimilated by the 2nd or 3rd generation. And adopting much of the host culture and identifying as American is at least a desire, if not a major motivation, of a great many immigrants.


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