I'm Too Busy Fighting Tyranny to Feed My Family
By Bryan Caplan
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.