What I Didn't Get to Say to the Workshop Audience
By Bryan Caplan
Sunday’s Writers Workshop left little time to question the panelists, but all of the questions asked were directed at me. After my talk, discussion continued in the hall. Top things left unsaid, or at least unheard by most of the audience:
1. Several audience members asked me variations on, “Don’t Americans have a right to control what kind of country we’re going to have?” My short answer was “Absolutely not.” Longer answer: Even if Americans had this right, they should opt for open borders, because it’s the best policy for Americans and the world.
But I deny that Americans have this collective right. Why? Because it tramples on individuals’ rights to be left alone. When Saudis assert a right to control religion in their country, Americans rightly perceive this as an oppressors’ rationalization for religious persecution. When Americans assert a right to control residence in their country, they are making an Saudi-style claim. Doesn’t it matter that we’re a democracy, not an absolute monarchy? Not really. Saudi religious persecution would be just as wrong if enforced by elected officials.
2. In the hall, someone asked me, “If you’re wrong, do I get my country back?” I could have given a Fargo-esque, “Absolutely. I personally guarantee it.” Instead, I gave the honest answer: no. I added, of course, that the same holds for every major social change. If the internet becomes self-aware and turns humanity’s nuclear weapons against it, you don’t get your country back. If half the country uses its freedom of religion to convert to fundamentalist Islam, you don’t get your country back. If fossil fuel use leads to a runaway global warming, you don’t get your country back. My point: Every policy – including the Precautionary Principle itself – could conceivably destroy us, and there are no meaningful guarantees. The best we can do is hone our numeracy – and remember that disaster forecasts are almost always wrong.
3. Someone else in the hall asked me, “How did you get like this?” I’m an American, born and bred. How can I be so out-of-touch with mainstream America? A fun question; I could talk about it for hours. The quick answer: I was also raised Catholic, but I’m not a Catholic. I reject mainstream Americanism for the same reason I reject Catholicism: Despite their popularity, they seem false to me. Indeed, I think they both contradict common sense and common decency. Don’t “common sense” and “common decency” have to be filtered through some national or religious identity? No. Common sense and common decency are what’s left after you calmly set your ascriptive identity aside.
Where do my distinctive views on immigration come from? My claims about the wonders of open borders come from the empirics. But my readiness to side with immigrants – especially illegal immigrants – against the vast majority of Americans comes from my reflections on the ethical treatment of strangers. When an American family hires a Mexican nanny, I think it rude for other Americans to even express an opinion about it. To criminalize this relationship – as American law does – is a grave injustice. And no one is morally obliged to obey such laws.