Bryan Caplan’s latest post at Econlog draws a damning portrait of John, the political activist, who neglects his family to pursue his activism.
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.
And Caplan goes on to persuasively argue that we should apply this same line of thinking to those who would like to leave their war-torn, or impoverished, or politically oppressive countries and come to the United States–rather than arguing that they should stay home and try to fix it. (Bryan doesn’t mention it, but you could make the same argument about moving your kids out of failing school and into a more successful one.)
It’s a great blogpost, and well worth your time, and it caught my attention because Charles Dickens explored this same kind of “political activist who neglects the family” character in his novel Bleak House. Mrs. Jellyby “is a lady of very remarkable strength of character who devotes herself entirely to the public. She has devoted herself to an extensive variety of public subjects, at various times, and is at present (until something else attracts her) devoted to the subject of Africa; with a view to the general cultivation of the coffee berry — and the natives — and the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population.”
She is also a mother who does not notice when her children fall down the stairs, get their heads stuck in railings, or are hungry, dirty, and unloved.
Dickens doesn’t use his neglectful activist as a way to critique immigration policy, but as a way to critique the British Empire–so focused on the “White Man’s Burden” that it neglects the poor within its borders.
But the message is the same. Political activism is a luxury good.