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.

 

Print Friendly
 
  • http://badoutcomes.blogspot.com/ Robert H.

    What if John died fighting ifor the resistance n the Warsaw uprising, or after being struck by a police officer during one of gandhi’s peaceful protests, or fighting for the union in the civil war? Isn’t volunteering to go into danger and then dying, all for the sake of a political cause, the ultimate in shortchanging your family for politics? Is everyone who has ever done it a terrible human being?

    I think Caplan is ignoring the difference between political activism in a democracy, done in service of enacting preferred policy, and political activism in a tyranny, done in service of winning fundamental human rights. People tend to treat the latter as moral regardless of personal or familial cost.

    • adrianratnapala

      I am not at all sure about whether doing any of those heroic things is really right for married people. It must depend a lot on the details of the particular situation. I think your instinct to praise it is not because the heroism is always correct, but because it is always the duty of outsiders to praise heroes.

      Rather I say, the pressure to stay at home will come (rightly!) from the home front, from fearful spouses and bewildered children. But there is another side to that ledger, and it is for us strangers who benefit to honour self sacrifice.

  • good_in_theory

    Please, tell me more about how political participation is a luxury fit for people with sufficiently high levels of wealth and income. This is sure to be compelling, and isn’t just a transparent bit of sophistry, built on contrived strawmen and tortured simile. No equivocation here.

    • Sean II

      I don’t think you understand what “luxury” means, when the term is being used by an economist.

      Before wetting your pants about the return of poll taxes and boards of freeholders, you might pause to consider what Caplan actually meant.

      • good_in_theory

        Boooring. Income elasticity of demand greater than 1. But please, tell me some more about what I don’t know about basic economics.

        In any case, neither Caplan nor Skwire are using the term in its economic sense – the propensity to be active is assumed for the purposes of the silly strawmen. Their points don’t have anything to do with a descriptive observation about the proportion of resources individuals devote to political activity given different levels of income. They can’t even be construed as saying political participation *ought* to be a luxury good – the underlying message appears to be that it’s no good at any income.

        There’s really not much to get in either post. It’s some contrived, polemical thought experiments slopped over some gutter sniping about “activists” based on lazy caricatures.

        If Caplan wants to say, “If your kid is starving you should earn some money” he can just say that. If he wants to say, “poor people with kids ought to conform to authority lest they risk upsetting their precarious station,” he can say that too. I mean, he has no problem making an embarrassment of himself for attention, and he’s got a well paid sinecure, so why begrudge him the luxury?

        • Sean II

          Wow. Histrionic is not usually your style. You trying something new for 2014?

          In no particular order: a) Caplan is not telling anyone to conform to authority. Putting activism further down on the list of one’s preferred good is not the same as becoming a conformist. b) You’re ignoring his point about the piss-poor yield of political activism, which is key to the whole argument. c) He pretty clearly was using “luxury good” in its economic sense. d) I’m still not convinced you understand that term as it’s used here. e) Why so hostile? Caplan’s purpose is to defeat the line of anti-immigration argument which says that a poor Mexican’s first duty is to sacrifice his life fighting for a better Mexico. Surely you share that goal with him?

          f) Don’t be a hypocrite. If you had a close friend among the Syrian rebels, wouldn’t you want him to take Caplan’s advice…instead of risking his only life to (maybe) topple Assad, so that 18 months later a fresh dictator can emerge from the ashes of some doomed provisional government?

        • Sean II

          Wow. Histrionic is not usually your style. You trying something new for 2014?

          In no particular order: a) Caplan is not telling anyone to conform to authority. Putting activism further down on the list of one’s preferred good is not the same as becoming a conformist. b) You’re ignoring his point about the piss-poor yield of political activism, which is key to the whole argument. c) He pretty clearly was using “luxury good” in its economic sense. d) I’m still not convinced you understand that term as it’s used here. e) Why so hostile? Caplan’s purpose is to defeat the line of anti-immigration argument which says that a poor Mexican’s first duty is to sacrifice his life fighting for a better Mexico. Surely you share that goal with him?

          f) Don’t be a hypocrite. If you had a close friend among the Syrian rebels, wouldn’t you want him to take Caplan’s advice…instead of risking his only life to (maybe) topple Assad, so that 18 months later a fresh dictator can emerge from the ashes of some doomed provisional government?

  • martinbrock

    If Caplan concludes that political activism is a luxury, I suppose he reaches the wrong conclusion. His analogy seems rather to equate leaving an oppressive state with political activism, and this equation makes perfect sense to me.

    If I’m subject to an oppressive state, I can change my state in one of two ways, by trying to reform the state oppressing me or by withdrawing from it and seeking a better life subject to another state. Both acts are political. Both change the state to which I am subject. Is sacrificing to improve a rotten state more noble than depriving the state of a subject? I don’t think so.

    Of course, withdrawing from a state can also be costly in the short term, but if a person weighing options concludes that withdrawal is less costly than trying to reform an oppressive state, then withdrawal is heroic political activism. Fighting a losing battle is simply foolish.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    I agree that we have a special obligation to those closest to us, but I’m not sure you and B.C. have drawn the correct implications. On similar logic, we might also have a more stringent obligation to our friends, neighbors, and even countrymen than to complete strangers living abroad. This could impinge an unrestricted right to immigrate. FWIW, my thought on this here: http://naturalrightslibertarian.com/2012/08/must-libertarians-be-cosmopolitan/.

    • Mark Rothschild

      Mark, you have correctly identified a rather large ethical problem
      for some left-libertarians: immigration.

      Is restricting who may or may not cross our borders consistent
      with libertarianism?

      My opinion is that not only is immigration control compatible
      with libertarianism, it is inherent, and derived from property rights.

      • John

        That’s ridiculous. You’re infringing the natural right to migrate, and the natural right to engage in commerce, and denying your property rights to rent or sell your property to anyone you choose.

        • Mark Rothschild

          The property in question is that part of the earth called
          the United States of America, which is the personal property of the American people by devise of an inalienable tenancy in common.

          • John

            Right. Because your completely incorrect and arbitrary reinvention of a 200 year old contract that says the opposite of what you think trumps hundreds of thousands of years of natural human rights. GOT IT!

            Got any better argument?

          • Mark Rothschild

            “200 year old contract”? Not sure what you are referring to.

            At issue is the nature of the relationship of the American people to the land. That relationship is (like other human rights) in essence a question of property rights, as I indicated in my post.

          • John

            United States of America? Constitution? 9th Amendment? 10th Amendment?

            In any case, pure possession of land really isn’t truly a libertarian thing. But let’s make believe it is. I have my land, you have yours. What right do you have to tell me I can’t hire someone, or let them live on my land, because they come from another country? If someone wants to come and buy my land, what right does anyone have to tell them they can’t? Simple, they don’t have the right, they only have the power. Corrupt, inappropriate power. For the same arbitrary reason, we could say that every child born must become a citizen through taxation or some form of trial or be kicked out.

            And what if you live in Ohio and it secedes, legally? And the US is okay with it, but now you’re not allowed out. You’re cut off, none of the other states will do anything but shoot you for trespassing. Think that tramples your human rights a bit? I have a relationship with several pieces of land, but they’re not permanent. I’ve moved over and over. Because that’s my natural right. Just as easily, the rest of the world could decide that no American is allowed out of the country. It’s all just arbitrary horseshit that infringes on people’s rights. By the same token, you could say that you have no right to a firearm in the US because…..it just got decided. And no right to self defense. If someone attacks you, you have to take it until government arrives. Because…..that’s the relationship.

          • martinbrock

            If government attacks you, you wait in vain for anyone to arrive, because that’s the relationship.

          • Mark Rothschild

            You wrote, “What right do you have to tell me I can’t hire someone, or let them live on my land, because they come from another country?”

            None, of course. You have the right to hire whomever you please, and you have the right to admit anyone onto your property.

            The forgoing is not incompatible with the exclusive right of the American people to the land. This property right is very much like a tenancy in common, where each owner (American) has an undivided, inalienable,
            equal heritable interest in the property (America).

            Now, the property right in question is not a freehold property right, but a bundle of rights and usufruct that are both precedent to, and a subset of the totality of possible rights. As such, this bundle of rights and usufruct are different and do not compete with your
            property rights.

            The inalienability of this property right is similar to
            other inalienable rights, where the inalienability does not diminish the right. For example, your right to your own life is absolute, but also inalienable.

            For example, it would be is inadmissible to sell yourself into slavery, but this does not diminish your absolute property right in yourself.

          • John

            Yeah….that’s all nice and good, but we stole the land from someone else and forgot to check all that horseshit when we did. You can’t protect your “right” to “American property” without infringing on my rights as an American and everyone else. Exclusive land rights aren’t even remotely libertarian. Discrimination and xenophobia aren’t libertarian. Extreme rationalization to the point of turning logic into bullshit isn’t libertarian. Call it whatever you want – elitisim, xenophobia, classism, but don’t call it libertarian or compatible with libertarianism. You can’t call it public property and then say “let me see your papers”. You can’t call it private property, but decide who qualifies.

          • Mark Rothschild

            You wrote, “Discrimination and xenophobia aren’t
            libertarian.”

            Here you are giving voice to a misconception that
            libertarianism is a philosophy of life. It is not.

            Libertarianism is concerned with the relationship between man and state only. If you want to make claims about the duties of man to man or what anyone should or should not think or feel about other people then you are entitled to do so in the context of moral philosophy or religion, but not in the context of libertarianism.

            I think that you are highlighting another problem. It seems
            to me that many left-libertarians want to incorporate Christian or democratic morality into their libertarianism.

            This is not possible. Now, it is possible to simultaneously hold beliefs about moral duty to your fellow man (e.g. don’t hate or despise him because of his identity group), while at the same time being a libertarian. However, when you conflate the two you pollute both.

          • John

            I am not conflating though i think you are rationalizing nationalism and protectionism for some reason. I am just taking stabs at why. Borders are arbitrary. Human migration is not.

          • Mark Rothschild

            You wrote, “Borders are arbitrary.” I’m not sure what you
            mean by arbitrary. In any case I am not
            advocating or rationalizing any “ism” – only property rights. I am not
            surprised that left-libertarians have a problem with these ideas, but I’m glad
            we were able to have this discussion without rancor.

          • John

            Neither left nor right. Open immigration was the paradigm in America for millenia before the US, and 100 years after. Federal immigration control is unconstitutional. Property rights means that I can sell or rent my property to anyone, for any reason. It means I can hire whomever I want to work on my land or for my business. Government telling me that I cannot is an infringment on my rights and that of the other party. It’s as simple as that. Further, the purpose of the Federal government WAS to protect the people from military invasion, to protect rights and to promote commerce. NOT to put limits on commerce or tell anyone their rights don’t exist based on arbitrary accidents of birth.

          • Mark Rothschild

            John, how would you evaluate the statement that your property is yours only because of accident of birth?

            In any case, it appears to me that you are making a
            legalistic argument. I’m not making an argument based on historical precedent, or legalism. The principle involved has nothing to do with the Constitution or history of millenniums past.

          • John

            Well, my property is mine because I paid for it. Or created it.

            I’m arguing the libertarian position on multiple levels. Borders exist not to keep people in or out, but to define what government has jurisdiction based on historical precedent. But the libertarian argument is that the government has no legitimate power to tell people where they can or cannot live.

          • Mark Rothschild

            I was asking rhetorically, assume that you inherited your property. Do you have a right to it?

            This is one of my arguments about undivided, inalienable,equal, heritable interest in the land.

            If you can understand the land as the personal property of the inhabitants then a lot of moral questions are resolved. The key to understanding this is the idea that real property rights exist in two forms simultaneously.

            I do understand your position. You reject my argument that there are ancillary rights by virtue of occupation of land and that property in land does not have the two aspects I have described.

            I acknowledge that yours is the mainstream libertarian view.

          • John

            I understand the utilitarian nature of group property rightswhen people must band together to fend off raiding parties and invasion, where mass groups would be killed or driven off their land. It’s similar to gang mentality. “protect your turf”. But I don’t see that as a legitimate interest that one would want to promote. It is a reaction to extreme danger, not something that one would want to actually promote in society. Almost like saying “I’m a libertarian and thats’ why we should huddle in our living rooms clutching a gun”. I do believe the US was pretty much the only country founded on the concept of open immigration and it has always served us well and we have been able to defend our our collective territory quite well.

          • good_in_theory

            Tenancy in common doesn’t presuppose equal interests in the underlying property. That’s tenancy in the entirety, which is a subspecies of tenancy in common, typically associated with marriage. And neither of them presuppose inalienability, though for ‘entirety’ alienation must be jointly agreed to.

          • Mark Rothschild

            The terminology is borrowed from real property law, but the correspondence
            is not exact.

          • adrianratnapala

            I don’t know about natural rights, or any other foundation of ethics. From the very little that I know of anthropology, it seems that both property rights and and national territories have a common conceptual ancestor.

            In some environmental conditions, tribes and family groups would claim a territory and control who entered. In other conditions, many nomadic groups might range over the same land — but even they would have been somewhat familiar with each other – at least as much as the citizens in a modern state. 100,000 years ago, I doubt it would have been safe for merchants to walk the earth freely bargaining with strangers.

          • John

            Sure, families and tribes would claim whole areas, but rarely divided them up into specific plots. It was more like their property, as long as they could defend it. But the main issue of nationalism was because one large group would decide that it was going to take the land, the possessions and often lives of other large groups for no other reason than they wanted it. The world has never been terribly libertarian because most people are evil.

          • martinbrock

            The problem with your formulation is that the United State is not itself a free community, since people may not withdraw from it at will and therefore lack the democratic freedom to reform it. I doubt that a free community could ever be as vast as central North America (much less the larger U.S. empire), but even if it could in theory, it certainly is not in reality.

            If the U.S. were a free community, then as John notes, people desiring to respect the claim of an immigrant to land in their neighborhood, rather than the claim of some subject of the United State, they would. Immigration to the United State is restricted, by the totalitarian decrees of a tiny committee of incredibly powerful men in the District of Columbia, precisely because subjects of the United State are not free.

            The land titles secured by the United State are not libertarian titles, not remotely. They are entitlements to monopoly rent secured by a state serving its own rent seeking constituents, hardly freer than the European, feudal estates that my ancestors left when they came here.

          • Mark Rothschild

            Martín, your critique of the history of the United States government is well taken and hypocrisy duly noted.

            No titles to property would be defensible if any taint of original misappropriation would void them. So, in order to acknowledge property rights at all, we have to look at the totality of the chain of ownership and make reasoned judgments.

            In any case, the argument that the American people have an undivided, inalienable, equal, and heritable interest in America has nothing to do with legal augments you could make in behalf of the government in Washington.

            The legal interests of the government in Washington are not formulated or justified on the basis of property rights. Therefore from a libertarian point of analysis they do not have any purchase.

            That is why you are correct in dismissing such claims.

        • Jerome Bigge

          People may have a right migrate, but does the country of their choice have the right to refuse them?

          • John

            Countries don’t have rights. They only have powers.

          • Jerome Bigge

            Most of the rest of the developed world is
            more “fussy” as to who they let in. Most
            likely due to more social benefits than what
            we have here in the USA. France let in a lot
            of Muslims because Algeria was a former
            colony of France. Germany got a lot of
            Turks because they needed cheap labor.

            A lot of Mexicans came to the US to work
            in agriculture because few Americans were
            willing to do “stoop labor”. The Mexican
            drug cartels and the attendant violence
            has also driven many across the border.

            Jerome Bigge
            http://www.muskegonlibertarian.wordpress.com

          • John

            That’s the problem with BIG and other socialist policies masquerating as libertarianism. As soon as you have programs like this, you have giant agencies that will clamp down on many freedoms to ensure that the system is “fair” and that people aren’t scamming off it and that people who “don’t deserve it” aren’t sneaking in to get it. Anything that rewards non-productivity by taking from the productive is Marxists as it follows his maxim.

  • John Halstead

    This is not very persuasive. One feature of the activism mentioned here is that it appears to be completely ineffective. But there are effective forms of activism and that poses a real question as to how much we should devote to ourselves and our family. Instead of buying our child a £20,000 car, we could save ten lives. The claim that we ought to save the ten lives is hardly an obviously lampoonable position. If there is some warrant for us to look after ourselves and our family it seems to me to be drastically limited by our extensive duties to poor strangers.

    As for the ‘poor within our borders’, I don’t see how this counts in favour of open immigration. Also, the poor in our borders are considerably less poor than the poor in distant countries.

  • John

    Is that the actual message though?

    It seems to me that “John” is spending his energy outward, trying to control others, instead of inwards, helping himself in his family. He is not an “activist”, he is a control freak. He is attempting to control the impossible, which is EVERYONE, and in doing so, is unable to control that which is within his grasp.

    It seems to me an allegory about liberalism versus libertarianism, but I wouldn’t be surprised that a BHL might miss this, being confused about the whole subject entirely.

  • John

    And even so….when you have a government that’s crushing you because of its “bleeding heart”, you have to spend some energy on fighting that. It’s when you spend energy creating government to cover your guilt and selfishness, that is when it’s a total waste of energy.

Set your Twitter account name in your settings to use the TwitterBar Section.