Brief thoughts on Bryan Caplan’s “Open Borders”

The book itself is good, but not great. It’s good because:

  • It presents the standard arguments for open borders well
  • It somewhat competently rebuts a number of common objections
  • It’s fun to read.

It’s not great because:

  • He weak-mans opposing arguments.
  • His arguments in a few key areas are pretty weak or use bad evidence.
  • There’s nothing here that you won’t have heard before if you’re somewhat interested in libertarianism/migration ethics.

His Case: Letting people move from poor, low productivity countries to rich, high productivity countries will make both the poor people and most people in the rich countries drastically better off. It’s also good because borders are morally arbitrary and unjust.

The objections he tackles:

  • Immigrants destroy our culture
    • They don’t tend to commit more crime than natives
    • Terrorism is a non-issue
    • They tend to converge to natives language proficiency/values over time.
  • Immigrants are a drain on resources
    • Migrants increase the supply of labour, but also increase demand for goods/services meaning they don’t reduce wages or increase unemployment.
    • High skilled migrants contribute more than they take.
    • Low skilled migrants do so as well provided they’re young.
    • It’s wrong to discriminate against net drain migrants because we don’t do that for net-drain citizen babies. (It’s a really weird attempt to conflate restricting reproductive autonomy with borders as both are stopping certain kinds of people from being citizens.)
  • Immigrants are low IQ
    • They converge to higher IQ’s when in rich countries.
    • Even assuming no convergence and the worst case estimates for IQ/GDP correlation, global GDP would still rise by 88% with open borders.

Some of the weak-manning:

  • Culture
    • The fact that immigrants integrate now does not mean that will continue to be the case when they form a far larger share of the population.
    • His evidence for immigrants skills is largely based on data from the USA. The USA does a particularly good job of integrating immigrants. He’s cherry picking evidence.
    • He ignores the real concerns and instead focuses on easy to rebut things like immigrants not learning english. The real concern is immigrants respect for basic liberal values like individualism, free speech, freedom of religion, secularism etc…
  • Drain on resources
    • It seems like a policy of accepting high-skill migrants and rejecting low-skill ones is a viable mid-point between open borders and the current system
    • The assumptions about additional labour not reducing the price of labour is uncertain. In a country like spain, which already has 30%+ youth unemployment, it’s not clear that the economy is constrained by labour supply and would grow if more were added.

I may write a more thorough, chapter by chapter rebuttal at some point later in the week.

Regulatory Experimentation

Late night thoughts. In England, when the government passes regulations those regulations almost always apply across the country. There are lower governments, councils and the like, which pass more local laws but all the most important laws, ranging from taxation to regulation of goods and services to policing, are passed at the national level. One problem with this is that we don’t experiment with different ways of doing things. We can only have one policy at a time and it’s decided by the national level convergence of interest groups, voter views etc…

What would a better world look like? It would have a consistent legal framework but would still allow for variations in regulation across different geographic regions. Some regions could be libertarian, some more statist. Some could be harsh on crime. Some more focused on rehabilitation. The advantage would be simple. More approaches tried meaning more information on what works and what doesn’t.

Why wouldn’t this be a good idea? A few reasons:

  • Unfairness. A rapist in region A may get 5 years. In region B they may get 2.
  • Noise. Regions differ. A lot of factors influence success or failure. It’s hard to narrow down the effects to a single policy.
  • Corruption. Firms could lobby local governments for favorable regulation and then base themselves there. Local governments may be easier to corrupt because they are smaller compared to large MNC’s. They may also be harder to bribe because they are closer to the people who elect them. (Although given how little people I meet know about their local gov’s, I doubt it). Conversely, more powerful local governments could rent seek more effectively from businesses.
  • Collective Action Problems. Races to the bottom in taxation or other kinds of regulation. Nimbyism.

It’s hard to know what works in the real world and what doesn’t. You can escape the need for empiricism.

The most important part of good writing is not being good at writing

When I did debating, I thought it was funny how most non-debating advice about public speaking focused on style over substance. How to speak, what tone to use, rhetorical tricks. How to say things instead of how to make sure what you’re saying is true and well-argued and understandable. Many books or blogs or pieces of advice on writing make the same mistake. They focus on the presentation, on how to write. This is important but it’s really not that important. Take a look at modern high literature and you’ll find shelves filled with books by people who know how to write very well, but can’t write anything other than neurotic, self-absorbed stories. It’s not how you write that matters, it’s what you have to say. Writing reflects the writer. The most important step to being a good writer is thus being a well-developed person.

Normalizing Dissent

One strange thing in the corporate world is how abnormal open dissent is. Almost never do I hear someone say "I disagree". Meetings, most meetings, are aimed at consensus. People won’t voice disagreement. People won’t clearly acknowledge that they do disagree and then drill down or double crux into why they hold the beliefs they do. Instead they’ll talk around the disagreement. They’ll both know they disagree but not how much or exactly where or why. It seems to be considered rude to go against the majority and hold up a meeting with disagreement. It’s rude to push too hard, to openly disagree instead of waffle around the topic.

It’s strange both how normal and inefficient this kind of epistemic culture is. It’s also strange how accustomed most people are to it. How few people generally are willing to openly go against a group of their peers. I think that being one of the few who is willing to disagree openly and honestly is valuable. Why?

  • You will likely bring up obvious problems that others didn’t.
  • Because you don’t have to engage in double think, you’ll be able to think more clearly.
  • You’ll contribute to creating a more open epistemic culture.

The first point is the most immediately impactful but it can be hard to understand if you don’t have experience of this kind of epistemic blindness. In short, most places ignore obvious truths, especially when those truths are not pleasant and hence no one wants to bring them up. A few examples to illustrate obvious problems I’ve brought up which no one else has in my less than 2 year career:

  • My firm has committed to getting b-corp certification, basically being an ethical company, yet still regularly works for gambling firms which build intentionally addictive products.
  • My previous employer employed a muslim girl on the grad scheme. Her managers kep trying to make her work with pork. She refused and eventually left. I only find out later and then talked to my manager but couldn’t do anything due to lack of evidence. No one else did shit, including her friends on the grad scheme who knew about it.
  • I spent 9 months with the graduate scheme taskforce. 6 of us designed, advertised and recruited for a graduate scheme. We hired 4 people. None were exceptional or particularly good from what I can tell. Dozens of meetings, hundreds of hours, thousands of pounds on career fairs. It was a failure yet no one else brought this up.
  • At my current employer, we bill clients on a time and materials basis. We were being told to lie on timesheets. To not put less than 4.5 hours per day even if we worked less. I spoke up about this. I was initially told it’s not lying as time we spend on other things like interviewing or [my company] meetings makes the firm better which indirectly helps our clients. I had to go to a whistleblowing charity and talk to our kinda head of compliance to get something done about it.

Groups like 80’000 hours write a great deal about maximizing impact. Most of their writing revolves around one-off choices rather than character. Which career to go into. What to study. The more I see of the working world the more I think that, for smart people who have followed the obvious advice, by far the largest way to make an impact is character. Choosing a fairly optimal career is good but once you’re in it’s unlikely you’ll be far smarter or better at the job than those around you. A competitive market means that you’ll probably end up roughly where your level of skill is normal. What you do have a shot at being better at is the things the market doesn’t optimize for. Having ethics is one of those things. Practicing good epistemic norms is another.

Against the social theory of disability

The social theory of disability says that disabled people are made disabled not be their impairments but by barriers in society. E.g: if a person in a wheelchair cannot enter a building because it has stairs, they’re disabled by the lack of a ramp, not by their inability to walk.

The social theory of disability is wrong.

For a person to be disabled in regards to X, they must both:

  • Have an impairment which can, in some circumstances, prevent them from doing X
  • Be in a physical world that stops people with that impairment from doing X.

There are two causes of their disability. The state of the world and the state of their mind/body. Both are necessary causes. The social model ignores one and looks only at the other.

Why is a theory that is so obviously untrue so popular? Many reasons. Understanding how and why ideas spread is hard. One reasons is the social dynamics/incentives surrounding it. Blaming disabled people for their disability is socially costly and unacceptable. Saying that that it is societies fault is not. Hence people will tend to say the latter and avoid saying the former. Another is that it’s favoured by disability rights activists because "Stop hurting these people" is an easier sell than "reallocate money to this group so they can have better lives".

One interesting thing about the theory is its wording. Society *disables people. It’s an assignment of blame. Societies actions harm these people. The implication is that society is doing something unjust, that we have an obligation to not do so. In reality that’s not the case. There is a difference between disabling someone and not taking steps to enable them just as there is a difference between destroying someone’s car and refusing to buy them a car. Taking action to harm another person is far more morally repulsive from not taking an action to help them. If you go up to a person with sight and gouge their eyes out, you blind them. If you build a building but do not spend the $5 million it would take to make it accessible to blind people, you are not morally equivalent to they eye gouger.

I still remember when I talked to people about this at work. Many refused to accept the notion of trade-off’s. That for some accommodations, the cost outweighed the benefit. Strange. Maybe an easy way to prevent dissent is to make it synonymous with evil/hatred. Maybe many people are just too stupid to engage in basic moral reasoning. Still, I don’t think it’s stupidity. It felt like something else.

Against Marx

Marx’s argument goes like this:

  • The value of a good is defined by the amount of labour that goes into it.
  • Workers provide most of the labour, yet only get a tiny fraction of the profits compared to the capitalist.
  • Hence capitalism is unjust

It’s wrong because the value of a good isn’t defined by the amount of labour that goes into it. E.g: If I spend 10’000 hours making 1kg of Basmati rice and another farmer spends 1 hour, my sack of rice is not 10’000 times more valuable than theirs. The labour theory of value is wrong and without it marx’s ethical arguments collapse.

Racial differences do not justify racism

When I read far-right or far-left websites, a justification for racism I often hear is that race X is worse in way Y and hence deserves to be treated worse. E.g:

  • Black people commit more crime, use more state handouts, contribute less to science etc… Hence we should reduce the benefits given to unemployed blacks/have harsher punishments for black criminals/other racist policy etc…
  • White people are more racist/sexist, more privileged, more hateful etc… Hence we should make whites pay reparations/make it harder for white children to get into university/racist policy Y etc…

Both make the same mistake. Even if you accept that

  • the races or ethnicity’s they talk about are real or somehow meaningful
  • their narrative that race A is worse than race B
  • their narrative that race A is worse due to internal as opposed to external reasons

they’re still wrong. Why? Because even if a group is on average bad and deserves to be punished, that does not mean that every member of that group is bad. Groups don’t exist. They’re aggregations. What racists want you to do is stop thinking about individuals and instead see each person as an extension of a collective. That’s wrong. A black person who obeys the law should not be held morally liable for the actions of a criminal who happens to have the same skin color as them. A white immigrant who lives in a trailer park should not be punished because slaveholders descendent have wealth built on blood.

Why condemn Trump but not MBS

When Trump visited the UK a while ago, many politicians spoke out against the UK welcoming him and large numbers of people protested his visit.

When other world leaders with far worse human rights records visit the UK, e.g: MBS the crown prince of saudi arabia. those same politicians and people are largely silent.


Potential explanations:

  • People are more likely to know about trump’s badness than that of other world leaders
  • Trump is from a nation we see, culturally, as part of our tribe. Hence trump is part of our culture war in a way the dictator of forignstan isn’t.
  • For politicians, their voters/the media dislike trump more than other world leaders, hence they play to that.

Why do populists succeed?

Question: How is it that populist politician often beat established political parties. How can small newcomers without established patronage networks, fundraising operations, media support or experience beat politicians who have all of these things?

Potential Answers:

  1. They don’t. Populists usually lose. It’s just that we tend to remember the ones who succeed.
  2. Populists are optimized for persuading the average person. Politicians are optimized for getting their party to like them (e.g: winning primaries in the USA or getting assigned to a safe seat in the UK)
  3. Politicians are part of parties. Parties have institutional inertia and lag behind public opinion. Hence sometimes parties lines are hugely suboptimal and hence an outsider with a different line has a decent shot.
  4. The public in some circumstances heavily punishes establishment figures.

Book Review: The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikotter

Before you read this, read my highlights. They give a better overview/feel of the book anything here.

The tragedy of liberation covers China from 1945 to 1957 with a few references back to events during WW2 and the Japanese occupation. It looks at the communist victory in the civil war and the gradual transformation of Chinese society that followed. It’s part of a trilogy, the latter two books covering the great leap forward and the cultural revolution.

The writing is good. It’s able to convey large scale social trends without loosing sight of the human experience or reducing history to the decisions of a few great men. Reading the book will teach you about those, but it will also paint a story of how peasants, industrialists, housewives and students experienced the decade.

The research seems good. From what I see, Dikotter went through party archives and bases his work on mostly primary material from the time. Still, I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was lying, either directly or by presenting only one side of a story.

The book is heavy. It talks of suffering and injustice and war. The descriptions of the former are often graphic. The scale of the suffering is unimaginable. It’s the injustice which got to me the most.

Recommendation: Read it. You’ll get a bit more from it if you have some knowledge of the broader history of the time to slot it into, before and after, but even without that background it’ll give you a good insight into the formation of the second most powerful state on earth and injustices which are difficult to comprehend.

Some observations from the book:

  • Bad incentives and un-empirical policymaking can and did have horrific consequences.

    • Regions were given targets for percentages of their population to kill as "rightists". Leadership at every level strove to exceed these targets and in doing so destroyed huge numbers of people, most being innocent. Underachieving meant risking being purged themselves.
    • In disease eradication programs, programs success was judged based on inputs, not outputs. Number of snails/rats killed rather than number of cases of disease X per year. People farmed rats to sell the tails. Peasants were organized in work brigades and forced to pick snails in waters swarming with Schistosomiasis. Why? To eliminate Schistosomiasis. In part this was down to ignorance and cadres incentives to show visible efforts to meet targets as well as bad incentives.
    • More generally, making any criticism of government policy incredibly dangerous leads, unsurprisingly, to no criticism and bad policy.
  • When the powerful are able to suppress speech, they will do so to limit criticism of their actions or morals. This was true even in the 1942 where Mao, in the midst of a desperate civil war, launched a half-year long purge to destroy critics who decried his luxurious lifestyle.

    • tens of thousands of young volunteers had poured into Yan’an to join the communist party. Students, teachers, artists, writers and journalists, they were disenchanted with the nationalists and eager to dedicate their lives to the revolution. Many were so excited after days on the road that they wept when they saw the heights of Yan’an in the distance. Others cheered from the backs of their lorries, singing the ‘Internationale’ and the Soviet Union’s ‘Motherland March’. They were full of idealism, embracing liberty, equality, democracy and other liberal values that had become popular in China after the fall of the empire in 1911. They were quickly disillusioned. Instead of equality, they found a rigid hierarchy. Every organisation had three different kitchens, the best food being reserved for the senior leaders. From the amount of grain, sugar, cooking oil, meat and fruit to the quality of health care and access to information, one’s position in the party hierarchy determined everything. Even the quality of tobacco and writing paper varied according to rank. Medicine was scarce for those on the lower rungs of the ladder, although leading cadres had personal doctors and sent their children to Moscow. At the apex of the party stood Mao, who was driven around in the only car in Yan’an and lived in a large mansion with heating especially installed for his comfort.2 In February 1942, Mao asked the young volunteers to attack ‘dogmatism’ and its alleged practitioners, namely his rival Wang Ming and other Soviet-trained leaders. Soon the criticisms that he unleashed went too far. Instead of following the Chairman’s cue, several critics expressed discontent with the way the red capital was run. A young writer called Wang Shiwei, who worked for the Liberation Daily, wrote an essay denouncing the arrogance of the ‘big shots’ who were ‘indulging in extremely unnecessary and unjustified perks’, while the sick could not even ‘have a sip of noodle soup’.3 After two months, Mao changed tack and angrily condemned Wang Shiwei as a ‘Trotskyist’ (Wang had translated Engels and Trotsky). He also turned against Wang’s supporters, determined to stamp out any lingering influence of free thinking among the young volunteers. Just as the rank and file were investigated in a witch-hunt for spies and undercover agents, they were interrogated in front of large crowds shouting slogans, made to confess in endless indoctrination meetings and forced to denounce each other in a bid to save themselves. Some were locked up in caves, others taken to mock executions. For month after month, life in Yan’an was nothing but a relentless succession of interrogations and rallies, feeding fear, suspicion and betrayal. All communications with areas under nationalist control were cut off, and any attempt to contact the outside world was viewed as evidence of espionage. The pressure was too much for some, as they broke down, lost their minds or committed suicide…

  • Absolute disregard for human life and dignity. The regime didn’t just kill it’s opponents or torture them. It sough to humiliate them. To make them lower than low. To make it normal, acceptable and indeed mandatory for their former friends, employees and community members to degrade them.

    • Some victims spent years in chains, for instance Duan Kewen and Harriet Mills. Many tightening devices were also very heavy, digging into the skin and lacerating the flesh. Beatings were common, administered with bamboo sticks, leather belts, heavy clubs or bare knuckles. Sleep deprivation was widely used. Other forms of torture were more ingenious, and came with poetic titles drawn from traditional literature. ‘Dipping the Duckling into the Water’ meant suspending a victim upside down with bound hands. ‘Sitting on the Tiger Bench’ consisted of fastening somebody’s knees to a small iron bench with his hands cuffed behind the back. Bricks were inserted under the tied legs, causing them to bend unnaturally, eventually breaking at the knees. There was an extensive repertoire of torture methods, as ever more ingenious ways of degrading other human beings were developed. In Beijing some victims had their feet shackled to the window until they fainted. Salt was rubbed into their wounds. Some had to squat on the bucket used for excrement and hold a spittoon for hours without moving. Others were sodomised. In the south the guards sometimes built crude electric machines with a battery in a wooden box and a wheel on the outside. Two cords were attached to the victim’s hands or other body parts and then the wheel was turned to generate an electric shock.11 The list could go on. But by all accounts the most dreaded aspect of incarceration was not the frequent beatings, the hard labour or even the grinding hunger. It was thought reform, referred to by one victim as a ‘carefully cultivated Auschwitz of the mind’. As Robert Ford, an English radio operator, put it after a four-year spell in prison, ‘When you’re being beaten up, you can turn into yourself and find a corner of your mind in which to fight the pain. But when you’re being spiritually tortured by thought reform, there’s nowhere you can go. It affects you at the most profound, deepest levels and attacks your very identity.’ The self-criticism and indoctrination meetings lasted for hours on end, day in, day out, year after year. And unlike those on the outside, once the group discussions were over, the others were still in the same cell. They were encouraged to examine, question and denounce each other. Sometimes they had to take part in brutal struggle meetings, proving on whose side they stood by beating a suspect. ‘By the time you got through such a meeting you would, if you were a conscientious person at all, suffer terribly mentally and groan for days. Silence and distress were the outcome.’ Every bit of human dignity was stripped away as victims tried to survive by killing their former selves. Wang Tsunming, a nationalist officer captured in 1949, came to the conclusion that thought reform was nothing less than the ‘physical and mental liquidation of oneself by oneself’. Those who resisted the process committed suicide. Those who survived it renounced being themselves

  • Many members of the intellectual elite bought wholeheartedly into communism. Chinese Harvard graduates chose to return to Maoist china only to be thrown into the meat grinder. Western intellectuals and ambassadors were led around potemkin villages, introduced to former capitalists who spoke well of the regime on fear of death.

  • How quickly humans descend to depravity when their society permits and encourages it

    • Some went further. Lin Zhao, a headstrong, idealistic young woman who wrote searing denunciations of government corruption before joining the underground movement in 1948, told her classmate that ‘my hatred for the landlords is the same as my love of the country’. This she demonstrated by ordering a landowner to be placed in a vat of freezing water overnight. She felt ‘cruel happiness’ on hearing the man scream in pain, as this meant that the villagers would no longer be afraid of him. After a dozen victims were executed in the wake of a rally she had helped organise, she looked at each of the corpses, one by one. ‘Seeing them die this way, I felt as proud and happy as the people who had directly suffered under them.’ She was barely twenty.

  • China has a long history of statehood. The communists like the nationalists before them knew how to govern, monitor regions from the center, establish a bureaucracy and do a huge number of other things which are difficult to do in a country of hundreds of millions. This was probably partly due to soviet assistance, but it’s still stunning just how different the cultural tech of governance is in different societies.