Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On Violence and Capitalism

I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's wonderful book Better Angels of Our Nature. It's a blast and I highly recommend it.

Drawing on the work of Nobert Elias, Pinker argues that state formation and the expansion of commerce dramatically reduced violence in Europe and, eventually, the world.

Let's focus on the second part of the explanation: commerce. It is a standard line among socialist and liberal egalitarian academics (and perhaps academics more generally) that capitalism is driven by "greed and fear". According to the more plausible version of this thesis, capitalism encourages and embodies greed. The renowned socialist philosopher G.A. Cohen says: "unlike its predecessor feudal civilization, which has the grace to condemn greed, capitalism celebrates it."

This is profoundly wrong. Capitalism encourages virtues like honesty, trust, fair-dealing, and self-control. As Pinker shows, Medieval Europe was rife with violence and greed. People would lash out violently at slight provocations. It was common to cut off people's noses to avenge insults. George Martin's depiction of life under a medieval order is no exaggeration: violence and horrendous brutality permeated life before capitalism.

Commerce helps things. To become successful in a commercial society, you need to cultivate the dispositions of self-control. You generally need to be honest to protect your reputation. If you want to sell things, you also need to see things from other people's perspectives. This encourages empathy. Violence will often damage your own prospects too. 

To be fair, commerce alone does not do these things. The broader set of institutions that support capitalism, such as the rule of law, also encourage trust and civility. Of course, greed and violence exist under capitalism too and it is, I suppose, possible to imagine a society that does an even better job than capitalism at extinguishing vice. But, if you care about promoting virtue in practice, you should go with capitalism every time.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Open Borders and Market Provision

I'm a defender of open borders or, at the very least, pretty porous borders. But immigration is very, very unpopular. So, states restrict immigration big time.

Suppose that you agree with me that more immigration would be a very good thing. Well, if you think this, then this generates a surprising case for free markets.

The key part of the argument is suggested by Rafaela Dancygier's excellent book Immigration and Conflict in Europe. Dancygier does some groundbreaking empirical work and shows that people oppose immigration more and immigration generates more conflict when states control the provision of scarce goods, like housing, education, or health care. When states control scarce goods and immigrants gain access to these goods, natives become resentful of immigrants. And so they oppose immigration (sometimes violently).

But, for some reason, when markets allocate scarce goods, natives don't become resentful, at least not as much. Why? The mechanism goes like this. When the state controls a scarce good, natives can mobilize to pressure the state to respond to their interests. When immigrants compete with people for these goods, natives mobilize to restrict immigration.

But, if the market controls scarce goods, people won't mobilize to restrict immigration because market agents don't care much about what resentful natives think, as long as the money keeps coming in. Dancygier says:
When competition centers on goods that are allocated by the market, the scope for effective anti-immigrant activity, though present, is more limited. Not only are market actors, such as employers or private landlords, less sensitive to local voting patterns; during economic downturns they also generally face few incentives to give into demands for resource allocations that favor natives, especially when migrants are willing to accept a lower wage or a higher price.
So, here's the thought: if you love open borders, you should also love free markets.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Rights to Immigrate

Do people have rights to immigrate? Most people think: no. I think: yes. But let's get clear on what this means.

In international law and the domestic laws of some liberal states, there is a limited special right to immigrate. Asylum-seekers have this right. It is the right to flee from tyrannical regimes and rights violations. But people don't have a general right to immigrate. For example, "economic migrants" do not have rights to immigrate. These are people who just want more economic opportunities.

If you accept a certain understanding of the justification of rights to immigrate, then this conventional view makes sense. On the common understanding, rights to immigrate are justified on grounds of beneficence. States are morally required to let people immigrate because this is necessary to save them from violence or severe hardship. But we aren't under duties to better people's economic opportunities in general. I'm not obligated to help you find a better job if you're already making $20,000 a year.

This conventional view already presupposes that states have territorial rights: rights to coercively exclude certain people. In other words, if a state has already satisfied its humanitarian duties to you, this state can now freely prevent you from immigrating to its territory. So, the only reason (besides family reunification, say) to permit immigration is beneficence.

However, this conventional view is false. I'll explain why in future posts.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Education

As someone who both values education and wants to be a teacher, I'm a bit worried by the suggestion that education is useless (see also here). Of course, some education is useful. But I'm never going to be teaching engineering or shop class. So, I have reason to worry. Is my current profession a waste of time and money?

I have to admit: it is plausible that liberal arts education might be useless for most students. I really don't think there is decisive empirical evidence on either side. Of course, I have really enjoyed the liberal arts and benefited from it. But I'm not most people.

Bryan Caplan thinks education is worthless for the marginal student. But I have a partial defense of education. As Caplan knows, a university education seems to be causally related to both pro-trade and pro-immigration attitudes. The mechanism is that college education socializes people to become more cosmopolitan and tolerant. Bryan Caplan is a stalwart defender of free trade and open borders. So, this is a defense of education that even he should love.