July 26, 2006

An economist's "moral arithmetic:"

On his Marginal Revolution blog, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen philosophizes opaquely:

Mistakes in moral arithmetic

1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, foreigners are still "worth less" than citizens.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic. #2 is false.

Obviously, this has something to do with Tyler trying to justify his many opeds calling for the Hispanicization of America through massive immigration, but exactly what this is supposed to mean is unclear. Tyler then tried to explain in his comments what the heck he was talking about:

There is such a thing as an impersonal moral point of view. It is fine to argue that the world would collapse if we each tried to take care of each other's families; that is #1. One (not my view) also might argue that at "some levels of morality" our moral obligation is stronger to friends and family. But our behavior would still be wrong from the impersonal point of view and we should admit as such, especially when we are actively imposing harms on distant others. Keep also in mind that our ties to family and friends are quite real. I consider myself a patriot, but for pragmatic reasons. Most of the people in Washington do not please me. Governments are convenient fictions, not ultimate sources of moral delineation. p.s. also beware when the argument against cosmopolitanism is simply a reductio, rather than a positive argument for national borders as ultimate sources of moral delineation. The latter is very very hard to make in palatable fashion. The difficulties of reconciling common sense morality with utilitarianism, while real, do not help much on the national borders question.

Tyler's normally lucid prose style has collapsed into Hegel-like vagueness. This may not be an accident. Whenever the subject turns to immigration, Tyler's usually sharp insight is dulled by strong arational emotions.

The valuable skepticism of economists about human motivations suddenly evaporates when economists start explaining their own motivations. No libertarian economist could listen with a straight face to an official in a socialist government explaining "Trust me, I'm making policy for the good of the people of my country."

Yet the very same economists will solemnly swear that they only advocate policies for the good of all the people of the world (which is even more improbable) and that their own tastes and self-interests has zero to do with it. Nowhere is this more obvious than when economists who know very little about immigration start preaching on the subject.

What makes Tyler more interesting than most economists is that, with his intense aesthetic preoccupations -- e.g., "Going to Haiti changed my life. Haitian voodoo art is my favorite" -- he often seems like a character out of an Oscar Wilde novel as interpreted by Camille Paglia.

Thus, when Tyler calls for the creation of Hispanic shantytowns in the U.S. because of all the good music they will produce (as he memorably did in Slate), well, that's pretty cool. Granted, it's demented and sociologically nonsensical (good music comes out of black shantytowns, not Mexican ones), but, still, it's cool in a cruel, decadent aesthete sort of way.

What's not cool, unfortunately, is when Tyler then starts lecturing us on "moral arithmetic" as if that has much at all to do with what's motivating his views on immigration.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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