Over at National Review Online, John Derbyshire starts off with some kind words about The Big Questions, and then goes off on an ill-considered screed about immigration. First, by all means let’s quote the kind words:
Steven’s new book, The Big Questions, has a lot of good things in it, as one would expect from an author who proudly declares himself a math geek. His explanation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (pages 135–141) is a model of clarity in the popularization of science. His geometrical illustration of a Talmudic rule on the division of an estate (pages 205–213) shows the mathematical imagination at its best.
Landsburg is an economist by profession — a professor of economics, in fact — and has the economist’s insight that many matters commonly discussed in terms of morality can be reduced to cold arithmetic: “When things are priced correctly, there’s no need to moralize about them.” He gives some illuminating examples.
But then things take a darker turn:
Reading the book, one is carried along effortlessly on this gentle current of math-based good sense until Chapter 19, whose title is “On Not Being a Jerk.” Suddenly we are in white water — actually, in the strange looking-glass realm of open-borders fanaticism.
Now, the whole point of Chapter 19 is to bring some mathematical good sense to the issue of immigration policy—exactly the kind of mathematical good sense that Mr. Derbyshire was celebrating just a few paragraphs back. But Derbyshire is so eager to announce his disagreement with the conclusions that he ignores the math completely. One wonders whether he read as far as Chapter 23 in The Big Questions, where he’d have encountered this passage:
If you’re objecting to a logical argument, try asking yourself exactly which line in that argument you’re objecting to. If you can’t identify the locus of your disagreement, you’re probably just blathering.
Mr. Derbyshire, who wants to reject a conclusion without questioning either the assumptions or the logic, is blathering. More specifically:
Chapter 19 is about “not being a jerk”, with applications to, among other things, immigration policy. Now, admittedly, jerk is a loaded word, but I don’t use it in a scattershot way; instead I measure jerkiness by the number of dollars you’re willing to take from Peter in order to give a dollar to Paul, where Paul is someone you care about more and Peter is someone you care about less (with the threshholds for jerkitude presumably differing depending on whether Paul is your spouse, your child, your nephew, your neighbor, your countryman, or someone whose skin color you happen to approve.) (I am indebted for this formulation to the anonymous proprietor of the YouNotSneaky blog.)
In the chapter, I intentionally bias matters WAY in the direction of the anti-immigration position by intentionally ignoring all of the benefits immigrants bring to Americans, and weighing only the benefits to the immigrants themselves versus the costs they bring to (some) Americans. I then calculate that when we admit one additional Mexican, the benefits (to the Mexican) are about 2.3 times the costs (to Americans). If you were to reweight those costs and benefits to account for the Mexican’s relative poverty, you’d have to replace that 2.3 with something closer to 5. I asked the reader to focus on those numbers and to ask “What is the threshhold for admitting one additional Mexican? Is it more or less than 2.3? More or less than 5? More or less than 10?”.
I did this in order to focus attention on the fundamental issues: Restrictive immigration laws are good for some people and bad for others. Maybe you care more about one group than the other. If so, how much more do you care, and how much more would you have to care before it would be legitimate to label you a jerk?
Now comes John Derbyshire, who just loves the way I am able to reduce so many other matters to “cold arithmetic”, to ignore this calculation completely before going off on a largely irrelevant screed about why he wants to restrict immigration. A few more specifics:
- Mr. Derbyshire paints a (to him) grim picture of 49 million new Mexican immigrants. While he and I might or might not disagree about the desirability of 49 million new Mexican immigrants, that is completely irrelevant to the content of my chapter, which addresses the question: Do we currently have too many immigrants or too few? (Or, equivalently, would one additional immigrant be a good thing or a bad thing?). Surely Mr. Derbyshire can appreciate the logical possibility that the optimal number of new immigrants could be more than zero and still less than 49 million.
- Mr. Derbyshire wants to know why I am so all-fired solicitous of Mexicans, while ignoring the interests of Romanians, Turks, and Brazilians. I’d have thought it would be clear to any reader that I was attempting to illustrate a method, and that I used Mexicans as an example because I had the relevant numbers close at hand. Of course the same method would apply to Romanians, Turks and Brazilians, though perhaps the numbers would come out differently. Presumably this never occurred to Mr. Derbyshire because he is so thoroughly uninterested in the actual numbers.
- This is irrelevant to the main point, but I can’t resist quoting Derbyshire to the effect that “Immigration is just a policy, like farm subsidies or tax credits.” Great examples, actually. Farm subsidies are pretty jerky too, though I haven’t calculated whether they are more or less jerky than border fences.
- And finally: This is also irrelevant to the main point, though it’s directly relevant to a much larger point, which I’ve addressed in detail elsewhere. Here is Derbyshire:
Nor is an immigrant exercising any transcendent human right. Who on earth ever thought so? If I seek to settle in Country X, I am asking Country X a favor, which the authorities there might properly refuse. If they do refuse, I have no grounds for complaint. It’s their country.
Having already assigned a technical meaning to the term—a meaning that it is not directly applicable here—I can’t respond with “What a jerk”. I willl therefore confine my commentary to: “What a blockhead.” If a resident of Country X seeks to sell or rent me a plot of land, Country X does me no favor by allowing me to consummate that transaction because Country X does not own that land in the first place. A citizen of Country X owns the land, which is not the same thing at all. All Country X can do is stand between two consenting parties to a private transaction. It’s like saying that if I seek to purchase a candy bar, and have to walk past Benny the Bully in order to do so, Benny the Bully is doing me a favor, which Benny might properly refuse. After all, it’s his turf.