Of Jerks and Bullies

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.

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18 Responses to “Of Jerks and Bullies”


  1. 1 1 RL

    Perhaps Bull Conners might be more apt than Benny the Bully. After all, the black man had to cross Conners to purchase food at the Whites Only store, which the proprietor wanted to sell him, save for the law Conners was enforcing…

  2. 2 2 Bennett Haselton

    The book is however a bit inconsistent on who counts as a “jerk”, on the related subject of import quotas. First it says in Chapter 19:

    >>>
    Alright, so I shouldn’t lobby for import quotas. But is it okay to profit from them?
    Oh, yes. It’s even admirable. The quota on Chinese silk shirts props up the price of American shirts by creating an artificial shortage. To profit from that quota, you’ve got to supply shirts, which helps alleviate the shortage. For that you deserve a reward, and I’m glad you’re earning one.
    >>>

    But later in Chapter 21 says:
    >>>
    In what morally relevant way, then, might displaced workers differ from displaced pharmacists or displaced landlords? You might argue that pharmacists and landlords have always faced cutthroat competition and knew what they were getting into, whereas decades of tariifs and quotas have led, say, manufacturing workers to expect a modicum of protection. That expectation led them to develop certain skill sets, and now it’s unfair to pull the rug out from under them.

    Once again, let’s turn to the playground. For many decades, schoolyard bullying has been a profitable occupation, and all across America, bullies have built up skill sets so they can take advantage of that opportunity. If we toughen the rules to make bullying
    unprofitable, must we compensate the bullies?
    >>>

    (I have the review PDF, I didn’t type all that out :) )

    So if you’re profiting from import quotas, are you a hero or a bully?

    There might be a way to reconcile the two positions logically (go ahead and profit from quotas, just don’t expect us to keep them in place for you), but probably not the tone.

    On the other hand, that’s sort of a compliment to the book that it’s worth spotting inconsistencies like that. Nobody reads Ann Coulter’s books and claims that something she said in Chapter 8 is inconsistent with what she said in Chapter 4.

  3. 3 3 Steve Landsburg

    RL: Excellent, excellent analogy. I wish I’d used it.

  4. 4 4 Steve Landsburg

    Bennett: Ah, but Chapter 19 is about applying what I call The Economist’s Golden Rule (which I claim embodies many of most people’s intuitions about morality), whereas Chapter 21 is about consistently applying our notions of fairness. And *elsewhere* in the book, I say that morality and fairness are not the same thing, though they are closely related. If they always led us to the same conclusion, they couldn’t be “not the same thing”.

    However, I think in this case, we don’t even have a conflict. In the one case we ask “Is it okay to profit from a quota?”, in the next case we ask “Do we have an obligation to maintain quotas for the benefit of those who have trained themselves to profit from them?”. These are very different questions.

  5. 5 5 thedifferentphil

    On the immigration issue, I hear a lot of people claiming that their main problem with illegal immigrants is that we should not reward their “immoral” breaking of the law, hence we should deport them and step up enforcement on future illegal immigration. They never reflect on the morality of _the laws_.

  6. 6 6 Josh

    I also find it annoying when people worship the law as if it
    is a god. I could say a lot more on that issue but, considering I’m on an iPhone, I’ll leave it at that.

  7. 7 7 Sierra Black

    I’m inclined to take your side in this issue, but I have a question about this: “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.”

    There are pieces of land that Country X does own – national parks and the like. Similarly, there are economic commodities like the right to live and/or work or do business within the borders of a given country that are not owned by any individual citizen of that country but are held in common by the collective entity of the state and controlled by its government.

    If you want to compare the state’s role in an immigration policy to its role in a land transaction, it seem more akin to selling or leasing public lands than it does to bullying a private sale.

    What am I missing?

  8. 8 8 mike

    Hi Steve,
    I was first introduced to your prosaic stylings 20 years ago in Intermedate Micro, which met MWF from 2:00-2:50. After class, my roommmate and I, along with a buddy and his roommate (kind of a jerk), would head over most every week to this place called Sports Playground, where we would play 2-on-2 basketball on an 8-foot rim in this netted cage about the size of a standard free throw lane, maybe a little bigger. Sports Playground had this deal where an individual could buy 20 1-hour coupons at a discounted rate, and after we discovered this game, we quickly bought the package.

    The rules of the game evolved rather quickly and informally, more by unspoken understanding than verbally–think of the way the NBA refs just sort of started to call contact differently when Shaq came into the league. The jerk (we called him Ratterberger, though I don’t actually remember his real name) was frustrating as hell to play aganist because he’d flip this annoying looking set shot up from the back of the cage and make most of them, while the rest of us were trying to dunk on the 8-foot rim. Still, those games of 2-on-2 basketball in that cage was the highlight of that semester, easily outdistancing Price Theory and Applications, the second-place finisher. In November or so, our 20-pass coupon book ran out, so we bought another, but when the semester ended, we still had about 10 left from the second book.

    When January rolled around and semester schedules changed, Ratterberger couldn’t make it any more, so he sold the rest of his book to my other roommate, who I still consider one of my best friends to this day. He’s kind of intense, though, and 2-on-2 cage ball wasn’t good for him. At first, any contact was a foul, which isn’t fun, and when we broke him of that, then any contact was OK and he was a bull in a China shop. When our last 10 coupons expired, we didn’t bother to buy a new book.

    To summarize, our new immigrant purchased his spot in our game from the old inhabitant, we went through an adjustment period and settled in a new equilibrium that put me on a lower indifference curve. Does it make me a jerk to wish this immigration never happened? Our immigrant may well have gotten $2.30 in benefits to my $1 in costs, but Coase ain’t strong enough to make it worth my while to bargain with him to make me whole. Ratterberger may be able to capture the $2.30, but I’m still out $1.

  9. 9 9 Steve Landsburg

    Mike: Preferring 2.30 for yourself to 1.00 for another guy—that’s not so jerky. Preferring 2.30 for one total stranger over 1.00 for another total stranger because one of those total strangers happens to have been born on the same side of an imaginary line that you were. That, I think, is jerkier.

  10. 10 10 Doctor Memory

    Would it be jerky to use this moment to remind people that John Derbyshire was, himself, an illegal immigrant to the US for several years?

    …if so, I’m at peace with it.

  11. 11 11 Michael

    This brings to mind several interesting questions. Is the immigration preference curve backward-bending? If 40 million people leave Mexico (or whichever country we are looking at), is it possible the 40,000,001st person slightly prefer staying in Mexico to leaving it, even if he would have preferred leaving it had he been number 40 million? At what point does the negative aspects of increasing population overwhelm the positive aspects of greater opportunity and networking effects?

    And finally, would it make sense to simply annex Mexico? Presumably, those immigrating to the United States from Mexico would be better off if they could take their land with them, while those remaining in Mexico would be no worse off. And in the United States, each additional person on the same amount of land would tend to raise prices, while increasing the amount of land with increasing population would make such competition for scarce resources a bit less. Annexing Mexico might result in more Mexicans better off, with fewer Americans worse off, than simply opening the border.

  12. 12 12 Josh

    I imagine a world where one is free to from area to area anywhere in the world, similar to how Americans can travel or move easily from state to state. Also, in this world there is a common language. This would be a
    better world.

  13. 13 13 JamesFromPittsburgh

    My favorite part of Derbyshire’s article is where he recounts his admiration of New Zealand’s decision not to let him into the country because New Zealand has plenty of computer programmers. He then tells us that, “That is immigration policy as it should be practiced, with a calm eye to the national interest and some thought-out notions of who you want settling in your country, and who you don’t want.”

    Who the heck is the “you” in that statement? Clearly many Americans want immigrants to come to the United States (otherwise immigrants wouldn’t be finding jobs). Why don’t those Americans count?

  14. 14 14 Cos

    thedifferentphil: One thing that really bothers me about that line of argument is that the same people don’t want to apply it to the lawbreaking that’s common in their community. We never hear about how we “reward” the “immorality” of breaking the speed limit laws, by allowing those drivers to remain in the places they drove to – drivers who broke the law in the process of driving there.

    These people are adding an excessive moral dimension to one administrative law (often a misdemeanor) and they feel so *right* about it that they never even admit they’re doing it, nor do they try to convince any of us that it belongs: they just act and think under the assumption that this is a universal belief, that border laws have this excessive moral dimension and everyone knows it and there’s no need to discuss whether it makes sense.

    And what’s really frustrating is that they’ve said it so often and so loudly, with so few challenges, that most people seem to implicitly accept the premise without even noticing they’re doing so.

  15. 15 15 Cos

    Steven: I agree with most of what you say here, but when you veered off on that final tangent (which, as you say, is not needed to support the rest of your argument) you lost me.

    Private land ownership is not a law of nature, it is a legal abstraction: a rule we’ve deliberately and *collectively* made for ourselves because we believe that it gives us, on balance, a benefit.

    Similarly, a legitimate national government’s prerogative to determine who is allowed to enter the area under its jurisdiction, is another legal abstraction we’ve deliberately and collectively made.

    While you may wish it weren’t so, and marshall your arguments against it, you also need to recognize that it is just as real as land ownership. And you are also undoubtedly aware that there are people who do not believe private ownership of land is a good idea, and who make their own arguments against that. Maybe their ideas would leave us worse off, and maybe your ideas would leave us better off, but at the moment, the state of reality is that both private land ownership and the right of nations to collectively decide who may enter and who may reside, are solidly part of our consensus.

    There’s no reason why someone’s wish to rent a plot of land to someone else must necessarily take priority over national laws that say that someone else may not reside within its borders. You need to argue why it would be *better* for us to allow that someone to reside here – and I think you have, and I agree with you on almost all of it – but when you argue that we do not even have the right to make that choice, you’ve stepped into a completely different field (note: I might even agree with you on that one, but I don’t know, and you haven’t even attempted to make the case – you’re just assuming that your assertion is somehow inherently true).

  16. 16 16 Mike F

    The “libertarian” argument in the last paragraph is nonsense. The entire territory of a state is claimed by the citizens of the state collectively. We may recognize exclusive or semi-exclusive use rights in individuals for certain parcels of land, but your private property is still U.S. territory. You don’t, for example, have the right to transfer it to another sovereignty.

    In addition, transferring a piece of land is not the same thing as allowing a person into the country. You are free to sell your land to a Mexican, but whether he can come live on it is a question rightly determined collectively and democratically, because presence within our borders confers the use of all of our common property (parks, roads, many government services, citizenship for one’s children, etc.).

  17. 17 17 derek sutton

    It’s weird that you quote Derbyshire, but then, in the following paragraph misrepresent what he wrote! He wrote:

    “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.”

    but you present it (weirdly) as:

    “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.”

    Derbyshire is saying (as the immigrant) that he’s seeking to settle in country x. You say (as the immigrant) that you are seeking to buy or rent a plot of land. These two things are different right? Furthermore, illegal Mexican immigrants aren’t here to buy or rent a plot of land! Ha!

    Also, in your second comment you write, “However, I think in this case, we don’t even have a conflict. In the one case we ask “Is it okay to profit from a quota?”, in the next case we ask “Do we have an obligation to maintain quotas for the benefit of those who have trained themselves to profit from them?”. These are very different questions.”

    You are being excessively vague here, because you don’t want to really scratch too far under the surface. First, there are no quotas on illegal immigrants, that’s why they are illegals. Second, the ones who have trained themselves to benefit from illegals are businesses that have decided to function with illegal business practices (i.e. hiring illegals). Third, if quotas were actually enforced (zero illegals and limited legal immigration) the ones that would benefit are the people who perform manual labor for money. These are largely poor Americans, mostly black and Hispanic American citizens, to be exact. What you need to explain to us is why you choose to discriminate in favor of wealthy business owners, corporations, and foreign citizens over poor Hispanic and black Americans.

  18. 18 18 Steve Landsburg

    Derek Sutton:

    Derbyshire is saying (as the immigrant) that he’s seeking to settle in country x. You say (as the immigrant) that you are seeking to buy or rent a plot of land. These two things are different right? Furthermore, illegal Mexican immigrants aren’t here to buy or rent a plot of land! Ha

    I quite disagree with you when you say that those two things are different. Everyone who comes to the U.S. is seeking a place to live in the U.S., so everyone who comes to the U.S. is seeking to rent or buy a plot of land (or an apartment or an attic room or SOME specific location). It’s the owner of that specific location, not “The United States” that the immigrant is attempting to strike a deal with.

    On the second point about quotas, I apologize for the fact that the wording of the earlier comments might have misled you. That exchange was not about immigration quotas; it was about import quotas on manufactured goods, and it was referring not to the contents of the post but to a passage in my book that the commenter thought was analogous to this post in some important ways.

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