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How Evil Are Politicians?: Essays on Demagoguery by Bryan Caplan
(Bet On It Books, 2022)
Caplan follows up on that observation with a devastating point about the calculating political mindset. Suppose that a politician had to choose between a populace of nothing but independent, self-supporting individuals or one with a large percentage of envious layabouts who look to government for their support? Obviously, he would choose the latter because it has so many people clamoring for the goodies that only politicians can dispense. That helps to explain why public education is so miserable. Hordes of angry, incompetent, and dependent people are more easily manipulated than are well-educated, independent people.
Poor education also helps to explain why so many Americans (especially younger ones) say that they favor socialism. Caplan calls them “negligent romantics.” They know very little and care even less about the hideous historical record of socialism. They claim that they want to make the United States into a big version of socialist Sweden or Denmark. But is that as far as they want to go? (Both countries are, after all, ranked as being more free than the United States now is.) Caplan suspects that many Americans who say they want socialism would be willing to go much further down that road than those Scandinavian welfare states.
Socialism gets the traction it does mainly because of a great character flaw in many people — envy. They see that others have been more successful than they have and become envious. Along come politicians who promise to level out the “unfair distribution” of wealth to give them what they want. The gratifying of envy has disastrous effects on incentives. Caplan praises Helmut Schoeck’s book Envy and observes that envy retarded progress for thousands of years and could turn the clock back today.
How about immigration? Caplan is simply dazzling in his argumentation in favor of open immigration. His opening salvo is a chapter entitled “Tell Me the Difference Between Jim Crow and Immigration Restrictions.” In it, he makes the case that the mandatory governmental discrimination against illegal immigrants is much harsher than that suffered by blacks during the era of segregation. Blacks were permitted to live in most places, but illegal immigrants can’t legally live anywhere; blacks were permitted to work at most jobs, but illegal immigrants can’t legally work at any job.
In another chapter, Caplan celebrates Open Borders Day and observes that immigrants (legal and illegal) work hard to make better lives for themselves and contribute far more to improving the world here than they could possibly have done in their native lands. Moreover, most American citizens are perfectly content to hire them without concern over their legal status.
Nevertheless, we hear shrill critics railing against illegal immigrants all the time. Caplan writes, “the critics are angry when immigrants work, and angry when they’re on welfare. They are angry if immigrants are visible, and angry if immigrants keep to themselves.” One might conclude that the critics are demagogues who are merely looking for an issue to help them obtain power.
And in another chapter about immigration, Caplan challenges economist turned left propagandist Paul Krugman, who has written that the immigration restrictions of the 1930s, bad as they certainly were for the people who were kept out of the United States, were beneficial in that the welfare state probably couldn’t have gained its foothold here otherwise. Caplan’s rejoinder is sharp: “Why is [Krugman] so convinced that this marginal policy change outweighs the massive harm by making almost all immigration illegal?” That massive harm includes the fates of many who were turned away when they sought refuge from the Nazis in Europe. It shows a badly flawed moral compass to think that having a federal welfare system was worth that cost.
War is another topic that occupies our author. He describes his position as “pacifist” — one who opposes war on principle. Those who are not pacifists usually respond that while wars do have lots of bad consequences, they must be waged when the long-run consequences will outweigh the harms. But that defense is highly problematic. Caplan points out that it is extremely difficult to predict the long-run consequences of a proposed war. It isn’t morally justified unless there are very strong reasons to believe that the good will exceed the bad. That is why, he writes, “Pacifism is a sound guide to action.”
Nations get into wars not because wise people have done precise cost/benefit calculations but because they’re good for politicians and some of the powerful interest groups that support them.
But, nonpacifists reply, surely World War II had to be fought. Pacifism would not have worked. To that, Caplan replies that had pacifism prevailed earlier, the First World War would not have occurred and therefore militarists wouldn’t have come to power in the 1930s.
What about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? In a devastating chapter, Caplan argues that if you agree that the My Lai massacre in Vietnam was a war crime, then you must also conclude that the atomic bombings were war crimes. Both were avoidable and led to needless death and suffering.
What causes war? Quite simply, writes Caplan, bad ideas, such as the idea of nationalism, for which the antidote is libertarianism.
How Evil are Politicians? is an intellectual joy ride. Get a copy and savor its bristling arguments in favor of the free, truly liberal society.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.