Bryan Caplan On Open Borders

The economics professor makes a provocative argument for unfettered immigration.


Bryan, who teaches economics at George Mason University, is the author of the graphic nonfiction NYT bestseller Open Borders. His views on immigration, nation-states, and democracy are extremely different from my own, so we debate all throughout the episode. Bryan has been the most recommended guest by our readers, who clearly want to see some fireworks on this issue. I had a lot of fun.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To hear three clips of my conversation with Bryan — on whether a country’s citizens should have any say over immigration; on whether adding a billion people to the U.S. is wise or feasible; and on whether voting is irrational “poetry”, as Bryan puts it — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, a wave of reader email came in after our episode with Jonathan Rauch, the most email we have received for any guest. Many of them are below, starting with this reader:

This was an excellent podcast. Jonathan Rauch is kind and articulate, a great combination, and your dialogue was a great mixture of respectful conflict between the two of you and time for each of you to make your cases.

In light of a new opinion piece in the NYT, “Cancel Culture Works: We Wouldn't Have Marriage Equality Without It,” and throwing in some of Rauch’s ideas, I wonder what you think about this: Democrats and those to the left of center have long been accused of playing too nice. Republicans began by using negative ads — tactics that didn’t begin but coalesced under Trump — and progressed to outright threats and naked power plays used to punish wayward thinkers. Democrats, on the other hand, wouldn’t attack each other and generally held on to the idea of building relationships and playing nice much longer.

The problem is the negative ads worked. The threats worked. All of Trump’s disgusting tactics worked. Mind you, I do believe the Republicans may be hurting themselves in the long run, but in the short run, they’ve got loyal politicians, courts and state legislatures packed with like-minded conservatives, voting districts drawn to favor themselves, and an electorate — approximately half the country — that supports them through thick and thin.

It seems to me that cancel culture and its wokeists are simply taking on the same cutthroat tactics. They’re tired of losing and being the nice guys. The culture has taught them to be more cynical, that long-term persuasion is too soft, takes too long, is too vulnerable to being undermined in the short term.

Case in point is the example of that Times op-ed. I don’t know if the author is right that gay marriage needed to start threatening opponents’ livelihoods and positions in order to win, but it probably didn’t hurt, at least along with the more typical persuasive techniques. If one side continues to use cutthroat, anti-liberal (in the Rauch sense of the word) tactics that tear to shreds the slow, persuasive, long-term techniques of those following a more traditional, liberal model, what are the Democrats then left with?

To be quite frank, I think Sasha’s argument was more good op-ed provocation than serious analysis of how marriage equality won. You win by shifting public opinion, which shifts the incentives of politicians. And, more importantly, that makes the advances stick.

A reader dissents over my perspective on the pod:

First of all, the Jonathan Rauch podcast was excellent. One of the best in a while. But I was gobsmacked that you could not concede that the danger of Donald Trump and the Republican disinformation campaign was a greater threat than what’s going on at the New York Times. You’ve truly lost the forest for the trees and it’s incredible, but sad, to watch. When you started your podcast I couldn’t imagine that I wouldn’t listen to every episode; I’ve been a fan for 20 years. But I don’t because so much of it is just you ranting against CRT and the NYT. 

I do believe that the Trump insanity and the GOP degeneracy are bigger threats to liberal democracy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t worry about liberal institutions caving to leftism. Another reader turns to Rauch:

Dissent incoming!

I like Jonathan Rauch and look forward to reading his new book, but he makes two errors in his apology for journalism’s recent missteps. First, mainstream journalism didn’t simply “get it wrong based upon the facts as known at the time.” Journalists called the Wuhan lab theory “debunked” (which it clearly wasn’t) and some characterized it as a racist theory — a NYT Covid reporter even called it racist just two weeks ago. Journalists never “showed their work” in reporting how this theory was “debunked.” Instead, they just cited Fauci and blindly accepted his version because it contradicted Trump.

This leads me to my second point: journalists cannot blame Trump for their own mistakes! The NYT, WashPo, Atlantic, and New Yorker are operated by some of the most brilliant and well-educated people in the nation. Trump is a mountebank likely suffering from a mental illness, so what does it say about our so-called elites if Trump can so easily manipulate them? Journalists are the only ones responsible for their emotionally-driven reporting of the last five years. Rauch is giving Trump more power than he deserves and is failing to hold mainstream journalism accountable.

From the Wuhan lab story, to the Russian bounty story, to the “Trump is a Russian Mole” story, to the “immigrants in concentration camp” story (remember Maddow crying about “Tender Camps”?), to their biased coverage of last summer’s riots, to their deceptive reporting on police shootings — journalists have nobody to blame for this but themselves. Folks like Taibbi and Greenwald have done a good job covering journalism’s depressing state of affairs, and Rauch is letting them off the hook by blaming Trump. 

Rauch eventually won over the following reader, who sided with his optimism over my pessimism regarding the state of liberal democracy:

I came into the episode agreeing more with you than Jonathan Rauch, but much of what he said towards the end of the episode swayed me. As an elusive under-30 who believes in the constitution of knowledge, I’m still fairly young. (I assure you that we’re out there!) But even I remember the darker days of the gay marriage debate that took place when I was a kid.

My parents, both lifelong Democrats, didn’t support gay marriage. My childhood Catholic church had pamphlets reminding parishioners of the Church’s stance on marriage before the 2004 election, when Republicans were putting state constitutional amendments on ballots nationwide to prohibit same-sex marriage in an attempt to drum up votes for Bush. Today even a majority of Republicans support it, and almost everyone I meet takes in stride the news that I have a wife.

What’s currently happening in the wokified institutions is what Nassim Taleb calls the “dictatorship of the intolerant minority” (Rauch sort of expressed this idea without naming it as such). The more tolerant majority is expected to adhere to the less tolerant minority’s preferences. For instance, drivers who can drive manual transmissions eventually find mostly automatic cars on the market; once motorists who can only drive automatic vehicles reach a critical mass, companies start selling automatics, since drivers who can drive stick shifts can also drive automatics.

However, the intolerant woke minority is extending their preferences so far that they’re actually impinging on the majority in a major way at this point. As you’ve pointed out, the majority who prefer small-l liberalism are getting forced out of major institutions or silenced. Moving from one epistemological system to another is a much greater shift than driving a different type of car, so I suspect that the initial backlash we’re seeing is only the beginning. The success of your Substack, along with the independent publications of many other heterodox thinkers, is highly encouraging. As Rauch said, there’s no guarantee of success, but I think there’s a high enough probability that the fight is worthwhile.

This reader is of two minds:

Rauch’s optimism was both calming and frustrating. In particular, he seemed to push back on you that the NYT etc were really as lost to liberal values as you claimed. At one point he said you were 10x too concerned. Yet his answer for why liberalism isn’t at risk is that we are making “new institutions.” These new institutions are great, I agree. But how can he simultaneously say “the old institutions aren’t lost” and that “our hope is the new institutions” — isn’t that a contradiction?

From a member of Team Pessimism, who zeroes in on the liberal pillar of peer review:

Thanks for another terrific podcast. On the question of whether we should be more optimistic or pessimistic on the future of liberalism, I am inclined towards the latter. This is because a central element of the liberal idea of knowledge production is the role of peer review. To be accepted, a new piece of research, or indeed an article presenting an intellectual argument, must be reviewed blind by anonymous peer reviewers.

(By way of background, I have published in several of the English-speaking world’s leading peer-reviewed law journals, and according to various metrics, I am amongst the most widely published and frequently cited legal scholars in Australia and beyond. I spent several years as editor of two well-respected Australian law journals. I serve, or have served, on several editorial boards of international journals in my field.)

Now there used to be ethical standards about peer review. In the liberal university, the role of a peer reviewer is to determine whether an article is of publishable quality and to advise the editor or editors accordingly. Reviewers must not discriminate based upon the point of view expressed. That is, as a reviewer, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether I agree with the author’s viewpoint. The question is whether the paper is well-argued, sufficiently original, and supported adequately by evidence to the extent that it relies upon empirical claims. Freedom of speech in the academic community requires that we allow arguments to be aired and debated whether or not we agree with them. It also requires that anonymous peer reviewers do not abuse their positions to stifle legitimate debate.

That culture of supporting a diversity of viewpoints and encouraging free academic debate used to be a characteristic of academic law journals. Not so much today.

The culture was exemplified for me early in my career by a former professor of law who became an appellate judge. I submitted an article to the Journal he edited that, inter alia, criticised a decision on which I knew he had sat as one of three judges. What I did not know, was that he was the author of that joint decision. He had the article peer-reviewed and subsequently sent me a five-page letter explaining his decision in that particular case. He told me why he thought my analysis of the case was wrong and why he disagreed with the views expressed in my article.

However, he ended the letter by saying “of course I would be delighted to publish the article.” He did not ask for any revisions. Nonetheless, I took account of his views and made various amendments, although I was not persuaded enough to change my viewpoint or the overall thrust of the article.

That is how it should be.

And it still is if your article offers a new and stunning discovery on the sex life of snails or makes a contribution to discussion about some obscure aspect of astrophysics. Peer review sometimes can be of uneven quality, but mostly the system works well in the sciences and even in much of the humanities. But on “social justice” issues, it is proving harder and harder to get work published that presents evidence for a different narrative to the mainstream progressive view.

I have experienced the quiet censorship of peer reviewers in a number of instances over recent years. For example, my colleagues and I tried to tell a more complex story about domestic violence than typically appears in the law journals, drawing upon the “lived experience” of some 180 interviewees and many practising lawyers. It was ground-breaking research in certain ways. Eventually we succeeded in getting the articles published, but only with great difficulty.

That was nothing compared to trying to publish on issues related to the transgender movement. Some reviewers have not even tried to find sensible reasons for rejection, dismissing the article in a paragraph of condemnation or providing a few sentences of vague nonsense. One reviewer rejected an article, inter alia, because the language was “outdated” and in some instances “offensive”. Here are some of the terms criticised: “sex change”; “sexual reassignment surgery”; “transgenderism”; “transsexual”; “ftm”; “mtf”; “opposite sex”; and “biological females”. I know others with similar experiences.

This is the most insidious and hidden aspect of cancel culture. The University remains an important cauldron for ideas, but if dissentient views get censored by anonymous peer reviewers, if different arguments are not heard and evidence not allowed to be presented, then we are indeed in trouble. The social justice activists reject the ethos of liberalism, and peer review is one way in which they silence dissent. In so doing, the whole system of peer review is undermined.

So I am pessimistic because I don’t see the activists learning or accepting basic liberal ethical standards. Their worldview justifies silencing dissent. They are the last ones therefore to allow it when they have the power of censorship in their hands

This is my deepest concern. The social justice left does not believe in liberalism. Another dispatch from academia ends things on a hopeful note:

I loved your interview with Jonathan Rauch. I guess it struck home with me so strongly because I am, as it were, on the front lines of what you were talking about. I have taught philosophy at a small liberal arts college for 28 years (and am somewhat of a Platonist, to give you a sense of my point of view). And I teach logic every semester.

I am sometimes a pessimist and sometimes an optimist about the general hopes for what you, Rauch, and others hope for, but I am ultimately reminded of what I take to be the central message of the Republic, which is that there will be no good society that lasts, but that what matters is the city of the good in the soul.

I am optimistic about my individual students, who seem to drink in logic — logic! — like it is some kind of revelation. It is the simplest things that enchant them — while it is profoundly depressing that they have never come across it before. For example, some students almost grow giddy with the idea of something like the difference between validity and soundness! I get emails from them ENTHUSING about it, saying logic changed their life!

I always tell my students that Plato gives me hope when he says in the Republic that “evils are many and good things are few.” And they look at me, very puzzled. And I tell them to consider the implication: that goodness is real. And I find it one person at a time.