In their new book Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith do everything you’d think that good policy pundits should do.
They don’t just track trends or scold rivals, they identify and focus on a feasible positive policy change. They don’t just pick any old change, but focus on one of the biggest possible gains they can identify. And it isn’t a complex fragile proposal that most people couldn’t understand, or that would go badly if not implemented exactly as recommended; their proposal is simple and robust. They don’t pick a topic that has little emotional-resonance, regarding which few would act even if they were persuaded; their topic is quite emotionally-engaging. They don’t pick a change so abstract (like futarchy) that few can concretely imagine it; one can create concrete vivid images of what would happen if their proposal were implemented.
They don’t use complex technical prose, they write in simple clear language, and even add engaging pictures; their book is actually a well-done “graphic novel”. They don’t just present one side of an argument, but instead respond to many major counter arguments. They don’t just use one favored framework of analysis, they consider the issue from many possible frameworks. They don’t just focus on their favorite policy choice, they consider many possible ways to compromise with others. They aren’t overly confident in their claims. And while they consider many possible details and complexities, their main argument, regarding the main effect of their proposal, is simplicity itself.
Most important, their arguments seem solid and correct. Adopting their proposal could in fact plausibly double world product, over and above the growth rate that we might achieve without it. The main obvious effect seems so huge as to overwhelm other considerations. Relative to that huge gain, other costs and risks seem minor and acceptable. Of course, the real world is more complex than are our models of it, and so we can never be very confident that changes which go well in our models will actually go well in the real world. And all the more so when our models are noisy and partial, as in social science. Even so, this is another case I’d call “checkmate”, at least in argument terms.
So, damn it, Caplan and Weinersmith do everything you might think pundits should do. I remain personally persuaded (as I have long been); I’d pull the trigger on doing large broad tests of their plan, and if necessary making big compromises to get a deal that can make these tests happen.
I very much hope that everyone loves this book, and that it is the trigger we needed to start a larger debate that leads eventually to big trials. But alas, I’d bet against this happening, if I had to bet. The large political world isn’t that responsive, at least in the short to medium term, to the world of elite policy debates, and in the elite world people mainly care about signs of status and prestige. Elites loved Hawking’s Brief History of Time, Dubner & Levitt’s Freakonomics, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Bostrom’s Superintelligence not because those offered clear solid arguments that readers understood, but because they came with signs of high status. Many elites talked about them, their style projected prestige, their authors had high status affiliations, and the positions they took were in fashion, at least in elite circles.
I deeply admire my colleague Bryan Caplan, and am proud that he has again gone for the big solid simple intellectual win, as he did before regarding politics, parenting, and school. I hope he can do it another dozen times. I’ll read each one, and usually be persuaded. There’s a small chance he’ll have big effects, and his taking that chance seems a clear win on cost-benefit terms. But I must also be honest; that chance is still low.