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Ep. 91 Bryan Caplan Defends Open Borders and His Critique of Austrian Economics

Bob conducts a friendly but challenging interview of Bryan Caplan, focusing on his new book making the case for open borders. They also discuss Bryan’s essay, “Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist,” and close with some brief remarks on pacifism.

Mentioned in the Episode and Other Links of Interest:

The audio production for this episode was provided by Podsworth Media.

About the author, Robert

Christian and economist, Research Assistant Professor with the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech, Senior Fellow with the Mises Institute, and co-host with Tom Woods of the podcast "Contra Krugman."


  1. Raining Sky on 01/07/2020 at 10:50 PM

    Caplan is so exasperating. Young people are rejecting libertarianism because they think we believe in open borders and can’t see, even in the example of Mexico vs the United States, that it matters who is in a country and what those people think, and know, and believe. The failure of countries that began as Spanish colonies to match the living standards of the countries that began as English colonies can only be explained by the difference between the people. All we owe them is to show them what they could have been had they been us. If they can’t apply the lesson to themselves, I don’t think that means they get to come live with us.

    • mary on 01/09/2020 at 1:31 AM

      Couldn’t agree more, Raining. Hoppe has it right and the open borders people are all wet. Ha, ha, ha, pun intended.

  2. Josh Scandlen on 01/08/2020 at 7:53 PM

    I’m disappointed. I thought Caplan, BY NOW, would have solidified his arguments and made them crisper and more on point, especially after that disastrous interview he did with Reason.

    Unfortunately, his shovel is working full time. I wish i could attribute this performance to Bob’s interview style, but, hell, Bob let Bryan talk and talk…and talk.

    If there is an argument for open borders, Caplan is not the one who should make it.
    Please point me in the direction of someone who makes the case better.

  3. David R Henderson on 01/08/2020 at 9:48 PM

    One of your best interviews. It’s rare that I watch an 84-minute interview. But it was that compelling. I also think I understand Bryan’s views on pacifism better than I had. His example of the Korean War was illuminating. Coincidentally, I was in a debate with a hawk a few months ago where I granted that that war almost certainly turned out right.
    I also liked Bryan’s critique of Austrian economics, especially the discussion of indifference.

    • Robert Murphy on 01/09/2020 at 2:17 PM

      Thanks David! And I’d love to see you make a graphic novel on that story!

  4. David R Henderson on 01/08/2020 at 9:54 PM

    I forgot to mention: I found the discussion of comic books around the 20-minute point fascinating and informative. It got me thinking that I could make a good graphic novel (but, of course, not a novel) out of something I’m working on–the story of my aunt and uncle being captured by the German Navy in March/April 1941 when Canada was at war but the U.S. wasn’t.

  5. notbob on 01/08/2020 at 11:12 PM

    Thanks for interviewing Bryan, Bob.

    Unfortunately, hearing him explain why he left Austrian economics is as unfulfilling as reading his article. It seems like he just got bored and moved on. The whole “undecided” issue seems absurdly trivial to me, as do some of the other critiques he offers in his article and his various defenses.

    I guess he just ended up liking other styles better and can’t explain why.

    @Raining Sky:

    I don’t think it’s an issue of “deserving” to get to live with us. But why are we wasting these people’s lives if they could be more productive (for themselves and us!) over here?

    The argument really boils down to: what is it about “us” that makes us more productive than “them”? And once we understand this advantage (and it is likely mostly cultural imho), is it in danger of being reduced or even extinguished because every immigrant changes the culture to a degree?

    I’d argue that it is mostly cultural and that yes, it could possibly be reduced or extinguished by too much immigration. Imagine Canada being flooded by 100 million people who don’t believe in property rights or the rule of law.

    So opening the borders 100% right now could potentially lead to the advantage being extinguished. In reality, I wonder how many people would actually come in what timeframe. Sure, 100 million or whatever world wide say they’d like to come, but would they all arrive on day 1? Presumably, they would trickle in over 50+ years. Then it becomes a question of how many people of what kind (presumably we’ll let in all the foreign libertarians right away?) the system can absorb and keep the advantage.

    • Raining Sky on 01/09/2020 at 8:10 PM

      I am slightly sorry for not making an argument from economics, but there’s more to life than that. I live near San Antonio, and it is shocking how Liberal it is becoming under Hispanic politicians. There is now a project to “re-interpret” the Alamo and move a beautiful cenotaph away, and there is an attempt to pass an ordinance to force businesses to pay hourly workers when they call in sick. They’re not sending their best libertarians (Ha), so immigration is working against our efforts to educate the public. I don’t see movement toward the kind of society I would want. I feel that I am falling away from Libertarianism. The Mises Inst. was a better match for me than Cato, but are we just theorizing our lives away? I appreciate all the commenters above.

      • notbob on 01/23/2020 at 9:47 PM

        Totally valid to make non-economic arguments. And in fact, your argument could conceivable be meta-economics – if we accept that economics policies are influenced by the people they would apply to, it seem valid to study how changing the makeup of a population would change the policies influenced by them.

        Counterpoint to what you’re saying: where I live, the same types of policies are being applied by affluent, older, upper middle-class white people. I think this is an urban thing, not an immigration thing. Here, hispanics are some of the more conservative people, mostly because they’re on average very religious. They’re not libertarian in many senses, but culturally conservative.

        Libertarians seem to make up at most 10-15% of any given population, and that seems true for immigrants as well.

        Regarding theorizing our lives away: in a sense, yes. I’ve given up trying to educate people on libertarianism long ago. It practically never works (I converted maybe 1-2 people in ~10 years of constantly talking about it). There are huge factors beyond what libertarians do or theorize about. Our lever is very small, and 98% of the levers are completely outside our control. I try not to agonize that I probably won’t be seeing a libertarian utopia in my lifetime, and try to accept that there won’t be much I can personally do to change that.

        Humanity just might not be ready. Imagine being teleported to 1000AD with the constitution in your hand. Do you think you’d be able to convince anyone to convert to a constitutional republic? I doubt it. Time and place.

  6. Edward Coplin on 01/10/2020 at 1:04 AM

    How can libertarians NOT be in favor of open borders. To violently keep someone from peacefully entering the country goes against the non aggression principle. You cant be a libertarian and aggress the non-aggression principle. Lol

    • The NAPster on 01/11/2020 at 3:48 PM

      Yes, for libertarians to argue that the state should manage any aspect of our lives, such as those with whom we can associate or trade, is a performative contradiction.

      Notwithstanding Caplan’s defense of the phrase “open borders,” Bob is right, it’s the wrong term for its proponents to use. It damages the libertarian argument about immigration, because of the connotation of an unchecked flow. The “open borders” libertarian stance on immigration is just a particular instance of the libertarian argument that the state is illegitimate, and that only private-property owners ought to be able to set the rules for who can traverse or live on their property. Those libertarians who argue that, while we have a state, it ought to manage our borders, are conceding way too much.

  7. Alex M on 01/10/2020 at 6:04 AM

    Excellent podcast. The most informative take-away for me was that immigration restrictions are really a trade restriction on one of the most important capital goods, human labor, which costs us an estimated 50% GDP! Wow. There’s no way to have free trade without open borders, because 80% of GDP is services, and human labor is used as a capital good in almost every business.

    Also I’m with Bob Murphy on indifference. It goes back to measurement and methodology. Sure, someone might be indifferent, but it’s not measurable and that’s what matters (and that’s what Block means by scientific). It doesn’t explain actions that we observe. It’s surprising that appear Caplan just doesn’t get the issue. Yes, we can introspect that there is indifference, but unlike preference it never reveals itself in action, and thus can’t be measured through action.

  8. John Mann on 01/10/2020 at 8:21 PM

    Thanks for this interview.

    It seemed that in the first few episodes of the BMS, Caplan was being mentioned in every second interview. I was looking forward to Brian being on the show, and kept wondering when it would be. Then when “Open Borders” came out, I thought “This is the perfect time!” So when this one appeared, I was delighted.

    I enjoyed it, by the way. There were no moments of great illumination, but it was all interesting.

    However, the most notable thing about it for me was the discussion about pacifism at the end. As a Christian, I was utterly shocked by what Brian said about Erich Honecker, and my eyebrows were also raised by what he said about the Korean War. He doesn’t seem to like communists. If I found this shocking as a Christian, how much more shocking it would have been if I was a Christian and a communist.

  9. The NAPster on 01/11/2020 at 4:09 PM

    Caplan is rare, if not unique, in becoming well-schooled in Austrian methodology first and then reject it for empiricism. I just don’t understand how one can observe the incredible complexity of societal interactions among humans and conclude that artificial models (which rely on constants) or empirical studies (which involve compounded factors) can provide more information about human action than deductive logic.

    I also found his arguments on “indifference” to be quite weak. He seems to be saying that “not acting” is not a choice or an action. But it is self-evidently both. If your alarm goes off and you wake up but just lie there, you’re (a) choosing not to get up, (b) engaging in action by continuing to lie there, and (c) demonstrating a preference for staying in bed to getting up. Humans cannot not act and cannot not choose, so the indifference concept, while perhaps useful in a folksy psychological sense, has no relevance to economics.

    The example of “How much would it take to get you to spend a night in prison?” was also poorly presented. Just discussing this with someone is not the point. The point could only be properly made if A says “OK, at $1,000 I could go either way,” and then B handed him $1,000 and we observed what A did. If A took the money but did not head to prison, then we could say that, regardless of what A said about his “indifference,” at that moment this was not enough to convince him to go to prison; if A headed to prison, then we could say that, at that moment, it was enough. But note that we could not then draw any conclusions about $999 or $1.001 unless we actually handed him these amounts.

  10. Cameron on 01/11/2020 at 7:58 PM

    Caplan is very thoughtful and his arguments are interesting, but I’ve never seen him, or any other pro-mass immigration advocate, address the fact that heterogeneous populations often settle their differences through conflict.

    The Middle East today and eastern Europe in the run up to World War II are obvious examples. In fact, the Nazis used the continent’s redrawn borders, under which large populations of ethnic Germans were ruled over by foreign governments, as an excuse to reclaim territory after the Treaty of Versailles was enacted.

    The social science research today on this issue is also very telling. For instance,

    “Switzerland is recognized as a country of peace, stability and prosperity. This is surprising because of its linguistic and religious diversity that in other parts of the the world lead to conflict and violence. Here we analyze how peaceful stability is maintained. Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups, allowing for partial autonomy within a single country. ”

    But something tells me Caplan, Charlie Kirk, Adam Kokesh et al. would break out in hives at the prospect of emulating Switzerland’s approach in the U.S.

  11. Dustin Reed on 01/14/2020 at 1:43 PM

    I admire Dr. Caplan’s work and passion, but unless you are arguing for a stateless society, which I didn’t hear him explicitly say, illegal immigration is unethical. Most illegal immigrants are low skill and their contribution to our society, while reaping the huge benefits of living here, is not fair to citizens.

  12. Tel on 01/16/2020 at 7:35 AM

    It’s fairly clear what “Open Borders” advocates are demanding … they chant it loudly:

    No borders.
    No walls.
    No USA at all.

    That means, not quibbling over a little increase or decrease in the legal and organized immigration process, but it means there IS NO immigration process, there IS NO border and nobody can control the movement of people. As we heard from that great libertarian Gary Johnson, we must not even use the word “illegal” to describe the breaking of immigration laws, because he would be offended. This is not just the libertarian position either, it has been solid Democratic Party policy that the executive branch should refuse (or be rendered unable) to enforce immigration law wherever possible.

    This leads to the question, once laws are no longer enforced, why have laws? Maybe selective enforcement might imply we don’t have rule of law … instead we have rule by whoever gets to decide which laws they feel like enforcing today. Can I choose some laws that offend me? Maybe I don’t happen to want to obey tax laws? Maybe I just want to borrow your car for an extended period. I mean, hey, it offends me that you have a better car than I do, and we know that once someone is offended you cannot enforce that law any more.

    Gosh, if only there was some formal process to decide which laws are real and which are some silly idea that we don’t have to worry about. Oh wait … there is a process! It’s called Congress and that whole political thingy, with that scrappy piece of Constitution paper and the whole bit. The DACA proposal was put before Congress several times and rejected … and that’s why DACA is not law. Oh dear, but seems like now it is law, somehow, because of that Democratic Party policy where they get to be selective if they want to … or more accurately DACA represents the absence of law where once a law had stood. Hmmmm … I’m offended by that.

    So once the rule of law falls to bits, and the nation state falls to bits … perhaps that’s a good thing … more liberty, right? Except, like what happens with the “regime change” projects that Americans regularly indulge in around the world … not many people are giving long and hard thought to what will replace the current system. Unlikely to be any Libertarian Party policies … much more likely to be Bernie Sanders and his socialism. Bigger welfare state, free everything for everybody, and don’t bother working hard because who would be so foolish as to work under a Bernie Sanders government? All the liberty you could ever want … provided you don’t intend to own any property. Of course Bernie will get bought at some stage (presuming he isn’t already) and the hierarchy will build up all over again.

    Perhaps you say, “Oh I’m only talking to reasonable people” and we can put that to the test with a small survey. Just send out some cards with a few questions? Are you a complete fruit-loop? Tick this box. Are you a reasonable and sensible person? Tick this box. Astoundingly we discover that all those Bernie Bro’s really are quite sensible. We merely had to ask them and they gave an answer. Surveys give such deep insight into the world. You discover that everyone is a sensible person by their own say so.

    On the topic of survey questions … I notice that Dr. Caplan uses the word “We” at regular intervals … who does he mean by “We” exactly? Does he mean “Americans”? But Dr. Caplan does not appear to believe that US citizenship is a meaningful notion, and if anything, sees the entire concept of citizenship as inconvenient and archaic. Does he say “We” as a way of speaking for the entire human race? May I get a veto on having him speak for me, if that’s OK? Personally I don’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of the entire human race, but I’m also instinctively uneasy hearing anyone else making such a claim. Does Dr. Caplan say “We” meaning to speak only for libertarians? Hmmmm, what’s a libertarian then … that’s a vague concept if ever there was one.

    Perhaps the “We” is a royal we … but with royalty comes hierarchy again, and that dreadful old concept of people being loyal to their monarch. That creates a group of people, and wherever you have a group, you always end up with others who are outside the group. Much the way humans have lived since forever. Bringing us back to borders again.

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