Parable of the Neighborhood Watch
November 9, 2012 18 Comments
Suppose you’re concerned about crime and safety in your neighborhood and so you, along with some of your neighbors, decide to form a Neighborhood Watch. You hold some planning meetings, funds are collected, rules and details and contingency-plans outlined, schedules are drawn up for the members to take turns on duty. Perhaps the arrangement is formalized by writing down the governing documents of your Neighborhood Watch: its purpose, its members, who can join, its mandate and powers, its stated dues, and so forth.
So far so good, but some time later, member John says: “Why should we watch only our neighborhood? Other Neighborhood over there has far more crime, and we’d do a whole lot more good, and increase net human utility far more, by patrolling there.” Moral arguments are marshaled to the effect that, by favoring your neighborhood over Other Neighborhood in your actions, you were being monstrously chauvinistic. Denying their rights. Valuing their humanity less. What right, says John, do we have to devote our Neighborhood Watch just to watching our own neighborhood?
All the Smart People in your Neighborhood Watch nod their heads. They can think of no counterargument, and certainly don’t want to appear selfish and chauvinistic. And so, before long, before you even really know what happened, your Neighborhood Watch – the one you set up and contributed your money and time to for the sole purpose of, well, watching your own neighborhood – is spending most of its time worrying about and patrolling Other Neighborhood, judging its success on the basis of whether crime is being reduced there.
The funny part is, Other Neighborhood already has its own neighborhood watch group, and they’re not at all swayed by these moral arguments. They focus solely on their own neighborhood and never give it a second thought.
How would you feel at that point? Tricked? Hoodwinked? Scammed? At best, if you had a great attitude and the means, you’d be like ‘oh well, I guess I have to start up a whole new Neighborhood Watch now’. One that actually serves the purpose for which you intended the other one.
Of course, if that one gets hijacked too….
What is the basic problem with John’s moral argument above? I would say that at best, John is, as they say, unclear on the concept of a Neighborhood Watch. He has extrapolated its constitutive purpose and mandate to something abstractly universalized – as if a Neighborhood Watch was ever meant to maximize the welfare of all people – and in the process subverted or at least ignored why it was created, what it was meant to do, and what its founders (and funders) had agreed to in the forming of it.
In short, he has commandeered an organization that had been set up to do X (and gotten participation/funding on that basis) and insisted that, instead, it focus on doing Y. This is a fraud, a bait-and-switch.
But if any of the original founders complain – ‘John, that’s not why we made this organization, and that’s not why we gave our time/money’ – he calls them selfish monsters who deny others’ humanity.
Try to imagine how you would feel at that point, being one of those Neighborhood Watch members, being lectured by John, as he takes your money in the name of the Neighborhood Watch and then acts as if its use should be directed to help Other Neighborhood. And then you’ll know how I feel every time I encounter certain Bryan Caplan posts or the openborders.info website.
UPDATE: Please do not get too hung up on the specific details/images conjured by a ‘Neighborhood Watch’. The important point is just that the people (the neighborhood) have formed an Organization for their own benefit, but now someone (i.e. someone using the ‘universalist’ morality of certain open-borders advocates) is insisting that the Organization must necessarily work to benefit all people equally and it’s monstrous not to. It doesn’t have to be a Neighborhood Watch, it could be anything:
Neighborhood trash collection. John: “Shouldn’t we collect others’ trash too?”
Neighborhood baby-sitters club/ring. John: “Shouldn’t we babysit for other peoples’ kids too?”
Neighborhood block-party committee. John: “Shouldn’t we organize block parties for everyone else too?”
Neighborhood private swimming pool. John: “Shouldn’t we let anyone swim in it who wants?”
Hopefully the pattern is clear now.