Parable of the Neighborhood Watch
November 9, 2012, 12:40 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

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 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.

18 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This is an excellent parable describing our modern military-interventionist foreign policy.

To turn it into an open-borders parable, you’re going to have to replace “the Neighborhood Watch is trying to patrol other neighborhoods” with “the Neighborhood Watch is considering allowing people to invite friends over or even sell their house without first getting neighborhood approval of the newcomers”.

Comment by roystgnr

Ha. Shall I give you a point? Fine. 1 point to you.

But as you surely could figure out on your own, the operative part of the analogy is just the use of moral arguments to attempt to ignore/divert/universalize the mandate of an organization that was created by specific people for a specific and local purpose. If you ever wish to challenge the meat of that analogy, let me know.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

Moral universalism sucks because its almost always a front for self-interest and status seeking. When it’s sincere, it gets oceans of blood spilled. Most people’s morals aren’t universalist, they’re duty-based, but we all feel compelled to provide lip service to universalism. This horribly damages aspies like Caplan because they confuse that lip service with genuine aspirations.

Comment by Jehu

What also grates about the self-serving nature of this moral universalism is that, very often if not most of the time, the person spouting it almost certainly has more assets and lives more comfortably and in a nicer place than I do (e.g. Caplan, I’m assuming). Why don’t they use some of those nifty universalist principles to give up some of their status or wealth to, oh I dunno, me? But I am the monster and they are the superior moral being, even though they have no intention of rectifying any such disparity that favors them.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

The thing is, Caplan style universalist arguments here are a straight up defense of globalist empire-building. Look how much Mexico is suffering, what if we were to incorporate it into the states and give it the benefit of our governing wisdom? Would that not increase human freedom and happiness?

Comment by Matt

At the very least, all of the US safety net and welfare programs should surely be extended to the rest of the world. By what right do those things only go to the benefit of people in the US? That’s nationalism which is racism which is chauvinism which is bigotry which is racism pure and simple.

Shouldn’t all of Obamacare be available to Indonesia and Siberia and Tanzania and Estonia? Why on earth not?

Alternatively, at the very least what needs to be done is for the US government to levy a wealth tax of 100%-of-wealth-greater-than-$X (for appropriate $X) on all American citizens (but only American citizens, of course), and then to distribute it evenly to all humans in the rest of the world whose assets are less than $X. Clearly this would increase the welfare of all those people, which is (apparently!) the constitutive purpose and mandate of the United States Government. That’s why we have it and set it up: to forcibly tax ourselves in order to help other people who are not ourselves. I totally remember agreeing to that don’t you? That’s just Civics 101.

I really wonder what counterargument the ‘open borders’ folks could possibly have to this idea. By the universalist principles they regularly rely on, it would seem to be monstrous of the U.S. Government NOT to do this. By not having a 100%-of-wealth-over-$X tax and then distributing the proceeds to, like, poor Bangladeshis, surely we are ‘discounting their humanity’.

Truly, we are such evil and selfish monsters.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I think they’re going to take away my libertarian card as I can’t get on board with the open borders crowd. Maybe I’m not a libertarian…

My neighborhood watch would vote to blow up a bridge in order to provide my neighborhood a much needed additional degree of separation from the neighborhood watch on the other side of the bridge. The problem with that neighborhood watch on the other side of the bridge is that they do in fact come into our neighborhood. Mostly on fundraising drives. It’s a crude society over there. My neighborhood watch can’t even pay the Danegeld as there is not enough organization on the other side of the bridge to work with.

I don’t think Caplan (and Angus) live in a fringe neighborhood like I do. I think most of the open borders crowd love them some cheap labor or are democrats. Probably both.

Comment by Mike

[…] Parable of the Neighborhood Watch « Rhymes With Cars & Girls. […]

Pingback by Parable of the Neighborhood Watch « White Rock Kitchens

I’m going to push back just a little, not because I disagree with the OP, but because I want to highlight the one important place in the world for moral universalism: the Church. The truth (or Truth, if you prefer) of Christianity and its moral system applies to the whole world. But, the Great Commission suggests that the Church go out into the world and work with different cultures and people where they are and bring the gospel to them. Then slowly but surely, as they turn to Christ (and hopefully away from liberalism) they will turn to truth and human flourishing.

Comment by Fake Herzog

Here’s my attempt to answer this kind of question, from a post at Open Borders a while back.

“The relevance of this post to open borders will not be immediately obvious, but bear with me, I’ll get to it. “Meta-ethics” is a real word, as my sister, a professional philosopher, recently confirmed to me. I was afraid I had made it up, because it’s so useful in immigration debates. Meta-ethics is basically theorizing about where ethical rules or values come from. “Don’t steal” is ethics. “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is meta-ethics. Specifically, it’s a statement (a rather clumsy one) of utilitarian meta-ethics. People can have similar ethical views derived from quite different meta-ethical starting places. For example, a virtue ethicist might act bravely because courage is part of the good life for man, while a utilitarian acts bravely because he is convinced that the greatest happiness of the greatest number will be served, in a particular crisis, by his keeping cool while running terrible risks. People can also arrive at quite different views on a whole range of particular ethical questions starting from the same meta-ethical starting point: one utilitarian might believe in largely laissez-faire capitalism, while another is a Communist. If one wants to make a rational argument against a particular ethical rule (e.g., stay in the country you were born in unless some foreign government gives you permission to migrate there), I don’t see much possibility of doing this without appealing to one or more meta-ethical standards. On the other hand, one can argue against a meta-ethical position via a reductio ad absurdum showing that a consistent application of it would lead to monstrous moral positions. For example, one might attack utilitarianism by arguing that, under certain circumstances, consistent utilitarians should be willing to torture children to death. Anyway, in the course of many debates, I’ve found that a surprisingly satisfactory meta-ethics is comprised by the following two rules:

“1. Universal altruism. Regard the welfare of every human being as equally important, and act accordingly. The ultimate end or standard of behavior should be to maximize the happiness of all mankind, with no special preference either for oneself or for any subset of humanity– family, tribe, nation, class, religious community, whatever– to which one happens to belong.

“2. Division of labor. But as Adam Smith so lucidly explained, people are rendered more productive by specialization and division of labor, and we will do the task of caring for humanity much better if we split it up into many different tasks and assign most people, at least, a much smaller range of activity. Nature and circumstances gives us a kind of rough draft of how to arrange this division of labor, giving us all impulses to serve our families and those neighbors who evoke our pity or who have done us a good turn and earned our gratitude. Reason might urge us to modify this template somewhat, but not to discard it completely.

“Principle #1 may seem to some wildly and dangerously idealistic. Doesn’t it imply that we should all dash off to serve the poor in the streets of Calcutta, like Mother Theresa? Probably not; that’s where principle #2 comes in. There are probably a lot of people near us who need our help. They might not need help as much as destitute people in Calcutta, but then, we may not be able to do a whole lot for the destitute people in Calcutta. Maybe we can send money, but there are huge information and incentive problems involved in long-distance charity. Depending on our skills, maybe we can go there ourselves… but most of us probably don’t have a lot of skills that would be particularly use. Destitute people in Calcutta may need help, but likely not our help.
Principle #2 gives a certain degree of support– but not a blank check– to the saying that “charity begins at home.” Helping people isn’t usually just a matter of willingness and self-sacrifice. More often it is a subtle business, which demands empathy, strategy, alertness, and good judgment. Principle #2 even authorizes a good deal of frankly selfish behavior. After all, one of the people who needs taking care of is you, and very often, you’re in the best position to do it! On the other hand, the relatively affluent and prosperous should definitely stand ready to serve others, when the opportunity arises, and maybe even go looking for such opportunities..”

Read more here:

Comment by Nathan Smith

Applied to the present case: the Neighborhood Watch is fine. It’s when you try to prohibit other people from walking the streets of your neighborhood that it starts to violate the moral law. I hope the parallel is clear?

Comment by Nathan Smith

Not really; that comes from taking my analogy overly literally (as the first commenter also did). This is my fault: my fault for using a Neighborhood Watch as my example, rather than spending more time to think of something else, since it seems to have made you guys think mostly of patrolling, exerting authority, etc., and that was not my intent.

Please forget the literal details/images conjured up by a Neighborhood Watch, people walking around patrolling neighborhoods, wearing funny hats, etc.

The framework intended by my analogy is simply (more generically) that of an Organization that is formed by specific people and for a specific purpose with the express intent of benefiting the people who have set it up and are contributing to it and sacrificing for it. That is why it was formed. That is why it exists. The people would not have formed it or funded it or contributed their time to it but for the knowledge and sincere belief and intent that it would benefit their neighborhood – i.e. them.

Either this is ok to do or it is not. I think it is ok. In fact all humans, at least judging from their behavior, think it’s ok. I would go so far as to say that there is no and has never been any human that did not act according to the principle that it’s ok to focus their attentions/resources more on some local subset of people (e.g. their family) than on faraway people. If there are counterexamples, they belong either to the religious/saintly class, or to the sociopathic.

Assuming then that it is ok to form such an Organization, what is not ok is to come along and say that that Organization’s mandate ought to be bent, stretched, and diverted to a whole different goal along the lines of ‘benefiting everyone equally’ (the Other Neighborhood in my analogy). The reason this is not ok isn’t that I disagree that it’s moral and nice and good to help all people equally. I think that’s swell. Nor is it that I ‘value some peoples’ humanity less than’ that of other people, which I consider to basically just be a weird non sequitur.

The reason this is not ok is simply that it is a fraud, a bait and switch, something akin to (or perhaps even literally) a breach of contract. The Organization was set up for purpose 1, the people subject to it have contributed to/sacrificed for it on that understanding, but now (if the ‘universalist’ argument wins the day) it is being diverted to purpose 2. Yet – shockingly and truly perversely – the Organization’s members are expected to keep abiding by their side of the agreement: paying dues, etc. This cannot be justified.

In the framework of your preceding comment, the Organization is nothing more or less than a perfectly valid and innocent expression of your principle #2: division of labor in the task of increasing welfare. It is not violating anyone else’s rights. It is perfectly valid to divide labor in this way, i.e. for Us to build and create ‘local’ Organizations for the benefit of Us. Others do exactly the same, with no controversy or even second thoughts. Hence to invoke your principle #1 to argue that the Organization should necessarily be ‘universalized’ is to make a completely invalid argument.


Comment by Sonic Charmer

[…] Borders blog in the coming days. Steve Sailer’s own post, as well as Sonic Charmer’s thoughtful addition to the debate, are definitely more at our level and we can address these. I left a couple of comments on […]

Pingback by » EconLog comments policy and open borders Open Borders: The Case

You have articulated Robert Conquest’s First Law of Politics: All organizations not explicitly, constitutionally right-wing will eventually become left-wing.

Though he doesn’t put it this way, it’s because Smart People always think they should be running things, which means that often the only people with the energy to run for office are Smart People (complementary alternative hypothesis: Dumb People all have jobs, and thus lack the free time Smart People have to run for offices). Smart People, being leftwingers to a man, go through the “thought” process you describe (though it’s really more of a psychological tic combined with a misdirected religious impulse). And so the Neighborhood Watch (fire department, unemployment office, Obamacare, what have you) becomes the de facto guarantor of the world’s pwecious widdle feelings.

Comment by Severian

[…] Division of Labor?just_karmenwhen your key doesn’t fittrstn_mtchllGOP Evolving on ImmigrationParable of the Neighborhood Watch .recentcomments a{display:inline !important;padding:0 !important;margin:0 […]

Pingback by Bohemia and in accordance with the method of bed season | ABCINFOPAGES.COM

I don’t understand why you joined neighborhood watch to begin with.
That guy sounds like a real pest. There’s always someone who makes everyone groan and scares people into submission by bringing morality into the conversation and the beauty of the thing is that he can always raise the stakes, one can always be called upon to sacrifice even more and the more discomfort it causes the more it proves it’s truly a selfless and worthy action and the more clear cut it is that you’re oblivious to morality when you draw a line.

Comment by Anon.

Yeah, that was dumb of me.

And you’re so right about John. I didn’t even mention that time one evening when we had agreed to go in together on a pizza, and then seemingly the next thing I knew we were in a plane over Ghana dropping giant crates of food that he had somehow convinced me to pay for as part of the whole pizza thing.

Never got the pizza, either.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

[…] a blog post titled Parable of the Neighborhood Watch, Sonic Charmer makes a related point (although this is not the focus or thrust of his […]

Pingback by » The case for open borders is universal Open Borders: The Case

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 496 other followers

%d bloggers like this: