Pollyannaish Sam Harris


I like Sam Harris, which is why I subscribe to his website and write about him quite often. I think he is a terrific thinker who has the ability to make potentially difficult ideas easy. I also think he is honest and more interested in understanding his enemies than than in scoring points, which is a real virtue. He seems to have a 20-year head start on me in the things I think about so I’m sort of playing catch-up. Apart from this he’s several years younger than me and super-intelligent.

That said, when it comes to politics he often sounds dopey to me. I can’t claim to know that he is wrong and I’m right, only that my intuitions are very different from his. Of course intuitions are unreliable critters and the fact that we all suffer from confirmation bias and often wrongly intuit that we are better at things than we really are shows how dangerous relying on your intuitions can be.

Yet if you can’t trust your intuitions, what or who can you trust? Do you have to think everything through from first principals with your superb intellect? Should you just parrot whatever Sam Harris or the New York Times says and pass it off as your own opinion? Should you claim you are apolitical while unwittingly absorbing the zeitgeist through Twitter and Facebook and following wherever this may take you; this year it happens to be anti-Trumpism, next year death to all Jews, perhaps.

A while ago on Sam’s podcast a listener asked him if letting refugees into the US was a zero-sum game. For those not into Game Theory, a zero-sum game is one like tennis or chess: one player’s victory inevitably means the other’s loss. Or take a cake. The more one person eats of a cake the less there is for others.

Fortunately countries and economies don’t work in this way. After all, cakes don’t get bigger over time but the world is much richer today than it was 10,000 years ago and continues to get richer still. The cake is growing all the time and this growth comes mainly through cooperation rather than one group profiting from another’s downfall. So if you let productive, well-socialised people into your country they will work hard, invent new things, start new businesses and your whole economy will grow and everyone benefits. Sam is of the opinion that an influx of refugees into the US is of this kind. I have transcribed his actual words from the podcast below:

No, I don’t think refugees coming into the US is a zero-sum situation because given appropriate vetting of these people they make our society better, ultimately, and the world better, and I think this is generally true, for a variety of reasons. And this would only be zero-sum if every refugee coming into our country made our country worse: simply stole our money, helped degrade our infrastructure and contributed nothing useful to our society. So if that were the situation, that would be zero-sum.

I have to say that I’m not convinced by the ‘every refugee’ bit. If taken literally, Sam thinks that as long as one refugee makes a positive impact on his new society then an influx of refugees can’t be viewed as a zero-sum, regardless of what all the other refugees are doing. If he had said, ‘this would only be zero-sum if the majority of refugees coming into our country made our country worse’ then I would agree with him. Yet he seems to believe that if there is a refugee in North Dakota who regularly helps to push his neighbour’s car out of the snow while all other refugees are trying to blow us up, this can’t be construed as benefiting only one side.

Prior to the above quote, Sam opined that if you are well off it is better to live surrounded by people who are just as well off as you since these people won’t resent you your wealth and good fortune and you will therefore not need to spend your days locked inside a gated community patrolled by guards. This, he believes, is why it is in everyone’s interest for societies to become more equal and as an extension, why we should let in poor immigrants.

I sort of agree with him, but only sort of. I think that even if we manage to reduce inequality there won’t be a commensurate reduction in resentment. People will still moan just as much as they do today, only over pettier differences, just as some people get just as angry about relative poverty as they did about real poverty. And differences in wealth will always exist since one man will always drink his wages while another saves his. At the end of the month the first person will ask the second to lend, or even give, him some of his money and progressives will ask why in this cruel world some people are reduced to begging while others have ‘too much’ money.

I’m sure many refugees are indeed grateful for being allowed to escape their war-torn, poorly-run, corrupt countries but what happens if they end up making our countries just like theirs? If enough of them come then surely this is not unlikely. And what if, unlike Jewish and Asian immigrants, they don’t thrive in the school environment and end up having to do dead end jobs, if they can find any job at all? Isn’t it possible that they will attribute their lowly status in society to a malign, bigoted society intent on keeping them marginalised? In what way does having such a low-achieving, resentful minority in your midst benefit society?

So my gripe with Sam Harris is not over what is or isn’t a zero-sum game, though I think his definition is very peculiar. My gripe is that he sounds so Pollyannaish about the benefits of taking in refugees (and, as far as I can tell, all the world’s poor). That he believes we are morally obliged to help people less fortunate than ourselves wouldn’t have surprised me but to find that he genuinely believes Americans to be better off taking in large numbers of refugees surprises me. Of course a lot depends on where the refugees are from, in what numbers they come and how full America already is. If the refugees are Jewish physicists then let them come, the more the merrier. If they are Romanian Gypsies then even one family is too many. Muslims and blacks, for a variety of reasons, fall between those two extremes of desirability but I find it unlikely that either would enhance the lives of Americans.

Though Sam talks about ‘appropriate vetting’, by which I assume he means checking for criminal records or adherence to proscribed religious and political groups, how do you vet for a willingness to integrate or to resign yourself with good grace to a lower status job? How does taking in people who are not only different but different in ways often antithetical to American life benefit everyone?

I actually quite like it when Sam says things I think are foolish. It gives me confidence, perhaps misplaced, that I’m actually better off listening to my own musings than to his.

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