A Few Responses to Critics

My co-blogger Vipul Naik is better than I am at reading sources on the other side of the immigration issue. I sometimes like to learn by debating, to know what the other side thinks, and to take their claims and arguments and talking points as a jumping-off point for my own thoughts. Sometimes the other side convinces me and I reverse my views, e.g., on natural rights, which I disbelieved in at the age of 25 but believed in by the time I was 30 or so. But on other issues, including immigration, the truth is more lop-sided, and to read the other side just frustrates me with bad logic and pollutes my brain with false facts. To be fair, I think there are a few needle-in-a-haystack decent arguments on the other side, but to find them I’d have to read so much rubbish that it’s not worth the effort.

So I was glad to read the comments section of Bryan Caplan’s post “Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders,” (a follow-up on Vipul’s post open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1) because it aggregates a lot of objections to open borders in one place, succinctly stated, and informed by at least some familiarity with Caplan’s arguments. I’ll quote and address them in the order that they appeared.

1. (Foobarista) Frankly, in the 1000 things that the government should change to be more libertarian, open borders is number 750 at best. And doing it too early could kill other libertarian initiatives by drawing in foreigners who’ll vote anti-libertarian… (and Bostonian) Those Third World people, once they are here, will consume a lot of social services and vote for ever-higher income taxes on me, thus infringing on *my* right to sell my labor.

Since no explanation is provided for ranking open borders #750 on the priority list, I cannot address the commenter’s thinking on that issue. The claim seems prima facie untenable, since the quantity, so to speak, of human welfare and freedom which open borders could add to the sum of mankind’s felicity dwarf that which any other policy could induce. On voting, see our political externalities page, which links to other Caplan posts. Of course, the simplest way to address this is to restrict the voting rights of immigrants, or of certain classes of immigrants, or if you want to press the point, of their offspring as well. In Principles of a Free Society, I recommend migration taxes and forced savings which add up to a “citizenship threshold” which must then be forfeited to get citizenship and voting rights. In any case, the objection is weak.

2. (Foobarista again) Also, politics matters, and radical open-borders positions aren’t exactly political winners, particularly if the economy isn’t perfect. If you’re interested in at least occasionally winning votes instead of just arguments, you have to consider this angle.

You won’t enact open borders overnight, sure, but moving policy and public opinion a little bit in the right direction seems possible. It also seems possible to get open borders on the ideological map in a way that it isn’t right now.

3. (Jeff) The problem is that most people (including me) don’t find objections to mass immigration flimsy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In light of this, I think it would best if libertarians spent more time advocating for charter cities rather than unfettered immigration. Most people have already made up their minds about what the right level of immigration is. Conversely, most people, I’d wager, are unfamiliar with the concept of charter cities and thus have no preconceived notions about them at all, in which case if you can make a solid, convincing case for why they’re important/good, people might just take it and run with it. So that’s my advice: to make a positive impact, talk more Paul Romer, less Elian Gonzalez.

Not a lot of argument to respond to here, which is irritating, and possibly revealing. A link or a two-word phrase for Google would have been helpful, and I will be unsportsmanlike enough to suggest that the reason to leave the non-flimsy objections unnamed is that they do not actually exist. It is plausible to say that advocating charter cities would be a better use of libertarian advocacy. But there is not necessarily a trade-off between these goals. On the contrary, strong open borders advocacy within rich countries makes the case for charter cities much more credible.

When an economist in a rich country suggests that charter cities are a good idea, people in the developing country are entitled to ask: “If it’s such a good idea to surrender bits of our own sovereignty in this way, letting foreigners move into our country to work and run things, why don’t you do it? Why don’t you set up passport-free charter cities on the soil of your own countries?” Consider two answers:

  1. “We don’t need to do it, because we’re already rich, but it’s a good idea for you.”
  2. “Well, we should do it, and I’m dedicating a lot of my life to making the case for it. I’ve advocated every kind of open borders in every forum I can, I’ve put the critics to flight in a thousand debates, but so far, the inertial weight of narrow-minded nationalism and the sovereignty prejudice isn’t budging. If you take this small step in the right direction, you’ll be better than us: braver, freer, smarter, more just. And I will proclaim your success to the world, and try to get my own countrymen to follow your example, and pour scorn on them if they don’t.”

It is probably clear enough why answer (2) would be more persuasive to a developing country. Certainly, it has much less of the condescending air than answer (1) does. What would be better still is if open borders advocates in rich countries became widely known in developing countries. It seems a safe bet that people in poor countries, if they understood the issues at all, would root for those in rich countries who want to let them in. Maybe if they got used to thinking “open borders advocates are the good guys” from watching the US policy scene, they’d become more open to applying the same arguments to their own countries, by establishing charter cities.

ThomasL raises a very large question:

I think your case would be stronger if you would add to it one of these two things:

1) Explain why your line of argument does not, as a side-effect, do away with the entire rational basis for nation-states and citizenship.

2) If you cannot do (1), explain why the concepts of nation-state and citizenship are bad in themselves, and should be done away with.

The obvious consequences of “denationalization” that are consequent in your previous arguments for the illegitimacy of restrictions on immigration present a high bar to jump over–nothing less than the eradication of nations as currently understood–without making the case that nations, borders, citizenship, voting, etc, are bad things anyway…

Anyway, I am actually open to the argument you might make. I am not sold on the concept of nation-states, and they are a fairly recent experiment in history. But they are here now, and if you intended to do away with them–or pursue a course that necessarily entails doing away with them–you need to explain why.

We have some content tangentially related to this already, e.g., open borders versus no borders, territorialism, citizenism, citizen preference for reduced immigration, and collective property rights. Why is the world organized into nation-states, anyway? Is this a good thing? The odd thing is that I couldn’t name a go-to book that answers that question. Perhaps it’s just not my field, or my brain is being sluggish. Anyway, my sense is that in the late 19th century, nationalism was a high idealistic cause, and the nation-state its goal, and probably if one knew the literature of those times well there’d be some eloquent classics, which no one now reads, extolling the dream for which Garibaldi fought and Bismark plotted. Since then, nationalism has become rather disreputable, and there is no other good starting-point for a defense of the nation-state. European unification’s idealistic goal is to put the continent’s sorry nationalistic past behind it.

My chapter on “National Sovereignty” in Principles of a Free Society (Chapter 6) starts with a declaration of war: “In the first four chapters, we have been arming ourselves for battle, and now it is time to slay the dragon, which is called sovereignty” (p. 49). Yet I actually had some good things to say about nation-states, though they didn’t make it into the final draft. The concept of a “loyal opposition,” so crucial to democracy, seems to depend on or at least become more meaningful in the context of a nation-state, since the nation is something you can be loyal to even as you oppose the regime. Public choice theory has exposed such grave flaws in democracy, in theory, that it seems surprising that it manages to work at all in practice. Chief among these are:

  1. Cycling, and more generally, the impossibility of designing a voting system that aggregates preferences in a way that meets even minimal standards of rationality. A “cycle” occurs when a voting system prefers A to B, B to C, and C to A.
  2. The paradox of voting. Since the odds of affecting election outcomes are infinitesimally small, homo economicus should just stay home on election day. In practice, since voting is so cheap and one doesn’t get to do it that often, a lot of people do go to the polls, but they have very little incentive to get informed.

Now, I don’t know whether there’s evidence for this or even what kind of evidence you’d look for, but my strong intuition is that democracy works in nation-states because people have a little bit of altruism towards others “like them,” and that’s enough, not just to get them to the voting booth, but to put a little bit of effort into researching candidates, so the system isn’t completely dysfunctional. Ethnic fragmentation can create severe problems for democracy because– caution: here I’m getting even more speculative!– the networks of mutual altruism don’t cross inter-ethnic lines often or strongly enough, and inter-ethnic redistribution or even violence becomes an election-winner.

Now, if the “rational basis for nation-states and citizenship” is what I’ve suggested, ThomasL’s challenge, to show why open borders doesn’t do away with it, isn’t too hard. Labor mobility and citizenship are already separate: permanent residents can’t vote in national elections. So open the borders but don’t let immigrants vote automatically. Maybe states and localities could let them vote if they liked, but they couldn’t vote in national elections until after a long and iffy process of naturalization involving financial sacrifices along the way. Citizens would still share a long-term commitment to the country, as well as cultural and accent and much more. Immigrant groups would come from all over the world anyway, so no loyalties other than to the United States would have a large enough market share to matter much except on particular issues (e.g., the Cuban embargo). Natives would probably remain the majority of the population even in the most desirable destination countries. With migration taxes and restrictions on immigrant voting rights, it would probably be pretty to guarantee that natives remained a majority of the electorate and a plurality in the population, while keeping the borders open to all comers. So open borders doesn’t require that the nation-state model should be abandoned. Maybe it is a good idea for the world look for ways to gradually retire the nation-state model anyway– if so, that would probably supply another argument for open borders– but that can be dealt with separately.

OK, one last one:

4. Tell me, please, how importing a horde of people who are genetically dissimular to me and have significantly higher fertility than my ethnic group could possibly be good for me in an evolutionary sense?

Evolutionary arguments always trump made-up ridiculous universalist moral system who are only a rationalization of the writer’s sentiment. They also tend to ensure the survival of the group that embraces them. Evidently, most libertarian bloggers of European (or quasi-European, as is the case here) descent are not among the groups that will survive.

Let’s follow this commenter’s suggestion for a moment and suppose that people are really motivated by trying to maximize their own genetic success. Well, not just their own, but that of “my ethnic group,” says the commenter. But that’s not convincing. Kin-selection effects do provide a reason to favor brothers 1/2 as much as oneself, cousins 1/8 as much, etc., but these effects become negligible pretty fast. So focus on a person’s own offspring. The goal, apparently, is to maximize one’s offspring. In that case, one should certainly, to begin with, have as many kids as possible. Marry young, especially women, eschew birth control, keep pregnant all the time.  How many Americans do that? But suppose you do. Is that a reason to keep foreigners out? Will the presence of more immigrants on US soil make it harder to have more kids? It might (or might not) if we were in a Malthusian world where natural resources were the binding constraint on population growth, but we certainly aren’t in that world, not even close. Open borders would have only reproductive benefits. It would give you more choices of spouse. It would make it easier to find someone who shares your super-natalist priorities if you can marry people from poor countries where larger family sizes are the norm. Or, if not you, then your kids. For another, trading with immigrants is likely to raise your income and make child care cheaper. Etc.

I could go into the expanded opportunities for concubinage under open borders, but I won’t. I’ve indulged in enough silliness for one post. Hopefully you get the point, namely, that whatever the weaknesses of universalist moral systems, they are far more useful than evolutionary arguments as guides to human nature. Homo economicus is far more realistic than homo darwinicus.

UPDATE: Oops, I forgot to mention the most decisive response to ThomasL’s point about nation-states. In the Gilded Age, open borders and the nation-state co-existed just fine.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

3 thoughts on “A Few Responses to Critics”

  1. With respect to the justification of states, citizenship and political obligations generally: Check out some of the work by, e.g., Joseph Raz (‘The Authority of Law’), Leslie Green (‘The Authority of the State’), Richard Wolff (‘In Defense of Anarchism’) and particularly A. John Simmons (‘Moral Principles and Political Obligations’). Mike Huemer as a forthcoming book on the subject as well (‘The Problem of Political Authority’).

    With respect to the evolutionary objection: This can be construed in either a positive or normative sense, and in both cases, it’s obviously false. In the positive sense, it might be argued that we have evolved ethnic nepotism via kin selection, but this simply misunderstands kin selection (see, e.g., Brandt’s paper here http://www.ualberta.ca/~brigandt/homeopathy.pdf). As a normative theory, it’s unmotivated. Why suppose that we *ought* to be maximizing the number of our alleles in the world?

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