Are immigration restrictionists pirates?

My co-blogger John Lee recently wrote a post with the intriguing title “Are immigration restrictionists pirates?” It turned out that by “pirates,” John meant, not Bluebeard or the Dread Pirate Roberts, but people who pirate music and videos off the internet. John’s point was that if immigration restrictionists are pirates, i.e., illegal downloaders of music and videos– and haven’t we all done it, at least a bit?– then they’re in no position to mount their moral high horse when talking about undocumented immigration. Commenter Leo was disappointed:

The title of this made it sound a lot more exciting than it was… I was hoping for some sort of metaphor of countries as ships or something… Yeah the title makes sense but the post isn’t as exciting as the title …I’m obviously just childish but the word pirate made me hope for a story of plunder on the high seas…

Based on this reaction, I thought there might be interest in a post comparing immigration restrictionism to plunder on the high seas. So here goes.

First, like pirates, immigration restrictionists have skills. Pirates need to have navigation, combat, recruiting and negotiation skills. They need to know a good deal about recruiting and trade routes. Immigration restrictionists need skills, too. Steve Sailer of VDARE is good at writing. Joe Arpaio has skills at prisoner abuse and attracting national media attention.

Second, like pirates, immigration restrictionists are organized. Pirates had captains, crews, even “pirate codes” which Peter Leeson (author of The Invisible Hook) has argued were sometimes strikingly democratic, a Skull-and-Bones flag. Immigration restrictionists have organizations like VDARE and CIS, as well as ICE, the Minutemen, and so forth.

But clearly, I’m not getting to the heart of the matter.

Let me start over by using a recent Bryan Caplan post as a point of departure. Caplan’s point of departure was a Steve Sailer post (previously quoted here and here at Open Borders). So first, Steve Sailer:

By “citizenism,” I mean that I believe Americans should be biased in favor of the welfare of our current fellow citizens over that of the six billion foreigners.

Let me describe citizenism using a business analogy. When I was getting an MBA many years ago, I was the favorite of an acerbic old Corporate Finance professor because I could be counted on to blurt out in class all the stupid misconceptions to which students are prone.

One day he asked: “If you were running a publicly traded company, would it be acceptable for you to create new stock and sell it for less than it was worth?”

“Sure,” I confidently announced. “Our duty is to maximize our stockholders’ wealth, and while selling the stock for less than its worth would harm our current shareholders, it would benefit our new shareholders who buy the underpriced stock, so it all comes out in the wash. Right?”

“Wrong!” He thundered. “Your obligation is to your current stockholders, not to somebody who might buy the stock in the future.”…

That same logic applies to the valuable right of being an American citizen and living in America.

To this, Bryan Caplan responds:

But I want to continue the conversation with Steve’s professor.  If I’d been in the same class, I would have immediately raised my hand:

Me: Well, suppose I could help current stockholders by poisoning the products of our competitors, leading to the deaths of thousands of children.  Do I have an obligation to do that?

Prof: Are you out of your mind?  That’s murder!

Me: Oh, right.  Well, suppose I could help current stockholders by kidnapping the CEOs of firms that try to hire away our workers?  Am I obliged to do so?

Prof: No!  You’re obliged not to kidnap anyone.

Me: I’m confused.  You told me I have a fiduciary obligation to my shareholders, right?

Prof: You’re taking me way too literally, kid.  Basic moral obligations come first.  If your fiduciary duty clashes with your basic moral obligations, you have to ignore your fiduciary obligations.  Everybody knows that.

Yet as far as I’ve seen, none of the defenses of “citizenism” address this concern.  If an avowed citizenist were to announce…

“Of course I acknowledge fundamental moral obligations to all humans.  But we still have a little moral latitude to favor fellow citizens.”

…the two of us could have a useful conversation.  I’d ask, “If allowing a peaceful worker to accept a job offer from a peaceful employer isn’t a fundamental moral obligation, what is?”  And I’d listen carefully and respectfully to his reply.

However, if a citizenist recognizes no moral obligations to non-citizens, I can only dismiss him as a monster.  The same goes if the citizenist says he recognizes some moral obligations to non-citizens, but then refuses to specify them or seriously consider whether the policies he advocates violate these obligations.

As a parent, I identify with the citizenist’s sense of obligation to his people.  I freely admit that I put my children’s welfare far ahead of the welfare of strangers.  Nevertheless, if one of my children kicked an innocent person, cheated on a test, or slashed a rival’s tires, I’d have a duty to set my feelings aside and make my child answer for his offense.  I certainly wouldn’t help my child trample the rights of others.

Does this make me special?  Hardly.  I’m only describing common decency.  I suspect that most citizenists would treat their wayward children the same way I would.

My question for citizenists everywhere: If you think you’re often morally obligated to suppress the favoritism you naturally feel for your children, why aren’t you morally obligated to suppress the far milder favoritism you naturally feel for your fellow citizens?  Once you suppress this favoritism, can you really in good conscience take the side of a citizen who wants to deny foreigners permission to work so he can get a better job?

I would label the intuition to which Caplan is appealing “moral side-constraints” (see here). Caplan accepts, as do I, that it’s OK for us to spend much of our time pursuing self-interested goals. Actually, I might have more of a belief that one should pro-actively help others, but never mind. Caplan and I think there are moral side-constraints; that in enforcing immigration laws, the state has far overstepped the bounds of the morally permissible ways to achieve an end; and that no acceptable means can attain the degree of migration control to which modern sovereignty aspires, so that end simply has to be abandoned. But we can actually set that debate to one side, because Steve Sailer’s analogy fails even if you think the state is within its rights implementing draconian enforcement of immigration laws. Steve Sailer’s analogy fails because firms operate within much more limiting side-constraints than governments do. In particular, to simplify somewhat, they don’t use force at all. If you want to say that the state is justified in maximizing the welfare of its citizens only because it’s like a firm, you should also be ready to say that the state should abandon the use of force, like a firm.

And this brings us back to pirates. Pirates, like private firms, are in it for the money. They’re profiteers, “profit maximizers” in B-school jargon. They’re not behaving as utilitarian universalists. But pirates, unlike normal private firms, operate (perhaps I’m simplifying again) without moral side-constraints. They do use force.

The citizenist conception of the state, then, would make it something like a pirate ship. Its goals, objectives, values, purposes involve the benefit of members only: it does not include the welfare of outsiders in its objective function. But it also operates without moral side-constraints, recognizing no moral obligations to non-citizens.

So, are immigration restrictionists pirates? No. They don’t have patches over their eyes or sing “Drink up, me hearties, yo-ho!” But their failure to clearly articulate and commit themselves to principles of justice that constrain the state– as Caplan puts it, ” The same goes if the citizenist says he recognizes some moral obligations to non-citizens, but then refuses to specify them or seriously consider whether the policies he advocates violate these obligations”– leaves them, morally, in the company of pirates.

By the way, “Steve Sailer” is a great name for a pirate.

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

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