Communitarianism, open borders, and “prisoners of the food metaphor”

Let me start by quoting a good article on deportation at Huffington Post:

The True Cost of Deportation (Marielena Hincapie)

Americans are learning about a reality that immigrant families and communities have known about for some time: there has been a monumental rise in policies to deport the men and women who are living, working, and raising families in this country. Earlier this week, the Migration Policy Institute issued a report that shined a spotlight on just how much our federal government spends each year to detain and deport immigrants. Their findings are staggering: funding for these programs, which are housed under the Department of Homeland Security, dwarfs spending on the FBI, the Secret Service, and all other federal law enforcement combined.

What the Migration Policy Institute did not, and could not, quantify was the societal cost we all incur when a routine traffic stop turns a worker’s commute into a one-way trip out of the country she has made her home. The study did not consider the psychological cost we place upon U.S. citizen children whose studies are adversely affected because they worry about whether their mother will be able to pick them up from school.

This report chronicled the rise of a formidable immigration enforcement machine that came to life as a result of the immigration laws of 1986 and 1996, and rapidly expanded in the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy. This machine has allowed the federal government to deport individuals at unprecedented levels; records show that more than 400,000 people were banished from the country in the last year alone. Among these are tens of thousands of parents, men and women who will now miss birthdays, Thanksgivings, and other celebrations with their children.

Those costs are impossible to estimate: how much is a mother’s presence at a birthday worth? What price would you put on a loved one’s participation in life’s daily challenges and celebrations? These costs extend beyond the immediate family. Each working parent who is deported takes her ability to provide economically for her children with her, removing dollars that would otherwise have been spent in communities and local economies across the country.

A $17.9 billion price tag on federal deportation policies is evidence that our taxpayer dollars are being misallocated and that our priorities as a nation are off. At a time when our nation is about to embark upon a serious immigration reform debate, we must acknowledge that the true cost of these deportation policies will only continue to grow unless we create a process for the 11 million aspiring citizens who live and work in this country to apply for citizenship. We now know what some people’s insatiable appetite for deportations costs, both financially and at societal level, and we should be shocked by the bill.

This is a good jumping-off point for a foray into a discussion that started when commenter BK responded to Bryan Caplan’s recent post by suggesting that a communitarian ethical perspective would provide a justification for migration restrictions. Caplan wrote:

Philosophers emphasize a menagerie of mutually incompatible competing moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, Rawlsianism, egalitarianism, even libertarianism. On immigration, however, all serious moral theories appear to support open borders.

BK replies to this:

Suspiciously wrong. Communitarianism is more popular than libertarianism among philosophers.

John Lee and Vipul Naik both seem to concede the point (I wrote a brief dissent). And that brings me to the quote above. I’m not sure that $17.9 billion– a little over 0.1% of GDP– is too high a price to pay for deportation policies. That is, if someone thinks the moral cost is worth it, I’d be surprised (though glad, I suppose) if someone felt the financial cost was not worth it. Certainly, I’d happily sacrifice 0.1%, or for that matter, 10%… well, actually, since a moral imperative is at stake here, I might as well say, oh I don’t know, 80%… of GDP, to prevent these deportations from happening. The more powerful argument in the article pertains to the intolerable moral cost of separating families by force. And that seems to be precisely a communitarian argument. If anything, it is what I might call the communitarian case against migration restrictions that is the most urgent of all.

I don’t wish, however, to pose as an expert in communitarian philosophy. I assume I haven’t read enough of the relevant authors, though I have read Alasdair MacIntyre, and (not a philosopher exactly) Robert Putnam, on whose recent work I commented here. Yet I do have some communitarian sympathies, and I’ll use an essay I wrote seven and a half years ago as an EconLog comment as an idiosyncratic segue from the individualism characteristic of economics into a more communitarian view of the world. The point of departure is utility theory, of which the essay is both an extension and a critique. You might, if you like, characterize the essay as a communitarian critique of economics. (In those days, I was writing under the pen name “Lancelot Finn.”)

Someday I’d like to write a book entitled Prisoners of the Food Metaphor: Why Economists Misunderstand the World.

After laying the groundwork by reviewing the miraculous power of division of labor, specialization and trade, and economies of scale to better the human condition (an argument mimicking, and updating, that of Adam Smith); after arguing that economies of scale are more important than science in explaining improved human welfare; I then take my experience in the remote Russian republic of Tuva as a starting place for questioning whether we know that humans are better off at all.

Tuva is a highland country neighboring Mongolia, and for hundreds or perhaps thousands of years leading up to the early years of the 20th century, [its people] were nomads, who traveled across the land herding cattle and living in yurts.  From proud and free nomads, the Tuvans today have been reduced to Siberian slum-dwellers.  My intuition told me that Tuvans were worse off, and the local Russian community made it amply clear that that’s how the Tuvans feel.  (They think the Russians “robbed them of everything.”)  And yet the steppes are still there, vast, empty, available.  If they look back so fondly to the old nomadic life, why don’t they go back (and thus “reveal their preferences”)?

I got an insight from a picture in the Tuvan Museum entitled “Glory to the Hero.”  A very large figure (three to five times as large as the other figures in the picture) was seated, and around him were old men bringing tribute, damsels singing praises, his whole people giving him glory, all against the background of a stylized and idyllic Tuvan landscape.  There was something about that picture that seemed admirable, satisfying, worth longing for.

What would this “hero” have been like in real life? I thought.  Probably just a cow-herder, rather strong, brave and wise, and valued by his people because under his leadership they were able to provide for and defend themselves.  A Tuvan today could go out to the steppes and live a life superficially resembling the “hero,” but he would no longer seem like a hero today, and no one would give them glory.  And that is the secret of how the Russians “robbed” the Tuvans: they robbed them, not in terms of the material or monetary economy, but in terms of an entirely different economy: status.

The economy of status has different dynamics than the material economy.  It is likely to be more zero-sum in nature, and the good concerned is psychological rather than physical.  Merely by existing and being known, the Russians robbed the Tuvans.  Why?  Because once the Tuvans knew that the strength, wisdom, and power to provide that their “hero” had possessed were vastly inferior to those of the Russians, they could no longer look on him as a hero, even if they wanted to.  As the hero lost his heroic image, his people lost the satisfaction of (sincerely) giving him glory.

But why stop there?  If there is an economy of status, there is an economy of love and sexuality; an economy of morality; an economy of belief and truth; a conversation may be considered an economy (with exchanges, gains and losses, competition); there are economies of art and beauty; and for the religious, economies of salvation.  Each economy starts with a good that people desire and pursue, and describes the dynamic interactions that arise from their efforts to get it.

What distinguishes these other economies from (what we will continue for the moment to call) the material economy, is that in each of these economies enjoyment is inevitably social.  What I mean is a bit stronger than that enjoyment is inevitably social in practice; I mean to argue, rather, that purely individual enjoyment is actually inconceivable in these other economies.  In the economy of truth and belief, our ideas are connected with words, and since a private language is impossible (Wittgenstein), we cannot form beliefs or have knowledge (in anything akin to our usual sense of the word) without language and therefore community.  The economy of morality relates mostly and perhaps entirely to our dealings with other people.  The economy of status consists precisely of what people think of one another.  Art is written, in language, by an author to an audience; and even the rare cases where an author writes a poem he intends no one to read are exceptions that prove the rule, first because he is nonetheless using a language and a genre that he derived from others, second because the emotional response to such a lonely poet is typically one of sadness, and we’re inclined to suspect that, if he unexpectedly found the right person to read his poem and properly appreciate it, he would be delighted.

The one economy in which purely individual enjoyment is comprehensible is food.  (Perhaps also warmth, or comfortable clothing, but the point stands.)  We consume food; and although we don’t eat cars or concerts or plane tickets, economists describe as “consumption” what might better be generalized as the “enjoyment” of all these goods.  Economists tend to think this somewhat counter-intuitive generalization of the term “consume” is innocuous.  It is not, because they are generalizing from one economy, that of food, in which enjoyment is intelligible at a purely individual level, to other economies in which enjoyment is intelligible only as a social phenomenon.  This is why economists are “prisoners of the food metaphor.”

The standard definition of utility starts with the assumption of complete, transitive, non-satiable, non-alphabetic preferences over all goods.  This definition does not justify our restriction of the “utility” under consideration to what are traditionally considered “economic” goods.  It is just as intelligible to ask a person “Would you prefer to have seven mansions, or seven men in love with you?” as it is to ask “Would you prefer two apples or three oranges?”  The definition of utility, properly understood, should compel economists to interpret utility as defined across all the economies I described above (and any others that may be described), not merely over the “material and monetary economy,” which is not properly an economy in the sense described above, anyway, since much or most of people’s consumption is directed to acquiring truth, or status, or attracting sexual partners, or friendship, and so on.

So why did economists ever think it justifiable to narrow their focus to the realm of goods purchasable in “the material and monetary” economy (or whatever)?  Because of money.

The definition of utility envisions an infinite questionnaire.  You ask a subject an infinite number of questions about his preferences.  But this infinite interview is not feasible to conduct: it would take too long, questions might be ambiguous, the subject’s views would change in the course of the interview, and so on.  So how is this account of utility useful at all?  It is useful, because money conducts the interview for us!  People have money, they perpetually make choices, this-or-that, this-or-that, apples-or-oranges, now-or-later, and these choices allow us to infer their preferences– but only over things money can buy, and those are an arbitrary cross-section of goods, or means to acquire goods, from many different economies.

There is a joke that is relevant here.  Walking down the street at night, I encounter a man who is groping through the dirt under a streetlamp.  “What are you looking for?” I ask.

“I dropped my keys,” he says.

“Did you drop them here?” I ask.

“No, over there in the bushes.  But the light’s better here.”

When economists narrow the focus of their research to physical, sellable goods, they are like the man who looks for his keys under the streetlamp.  Money is the streetlamp.  It conducts the infinite interview for us.  But it conducts it in a partial and tendentious manner, and there is little reason to believe that it gets at a very comprehensive or accurate picture of the truth.

And if we were to understand the economy as a whole [that is, including the economies of status, belief and truth, etc.] we have reason to believe that Pareto-improvement through consensual exchange would play a less important role.  Why?  Because since enjoyment in these arenas [economies of non-material goods] is social, there are huge and ubiquitous problems of externalities.  The Russians rob the Tuvans of everything merely by existing, robbing their harsh but glorious way of life of its glory.  Or positive externalities: by living morally, I set an example which others admire and follow, others perhaps who I barely meet.

I would describe the relation of contemporary economics to this imaginary but potential discipline, with its broader understanding of “utility” and “economies,” as comparable to the relationship between alchemy and chemistry.  Alchemists performed many experiments and learned a good deal, and prepared the way for chemistry, but ultimately they were working on the false (though not implausible) belief that base metals could be mixed with fire to produce gold.  Economists today are prisoners of the food metaphor, operating on the false belief that enjoyment, utility, can be understood as a merely individual phenomenon.  They have achieved wonders in terms of feeding mankind and providing for them materially, but other than that, it’s not clear they have contributed much to human happiness.  They may, however, lay the groundwork for a new science, once their individualist assumption is abandoned, more appropriate to an age in which physical well-being is trivially easy to obtain, which serves to organize the community of man so as to…

I’ve gone in quite a different direction since then, and probably, I suppose, won’t ever write the book mentioned (though if a publisher offered me a generous book advance, I’d be glad to find the time!). But I think the point is valid: that most forms of human enjoyment, including the noblest and most valuable forms, are social or communal; that the concept of a utility function has much greater generality than economists customarily recognize; but, at the same time, that the abstract notion of a utility function only has practical usefulness because money gives us a continual stream of prompts to reveal our preferences; and that the focus on money makes economists “prisoners of the food metaphor” who regard the primary human good as individualistic “consumption” whereas in truth it lies in communal forms of enjoyment. How does this affect the balance of arguments for and against open borders?

The most obvious answer is that it greatly strengthens the case against migration restrictions, because migration restrictions split up communities. This is most obvious, urgent, and appalling when migration restrictions split up families. As the article quoted above asks: “how much is a mother’s presence at a birthday worth?” The bond between mother and child is a thing almost as sacred as life itself; and the forcible separation of mother and child has almost the sacrilegious character of murder itself. But families are not the only communities that deserve to be protected, or at least– for present purposes this is all we are asking for– deserve not to be separated by force. Ought a church to be deprived of a member because of deportation? Ought a man to be deprived of a friend through deportation? The prima facie case against deportation that has such consequences– and surely most deportations do have such consequences!– is clear and strong. Nor does the argument apply only ex post, to people who have already arrived and formed communities on a face-to-face basis. Ought a man to be deprived of a potential friend through the prevention of his entry? Ought a woman to be deprived of a potential husband, a church of a potential member? At any rate, if they are so deprived, communitarian values seem ill-served thereby. And in an age of mass travel and the internet, it is not only possible but common for friendships to form across international borders even without migration. Suppose an intellectual friendship with a foreigner becomes ardent and intense, so that we want to live together as comrades to help one another in the pursuit of truth. Migration restrictions prevent us. Perhaps a communitarian would support the right to invite rather than a more individualistic right to migrate.

What arguments are there on the other side? What is the downside of open borders, from a communitarian perspective? Many seem to think this is obvious, but it isn’t. After all, immigrants don’t prevent natives from being friends with each other, from having parties together, from attending church together, or… well, it’s not very easy to think of anything that natives are prevented from doing together by the presence of immigrants. It’s possible that some public spaces which are suitable for the friendly interaction of natives, in the absence of immigrants, might become unsuitable for that purpose when crowds of people with a patchy knowledge of the language, or different cultural values, are suddenly intermingled there. But it’s not very easy to think of examples that are realistically important. Who makes friends by just chatting up random strangers on the street? I’ve done that in Russia; never, I think, in America. But maybe the relevant spaces are not public but semi-private: workplaces, for example, or churches, or schools. I find that hard to believe from my personal experience, because integration in workplaces, churches, and schools seemed to go so smoothly. Perhaps my experience is unrepresentative.

But at this point– as I see it at least– the hollowness of a communitarian case for migration control is exposed. For if the problem with open borders is that the semi-public spaces where community should form would become too congested with diversity to allow for comfortable interactions, two things follow. First, the obvious solution is to allow the proprietors of those semi-public spaces to exclude immigrants, or some immigrants, from those spaces, not to exclude immigrants from the country as a whole, which is not only unnecessary but involves disrupting and/or impeding the formation of many other communities. Second, domestic diversity may also be disruptive of community formation. A communitarian ought to be very protective of freedom of assocation, which is almost the same as saying, freedom to form communities, and ought to be quite skeptical of anti-discrimation laws that interfere with freedom of association. Since the 1960s, freedom of association has been considerably curtailed as the push to eliminate discrimination has brought the government into the business of deciding how all sorts of private and community organizations can decide on their own membership. If communitarians want to take a stand against that, they’ll have their work cut out for them, and if they succeed, there may be little need in addition to restrict immigration in order to protect the spaces where community formation takes place. If they won’t, it’s hard to take a communitarian case against opening the borders to migration seriously.

Again, I know little about communitarian ethics, and I can’t speak on behalf of communitarian ethicists (if that term even has any meaning). But to the extent that I can imagine what a communitarian ethics might consist of, it seems that it gives direct and strong reasons to support open borders, or something close to it; that the reasons to oppose open borders one might derive from communitarianism are strikingly weak; and above all, that it absolutely must, above all, urgently and implacably oppose almost all of the enforcement by via deportation with which America has disgraced itself over the course of the last generation. Communitarian arguments are sometimes vaguely hinted at by nativists seeking to justify themselves, but I suspect this is largely in bad faith, just because it sounds respectable. At any rate, it is not deeply felt or carefully thought through. The real reason people want migration restrictions is that the border serves as a blindfold.

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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