Immigration and Egalitarianism

Ours is an egalitarian age. Well, in theory. Well, in very bad faith. That occurred to me during a debate with Rachel Lu, my sister, a philosopher, about “classical education” (a new, niche movement in education: don’t ask me about it, I don’t really know, but see here), remarked that “the classical education is unapologetic about claiming that certain places and times in history have been particularly influential, and that some have been more successful than others at fostering human excellence.” Now, this statement is so obvious that it was odd that it was made at all, let alone “unapologetically.” It’s as if someone were to leap up on a table and shout, “I may be hated, I may be denounced for it, but I shall continue boldly and fearlessly to proclaim against the testimony of the entire world that a dog is not the same animal as a cat.”

It occurred to me afterwards, however, that there may really be a certain prevailing mentality in our times that would make this trivial truism strike some people as surprising, novel, and provocative. It could perhaps be called moral relativism but I’ll call it egalitarianism because I want to connect it with a larger system of ideas and attitudes which I think explains it and gives it its force. The sources of this idea includes Jefferson’s dictum in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and the political fact that modern democracies practice the rule of “one person, one vote,” which suggests, even if it by no means logically implies, that we have made a collective judgment that everyone’s opinion is of equal value. I seem to recall (though it was years since I read it) Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the word “democracy” was used to mean social egalitarianism as much as, or more than, elections, and that he made certain claims about democracy and dictatorship that would seem nonsensical today. For example, if I were to suggest that democratic countries tend to be ruled by dictators because only in aristocratic countries is the wealth and influence of civil society concentrated in few enough hands that resistance to the usurpations of a tyrant can be coordinated, the claim would seem not so much historically questionable as mere nonsense. Today, a dictatorship cannot be democratic, by definition. Democracy just means that the government’s power is limited, by elections if nothing else, by freedoms of speech, press, and association if elections are to be free and fair as genuine democracy requires, and usually by division of powers between the legislature and judiciary, and by constitutions, etc. It might be, of course, that socially egalitarian countries tend to be dictatorships: possibly the Soviet bloc countries are an example. My point here, however, is simply to distinguish democracy from egalitarianism, on the one hand, but to point out that there is at least a suggestive connection between the two. A person might conclude that since they get one vote, just like the wealthy and famous and high-born and learned, so their opinions must be just as worthy of a hearing, their tastes just as creditable, even, perhaps, their beliefs just as true, as anyone else’s. And if one tries to extend this egalitarian ethos to the interpretation of history, one might conclude that every person in history is equally important, or, if one is a very sloppy thinker, even that every culture is equally valuable. One might even get to moral relativism this way, by thinking no one has a right to consider their morals “better” than anyone else’s, but I’ll put that to one side, because moral relativism in the crude form which this suggests is self-evidently absurd (it implies that a remorseless killer, if he is really remorseless, has done nothing wrong), and while I think there are more sophisticated forms of moral relativism, I don’t know enough about them to comment.

Egalitarianism seems to be a rather pervasive norm in contemporary moral philosophy and political discourse. In fact, it may be easier to approach the idea abstractly than at a more practical level. Thus, consider the meta-ethics (by “meta-ethics” I mean notions of what lies behind ethics, abstract ideas about what makes right and wrong from which particular rules can be derived) of Rawls. Rawls would place us behind a “veil of ignorance” what our place will be in the world, and have us decide from there– freed from any bias due to self-interest– what kind of society we want. He goes on to advocate the “difference principle,” that we should maximize the welfare of the least well-off, which is prima facie stupid since it assumes, surely wrongly, that people are infinitely risk-averse, but never mind that: the point here is that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” setup is egalitarian, it puts everyone in the same position. We can distinguish Rawls from Bentham in that, since Bentham wanted to maximize “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” or as an economist would prefer to put it, “total utility” (though the concept of “total utility” is not robust because utility functions derived from revealed preference have only ordinal, not cardinal values, and are not interpersonally comparable… but never mind), Bentham would presumably have embraced the veil of ignorance concept but rejected the difference principle. But a Benthamite revision of Rawls would be egalitarian too. It would put less emphasis on equality of outcomes, preferring to raise the average, but in calculating that average, every individual would be given equal weight. If a king were to say, “Yeah, the way I rule is bad for my subjects, but it’s good for me, and I value my happiness most,” Bentham would reject the argument contemptuously. Kant’s “categorical imperative” is egalitarian too: he says one should live by maxims one wills to be universal, i.e., apply the same rules to yourself that you would impose on others, i.e., treat everyone the same. And the political spectrum in the United States tends to range from conservatives who stress equality of opportunity to liberals who stress equality of condition. Everyone is egalitarian.

Now, prima facie this pervasive egalitarianism should favor open borders. De facto, I think it has the opposite effect. The reason it should favor open borders is because letting some, e.g., native-born Americans and Western European, inhabit developed countries, while forbidding others to do so, is obviously inegalitarian. One could attempt to argue that we are being egalitarian because we give everyone the same right to inhabit “their own” countries, but not “other people’s” countries, but this is so obviously and cynically spurious that I expect an intelligent closed-borders / migration-restrictions advocate would be careful to avoid stating it bluntly. First of all, countries are so different that to set them on a level like this, to make them, so to speak, different values for the same variable in a moral equation, is a travesty. “America for Americans; Sierra Leone for Sierra Leoneans; it’s all fair!” is the sort of claim that no intelligent person could make with a straight face. Second, the assignment of people to countries implicit in the phrase “their own countries” involves none of the elements of consent that would make it really moral compelling– one is almost always born into it, without being asked one’s attitude about it– and often doesn’t even involve any real participation in a national community. Are we really going to suggest that a Chechen in Russia or a Tamil in Sri Lanka does, can, or should bear a relationship to “his own” country that can in any way be analogized to the patriotic loyalty of a native-born American to the United States? It would be truer to say that national identity and belonging are sui generis to the extent that general moral claims connecting people to “their” nations are presumptively invalid or, at best, are relative to particular civilizations and forms of government. An argument for why, say, a Briton may be taxed to finance lessons about national history in public schools might cross-apply to Germany or France, but one should hesitate to apply it to Paraguay or Tanzania or even Russia. Those are just different kinds of places. I would almost go so far as to say that the category “country” is a fallacy. Almost, but not quite, because the juridical equality of the world’s 200 or so sovereign states is an important geopolitical fact (and a very odd, distinctive feature of our era; and not necessarily a fortunate one). But nations are not morally equal, not at all, nor do they stand in comparable relationships to their citizenries. I will be grateful to anyone who wishes to argue the contrary, because I am genuinely at a loss to imagine how this view, which seems to be widely influential at least at an implicit level, could be defended.

Anyway– and I apologize that this post seems to consist mostly of digressions– if indexical moral arguments that connect individual x to individual x‘s country are ruled out, immigration restrictions are clearly indefensible from the perspective of moral egalitarianism. They are completely antithetical both to equality of opportunity and to equality of condition. They are as intolerable to an honest Rawlsian (that is, a Rawlsian who does not pretend, as unfortunately I think Rawls himself did, that there is the slightest warrant for applying the Rawlsian meta-ethics at any scale except that of humanity as a whole) as to a Benthamite utilitarian. A good Kantian who wants his own freedom– say, of speech, or religion, or economic opportunity– to be respected cannot at the same time will that his government pro-actively trap billions of people in privation or under tyranny by blockading the borders against peaceful migrants. And so, given the pervasiveness of moral egalitarianism, it is tempting to advocate freedom of migration by pointing out that egalitarianism demands it. And this can sometimes be rhetorically effective. Bryan Caplan’s Haiti argument (basically: think how horrible it would be to stuck in Haiti; now if you wouldn’t want that to happen to you, how can we do it to the Haitians?) is an example of this kind of reasoning.

But more fundamentally, moral egalitarianism works against open borders, because people can only pretend to be moral egalitarians within the sheltered world of global apartheid, and they react to advocacy of open borders with dodges and evasions and incredulity because they don’t enjoy having the hypocrisy of their egalitarianism exposed. Today’s global society is stratified by state coercion as surely as pre-revolutionary France. It is less visible because the economically privileged are geographically segregated from the rest. Since, say, 1900, the Western democracies have become more egalitarian internally, while at the global level the replacement of European imperialism by juridical equality of new sovereign states is a gesture towards the principle of equality. But de facto, the world is probably more inegalitarian today than it was in 1900, because the disastrous curtailment of freedom of movement has overwhelmed everything else. People have grown so accustomed to this new system that an argument for open borders from egalitarian principles is apt to sound like a reductio ad absurdum of the latter. So be it. I am in one sense on the side of egalitarianism: open borders would be a great force for reducing global inequality, both of opportunity and condition, and that is one reason I favor it. But in another sense, I am against egalitarianism: Western democracies will need to be much more tolerant of visible, internal equality if they are to phase out their unjust and ultra-inegalitarian addiction to migration restrictions. Ultimately, I am agnostic about egalitarianism: some moral errors seem to involve a deficit of it, while others involve an excess. But one thing I am sure of: the egalitarianism-in-very-bad-faith which is characteristic of migration-restricting democracies is indefensible and wicked, and I’m ready to beat it with whatever stick does the most damage.

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