Immigration and institutions

I had the idea of writing one post to respond to Vipul’s last post, “Free speech absolutism versus viewpoint-based immigration restrictions,” and another one to add to Vipul’s response to Ghost of Christmas Past. Then I realized the posts cover some of the same ground. So this post conflates the two putative posts into one.

First, Vipul suggests a plausible rule of thumb which a few paragraphs in my book Principles of a Free Society would contradict:

My thumb rule for blanket denials is: anything that constitutes sufficient reason for blanket denial of migration should also constitute sufficient reason for punitive measures under criminal or civil law in the target country of immigration… The most interesting case is [that] of people holding and espousing viewpoints that are perfectly legal — in compliance with criminal law and unlikely to be successfully litigated against. First Amendment protections in the United States give people wide latitude to say a lot of things as long as these do not constitute libel/slander, infringe on copyrights, trademarks, or patents, or provide direct incitement to violence in a situation where such violence may be carried out. There are various restrictions in the United States on pornography and speech directly related to political candidates, but I’m ignoring these for the moment. In particular, it is perfectly okay from a legal viewpoint to say positive or negative things about century-old religious doctrines, regardless of the truth or falsehood of these. You could praise Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism, or condemn these, and no legal action against you would plausibly succeed. It is also perfectly okay from a legal viewpoint to hold and espouse practically any political position from communism to Nazism to anarcho-capitalism.

Going by my thumb rule, then, viewpoint-based immigration restrictions are not morally justified. However, a number of people, even those broadly supportive of open borders, do express some sympathy for the concerns that underlie the advocacy of viewpoint-based immigration restrictions… [An] example is offered by my co-blogger Nathan Smith, who, in his book Principles of a Free Society, carves out a possible viewpoint-based exception to his general advocacy of open borders — the case of Islam.

He then quotes the relevant passage in my book, where I suggest a “moderate approach [that would] screen carefully for known terror suspects and extremists, to keep a close watch on Muslim immigrant communities, and to inquire into the ideology of Muslim DRITI migrants applying for citizenship to make sure they convincingly disavow the death penalty for apostasy and other traditional Islamic beliefs inconsistent with the principles of a free society, perhaps with the help of oaths or signed statements to that effect.” As he says, this is inconsistent with his rule of thumb against view-point based immigration.

First, I’d point out that since Principles of a Free Society advocates a comprehensive open borders policy (albeit with migration taxes), I was eager to make what concessions I thought I justly could to make the policy less frighteningly radical. That wouldn’t be a good excuse, though, if I were advocating a policy that was positively unjust. Is it? At issue here is freedom of conscience, which I covered in another part of the book. This passage is especially relevant:

Conscience is fallible, or if you prefer, we sometimes misunderstand it. Hardly any generalization can be made about what conscience may or may not tell a man to do. As a result, the pure principle of freedom of conscience may conflict with the habeas corpus principle. For example, someone’s conscience might require him (or he might think it requires him) to wage jihad against the infidel. In that case (assuming the population includes infidels or potential infidels) the would-be jihadist’s freedom of conscience must be curtailed if civil society is to exist at all. Whether civil society is consistent with freedom of conscience… depends on the moral beliefs of the people. [emphasis introduced here; not in original] For freedom of conscience is also a prerequisite for civil society. Assuming that each person obeys his conscience, people can only live together peaceably under the rule of law if what the law requires of each person is consistent with what his conscience requires of him. (Principles of a Free Society, 12)

The crucial point is that civil society is consistent with freedom of conscience only when the moral beliefs of the people permit them to respect others’ rights. If people subscribe to moral beliefs that require them to violate the rights of others, they must be prevented from acting on those moral beliefs if peace is to be sustained, but the alliance of conscience and law which is essential to free societies begins to break down. How ought the government of a free society to respond, then, if an ideology that promotes bloody revolution spreads among the people, either by conversion or migration? It is a tragic question to which there is no good answer: prudence and justice here seem to contradict each other. I have a strong bias against the government having any control over people’s minds; this is one of the reasons why I would prefer a voucher education system. There may be cases where every political course of action is wrong, yet there are moral courses of action… but if one is to adopt a political perspective at all, a historical inquiry would probably suggest that granting to leaders a degree of latitude we would ordinarily be uncomfortable with to adopt expedient means when facing threats from dangerous ideologies. That is not to say that Islam is a “dangerous ideology,” not exactly, not for the most part… but historically, death has been the penalty for apostasy in Islam, and riots in response to cartoons and films depicting Muhammad suggest that this historical legacy still scars thpsyche of many Muslims. In the face of this threat, to apply different speech standards in domestic criminal law vs. in regulating migration doesn’t seem to be an undue sacrifice of justice to expediency.

What Ghost of Christmas Past writes in response to Bryan Caplan is related:

Second, his oft-repeated and empirically-wrong assumption that all humans are the same, their behavior simply molded by the nearly-immutable “institutions” which happen to govern society in one geographic place or another. This too, is crudely Marxist. Brian claims that immigration to the US would have no effect on US “institutions,” therefore no effect on the society which current Americans have built and enjoy, apart from driving down wages for a small segment of the population. This is nearly insane. “Institutions” are produced by the people who live under them. If you alter the people you alter the institutions.

A note on “empirically wrong.” When someone says something is empirically wrong without providing links to evidence, sometimes they could easily do so if challenged and just don’t have the time, and the practice may be justifiable as a way of moving the debate forward without wasting time re-establishing what has already been established. This is not one of those cases.

But let me focus on this: “‘Institutions’ are produced by the people who live under them. If you alter the people, you alter the institutions.” No, not really. The United States of America has absorbed millions of immigrants from many countries, so that by now the proportion of Americans’ gene pool contributed the English who settled on the East Coast and established political institutions is pretty small. Nonetheless, America is an institutionally an offshoot of England. The census counts German-Americans at 17% of the US population and Irish-Americans at 12%. How much do American institutions owe to Germany? Nothing to speak of. India is an even more striking case in a way, for institutions there remain heavily shaped by English rule even though the English never comprised a significant share of the population and have now been gone for over sixty years. Even if India’s institutions have changed since then– for the worse in some ways, though socialism rather than Indian culture seems to be the culprit, but that’s a long story– it is far less because of whom they rule over than because of who is in charge of them.

The following example may help to see why elites rather than subjects determine institutional quality. I teach an economics class. Does the content of the course depend mainly on me, or on the students? On me, even though there’s one of me and more than thirty of them. I’m in charge. I call the shots. I arrange the incentives. I make the rules. I have the knowledge. But don’t the students influence the course content too? Sure, a little bit. If they seem to understand a topic quickly, I’ll move on. If they seem bewildered, I’ll slow down and look for other ways to explain. If they do badly on a test, I’ll make the curve a little more lenient. I ask questions, and they get a chance to speak. They can ask questions if they don’t understand something. And whether learning actually takes place does depend largely on them: on whether they read the textbook; on whether they pay attention in class; on whether they do the homework and study for the exams. If you took out all the students and substituted lazier or dumber ones, the course would move a little slower, the average grade would fall, but it would still be basically the same course. If, on the other hand, you kept the students but took me out of the classroom and put a biology professor there instead, it would be a completely different.

So with institutions. They’re in charge. They call the shots. They arrange the incentives. They make the rules. The people under them have only limited influence. That’s why huge waves of immigration didn’t alter the American polity much in the decades before 1920s. (Indeed, on the contrary, it was after immigration was stopped that politics really began to change, but that’s another story.) Institutions are run by people, but they first shape the people before being run by them. If you want to be a judge, you go to law school, then clerk for a judge, probably practice for a while, and when you do finally become a judge, your decisions are still subject to appeal to higher courts. All along the way you have to submit, submit, submit, to professors, to court decisions, to appellate courts, to case law and legislatures. Thus do traditions transmit themselves. Institutional permanence has very little to do with the composition of the underlying population. Democracy changes this, though perhaps not all that much, since democracies are still rather deferential to elites. But clearly, if democracy is the problem, it makes no sense to exclude people altogether. Let them come, just don’t let them vote right away.

The exceptions to this occur, as suggested above, when newcomers threaten violence against the system. Immigration restrictions whose motive was to avert a genuine threat of violence by foreigners would deserve a respectful hearing. The immigration restrictions of today’s rich cannot be justified by any such motive.

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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