Immigration Restrictionists – Why Not Eugenics?

I’m a pro-natalist.  I’m in favor of people being born.  Be careful when you think to yourself, “that’s a silly thing to be specifically in favor of; isn’t everyone?”  Because I assure you, not everyone is.  There are plenty of Malthusians out there, whether they’re consciously aware of it or not.  There are people who believe in eugenics; people who think the world would honestly be better if we revoked reproduction privileges from those with low IQ’s, criminal histories, certain racial or ethnic backgrounds, genetic defects, etc.  And if the idea of forcibly spaying and neutering everyone with a wheelchair, a below-average IQ, the wrong skin color, or any other factor appalls you – then breathe a sigh of relief: You have a conscience.

Sadly however, this belief is not universal.  I’m not sure it’s even a majority belief (I hope it is, but the cynic in me says that if you really asked all seven billion people, most would come up with a certain class of people that they’d rather not see more of).  But there is a specific category of person, with a specific category of belief that I want to address here.  That is:  People who do not believe that we should limit births based on any factor, but who are restrictionists when it comes to immigration policy.

In a way, birth is a form of immigration.  Someone is moving from the generic “somewhere else” to the here and now.  The place you occupy and call your home is getting a new occupant.  But obviously there are many differences between a newborn in America and an immigrant in America, for example (by no means do I intend to say that these concerns are limited to America – I use that country solely as an example).  The newborn is going to use vastly more social resources.  The newborn is statistically more likely to be a criminal.  The newborn is less likely to join the labor force, and infinitely less likely to do so within the next ten years.  On the other hand, most newborns immediately have a private support network (albeit one that will rely heavily on public services).

Newborns have lots of other differences from immigrants, of course – they look like natives, they sound like natives, and they’ll probably share native cultural beliefs and social norms.  These are all reasons that other natives will like them more, but they’re not reasons why they would be more beneficial to the country than immigrants, so we’re going to ignore those for now.

Other than the instinctual reasons for liking a newborn more than an immigrant, is the only real benefit that a newborn offers over an immigrant as a choice for “new addition to the country’s population” that they have a private support network of mostly self-sufficient people (at least, as self-sufficient as anyone gets in a modern first-world country)?  If that’s the case, it seems like the immigration issue is pretty easy to solve.  If the one and only criteria that potential immigrants needed to meet before coming in was to find a voluntary supporter, it seems like we’d have plenty of immigration!

Let’s do a thought experiment.  Let’s pretend that current citizens of America can invite immigrants in using only the same criteria by which they can have children.  Any two people could invite an immigrant in – and the same two people could invite in as many immigrants as they wanted.  They would not have to be able to support those immigrants, though socially speaking there would be pressure to do so.  If you decided two years later that you didn’t like your immigrant, you couldn’t send him or her back, any more than you can “send back” a baby; though you could in theory put yours up for adoption.  Since immigrants can generally take care of themselves, this seems like less of an issue for immigrants than it does for children, so that’s an extra point in favor of immigrants.  You could be irresponsible and invite too many immigrants in the same way that you can be irresponsible and have too many children; but since immigrants can work and are far less dependent on their caregivers than children are, it seems like this is far less of an issue – score another point for the immigrant.

You don’t need to submit to a background check to have a child, so you wouldn’t need one to invite in an immigrant.  The child obviously doesn’t have a background to check, while the immigrant might – but given the respective crime rates, it seems like it would make more sense to check potential parental backgrounds to weed out potential criminals than to do the same with immigrant backgrounds.  Since we don’t do the former, it’s hard to make a moral case for the latter.

Of course, children can’t vote for at least 18 years, so immigrants wouldn’t be able to, either – fair enough (and as a keyhole solution, this has already been suggested).

For those whose restrictionist attitude stems from the fear that immigrants might eventually “take over” the country due to sheer numbers – well remember, that’s guaranteed with children.  If immigrants were brought into this country by a parental figure, the same as children, you’d have the same opportunity to influence them.  It might even make people of competing political or cultural outlooks compete to have MORE immigrants, for the same reason you want to have more kids in that circumstance:  If you think your culture is so great, you want to pass on that culture to the next generation in larger numbers than the “other people” – whoever they are in your eyes.

So there you have it.  Regardless of what opinions you hold about birth and immigration respectively, there’s very little non-instinctual reason to restrict immigration more than birth, relatively.

Of course, there are those that don’t believe births should be restricted along any categorical lines, but do believe that overall restriction in terms of sheer quantity should happen.  Again, I’m a pro-natalist, so I don’t share this view.  But even if you do hold that view, that view isn’t analogous to the view most people have about immigration.  Most people who you’re likely to meet on the street have one of two opinions on immigration:  Either we should restrict it even more than we do now (even to the point of zero), or we should be increasing “high-skill” immigration while decreasing other kinds.  But statistically speaking, only a tiny fraction of American newborns will grow up to be the kind of people the “high-skill” immigration proponents want.  What’s the native birth rate of engineers compared to the total native birth rate?

But let’s say you actually hold comparable quantity-restriction views on both birth and immigration.  You don’t believe in restricting either by category, but you do believe in strict quantity limits on both.  There are a number of problems with this view.  First – what’s the optimal number?  A quota of any kind means that something other than spontaneous order is determining the number of births and/or immigrants, and that’s therefore pretty much guaranteed to be the wrong number.  Then of course are all the administrative difficulties – how do you parcel out the set number, given that the desired number will be higher?  Who gets to come and who doesn’t?   There’s almost no way to do a quantity restriction without also imposing a categorical one, except for some sort of “first come, first served” method that is very unlikely to be satisfactory.  We need only to look to China to see some of the negative effects of a quantity restriction on birth; like any prohibition of something nearly universally desired, the unintended consequences are severe.

Restrictions on immigration based on quantity have all the same problems as restrictions on birth rates based on quantity, and immigration restrictions based on category appear significantly less moral than birth restrictions based on the same.  Considering that we don’t restrict births in any way in America, it would seem difficult to build a moral or utilitarian case to restrict immigration.

John Roccia

John is a passionate believer in open borders, coming at the issue from a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist moral perspective.

See our blog post introducing John, or all blog posts by John.

17 thoughts on “Immigration Restrictionists – Why Not Eugenics?”

  1. Let me play devil’s advocate here. Again, I am strongly in favor of open borders, but not sure this argument works for me.

    You mentioned that one concern people have is that increased immigration could cause harm to our institutions and culture. Your response seems that people could invite people to come who have that same culture.

    But this misses the point that the overwhelming majority of people who want to come are from countries with very different cultures and institutions. And the people with the most interest in inviting others are the recent immigrants who have family members and friends from those countries.

    If we accept that allowing more people of different cultures can potentially undermine the most important aspects of our culture, then we have reason to be worried about your proposal. Just because everyone is allowed to invite who they want doesn’t mean everyone will do so at an equal rate.

  2. “Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend that current citizens of America can invite immigrants in using only the same criteria by which they can have children. Any two people could invite an immigrant in – and the same two people could invite in as many immigrants as they wanted…They would not have to be able to support those immigrants, though socially speaking there would be pressure to do so….Restrictions on immigration based on quantity have all the same problems as restrictions on birth rates based on quantity”

    This analogy fails in many important ways:

    -birth takes nine months of serious biological drawbacks for the mother, and fathers face compulsory child support; the costs discourage constant pregnancy, and the time imposes both annual and total caps on the new people an individual can introduce to the polity
    -invitations to immigrants could be sold explicitly or implicitly, for immediate financial benefits, whereas children are net financial drains for a long time if you raise them, and can’t be sold
    -in the proposed system one family could introduce billions of people; since there is diversity of opinion this means that the system automatically produces a huge population increase, even if almost everyone opposes such an increase; however the limited fertility of individuals makes overall population growth reflect typical sentiments better
    -fertility in rich countries today is low, and highly fertile subpopulations are small minorities, so fertility restrictions wouldn’t much change population growth, while open borders would cause explosive growth; back when population growth was faster in rich countries population control was more of a public issue
    -the global surveys of willingness to migrate, weighting by youth, and so forth indicate that under open borders the immigrants would have much lower human capital than natives, instead of higher (as in Canada’s successful immigration system, which has proven popular enough to give it one of the highest immigrant population shares in the world); open borders would have much bigger effects on average human capital than population controls could for rich countries

    If humans gained the ability to cheaply reproduce by fission as often as every 30 minutes, with faster rates for those with lower human capital, you would see a *lot* more support for restrictions on fertility, since the impacts would be much larger and the window of opportunity for action so much shorter.

    “the only real benefit that a newborn offers over an immigrant as a choice for “new addition to the country’s population” that they have a private support network of mostly self-sufficient people (at least, as self-sufficient as anyone gets in a modern first-world country)?”

    That’s not very self-sufficient in a system with high government spending and progressive taxation. There are a lot of programs to try to prevent teen pregnancy, and people get pretty unhappy when they hear about welfare recipients having huge numbers of kids and claiming hear about hugely fertile families financed through welfare programs.

    1. Hey BK,

      A few points:

      “-birth takes nine months of serious biological drawbacks for the mother, and fathers face compulsory child support; the costs discourage constant pregnancy, and the time imposes both annual and total caps on the new people an individual can introduce to the polity
      -invitations to immigrants could be sold explicitly or implicitly, for immediate financial benefits, whereas children are net financial drains for a long time if you raise them, and can’t be sold”

      The costs of pregnancy and raising a child, while limiting their numbers, also limits the benefit to society (as John brings up). If it’s cheaper to bring in immigrants, it’s also true that the positive benefits to society are more immediate, and given the higher likelihood of immigrants leaving before retiring or growing old and ill enough to become a drain on society, quite possibly higher in the long run.

      “-fertility in rich countries today is low, and highly fertile subpopulations are small minorities, so fertility restrictions wouldn’t much change population growth, while open borders would cause explosive growth; back when population growth was faster in rich countries population control was more of a public issue”

      True, but it seems those arguments were misguided both by assuming population growth would continue unchecked and in assuming technology was incapable of keeping up with a population boom (an assumption proved incorrect by the Green Revolution). If those arguments seem mis-guided then shouldn’t we give a bit more skepticism to fears of an immigration induced boom (which wouldn’t actually grow the world’s population but simply shift it to areas that are more capable of taking care of the people).

  3. I agree with most of this. One question about China, however. Granted, quantity restrictions on birth are an affront to freedom, but overpopulation and resource scarcity is going to be an issue that grows even more over this century. Obviously there are negative consequences felt by that populace in this generation, but what equitable solution is there besides quantity restrictions? I also realize this question is kind of tangental to the overall point of the article.

  4. Contrary to what is often thought, eugenics is surprisingly popular. For example, in the General Social Survey people are asked: “Suppose a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect. Would you (yourself want to/ want your partner to) have an abortion if a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect?” 30-40% of those sampled routinely reply “yes”. Another question asks: “Do you personally think it is wrong or not wrong for a
    woman to have an abortion. . . a. If there is a strong chance of
    serious defect in the baby?” The majority of respondents do not think that it is wrong at all. So, I think that you underestimate the support for personal eugenics, Of course, there is a distinction between bottom up eugenics — people individually deciding which kids they want via selective abortion or selective implantation — and top down eugenics — that people via the state deciding this for others. The former is inevitable.

    That said, your analogy is a poor one. Selective immigration does not abort a life that one is potentially responsible for by act of bringing it into being. The issue of agency is central here since it is central to the more persuasive case against abortion. Few argue, when it comes to the abortion debate, that other parents have an obligation to raise someone else’s unwanted children — that is, that there should be compulsory adoption. But this is an extension of what you are arguing when it comes to immigration — That groups of people have no right to decided to not adopt new commers. So, would you maintain that there should also be compulsory adoption?

    You semi address this point by saying: “If the one and only criteria that potential immigrants needed to meet before coming in was to find a voluntary supporter, it seems like we’d have plenty of immigration! You don’t answer the question but rather change the justification and the analogy. Now, sponsoring immigration is a right in the way that having a child is. But this is a fundamentally different argument from that which you opened with — that immigration is a right in the way that right-to-life is a right. As for the “right to sponsor immigrants” argument, this has already been made and replied to. Nothing new, then, is added here.

  5. You said: “Newborns have lots of other differences from immigrants, of course – they look like natives, they sound like natives, and they’ll probably share native cultural beliefs and social norms. These are all reasons that other natives will like them more, but they’re not reasons why they would be more beneficial to the country than immigrants, so we’re going to ignore those for now.”

    And I said: ” As for the “right to sponsor immigrants” argument, this has already been made and replied to.”

    I guess that I should briefly address this. First, I take issue with the false dichotomy which you present in the last quoted sentence. You contrast “what natives would like” with “what is beneficial to the country” as if “what is beneficial to the country” is independent from “what natives would like”, In ordinary discussion, “benefit to the country” typically is understood in terms of “what is good for the nationals”, where “natives” constitute a large portion of the total number of these individuals. But bizarrely, you divorce the concepts. Now other people on this site have argued that the good of everyone in the whole wide world, perhaps even universe, should be “taken into account” when deciding these questions. But doing so changes the issue from that which is beneficial to the country to that which is beneficial to the whole wide or universe. I wish here to focus on the narrow issue of “what is beneficial to the country” where I, as do many people, understand this to mean “what tends to be beneficial to the nationals in the country”.

    Now, my reply would be simple: when it comes to immigration, exclusive policies are beneficial to the nationals in a country insofar as they maximize the collective good — or perhaps average good –of these nationals. Now, goods vary by individuals and by groups of them. As such, it is impossible to specify a generic immigration policy, It is possible, however, to explain the apparent paradox which you point out — that people often seem to indicate an unwillingness when it comes to limiting having children yet they indicate a willing when it comes to importing immigrants who are perceived to be dissimilar to them. One obvious explanation is that people hold as a good the perpetuation of “shared cultural beliefs and social norms” and of cultural — and in some instances — genetic identity. They value as good the perpetuation of what they deem defines themselves. One can take the members of the now Jewish nation Israel as an example — or those members of the Tibetan exile who pine about “cultural genocide”. Cutting through the sophistry, it seems that all there is to disagree about is personal and collective goods and the best way, through immigration policy, to maximize these. Truthfully, I can’t understand how this blog runs more than a couple of posts. The “case” is rather simple: This is what I deem to be good, Immigration policy x maximizes this good. This is what my opponents deem to be good. This is why I think that they are worthless people.

    1. I would note that I am not opposed to other people in other nations deciding to limit births e.g., an economically enforced zero child policy and deciding that a continual replacement immigration policy was ideal for them. I wouldn’t want to live in that nation — and If I did I would want to secede from it — but as a vulgar liberal I am open to a diversity of political and social formations — and I don’t see anything clearly necessarily morally problematic with this situation. So I am not approaching this issue with the prior that the “right” to birth is somehow “inalienable”. This might explain, in part, why the conclusions which I derive are so divergent from those derived by many of the authors here.

    2. ” You contrast “what natives would like” with “what is beneficial to the country” as if “what is beneficial to the country” is independent from “what natives would like”, In ordinary discussion, “benefit to the country” typically is understood in terms of “what is good for the nationals”, where “natives” constitute a large portion of the total number of these individuals. But bizarrely, you divorce the concepts.”

      Alright so you are arguing from a citizenist normative perspective. However, even within that perspective I think there’s a serious problem with your argument here. Namely, the idea of what natives “want” is often not clear from statements or even voting patterns. Consider, a very large majority of the United States states that they prefer immigration restrictions and oppose the hiring of illegal alien workers. And yet few businesses find it profitable to advertise “We only hire native workers.” Indeed I have never even heard someone go into a business I’ve been in or was working at and even ask for verbal assurance that they only hired people in this country legally (including at places I’m nearly 100% positive there were illegal immigrant employees). People don’t really seem to care when it comes to how they actually choose what businesses to patronize.

      But perhaps we should take their given statements as more important? Perhaps people take their votes more seriously than how they spend there money? This seems unlikely. People have direct agency in how their money is spent and directly feel the consequences (both good and bad) of doing so. Perhaps any given person knows that deciding to not spend money at a given establishment for it’s immigrant hiring practices won’t change that place, but they do know they won’t personally have to experience being served by/cooked for/attended to by a person they would rather not be in this country. So if they seriously prefer not having immigration they do get at least some personal satisfaction. But what about speaking or voting? Well will any policy change because a single person gives a particular answer on a survey or changes a single vote? No, but to be fair that also wasn’t true with the spending example. However, will changing one’s vote at all impact that person’s direct experience with immigrants or immigration? Not in the slightest. Thus in terms of being rational about what one truly wants, there’s more to be said for those who vote with their dollars than those who vote with their votes.

      So what should we expect with people’s stated opinions/votes given that these will have nearly zero policy or personal impacts? We should expect them to tend to conform to their friends who have the exact same poor incentives to actually study the issue and decide what they truly want. Thus people will tend to bias themselves towards the status quo. Sometimes the status quo was set up with good reasoning, but looking at the racial set up of the original closing of the border my feeling is that’s not the case with border restrictions.

      So what do natives want? It’s probably not so clearly closed borders as you might suspect.

      1. Chris, Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your willingness to engage me on this matter. Hopefully, through this discourse we will come to a better understanding of each other’s position. Recently, you made several objections to my reply:

        #1. Chris: “However, even within that perspective I think there’s a serious problem with your argument here. Namely, the idea of what natives “want” is often not clear from statements or even voting patterns… Thus in terms of being rational about what one truly wants, there’s more to be said for those who vote with their dollars than those who vote with their votes.”

        I respond: I agree that “what citizens want” is often not manifest. More problematic, from my perspective, is that popular “wants” are often manufactured by elites; as such, what citizens want, in a given nation, is often what the elites want them to want; that is, “wants” are very pliable.

        This noted, the issue which you have raised is not a fundamental problem for my position as we can treat “native want” as a hypothetical construct and work from there. On the individual level, wants are often unclear; individuals often exhibit conflicting desires. And yet social scientists nonetheless routinely work with concepts of personal want, personal good, and personal desire; they do so by treating these concepts as hypothetical constructs and then by operationalizing them. Indeed, most “Open Borders” proponents grant this method as they argue that we should take into account the “wants” of would-be -immigrants. Were we to grant your first objection, should we not apply it against the “Open Borders” case too? After all, who knows what would-be-immigrants really want? We might index “desire to immigrate” by the immigrants’ willingness to completely assimilate into the destination country’s dominate culture or by the immigrants’ response to the question, “Do you wish to immigrate?”. I imagine that, at least in some instances, different operationalizations will generate different results. Which shall we rely on? Perhaps, following your logic, we should distrust direct responses and rely on behaviors — we could conclude that immigrants who don’t exhibit the desire to fully integrate as best they can really do not want to immigrate.

        I imagine that you will be unsatisfied with this reply. You might persist: “Yes, but how do we actually operationaize “native want”?” My reply, again, would be that in terms of theory this shouldn’t matter. But I can go beyond this. I would suggest that we treat ‘what citizens want’ as a latent variable which is inferred from a multitude of specific responses. I imagine that views about immigrants (e.g., “We only want to hire natives” and “We want restricted immigration”) positively co-vary across nations. In fact, I know that this is the case since I checked into this issue, a while back, using the World Value Survey. If you treat nations as subjects and response frequencies (i.e., 60% of the population respond thusly) as scores you can compute deviation scores relative to the international mean. I have found — but, if you want, we can check this together — that scores form a positive manifold. That is, positive and negative reactions to immigrants correlate across nations. Countries which “score high” on questions like “How supportive are you of increased immigration?” also score high on questions like “How supportive are you of employers hiring illegal immigrants?”. (To note, I don’t recall what the actual WVS questions were, but you can readily check this.) Because of this, you can extract a unidimensional general factor and label this “general perception of immigrants”. Citizens of some nations have a more positive/receptive general perception and citizens of others have a more negative/unreceptive general perception. If we use “general national perception of immigrants” scores, then we largely obviate concerns about arbitrariness when it comes to operationalization. So, I find several problems with your first objection. Firstly, this objection does not address the theoretical point; secondly, this objection is generic — it also applies to the Open Borders case. Thirdly, this objection does not represent an empirical problem since we can operationalize “what natives want” as “the general national perception of immigrants” in the manner discussed above.

        #2. Chris: “So what should we expect with people’s stated opinions/votes given that these will have nearly zero policy or personal impacts? We should expect them to tend to conform to their friends who have the exact same poor incentives to actually study the issue and decide what they truly want… but looking at the racial set up of the original closing of the border my feeling is that’s not the case with border restrictions.”
        I respond: You reason that people who tend to oppose immigration don’t really know what they want and, as such, are being irrational in the economic sense. You imply that, as a result, their expressed views can not be trusted. Again, this argument suffers from the same problems as that above: it doesn’t address the theoretical issue, it can be applied just as easily against the Open border Case, and it rests on a false premise. As for latter, it is not true that positions on immigration are generally inconsistent –inconsistent in the sense that views are not positively correlated. [Let me give an example of what I am talking about which is relevant to your claim about race. In the General Social Survey, individuals were asked: “What about the number of immigrants from (….): should it be increased a lot, increased a little, left the same as it is now, decreased a little, or decreased a lot?” Three separate question were asked concerning Latin Americans (LETINHSP), Asians (LETINASN), and Europeans (LETINEUR). For Whites, the correlations between responses to these three questions was about 0.8. This implies that most Whites hold a generic immigration position. Now, we can repeat this exercise by looking an innumerable indexes of positive/receptive views. Since we are discussing native sentiments we should, of course, look at international surveys.

        Generally, imagine that we were arguing about the “benefit to the country” in light any other national policy. Would the response that “people don’t really want what they say they want” constitute a serious objection to the argument that the “benefit to a country” fundamentally relates to “the good of nationals” and that the “good of the nationals” can be understood in terms of the “desires of the nationals”. If so, I turn this objection around: we can’t know that Open Border advocates really want what they say they do — indeed, perhaps their views represent a starring example of mauvaise foi; this doesn’t seem implausible given the hegemony of progressive norms. And we can’t know what would-be-immigrants really want — or would want if they knew what the process of immigration and assimilation was really like. So we best dismiss all such arguments based on individual and collective good. And where does that leave us?

        To summarize, my position was that: The “benefit to a country” must be understood in terms of “the good of nationals”; and the “the good of nationals” should be understood in terms of “what nationals want”; and “what nationals want” can be envisioned as a latent variables which can be operationalized. In reply, you made an argument which works, in general, no less against your over-arching position than against mine and which is not either theoretically or empirically problematic for my position.

        Now, since you brought the issue of race up, I feel obliged to comment. I find it difficult to though because your statement was somewhat cryptic. Would you mind clarifying what you meant first?

        1. “This noted, the issue which you have raised is not a fundamental problem for my position as we can treat “native want” as a hypothetical construct and work from there. On the individual level, wants are often unclear; individuals often exhibit conflicting desires. And yet social scientists nonetheless routinely work with concepts of personal want, personal good, and personal desire; they do so by treating these concepts as hypothetical constructs and then by operationalizing them. Indeed, most “Open Borders” proponents grant this method as they argue that we should take into account the “wants” of would-be -immigrants. Were we to grant your first objection, should we not apply it against the “Open Borders” case too? After all, who knows what would-be-immigrants really want? We might index “desire to immigrate” by the immigrants’ willingness to completely assimilate into the destination country’s dominate culture or by the immigrants’ response to the question, “Do you wish to immigrate?”. I imagine that, at least in some instances, different operationalizations will generate different results. Which shall we rely on? Perhaps, following your logic, we should distrust direct responses and rely on behaviors — we could conclude that immigrants who don’t exhibit the desire to fully integrate as best they can really do not want to immigrate.”

          Question: if different operationalizations lead to different results how do we choose between operationalizations? The way with immigrants seems straightforward, do immigrants move to a country when not blocked by laws? The operationalization you’ve chosen seems clearly to be linked to a desire to integrate into a culture not actually immigrating. Even if you were to assert that anyone who wanted to live here permanently must integrate that ignores the droves of people who would only like to live here temporarily.

          But perhaps you might argue that’s a valid complaint against my attempted operationalization of native responses to immigration (namely not seeking to monetarily support immigrants or interact with immigrant supporting businesses). There are more direct ways we could examine native desire to keep out immigrants through actions however.For instance, we could measure native financial support for citizens patrols of the border such as the Minutemen. These groups aren’t law breakers or real vigilantes generally but simply inform the border patrol of sightings of illegal immigrants so it’s not out of respect for the rule of law. Even if that is a concern for these groups, funding would tend to go to those groups with the strongest claim to be simply watching and reporting. If such groups don’t exist the question would then arise why has no one taped into the potentially vast amount of support that could be garnered from those who apparently want to keep illegals out. But how much funding does the Minuteman Project (the most well known of any non-profit border patrolling group) get? About 1.3 million dollars a year. Approximately 130 million people voted in the last presidential election. Statements on relative support for border security vs. amnesty show 66% of the public thinks border security is more important in their statements. If that 66% of the people who voted in the 2012 election (not even 66% of the entire electorate) then the per-person cost of keeping the Minuteman Project as big as it currently is would be $0.015. Thus the American voting public that supports more border control could, if it wanted, increase the revenue of the Minuteman Project 100 times over and be paying them about $1.50 per year. And yet almost all of them pay zero. As far as preferences go, if there is a preference for keeping immigrants out (as opposed to a preference for saying we should keep immigrants out), it seems incredibly weak when actual money is on the line.

          Even then, maybe you’re right that different valid operationalizations will produce a different result . But if this is the case then this entire line of argument is incoherent and I’m willing to abandon the idea of considering wants on either side. After all, can’t people want things they shouldn’t? The many people of Medieval Europe wanted to persecute and kill Jews during the Black Death. Even if we could assert that the desire of the Christian majority to persecute was stronger than the desire of the Jews not to be persecuted that does not mean we should view such actions as acceptable government policy (and that would be true even if Jews aren’t considered citizens). Strong moral considerations should trump wants of nationals or non-nationals otherwise we might be forced to conclude that many acts of persecution or genocide were acceptable. In this regard I think the pro-open borders case is a slam dunk with multiple moral systems (see our moral case section for those arguments, though if you’re interested in any particular one I’d be happy to discuss it). Also if we abandon “wants” as a consideration then Open Borders advocates can just focus on the concrete benefits to migrants, the benefits to immigrant sending and receiving countries, and the global benefits.

          “Generally, imagine that we were arguing about the “benefit to the country” in light any other national policy. Would the response that “people don’t really want what they say they want” constitute a serious objection to the argument that the “benefit to a country” fundamentally relates to “the good of nationals” and that the “good of the nationals” can be understood in terms of the “desires of the nationals”. If so, I turn this objection around: we can’t know that Open Border advocates really want what they say they do — indeed, perhaps their views represent a starring example of mauvaise foi; this doesn’t seem implausible given the hegemony of progressive norms. And we can’t know what would-be-immigrants really want — or would want if they knew what the process of immigration and assimilation was really like. So we best dismiss all such arguments based on individual and collective good. And where does that leave us?”

          I think it would be a serious objection at least in terms of how there is a divide between the stated desires of nationals and their actual desires (in fact entire books have been written on the subject, one I recommend being Myth of the Rational Voter, or I could simply point out the entire field of public choice economics). People don’t vote or express support for policies which if enacted would increase their happiness the most. The average voter is isn’t particular well informed and this is pretty well established, and if they aren’t informed how can they be expected to know the consequences of the choices they make or the opinions they express? Thus if national desire is even a coherent concept, there is no way that opinion polls or voting patterns will give answers to that subject. Falling back on revealed preferences may lead to cherry-picking examples. We could fall back on some basics such as the prices of goods, income levels, employment, and GDP as proxies for a national desire we find hard to actually determine, but that does mean abandoning opinion polls as determining what policies should be enacted.

          Now is it true that Open Borders people could be simply biased by progressive values? Potentially yes. Again it’s true that incentives to be right are cheap. But on the other hand, at this point there is almost no support for OB among the broader public. Thus OB-fans are more likely to have net social pressures against their beliefs (unless they isolate themselves from non-supporters). But then again, my argument isn’t based on a majority consensus among an ill-informed public. My argument for Open Borders is based on the likely GDP results, the end of global poverty, and the moral case from multiple moral philosophies. Those wouldn’t change regardless of how informed or uninformed the average OB support is. When the argument “national desires” comes up using polling or voting data for support the basis of the argument is on the reliability of those believing the majority view. If there are good reasons to believe that majority is unreliable then that argument goes out the window. If there are good reasons to believe OB people in general support the position for bad reasons or are incoherent in their desires, I can still point to arguments which rely on good methodologies by researchers being carried out or on the internal coherence of moral philosophies not directly related to open borders.

          AKA, an argument from “national desires” needs the actual people making the argument to be reliable while practical and moral cases only need good arguments not good people.

          “Now, since you brought the issue of race up, I feel obliged to comment. I find it difficult to though because your statement was somewhat cryptic. Would you mind clarifying what you meant first?”

          In this I refer to the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 which relied on poorly supported racial theories and stereotypes to get passed. Modern theories of race show the racial definitions typically used where either arbitrary or incoherent (nationality being a poor substitute for racial categories on either a large scale or for simply different breeding populations, both of which will show some variation though little compared to the variation which exists within groups). This is even more true given that restrictions were based on a national level when scientists believed they had a way of sorting people on an individual level (aka even if IQs are good way to limit immigrants why block immigration on the basis of national origin rather than IQ score and if individual IQ scores were too unreliable then that would throw doubt on the national IQ differences). Thus my point being that the initial reasons to close the borders were definitely bad given modern (and even at that time) scientific study of population or individual differences.

          1. You said: “Question: if different operationalizations lead to different results how do we choose between operationalizations?…As far as preferences go, if there is a preference for keeping immigrants out (as opposed to a preference for saying we should keep immigrants out), it seems incredibly weak when actual money is on the line.”

            Let’s do the run down: I argued that you need to take into account national sentiment. You argued that it is impossible to index true popular sentiment. I replied that this measurement argument works both ways. I then noted that the common practice in the social sciences, when dealing with abstract concepts like “desire”, is to operationalize the concepts. I also noted the “dimensionality problem”, that different operationalizations could lead to very different results, and noted a possible solution — using latent factor scores, possibly based on an array of reported opinions and behaviors. You replied that within the US behaviors do not seem to match in degree opinions. You say:.

            “As far as preferences go, if there is a preference for keeping immigrants out (as opposed to a preference for saying we should keep immigrants out), it seems incredibly weak when actual money is on the line.”

            Three possibilities come to mind. The first is that, as you suggest, no coherent construct that could labeled ‘popular sentiment’ is creatable . If so, we might find instances were populations behave quite other than we would expect based on behaviors which, at first blush, appeared to index a common trait. The second is that one can be created and that “putting money on the line” loads weakly on it (i.e., “putting money on the line” is a weak predictor of most of the other indexes of this latent variable.) The third is that one can be created, that “putting money on the line” loads strongly on it, and that the US factorial score is not low in terms of immigrant positivity. Now, for my case, I need either the second or the third or I need to make an argument for why some specific operationalization is better than others or I need to make a case that were you to weight equally all of the multiple types of popular sentiments, they would not tend to cancel each other out. You case is much more difficult. You have to argue that there are multiple uncorrelated sentiments and that they are so conflicted that it is not possible to assess what populations want and that this situation only applies when it comes to nationals Pointing that in the US people voice stronger opposition to immigration than one might expect based on funding doesn’t make this argument (1) because it just tells us something about the US, (2) because the relationship between funding and other indexes of sentiment is not clear (3) because you offer no reason to weight funding more than reported opinion and the default in a democracy is rely on the latter when deciding policy, and so on. Continuing, you write:

            “But if this is the case then this entire line of argument is incoherent and I’m willing to abandon the idea of considering wants on either side….In this regard I think the pro-open borders case is a slam dunk with multiple moral systems (see our moral case section for those arguments, though if you’re interested in any particular one I’d be happy to discuss it).”

            Unfortunately, consideration of the wants of people is indispensable. You say, for example: “Open Borders advocates can just focus on the concrete benefits to migrants, the benefits to immigrant sending and receiving countries, and the global benefits.” But my whole point was that “benefit” is not an abstract idea dangling in the Cosmos waiting to be maximized. There is no benefit per se. There is only benefit for individuals and for groups of them. “The globe” does not benefit from immigration. Nor do countries, per se. Only the individuals within both may — or may not. And what individuals and groups of them “want” for themselves is central to the idea of what benefits them. I suppose there is a sense in which you could say that “the economy would benefit i.e., do well from eliminating humans and replacing them with automaton” and perhaps in this same way you could say that “countries, per se, benefit from population replacement via mass immigration” but nobody cares about the well being of “the economy” or of “countries” per se. Of course, if you want to go down that road I will be happy to follow — we can talk about the well functioning of all sorts of processes in relation to immigration. But this will be a fruitless path, because the “benefit” of abstract concepts e.g., “the economy”, detached from that of individuals, is not an ethical consideration for regular persons. So we are stuck with individual wants and moral principles based on them.

            You say: “Even if we could assert that the desire of the Christian majority to persecute was stronger than the desire of the Jews not to be persecuted that does not mean we should view such actions as acceptable government policy (and that would be true even if Jews aren’t considered citizens). Strong moral considerations should trump wants of nationals or non-nationals otherwise we might be forced to conclude that many acts of persecution or genocide were acceptable.”

            I don’t imagine that the tendencies of Jews in the middles ages was unrelated to the frequent popular animosity towards them. Frequently, they acted, inadvertently or not, as the nobility’s agents of exploitation — and in Europe, as opposed to say the Middle East, norms e.g., concerning usury allowed for a greater degree of such abuse. Also, I find transhistorical moral assessments to be difficult, given that moral norms shift over time. So, I imagine that my moral assessment of the situation would be a great deal more complex than yours, at least based on your discussion. That said, I agree that there is a basic problem concerning cultural, temporal differences in moral systems. But I see it as a fundamental ethical problem, one not to be washed over. That said, in this situation morality is nonetheless related to the wants of individuals. There is just a conflict of wants. Were both groups to agree that the persecution of one was fine, the situation would be morally ambiguous — at least to me. A passage from Douglas Adams’ HGU comes to mind:

            “A large dairy animal approached Zaphod Beeblebrox’s table, a large fat meaty quadruped of the bovine type with large watery eyes, small horns and what might almost have been an ingratiating smile on its lips….
            “Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in the parts of my body?”…
            “Well,” said the animal, “I know many vegetables that are very clear on that point. Which is why it was eventually decided to cut through the whole tangled problem and breed an animal that actually wanted to be eaten and was capable of saying so clearly and distinctly. And here I am.”

            That is, this issue is an issue because there is a conflict of wants. Your claim then is that the (apparent) wants of the migrants supersede the (apparent) wants of the natives. Confronted with this conflict, you move to dissolve it by denying that natives have calculable interests. You argue:

            “Thus if national desire is even a coherent concept, there is no way that opinion polls or voting patterns will give answers to that subject. Falling back on revealed preferences may lead to cherry-picking examples. We could fall back on some basics such as the prices of goods, income levels, employment, and GDP as proxies for a national desire we find hard to actually determine, but that does mean abandoning opinion polls as determining what policies should be enacted.”

            To some extent I would agree that opinion polls do not capture “true” opinions. But I noted that this is a solvable methodological problem. I am sure that we could eventually decide on some index e.g., implicit association tests. Again my argument isn’t that in country x individuals dislike immigration, but rather that natives do have wants, that these can be measured, and that these need to be taken into account. Your argument is akin to saying, based on your own example, that: “Well, we can’t be sure what Jews in the Middle Ages really wanted, after all they didn’t leave the regions or give up the practices that the locals complained about — and we do know that from time to time the peasantry mobilized, so …” I judge your refusal to acknowledge the concern of native want, sentiment, interest, benefit — whichever term we wish to employ — to be an act of intellectual skullduggery.

            You say:

            “In this regard I think the pro-open borders case is a slam dunk with multiple moral systems, though if you’re interested in any particular one I’d be happy to discuss it.”

            Hence one problem I have with this site. Multiple conflicting moral arguments are made and it is admitted, at least by some, that the arguments are engineered for rhetorical ends. Here we find an end seeking rationalizations, not ratiocination leading to an end. I am not in the least bit impressed by the cacophony of arguments here:

            Libertarian case; Utilitarian case; Egalitarian case: Bleeding-heart libertarian case; Conservative and small-government case; Human capabilities case

            We could go through them, though. With regards to libertarianism, you can make a strong minarchist propertarian argument for national border control. With regards to utilitarianism, one’s assessment will, in part, depend on whose utiles you count. Also there is the general concern about long run system failure; system diversity e.g., national, genetic, cultural, linguistic buffers against this. Homogeneity reduces transaction costs but increases the probability of such long run crashes by eliminating alternative systems (and, of course, a borderless globe is a soon to be followed by a mono-national globe). As for egalitarianism, border erasing is only one possible means to this end. And it’s not clear that this means is needed, is justified, or would even work (i.e., this would depend, partially, on the ultimate cause of disparities). With regards to “bleeding-heart libertarians” this would depend on the type of libertarian — obviously an international libertarian socialist will not need much convincing. As for small government conservatism, it would depend on the views of the immigrants with regards to small governments. It doesn’t make much sense to cut government by eliminating border control when this will result in an influx of government expanding migrants. And then you have “the human capabilities case”. If differences are unnatural, then you don’t need open borders to eliminate national disparities (this was why Rawls’ thought that immigration was a non-issue), you just need to correct institutional deficiencies; on the other hand, if differences are natural in the sense of expressions of national differences in genetic potential, then open borders will just relocate differences.

            So I find the case made here to be weak. You continue:

            “But on the other hand, at this point there is almost no support for OB among the broader public. Thus OB-fans are more likely to have net social pressures against their beliefs (unless they isolate themselves from non-supporters).”

            Ya, try this on someone else. You continue:

            “My argument for Open Borders is based on the likely GDP results, the end of global poverty, and the moral case from multiple moral philosophies.”

            We looked at the multiple moral philosophies and they were redundant with the two former points; the benefit to “the GDP” is irrelevant irrespective of individuals; the net economic benefit for the typical US native is negligible to negative; if positive, this would not make your case, as you are arguing for the abolition of borders in general; we are left with global poverty; this can either refer to relative global poverty or absolute global poverty; obviously abolishing borders and with them nations will lead to the end of national differences in poverty; will it decrease the outcome differences between random person on the earth? this would largely depend on the type of system created to replace the current national system; it’s not difficult to imagine Snow Crashesque scenarios where this did not happen or where the reverse did. So we are left with absolute poverty and global GDP; again you are not taking into account long term externalities. You also ignore the concern about social values and democracies discussed on May 21, 2013 at 1:15.

            You said: “In this I refer to the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 which relied on poorly supported racial theories and stereotypes to get passed.”

            From what I have read, the driving force behind the Immigration Act of 1924 was that immigrants were driving the wages of natives down, a situation which was fueling revolutionary sentiment. This was not an unreasonable concern for the elite given the events in Europe. As for race and ethnicity, the concern was and continues to be valid insofar as race and ethnicity, in either the social or biological sense, was and is a concern. You imply that there was deep conceptual confusion on the matter, but I see no evidence of this. The difference then and now is that people care less about race and culture just as they care less about religion. If individuals in some religious nationalist Muslim democracy were concerned about an influx of non-Muslims, I wouldn’t label them conceptually confused but, rather, rational. In the same way, it would have been irrational for eurocentric and Nordocentric Americans circa 1920 to be unconcerned about the nationality of immigrants. As for IQ, it has been shown over and over again that theories of national differences in IQ had virtually no impact on the immigrant act debates.

  6. “I’m a pro-natalist. I’m in favor of people being born. Be careful when you think to yourself, “that’s a silly thing to be specifically in favor of; isn’t everyone?” Because I assure you, not everyone is.”

    Let me pose the following hypothetical: Imagine the following scenario: there is a country in which there is a long standing debate over policy concerning pro-natalism. This country is a democracy in which popular vote decides policy or decides the people who decide policy. In this debate, one side, which calls their position “Pro-Life”, is pro-natal in the sense that they want abortion legally banned; and the other side, which calls their position “Pro-Choice”, is anti-natal in the sense that they favor the right to unrestricted abortion, including eugenic abortion. In this country, the sides are fairly evenly balanced. And proponents of each side consider this issue to be an important moral issue and see the opposing side as morally wrong. Given this scenario, would it make sense, moral and/or logical, for proponents of either side to evaluate immigration in light of the positions of the immigrants? Specifically, would it make sense for pro-natalists to oppose the inflow of anti-natal immigrants or to oppose immigration in general if immigrants tended to be anti-natal? With regards to logical sense, to ask the question is to answer it. But what of moral sense?

    It seems that this would come down to a complex moral calculus. If you defined pro-natal and anti-natal as above, I think that you would agree that the answer would not be clear cut, no matter how you otherwise morally weighted the ability to freely migrate, because, from both viewpoints, immigration potentially fosters an evil, the enactment and/or maintenance of a policy which is deemed to be morally bad. Granting foreign individuals the right to relocate into one’s nation and to nationalize grants them the right to impose their views via the democratic institution onto one and onto others in the nation.

    Since you don’t even raise this concern, I infer that by “pro-natal” you mean something other than “pro-life”. Maybe you could explain your position more. Whatever the case, mine is simple: in a democracy individuals, acting in groups, can impose their values on others. Given this situation, it’s difficult for me to see the moral/legal grounds underlying the position that restricting the behaviors of non nationals — specifically restricting their ability to nationalize and to have the right to attempt to impose their views — is impermissible. Now, I believe that one of the bloggers here has attempted to address this issue before. He employed an unsatisfying analogical argument: if members of a nation are allowed decide who isn’t a national then they should be allowed to decide who isn’t a national. And then he made what he thought was a clever comparison between foreigners and the next native generation and, after, reasoned that making a distinction between the two was illogical and, therefore, that opposition to unrestricted immigration was irrational in the sense of logically incoherent given other implied premises. Now, being a vulgar liberal my reply to this is, of course, simple. Though, I am not sure how many people accept my pragmatic view of rights and law. But if we grant a universalistic perspective of rights grounded in some fictitious creator or in some clever rhetorical games and we grant that becoming a national wherever one wishes to is one of them, the problem stands given the principles of democracy. In this scenario, groups of individuals, denied the possibility of sovereignty over themselves, a basic component of which is to decide who they are, are subject to a tyranny of global democracy. And some argue that this situation is a foundational moral condition! I find that incredible — specifically that, at very least, a conflict of goods is not acknowledged.

  7. This argument is too imaginative. A certain amount of credit is due for thinking so far outside the box, but to a claim like this…

    “So there you have it. Regardless of what opinions you hold about birth and immigration respectively, there’s very little non-instinctual reason to restrict immigration more than birth, relatively.”

    I’d say (a) no, at the practical level the differences are rather large, and (b) the word “non-instinctual” seems to try to encapsulate and dismiss some things that shouldn’t be dismissed.

    At the practical level, BK and others have covered the ground fairly well, but I’d say the biggest problems are that human biology limits the rate of natural increase in a way that the immigration sponsorship process doesn’t, and that the long gestation period of infants, and the fact that they come into the world as comparatively “blank slates,” facilitates the transfer of culture in a way that the immigration process doesn’t, so that open borders is vulnerable to certain cultural critiques that natalism is not vulnerable to. (Mean reversion + self-selection can yield an argument that open borders is MORE conducive than natural increase to the preservation of culture– basically, immigrants CHOOSE to be American and self-select for pro-American traits, whereas the American-born don’t– which I think has considerable force; but at any rate there is no mere equivalency between the American-born and immigrants, in this respect.)

    As for “non-instinctual,” I would strongly disagree with the seeming suggestion that “instinctual” reasons have no validity. On the contrary, the right to marry and attempt to procreate I regard as extremely fundamental, whereas rights to migrate, to emigrate, and to invite, that undergird the human rights (as distinct from the economic or utilitarian) case for open borders, are important, but less fundamental. From a human rights perspective (though possibly not from a utilitarian perspective) I would regard eugenics or forced sterilization as more iniquitous than migration restrictions, because the right it violates is more fundamental. That doesn’t weaken the case for open borders: we should allow people to procreate AND to migrate. But it does cause me to dissent from John Roccia’s argument.

  8. What past immigration has done — and what the temporary worker program will continue to do on a potentially larger scale — is to depress wages and increase the profits of the firms that employ the immigrants. The labor market effects documented in this paper suggest that the proposed temporary worker program will expose many more Americans to competition from foreign workers, will generate higher earnings losses for workers, and will lead to an even greater redistribution of wealth from labor to those who buy and use immigrant services.

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