Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal

I’ve been reading Paul Collier’s Exodus, and plan to write a series of posts in response to it soon. Meanwhile, I might as well lay the groundwork for that by jotting down a few reflections.

Here’s one. I’ve commented before on Robert Putnam’s research about immigration and social capital, or really, about ethnic diversity and social capital. He finds that in ethnically mixed settings people tend to “hunker down,” become less sociable, not only with other ethnic groups, but even among themselves. Putnam suggests, and Collier expands on the idea, that immigration could harm social capital. See our page on social capital decline. Also related are the writings of Hans-Herman Hoppe on immigration as “forced integration,” which I have previously responded to here. Thomas E. Woods recently wrote in this vein at The Freeman. Woods’ article, which contains phrases like “immigrants and the American bureaucracy that serves them” (!), is basically silly, but it does contain some serious ideas. In particular, Hoppe and Putnam have a point about “forced integration,” though it’s not the one they think they have.

Hoppe’s starting point is a “pure private property” society in which even streets are privately owned. This is completely unworkable, since it would create endless hold-up problems, and also unjust, since there is no just way for this kind of property regime to originate. As my theory of streets Principles of a Free Society elucidates, natural easements arise from people’s need to move onto and off of their property, and where these easements coincide to form streets, there is a place where over-lapping non-exclusive transit rights prevent individual appropriation. Consequently, no one can be excluded, including immigrants. There is some scope here for gated communities and other explicit contractual arrangements to “privatize,” as it were, streets that serve functions that go beyond mere transit. If a road also serves as a place for your club to meet and socialize, and no one outside the club has any claims on it, you might be justified in restricting access to it. That leaves some space in which Hoppian local communes, so to speak, might be carved out. But to say that immigration should be left to local communities to decide and then use that as a platform from which to demand harsh national immigration restrictions is absurd. Local communities are not, in general, well-defined. There would rarely be local agreement on whom to let in. Enforcement would be an insuperable problem. Some communities would choose to be largely open to the world, and would expand. The Hoppe plan would basically break down, resulting in some combination of open borders and local squabbling lead to the arbitrary denial to many individuals of the full and proper use of their own property. It is completely untenable to regard the mere entry of foreigners into the country, without the state using force to stop them, as “forced integration” by the state. Nativists are lying to themselves if they think is open borders advocates, rather than themselves, who are using force.

But if the government not only permits the entry of immigrants, but also requires native citizens to interact with them on equal terms, on pain of falling foul of anti-discrimination laws, then a complaint of “forced integration” has merit. More generally, all manner of state-mandated equal opportunity and anti-discrimination rules amount to “forced integration.” That’s not to say we shouldn’t have them. Here my attitude is ambivalent. On the one hand, anti-discrimination law is an extremely sinister extension of the state’s jurisdiction. If a classic liberal state only enforces contracts, an anti-discrimination state micromanages what contracts you can sign, and, worst of all, does so on very subjective and non-transparent grounds. On the other hand, the evil which anti-discrimination law in the US was instituted to deal with– the vast historic crime of slavery, and its legacy of segregation– was very great. I am inclined to feel that the state’s act in prohibiting private discrimination was an intolerable affront to the rights of private contract, and at the same time, that it might have been worth it.

Of course, we don’t know what would have happened if the state had simply abolished de jure discrimination on the part of the government, and left private discrimination to individual conscience and civil society. There has been a revolution in values over the past generation to the point where I highly doubt that much private racial discrimination would occur, even if it were absolutely legal. Perhaps the achievements of the civil rights movement could have been accomplished without the sinister extension of state power to micromanage private decision-making. Indeed, perhaps it would have been even more successful. After all, there is a sense in which affirmative action makes racism true. If a university deliberately seeks to hire a diverse faculty, it will face trade-offs between racial/diversity criteria, which favor minorities, and other criteria. Ceteris paribus, that will mean that minority faculty will be lower in quality in other respects. If that’s the hiring process, it will be quite rational for faculty to think, even if they wouldn’t dare say, “He’s black, so he’s probably not that smart.” That may not be a valid statement globally, but it will be valid locally, precisely because affirmative action engineers things to be that way. Of course, affirmative action violates the norm of color-blindness, and it would be difficult to imagine in what sense it could fail to be regarded as unfair. It may lead to resentment, but even if not, people are rational, and if conditions have been created such that there is a local negative correlation between minority status and intelligence, experience, conscientiousness, or whatever, then their beliefs will reflect that.

Discrimination is regarded nowadays as almost the one unforgivable sin. One is indoctrinated against it in school, as one is not indoctrinated against fornication, adultery, or even theft. This is very misguided. It’s highly questionable whether discrimination, in general, is even wrong. Consider the following three motives for discrimination:

1. Hatred of the other. You don’t hire, don’t want to work with, don’t want to be served by, don’t want to rent a room to, don’t want to sell to, etc., members of a minority group, because you hate them. You regard them as inferior and/or bad, and find interaction with them unpleasant.

2. Statistical discrimination. You are aware that many personal traits which are relevant to you as an employer, landlord, teacher, waiter, or whatever, and which are not easily observable, are correlated with race. You therefore make probabilistic assumptions about a person based on their race.

3. Desire to help. You feel particular liking and sympathy for members of your own group, however defined, and when you know that some action of yours, whether purely altruistic or partially self-interested, will benefit another, you are more eager to do it if the benefit is conferred on a group you specially love. You may or may not be a member of that group yourself.

Now, it seems pretty clear that discrimination which proceeds from motive (1) is bad. But it’s not clear that discrimination from motives (2) or (3) is bad, and it might even be good.

It can be proved that statistical discrimination is sometimes efficient. As an example, consider the well-known complaint that it’s harder for African-Americans to catch a cab. This might be because taxi drivers are racist in sense (1), but I doubt it. More likely, taxi drivers are engaged in statistical discrimination. Cab driving is a rather dangerous business, because among patrons there are a few bad apples who might rob or even kill you. Doubtless, the vast majority of black taxi customers are law-abiding, but it is nonetheless a statistical fact that crime rates are higher among blacks, so the cab driver runs a greater risk. From an economist’s point of view, a smart solution would be to allow cab drivers to practice statistical discrimination by charging black clients more! The higher price would compensate for the greater risk, and blacks would have just as easy a time catching a cab. By that logic, explicit racial price discrimination by cab drivers might make the world a better place. But we’re unwilling to tolerate that, so cab drivers probably optimize by avoiding black clients. The somewhat serendipitous nature of customer-taxi contacts– Did he avoid me or did he just not see me hail him?— makes statistical discrimination difficult to regulate. Statistical discrimination in hiring seems harder to justify, since a job application and interview would seem to provide better information than crude racial patterns can supply. But maybe not. If Irish, say, are particularly sociable, or Asians particularly conscientious, it might be a profit-maximizing strategy to discriminate in favor of Irish people for head-hunters and salesmen, and Asians for analysts and accountants.

As for discrimination in favor of one’s own group, this has several things going for it. First, it seems like a good thing if one’s job isn’t just a paycheck, but is about making the world a better place. One way you might make the world a better place is by giving someone a service, or a job, that they love. But knowing whether they love the service, or the job, will have a lot to do with knowing them. Maybe you know via ethnic networks that your co-national Mr. X really needs the job, whereas you have no way to find out whether outsider Mr. Y does. Second, working with someone you like and identify with might just be fun, in a way that working with a stranger isn’t. Third, there may be a tacit “gift exchange” dynamic in hiring an insider, which is missing in the case of an outsider. In short, discriminating in favor of insiders may build social capital, the merits of which Robert Putnam has amply explained in his writings even if he is too much of a cheerleader for it.

American society has won a massive victory over racism in the past few decades. This is something to be proud of. It is, by and large, a step forward for justice. And yet in many respects it has gone too far, and impinged too much on freedom of association. I suspect that is part of the reason for the social capital decline that Putnam has exhaustively explored in the course of his career. Anti-discrimination norms in both law and personal ethics have severely restricted our ability to associate with those we like associating with. We have imposed an arm’s-length principle on the realms of commerce and to a considerable extent civil society as well, and paid the price in lost fraternity and neighborliness. It may be a price worth paying as regards blacks, who really were terribly oppressed for much of American history. That is something to atone for. But only in the case of blacks. Non-discrimination is not a general moral principle. It is only tenuously related to justice. It is not wrong to hire a family man, or a single mother, in preference to a bachelor or bachelorette, on the grounds that they need the job more, or are likely to be more stable. It is probably right to suppress the urge to engage in statistical discrimination with respect to blacks, even when that means sacrificing a bit of profit, though I think cab drivers who avoid a real risk of being crime victims by not picking up black customers are probably justified.

Now, let’s bring this back to immigration. With respect to immigrants, lots of discrimination with motives (2) and (3) will be warranted. Immigrants will often lack the language skills, cultural understanding, and perhaps values systems to be suitable for certain jobs or inclusion in certain clubs. More subtly but no less importantly, types of immigrants may tend to lack certain traits. It’s unfair, in a sense, if private discrimination denies to certain immigrants opportunities for which they are really qualified, simply because the groups of which they are a part tend to lack suitable traits. But we can’t make the world perfectly fair. And all the private discrimination on earth could never come close to the unfairness of migration restrictions.

It’s absurd to exclude a person from a country on the grounds that if he comes, he’ll face private discrimination. If that’s a price he’s willing to pay, let him. Very likely, the opportunities from which he is excluded, he wouldn’t have wanted anyway. Meanwhile, native citizens who are forced to integrate with immigrants– meaning, not just to see them on the street, which involves trivial harm and no violation of rights, but to be forced to hire them, rent apartments to them, accept them in a school, etc.– do have a valid grievance. Something has been taken away from them. Possibly– it’s an interesting question– the optimal world would involve both open borders and anti-discrimination laws, and native citizens should just be forced to integrate with all manner of immigrants, regardless of the psychic cost. One thing is clear, though: if we think native citizens should be spared from forced integration, the way to achieve that is to permit them to engage in private discrimination against immigrants, not to exclude immigrants by force from the territory of a country.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

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

14 thoughts on “Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal”

  1. To Nathan Smith,
    What you fail to understand remains the mainstay of racism around the world: tribes around the planet practice racism daily and have for millennia. In Africa, Africans shoot white people for being white. Racism flourishes in Mexico. In Japan, racism abounds because the Japanese think they are superior to whites, blacks, browns and just about everyone else. They avoid racism in Japan by not allowing immigration. They remain a mono-ethnic society. Same with China. Today, blacks in America practice racism wherever their numbers overwhelm other races. Try going down to the “Hood” in Chicago as a white person and think you have an equal chance at a job or a cab. If it’s at night, you may well be lucky to get out with your life.

    The reality remains: racism is biological, tribal and forever as long as ethnic tribes exist. You can’t blame it on Americans or Japanese or Chinese or Mexicans. It’s a matter of endless evolution and survival.

    No amount of education, enlightenment or laws will erase racism. It goes both ways and it is ubiquitous. The best we can hope for: try to grow respect for all other human beings of whatever their race or color. Every human being is doing the best he or she can to make it through this life with integrity and decency.

    To make racims strictly an American “white” phenomenon shows your lack of world travel.

    Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

  2. I don’t think i agree with you regarding Type 2 discrimination. You seem to be making the argument that if you do something based on your own self interest and not out of hate then it is morally fine.

    This is equivalent to saying that we have no moral obligations to anyone aside from not actively trying to harm them. That is, we have no “positive” obligations.

    Sure, there should be limits to our positive obligations. But are you saying they don’t exist?

    Imagine that you are hiring someone for a job, and you have a well-defined skill that is critical for success. You know that 80% of natives and 50% of immigrants (out of the pool of applicants) are competent in this skill.

    Hiring an immigrant is more risky in this situation, and may require a more sophisticated candidate analysis than “rational discrimination.” True. But it does not follow that we have no moral obligation at all to try and determine which individuals have the skill. That is, I would argue we as a society have, or ought to have, a fairness norm obligating us to make some appropriate level of effort to distinguish based on skill rather than race or immigrant status.

    Perhaps in some circumstances the cost is just too high. Fine, so be it. But if we are absolutely unwilling to make any accommodations at any cost for the sake of fairness I would say we are being immoral.

    1. The reality remains: racism is biological, tribal and forever as long as ethnic tribes exist. You can’t blame it on Americans or Japanese or Chinese or Mexicans. It’s a matter of endless evolution and survival.

      No amount of education, enlightenment or laws will erase racism. It goes both ways and it is ubiquitous. The best we can hope for: try to grow respect for all other human beings of whatever their race or color. Every human being is doing the best he or she can to make it through this life with integrity and decency.

      To make racism strictly an American “white” phenomenon shows your lack of world travel.

      Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

  3. I agree with Michael. We are morally obligated to go out of our way both to see the individuality of people belonging to groups that may suffer discrimination. We’re also obligated to go a little extra way to imagine life from the perspective of those with different worldviews/from different backgrounds to us. I think striving for non-discrimination is closer to a general moral principle than you think.

    Many more than just blacks have suffered discrimination, both private and public. Muslims, Chinese, women, Catholics, gays, and transgender people spring to mind.

    You use the word “indoctrination”, but I think campaigns to reduce discrimination, especially for your reason #1, can be healthy. This is best done by private efforts of persuasion, but I’m not sure there’s always a clear boundary here between private and government. Governments after all do have to hire people, and government workplaces have to facilitate environments where different kinds of people work together smoothly.

    1. The reality remains: racism is biological, tribal and forever as long as ethnic tribes exist. You can’t blame it on Americans or Japanese or Chinese or Mexicans. It’s a matter of endless evolution and survival.

      No amount of education, enlightenment or laws will erase racism. It goes both ways and it is ubiquitous. The best we can hope for: try to grow respect for all other human beings of whatever their race or color. Every human being is doing the best he or she can to make it through this life with integrity and decency.

      To make racims strictly an American “white” phenomenon shows your lack of world travel.

      Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

  4. Did I commit myself to the position that Type 2 discrimination is entirely morally unproblematic? I don’t think I did, and I wouldn’t want to, quite. There does some seem to be connection between non-discrimination and justice, though I’d be hard pressed to articulate just what it is. Some moralists say that justice is “giving people their due.” Hmm. If I give a student a better grade in a class because he’s a particular race, that’s certainly injustice. But hiring is not like grading exams. If I say, “yes, Mr. X is more qualified, but I don’t get along with him well,” or “yes, Mr. X is more qualified, but I’d rather hire my cousin Jack and keep the job in the family,” am I wronging Mr. X? In admitting he’s more qualified, aren’t the demands of justice satisfied?

    Justice might come in in another way. Suppose I’m the CEO of a corporation, entrusted by the shareholders with maximize the value of their assets. Now, if I hire my cousin Jack instead of the more qualified Mr. X, I’m guilty of injustice *towards the shareholders,* because I am failing to maximize the value of the firm. An exception might occur if I regard hiring my cousin as part of executive compensation, and accept a correspondingly lower salary. Anyway, in this case it would hold true that “a fairness norm obligat[es] [me] to make some appropriate level of effort to distinguish based on skill rather than race or immigrant status,” but not because I’m obligated to be fair to candidates; rather because I’m obligated to maximize shareholder value.

    When you write…

    “This is equivalent to saying that we have no moral obligations to anyone aside from not actively trying to harm them. That is, we have no “positive” obligations.”

    … that’s certainly not true. One might maintain, for example, that one has a moral obligation to donate half of all one earns, over and above subsistence, to the poor and needy, and that *as a donor* one is obligated to give to the genuinely needy, regardless of race or immigrant status, but that as an employer, an investor, a customer, or a landlord, discrimination is largely OK as long as it’s not motivated by hatred. In fact, I would go rather far in stressing the duty of private charity to the poor: I tend to doubt whether it’s moral for anyone to live an affluent lifestyle when there is so much poverty in the world. But I’d doubt and/or downplay non-discrimination as a moral duty, except discrimination against blacks, which I think is wrong in the American context for special historical reasons. If I were to condemn discrimination, I’d probably put efficiency grounds ahead of justice grounds. That is, I’d say that discrimination in favor of one’s in-group is morally suspect because it tends to waste resources. Perhaps one does have at least a minor duty to exert some effort to discern the individual traits of people and not discriminate, but that may be reducible to prudence, since, after all, statistical discrimination is a pretty crude and imperfect instrument, and it’s usually feasible to improve on it.

  5. While being a shareholder of a company may introduce a moral responsibility to maximize shareholder value, it does not erase any other moral norms.

    What would you suggest if in the long run, trying to adopt fair hiring practices reduced shareholder value by one cent? Would you suggest the CEO is obligated to ignore all other moral considerations and follow the money?

    Seeking to maximize shareholder value is one norm among many. It is not a moral absolute.

  6. To me, the main takeaways from Nathan’s argument are:

    1. There is a clear difference between actual forced integration (i.e., government social engineering designed to force natives and non-natives to interact on a particular set of terms) versus non-coercive, voluntary integration (i.e, open borders)

    2. Open borders, i.e., the abolition of government laws restricting foreigners’ exercise of fundamental human rights, does not imply the enforcement of positive anti-discrimination laws

    I do share Michael’s and Paul’s concern that this line of thought could be construed to suggest that private discrimination against foreigners is morally encouraged, or, perhaps worse, that open borders is only possible/acceptable if most/all laws forbidding private discrimination against foreigners are abolished. Neither of those conclusions are supported by Nathan’s analysis here.

  7. To take the view of immigration as forced integration, you’d need to either view the status quo as forced integration too, OR make an argument that despite anti-discrimination law, all native interaction is consensual.

    Also note that there’s a number of government laws around the world that explicitly discriminate against immigrants even after they’ve entered (e.g., restricting their job choices).

    1. Vipul understands me very well.

      Yes, I think it would be fair to characterize the status quo as forced integration. The law forces anyone who wants to run a business, attend an educational institution, eat at a restaurant, etc., to mingle with people of other races, religions, sexual orientations, etc. Mostly, I don’t mind this, though sometimes I am harmed by improper interference with my freedom of association. But good or bad, it is forced integration.

      Yes, government laws discriminate explicitly against immigrants all over the world, e.g., by excluding them from the territory, or from certain jobs. I might even favor some such laws. DRITI could be characterized as discriminatory. I would like to see public and official discrimination against immigrants greatly reduced, but to avoid forced integration, private discrimination should be given some leeway to fill the gap.

      Private discrimination is less harmful than government discrimination. Open and widespread private discrimination against immigrants in a world of open borders would significantly limit their opportunities, but they would still have enjoyed a huge expansion of opportunities by being able to come at all. Anyway, I doubt that private discrimination, even if widespread, would ultimately make immigrants’ options much less satisfactory. In a competitive market, if 90% of employers discriminate against a minority, the minority’s wages might not be reduced at all. They just work for the other 10% of employers. I would anticipate that quite a bit of private discrimination against immigrants would occur under open borders, if it were allowed, but that the harms immigrants would actually suffer as a result would be fairly minor, while some natives less suited to integration with immigrants would benefit a good deal by being able to gravitate to immigration-unfriendly enclaves.

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