Alex Nowrasteh’s new policy analysis of guest worker programs

Alex Nowrasteh‘s latest policy analysis on guest worker programs has just been published by the Cato Institute and can be accessed here on the Cato Institute website (here’s the direct link to the PDF). Alex makes many similar points to what I made in a blog post a month ago replying to Daniel Costa, but he also includes some historical background and other details that make for more compelling reading. Among the historical precedents he references is the case of Metics in ancient Greece, which my co-blogger Nathan blogged about half a year ago. He also has an interesting description of how “worker abuses” have been carried out not just by private firms, but by government bureaucrats, and how more flexibility on the part of workers to change jobs and less government discretionary authority can help curb these abuses. Here’s how he puts it:

Abuse is not confined to firms. Some of the worst abuses of guest workers have occurred at
the hands of government employees. During the Bracero Program, Department of Labor (DOL) inspectors often slapped, berated, and cursed at Braceros for asking questions. According to one eyewitness: “Nobody had any patience. Immigration, Public Health, Labor Department—it’s all the same. Everybody curses at the Braceros and shoves them around.” Violence and abuse perpetrated by government inspectors and bureaucrats was endemic. The Braceros were frequently humiliated, but as one observer recalled, “migrants usually just stood there and took the abuse–what else could they do–they felt pretty bad about it. I must have seen a lot of Braceros cry after they were talked to in this way.”

Abuse by government bureaucrats has diminished over the years or become stealthy, but the entire problem could be removed by contracting out, licensing, or just relying upon private companies to carry out inspections, recruitment, health checks, and other guest worker functions. Visa portability that lets guest workers change jobs with a minimum of paperwork or notice to employers as long as the worker notifies the government after the fact deprives abusive employers of employees, incentivizes good behavior, and acts as an enforcement mechanism that punishes employers who do not treat employees as well as competing firms. Visa portability allows workers to regulate their own work environment or change it at will.

Read the whole policy analysis (direct link to PDF).

Citizens versus non-citizens and citizens versus rulers

We at Open Borders have devoted lots of posts to critiquing citizenism, so one might suspect that we’d soon hit diminishing returns. But the theory of citizenism, in so far as it is the main normative ethical perspective that most restrictionists use to make their arguments, conceals a lot of assumptions behind a simple framing, and it’s worth picking these apart. In this blog post, I want to concentrate specifically on an argument that Steve Sailer and others have made: the constitutional/social contract origins of citizenism. The idea is that the constitutions and founding documents of the US and other countries explicitly attest that rulers must give primacy to the interests of citizens.

Co-blogger Chris Hendrix already considered some aspects of this in the context of the United States. Being less knowledgeable or curious about the specifics of history, and more interested in the common thread behind arguments across multiple nations, I wish to approach this issue from a different angle. To that end, I’ll quote Steve Sailer from his blog post, where he quotes the Preamble to the US Constitution:

It’s worth noting that the Preamble to the Constitution is rooted much more in my way of thinking than in Bryan’s:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [Emphasis mine]

Sailer is a US-centric citizenist, but citizenists around the world could point to comparable statements in appropriate parts of their nation’s founding documents that affirm something to the effect of the following social contract:

  • The people vest authority in the government.
  • In return, the government promises to put the interests of the people above its own, i.e., instead of politicians working for their private benefit, they work to serve the citizenry who have vested trust in them.

The theory behind this kind of social contract is that the citizenry are ceding something — giving the government a monopoly on the use of violence — and in exchange, demanding that the government work for the interests of the citizenry. Give up something, get something in return. Sounds reasonable. (There are many objections to social contract theory, but this is not the place to go into them).

What alternative arrangements have historically competed with this “citizenistic” social contract? The divine right of kings is in some ways the polar opposite theory — it says that rulers basically have carte blanche to do what they want, because they derive their authority from God. My reading of the citizenistic social contract is thus that it is a contract that seeks to move away from a divine rights of kings framework to a framework where the rulers are bound by the citizenry. In other words, it is a claim about the mutual responsibilities of citizens and rulers.

Under this reading, then, non-citizens don’t enter the picture at all. Thus, the citizenistic framing of various founding documents across the globe cannot be construed as directly implying Sailer-style citizenism which is about favoring the interests of (current) citizens (and their descendants) relative to non-citizens. These two forms of “citizenism” are not inconsistent, but they are far from equivalent.

The hardcore natural rights argument for migration would be that if, prior to the social contract, the (prospective) citizenry did not have the moral right to restrict migration, then the social contract — whereby the citizenry cede some rights to a government — cannot confer on this government the moral right to restrict migration. If the citizens didn’t have the moral right to restrict migration of non-citizens, how could their government acquire a right to do so through a contract signed between the citizens and the government? Continue reading “Citizens versus non-citizens and citizens versus rulers” »

The political tide

It might be a good thing if Open Borders: The Case, in addition to provide an “attic,” so to speak, of economic, ethical, and philosophical arguments for open borders, could provide running pundit-style political commentary from an open-borders perspective. But political punditry is a full-time job in its own right, and it seems to require a kind of reading between the lines which one can’t do well unless one reads a lot of political news. There seems to be a lot of political momentum behind immigration reform right now, what with Obama’s speech in Nevada urging immigration reform earlier today, and a bipartisan group of eight senators— the Republicans were McCain, Rubio, Flake, and Graham– presenting a plan yesterday. I’ve got to respect Marco Rubio for taking the case to the conservative talk shows.

One change, it seems to me– but I could be wrong, I find it difficult to follow all the political proposals that come and go– is that everyone now seems to be talking about a pathway to citizenship for all the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live here, or nearly all. Up to now, attention has seemed to focus on the Dreamers. It made some sense to focus on them because they were the clearest case: the usual “enforce the law” arguments lose all moral credibility when applied to them, so Dreamers were a sort of wedge case, which left opponents of reform without any moral leg to stand on. But amnesty for Dreamers plus deportation for 10 million or so non-Dreamer undocumented immigrants would be atrocious, and it’s good that the conversation seemed to have moved on from the Dream Act to something more genuinely comprehensive.

A writer at The Guardian argues that Republicans are mistaken if they think they’ll earn political capital by supporting immigration reform, because Latinos are Democrats, and agree with the Democrats on other issues besides immigration, too. I’m not convinced. The Hispanic vote has swung a good deal as Republicans have gone more nativist. Republicans may not have a convincing strategy at the moment to win over Hispanics, but support immigration reform will open up new possibilities for coalition building. And I also think a lot of non-Latino voters will look more favorably on the GOP for this. Republicans will look less “mean,” and also more plausibly freedom-loving and anti-Big Government.

Immigration reform packages always come as mixed blessings, because with the concessions come demands for more enforcement, for employer verification of migration status, for greater effort to secure the border, for a general ramping up of the police state. E-Verify, if it worked, would needlessly make life difficult for a lot of people, not only undocumented immigrants but their employers, too. It would separate a lot of people from jobs where they were useful, people who badly needed the wages. More effort to secure the borders is expensive, for one thing, but it also has the bad effect of separating people from job opportunities or even family members. One can hope that the “enforcement” measures will be eviscerated, legally or via the operations of black markets (though that’s a problematic remedy), but I’m reluctant to wish on us the plague of more enforcement, even for the great benefit of amnesty. While I do want to see something pass and expect that it will be an improvement if it does, a lot of the arguments used by Rubio and others on my side (e.g., “back of the line”) are bogus. Ironically, the quote I agree with most is from opponent Lamar Smith:

“By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

Yes, I think that’s true. And for me, that’s one of the strongest reasons to support it. Mexican migrant supply may have peaked, and demand is still down because of the bad economy, but if amnesty passes, and if the economy rebounds strongly at some point (probably not under Obama), then at some point I expect people from other countries– India, China, Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia, South America– will find ways physically to enter the country, even at great risk and expense, in anticipation of the next amnesty. If the process continues, that could move us a long way in the direction of open borders.

Matt Yglesias: making open borders mainstream

I was delighted to read the piece What Would Happen If We Let All The Immigrants In? by Matt Yglesias on the Slate Moneybox blog, his current digital home. That’s not because I found Ylgesias’s argument new or particularly path-breaking — those who are familiar with the Open Borders site, or with the work of other open borders advocates, would probably be aware of the polling data on migration that Yglesias cites, and also of the many problems with naive formulations of overpopulation/environmental breakdown/carrying capacity-style arguments.

What I like about Matt Yglesias’s piece isn’t the substance of his argument, but the fact that he’s making it in a mainstream forum (as opposed to fringe parts of the web such as the Open Borders site you’re reading right now). For those who don’t know, Yglesias is one of the most prolific bloggers on politics and related matters in the United States (he even has a Wikipedia page). Yglesias generally identified as a left-wing progressive, but his political positions are inspired by thinkers across the political spectrum. Thus, he is widely read and respected by people across the political spectrum. When Yglesias talks about migration and open borders, hundreds of thousands of people hear him, and some of them listen to him.

In the past, Yglesias has argued for immigration/citizenship tariffs and also argued about how consequential immigration is in terms of shaping the future. His new blog post, however, seems to be his first attempt at directly engaging the empirics of complete open borders. To be clear, Yglesias doesn’t come across as an unabashed advocate of free migration. But that’s okay. Empirical debate about what will or could happen under radical open borders — with contributions from restrictionists and pessimists in addition to optimistic open borders advocates — is itself an improvement over most discussions of migration, which are myopically focused on the status quo and modest changes to it. Shifting the Overton window in a pro-open borders direction, just in terms of what sort of stuff gets discussed in migration discussions, is an important first step in the move towards actually achieving open borders.

The expanding circle and open borders

The well-known bioethicist Peter Singer mooted the concept of the “expanding circle” in 1981 with his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (the link also has an embedded Bloggingheads conversation between Singer and Robert Wright discussing the book and the idea). Although the term “expanding circle” hasn’t exactly become a household term (it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article yet) the idea does seem to have gained a lot of currency and is expressed in different forms. Possibly, many people have rediscovered the idea without even being aware of Singer’s original formulation. In this blog post, I’m going to address the idea as it appears in many common discussions, and not necessarily Singer’s original formulation. (To be honest, I haven’t read Singer’s book, so I couldn’t critique Singer’s original formulation accurately anyway).

Expanding circle book cover
Book cover of The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Princeton University Press

The “expanding circle” idea relates three things:

  1. The changes in people’s circle of moral concern over time.
  2. A notion of larger versus smaller circles of moral concern, i.e., a way of meaningfully saying that a certain circle of moral concern is larger than another.
  3. The normative ethics of whether larger or smaller circles of moral concern are better.

The strong version of the “expanding circle” idea makes three claims:

  • Relating (1) and (2) (empirical): People’s circle of moral concern has expanded over time, and this trend is likely to continue
  • Relating (2) and (3) (normative): Expanded circles of moral concern are generally better.
  • Relating (1) and (3) (normative): In general, people’s morality improves over time.

To some extent, if we believe in two of these three claims, the third automatically follows.

It’s tempting for optimistic open borders advocates to make a case for open borders based on the expanding circle. The obvious idea is that open borders would be a lot more appealing to people whose circle of moral concern includes foreigners at nearly the same strength as natives. Restrictionists typically argue their case using a combination of citizenism and territorialism, which correspond to a narrower circle of moral concern (put differently, it puts a substantially higher weight on the interests and rights of one subset of humanity compared to another). Optimistic open borders advocates may therefore make three related claims:

  • Relating (1) and (2): Open borders advocates would like to argue that people’s circle of moral concern will grow to include non-citizens and those who live far away.
  • Relating (2) and (3): Open borders advocates would like to argue that, generally speaking, an expanded circle of moral concern, that does not weigh the interests and rights of citizens/native residents too much higher than the interests and rights of non-citizens/non-residents, is objectively better.
  • Relating (1) and (3): Open borders advocates would like to argue that the future will be more favorable to open borders than the present is.

The three claims are linked (and any two imply the third, to an extent). My co-blogger John Lee’s first blog post borrowed its title from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” and is a fine example of the expanding circle argument.

A pessimistic open borders advocate may still view (2) and (3) as related, but be pessimistic about whether the trajectory of moral progress will move the world closer to open borders. An empirically agnostic open borders advocates may also view (2) and (3) as related but be agnostic about what the future has in store.

More on the circles and their applicability to open borders

A distinction can be made between two kinds of circles of moral concern: people (or more generally, sentient beings) to whom you feel an obligation of non-aggression (i.e., beings that are perceived to have moral rights) and people to whom you feel positive obligations to directly help. This distinction is very important for libertarians, who generally believe that most obligations to strangers are in the form of an obligation of non-aggression rather than an affirmative action. Thus, libertarians generally view the killing versus letting die (act/omission distinction) as morally significant. As Robin Hanson has pointed out, libertarians may have narrower circles of people to whom they feel positive obligations, but larger circles of people to whom they feel an obligation of non-aggression.

There is an important intermediate case: who are the people for whom you feel you have a positive obligation to expend resources to stop others from violating their rights? With the language of “killing versus letting die” this comes in the “letting be killed” category — a category that seems to be intermediate (I’d like to thank Andy Hallman for raising this question). On a certain view, immigration restrictions involve the use of aggression and coercion, but to argue that individuals are morally obligated to advocate for open borders would require making an argument that they view foreigners as part of the sphere of moral concern that deserves a positive expenditure of resources towards a non-violation of rights.

Another circle that might be of interest is the circle of people, or sentient beings, towards whom we feel a requirement to be honest and contractually fair. Generally speaking, it is considered okay to use deceit or trickery against animals, even if actually torturing those same animals was considered wrong. However, in general, the use of deceit or tricks against humans is frowned upon, with possible exceptions being made for infants, people who are violent and unstable, and people with some special and severe cognitive problems.

All these circles are relevant in different ways to different framings of the case for open borders. Continue reading “The expanding circle and open borders” »