A Critique of Wellman’s ‘Immigration and Freedom of Association’

Christopher Heath Wellman’s article in the journal Ethics, Immigration and Freedom of Association, (pdf) is generally well-regarded, even among advocates of open borders. Jason Brennan and Bas van der Vassen have both expressed plans to pen their own responses to it. In the essay, Wellman attempts to demonstrate a presumptive right of legitimate states to limit immigration on the basis of freedom of association, and then argues that neither egalitarian nor libertarian arguments can overcome this presumptive right to close borders.* I argue here that Wellman fails to establish this presumptive right, and that freedom of association suggests instead a presumptive right of individuals to migrate across national borders.

Wellman correctly points out that the freedom of association includes the freedom to not associate with certain others–the right to exclude–and this freedom exists for both individuals and groups. His workhorse analogies are marriage and private clubs. A person may unobjectionably reject suitors for marriage and a married couple is not required to open their marriage to outsiders. A private association is permitted to restrict its membership. The simple extension of this idea is that, likewise, a nation may restrict its membership by prohibiting immigration. Wellman illustrates the strength of the presumption that a group can exclude members by pointing to the examples of the Boy Scouts, who have been under fire for excluding gays and atheists from leadership roles, and the Augusta National Golf Club, which has similarly suffered scrutiny  for excluding women. Wellman correctly points out that even in these controversial cases, the burden of argument lies with those who seek to abridge the group’s freedom to determine its membership.

Marriage doesn’t work as a load-bearing analogy for other forms of association. A marriage requires and sustains unanimity both for its formation and for any subsequent membership changes. Unanimous decisions to associate are not distinguishable from individual decisions to associate in any interesting way. And neither private groups nor nations typically enjoy unanimity, so I won’t discuss the marriage analogy further.

The first objection Wellman anticipates is that states are different in morally important ways from other groups in that, for instance, “political states do not owe their membership to the autonomous choices of their constituents.” Instead of addressing this point on theoretical grounds, he deploys an interesting reductio ad absurdum.

[Here] I would like merely to highlight some of the unpalatable implications that follow from denying a country’s right to freedom of association. In particular, consider the moral dynamics of regional associations like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the European Union (EU). If legitimate states did not enjoy a right to freedom of association—a right which entitles them to decline invitations to associate with others—then they would not be in a position to either accept or reject the terms of these regional associations. Think of Canada’s choice to join NAFTA, or Slovenia’s decision to enter the EU, for instance. No one believes that it would be permissible to force Canada into NAFTA or to coerce Slovenia to join the EU. (Of course, nor may Canada or Slovenia unilaterally insert themselves into these associations!) And the reason it is wrong to forcibly include these countries is because Canada’s and Slovenia’s rights to self-determination entitle them to associate (or not) with other countries as they see fit. Put plainly, if one denies that legitimate states like Canada and Slovenia have a right to freedom of association, one could not explain why they would be righteously aggrieved at being forced into these mergers.

It’s true that states are generally given ample room to negotiate these sorts of interstate associations, but consider what these arrangements really mean for the people involved. An association agreement is just a package of policies, usually including reductions of trade barriers, regulatory harmonization, easier immigration, and sometimes the establishment of limited, shared governance bodies. These are the policies that impact the lives of citizens. The ‘association’ is arguably just a symbolic bow to tie it all together, no more meaningful than when two municipalities half  a world away adopt one another as ‘sister cities’. Whether these policies are justified or not is a series of distinct questions, and they should be treated as such.

From the impacted citizen’s perspective, it makes little sense to speak of “forcing” a state to enter such a regional association. That would just mean some foreign government implementing new policies–which still need justification individually–instead of her own government. This may or may not be acceptable, but the question is more capably handled by democratic theory rather than a ponderous interpretation of the freedom of association. Incidentally, because immigration laws impact potential migrants so forcefully, there is a good case to be made that they should be included in that democratic decision.

Note also that regional association agreements between nations in most cases expand freedom of association at the individual level, so there’s no conflict caused by the state exercising its freedom of association in this way.  This would be like the Augusta National Golf Club deciding to merge with a women’s golf club, thus admitting women into the new club and eliminating the source of conflict. Wellman acknowledges the distinction between expanding and limiting association, but maintains his argument by providing the example of an essentially uncontested secession of one nation from another, namely Norway’s 1905 secession from Sweden.

In this case, more than 99 percent of the Norwegians voted in favor of political divorce and Sweden as a country did not resist the separation. Whatever one thinks about the justifiability of statebreaking, this seems like a paradigmatic case of permissible secession. If each individual’s right to freedom of association trumps the state’s right to self-determination in those cases in which the group as a whole seeks to disassociate from others, however, then Norway’s secession was unjustified; it was impermissible because every last Norwegian (if not also each Swede) had the right unilaterally to veto the political divorce and the plebiscite in favor of separation did not garner unanimous consent. Again, I presume without argument that this position is implausible. And if an individual’s claim to freedom of association does not trump her state’s right in the case of secession, there seems good reason to believe that an individual’s right would be equally impotent in the realm of immigration.

There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, Wellman tilts at a straw man when he speaks of one individual’s right to freedom of association trumping the state’s right to self-determination. The question isn’t “Does each individual’s right to association have equal weight to a state’s handling of international affairs?” The closure of a nation’s borders violates every individual’s freedom of association en masse, impacting every individual on both sides of the border. A more germane question is “How does the general freedom of association for individuals compare in terms of moral weight to a state’s freedom of association in international affairs?”

The second problem is that the example of secession still does not grapple with the distinct issues involved in a political secession. My quick reading of the 1905 split between Norway and Sweden suggests Norway was already effectively self-governed, complete with its own political and legal institutions, when it broke from Sweden. I am not aware of how migration between the two nations evolved at the time, but this information is critical for understanding the full moral dynamics of the divorce.

Consider the hypothetical case of Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom. Most likely free movement across the border and individual freedom of association more generally would remain unimpeded and the political division would be benign. But suppose instead that one of the countries closed the border, severing presently existing and potential relationships between British and Scottish citizens. Regardless of how any plebiscite decided, I submit that the two scenarios would clearly not be equally just or permissible. The moral issues involved are not adequately characterized by the Scottish (or British) state’s freedom of association. It appears in this case that the severing of associations caused by closing the border would surpass any value gained from the state’s exercise of its freedom of association (or divorce). This is what closed borders around the world do now as a matter of course. This Scottish example shows that there is a morally significant difference between cases where state freedom of association and individual freedom of association converge and where they diverge. In the case of divergence state freedom of association does not obviously carry more moral weight than individual freedom of association, suggesting the former should not be treated as presumptive.

Wellman raises the stakes of the regional association example by suggesting that the forcible annexation of one nation by another cannot sensibly be condemned without appealing to a state’s freedom of association.

Imagine, for instance, that a series of plebiscites revealed both that an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted to merge with Canada and that an equally high proportion of Canadians preferred to maintain their independence. Would it be permissible for the United States to forcibly annex Canada? I assume without argument that, even if the United States could execute this unilateral merger without disrupting the peace or violating the individual rights of any Canadians, this hostile takeover would be impermissible.

Again, an annexation of a population into another state, complete with its already established institutions, is best understood not in terms of freedom of association, but in alternative frameworks, like democratic theory, which could more meaningfully grapple with the loss of democratic representation accompanying sudden, momentous policy shifts. Moreover, the assumption that such an annexation could be accomplished without the threat of violence is simply implausible. In the case of violence or the threat of violence, it becomes clear that the unilateral merger is impermissible for many reasons, including basic humanitarian concern.

It’s worth stepping back now to consider some basic questions. In the examples above I have appealed to a conflict between the state’s and the individual’s right to association, implying the moral concerns are different between states and other groups, which I have conceded do have a presumptive right to exclude. But there is conflict when a non-state group excludes individuals. When an individual’s right to association is violated, she may be forced to interact with someone against her will. When that right is compromised for a group, an individual within the group will often still be able to avoid direct interaction with ‘interlopers’, and may only suffer indirect interactions with them (seeing them at meetings or hearing about their activities within the group). Simultaneously, some individuals within the group–not to mention erstwhile outsiders–enjoy an expanded freedom of association. It must be remembered that dissenting gay- and atheist-friendly Boy Scouts, and non-sexist Augusta National golfers, would prefer their respective groups did not exercise the right to exclude.

Still, Wellman is correct to point out that “if no one doubts that golf clubs have a presumptive right to exclude others, then there seems no reason to suspect that a group of citizens cannot also have the right to freedom of association …” Why then do I balk at allowing the same group freedom to prevail at the national level? Wellman’s argument pivots on the analogy of states to garden variety private clubs. This analogy fails because of the scope and nonvoluntary nature of states.

The scope of an individual’s belonging to a nation is vast. All of an individuals actions occur within the context of her nation.  Every exercise of liberty and every association an individual has occurs within that nation and under the guidelines set out by the state. And an individual is born into a nation, having no choice among alternatives. Any option to join an alternative nation is severely limited (indeed the justice of this fact is the subject of dispute). In contrast, an individual is typically free to choose what private organizations to join, and those organizations each serve distinct and limited purposes.

Suppose Billy the Boy Scout would enjoy scouting with Ahmed the gay atheist, and Ahmed likewise would like to join the Boy Scouts. The exclusive policy of the Boy Scouts clearly exacts a toll on these individuals. But at least Billy and Ahmed are free to interact with each other outside the Boy Scouts. They may be colleagues, or one may employ the other, or they may live together, join the same hobbyist clubs, or they may simply be friends who enjoy one another’s company. The dynamics of national membership are radically different. If Billy’s nation excludes Ahmed then our starstruck protagonists are precluded from interacting in a wide range of capacities, including those above. This is a severe curtailment of the individual freedom of association in favor of group freedom of association. This severe loss of freedom  does not obtain in the case of private groups because of the many alternative possibilities remaining for individual association. This drastic difference in outcomes between private group exclusion and state exclusion calls into question any presumptions based on the analogy between the two.

There are other miscellaneous problems with the analogy of nations to private groups. Many private groups, for instance, have rules providing for the expulsion of members, an authority not readily granted to liberal states vis-à-vis citizens. Meanwhile, membership of most private associations is not hereditary or granted at birth, as is citizenship. On that point, the state’s right to association seems equally applicable to restricting births among the native population as it is to restricting immigration, another unsavory implication. These issues may have satisfactory answers. Perhaps Wellman would argue that reproductive freedom is so important that it simply defeats the presumptive right of states to exclude that he has outlined. But these considerations suggest the analogy of nations to private groups is not straightforward.

Wellman acknowledges that a state’s right to exclude immigrants directly limits its subjects’ freedom to invite and interact with foreigners. He addresses this while discussing whether immigration restrictions violate the property rights of citizens, but I think the pertinent problems arise even if we just stick to freedom of association and forego a discussion of property rights. Wellman appeals to the argument from political externalities that people have good reason to care about–and control–their nation’s immigration policy.

And if there is nothing mysterious about people caring about who are (or could become) members of their golf clubs, there is certainly nothing irrational about people being heavily invested in their country’s immigration policy. Again, to note the lack of intimacy among compatriots is to miss an important part of the story. It is no good to tell citizens that they need not personally (let alone intimately) associate with any fellow citizens they happen to dislike because fellow citizens nonetheless remain political associates; the country’s course will be charted by the members of this civic association. The point is that people rightly care very deeply about their countries, and, as a consequence, they rightly care about those policies which will effect how these political communities evolve. And since a country’s immigration policy affects who will share in controlling the country’s future, it is a matter of considerable importance.

I won’t get bogged down in the nuances of political externalities here (start here if you’re curious), since my goal is limited to disabling Wellman’s establishment of a presumptive right of states to exclude immigrants. Above I hinted at a distinction between direct and indirect associations among individuals. Direct associations are those such as friendship, work or employment relationships, religious or community fellowship, teacher/pupil relationships, etc. Roughly, one might think of these sorts of associations as those in which two individuals know each other’s names. Indirect associations include the other folks in line at the checkout line, passers-by on the street, fellow commuters, and indeed, one’s civic associates. The existence and actions of these others do impact an individual, and vice versa, as is readily felt during rush hour traffic, say, or when one’s political values are affirmed or rejected on election day. But on an individual basis, these indirect associations have far less impact than direct associations. Perhaps they have important aggregate effects, but such effects would need to be very significant and very frightening to justify interfering with intuitively valuable direct relationships. Just as importantly, any such effects must be demonstrated. They are not the stuff of presumption.

To summarize, Wellman seeks to establish a presumptive right of states to exclude immigrants by making the analogy of states to private associations, which do enjoy a presumptive right to exclude. But exclusion by states severely limits individual freedom in a way that private exclusion does not; options still remain for individual association when private groups exclude. Wellman’s provocative examples of states exercising the freedom of association seem harmless only because they also expand individual freedom of association. I have attempted to show that there is an unavoidable conflict between a state’s right to exclude and a general right of association among individuals, and that this individual right has greater moral significance than the alleged right of states to exclude. If this is true, then, contra Wellman, individual freedom of association actually suggests a presumptive right to migrate across national boundaries. Even if I have failed to make this stronger claim, I believe these considerations still show that Wellman’s arguments fail to establish a presumptive right of states to exclude. In this case, the state’s and the individual’s freedom of association simply annihilate one another, and the ethics of migration must be settled by other arguments.

*Wellman stipulates “legitimate” states throughout his essay, but never defines the term (other than providing Canada and Slovenia as examples); I’ll leave off this modifier. I am uncomfortable with the language of states having rights. Throughout this piece, when I say “state’s right” I mean the “collective right of the citizens of a nation, as expressed or enforced by their democratically elected governments,” the legitimacy of which I’m also assuming here.

Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?

We’ve blogged a fair bit in the past about how Christianity demands open borders. It doesn’t get more simple than “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Co-blogger Nathan Smith has time and again (and again) taken to task restrictionists who co-opt the Bible in a hamhanded attempt to claim border restrictions and all the inhumanity they entail are ordained by God himself. Co-blogger Paul Crider has pointed out that if Christians take the Bible seriously, they need to speak out strongly against the evil of arbitrary border restrictions. Given all this, it seems to me that more than anything, the church today should be one of the strongest advocates for open borders. Yet, some of the Pope’s recent calls for greater humanitarian aid for migrants aside, migration seems to be hardly on the Christian agenda, if it is on there at all. Churches may pay migration lip service, but it seems like Christian institutions in general are far more concerned about homosexuality and contraception than they are about open borders. This is puzzling, when surely Christian doctrine must militate just as strongly for open borders as it does for almost any other social issue the church is focused on today.

I’ve read Nathan’s and Paul’s arguments before, and found them convincing, but I had forgotten about them until recently, when Evan blogged about Orson Scott Card’s views on immigration. Evan linked to a piece by Card reflecting on how Republicans in 2012 tarred and feathered Rick Perry for his defence of guaranteeing equal university subsidies to Texan residents regardless of immigration status. Evan didn’t focus on this, but one interesting part of Card’s piece was how vehemently he insisted that liberal immigration policies are clearly mandated by the Bible:

I think it’s worth pointing out, when we’re discussing how to treat the children of non-citizens in America, what the Lord said to the people of Israel as they were dividing the land near the temple site among the tribes:

“So shall ye divide this land unto you according to the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that ye shall divide it by lot for an inheritance unto you, and to the strangers that sojourn among you, which shall beget children among you: and they shall be unto you as born in the country among the children of Israel; they shall have inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel.

“And it shall come to pass, that in what tribe the stranger sojourneth, there shall ye give him his inheritance, saith the Lord God” (Ezekiel 47:21-23).

Now, this seems a clear principle to me, that God tells his people to share their inheritance with the children of strangers who dwell among them.

I’m quite aware that those of you who, as Perry said, have no heart, probably are already composing elaborate explanations of why God really means the opposite of the plain language of the scripture.

This prompted me to reread Nathan’s and Paul’s posts, especially the ones that explicitly rebut ostensibly Biblical restrictionist arguments. It amazed me just how spot on Card was when he pointed out that the Bible does not mince its words — and that you have to really twist the Bible to come up with any meaningful defence of the status quo, where we treat people who cross borders in search of a better life as if they are violent enemies of the state.

The other thing that came to my mind was how this might stack up against what the Bible has to say about other forms of inequality that our societies promote, either via social norms or by direct government action. The Bible says there is no Greek nor Jew, no slave nor free, no male nor female — yet for centuries, it was thought that the Bible is completely okay with enslaving people or treating women as inferior. Given how apathetic or antipathic most Christians seem to be about open borders, it seems fair to say even today, people think the Bible is completely fine with treating someone as an enemy before knowing anything about him other than his nationality — despite what Galatians says.

Galatians is not the last word, even if it sums up universal moral rights succinctly. Other Bible verses clearly come to bear on questions of equity and equality. A few months ago, I was browsing around the blog of Rachel Held Evans, a notable Christian blogger, and found her take on the Biblicalness (or lack of it) of slavery abolition:

…the fact of the matter is, the pro-slavery side had more going for it in the way of proof texts. Slavery apologists could cite passages like Genesis 17:2, Deuteronomy 20:10-11, 1 Corinthians 7:21, Ephesians 6:1-5, Colossians 3:18-25; 4:1, and I Timothy 6:1-2 to support their case. They pointed out that slavery was practiced by the people of Israel and regulated by God, and that Jesus never said a word against slaveholding. Even the apostle Paul instructs an escaped slave, Onesimus, to return to his master, they observed. Notably, many of the texts in question are the exact same texts—the Household Codes of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter—that are used today to support gender hierarchy in the home.

Many Bible-believing Christians, including those who were uncomfortable with slavery, just weren’t buying the abolitionist argument that placed the “spirit of the law” over the “letter of the law.” As Connecticut Congregationalist Leonard Bacon put it: “The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.”

I see Bacon’s dilemma, don’t you? Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t trying to make a biblical case for abolition in the 19th century. I’m not sure I could have…or would have. Which is kind of sobering, right?

I have to agree: it’s incredibly sobering just how blatantly a by-the-letter-of-the-law reading of the Bible can lead one to blindly support the slavery or subordination of our fellow human beings. But what strikes me is how, in all the discussion I’ve seen of what the Bible has to say about immigration, we open borders advocates simply do not face the same conundrums that Christian abolitionists or Christian feminists once faced: the plain text of the Bible demands a large measure of equality irrespective of nationality.

Let’s go back to Card. His blustering condemnations of homosexuality make it surprising that he with such similar fervour demands open borders and liberal treatment of foreigners. But both of these make sense when you consider that all he is doing is applying the plain literal text of what he believes to be God’s word.

Now, as Christians, Card and I may disagree quite strongly about what God has to say about how we should treat our homosexual brothers and sisters. Here, I would have to follow the well-worn track of the Christian abolitionists and feminists who’ve come before us, and focus on the spirit of Christianity as revealed in the Bible, and summarised so well in Galatians: all human beings are created equal in dignity by God, and whatever you as a fellow human think of our sins or shortcomings, it is not your place to judge us, and it is not your place to punish or subordinate others for their sins or shortcomings. A system of justice is necessary, no doubt — but the Christian tradition is to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s. The judicial system should not enforce our personal judgments of others. However we might feel about blacks, women, gays, or foreigners, or what we might think the Bible says of them, it is not our place to force Caesar to enforce God’s judgment on others.

But I don’t need to take this tack with immigration restrictionists. All I need to do is to follow Card’s approach towards homosexuality, and quote the plain words of the Bible at those who want to oppress immigrants in the name of God. When God made the laws of Israel in Leviticus 19, he said: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Lv 19:15) He said: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Lv 19:34-35) Now, to be fair, in this same chapter, God also makes the law: “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” (Lv 19:27) I’m guessing on this basis, you could well argue that the entirety of Leviticus should just be discarded. But the fact remains: if we are to blindly follow the letter of God’s instructions to us, we must abolish discrimination against foreigners in our governments’ policies.

You can certainly find verses in the Bible that might suggest some discrimination against foreigners is Biblical. But you cannot find any verses which contradict the basic principle, which is made clear in Leviticus, Ezekiel, and Galatians: do not mistreat immigrants, but love them as you love yourself. Treat their children the same way you would treat your children. All of us are human beings equal in fundamental rights and dignity. As Nathan’s said before,

In the debate among Christians about slavery in the 19th century, abolitionists tended to apply the loftier ethics taught in the New Testament, love thy neighbor and the Golden Rule and “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me,” (Matthew 25:40), while apologists for slavery were more literalist, observing that Peter and Paul told slaves to obey their masters, and the patriarchs had slaves, and the Bible never seems to call for or envision a world without slavery. In the case of migration restrictions, too, the higher ethics of the New Testament clearly point towards open borders, but the difference is that the words of the Old Testament, too, quite literally and directly support welcoming the stranger in a fashion that there seems to be no sound warrant for interpreting otherwise than as a template for open borders.

Why then do Christians not heed the word of God and speak out against the grave injustices our governments and societies wreak upon innocent immigrants every day? Why do we not demand justice for the foreigner who wants to work in our country and contribute to our society? The restrictionist is quick to say that God has ordained international borders and we cannot contradict him — fair enough, but we don’t need to abolish borders, we just need to open them. The best defence I can see for the Christian restrictionist, ironically, is that Christians should not be trying to impose our values on the secular political system: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto God what is God’s.

This template for political disengagement might make sense, but I simply don’t see how most intellectually honest Christians can buy it. I think it’s fair to say most, or at least a lot of Christians want to do what is morally right by God. If we see harm being done, harm that goes against the moral principles laid down by our religion, it’s our obligation to do something about that harm. One thing we can do is, while avoiding confronting the actors behind these evils, help the victims of these harms. Churches can offer sanctuary and aid to immigrants who are being hunted by the state. And you can certainly make the argument that the church ought to do more. As Nathan’s observed before, Christians in democracies are sovereign citizens who have a say in making policy. There is nothing stopping Christians from vocally supporting and voting for leaders who would support an end to the global war on immigrants.

This is a different kettle of fish from using Christian morality as a basis to harm or oppress others. You can be a Christian who wants to use the power of the state to punish non-Christians, or to use the power of the state to punish people who sin by Christian standards. But you can also be a Christian who rejects Christian morality as a basis for harming or punishing others, while still embracing Christian morality as a basis for using the state to prevent people from coming to harm. I think there is a clear difference between these two types of Christians, and their respective kinds of political activism.

Immigration restrictions are a clear form of harm and oppression. They harm and oppress anywhere from “just” hundreds of millions to literally billions of people. And they do this in a very clear and unBiblical manner: by mistreating foreigners as if they are scum, rather than loving foreigners like we love ourselves. We do not need to demand that our governments provide equal measures of “social justice” or socioeconomic guarantees to all; Nathan himself has argued before that a modest amount of citizenism is still totally compatible with open borders and the fundamental principle of guaranteeing equal protection of the law to all, as Leviticus 19:15 instructs us. All we need to do is to demand the same basic rights for immigrants that we expect to be accorded ourselves: the right to live with, and take care of our own families. The right to work for an employer who offers us wages we are willing to accept.

The Bible does not waver on the point that we must love all humans as we love ourselves, irrespective of nationality. You might argue it’s infeasible to treat all humans as we treat our fellow citizens. But it’s impossible to treat all humans equally; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it. It’s easy to dismiss an idea as impractical without deep consideration. Unfortunately, I worry that this exact sort of dismissal is why Christians don’t give open borders the attention or consideration it so clearly demands. Rachel Held Evans concluded her discussion of abolitionism by noting a passage from the abolitionist tract Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

Noll points to a great scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Mary Bird tries to make the case for taking in runaway slaves based on Christ’s teachings in Matthew 25. John Bird’s response to his wife’s perspective made me laugh out loud: “But, Mary, just listen to me. Your feelings are all quite right, dear, and interesting, and I love you for them; but, then, dear, we mustn’t suffer our feelings to run away without our judgment.”

I underlined that bit and wrote in the margins of my book, “sounds familiar!”

I worry that this is why the church does not take open borders more seriously. The governments of the world spend billions of dollars a year to point guns at unarmed civilians seeking a better life — civilians who the Bible has commanded us to love as if they are ourselves. If we take the Bible seriously at all, we have to heed both its letter and its spirit. If Christians are going to say they can’t follow through on what the Bible commands because it’s just far too impractical for us imperfect human beings to manage, they need to be sure they truly have a watertight case for that claim. As far as I can tell from the empirics, there is no such watertight case. Regardless of where one stands on social issues like homosexuality or contraception, it seems to me impossible to deny that the global war on migrants is a war on the family, a war on human life and human dignity. It is a mystery to me why the church as an institution and Christians as individuals appear so nonchalant and blasé about the evils of closed borders.

The painting featured in the header of this post depicts a scene from the Bible’s Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite who married an Israeli immigrant to Moab, and later herself immigrated to Israel after being widowed.

Weekly links roundup 01 2014

Here’s our weekly installment of links from around the web (see here for all link roundups). As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.

Funding compensation for natives who lose out: through the economy at large, or through migrants?

Paul Crider’s recent blog post critiquing keyhole regimes, and his subsequent comment reply to Nathan regarding the appropriate keyhole solutions regarding the decline in the standard of living of some natives (due to wage decline) that might be engendered by migration got me thinking. Roughly speaking, we can summarize the effects of migration as follows:

  • Migrants benefit greatly from migrating. Economically, this is due to the huge place premium that many migrants benefit from.
  • The overall size of the economy that receives the migrants increases. On a per capita basis, the effect on the incomes and wages of prior residents of the economy is expected to be somewhat positive, but much less than the gains experienced by migrants.
  • There are some subsegments of the native population, particularly those at the low-skilled end, who might in expectation experience small economic losses due to migration.

So, some natives are expected to lose out. A number of people believe that political changes must be, to the extent possible, Pareto improvements: nobody’s worse off than before. This is not to be taken literally: it’s impossible to be sure that nobody would lose out from a change as large as significant liberalization of migration. So I’ll use Pareto improvement in the sense of Pareto improvement in expectation at the clearly identifiable subgroup level: no large subgroup of the population that can be identified clearly in advance should, in expectation, be worse off than before. On this view, then, one native being killed by somebody who migrated due to liberalization of migration does not violate migration being a Pareto improvement. But if high school dropouts can, in expectation, expect to see their wages go down by 5% due to migration liberalization, that is a no-no and we need to get back to the drawing board.

To the extent that “pure” open borders is not a Pareto improvement, i.e., we can clearly identify subgroups of the population that would, in expectation, lose out from open borders, what is the best that can be done to fix the problem? The simplest approach is to compensate them through lower tax rates, greater welfare state benefits, or direct one-time cash compensation. The compensation method should change how they fare in expectation to the point where they are no longer worse off than the status quo. Suppose you agree with all this. The question arises: how should the compensation be funded? Paul’s post and comment hint at the two competing schools of thought regarding this.

Funding through the migrants

Migrants are the ones who experience the largest per capita gains, and who make the most voluntary decision (by actually moving). Thus, it seems to make the most sense to put the direct obligation of funding native compensation on migrants’ shoulders. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the money is borne completely by the migrant, as any student of tax incidence can tell you. But it still is a tax on migration and all the activities made possible through migration, even if not completely borne by the migrants.

Co-blogger Nathan Smith has blogged about the three types of ways that money may be raised from migrants: auctions, tariffs, and taxes (his own preferred scheme, which falls in the “taxes” subcategory, is what he calls DRITI). Nathan’s goal in the post was a combination of discussing means of revenue generation and addressing concerns about swamping. And therein lies the problem: any attempt to raise money from migrants or migration-related activities curtails migration flows. Some ways of curtailing migration flows are more morally defensible than others. Selecting migrants through a random or opaque process is among the least morally defensible. Having a publicly available tariff or surtax is both more morally defensible and more efficient. A surtax on earnings after one migrates is more defensible than a tariff because it does not exclude cash-constrained migrants and allows people to migrate for free for non-work purposes. On the flip side, the surtax discourages migrants from working, although this effect would be most relevant for migrants who have moved for non-work purposes and are considering work on the side. (It would still be better than the status quo, which generally forbids most temporary immigrants from working unless they have a visa that explicitly allows them to do so. For instance, while people on student visas in the US can work for their universities, their spouses who come on spouse visas cannot work at all). [Incidentally, co-blogger Hansjoerg Walther has a somewhat different proposal, namely immigration-backed bonds. I still haven’t gotten around to thinking through the proposal in depth, so I won’t say anything specific, but read it if you like to consider this sort of stuff.]

Funding through the generally larger economy

Paul Crider’s comment points out a moral problem with funding through the migrants, and suggests the alternative — fund it through the economy at large (emphasis mine):

As I hinted in the post, I’m not overly concerned with the plight of low-skilled rich country natives. I believe it’s necessary to let people down easy when government-promised explicit entitlements are going to be reformed away, as could one day happen with social security or medicare in the US. But wage diminution by immigration liberalization is something else. It’s more similar to deregulation leading to rapid adoption of new technologies, to the detriment of the previously protected firms. It is just allowing creative destruction to do its work, where before it was prohibited. I don’t think morality demands buying off the losers of every new innovation. And to the extent that that is what you want, redistributing from the new blood to the old blood is not the right tool. If you want to soften the vicissitudes of the market, general social safety nets are better tools for the job.

To understand the rationale for this, it might be worth reiterating a few points.

  • From the point of view of the natives who lose out, losing out to immigrants isn’t qualitatively worse than losing out due to free trade or technological innovation, and should not be treated differently. If immigration tariffs or surtaxes are a good idea, so are trade tariffs and innovation taxes.
  • Immigrants were not causally responsible for the fact that some natives may have enjoyed higher wages than the wage rate under open borders, and they are not morally responsible or culpable for the wage decline that the natives experience. To the extent that migrants are “winners” it is only relative to their earlier (coercively) enforced loser status. The transfer cannot be justified on the grounds of moral culpability or blame.
  • In absolute terms, many of the migrants who will pay the huge tariff or surtax will be poorer than the natives who are being compensated. This form of compensation can therefore not be justified on egalitarian grounds.
  • Many writers with free market sympathies have argued that companies that hire low-skilled workers and pay them low wages are not morally responsible for giving the workers a wage well above where the market clears, and in so far as there are general moral responsibilities, these responsibilities need to be fulfilled by “society” as a whole, not by the particular employer (see here for instance). A similar argument could be applied in our context: migrants are not morally responsible for making up the wage decline that some natives experience.

Fortunately, the prediction is that liberalizing migration will expand the total economy considerably, and is also likely to increase the per capita income of prior residents on the whole (though probably not by a huge amount). Assuming that certain forms of government spending, such as defense, will not go up in proportion to the population increase, this leaves more room for an expanded social safety net, with the expansion largely targeted at subgroups of the native population that are most likely to lose out in expectation from migration liberalization. Further, since some subsegments of the native population, particularly the richer ones, are likely to benefit more from free migration, taxes on them could be raised by a small amount. Some concrete proposals in this direction:

  • Make the tax system more progressive while keeping it revenue-neutral. This effectively means some redistribution from high-earning people (who are likely to benefit the most from low-skilled migrants) to low-earning people (who are likely to benefit the least, and may even lose out). Note that the migrants themselves are low-skilled and end up paying low taxes, unless a separate surtax is imposed on them. A further modification would be to charge a surtax for migrants that brings their taxes up to the level that natives had to pay prior to the change in the progressive direction.
  • Provide one-time cash compensation or increased welfare benefits to natives based on income or skill level, funded through greater tax revenues on the economy as a whole (without necessarily changing tax rates). This compensation will not be available to migrants, but otherwise they face the same tax and legal regime as natives.

Where I stand

In this blog post, I considered, in the context of a keyhole solution A, the following three options for which one can have a rank-order preference:

  1. Open borders without keyhole solution A.
  2. Open borders with keyhole solution A.
  3. Closed borders and/or status quo.

Most people sufficiently committed to open borders, or to significant liberalization of migration in general, have a rank-order preference of either (1) > (2) > (3) or (2) > (1) > (3): open borders, with or without keyhole solutions, are preferable to the status quo. This is in contrast with some migrant rights activists who view some keyhole solutions as so bad that they prefer closed borders to the acceptance of such solutions — rank-order preference (1) > (3) > (2) or (3) > (1) > (2), and also in contrast with some keyholists who consider the keyhole solutions absolutely essential before they can even consider liberalizing migration — rank-order preference (2) > (3) > (1) or (3) > (2) > (1); hardcore restrictionists are either (3) > (1) > (2) or (3) > (2) > (1).

For the specific (potential) problem discussed in this blog post, namely, the existence of identifiable subsegments of the native population that are expected to lose out from migration, there are two alternate types of keyhole solutions being offered, namely:

  • (2G): Fund compensation of natives who lose out through the general economy.
  • (2M): Fund compensation of natives who lose out through migrants.

We can then consider rank-order preferences between (1), (2G), (2M), and (3). My personal rank-order preference is (1) > (2G) > (2M) > (3), which I believe would be the same as Paul’s, judging from his remarks. However, it would more accurately be described as (1) > (2G) > (2M) >> (3) — I think that the differences between (1), (2G), and (2M) are insignificant relative to their difference with the status quo. My relative rank-ordering between (1), (2G), and (2M) is also not too strong. While I do broadly agree with the arguments that Paul laid out, I don’t see this as an issue of comparable moral significance to closed borders. (Of course, when I say (2G) and (2M), I am assuming that the fees or taxes are “reasonable” in the sense of not being so large as to effectively work out to being equivalent to the status quo. It would be hard to quantify this, though, so I’ll keep things vague). Note that my rank-order preference deliberately focuses on permissibility and desirability and does not incorporate considerations of feasibility and stability, which would of course become very important when making proposals for actual political consideration. It is possible that accounting for questions of feasibility turns the rank-order preference to (2M) > (2G) > (1) >> (3), which is (I believe) the rank-order preference espoused by Nathan.