Weekly OBAG roundup 32 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

General points related to migration and people’s opinion about migration

Specific current and historical situations

Global Citizenship

The article “The Global Citizen without a Country,” at Public Discourse, seemed worth linking to and quoting, as relevant to my friendly feud with Bryan Caplan, and to his long-running battles with Steve Sailer and Mark Krikorian. The article is about the “global citizen” movement, which I had never heard of, but which seems to be at least as significant a phenomenon as what Dylan Matthews (it takes an outsider to bestow such a label) calls the open borders “movement.” The scale of it is impressive:

Within a few years of the September 11 attacks, anyone on a university campus could observe the steady growth of programs and institutes promoting global citizenship. By 2009, a number of my students on a study-abroad trip to the Middle East preferred to be known as global citizens rather than Americans. President Obama, who had proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” the previous summer, was inaugurated the night we climbed Mount Sinai, and even the brand of water we purchased at the summit— “Baraka”—seemed to proclaim a new world order.

Of the top fifty U.S. News & World Report national universities, 60 percent have programs that identify or describe themselves in terms of global citizenship. So do over half of the top twenty-five colleges. Nearly all of these programs were founded or re-branded since 2001. This is remarkable, but understandable: who would deny that we have responsibilities to the rest of the world, or that we have loyalties beyond our own country? Who doesn’t want our universities to teach more effectively about the rest of the world?

The promise of global citizenship is as expansive as the rhetoric at the opening of a new session at the UN.

Are these people we should be recruiting to the open borders movement? It seems logical: if there is to be global citizenship, surely it makes sense that there be global freedom of migration as well. Also, what is the relationship between “global citizenship” and Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism?” Cosmopolitan  roughly means “the world is my city” in Greek, so the ideas ought to be nearly synonymous, but I’m guessing Caplan would prefer to opt out of citizenship altogether. Anyway, the author is somewhat dismissive of “global citizenship”:

To re-phrase H. Richard Niebuhr, this movement often imagines that citizens without countries will bring humans without a nature into society without culture through laws without foundation…

Actual citizenship entails formal membership in a particular political community with legally defined rights and duties. We quarrel over what citizenship means in the US because we have a common vocabulary to describe that membership. By contrast, you can easily lose your path upon entering the thicket of theory that marks the language of the global citizenship movement…

The global citizen who gets the highest praise typically works for a secular nongovernmental organization (NGO) such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Doctors Without Borders. But the definition would also apply to the adherents of any world religion and to many employees of multinational corporations.

Still, none of these people has actual political membership in a global community where he must “rule and be ruled,” as Aristotle described the citizen. Religions and NGOs are not self-sufficient. Their members don’t have to debate policies that radically affect everyone in the community where they live. Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen. Their loyalties may be “dissolved by the fancy of the parties,” to quote Edmund Burke’s critique of the revolutionary notion of citizenship in France. In short, they may contribute to the civil society of one nation, or several, but they are not “citizens” of any global entity—and some of the theorists admit as much.

The problem is not that the movement uses the term “citizenship” loosely. The problem comes from its view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent.

I agree that for citizenship to be meaningful and substantive, it must be broadly understood by the people concerned. In other words, it must be embedded in tradition, not in jargon and a “thicket of theory.”

But what are we to make of this sentence: “Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen.” Ritchie seems to assume that voluntariness is inconsistent with citizenship. This isn’t the status quo even today. Many people are citizens because they chose to be, e.g., naturalized citizens of the USA. True, most people get their citizenship by birth and keep it, but why should this be an essential criterion of citizenship? On the contrary, the Declaration of Independence states that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… [and] to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the Declaration of Independence seems to insist precisely on the voluntariness of citizenship, the consent of the governed. It is an ideal doubtless difficult to implement and perhaps even naïve, but surely, to the extent that membership in an organized community is voluntary, any duties associated with membership are rendered more legitimate thereby. As for “the view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent,” this isn’t so much a “view” as a plain fact. I’m a US citizen because, by accident of birth, I was born a US citizen.

I agree with Ritchie is that to build global citizenship on “humans without a nature” is to build on sand, but from there on we part ways, and I sometimes find myself impressed by how well he articulates an obviously false view, as if he’s a volunteer straw man. As Thomas Jefferson understood, there is such a thing as human nature, and human rights are entailed by that nature. States are legitimate in virtue of their services as protectors of human rights.

As for “ruling and being ruled” and “debating policies that radically affect the community in which [one] lives,” non-states often have those features in a much greater degree than even the most democratic states. My family and my church are real communities in a way that the USA isn’t, and I have a real say in how they are run, while I’ve surely never significantly influenced the policies of the USA, and probably never could. Meanwhile, many of this world’s states don’t even pretend to let their peoples “rule” as well as be ruled, or to let them freely debate and have a say in policymaking. Again, Ritchie seems to be a volunteer straw man, making arguments that obviously fail for his side and cannot help being turned to his opponents’ advantage.

I am more sympathetic with Ritchie when he argues that “global citizens”…

place little value on the legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected the rights and established the social benefits they champion. Instead, their faith is in lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future.

Yes, “lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future” are no substitute for the “legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected… rights.” Real progress and prosperity depend on good institutions and traditions. I wrote, I think, quite a good defense of tradition in Chapter 2 of The Verdict of Reason. It’s too long to quote in full (here’s an ungated link), but I make a forceful argument that “tradition is the lifeblood of free societies,” because “tradition has epistemic value as society’s repository of knowledge about what works and does not work,” and “tradition is an indispensable medium for people to understand each other.”

That’s part of the reason why I resist Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism.” He breezily defines cosmopolitanism as “focusing on people’s common humanity rather than superficial differences.” The reality is that what is most superficial about us is not our differences but our similarities. We all (almost) have two legs and two arms and two eyes and walk and talk and eat and vary in weight by a factor of 3:1 or 4:1 at most, and less in height, but in our souls we are worlds apart. The Hindu and the Christian live on the same earth but in different cosmoses. What one man loves, another hates. The freedom Caplan prizes does have roots in “common sense,” though I’d prefer to say, in human nature. But it is also the specific heritage of the Christian West, and no one could have imagined modern Western freedom from the evidence of common sense alone, without the heritage of a hundred generations’ worth and more of tradition. Indeed, since Caplan sometimes seems to recognize this, perhaps we don’t really disagree.

Still, human rights are a moral reality, even if it takes a lot of tradition to inculcate in us a full appreciation of them. (Indeed, we still have a long way to go.) Ritchie praises the global citizens for their concern for human welfare…

It’s impossible to read the material on global citizenship without respecting its adherents’ commitment to human rights, peace, and global access to education, medicine, clean water, and food.

… but education, medicine, clean water, and food will be effectively secured for humanity only in the context of deep and well-grounded institutions. Now, part of the point of the open borders movement is that since it’s very difficult to build good institutions, people should be allowed to move freely to places where they are already in place. That does pose some risk that the good institutions will be degraded by changes in the underlying population, but we think the risk is manageable.

The article has a good deal about Edmund Burke, whose public career, as a defender of the rights of the Indian people against British imperialism, and of the American revolutionaries to make their own nation, but then as a critic of the French Revolution and a founder of intellectual conservatism, is an interesting case study in how rootedness and cosmopolitanism can be combined. Burke rightly believed in universal values, but understood that it is only through the customs, culture and institutions of particular communities that these can be realized, and it is on the building up of these, that most of our attention and effort should focus. That is citizenship, rightly understood.

That conclusion in no way implies that citizenism is necessary, advisable, or morally permissible. It isn’t. “Americans First” is a wanton denial of our responsibilities to our fellow man; one rarely encounters such a bluntly amoral doctrine, equally intolerable from a Kantian, utilitarian, or Christian perspective. But “global citizenship” is also a misconceived ideal, for at the end of the day, citizenship must be in a polity, and there is no global polity to be a citizen of, and we probably should not wish for one. Individualism is not enough; we need communities; and membership in communities, even when that membership is not wholly voluntary, can involve us in special duties. But real communities are more local than the whole globe.

Responsibilities to the communities one is a member of should never be an excuse for injustice, cruelty or indifference to the rest of our fellow men. In advocating open borders, I am first of all opposing an evil that is done on behalf of one form of community, the nation-state. But as open borders would transform people’s communities and identities, I am obliged to have at least vague answers to large questions about how human needs for community and identity will be met. My response is that the artificial concentration of loyalties that the nation-state has tried to force on us in the 20th century will be reversed, and that is probably a good thing. It is better for justice and imagination when membership is felt in many forms and at multiple levels, when communities overlap and interpenetrate one another, when identity is more complex and interesting than a mere titular nationality. I want, not to abolish the nation-state, but to limit its scope and power, and to reverse the stultification and flattening of identity, the eclipsing of a diverse ecology of communities by banal nationalistic pieties, and the substitution of openly coercive and arbitrary for at least notionally consensual community, that the monopolization of governance by the nation-state brought about.

See also my post “Immigration, Identity, Nationality, Citizenship, and Democracy.”

Weekly OBAG roundup 31 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

General points related to migration and people’s opinion about migration

Specific current and historical situations


  • Post by Fabio Rojas with a draft op-ed he wrote to promote open borders. 7 likes, 9 comments.
  • Post by Nathan Smith, September 19, 2014, linking to an Economics Detective Radio podcast with Garret Peterson on open borders. 3 likes.
  • Post by Oliver Beatson, September 19, 2014, of a song he remembered that reminded him of open borders. 1 comment.

Let Us Dream Bigger: The Dreamer Movement Should Support Open Borders

I am a reluctant Dreamer. I naturally sympathize with the goal of my fellow Dreamers to see some version of the Dream Act passed, but I can’t help it think too small a dream. The Dream Act would provide relief to us who were brought into the United States as children, but it would do little to improve the life of those who are still on the other side of the border. Open borders on the other hand would both improve our lives and humanity as a whole. Open borders would allow everyone to migrate freely regardless of their place of birth, race, wealth, or religion. Open borders would give everyone the right to decide their own fate by deciding where they want to live.

Open borders is a sounder argument than the Dreamer argument. Many Dreamers implicitly concede that their parents did something wrong by entering the United States unlawfully, but argue that they themselves did no wrong and should not be punished. The Dreamer argument does not condemn barriers against immigration per se, it only asks for special treatment for unique situations such as Dreamers.

Dreamers are right to point out that they should not be punished for the sins of the parents, and current US immigration law already reflects that. The primary punishment for illegal immigration is being subject to the immigration bars, which disallow one from lawfully migrating to the US for a set period of time subject to how much unlawful presence was accrued. Under existing law illegal aliens who are minors do not accrue unlawful presence. It takes a hundred and eighty days after a Dreamer has turned eighteen, the age of adulthood, before the first immigration bar of three years is triggered. Dreamers can, upon reaching adulthood, leave the United States and apply to return under existing legal channels without fear of a handicap.

By no means is immigration into the United States easy, but there are legal options. Surely the brightest Dreamers should be able to acquire a student visa. Those who are related to US citizens can re-enter on the fiancé visa or through other family-based visa schemes. The asylum system is not perfect, but those Dreamers who have genuine fear of going to their country of origin can lodge a defensive asylum claim. With this in mind it is unclear why dreamers need any further special exemptions.

Ultimately a Dreamer who remains in the United States after reaching adulthood has affirmatively elected to remain an illegal alien. They could have self-deported without spending a day in jail or even triggering an immigration bar but they instead choose to stay in the United States.

By no means am I advocating Dreamers self-deport.  I wish only to point out that the typical Dreamer argument is flawed and an unstable foundation. I offer in its place the case for open borders. We dreamers have the right to live unmolested in the United States, but this is because immigration is itself a universal human right and not because we are special. Any Canadians who wish to reside in Mexico should be able to do so. As should any Indians who might want to live in the United Arab Emirates. Immigration is always and everywhere a right possessed by all of humanity, not merely to a subsection of it.

Would advocating for open borders be more difficult than simply advocating for a special exemption for ourselves? Yes, but by no means must we insist on open borders overnight and it would be entirely fine to promote a gradual approach to open borders so long as we made our ultimate goal clear.

Promoting open borders would not only give dreamers a stronger foundation, but it would also gain us new political allies in the form of libertarians. Openborders.info is not exclusively targeted to libertarians, but many of its contributors are libertarians or fellow travelers. As a movement we Dreamers have long aligned ourselves almost exclusively with the left, and what good has that done us? On occasion we get a small reward to keep us content, but our goals have not been met because our allies need not worry about us shifting our resources elsewhere.

Take for example that the Obama administration had promised to announce a series of executive changes to immigration policy earlier this month, but backed out when it became clear it would be politically unpopular to do so. We may protest, but ultimately what does it matter? It is not as if we will punish the administration by going out and campaigning for Steve King and his anti-immigration posse. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has worsened our bargaining position by making our fate tied to the future electoral victory of the Democratic Party. What if however there existed other allies who could be counted on to, at minimum, leave DACA alone? Then we could have a genuine ‘protest vote’ and better our bargaining power.

Many libertarians are already predisposed to sympathize with our struggle, they know full well the idiocy of government regulation, and we can expect to be warmly received if we extended a hand towards them. Aside from Openborders.info, libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute, the Reason Foundation, and the Independent Institute already offer their support to us.

I hope that my fellow Dreamers will adopt the case for open borders if not for the sake of having a stronger argument in the foundation of our movement, and if not to gain political allies, then at least for the sake of justice.

Image credit: Steve Pavey, Portland Occupier

Equality of Opportunity

According to Dylan Matthews’ write-up of an interview with Bryan Caplan at Vox, Caplan’s elevator pitch is:

“What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else?” George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks. It’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, such a law is discriminatory on its face, serves no rational purpose, and is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. But Caplan continues: “So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

This argument, also discussed in the “equal opportunity” tab of our permanent content, may be the most effective way to make the case for open borders in two sentences, but I’m ambivalent about it. The ethical intuition it appeals to is equality of opportunity. This is a rather novel principle which, however, is widely accepted in our society as a supremely important moral desideratum, almost a synonym for justice. But I don’t believe in equality of opportunity. Not only is it an impossible ideal, it’s not even especially desirable. And while it’s hard to quantify, I suspect that modern Western society’s pursuit of that ideal has done a lot of harm.

Before I go on, let me say that Caplan’s “elevator case” only presumes that the government policy shouldn’t actively create inequality of opportunity. That’s probably a fairly sound principle of government for contemporary applications. But it’s a short step from asking “why should people born on the wrong side of the border have worse lives?” to asking “why should people born to poor parents have worse lives?” or even “why should people born with genes that make them mentally subpar have worse lives?” Soon you’ve activated luck egalitarian intuitions that people’s destinies ought to depend only on their efforts, and not on factors outside their control, and people start demanding that government policies and individual ethics should be drafted into service to realize comprehensive equality of opportunity in the world. This is a wrong road on which Western society has already traveled a long way.

Equality of opportunity is an appropriate desideratum in certain kinds of games. Take chess, for example. Chess is structured with a view to giving players an equal opportunity to win. They start with the same number and types of pieces, in symmetric positions on the board. Moves alternate, giving players equal numbers of chances to play. Well, almost. White’s first-mover advantage in chess is a well-established fact. In a sense, that’s a flaw in chess, but what can you do? Someone has to move first. Chess would be less interesting if there were huge departures from equality of opportunity, e.g., if White got two moves for every move by Black, or if White started with one rook less. The exception here proves the rule. Sometimes a stronger player deprives himself at the beginning of a rook. This is done to give the weaker player a chance, i.e., to restore equality of opportunity. But just because equality of opportunity is a good norm for all manner of games, doesn’t make it a good norm to try to realize in the life of societies.

In the US, the sanctity of equality of opportunity is a side-effect of the way we dealt with the deep historical tragedy of American blacks (i.e., African-Americans, but like some blacks I don’t like the phrase African-American, since it makes them sound foreign, when the average black bloodline must go back further on American soil than the average white bloodline). While many waves of immigrants to the US have assimilated comfortably, American blacks remain a distinctive, and in many respects a disadvantaged, people, and I think the reason is that they never consented to be part of the American people in the first place, so instead of the sense of social contract that is felt by people of free immigrant origins, the black community is pervaded by an understandable sense of historical grievance. If to reason about justice among groups in this way somewhat offends individualistic ethical assumptions, that doesn’t change the fact of long-term black alienation, passed from generation to generation and absorbed by osmosis from a social milieu, and ultimately rooted in the historical experiences of enslavement and segregation. To regard the imposition of equality of opportunity through anti-discrimination laws as a redress for historic wrongs is, for multiple reasons, an insult to justice, yet it may well have been the least bad way to heal the harmful legacy of racial slavery on the US body politic. But that doesn’t mean that equality of opportunity is a valid ethical principle in general.

The issue goes far beyond race. Whether attempts to apply the principle of equality of opportunity to gender have wrought net good or net harm, I’m not sure. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart grimly documents (among other things) how family breakdown has created a new underclass, and it’s hard to imagine that the surge in divorce and illegitimacy in the US doesn’t have something to do with the comprehensive attack by advocates of equality of opportunity on traditional marriage and its sexual division of labor. On the other hand, a lot of women now enjoy opportunities to pursue excellence that they wouldn’t have had. But that’s good because opportunities to pursue excellence are good in themselves, not because it’s especially important for them to be equally distributed across identifiable social groups such as genders, still less because equality of opportunity across individuals is attainable or desirable.

A race-blind society is a semi-attainable goal. A gender-blind society is not. It might just be possible to make education and labor markets gender-blind, but in the marriage market, sociobiology ensures that men will tend to like somewhat younger women, and will place less value on a mate’s education and potential income, while women are instinctively hypergamous. People will continue to respond to these gendered incentives in ways that make their aggregate performance differ in education and labor markets too, and that isn’t a problem, except from the warped point of view that sees equality of opportunity as a moral imperative. A dogmatic insistence that men and women must have the same opportunities in life will certainly make the problems harder, not easier, to think about clearly, and to deal with sensibly.

Equality of opportunity is sometimes thought of as “meritocratic” and conducive to efficiency, but it can also conflict with efficiency. Norman (2003) proves this in the abstract, by showing that statistical discrimination– “stereotypes”– can be a useful source of information, and can facilitate specialization and networking. Statistical discrimination can even be Pareto-improving, meaning that even the direct victims of statistical discrimination benefit from it, since privileged groups, if not compelled to include them, become more productive in activities that are complementary to those left to the excluded groups. Norman (2003) shows only that this is an abstract possibility, but I suspect that the growth of credentialism, whose wastefulness is one of Bryan Caplan’s regular themes, is partly a consequence of the spread of the principle of equality of opportunity, which made it politically incorrect to just hire trusted cronies or co-ethnics, and forced people to rely instead on impersonal systems like college that filter people much more expensively, and are trickier for less capable people to navigate.

Economic theory provides a certain clarity here. Economists like to speak of people’s “opportunity sets.” They usually start with simplified two-good models, e.g., if you have $10, and apples cost $1, and pears cost $2, you can buy 10 apples, or 8 apples and 1 pear, or 6 apples and 2 pears, etc. But the concept of an opportunity set is extensible to unlimited numbers of goods and services, and the budget constraint concept applies not just to money but to time, and maybe to other things like willpower, social capital, and appetite. Take all this into account, and the opportunity set that each of us faces when we start life is very, very complicated. What can equality of opportunity mean except that these opportunity sets ought to be identical for every individual born? And that, of course, is absurd. Or you could try to save the concept by aiming to equalize the “value,” in some sense, of people’s opportunity sets, but those schooled in the rigorous theory of value developed by economists know that it can’t do any such work. And attempts to make people’s opportunity sets more equal, beyond a certain point, must make the world more homogeneous and less interesting. Variety is the spice of life, and much of the social variety that we enjoy has its roots in differences of experience and circumstance that began well before the age of responsibility, and which would have to be erased, for more equality of opportunity to be attained.

I think one reason people value equality of opportunity is that they identify it with the democratic social contract. Equality of opportunity is an attempt to translate into the economic sphere the principle of “one person, one vote.” The Constitution lets any American (voters willing) be president, so the capitalist economy should be organized so that everyone has a chance at being the CEO of Coca-Cola or Google. By this account, it’s because everyone had a chance at being rich, that the capitalist system is fair, and deserves our support or at least acquiescence. There’s a naïve version of this argument and a cynical version. The naïve version really believes that equality of opportunity exists or is attainable, and seeks to protect or to establish it, so that the have-nots won’t be justified in launching a revolution. The cynical version knows that equality of opportunity is unattainable, but wants to preserve it as a myth, so that the have-nots will be told they could have had it all, but for their own indolence and mistakes, and that will demoralize them too much to make a revolution. Perhaps I’m attacking a straw man here, but I’m not sure.

What’s absurd about the contemporary West’s partially sincere commitment to equality of opportunity is that Western immigration restrictions are as flagrant and unmistakable a violation of equality of opportunity as could be imagined. That’s why Caplan’s attack is so devastating. The West excludes the vast majority of mankind from opportunities to prosper in the West that many would take advantage of, and benefit by, if they were allowed. By excluding them, we condemn to poverty, poor education, limited political freedom, and often disease and/or violence many who would come to the West and flourish. Equality of opportunity demands open borders.

Inequality within the West is mild compared to global inequality. Feminists scheduled Equal Pay Day on April 14, 2014 to complain that women (collectively) have to work until that date to make as much as men made in 2013. The implicit desideratum makes little economic sense even if the principle of equality of opportunity is accepted (a few happy housewives working part-time would bring the average down for women, but it would not represent any societal injustice) but for purposes of comparison, if estimates of the place premium were used to calculate an “Equal Pay Day” for foreigners, it would have to be postponed several years. In addition to economic inequalities, many foreigners suffer from a severe lack of religious and/or political freedom.

Once an interlocutor understands that equality of opportunity demands open borders, they have two choices. They can cling to a moral belief in equality of opportunity as a compelling desideratum, and accept that this entails opening the borders. But open borders would fall far short of delivering the unattainable, boring utopia of equality of opportunity. People born in poor countries would still be disadvantaged by not knowing English, not getting as much free education, and perhaps by not inculcating the ineffable habits and values that make Westerners free and productive.

On the other hand, an interlocutor might regard open borders as the reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, and abandon that moral principle. That’s fine, too. Let’s abandon that misguided ideal and think more rationally about how to promote human flourishing. Still, there is a little merit in the idea of equality of opportunity, and we should have a bias against government policies, like immigration restrictions, that directly and massively work against it.

By the way, those who have read to the end of this post may be interested in an earlier argument of mine that “private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine and should be legal.” Also relevant is my post “No Irish Need Apply.”