A request to moderates: show your work

As I posted on the Open Borders Action Group, I was struck by a passage from Madeline Zavodny’s piece in Peregrine titled Immigration Policy and the Surge:

Deporting them back to such bleak conditions may seem heartless (although not as heartless this summer’s sight of US citizens blockading buses carrying these migrants, reminiscent of protests against buses carrying black children to white schools some fifty years ago). But allowing them to remain in the United States for more than a few weeks guarantees bigger illegal inflows in the future and reduces further the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform.

Zavodny is a prominent speaker on immigration-related issues (for samples of her work, see her Senate testimony and her write-up on immigration and American jobs). She seems to have a generally favorable impression of work-based migration at all skill levels and has defended migration liberalization in many contexts. My co-blogger John Lee had briefly described her contributions to a Cato panel on immigration in July of last year. She’s writing for a journal devoted to the policy analysis of immigration. Therefore, it is reasonable to hold her statements to high standards.

Zavodny’s first sentence argues that governments deporting people is not as bad as private citizens demanding that governments deport people. At first sight, this seems puzzling, because advocating that something be done is rarely considered to be worse than actually doing it.

The puzzle is deepened by the fact that in her next sentence, as well as in the rest of the article, she seems to endorse at least some level of deportation as a necessary evil. So why exactly does she advocate that government do something, yet consider it heartless for others to advocate the same? As I wrote in a comment on my OBAG post, based off of a private discussion with John Lee (who has written the defining piece on how open borders differs from mainstream moderate immigration reform):

Seems like the main point of difference between many mainstream people and hardcore restrictionists is that the mainstream people endorse it, but are proud that they don’t boast about it. They endorse deportation as a “necessary evil”

But this attitude, too, is morally mysterious. Imagine that you are about to cross a bridge, and a police officer stops you, brandishing his weapon and forcing you to back off. If he shouts invective at you, calling you a loser who doesn’t deserve to cross the bridge, you aren’t going to be pleased. But would you really consider his behavior fair if he said “The bridge will snap in two if you go in there. Sorry, I don’t mean to hurt you, but if you move forward, I’ll shoot you!” or something similar? What if you point out that the bridge hardly looks on the verge of collapse, and besides, many other people are getting on and of it, and he simply brushes you off, repeating, “I don’t mean you any ill will, but you got to back off or I’ll shoot you. Give your family my regards.”

Now, if there actually were a good case that the bridge would collapse, and/or if he had good reason to believe that, and you sensed that, it might be different. But if he claimed in a blasé fashion that the bridge would collapse, yet offered no reasons, that wouldn’t come across that differently from shouting invective or displaying personal hostility.

The analogy with moderates should be clear: many moderates reflexively oppose large-scale admission of refugees or migration liberalization, while at the same time seeking to distinguish themselves from more hardcore restrictionists who, in their view, display unsavory prejudicial attitudes (in fact, even some hardcore restrictionist groups, such as Center for Immigration Studies, take pride in their lack of hostility to immigrants, as we’ve discussed before. But that’s a separate topic). But, as I’ve discussed before, few moderates care to spell out clearly why they think of open borders as going too far. Or rather, the reasons they offer seem like blithe dismissals, not the sort of strong, compelling evidence you might want to summon when denying people such a basic right.

There’s a good chance that people such as Zavodny could make, or cite, good arguments against open borders of the sort that we try to address on this site. Analogous to the bridge that’s just about to collapse, she might argue that open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Or she might take a more distinctively citizenist line, something that’d be consistent with her public writing on immigration. She might even come up with new arguments or new variants of existing arguments that give pause to open borders advocates. But even if she is simply relying on arguments made by others, it is important for her to clarify what her particular mix of reasons is.

Whatever her reasons, I think she owes it to the people whose deportation she implicitly and explicitly endorses, and to the people whom she is proposing to shut out, to be more explicit. And the same goes for all people who publicly propose moderate steps, particularly if they style themselves as being morally superior to those who wear their restrictionism on their sleeve.

PS: I think everybody debating a big change such as open borders should ideally lay out their reasoning more carefully. I try to do this myself, and also encourage other open borders proponents to do so. I believe we do a reasonable job, but certainly people have been critical of us for not reasoning carefully enough, and I’d like to continue improving on that front. Moreover, I’m not claiming that just showing one’s work makes one immune to criticism. Those who disagree with us are welcome to dissect and critique our writing (as some have done) and the bloggers here do write detailed critiques of moderates who push back against open borders (as co-blogger Nathan did with Gene Callahan and many of us have done with Tyler Cowen). But I think we should (and do) respect people more who seriously try to grapple with the question “Why not open borders?” interpreted non-rhetorically, even if we have many object-level criticisms to make of their arguments.

PS: My previous post vindictiveness versus indifference in the open borders debate makes many closely related points.

2 thoughts on “A request to moderates: show your work”

  1. Not ever mentioned at this website: the human overpopulation equation. You all seem to think that this planet can sustain endless exponential growth. It can’t. It won’t. You need to change the discussion on how to help them in their own countries with birth control, family planning, water purification and food production. Open borders cannot be sustained in a world that adds 80 million people, net gain, annually. Until you understand that fact, all dialectics and all human causes fail as the overpopulation Guillotine drops down on all our necks. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

    1. Oy. We’ve been over this before, but just to review.

      1) Human overpopulation is a false fear. Population growth rates have already slowed dramatically, and meanwhile, with a larger population than ever, the world is better nourished than ever.

      2) Overpopulation is in any case quite orthogonal to open borders. Open borders will have little tendency to increase the population, and might well reduce it, since population growth is faster in poorer countries and open borders would allow people to move to rich ones where birth rates are lower. The main effect of open borders would be to raise the population a lot in some places and reduce it a lot in others. If anything, by making humanity more urban, open borders would be a major boon to the environment. But an argument against open borders from overpopulation doesn’t even get off the ground unless you start from citizenist premises, or have some reason to think open borders would increase fertility substantially.

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