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Autism Can’t Explain Away Open Borders Arguments

One of the strangest arguments anti-immigration advocates make is that immigration proponents have Asperger’s Syndrome.  What exactly is the substance (if there is any at all) of this criticism?

A brief background in Asperger’s syndrome may be helpful before continuing.  It is a mental condition characterized by difficulties in verbal and social communication, as well as a tendency to be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.  People diagnosed with it often have difficulty perceiving the feelings of others. However, people with Asperger’s generally have otherwise normal intelligence.  In fact, they are often unusually good at abstract reasoning, ordering and organizing knowledge, and focusing their attention on a single subject of interest without distraction.  Asperger’s is often considered a type of autism, but there is some debate on this topic.

Steve Sailer’s brief blog post “Libertarianism is Applied Autism,” is one of the earliest examples of this argument.  The main point he makes in this post is that libertarian economists do not realize that other people can sometimes behave violently.  He argues that a good reason for one to embrace citizenism is that citizens will assist one another in fighting against the violent people in the world.

Taken in this context, Sailer’s criticism is yet another iteration of the common “economist blind spot” attack.  He is essentially arguing that people engage in a form of non-market interaction (violence),  that anti-free-market solutions such as immigration restriction and citizenism are needed to deal with this fact, and that immigration advocates are blind to this fact.  The only difference is that this time he is claiming that the cause of this blindness is the cognitive impairments caused by autism rather than the simplifying assumptions that economists make in their work.

Other restrictionists have since made autism-related comments, but these do not really add anything new to Sailer’s original argument.  They retain the essential claim that open-borders advocates suffer from a cognitive dysfunction that prevents them from understanding certain restrictionist arguments.

This criticism is problematic in numerous ways.  The most obvious one is that many open borders advocates do engage with the “non-economicobjections restrictionists make and devote time, effort, and research to addressing them.  For instance, Bryan Caplan addresses the claims that immigrants generate political externalities and the claim that they contribute to crime. Nathan Smith addresses the “war” objection here and the “social capital decline” objection in great detail.  John Lee also addresses many of these objections and finds them wanting in the face of the incredible good that open borders could do.  And these are just a few examples.  Open borders advocates do understand these particular objections, and do make serious attempts to address them.

Furthermore, while it is true that open borders advocates do focus on the economic side of things, this is partly because it is simply the best researched topic.  Economists have done serious analyses of open borders and how it might affect the economy, but criminologists and sociologists have not done the same level of thorough research in regards to its effects on crime and society.  Open borders advocates have made serious efforts to research these “non-economic objections,” and what results on these topics they have found have been limited.

Another problem with this criticism is that it is not clear that the common-sense, intuitive view of human behavior that a neurotypical person would have is more correct than economic research.  The entire reason that economic research (and science in general, for that matter) is even done is that the human race’s common-sense view of how the world works is sometimes wrong.

There is a very large amount of psychological literature focused on phenomena such as the “fundamental attribution error” and “ultimate attribution error.”  These phenomena encompass the human tendency to incorrectly assume that a person or group’s innate disposition is the cause of their behavior, rather than external factors.  If human beings are biased towards attributing human behavior to innate dispositions, rather than external factors, an economic model the focuses on external incentives may well be more accurate than a common-sense model that disregards them.  A cynical reading of tendency of certain restrictionists to focus attention on innate factors like IQ is that they are attempting to find a way to salvage the fundamental attribution error.

Another problem with using the intuitive view when addressing immigration is scope neglect.  The human mind did not evolve to process the extremely large numbers of people that immigration policy deals with.  For this reason it seems likely that addressing immigration policy with an abstract, scientific approach, is more fruitful than using our more intuitive systems for understanding other humans.  Consider in particular the restrictionist tendency to focus on dramatic, frightening scenarios like crime, social pathology, and ethnic violence; and compare it to the open-borders advocate’s focus on economic deprivations. Also note that restrictionists sometimes seem to think that all they need to do is establish that these things could happen at all, rather than do a cost-benefit analysis of how likely they are to happen.  This is strongly reminiscent of the human tendency to focus on dangers that make for scary stories (i.e. murders, shark attacks) instead of dangers that are common and likely to happen (i.e. car crashes, heart disease).

A final objection to the “Asperger’s argument” can be found by considering what exactly it means to say that people with Asperger’s often “lack empathy.”  The term empathy has two common meanings.  It can mean the ability to perceive and notice other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 1).  And it can mean caring about other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 2).  To put it another way, Empathy 1 is about noticing the existence of other’s feelings, Empathy 2 is about caring about others’ feelings.  The “lack of empathy” in “Asperger’s syndrome” is Empathy 1, people with Asperger’s have trouble noticing if someone is happy or upset, but if they do manage to notice they display normal human levels of sympathy.

Many restrictionists, however (especially those of the “citizenist” bent), seem to be lacking in Empathy 2.  They tend to see potential immigrants in terms of IQ statistics, standard deviations and collections of “social pathologies,” rather than as people.  They lack much in the way of concern for the harm that immigration restriction inflicts upon others, particularly non-citizens.  If Libertarianism is applied Autism then Citizenism is applied Antisocial Personality Disorder. If one is to go about associating a political position with a mental disorder, it would probably be wise to check to make sure one’s own philosophy can’t be easily associated with an even worse disorder.

In light of this, it does not seem like the “Asperger’s argument” is a particularly valid criticism of open borders advocates.  Open borders advocates understand and engage with the criticisms that restrictionists claim “autism” makes them overlook.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the cognitive functions that Asperger’s and other forms of autism impair are necessary to understand the issues surrounding immigration policy.  Finally, the project of associating political positions with mental disorders is probably not a wise undertaking in the first place.

Orson Scott Card on Immigration

Orson Scott Card is a bestselling author and columnist.  His novel “Ender’s Game” has recently been adapted into a movie.  He occasionally writes columns on political matters, including immigration.  He has had some very cogent things to say about the topic, some of which I have excerpted here:

From his article “What is This ‘Crime,’ Really?”:

So what is this vile crime of “illegal immigration” that requires us to throw out hard-working people who do jobs that no American was willing to do (not at those wages, anyway, not while living in that housing)?

It consists of crossing over an arbitrary line that somebody drew in the dirt a century and a half ago. On one side of the line, poverty, hopelessness, a social system that keeps you living as a peasant, keeps your children uneducated and doomed to the same miserable life you have — or worse.

Wouldn’t you take any risk to get across that line?

…..

We Americans, what exactly did we do to earn our prosperity, our freedom? Well, for most of us, what we did was: be born.

Yeah, we work for our living and pay our taxes and all that, but you know what? I haven’t seen many native-born American citizens who work as hard as the Mexican-born people I see working in minimum-wage jobs in laundries and yard services and intermittent subcontracting projects and other semi-skilled and unskilled positions.

I have no idea which (if any) of the people I see doing this work are legals and which are illegals — but that’s my point. Latin American immigrants, as a group, are hard-working, family-centered, God-fearing people who contribute mightily to our economy

….

And if all you can say to that is, “It doesn’t matter, send them all home, give them no hope of citizenship because we don’t want to reward people for breaking the law to enter our country,” then here’s my answer to you:

Let’s apply that standard across the board. No mercy. No extenuating circumstances. No sense of punishment that is proportionate to the crime. Let’s handle traffic court that way.

The penalty for breaking any traffic law, from now on, is: revocation of your license and confiscation of your car. Period. DWI? Well, we already do that (though usually for something like the nineteenth offense). But now let’s punish speeders the same way. Driving 50 in a school zone — lose your license and your car! Driving 70 in a 65 zone on the freeway? No license, no car. Not coming to a full stop at an intersection? No license, no car.

No mercy, no exceptions, no consideration for the differences between traffic offenders.

Oh, you don’t want to live under those rules? Well, you can’t deny that people would take the driving laws much more seriously, right?

“But it wouldn’t be fair!” you reply.

That’s right. It wouldn’t be fair. Yet that’s exactly the same level of fairness that I hear an awful lot of Americans demanding in order to curtail the problem of illegal immigration.

The only thing that makes illegal immigration a problem is that it’s illegal. If we simply opened our southern border the way all our borders were open in the 1800s, then would there be any continuing burden?

In this country, we have a long tradition of punishing only the individual who does wrong, not his entire ethnic group. (Though, come to think of it, there are a lot of people who would like to change that — but that’s another argument.)

The voice of bigotry speaks: “But they’re dirty, they don’t speak the language, they live in such awful conditions.”

Hey, buddy! They’re dirty because they’re poor and exhausted and they work with their hands and they sweat from their labor! They don’t speak the language because they weren’t born here and in case you’ve never tried it yourself, learning another language is hard. And they live in awful conditions because they’re doing lousy, low-paying jobs and sending the money home.

Of course, these complaints are often disguised ways of saying, “We don’t want them here because they’re brown and most of them look like Indians.” Only we know better than to admit that’s our motive, even to ourselves. So we find other words to cover the same territory.

Efforts to “protect English” are the exact equivalent of those signs saying “No Irish Need Apply” or the rules limiting the number of Jews who could be admitted to prestigious universities or the laws telling black people where they could and could not sit in buses and trains. English doesn’t need protection. People need protection from those who would hurt them because they weren’t born to English-speaking parents.

From “Ethnic Cleansing or ‘Amnesty’” (This article describes a hypothetical scenario where all illegal immigrants are rounded up and deported.  When Card refers to a character as a “fuzzy headed liberal” he is being sarcastic):

When Serbians ask why we bombed them for trying to expel native Albanians from Kosovo, when we’re doing the exact same thing, we don’t bother answering. We don’t have to answer. We’re the world’s only superpower, and therefore everything we do is right.

It’s not ethnic cleansing, we carefully reply. It’s not because they’re Spanish-speaking brown-skinned people that we think they posed a danger to America. It’s because they didn’t have green cards.

The Republican spokesman nods wisely. “They broke the law even coming into this country.”

“What if it was a stupid law?” asks the liberal.

“It was the law, and they broke it.”

“Look,” says the fuzzy-headed liberal, “we made up these laws. It’s not like murder or theft or rape, where one person is infringing the rights of another. We just decided, arbitrarily, which people could come into our country and which could not. Our rules favored the rich; the poor in other countries weren’t welcome.

“But there they were, starving in their own country,” the bleeding-heart liberal goes on. “And the only thing holding them back from feeding their children was a border and a set of completely arbitrary rules. Stupid, needless rules that kept the workers in one country from getting the jobs that were waiting for them in another.”

“That’s treasonous!”

“No, sir, you are the traitor. You’re the one who declared that America was no longer a nation built around an idea, which accepted all who embraced that idea. Now it’s just like any other nation on Earth. It stands for nothing except for holding on to what we’ve got and making sure there’s no room for the people most desperate to come and join us.”

“They didn’t want to live under our laws!”

“Yes they did. All we had to do was change a law that made far less sense than the traffic laws Americans break or bend all the time! If you make breathing a crime, then yes, all the breathers are criminals, but the people who made the laws are the stupid ones.”

“How dare you! We’re the ones who wanted to keep America American!”

“America is a nation that thrived because of a constant infusion of eager new citizens. You have closed the door against the best and bravest of them. You have cut off the lifeblood.”

“At least we’re still speaking English!”

“That’s right,” says the fuzzy-headed liberal. “It takes a lot of brains and determination to learn to speak two languages fluently. We kicked out six million people who were willing to try to do that. And what we have left is … you.”

From “Homework and Perry’s ‘Mistake’“:

But what I kept hearing was that the main reason Perry stumbled was because he actually defended Texas’s policy of charging in-state college tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants. What cost him, people are saying, is that he said to anyone who opposed that policy, “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Never mind that these are children who did not choose where they would live, or whether to come illegally into our country. Never mind that, legal or not, these children are still residents of our country and we all prosper if they get an education so they can get well-paying jobs instead of remaining desperately poor — a breeding ground for crime and welfare.

I mean, isn’t the anti-immigrant hysteria all about how these dark-skinned Spanish-speaking people don’t learn our language, go on welfare, and commit crimes? Wouldn’t getting an education for their children go a long way toward making sure they learn our language, don’t go on welfare, and don’t choose a life of crime?

But let’s just forget the rational arguments and think a little bit about who we are and what America means. Is it really the belief of significant numbers of Republicans that America will be a better place if we, as a society, punish children for their parents’ misdemeanors?

Now, there’s a thought. Maybe it would work! Suppose that instead of losing your license when you’re convicted of driving drunk, your children were taken out of school for a year!

Or if you get too many points on your driver’s license, your children’s grades for that year would be dropped a full letter grade in every class, with no possibility of appeal or explanation.

Oh, isn’t that fair? You think it’s wrong to punish children and interfere with their future just because of their parents’ law-breaking?

Then you must be a Republican In Name Only … because apparently true-blue dyed-in-the-wool Republicans refuse to support a presidential candidate who thinks that the children of illegal immigrants should get the state-resident tuition rates for the schools in the state they reside in.

The “Health Tolls” of Immigration (And Why They Don’t Matter All that Much)

Post by Evan (occasional blogger for the site, joined June 2013). See:

Sabrina Tavernise’s  recent New York Times article on the “health tolls of immigration” doesn’t seem to have a particularly strong pro or anti-immigration agenda.  If anything it’s more along the lines of one of the “obesity epidemic” polemics which condemn western lifestyles for promoting chubbiness and poor health.  Still, it does make some statements about the wellbeing of immigrant populations which it is worthwhile to address.

The main argument of the article is that, in their native countries, immigrants often develop eating habits that are more conducive to good health than the eating habits of the average American.  They typically develop these habits out of necessity rather than desire, they simply cannot afford the large helpings of calorically dense food that Americans regularly enjoy.  When they arrive in America, the article argues, they often lose these habits, and their children often do not develop them at all.  The main statistical support the article uses is a series of studies finding that immigrants have longer lifespans, and lower rates of certain health problems, than demographically similar American-born people. (The studies also mention a factor the article downplays, the simple fact that immigrants tend to self-select for health, since they usually need to by healthy enough to work in order to stay in the country, while their children may regress to the mean).

While any reduction in lifespan is obviously bad, it is not a particularly good argument against increased immigration, due to a number of factors.  The first, and most obvious one is that a small reduction in the quantity of one’s life may be easily made up for in the increase of one’s quality of life.  Even if immigration results in a greater amount of obesity-related health problems for the migrants and their descendants, the greater standard of living they will enjoy due to increased opportunities will likely more than make up for this.

To further put this in perspective, imagine an American politician proposed a program of economic contraction as a solution to the “obesity epidemic.”  Imagine this politician advocated a program where the government would actively destroy high-paying jobs and replace them with jobs so low-paying and menial that those who held them simply could not afford enough food to become obese.  Such a politician would be ejected from office by outraged voters.  This is because, as most people understand, a high standard of living is well worth a certain amounts of health problems.

It is also important to note that the studies compare the lifespans of immigrants to the lifespans of the native-born people of the same ethnicity.  A very different picture emerges when the lifespans of people in the immigrant’s originating country are introduced into the comparison (this is similar to a point that co-blogger Chris made in a previous blog post).  According to Singh and Miller (2004), one of the studies cited by the article, the average life expectancy (at birth) of a Hispanic immigrant from 1986-1994 was 77.1 years for men and 84.1 years for women.  The average life-expectancy of an American-born Hispanic was 72.8 years for men and 81.1 years for women.  This seems bad, until one considers that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) website, in 1990 the average lifespan for a Mexican man was 68 years, and the lifespan for a Mexican woman was 74 years.  The other Latin American countries were mostly similar, many even had shorter average lifespans than Mexico did.  In 1990 the only Latin American country that beat the USA in even one category was Costa Rica, Costa Rican men lived 75 years on average in 1990 (Costa Rican women, however, only lived 79).

The picture is similar in non-Hispanic countries.  Singh and Miller have American-born Chinese lifespans  from 1986-1994 at 81.6 years for men and 87.1 for women.  By contrast, the average lifespan for a Chinese citizen in 1990 was, according to WHO, 67 years for men and 71 years for women.  And then there is the mortality rate of many African countries, many of which have average lifespans well under 60, or even under 50.   US-born African Americans, who average 64 years for men and 75.5 years for women, seem like Galapagos tortoises by comparison.

The simple fact is, if the inhabitants of a third world country wants to maximize their lifespan, and the lifespan of any children they might have, emigration to the United States still seems like a great bet.  Even if their children don’t live quite as long as their parents, they will still live longer than the children the parents would have had in their native country.  And they will be spending those longer lives enjoying more wealth than their hypothetical siblings in their parent’s native lands would have.  Any increase in health problems the American lifestyle creates are far outweighed by its many benefits.