All posts by John Roccia

John is a passionate believer in open borders, coming at the issue from a libertarian and anarcho-capitalist moral perspective. See our blog post introducing John, or all blog posts by John.

A job thought experiment

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine you’ve been applying for a good job, and the hiring manager calls you in for the final interview. He tells you that there’s only one hurdle left: The interview process has narrowed the contestants down to just you and one other candidate. Your potential boss gives you some information about the other candidate – namely, that you and this mystery person have exactly the same level of qualification, and are willing to work for exactly the same wage; but this mystery candidate has more to lose than you if they don’t get the job (i.e. their bills are higher, or they have more mouths to feed, or they have some illness they need medicine for, whatever), and they’re willing to work without the two weeks’ vacation each year that you demanded.

Then, to make matters worse, your potential boss asks you your final interview question: “Tell me why I should give this job to you instead of the other candidate, given what you know about that person.”

Hard, isn’t it?

Well, let me give you a few potential answers, and you decide what you think about them.

  1. “You should give me the job because I’m male, and this other person is female.” Whoa, sounds pretty bad, huh? In fact, I think we still tar and feather people in our society for that sort of thing. Or at least we should.
  2. “You should give me the job because I’m related to you in some way, and the other person isn’t.” The word for that is nepotism, and it also tends to be frowned upon, in case you hadn’t heard.
  3. “You should give me the job because I’m white, and the other person is non-white.” Uh oh, we’re getting worse, aren’t we?
  4. “You should give me the job because I’m young, and the other person is old.” Ageism doesn’t get as much attention as sexism or racism, but it’s definitely out there and definitely sucks.
  5. “You should give me the job because I’m more attractive than the other person.” Well that one’s just a slap in the face, isn’t it?

Imagine how mad you’d be if you even overheard someone with the cojones to actually say this in an interview! Someone claiming that a mere accident of birth that they had no control over – and for that matter places them in a category of substantial relative privilege – should entitle them (and it’s entitlement they’re claiming, make no mistake) to a job over a person that doesn’t have these purely unintentional qualities, but is equally qualified, harder working, and in greater need of the job would rightly make your blood boil. And if you think that would make you mad, imagine how much angrier you’d be at an employer who actually accepted that rationale and gave the job to this horrible person!

Let’s add one more to the list, shall we?

6. “You should give me the job because I was born in this country, and the other person wasn’t.”

Wait. Wait a minute – that one didn’t raise the hackles on the back of your neck, did it? In fact, the part of you that adapts to your society as a whole found that to be downright reasonable-sounding, didn’t it? Something’s definitely wrong here. Some essential wiring has been installed incorrectly. Say any of the first five things on the list in a job interview and not only can I guarantee you that you won’t get the job, but you’re very likely to start a physical fight with someone that overhears you. But say the sixth thing, and not only does it sound perfectly rational, but you sound like a damned patriot. They elect to public office people who say things like that. Of course, being the rational person that you are, you came through this little thought experiment realizing the truth: That if you can’t rationalize desert based on accidents of birth, then that applies to ALL accidents of birth.

Of course, there’s a sliver of hope here. You see, at one point or another in history, all of points 1 through 5 were considered just as reasonable and just as point 6 is considered by our society today. But bit by bit, through some combination of general societal enlightenment and the tireless efforts of the champions of the downtrodden, those absurd opinions were gradually overturned. There are still some holdouts, of course – there always will be – but thankfully we seem to grow more enlightened each day. And so I’m quite assured that over time (maybe, if I’m lucky, in my own lifetime), I’ll see the end of one of the last great institutionalized prejudices – nationalism.

This post was inspired by the article Waitresses in Saskatchewan lose jobs to foreign workers.

Schindler or Eichmann?

More than a few times I’ve heard sentiments like this expressed: “I would support the legalization of immigration, but as long as it remains illegal, those that break the law shouldn’t be allowed to stay.” This appeal to authority can seem reasonable at first-glance: It denotes a respect for law, while also giving lip-service to support for immigration. There’s something to be said for respecting the rule of law in general, even if you disagree with specific laws. After all, some might claim, if we simply disobeyed every law we thought was unjust without respect for the avenues by which we might legally change those laws, then what is the point of legislation at all?

However, nearly all people have a point at which they would disobey a law – the point at which it conflicts sufficiently with their own ideas of true morality. That point may be different for every person, but almost all people have such a point. If a law was passed tomorrow legally mandating that parents abandon their children in the woods, it’s unlikely that many would obey such a law. So does this mean that people only obey laws that they morally agree with – or at least, don’t morally disagree with strongly? Not necessarily.

Numerous examples in history and psychology have demonstrated that a person’s moral limit on obedience is not an immovable line, but rather is quite malleable depending on circumstance – and technique. The Milgram experiments done in response to the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Stanford Prison Experiments, and the Mount Washington McDonald’s incident all provide examples of how people can be pushed beyond their stated moral limits. If you know about those (and other) examples of the malleability of human morals, then it suddenly doesn’t become so far-fetched to imagine that people could be convinced to obey a number of laws they’d find immoral if asked directly.

So is that what’s happened? Have the citizens of the developed world been slowly conditioned to accept immigration restrictions as moral, when philosophical reasoning so easily reveals them to be the opposite? It’s certainly possible. It’s in the nature of authority to condition those under it to respect that authority for authority’s sake – to accept that authority itself is morality. Even though the residents of a nation usually benefit from migration, individual political leaders often oppose it, and the gradual effect is cyclical: politicians oppose immigration, which helps to condition people to oppose it. People conditioned to oppose it demand politicians that oppose it. Those politicians oppose it, and the cycle continues.

The effect is not absolute, however. The Milgram Experiments demonstrated that while people may have a tendency to allow their morals to be eroded by the proper conditions, there were always those who bucked the trend and opposed the commands. When slavery was the law, there were still those who, as a part of the Underground Railroad, helped to break that law because it was morally right to do so. Those people were lawbreakers, but history regards them positively. Despite the fact that they broke the laws, history sees people like Harriet Tubman and Oskar Schindler (and many others) as heroes. Those we see as heroic in history were often those who bucked the trend of allowing authority to dictate morality, despite the pressures.

One hundred years from now, will the cause of Open Borders have a Tubman or a Schindler to admire?

Open Borders editorial note: The following posts suggest some possibilities: Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real by Nathan Smith, and How Undocumented Organizers Can Lead the Way to Open Borders by David Bennion. Nathan Smith’s post Illegal immigrants and runaway slaves is also related to the point Roccia makes about the Underground Railroad.

The Pledge

I am guilty of often being a moral absolutist – an ideologue. I try to avoid it, but it’s a failing of mine. I often mentally frame arguments in “all or nothing” terms, and sometimes that can lead me away from positive solutions. As an example: It’s my natural inclination to be opposed to keyhole solutions such as that of immigrants paying an up-front cost to immigrate that is paid back after a certain period. In my mind, such a cost has the potential to be prohibitive to the very poorest people of the world, who are those who stand to gain the most by coming to a first-world country and most harmed by not being able to.

Since I so strongly believe that freedom of movement is an inalienable right, such half-measures strike me as weak compromises. However, that’s my flaw. The keyhole solution outlined above, while it may have a number of negatives when compared to open borders, is none the less vastly and absolutely better than our current situation. There’s no reason for me to oppose it, other than my tendency to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

While we’re on the subject of my flaws, we might as well bring up another that you’ll find to be directly related – pride. I am too proud by far in many areas of my life. I am the kind of person who often loses out on getting things I actually want because I am unable to humble myself to get them. And worse than my own pride is the fact that I tend to project pride onto others – for example, if a law were passed tomorrow that said anyone could immigrate to America as long as the would-be immigrant bowed in reverence before some icon of the country – whether it be the current President, the flag, some statue, doesn’t matter – I would oppose this with every fiber of my being. I would find it a disgusting, dehumanizing law. However, anyone who could swallow their pride and just ignore the display as the petty thing it was would find that their life was much improved – after all, what’s a little genuflection if it means the rest of your life can be lived in the first world? But again, such is my flaw.

However, I am attempting to correct these flaws – or at least compensate for them. I am trying to grow as a person, and so I am trying to open my eyes to potential solutions that my flaws might otherwise prohibit. And in so doing, I’ve come to think about victim-blaming.

Ask most people, and they’ll tell you victim-blaming is a horrible thing to do. Blaming a woman for getting raped, a black man for getting wrongfully arrested, or a foreigner for not being allowed to immigrate and you’re seen as uncompassionate at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. But isn’t that just the sin of pride all over again? What if there really was something that the woman could have done to avoid her fate, the black man to avoid the arrest, and the foreigner to make immigration easier? Is it wrong to theorize about what the victim might do differently, if the end result is fewer rapes, fewer wrongful arrests, and more immigration?

I’ll avoid the specifics on the other example topics, but what if there was something that foreigners could do to make allowing them to immigrate more politically viable? Even if it was something humiliating or demeaning, something that would infuriate anyone with even an ounce of pride? Just as a hypothetical: Imagine that there was a small town in a third-world country where almost everyone wanted to emigrate to America. And imagine that as part of their campaign for acceptance, they turned their whole town into a mock-suburbia; they wore American-style clothes, ate American-style food, baked apple pie and played baseball, spoke English exclusively and maybe even learned to
fake a Midwestern drawl. Imagine that they renamed their streets after American presidents, got rid of all of their religious materials (except Christian, of course), said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and even wore makeup to disguise their skin tone. Now if you’ve managed to read this far without the bile rising to the back of your throat, imagine this: Imagine it worked. Imagine that their efforts, perhaps chronicled by some journalist, so swayed the American populace that American leaders allowed the whole town to emigrate to America. Despite the demeaning trial they went through, they now get to live their lives in a safer, more prosperous environment. They get what they wanted.

What then? If it worked, would we encourage others to copy their efforts? We could say, “well, they shouldn’t have to do that!” And I agree – they shouldn’t. To the core of me, such an act would disgust me. But isn’t that just the pride talking? Shouldn’t we care more about the end result, if the end result is something much better than the trials to get there?

If the answer is yes, let’s look at perhaps a more realistic application of the idea. What if those that wanted to emigrate to America (or any other country, for that matter) signed a Pledge, a formal (if legally meaningless) document where they swear to uphold the ideals of whatever country they wish to enter; to be productive and not draw on social services; to learn the language and speak it exclusively; to adhere to the mores and cultural norms of their new homeland. Such a document is meaningless in terms of legal fact – but such symbols have always held power over the minds of men. If you think signing a non-legally-binding document where you promise to enforce certain rules on yourself is absurd, remember that the entire American government is predicated on such an absurd idea. And such ideas, no matter how absurd, can sway people.

Such a pledge might be demeaning, and in a just world no one would have to sign it in order to move to a new country. But could it work – or at the very least, could it help? That’s the real question we should be asking.

Land Of The Free

Post by John Roccia (occasional blogger for the site, joined April 2013). See:

Well, let’s just cut right to the chase. On Tuesday, July 2nd, a guest blogger with the handle “Land of the Free” kicked the proverbial hornet’s nest here at Open Borders with a post titled Betting The Republic, and promised to reveal his/her secret identity after a week of debate.

It’s me!

Before the rotten tomatoes start flying, however, let me explain a few things. First, the views expressed by Land of the Free (or LOTF, for short) are not my views. Not even a little. Take a look at my past work here on Open Borders, and you’ll see that I’m as vehemently pro-open-borders as they come. When I wrote the two posts and the various comments as LOTF I was, to put it mildly, lying through my teeth. I wrote deliberate falsehoods about my identity and past work in order to throw you off the scent, and then I created an entirely false – but hopefully plausible-sounding – argument to present to you.

Why did I do all of this? I had two main motivators. The primary reason was as a form of social experimentation that Professor Bryan Caplan calls an “Ideological Turing Test.” A brief explanation of an ITT is this: if you can present an argument that is opposed to your own, and present it well enough that people can’t tell that you don’t actually hold those beliefs, you can be said to have “passed an Ideological Turing Test.” If you can’t pass an ITT, then chances are good that you don’t actually understand your opponent’s arguments, and are relying on straw men, being uncharitable, living in an echo chamber, or any other metaphors for poor debate technique. As to whether I think I actually passed the ITT, I’ll discuss that below.

Before I do that, I want to talk briefly about my other motivator. As far as arguments against open borders go, the issue of political externalities is the one I consider to be the strongest. I don’t agree with it, but I certainly think it’s more difficult to argue against than things like welfare drain or job-stealing, which are far more easily refuted. So in presenting this argument specifically, I wanted to draw out the very best of the counter-arguments – and you didn’t disappoint!

Michael Carey, Peter Hurley, David Bennion, Hansjorg Walther, (especially) Nathan Smith and several others presented excellent arguments – so excellent, in fact, that at a certain point I was actually unable to continue arguing the point. Some of my points were easier to refute than others (in fact, several of the points I made as part of my larger argument, such as the mention of IQ and the precautionary principle, I made to obscure my identity and leave false clues, rather than because they were especially good arguments). However, the entirety of this project was aimed towards challenging my fellow open-borders supporters to present their strongest case, and I felt the best way to do that was to present an actual antagonist to argue against.

What follows is a summary of the best arguments presented against LOTF’s main points. After that, I’ll add a few personal notes, as well as some thoughts about the ITT aspect.

  1. Assimilation effects are relatively large. Since the privilege of official political involvement is not automatic with immigration (nor does it have to be under open borders), by the time you are able to meaningfully influence politics, America will have largely changed and assimilated you. At least on average, America changes immigrants far more than immigrants change America.
  2. Additionally, even when they have the ability to vote or otherwise interact with the political process, immigrants as a group are not very involved.
  3. Founder effects, legacy institutions, and political structure all have much more influence on the politics of a nation than any single voting generation.
  4. Immigrants self-select for many traits very beneficial, and even under open borders, this effect would likely not vanish. Even with no institutional barriers to migration, migration is still difficult and those that choose to migrate often do so because they’re “voting with their feet” against the bad policies of their homeland.
  5. Lastly, even if immigrants were very heavily involved politically and voted in uniformly terrible ways, the American electorate is very elastic. Voter turnout is affected by many things, and one of those things could easily be great masses of immigrants voting in ways natives don’t like.

There is plenty of evidence to support those five positions – to start, look no further than the comments on “Betting the Republic!”

I would like to thank all of the commenters who engaged with me under my nom de plume; you made it an enjoyable and educational experience. I am filled with great confidence in the ability of the crew here to debate this topic well!
I would especially like to thank Vipul Naik, who was “in” on the whole charade, even planting a few strategic comments to challenge me further.

And I would like to apologize to Alexander Nowrasteh, who linked to “Betting the Republic” in a recent Cato blog post as an (as far as he knew, genuine) example of a political exernalities argument. The post, genuine or not, serves perfectly well in that role, so I hope he isn’t too upset at my ruse.

Now, lastly, I’d like to take a moment and talk about the actual Ideological Turing Test. I cannot rightly claim to have passed 100%. While none of the comments on “Betting the Republic” (or the other post responding to Bryan Caplan) indicated that anyone thought I wasn’t genuine (though several may have thought I was wrong or even foolish), the true test would have been if any restrictionists had supported me, rather than simply open-borders-advocates opposing me. If you imagine a typical Republican/Democrat debate, it would probably be far easier for a typical Republican to convince other Republicans that he was a Democrat than to convince actual Democrats that he was one of them. All our hypothetical Republican would have to do would be to play into the stereotypes his peers expected and they’d be unlikely to question his credentials – but other Democrats would more harshly judge someone who they thought wasn’t representing their views accurately.

In that sense, I did not necessarily pass the ITT. However, I would like to think that the group of people reading and commenting on “Betting the Republic” represents an above-average level of intellect and reason (to say the least). At least to some extent, convincing such a group that I was a restrictionist (a category of political viewpoint that this group in particular studies rather extensively) is enough to lead me to believe that I am accurately and charitably representing my opponents’ viewpoints. Since no restrictionists commented to support me, however, I can’t say for certain that I would be able to seamlessly pass as one of their own. So I’ll give myself a C+, but I can’t say I deserve an A.

However, this has been an enlightening and educational experience for me, and I want to sincerely thank everyone who participated. Now, answer in the comments: Did you think I was genuine (even if you didn’t think my argument was good)?

Why I Am Not An American

Aaron Swartz, taken from us too soon, wrote a piece that really spoke to me. As someone who wishes for equality yet avoids labels (especially on myself), I felt this piece captured my thoughts exactly. It also inspired me (with a small nudge from a good friend) to write a similar piece on the subject of immigration.

Until relatively recently, most travel in the world was limited by actual, physical factors. The incredible time it took to make long journeys was also fraught with danger and expense. Months of travel could be required to go even a short distance; and with those months came the price of equipping and feeding the travelers. Ships sank, horses died, and (if video games played in middle school taught me anything) lots of people died of dysentery. Despite these difficulties, people DID travel, to all corners of the Earth. However, while these intrepid travelers of yore overcame rivers and oceans, mountains and deserts, they rarely had to contend with a group of soldiers keen on preventing them from moving around.

People have, throughout the ages, had all sorts of “identities” based on all sorts of criteria. People have identified themselves with clans and families, with religions and ethnicities, with movements and beliefs, even with diets and movie franchises. The phrase “I am a…” is ubiquitous today. How many times do you hear someone say “I practice a vegetarian diet?” or “I ascribe to the Catholic belief structure?” Rarely, if ever. People define themselves by these groups – it’s not just an action or a belief, but a group to belong to. Maslow in action. People ARE Catholics or Vegetarians or Trekkies or what have you. But the modern age has given us a new identity as well: Nationality.

Nationality is often aligned with ethnicity, but certainly not always. It’s become vogue to identify with your nationality, though Nationality has some major differences with other identity groups. For one, Nationality is entirely an accident as far as you’re concerned. Maybe your parents were wealthy and savvy enough to make a conscious choice to have you in the country they did, but chances are good it was just where they happened to be. Unless you happen to be a naturalized immigrant, then you didn’t join this club, and nothing you could do (or fail to do) would make its leaders kick you out.  In fact, you’d have to try really hard to leave voluntarily – which would make you think that the club really hungered for members.  Yet most importantly, unlike nearly all other clubs, this one actively tries to prevent others from joining. Different factions within the club want to make it harder than others – and some want to make it downright impossible – but few want to launch a massive recruitment campaign.

A major goal of the Catholic club as a whole is to convert others into it. A major goal of Vegetarians is to convince other people that they should also be Vegetarians. While some elitism is natural among many groups, it’s mostly directed at those who have tried and failed to get in, or those who never tried at all. Members of one religion or belief structure or whatever kind of group might think they’re better than outsiders, but they don’t usually try to prevent outsiders from joining. Most clubs follow the pattern of setting criteria for membership and then letting the chips fall. Catholics have to follow Catholic doctrine, Vegetarians have to avoid meat, and Trekkies have to occasionally dress up like a Starfleet Officer. But Americans? The only criteria for default entry are that you were born in America or to Americans – and that’s that.

While people can pose all of the arguments they want in terms of whether borders should be open, closed, or somewhere in between, does it make sense to have Nationality as an identity? Imagine if the only way you could be a Catholic was if your parents were Catholics, but if that were true, you didn’t have to do anything else. You didn’t have to obey any rules, you didn’t have to attend church, you didn’t have to even believe in the teachings – yet you got all the benefits of a vast social support network and prime seating in the afterlife. Would it make sense to take pride in that identity anymore? Would it be just and right to make laws benefiting only those people, and harming all others?

Of course, in the real world, many people DO identify with groups that are nothing more than accidents of birth. People take pride in their ethnic cultures. Sometimes it makes sense, too – if you appreciate a particular kind of behavior associated with that ethnic culture. I like being an Italian – but to me, that means I value good wine, family loyalty, and minding your own business. If I knew nothing of the actual culture of Italians, I would think it silly to be proud of being one. However, I’ve also made plenty of my friends over the years “honorary Italians” if they ALSO loved good wine, were good to their mothers, and knew when to keep their mouths shut. In short, I turned my ethnic identity into a voluntary club.

When most people say “I’m proud to be an American,” they don’t mean that they’re proud of having been born between a certain latitude and longitude. They mean they’re proud of a certain set of characteristics. I could even imagine a subset of those characteristics that I would guess few Americans would disagree with: Bravery, hard work, the willingness to sacrifice for others, and perseverance. Those are all spectacular qualities – but Americans don’t have a monopoly on them.

In fact, those sound EXACTLY like the set of qualities it would take to leave your homeland, taking impressive risks for the sake of a better life for you and your family, and put in the effort to overcome the grueling task of making a life for yourself in a new land.

So that’s why I’m not an American. I don’t identify with the cowardly, the lazy, the selfish and the quitters – even if they were born inside the same arbitrary lines I was. But I do identify with, sympathize with, and long to help the brave, the diligent, the selfless and the driven – wherever they were born, and wherever they’re going.