All posts by Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don't Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders. See also: Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders All blog posts by Nathan Smith

Terror in Paris and Open Borders

My recent exchange with Bryan Caplan about tolerance (see here, here and here) suddenly seems terribly topical in light of events in France last month, where 12 people were killed in a murderous attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, by gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

The attacks may strengthen anti-immigration parties in Europe, and they have provoked attacks against Muslims. They seem to lend support to the tolerance=>migration restrictions argument that I mentioned at the end of the last post in my back-and-forth with Caplan:

2. Tolerance => Migration restrictions. Tolerant moral and social values are a distinctive Western achievement which will be diluted if we let in foreigners from less tolerant cultures. So we should keep  most foreigners out.

Now, you don’t have to think tolerance, as a concept, does much useful work in ethical or political argument, to think this kind of intolerance is a big problem. In one sense, tolerance is beside the point: what France needs to do isn’t so much to promote tolerance as to prevent murder. Still, if intolerant attitudes were the motive for murder, promoting tolerance might promote public safety. But public safety would be equally promoted if intolerance were kept peaceful. And peaceful intolerance– scorn and ostracism– for the kinds of attitudes and views that lead to violent intolerance, might be an effective way of making such attitudes scarce.

My take on tolerance, Islam, and open borders may sound paradoxical. I view Islam as inherently, and perhaps incorrigibly, intolerant and violent. But I nonetheless believe that the West and the world generally should be much more open to Muslim immigrants. Why? Because even Muslims shouldn’t have to live under Muslim rule.

On Charlie Hebdo

The attackers were avenging the paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and most recently, a cartoon depicting two men kissing, one in Muslim dress and the other labeled “Charlie Hebdo,” with the slogan “Love is stronger than hate.” From a Muslim perspective, I suppose, the cartoon is pornographic as well as blasphemous. I agree with the attackers in considering it offensive, though obviously not in how they responded. It’s symptomatic of the contemporary West’s degradation of the old Christian virtue of love into mere sensuality, as well as of its obsession with homosexuality. And there is a bitter irony in a cartoon that pretends to proclaim love while deliberately insulting those for whom it is pretending to advocate love.

I found the pope’s remarks in the Philippines refreshing. “Killing in the name of God is wrong,” he said, but also that it is wrong to belittle someone’s religion, adding that if a friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him.” I’m wary of the suggestion that violence can be an appropriate response to speech, but as a moral matter, we should have strong inhibitions against mocking what others hold sacred. If we do so– as God sometimes does in the Bible (or even more memorably, Elijah)– it should be with the loftiest of motives: to challenge evil powers, dispel myths, and save souls. But while I don’t think one should gratuitously offend Muslims by depicting Mohammed, serious criticism of Islam is another matter. We need more of it.

On Islam

It can be conceded, I suppose, that the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators don’t represent Islam: they went a bit further than most Muslims would. But the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” is only wishful thinking; Sam Harris is closer to the truth. The advent of Islam ushered in a thousand years of tyranny in the lands the Arabs conquered, and as Rowley and I showed in a 2009 paper, there is a striking democracy deficit in the Muslim world to this day, especially in the historic heartland of Islam, the territories conquered by Islam before 800 AD. We found that there were no democracies at all in Islam’s historic heartland. Moreover, the correlation between GDP and democracy is reversed in Islam. In the non-Islamic world, higher GDP per capita is associated with a greater likelihood of democracy; in Islam, with a lesser likelihood. Islam’s freedom deficit is worse than its democracy deficit. The lack of religious freedom, in particular, is strikingly captured by the fact that apostasy is legally punishable in most Muslim countries, sometimes by death, which seems to have been the normal penalty for apostasy before the arrival of European colonialism.

Tolerance vs. freedom of conscience

I am not all that worried about Islam’s democracy deficit per se, since I regard democracy as a considerably overrated form of government. But democracy is, so to speak, overrated for a good reason, namely, that it is correlated with something much more important: freedom of conscience. But the freedom that Charlie Hebdo exercised, and that the terrorists violently cut short, is not a part of what I consider freedom of conscience.

There are a number of expressions which some hear as nearly synonymous with “tolerance,” but which, under closer scrutiny, vary in meaning, though they also overlap. “Freedom of speech” is a venerable phrase, but we don’t mean it literally. By what principle is it OK to prohibit perjury, false advertisement, inciting a crowd to violence, libel, and certain IP violations, if “freedom of speech” is sacrosanct? And on the other hand, how are Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoons protected by freedom of speech? “Freedom of thought” is very important but doesn’t demand enough: in a narrowly logical sense, a prisoner in chains is still free to think as he likes. “Free inquiry” is a noble ideal, in defense of which Socrates was martyred; but we want the freedom not only to inquire after truth, but to preach it when we find it. “Freedom of the press” makes the extension of free speech to printed material explicit; “freedom of expression” sounds vaguer but seems to cover all media.

“Freedom of religion” is narrower than freedom of speech, but includes elements of “free association” as well, e.g., the right to assemble with fellow believers to worship God. Problematically, “freedom of religion” crosses the line between speech and action, and it violates freedom of religion to be forced to bake a cake for a gay commitment ceremony even if you’re allowed to protest all the while that you don’t believe in it. It might also be a violation of freedom of religion to have to work on Sunday, or provide contraceptive coverage for one’s employees, or refrain from giving alcohol to children. Free speech sometimes crosses the speech/action divide, too, e.g., if people demand the right to conduct public protests– disrupting traffic, etc.– in the name of free speech.

My way through this confusion is to stress freedom of conscience as the key principle that explains all the others and defines their scope. Freedom of conscience is my right to obey conscience, to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong. “Free speech,” “free press,” and “free expression” mean freedom to state the truth as I see it, in whatever medium is most expedient, to speak as conscience compels me to speak. But my conscience doesn’t necessarily deny to the government a say in what media are expedient. If, for example, all print media were prohibited for environmental reasons, “freedom of the press” in the literal sense seems clearly extinguished, but I would not regard that as a violation of freedom of conscience. “Freedom of religion” is of special importance because conscience obliges me to worship God, and more generally, for Christians, what religion commands and what conscience commands are essentially identical. “Freedom of association” requires not only that I be able to assemble with fellow believers to worship God, but also that I be able to collaborate with a team of bloggers to advocate open borders, because both of those activities arise from the demands of conscience; but it is not a violation of freedom of conscience, even if it is a curtailment of freedom of association, if I’m forbidden to found a company with a whites-only hiring policy.

I would regard an environmentalist prohibition of all print media as very foolish, and I’m skeptical about whether the government either has the right or is well-advised to prohibit workplace discrimination. But since such policies, even if unwise, do not violate freedom of conscience, I am relatively relaxed about them. But when freedom of conscience is violated, when the government commands someone to do what is wrong, or forbids someone to do what is right, a deep alienation occurs, and the social contract is shattered.

Patrick Henry’s ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!” might have been a bit overwrought as a response to the mild misrule of King George III. But it is absolutely correct as a response to threats to freedom of conscience. A person who would surrender his freedom of conscience even in the face of certain death is, in the end, a person not worth knowing, a person whose actions and utterances have no real meaning, a person without value, except inasmuch as he might repent someday and become brave, become fully human, become real. Why trust a person’s utterances, when they are only a function of his circumstances? Society bribes us in all sorts of subtle ways to lie, if we’re willing to be bribed. Socrates and Jesus preferred death to denying the truth, to doing what is wrong. So should we all.

I have a tentative and vague preference for democracy over the alternatives. I have a firm, definite, and strong preference for market capitalism over the alternatives. But neither democracy nor market capitalism matters much relative to freedom of conscience. Any amount of unaccountable autocracy or needless and inefficient regulation is preferable to being forced by the state to do what one knows is wrong, or prohibited from doing what one knows is right.

In defense of Voltaire

Now, in Bryan Caplan’s recent dissent from the militant tolerance of Voltaire, I detect a reluctance to be drafted into fighting for freedom of the press as exercised by Charlie Hebdo, which I share:

If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else’s right to do the same any better?  Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need.  Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers’ rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?

But my reasons are a bit different. The conduct of Charlie Hebdo was gratuitously offensive. It certainly didn’t deserve death, but they didn’t deserve to be elevated to hero status by mass marches either, and it might, just possibly, be sensible for civilized societies to say that Charlie Hebdo kind of had it coming, and that protecting such useless, reckless, and vicious behavior isn’t the best use of scarce police resources. But when Caplan writes that…

Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice.  Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better.  Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang.  Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong.  Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.

… he treats as odd “hypotheticals” what is really the normal situation of the courageous person speaking truth to power. Socrates and Jesus, the apostles, the Christian martyrs, and Martin Luther King all spoke truth to power and died for it. Just for that reason, their historical impact is wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and infinitely beneficent. For everyone who spoke truth to power and died for it, there are probably a hundred who spoke truth to power knowing that they might die for it, and where would the human race be without them? How much of the moral progress of mankind, in the end, is traceable to such people? Half? Nine-tenths? As the song says, “He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.” Bryan Caplan calls himself (or at least invites others to call him) a “coward” at the end of the post, and says that “staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths.” A nation of such cowards is a nation of slaves.

The point Caplan is missing is that we all face a collective action problem, which is captured in (let’s call it) the Parable of the Playground. Suppose there are 50 Nerds in the playground, and 1 Bully. The Nerds are nice, tolerant, productive, independent-minded people who make the world a better place. The Bully is an intolerant, parasitic thug. Collectively, the Nerds are stronger than the Bully, but the Bully is stronger than any 1 Nerd alone. The Bully threatens to beat up any Nerd who speaks against him. If the Nerds think “staying alive > asserting your own right to say truths,” then no one will ever be able to tell the truth. But if the Nerds believe, with Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” then as soon as the Bully enforces his rule against one Nerd, he’ll be challenged and defeated by them all. Such is the foundation of courage on which free societies are built.

So we should certainly be ready to fight for our own freedom of conscience and that of others; but what is the scope of this freedom? I have said that freedom of conscience is the freedom to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong, but our knowledge of what is right and wrong must be fallible, since there is so much disagreement about it. So should freedom of conscience mean the freedom to do what is really right, or the freedom to do what we think is right? Here a balance must be struck: some accommodation of eccentric ideas of right and wrong is needed, but we can’t respect the freedom of conscience of the armed jihadist. It’s all manageable enough as long as there is a certain degree of right-minded consensus about what conscience demands, such as prevailed in 19th-century America, where almost everyone was a Christian of some sort. In today’s America, afflicted as it is with people who think it’s morally acceptable to force photographers to serve at gay commitment ceremonies, I have grave doubts about the sustainability of freedom of conscience.

On courage

And that is one reason why I’m relaxed about Muslim immigration: I’m less afraid of Muslim intolerance than of the home-grown sort. I’d much rather have occasional random terrorist attacks against the publishers of gratuitously offensive cartoons, than Swedish-style arrests of pastors for preaching against homosexuality. Doubtless, the Charlie Hebdo attackers wouldn’t like an outspoken Christian apologist and critic of Islam like myself. But I’m much less afraid of them than I am of the PC police and the rising LGBT state.

More importantly, though, I want freedom of conscience for Muslims, and I think they’re unlikely to get it in their home countries any time soon. If you believe, as I do, that Islam is a false religion, then you ought to be very concerned about the fact that hundreds of millions of people live in countries where they are forced to believe it, or pretend to believe it, on pain of losing civic rights or even their lives. While I’m an unapologetic supporter of the 2003 liberation of Iraq, I think it’s clear that the West can’t impose freedom, least of all religious freedom, on the Muslim world by force (even if we can and should overthrow the worst totalitarian regimes). For the foreseeable future, the path to full freedom of conscience for Muslims is emigration. The West should give them that chance, even if it involves some risk to ourselves.

And that is why I don’t believe Caplan’s confession that he’s a “coward.” He surely knows there are risks, risks to the freedom of speech which few take more advantage of than he does, in letting in tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants, but he still wants to do it. He’s got a comfortable and secure life, but he’s willing to jeopardize that for the sake of a reform that he knows would be a great leap forward for the liberty and flourishing of mankind as a whole. I call that courage. Meanwhile, the nativist cowards are in a panic to build the walls higher.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

UPDATE: In addition to the comments here, you might also be interested in some discussion of this blog post in the comments on an Open Borders Action Group post about the blog post.

Related reading

Tolerance as Not Strongly Opposing What Others Do With Their Own Person and Property

At EconLog, Bryan Caplan responds, in defense of tolerance, to my earlier post, where I had distanced myself from tolerance as a moral and political ideal. Of course, I approve much of what is done, and more importantly, not done, in the name of tolerance, but I would choose different words to express the grounds for my approval.

This is partly a substantive disagreement and partly arises from difficulties in definitions, and Caplan does good service by clarifying the latter. I had argued that “tolerance is subject to this paradox: that a society cannot be tolerant without being intolerant of intolerance,” which I illustrate with an example of a society where 95% of people tolerate both gays and anti-gay violence: such tolerance isn’t worth having. One way out is to define tolerance as respect for others’ rights, but Caplan dismisses this because “a homophobe who spends every day peacefully denouncing gays as disgusting and vile” would, implausibly, be “tolerant” by this definition. Instead, Caplan proposes that:

Tolerance is not strongly opposing what people (especially strangers) do with their own person and property. [To which I think Caplan implicitly means to add: as long as it doesn’t interfere with the person and property of someone else.]

Well done! If I’d thought of this definition before, I would have written the earlier post differently. I think this definition largely defuses the “paradox of tolerance” that I identified earlier. An individual or a society that was tolerant in this sense could still be resolute in defending the natural rights of minorities, while also tolerating the attitudes of intolerant minorities, as long as they remained merely attitudes, not actions.

What, then, is intolerance? What’s the negative of the above definition? Maybe this:

Intolerance is strongly opposing what people (especially strangers) do with their own person and property [even when it doesn’t interfere with the person and property of someone else].

While I find the definition useful as a way to clarify the discussion, I don’t find it as linguistically compelling as Caplan does. Thus, Caplan writes…

Return to Nathan’s hypothetical: A gang physically attacks a gay man.  A bystander pulls his gun and tells them to back off.  Morality aside, it seems linguistically odd to accuse the bystander of “intolerance.”

… but (in my view) it would be odd to “accuse” the bystander of intolerance only because one accuses people of doing bad things, whereas pulling the gun on the gang was a good, courageous action. I don’t think it would be odd to praise the gunman for his intolerance of violence against gays. I could imagine him becoming a local hero, and the town boasting, “See! We don’t tolerate violence against gays around here!”

And by the way, if we take Caplan’s definition straight, without modifying it with my bracketed clause, it would imply that the gunman is intolerant. He is “strongly opposing what other people”– the gang– “do with their persons”– their arms, fists, whatever– “and property”– any weapons they might be using. Only if we assume the extra clause about “when it doesn’t interfere…” is the gunman not a case of intolerance.

In general, I see nothing odd in saying that American society is intolerant of wife-beating, child abuse, and slavery, and that these are among its virtues. I find this to be a rather precise and useful way of expressing an important point. Similarly, open borders advocates want to make the world intolerant of migration restrictions.

Still, if we accept Caplan’s definition of tolerance (with my clarifying clause), an interesting disagreement remains. Caplan strongly favors tolerance, in theory and– on the basis of all my personal interactions with him– in practice. (It’s a genial feature of many libertarians that, whatever one is doing, as long as it doesn’t involve asking the government for any help, they approve of you.) I’m ambivalent about it.

Caplan offers five arguments in defense of tolerance, of which I’ll focus on three:

1. People’s moral objections to how others use their own persons and property are often greatly overstated, or simply wrong.

2. People’s moral objections to how others use their own persons and property are usually superfluous because the Real World provides ample punishment.

3. Intolerance is bad for the intolerant, because being angry at others makes you unhappy.

Caplan admits that his arguments are “not watertight.” Or as I would put it, they are wise and true, except when they’re not.

To (1): yes, of course, it’s undesirable for people to make moral objections to the behavior of others if those objections are mistaken; but correct moral objections may be very desirable. And while people are often mistaken in all sorts of moral judgments, I’m not at all sure that they’re more likely to be correct in moral judgments concerning themselves and those close to them, as they are in moral judgments concerning strangers. People have more of a certain kind of information in their own case, but also more bias.

To (2): yes, vice often (in the eternal Christian perspective, always, except by the grace of God) carries its own punishment; but people are usually much better off if they don’t have to “learn the hard way” (a fortiori in the eternal Christian perspective). Sex is a standard example. Suppose young people feel certain very powerful urges, while a vast literature attests to the disastrous consequences of acting on them. Yes, if society doesn’t scare a girl into chastity by strongly opposing premarital sex, then she’s likely to learn the benefits of chastity ex post through the travails of single motherhood. Similarly, the lazy man may realize after ten years of playing video games in his mom’s basement that his poverty, low social status, and lack of marriage prospects are his own fault, and vow to reform. But he’s lost ten years, and has to overcome a lot of bad habits. He might have been much better off if the insults of contemptuous strangers had shaken him into moral maturity back when he was twenty. Of course, people don’t necessarily learn the right moral lessons even with a lag. They might lead impoverished lives till the day they die, because their neighbors are too tolerant to educate them in the way of virtue.

To (3): Yes, intolerance is not a pleasant feeling, but is it one’s intolerant attitudes, or someone else’s offensive behavior, that is to blame? Simplifying somewhat, a person confronted with offensive behavior has three options: tolerate, oppose, or withdraw. Manipulating oneself psychologically so as to reduce, or possibly eliminate, one’s felt disgust at the offensive behavior, is not costless. You may never feel as good as you would if the offensive behavior stopped. Strongly opposing the offensive behavior may assuage the conscience of a truthful person as silence would not, and better yet, it might cause the offensive behavior to cease. If so, very importantly, it spares others, not just oneself, from the offensive behavior. I may tolerate the chatterer in the classical music concert, hoping he’ll just stop, but I’m grateful to the man who confronts him with an angry “Shhhh!”

As for withdrawal, I’m not sure whether it qualifies as tolerant or not. It seems to fit Caplan’s definition, but would we consider a person “tolerant” whose invariable response, upon finding out that someone is gay, is quietly but irrevocably to terminate the acquaintance? I’m not sure. Caplan and I are enthusiastic Bubble-dwellers, and I’ve come more and more to congratulate myself on the virtues of my immediate circle of acquaintance relative to American society generally. But part of what makes my bubble so nice is that lewdness, blasphemy, and vitriol against undocumented immigrants are not tolerated there. Now, if I can satisfy the duty of tolerance by withdrawal, that’s some comfort. But isn’t it a bit harsh for those from whom I withdraw, to be ostracized without knowing why. At least sometimes, mightn’t it be better to tell them what they’re doing wrong? Then they have the option of changing their behavior to keep my acquaintance, or if not, at least they know why they lost it.

As usual, Jesus sets the right example here. Up to a point, Jesus was tolerant in Caplan’s sense. He never seems to have sought out people who were minding their own business and started blasting them for their sins. He did seek out some and gently call them: “As He was going along by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew… And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow Me'” (Mark 1:16-17). He taught “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), and illustrated it with a beautiful, rather comic parable about not taking a speck out of your brother’s eye when there is a log in your own. He drove the money changers out of the temple by force (Matthew 21:12), but the temple is a special place, and He doesn’t seem to have interfered with them anywhere else. He was most intolerant of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees– “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to Hell?” (Matthew 23:33) But their problem is that they were hypocrites, that is, they were constantly condemning others in the name of the law, without practice it themselves:

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 32: 2-4)

Scathing condemnation of hypocrites seems appropriate. Surely people who spend their lives condemning others in the name of a law they themselves are not observing, deserve to be condemned. And inasmuch as people on the receiving end of the Pharisees’ self-righteous condemnations were troubled and oppressed thereby, it might be impossible to relieve them without attacking the Pharisees’ moral authority at the root. But when Jesus was presented with the woman caught in adultery in John 8, He was merciful. “Neither do I condemn you,” He said, but also “Go and sin no more” (John 8:1). Should He have said, “Free love is OK,” or “It’s none of my business what you do with your own body?” Would that have been comforting? Would that have been loving? If sin destroys happiness and damns the soul, one who fails even to advise against it is deficient in mercy. If tolerance means not warning someone that they’re driving over a cliff, it is no virtue. All in all, I think Jesus’s practice is close to tolerance in Caplan’s sense, but not quite the same. But then, Caplan specially advocates “moderate benevolence,” as opposed to loving every stranger as your own child. Jesus did love everyone as His own children, so He couldn’t be quite as tolerant.

While “intolerance” has an unpleasant sound, “moral suasion” sounds nicer. But moral suasion is a form of nonviolent intolerance, and as such, it is an alternative to coercion which libertarians should find attractive. Would you rather private racism be eliminated by pervasive intolerant attitudes of racism, or by a police state reading people’s e-mails and bugging their homes? How about pollution, littering, or loud parties at night? Surely it’s better if communities can deal effectively with negative externalities non-coercively, through intolerant attitudes towards anti-social behavior, than if preventing negative externalities becomes the job of an invasive nanny state.

Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik seem to feel there’s a connection between tolerance and open borders. I think the two ideas are largely orthogonal: one can argue from any side of either question to any side of the other without about equal plausibility. Here are a few of the possible arguments:

1. Tolerance => Open borders. We shouldn’t strongly oppose anything that people do with their own persons or property. Therefore we shouldn’t restrict immigration. (But this will seem question-begging to a proponent of the collective property rights argument against freedom of migration.)

2. Tolerance => Migration restrictions. Tolerant moral and social values are a distinctive Western achievement which will be diluted if we let in foreigners from less tolerant cultures. So we should keep  most foreigners out.

3. Intolerance => Migration restrictions. Foreigners engage in many repugnant practices. We should exclude most of them to avoid being offended by these practices. In this connection, someone suggested that I take the opportunity to score points against the horrible Hans Herman Hoppe, godfather of restrictionist (pseudo?) libertarianism by this quote from Democracy: The God That Failed:

There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They–the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism–will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

Shudder. But anyway…

4. Intolerance/Moral suasion => Open borders. Immigrants will bring with them some practices that are morally wrong, or distasteful. It will often be impractical and/or unjust to use force to reform them. Fortunately, intolerant attitudes are a good substitute for legal force. Our strong disapproval of offensive practices will often suffice to make immigrants abandon them. Indeed, one of the benefits of open borders is precisely that a lot of people will come under the influence of our disapproval, and be effectually pressured to conform to our higher moral standards. By contrast, if they remain in their home countries, they will be too far away to notice and be influenced by our disapproval. That may injure our peace of mind to the extent that we know of these practices, but even if they don’t bother us psychically when they’re far away, practices that are really, objectively moral evils should be stopped.

I can’t prove it, but I suspect that the Victorian Age was better able to accommodate open borders in part because it was more socially intolerant, e.g., of blasphemy or sexual license. Strong normative values that pervaded society made the Victorians better able to assimilate immigrants. Also, a civil society strong in its normative values did some of what the modern welfare state does, so the welfare objection to open borders wasn’t a factor in the way it is today.

You Are No Longer Strangers and Foreigners

Christmas is a wonderful blend of earthly merry-making and theological mystery. Much of its symbolism– the red and green Christmas colors, holly, Christmas trees, mistletoe, wreaths– has no obvious connection to the mystery of the Incarnation, of God, the immeasurable Power that sustains the stars, becoming not only human, but a tiny, helpless baby, nursing at the breast of a human mother. Much that has taken on a Christmas meaning, e.g., songs like “Jingle Bells” or “Winter Wonderland,” merely celebrate winter.

On the other hand, many traditional Christmas carols sublimely express the most arcane points of Christian theology. In “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” we learn that “Christ,” who is “by highest heav’n adored” and “the everlasting Lord” has “late in time”– think of the long and violent history of mankind, aching with dreams and disillusionments– “come [as the] offspring of a Virgin’s womb.” Then the very heart of the Christian mystery: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with man to dwell.” God became man. Why? “Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth.” By being perfect man, Christ redeemed human nature, and made us able– if we accept the gift– to return to the presence of God, which our inmost hearts have always desired. “Light and life to all He brings / Risen with healing in His wings.” I suppose few that sing this Christmas carol take notice of its theological depths. Yet even as a child, I felt that “real” Christmas carols like Hark the Herald Angels Sing expressed the essence of Christmas, while the fun of “Jingle Bells” was a mere guest under its solemn roof.

When the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men!” (Luke 2:14) they foreshadowed the global spread of Christianity. Gospel means “good news,” the good news that the angels sang to the shepherds that night, and that still rings through the world every Christmas day, news of triumph and mercy and reconciliation to gladden every heart. One of the bearers of that news was St. Paul, and I thought it appropriate to this holy day to quote the words with which he reminded early Christian believers in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor of the gift that had been given them:

Ephesians 2

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Now, statements that Christ’s “purpose was to create… one new humanity out of two,” to “put to death… hostility” and to make all people “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household,” could be taken out of context and treated as direct endorsements of open borders. But critics might object that St. Paul is not here endorsing any particular political order, but the citizenship he is speaking of is citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, which, as Jesus told Pilate, “is not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s true enough.

But now, for comparison, recall that Jesus began His ministry (Luke 4:18) by reading in the synagogue the Old Testament prophecy, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then He told the crowd, “”The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” Yet though the phrases “the captives will be released” and “the oppressed will be set free,” might seem to call for an immediate abolition of slavery, Jesus in His earthly ministry did not address the institution of slavery at all, and the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul even seemed to endorse it. The apostles wrote a good deal about liberty, but they meant was freedom from inner demons, from sin and man’s fallen nature; in legal and political liberty, they seemed to have little interest. Nonetheless, in due course, under the impulse of the spirit of Jesus Christ, slavery was abolished throughout the world. The higher, spiritual meaning of “setting the captives free” was that man should be free from bondage to sin; but that man should be free from bondage to human masters, though less important, was also intended and eventually achieved.

Doesn’t the same apply to open borders? Surely it’s clear that even if, when St. Paul told the Gentiles they were “no longer strangers and foreigners” but “fellow citizens with God’s people,” he primarily had a spiritual meaning in mind, that strangers and foreigners to the Christian faith should be welcomed in as fellow citizens, it’s nonetheless entirely appropriate, desirable, and even perhaps necessary that when Christians create transient earthly polities for the sake of secular expediency, they ought to welcome strangers and foreigners in and make them fellow citizens? Can anyone whose spirit accepts and rejoices in St. Paul’s words really doubt that a world of open borders would do more honor to them, and be more faithful to the intentions that they express, than a world in which most of mankind is physically shut out from dwelling among us by the accident of their place of birth?

And if we who were once strangers and foreigners desire to be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven as fellow citizens, ought we not to show to our less fortunate fellow men the far lesser mercy of admitting them to our own more happily-situated countries? Do we really deserve to be welcomed into God’s kingdom if we ferociously exclude the stranger and the foreigner from our own little polities?

Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement

Recently I wrote a long post on the history of the abolition of slavery, arguing along the way that the abolitionists set a great example for the open borders movement to follow. I promised then to “explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement.” I do so here. To keep the scope limited, I focus on the US case.

Currently, the gay marriage movement stands out as the paradigm case of a successful social movement, so it is sometimes suggested as a model to emulate. There is some overlap between the two causes, e.g., Andrew Sullivan gave a friendly link to Dylan Matthews’ Vox article about open borders. Jose Antonio Vargas, a leading civil disobedient and immigrant civil rights activist, whom I praised in my article “A Face for the Faceless,”  is also gay and sees gay marriage as a major moral cause of our times, along with immigration reform. (Vargas does not seem to support open borders, but as a champion of civil disobedience, I consider him crucial in moving immigration reform forward.)

I. Inclusiveness, Tolerance, “Why Not?” and Cheap Ways to Gain the Moral High Ground

First, a few superficial similarities between the open borders and same-sex marriage movements.

People vary in their degree of attachment to the status quo, and it is among those least attached to the status quo, whom we might call the “why not?” people, that open borders and same-sex marriage both tend to make their first and easiest converts. “Why not?” isn’t really a good reason to open the borders or recognize same-sex marriage, of course. But some people seem to presume that if they can’t immediately think of an answer to “why not?” there’s probably a good reason to stick with the status quo, while others presume that there isn’t. I’ve seen those who give way to “why not?” embrace same-sex marriage and open borders with similar ease.

Open borders and same-sex marriage can both be associated with values like “inclusiveness” and “tolerance.” An “inclusive” person will gladly include same-sex couples in the institution of marriage, and gladly include foreign-born persons in the American nation. Would “inclusive values” also implied letting women be Catholic priests, mediocre students study at Harvard, and untrained amateurs work in the dental profession? Such questions expose the ultimate vacuousness of “inclusiveness” as a value. Again, a “tolerant” person might gladly tolerate same-sex couples getting married and foreign-born persons living in the USA, but would he or she also tolerate rape, murder, hate speech… or even people talking loudly in a classical music concert? For that matter, would tolerant people tolerate Christian pastors preaching from Romans, chapter 1 (in which homosexuality is condemned as unnatural, shameful, and a divine punishment for idolatry)? Vipul has reflected more deeply and sympathetically on tolerance than I’ll attempt to do; but as I see it, tolerance and inclusivity are too wishy-washy to do any real work in ethical argument or constitutional design. Still, there are such things as more or less tolerant attitudes or temperaments, and in my experience, inclusive, tolerant people tend to be the first to embrace open borders and same-sex marriage.

Another secret of the gay marriage movement’s success is that supporting gay marriage is a very cheap way for people to feel good about themselves. To work in soup kitchens or serve in the military are costly ways to enhance one’s own moral self-esteem and appear good in the eyes of others; but to say “I’m for gay marriage” is very easy and cheap. It’s equally cheap and easy to say “I’m for open borders.”

In general, this kind of “cheap talk” is a crucial driver in the history of virtue. Plenty of people are willing to praise virtue who don’t bother to practice it. And since people like praise, widespread praise for virtue motivates others to practice it. Eventually, one hopes, and it often happens, that people will come to practice virtue for the love of virtue rather than for the love of praise. And it is when virtue remains steadfast in the face of the world’s murderous hatred, as in the cases of Socrates and Jesus, that virtue shines most brightly, and does the most good. But people don’t usually learn to love being virtuous until they’ve practiced it for a while for other reasons. The mere threats of power do the initial work, causing children to stop hitting each other and stealing cookies and telling lies. Later, praise becomes the main motivator, and people behave bravely or prudently or justly in order to win the praise of their fellow men. Without punishment and praise doing much of the early work, it is doubtful whether anyone would achieve much virtue. British abolitionists made their cause one to be proud of long before the British made major financial sacrifices to buy out the slaveholders and abolish slavery. American abolitionists, too, raised people’s moral outrage against slavery for decades before their moral fervor reached a point where over 300,000 Union soldiers died liberating the black slaves of the South. If the open borders movement can make “I’m for open borders” widely recognized as a badge of moral honor, that will be a major point gained.

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits— but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Finally, I think generous motives are a commonality of the open borders and same-sex marriage movements. The main reason non-LGBT individuals advocate same-sex marriage seems to be a desire to benefit LGBT individuals. The main motive for advocating open borders seems to be charity towards the world’s poor. But there are generous motives on the other side as well: among social conservatives, who want to protect the institution of marriage for the benefit of children; among Christian pastors who want to save homosexuals from sin and Hell; among nativists who want to protect the wages of their fellow citizens from foreign competition; and among moderates like Tyler Cowen who favor more immigration but think open borders is too risky.

II. Open Borders Advocates Have Much Stronger Arguments

Second, in my view at least, the open borders movement is vastly superior to the gay marriage movement in the quality of the arguments it has at their disposal. The following two slogans…

1. “Gay people are not demanding special treatment, just the same freedoms that everyone else takes for granted: to love whom they please and to marry whom they love.” From the conclusion of The Economist‘s “The gay divide.”

2. Open borders is “the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP.” From Bryan Caplan, adopted as the motto of this site.

… may serve as an illustration.

“Love whom you please and marry whom you love” is, prima facie, a blatant falsehood. We love many people, including our children, our friends, and our favorite writers, living and dead, as well as our pets, our countries, and the beauty of nature. Setting aside loves of non-persons, much of the love we have towards other people is not suitable for being embodied in marriage. We love our children, but cannot marry them. We love our friends, but it has been well-understood until recently– what the official position on this is in our new topsy-turvy world is supposed to be, I have no idea– that most friends are not proper candidates for marriage. One marries only one other person (at a time); one hopefully loves many other people. A married man may quite innocently love another man’s wife, as a friend, a formative influence on his thought, or a sister in Christ; but he can’t marry her. We don’t “love whom we please, and marry whom we love,” for love takes many forms and most of its forms can’t properly be expressed in marriage. If we try, gallantly, to save slogan (1) only by reading into the word “love” the meaning “love in a manner suitable for expression in marriage,” we only render the slogan wholly question-begging. For whether or not homosexual love is suitable for expression in marriage is just what the whole dispute is about.

Slogan (2) is as hard-hitting and cogent as slogan (1) is silly and evasive. Each of the four words “efficient,” “egalitarian,” “libertarian,” and “utilitarian” is the gateway to volumes of argument. The slogan captures the meta-ethical* robustness of open borders. Whatever your premises may be, says the slogan, they compel you to favor open borders. Is freedom your top value? Open borders vastly expands the freedom of human beings to meet their needs and pursue their dreams. Is utility what you care about most? Open borders is efficient and doubles world GDP. Are you an egalitarian, specially concerned to help the least well-off? Open borders will specially benefit the least fortunate members of the human race, those with the ill-luck to be born under corrupt dictatorships and totalitarian tyrannies and/or in the world’s poorest countries. Of course, all these claims can be contested– the claim that open borders would (roughly) double world GDP is highly contestable, though I tentatively believe it— but slogan (2) declares the terms of a bold and honorable debate.

Other than the uncritical prejudice that “nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment,” I can never discern their meta-ethics of same-sex marriage advocates. From what meta-ethical standpoint, for example, would they respond to the following argument?

Same-sex marriage shouldn’t be recognized because it will get many homosexual and bisexual men and women stuck in relationships they’ll want out of, and they should be free to leave without the stigma and complications of divorce. Yes, straight marriage has the same downside, but it has a larger upside: children. Not in every case, but in general. And that makes it worth it. But gays will be better off without the institutional pressure to commit. That’s not “paternalistic,” by the way, unless you think that it’s “paternalism” to allow no-fault divorce and thus deprive people of the right robustly to bind themselves in marriage, and for that matter, that it’s “paternalism” to abolish slavery and thereby prevent people from selling themselves into it. Civilized societies do not recognize unlimited rights of self-binding, and since the chance of children (among other things) makes the stakes for straight couples different from those for same-sex couples, to recognize different degrees of self-binding is appropriate. Strong self-binding in same-sex couples is still less desirable because sexual orientation seems to be fluid: there’s a good chance that a gay or (especially) lesbian spouse will not even self-identify as gay or lesbian in ten or twenty years. [UPDATE: See here and here for more on sexual fluidity.] Moreover, gays and lesbians generally do not conform to the norms of permanence and exclusivity that define (heterosexual) marriage. And there’s no reason either to expect or to desire that they should. Permanent, monogamous marriage is desirable for reasons arising from the special complementarities and jealousies of male and female, long understood by human tradition and more recently elucidated by evolutionary psychology. Those reasons do not cross-apply to same-sex couples. If “marriage” is made available to gay and lesbian couples, it will be behaviorally different. We would do wrong to try to force it to be behaviorally the same, to force same-sex couples into heteronormative molds. But if we don’t, it’s inconvenient to use the word “marriage,” which until now had a quite definite meaning, to describe LGBT arrangements that tend to be quite behaviorally dissimilar both from straight marriage and from each other. And it might be worse than inconvenient, if the “marriage” label facilitates the spillover of LGBT practices and norms into straight people’s behavior. Leading advocates of same-sex marriage have suggested that “married” gay men are likely to be “monogamish” rather than monogamous. That’s fine for them, since there’s no reason either to desire or to expect that same-sex couples should be permanent or exclusive, but would be disastrous for straight couples, who need all the willpower and cultural reinforcement they can get to fight temptation and maintain the sexual exclusivity that is crucial for the happiness and stability of their marriages.

I could imagine utilitarian and natural rights counter-arguments to this, but I think gay marriage advocates would be reluctant to use them, because any commitment to an explicit meta-ethical position levels the playing field too much. You can’t very well call an opponent of same-sex marriage a “bigot,” or allege a “bare desire to harm,” if the question turns on a delicate balance of utilitarian arguments pro and contra. Or, if your ethics are based on natural rights, you might with difficulty be able to maintain the position that the natural rights of man include a hitherto-undiscovered right to marry a person of one’s own sex, but you can hardly deny that there is any “rational basis” for resisting a claim about human nature that most of historic mankind, including all the great thinkers of the past until five minutes ago, would have dismissed as absurd. Since gay marriage victories have mostly been won through the courts, it damages the cause to permit opponents to discharge the absurdly easy burden of showing that they have some sort of arguments for their position, and aren’t just acting from spite towards homosexuals. If they do that, they raise the question: Why don’t we settle this through the democratic process, instead of having courts throw out democratically-passed laws by reinterpreting constitutional clauses in ways that would have amazed their authors? Same-sex marriage advocates prefer to avoid these deep waters, and stick to what works best for them, namely, the shallow semantics of “equal rights,” which enjoys enormous popularity even though the notion does not stand up to moderate critical examination. If they can bandy the phrase “marriage equality” about enough, while alleging “discrimination,” and creating an aura of inevitability by citing rising public support and telling opponents they’re on “the wrong side of history” (though the trend towards rising support seems to have paused, perhaps plateaued), without ever getting bogged down in a straightforward philosophical argument about what marriage is, they can come off looking like the muddle-headed good guys in a fight with pedantic puritans, and win by a kind of attrition, as the exhausted and intimidated public shrugs and decides to drift with the times.

Now, open borders advocates could follow this example, basing their case on “equal rights,” and insisting that “equal rights” be extended to all human beings. I’ve written before about how equality of opportunity, if seriously pursued, points to open borders more urgently than to any other single policy. I regard this more as a reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, than as a positive argument for open borders. Open borders is a wise, feasible, and beneficent reform, while equality of opportunity is an ideal both unattainable and undesirable, a nihilistic delusion, the pursuit of which, if sufficiently aggressive, would require an ever more invasive leveling government, and impoverish mankind by erasing much wholesome, pleasant, and productive diversity. But since “equal rights” is a widely accepted ideal, open borders advocates could, in principle, take advantage of this error by pushing our agenda under the fashionable slogan.

I think it’s a bad idea. First, people won’t be as easily duped by the empty semantics of equal rights on a really important question like migration, as they are on a question like same-sex marriage which many think won’t really affect them. Second, though the successes of the same-sex marriage movement have certainly reduced my faith in the power of reason to influence public opinion, I still think good arguments are ultimately a valuable asset to any cause, and bad arguments are a liability. I think the same-sex marriage movement would use better arguments for their cause, if such arguments were available. They are available for open borders.

I can’t resist one last illustration of the unfathomably bad quality of some arguments made by the same-sex marriage movement, as an example of what not to do. Apologies for a couple of interruptions [in brackets], but I got so impatient with the disinformation that I couldn’t wait till the end of the blockquote to correct it. Will Saletan writes in Slate:

The first thing to understand is that homosexuality isn’t a sin. It can’t be, because it isn’t a choice. It’s not like promiscuity or premarital sex or cheating on your spouse. It’s just the way some people are born. [Note that this is myth: identical twin studies prove that homosexuality is not genetically determined.] If you’re not sure about this, talk to people who are gay. They’ll tell you that they didn’t choose to be gay, just as you didn’t choose to be straight [which is probably true but does not imply that people are born homosexual]. Their lives would be a lot easier if they could switch. Many of them have tried. They’ve learned the hard way that they can’t change their sexual orientation any more than you can change yours.

This beggars belief. Saletan seems incapable of understanding the very, very simple distinction between homosexual attraction, which is presumably largely involuntary and is not a sin, as Christian churches have always understood, and homosexual conduct, which is what Christianity and most other faiths and cultures condemn as a sin. Is he really so stupid as not to be able understand that distinction? Or is he just obfuscating in order to confuse his audience? I have no idea, and I suppose I don’t really care, but it’s very depressing. How is one to deal with people who make such terrible arguments? If I were debating someone for whom I had moderate intellectual respect, I would swiftly punish such lapses with open scorn, which is sometimes an indispensable tool of argument, a way of raising the intellectual level of discussion by getting the simplest errors out of the way quickly, a way to signal to one’s opponent to be more careful, more responsible, more rigorous. Certainly, if I were ever so foolish as to make such an argument, I would want my opponent to teach me a lesson by ripping me to shreds with the utmost contempt, so that I might never commit such a blunder again. But one can’t use open scorn all the time without the debate getting unedifying. Which makes it difficult to talk to advocates of same-sex marriage.

There is a delight simply in reasoning well, in arguing honestly, in being ruled by logic and evidence and seeing where it takes you. May the open borders movement continue to be infused with this delight. May we strive to be admired even by our opponents for our fairness to all arguments, our open-minded acceptance of all manner of logic and evidence, the clarity and rigor of our thinking. Our task is not to put the reasoning mind to sleep, or bludgeon it into silence, but to awaken it.

III. Christianity

A notable difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that whereas Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of the same-sex marriage movement, institutional and pious Christianity already has pro-immigration leanings, and may develop into an open borders ally.

The movement to abolish slavery was an overwhelmingly Christian achievement. By contrast, Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of same-sex marriage. True, some churches have endorsed it, but that’s a quick route to decline and schism. As a rule, it’s the strict churches that remain strong, while churches that prefer fashion to faith lose their credibility and  unravel. Religion is the most-cited reason in polls for opposing same-sex marriage. Some pastors are now refusing to perform any civil marriages at all, basically on the ground that same-sex marriage has rendered civil marriage a travesty which should not get church legitimation. Indeed, given the firm opposition of Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants, it’s not clear what same-sex marriage advocates think their endgame is. The church has been around for two thousand years and it’s not going to disappear. It doesn’t change its mind about such things. The persecution of bakers, photographers, and others whose consciences forbid them to assist with gay “weddings,” may foreshadow the answer to this question.

The Christian position on open borders is different. I’ve written about “the coming Catholic movement for freedom of migration” and about how the Old Testament law provides a template for an open-borders society.  My co-blogger John Lee, impressed by the Bible’s teachings on immigration, asked “Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?” but the analogy with slavery would counsel patience. Christian societies tolerated slavery for generations, but in due course it was Christians who spearheaded abolition. We may hope the same pattern will hold for open borders. Already, Christian churches are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Religious piety is a predictor of favorable attitudes to immigration, and most Christians support immigration reforms that would let undocumented immigrants stay. Advocacy of immigration reform by Catholic bishops and the pope has been strong and persistent, attracting angry attacks from nativists. Evangelicals have been less favorable, but a description by Michael Gerson of how evangelicals are split on immigration is somewhat encouraging:

In the immigration reform debate, evangelicals have become a political prize claimed by restrictionists and reformers alike. Both sides have a case to make.

Of the major American religious groups, white evangelicals are the most skeptical about immigration. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, more than 60 percent believe that the growing number of immigrants “threatens traditional American customs and values” and more than half view immigrants as an economic burden rather than contributors.

At the same time, many evangelical leaders and institutions — including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — are high-profile advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers…

[There is] an interesting distinction between cultural issues among white evangelicals. Those who attend worship services more frequently are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage — tending toward the traditionally conservative position. But immigration provides a contrast. Those who attend worship services more frequently are less likely to see newcomers as a threat to American values. They tend toward the less typically conservative view.

I’m sorry to say that it’s possible to read the public opinion data differently data, and I wish that my fellow Christians were more unanimously Christian in their views on immigration. My confidence here doubtless reflects my own Christian faith, which is strengthened by but also colors my view of the long history of Christianity driving progress towards social justice, though often much too feebly and haltingly. In part, though, hope simply has nowhere else to turn. Open borders is a very remote goal, whose base of support, though possibly growing, remains minuscule. Without the Christian churches coming on side eventually, it’s hard to imagine what strategy could lead to success. The abolition of slavery was a consequence, not simply of Christianity, but more specifically of Christian revivalism, of an upsurge in Christian piety. I suppose my hopes rest on some new Great Awakening sweeping the Christian churches, strengthening them, strengthening the pious within them relative to the complacent and lukewarm, and further Christianizing the churches through deeper reflection on the moral imperatives latent in the Gospel message. It has happened before.

There are even some respects in which open borders arguments are favored by the Christian reaction that the same-sex marriage movement is provoking. Civil disobedience to the same-sex marriage movement by Elaine Huguenin, Jack Phillips, and Melissa Klein should make Christian conservatives more sympathetic to civil disobedience by Jose Antonio Vargas or Fabian Morales. There’s a tension between demanding a stronger, more invasive government to deport undocumented immigrants, and trying to stop a strong, invasive government from imposing a top-down revolution in social values by suppressing the traditional view of marriage. A leading slogan in the struggle against gay adoption is that “every child has a right to a mother and a father.” The pope is on board.  Research indicates that children do better with their mother and father, which in any case should be obvious from sociobiology, since it’s in the interest of each sex’s selfish genes to have whatever parenting strengths the other sex typically lacks, and not to waste resources on parenting strengths the other sex has in abundance. Now, if every child has a right to a father and mother, it would seem to be a violation of this right when deportation separates families. Again, as opponents of same-sex marriage movement have appealed to natural law, a new interest has been kindled in the important but difficult and long neglected idea that law should have a basis in moral reality and can’t be regarded simply as an arbitrary social convention. Natural law reasoning favors open borders, since laws restricting migration are clearly mere social conventions rather than moral fundamentals. That if same-sex “marriages,” though recognized by the state, can’t really be marriages, because they have no basis in natural law, then “illegal” immigrants can’t really be illegal because they haven’t violated natural law, is hardly an obvious deduction. But both ideas grow out of natural law thinking, and the more people reflect on and commit themselves to the first claim, the readier they will be to understand the second. My 2010 book Principles of a Free Society was an argument for open borders from natural law premises.

IV. Open Borders, Same-Sex Marriage, and Constitutional Democracy

Finally, there are basic tactical differences between how the same-sex marriage movement has achieved success, and how the open borders movement might do so. Both movements have a problematic relationship to constitutional democracy, but not in the same way.

Although polls now show majority support for same-sex marriage, relatively few of the victories of the same-sex marriage movement have been at the ballot box. Not until 2012 did two states, Maryland and Maine, approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box. By contrast, 30 states have passed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in most of the USA, but this is a result of judicial decisions, not referenda or even the acts of elected officials. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more pushback from same-sex marriage advocates against same-sex marriage being imposed by the courts. Now that it seems to enjoy majority support, same-sex marriage could presumably get democratic legitimation, being passed through referenda. Courts that overturn same-sex marriage bans have to do so by interpreting constitutional clauses in ways that their original authors, as well as many generations of jurists until quite recently, would have disagreed with, and indeed, would have found amazing and ridiculous. Such “legislating from the bench” is a logically absurd and anti-democratic practice, but it has worked, for now. Should the open borders movement follow suit, and look for success through the courts?

Ilya Somin has offered, here at Open Borders: The Case, an originalist argument that the Constitution doesn’t authorize Congress to restrict immigration. I would be delighted if this logic were to persuade the Supreme Court. Am I being inconsistent and opportunistic here, deploring judicial review when it goes against a side I’m on, and asking for it when it would help a side I’m on? No. I don’t object to judicial review when it represents a good-faith effort to realize the intentions of the authors of the laws. It seems plausible that the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend to endow the new federal government with power to restrict immigration, as distinct from the power to confer citizenship; or at least that if some might have desired to endow it with such power, they didn’t put anything in the Constitution which they regarded as comprising a grant of that power; and that if they were informed that future judges would discover they had not granted that power to Congress, they would either have nodded with approval, or at most, found the judgment an unfortunate but understandable reading of their words. By contrast, if the authors of the 14th Amendment had been given a time machine and seen President Obama claiming that the 14th Amendment requires nationwide same-sex marriage, they would have not only have clarified their language to exclude this interpretation in the clearest possible way, but would probably have added a few clauses to call down God’s curse on any lying scoundrel of a judge who might someday perpetrate any such absurdity. So while the pro same-sex marriage decisions are anti-democratic and illegitimate, a pro-open borders decision would be right and proper.

But I don’t expect it to happen. Originalism has been defeated and defeated for decades as the Supreme Court has systematically eviscerated the enumerated powers doctrine and persistently expanded federal power, using the flimsiest of reasoning. In effect, the Court has overturned the limited government principles established in the Constitution and replaced it with omnicompetent government restrained only by positive limits such as those stated in the Bill of Rights. To apply originalist reasoning such as Somin’s on a consistent basis would require the Court to overturn half the legislation passed in the 20th century, radically rewriting the social contract. That would be a lot less undemocratic than it might sound, since the voters could, after all, re-establish everything the Court overturned through constitutional amendments; but it’s still hard to imagine the Republic tolerating such an unexpected overhaul. And while the new equilibrium that would emerge after this sort of originalist revolution might be more libertarian than the status quo, I’d be very surprised if the voters didn’t pass some sort of constitutional amendment restoring the government’s right to restrict migration. So I doubt open borders could be established through an originalist revolution in the courts, and anyway I don’t there’s any chance that an originalist revolution will occur.

Much more promising is the executive branch. David Bennion has argued in this space that “executive action, not legislative reform, is how US immigration policy gets made now.” I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s executive semi-amnesty, on the substance, and I also think, tentatively, that presidential nullification is probably a good constitutional innovation. It’s one more check on the abuse of power. It might also weaken the rule of law, if lots of presidentially nullified laws remain on the books ready to be re-activated by a friendly president. What I would really like is a combination of presidential nullification with a robust doctrine of desuetude. Then, if presidents left the laws unenforced for a few years, they would cease to be laws, making a nice way to roll back the large excess of laws that the country is burdened with.

Presidential nullification is far less undemocratic than non-originalist judicial review, since presidents are democratically elected. Still, I won’t stress the democratic credentials of the open borders movement vis-a-vis those of the same-sex marriage movement, because I’m far more of a believer in freedom and justice than in democracy, and I care far less about whether the people or a hereditary monarch is “sovereign,” than about how robust are the limits on the sovereign power, and how conformable to the natural law are its statutes and conduct. There are serious difficulties in defining democracy, which the open borders issue forces into the open. For example, I have little doubt that US open borders would be established very swiftly if foreigners could vote in US elections;  does that make open borders a highly democratic policy, or is it irrelevant? I have sometimes argued that “immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law,” since democracy is a good thing because the people who have to live under the laws get to have a say in making them; and the set of people (citizens) who have a say in making immigration laws is the exact inverse of the set of people (non-citizens) who are subject to them. Doubtless my usage here deviates a bit from the mainstream; but I don’t think the mainstream has any clear or consensus notion of what democracy is, or why it is good.

Even my objection to non-originalist judicial review is not that it’s democratic but that it’s dishonest. Judges of the “living Constitution” type pretend to interpret the law when they’re really imposing their own policy preferences arbitrarily, so I condemn them as frauds. I much prefer someone like Tsar Nicholas II, who didn’t pretend a commitment to democratic norms. I would like liberal judges better if they said openly: “American voters often do things we think are bad, so we’re selectively overturning democracy in the interests of what is good and right.” Then I’d hope our new judicial overlords proved to be more just and beneficent than the democratic regime they supplanted. But liberal judges’ pseudo-democratic posturing denies me the option of respecting them.


* I use the word “meta-ethics” in a slightly different sense than philosophers do. For me, utilitarianism is a meta-ethical position; virtue ethics is a meta-ethical position; natural rights is a meta-ethical position; Kantian deontology is a meta-ethical position. Such meta-ethical views relate to the meaning and source of morality generally, as distinct from ethical views, such as whether it’s right to divorce a silly and spendthrift husband, or to spare someone’s feelings by telling a lie.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

My “Apparat” Piece

Open Borders note: Additional links have been added to the piece to facilitate reader exploration

Recently, I was invited to write a piece on open borders for the Russian online magazine Apparat. It was published as “7 причин, почему мир должен отказаться от государственных границ”, or something like, “Seven reasons why the world should abolish state borders.” The Spanish-edition translation is here. To what extent the Russian expresses a sentiment I’d endorse is hard to say, since, unlike some, I don’t want to abolish borders, but to allow people to migrate across them. (Jurisdictional frontiers between states are fine.) I wrote the article in an interview format, after which it went through the usual editorial process. I saw and approved a Russian-language draft, but what actually got published was different again.

The below is a kind of back-translation from the Russian. I’ve tried to strike a balance between accurately reflecting the meaning of the Russian text and accurately reflecting my own views, which were sometimes a bit obscured, not so much in translation, as in the editorial process. Sometimes I substituted back in passages from the original English version.

(their introduction)

To open the borders of states to all who wish to cross them is one of the most radical and unpopular ideas all over the world. However, not long ago in the USA, there appeared a movement among economists and scholars by the name “Open Borders.” Activists in this movement believe, that to prohibit people from moving to any country is not only immoral, but also greatly inefficient: the elimination of borders will substantially improve the world economy. Members of Open Borders assiduously defend their point of view in scholarly publications, interviews, and on their blog. Apparat asked one of them, the writer and economics professor Nathan Smith of Fresno Pacific University, why it’s a good idea to open the world’s borders.

(extracts from my e-mail interview)

  1. Open borders would improve the welfare of mankind

Open borders are estimated to be able to double world GDP. To see why, it’s first necessary to review economists’ efforts over the years to explain why some countries are so rich, and others are not. In part, this depends on how developed the social and political institutions of a country are. So when people move to places with more developed institutions, their productivity increases. It’s a lot easier to open a business in the USA, than in Afghanistan.

Second, open borders would raise the productivity of many industries [even in the West] by allowing greater specialization. American professors often mow their own lawns, and that may serve as a symbol of the inefficiency of migration control. Very few have the capability to research physics or philosophy, while almost anyone can mow a lawn. It would be more efficient, if professors hired others to mow lawns and focused on physics and philosophy. Billions of people worldwide would be glad to do such work for a few dollars an hour, but immigration restrictions prevent this.

Third, changes in the immigration regime could prevent productive activities from being relocated to suboptimal places. In the past thirty years or so, millions of factory jobs have moved from the USA to China, although it would be more convenient to locate them in America, where the legal system is more developed, and they would be closer to the US market. Open borders would allow workers to move to jobs, rather than jobs to workers.

  1. Unskilled workers are valuable, too, not just immigrants with higher education

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says that the USA needs to open its borders to “all the smartest and most talented,” because educated people stimulate innovation and positively influence the economy. It’s a strange misconception, though widespread, that only skilled specialists can benefit the economy. Unskilled workers also contribute.

I live in the Central Valley of California, one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the country. Most of the harvesting is done by Mexicans. Many of them are poorly educated and don’t speak English. Native-born Americans benefit from this. With no one to collect the harvest, agricultural land would lose value. In principle, farmers could hire native-born Americans, but then fruit would be more expensive and many farms would go out of business, while Mexicans would lose work that pays better than they could earn at home.

  1. Open borders will not erase international diversity

Concerning the influence of immigration policy on the cultures of different nations, it’s important to understand one thing. We should care about the welfare of people, not cultures or countries. It’s wrong to lock people into a country, if they want to emigrate and assimilate elsewhere.

But open borders would probably not deplete the world’s cultural diversity. I like to use Ireland as an example. Ireland was the homeland of many generations of emigrants, to the extent that today, many more people of Irish ancestry live outside Ireland, than in the country itself. This didn’t kill Irish culture, but on the contrary, helped it to spread. St. Patrick’s Day is now widely celebrated in America, and people all over the world love Irish music. Emigrants value the cultures they bring with them, and teach the foreigners among whom they settle, to love them as well.

  1. Open borders can address global inequality

Today the idea of open borders is very unpopular in the Western democracies. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. There was a time, when slavery was taken for granted, but now it’s been abolished, and everyone agrees that its abolition was right.

Europeans today attach great moral significance to having an egalitarian society, in which universal education, high taxes and high wages make the population relatively homogeneous. Because of these values, they don’t want to see poor immigrants on the streets [so they shut them out]. But how can economic equality within a country be regarded as a moral triumph, when there is far more inequality internationally is far greater?

Those who advocate open borders believe that helping the needy is a natural moral duty towards every person [not just co-nationals]. If you think about the economic, political, and other opportunities that open up before immigrants, the inconveniences to natives that would likely occur seem insignificant by comparison.

  1. Mass emigration would benefit poor countries

For the most part, poor countries would benefit from emigration. Emigrants send money home, and some return with useful skills and foreign contacts. They can be a positive influence on their relatives back home, inspiring them to become politically active and get educated. Emigration can also raise wages by making labor scarce.

I don’t think open borders would actually cause any country to be completely depopulated, though some of the world’s poorest countries might lose 80-90% of their populations. But if [for the sake of argument] there were a country where absolutely everyone emigrated, while one would hardly say that that country benefited from the change, it would be good for the people, who would find better lives somewhere else.

  1. Life needn’t get worse for the native population

Open borders would not lead to mass unemployment among natives, though it probably would lead to lower salaries for many. A fair comparison is furnished by the entry of women into the workforce since the 1960s. This probably did contribute to stagnation or decline in the wages of men, but not to mass unemployment, since labor markets are flexible, with a tendency to equilibrate. Something similar will happen with migration: no mass unemployment, but many wages will stagnate or fall. To offset this, it’s possible to charge surtaxes on migrants, and use the proceeds to compensate natives who suffer income losses due to competition from immigrants.

The dangers posed by immigration—for example, to Europeans, who especially fear Muslim immigration—are much exaggerated. That said, it would help if western Europeans were firmer in their principles. The cultural habits of Europeans were profoundly shaped by the influence of Christian and capitalist values, but today few of them have much belief in either. A kind of moral relativism prevails in Europe today, which makes it difficult for them to defend what is valuable in their heritage, to induce immigrants to assimilate to it.

I believe the problems of crime, violence, and ethnic hatred, which could arise under open borders, are also greatly exaggerated. In the USA, the crime rate has fallen sharply in the past twenty years, even as the number of immigrants has grown.

  1. Open borders and open citizenship are different things

American democracy has many faults, but it’s still pretty good as forms of government go. For two hundred years it has protected freedom of speech and religion, maintained civil peace, and to some extent, economic liberty. But if a few billion people migrated to the USA from all over the world and enjoyed the right to vote, the polity would be transformed beyond recognition. So it’s important to distinguish open borders from open citizenship.

To grant the right to vote to all comers is too risky. Under open borders as I envision it, hundreds of millions of people would live in the USA, under American laws, with their human and property rights respected, and with the right to work, but without rights of political representation. Some would be naturalized as citizens, and could vote and run for office, but naturalization would be a much slower and more restricted process.