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

Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real

I largely agree with what Vipul Naik writes about Jose Antonio Vargas and the Define American project. Philosophically, Vargas isn’t really a fellow-traveler of Bryan Caplan, Vipul Naik, and myself. He seems to still buy into arguments from the other side– as Vipul puts it, “people don’t have a right to immigrate, but once they’ve done so, they acquire various rights and privileges, and become part of the moral sphere of natives.” His position seems ultimately unstable, though possibly that’s true of everyone in the immigration debate except the open borders crowd on one end and some extreme restrictionists on the other. In his defense, though– even if this doesn’t come through in everything he writes or says– the terms of his own project seem to recognize the weakness of his position. For example, from the “About” section of the Define American site:

Our campaign is about asking: How do we define an American? Why do people come to this country? Who are the American citizens who help them? When it comes to undocumented immigrants, what would you do? As a teacher? A friend? A mother?

Define American, with your help, will answer those questions.

So Vargas isn’t saying that he has the answers; rather, he’s asking for help from… well, from whoever the audience of Define American is supposed to be… to find them. Maybe we’ll win him over to the open borders cause at some point.

More importantly, there’s something I think Naik doesn’t quite recognize, namely, that Vargas’s project is well suited to evoke in people the moral intuitions that underlie the concept of natural rights, also known as human rights. Rights seem a bit metaphysically mysterious and plenty of honest people have doubted their existence. But it’s part of human nature that we can recognize when human rights are being violated, when we are close enough to the victims to feel human empathy for them. We see the wrong, we feel injury and indignation, we feel that something deeper and more sacred is at stake than a mere cost-benefit analysis could account for, and our attempts to express, to justify, to articulate that indignation perennially bring us back to the idea of human rights. Vargas’s site emphasizes stories. That’s just what’s needed, because stories bring us close enough to the victims to feel the wrong of what’s being done to them. That the victims whose stories he tells are far from the worst-off victims of migration restrictions is a secondary issue.

A story by a Canadian is a good example: Continue reading “Why Jose Antonio Vargas Matters: Making Human Rights Real” »

The Old Testament on Immigration

It goes without saying that a passport regime such as we have today is unbiblical, in the sense that nothing like it is endorsed by either the Old or the New Testaments. Comprehensive control of entry and exit was not something states typically aspired to or even, I think, conceived of, before the 20th century. Such things weren’t around to endorse, or for that matter, to denounce. I would like to know the precise history of passport regimes and border controls better than I do, but I think I know it well enough to say that at least as far as controlling all points of entry is concerned, the migration policies of America in the 19th century (when no attempt at comprehensive control was made) were roughly typical, whereas 20th-century passport control (unfortunately universal today, at least as an aspiration of sovereign governments) is anomalous. In that lame sense, it would hardly be necessary to read the Bible to deduce that it supports open borders.

Critics would be right to find this argument unpersuasive. While past societies did not have comprehensive passport controls, they also lacked the fluid, prosperous economies, social tolerance, legal respect for rights, and general nonviolence that prevails in the democracies of the contemporary West. So while immigrants might enter a Greek polis or the Persian or Egyptian or Roman Empires without being prevented by the state, once there, they would be less safe from private violence, and might have trouble making a living, or integrating socially with the host society. There were no, or at most few, borders in the modern sense of invisible lines slicing up the world’s land which it was illegal for humans qua humans to cross without permission. But one’s rights and physical safety usually depended on being embedded in a physical kin-group or city-state, on having people who, so to speak, “got your back.” Migration wasn’t illegal, but it wasn’t safe either.

It is in this context which the Biblical texts on this topic in Deuteronomy must be read. We could deduce that foreigners could come and reside in Israel physically, as a side-effect of the lack of a passport regime before modern times, but this is also amply confirmed by the Biblical texts, which routinely refer to “resident foreigners” and explain how they should be treated. But the Law of Moses also insists that resident foreigners be treated justly and fairly. Minutemen, e-Verify, and deportations are practices clearly forbidden by the Law of Moses. A textual study may start with verses like these:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. (Exodus 22:21)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. (Leviticus 19:33)

Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless   of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. (Deuteronomy 24:17) Continue reading “The Old Testament on Immigration” »

Charles Murray and Immigration

Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart says nothing about immigration, per se. Rather, it is about “the state of white America,” and in particular, about the separation of a new cognitive elite (“Belmont”) from a new underclass (“Fishtown”) with falling rates of male labor participation, high rates of out-of-wedlock births and single mothers, high rates of imprisonment, low rates of church attendance, and so forth. Murray alleges, with statistics to back up his story (though he has to fill in a lot of gaps with anecdote, speculation, and appeals to readers’ experience) a “segregation of the successful,” as smart people whom the university system has become increasingly efficient at discovering and bonding with each other sort themselves out and largely stop interacting with their under-achieving high school fellows or cousins.

The more homogeneous white America of 1963 that Murray looks back to with a certain degree of seeming nostalgia was the product of 1920s nativism, the New Deal, World War II, and in general, a couple of decades when collectivism had more influence in America than at any other time. In spite of his seeming nostalgia, Murray insists that he wouldn’t really want to go back to 1963: the “coming apart” that has taken place since then, however troubling, is a price worth paying for the innovation and variety that has been unleashed. I agree. Conformist egalitarianism is rather boring, stifling, stultifying. That was what the 1960s youth thought, more or less. That’s why they rebelled, for better and worse.

Here’s how Murray’s book connects to immigration. Nativists seem to want to reconstruct a lost national unity, or preserve what’s left of national unity, by excluding foreigners. Murray shows that national unity is unraveling without any help from foreigners. It’s unraveling at a time when the borders are far from open. It’s unraveling even among whites. It’s unraveling because people are different, and sort themselves out.

Continue reading “Charles Murray and Immigration” »

A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

The relevance of this post to open borders will not be immediately obvious, but bear with me, I’ll get to it. “Meta-ethics” is a real word, as my sister, a professional philosopher, recently confirmed to me. I was afraid I had made it up, because it’s so useful in immigration debates. Meta-ethics is basically theorizing about where ethical rules or values come from. “Don’t steal” is ethics. “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is meta-ethics. Specifically, it’s a statement (a rather clumsy one) of utilitarian meta-ethics. People can have similar ethical views derived from quite different meta-ethical starting places. For example, a virtue ethicist might act bravely because courage is part of the good life for man, while a utilitarian acts bravely because he is convinced that the greatest happiness of the greatest number will be served, in a particular crisis, by his keeping cool while running terrible risks. People can also arrive at quite different views on a whole range of particular ethical questions starting from the same meta-ethical starting point: one utilitarian might believe in largely laissez-faire capitalism, while another is a Communist. If one wants to make a rational argument against a particular ethical rule (e.g., stay in the country you were born in unless some foreign government gives you permission to migrate there), I don’t see much possibility of doing this without appealing to one or more meta-ethical standards. On the other hand, one can argue against a meta-ethical position via a reductio ad absurdum showing that a consistent application of it would lead to monstrous moral positions. For example, one might attack utilitarianism by arguing that, under certain circumstances, consistent utilitarians should be willing to torture children to death. Anyway, in the course of many debates, I’ve found that a surprisingly satisfactory meta-ethics is comprised by the following two rules:

1. Universal altruism. Regard the welfare of every human being as equally important, and act accordingly. The ultimate end or standard of behavior should be to maximize the happiness of all mankind, with no special preference either for oneself or for any subset of humanity– family, tribe, nation, class, religious community, whatever– to which one happens to belong.

2. Division of labor. But as Adam Smith so lucidly explained, people are rendered more productive by specialization and division of labor, and we will do the task of caring for humanity much better if we split it up into many different tasks and assign most people, at least, a much smaller range of activity. Nature and circumstances gives us a kind of rough draft of how to arrange this division of labor, giving us all impulses to serve our families and those neighbors who evoke our pity or who have done us a good turn and earned our gratitude. Reason might urge us to modify this template somewhat, but not to discard it completely.

Continue reading “A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket” »

Open Borders and Derrida’s “Cities of Refuge”

Might the late French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida serve as the prophet of open borders, as another impenetrably arcane Continental philosopher, Immanuel Kant, served as the prophet of the democratic peace? It seems that he advocated roughly my idea of passport-free charter cities, in articles entitled “Hospitality” (gated) and “On Cosmopolitanism” (part of a Google eBook). Derrida is the kind of French philosopher for whom vagueness seems to be a virtue. Not really my type. I read him as an undergraduate and struggled to understand him. One article entitled “Late Derrida: The Politics of Sovereignty” (Vincent B. Leitch, 2007) (available on JSTOR and Scribd) summarizes his career thus:

During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Jacques Derrida published numerous books, approximately two dozen in French, virtually all translated into English,  but in the 1990s and thereafter up to 2004, the year of his death and  the year in which I am writing, he brought out roughly three dozen more books in France, not including the revised editions of earlier works, coauthored works, and introductions to books. In this period, which I here label late Derrida, about two dozen books by Derrida appeared in English translation, without counting three substantial Derrida readers. Not surprisingly, recent introductions to Derrida have found it especially challenging to systematize this sprawling corpus. The preferred approach is to foreground key Derridean concepts (so-called undecidables or quasitranscendentals) such as the early standbys—difference, iterability, margin,  supplement, text—and later ones like gift, hospitability, forgiveness, democracy to come, justice, messianic, responsibility, spectrality.

Hmm.  Perhaps one shouldn’t expect to understand much about the thought of any moderately subtle thinker from 35,000 feet like that (I was delightfully impressed that Vipul Naik managed to summarize parts of Principles of a Free Society accurately and succinctly; I’m not sure I could!) but Derrida doesn’t get easier close up. But in Sean Kelly’s article “Derrida’s Cities of Refuge: Toward a Non-Utopian Utopia,” (gated) the idea of charter cities seems relatively clear: Continue reading “Open Borders and Derrida’s “Cities of Refuge”” »