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

Introduction to Institutional Economics

Whether open borders would really “double world GDP” depends greatly on how it will affect institutions. So let me offer a brief introduction to institutional economics.

There is one problem, however, that must be dealt with first. Institutional economics has become identified with economists like Dani Rodrik and Daron Acemoglu, with papers like “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development” and “Institutions Rule”  and with books like One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. All this is, as I see it, is fairly marginal relative to the real insights that institutional economics has to contribute, and the real task it has to do.

In the past couple of decades, there has been a boom in loose, hasty “institutional” narratives about comparative development, because “institutional” stories provide an interpretation of “total factor productivity”– the residual differences in international income that can’t be explained by factor endowments– that is (a) difficult to refute, because theoretically weak, and (b) somewhat politically correct. Cultural explanations of the wealth and poverty of nations are politically incorrect, though Deirdre McCloskey has ventured one. Racial/biological explanations are even more politically incorrect, though Greg Clark hints at one in A Farewell to Alms. But a book like Why Nations Fail stepped into a kind of vacuum, telling development economics what it wanted to hear. Its ascendancy is a disaster for the field. For lack of space, I’ll outsource my criticisms to Duncan Green and Jeff Sachs, satisfying myself with a few cryptic dicta. Property rights are not “inclusive economic institutions;” on the contrary, they exclude. They also permit “extraction,” e.g., coal mining, harvesting crops. “Inclusive economic institutions” ought to mean communism; to link democracy and capitalism by calling them both “inclusive” makes no sense. Non-democracies are no more “extractive” than democracies, in general. If anything, democracies take more resources from productive people by force, via tax and transfer systems. It’s not in the interest of democratic majorities to establish pro-growth institutions because, as Arrow’s impossibility theorem long since proved, it’s meaningless to speak of the interests of democratic majorities. It often is in the interest of autocrats to establish pro-growth institutions, so as to have more to extract: this is Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandit” argument. No matter how much we wish it were true, and no matter how much jargon we dress it up in, development is not a function of democracy. The thesis that growth depends on “inclusive economic institutions” which “inclusive political institutions” help to establish, while “nations fail” because “extractive political institutions” establish “extractive economic institutions,” has no merit.

(By the way, I’ve lamented the ascendancy of Acemoglu and Robinson before. See also Bryan Caplan’s link, and the comments below it, where I voiced more of my complaints. To my surprise, the Wikipedia page on Why Nations Fail actually links to both my post and Caplan’s! And here’s a post, “Comment on Smith’s Critique of Why Nations Fail,” with an extensive discussion following, in which I participated.)

I want to get back to basics. Here’s the core of institutional economics, which, by the way, has nothing to do with democracy. It starts, like most things in economics, with supply and demand:

Demand and supply 2

Think of that chart as the central corridor of economics, of which every feature is a door into a room containing some subfield. Open the “D” door, and we enter consumer theory, with utility functions, budget constraints, own price and cross price and income elasticities of demand, etc. Open the “S” door, and we enter the theory of the firm, with long-run and short-run total and marginal and average cost, shutdown points and breakeven points, and behind that, isoquants and isocost lines; or, as an adjoining room behind the same door, we can enter industrial organization, with perfect competition and monopolistic competition and monopoly and oligopoly. Open the “P” door, and since prices are measured in money, we step into monetary economics, with price stickiness, and the equation of exchange, and various theories of the short-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Let “P” be wages and “Q” be employment and you’ve walked into labor economics. Let “P” be interest rate (or rate of return) and “Q” be quantity of loanable funds (or shares) and you’ve taken your first step in financial economics. Draw a new line below the equilibrium price and call it “world price” and you’ve got yourself an international trade model. Focus on “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus” and you’ve entered welfare economics. Push D down and to the right, or to the left, and call the gap between old D and new D a “tax,” or a “subsidy,” respectively, and you’ve entered public economics.

What about institutional economics? Where’s the door into that?

To enter institutional economics, stop to notice a few of the assumptions that must lurk in the background for the chart to make any sense. In particular:

  • Specialization. The model requires that some people have a surplus of the good to sell, while others have a need for the good to be met. Surpluses and unmet needs arise from, or at least are greatly multiplied by, specialization. Because I make X all the time, I’m very good at it; but for the same reason, I don’t have time to make any Y. So I supply X and demand Y. Thus supply and demand are born.
  • But not too much specialization, because you need competition too. The basic supply-and-demand model assumes price-taking behavior on the part of both buyers and sellers. Only competition can ensure that. But now suppose that a society of 1,000 people divides its work into 1,000 tasks so that each person is a monopoly provider of the one thing they do. There’s no competition, and no reason for suppliers to be price takers. So markets of the kind shown in the chart, with their nice efficiency properties, occur only somewhere in the middle of a spectrum running from no specialization to perfect specialization.
  • Property rights– including complicated contracts. Demanders must have some kind of property rights to the money they bring to market. They must have power to transfer these rights. Likewise, suppliers must have property rights in the goods they bring to market, and power to transfer them. “Property rights” can mean legal property rights, credibly backed up by a government, or customary rights, or private promises, or perhaps, occasionally, even the mere informal trading of favors. Often legal property rights and social trust are both necessary, as when contracts are signed, but cannot be made sufficiently detailed to cover all contingencies.
  • Some method of executing transactions, and it shouldn’t be too costly. Institutional economists talk a lot about “transactions costs,” and that sounds really, really BORING. Sure, it does take a bit of time and effort to move money from hand to hand, ring up cash registers, sign checks, mail stuff, etc., but is that really important enough to merit our attention? To this objection, the first answer is that “transactions costs” include things like contracts and search and establishing trust and getting incentives right. Transactions costs in this sense can plausibly be estimated to comprise more than half of US GDP. Second, and even more importantly, transactions costs determine the size of the network of specialization and trade. The transactions that don’t happen are as important as the transactions that do. Everyday example: the typical reader of this post probably does his or her own dishes, even though the value of his or her time is a good deal higher than many people who live nearby. Why? Because it’s too complicated to find them, hire them, communicate the nature and scope of the job to them, move them physically to where the job needs to be done, coordinate their entry and exit, and structure their incentives properly. Heighten entrepreneurial cunning and social trust enough, and you’d press a button, and some underemployed person in your neighborhood would come and do your dishes for you at an easily affordable cost, while you devote yourself to business or pleasure.

So how does institutional economics relate to the supply-and-demand chart that is the heart of economics? Institutions determine what markets exist at all, and who participates in them. Institutions enable– or fail to enable– enough people to do business with each other that all sorts of specialized markets can come into existence, creating wonderful productivity increases and wonderful consumer and producer surplus. And institutions take up the slack when markets can’t operate because specialization has been pursued too far to be compatible with competition.

Even though Adam Smith’s trumpet triumphantly declares, in the title of Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” economists have a bias against believing it, because it creates fundamental problems for the theory of competitive markets, a bias well-expressed by Becker and Murphy’s paper “The Division of Labor, Coordination Costs, and Knowledge.” When I read this paper for the first time in grad school as part of my dissertation research, I was very annoyed with it, because it missed the point in such a lucid and convincing way. Today, I love the paper for the same reason: it expresses a fallacy that pervades the economics profession, in a form that’s clear enough to be straightforwardly defeasible.

Becker and Murphy start by assuming that society’s tasks are infinitely divisible, that productivity in any given task depends on specific human capital, and that specialization raises productivity by allowing workers to focus their specific human capital acquisition efforts on one narrow task and therefore to acquire more of it. So far, the model points to perfect specialization, i.e., a society in which everyone is the unique specialist in one very narrow task. But then they argue:

Conflict among members grows with the size of a team because members have greater incentives to shirk when they get a smaller share of the output (see, e.g., Holmstrom (1982)). Moreover, efforts to extract rents by “holding-up” other members also grows as the number of members performing complementary tasks increases (see Chari and Jones (1991)). Further, the chances of a breakdown in production due to poor coordination of the tasks and functions performed by different members, or to communication of misleading information among members, also tends to expand as the number of separate specialists grows… Principal-agent conflicts, hold-up problems, and breakdowns in supply and communication all tend to grow as the degree of specialization increases.

They go on to assume that average coordination costs have the functional form C=C(n), dC/dn>0, that is, average coordination costs increase with the size of the “team.” That’s why they think that “sometimes the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, but more frequently in the modern world it is limited by other forces.” To support this claim empirically, they go on to give many examples of markets where there seem to be quite a few fairly substitutable specialists. The facts they cite would constitute evidence against the theory that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” if that theory implied that there should be only one monopolistic specialist in most tasks. But it does not, and the literature they cite in support of the concept of “coordination costs” implicitly contains the reasons why the extent of the market can limit the division of labor well before the technical limits of useful specialization have been reached. Most “coordination costs” are related to missing markets, and would be mitigated if the market were large enough.

Start with the “team production” problem of Holmstrom (1982). The output of a team is usually such that the sum of the marginal products of its members is greater than the value of what the team produces. But that’s a complex and jargon-ridden way of saying it. Let me try again. There is a popular saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Now, if that’s true, what happens if you take one part away? The whole is no longer a whole, and its value is greatly reduced. That reduction in value is the “marginal product” of the part, in the sense that it is what that part adds to the value of the whole, provided all the other parts are in place. But, precisely because “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” every part has a large “marginal product.” The traditional theory of the firm assumes that each factor is paid its marginal product. If “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” then the sum of the marginal products of the parts is greater than the whole, so each factor can’t be paid its marginal product within the team’s budget constraint. And that creates “hold-up problems,” with each team member being in a position to blackmail the rest for a large share of the team product. Such hold-up problems can cause the team’s cooperation to break down, even though its potential product is more than enough to pay team members their opportunity costs.

But now suppose that the market is large enough that every team member is readily replaceable. If you want to interrupt me here, and object that even if outsiders were ex ante replaceable, once the team has begun work, its members gain lots of project-specific knowledge that makes them irreplaceable, then you haven’t meditated deeply enough on the condition that “the market is large enough.” In a large enough market, there will be many other teams working on very similar projects, at a similar stage, so team members remain replaceable throughout the project. In that case, the hold-up problem is easily solved. If any team member demands an undue share, just fire him and poach a similar person from some other team. If the market isn’t quite that large, maybe there’s a moderately similar team member who can be recruited if someone demands too large a share, and that at least mitigates the problem. The larger the market, the less the “coordination costs” associated with moral hazard in teams, relationship-specific or asset-specific or project-specific knowledge and investments, opportunism, hold-up problems, etc. A similar logic applies to production breakdowns due to logistical problems or miscommunication: the larger the market, the easier it will be to buy key spare parts when there’s a bottleneck.

And so, in my dissertation, I proposed the following modification of Becker and Murphy. Rather than C(n), average coordination costs are C(n,N), where n is the size of the team, and N is the size of the market. C(n,N) is an increasing function of n, but a decreasing function of N. Division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, but there isn’t perfect specialization, precisely because as the economy approaches that limit, coordination costs become too high. People under-specialize to avoid getting trapped in monopoly-monopsony relationships where they’re vulnerable to opportunism, hold-ups, coordination failures, etc. To the extent that monopoly-monopsony relationships are inevitable, that’s what firms, those “islands of planning in a market sea,” are for. Where market relationships would be dysfunctional, power relationships arise instead. In a world of perfect information and costless and complete contracts, there would be no need for “firms” or “jobs”: we’d all be free agents, trading goods and services. But because a boss and employee need to do a lot of relationship-specific investment, and the boss has better information about the value of various things the employee could do, the economy is mostly organized as firms and jobs, instead.

The role of “good institutions,” then– at least, as I read it: but the issue is very complex– is not so much to give people political representation and redistribute income, or even to provide public goods, tax or prohibit activities with negative externalities, subsidize activities with positive externalities, and ensure that industries remain competitive. I don’t think it’s even primarily to enforce property rights in an everyday sense– plenty of regimes can do a decent job of preventing shoplifting and trespassing– but rather, to do arcane things like protect minority shareholders, and put Martha Stewart sent to jail on obscure charges that most people can’t understand. Why does it matter to protect minority shareholders? Because then people will hand over their hard-earned money to companies they’ve barely heard of, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. And that allows firms to raise cash for new projects, and for people like Mark Zuckerberg who have done something really useful to become billionaires through an IPO, mitigating the burden of nondiversifiable entrepreneurial risk.

How important are institutions for comparative development? That’s too difficult a question for me to answer with much confidence, but tentatively: I think culture does a lot of the work that is sometimes attributed to “institutions,” but culture and institutions together probably are the main explanations of differences in “total factor productivity.” To see what I mean by “culture,” consider the question: why do US universities really create and disseminate knowledge, when it’s ridiculously difficult to monitor what a professor actually does in the classroom? Because professors are inducted into a culture of learning, to the point where we really care about knowledge and truth and rigor, etc., not (only) for the sake of payday or tenure or even prestige, but for its own sake. We give Ds to terrible students, even if it gets us bad teacher evals, because it’s wrong to tell the world that someone understands economics, who doesn’t. And I’m sure similar forms of professionalism apply in many fields. I’m skeptical, on empirical grounds, of Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” as a theory of comparative development, but I think that kind of explanation, concerning how culture, history, and religion shape individual behavior and values in a way that isn’t reducible to homo economicus, is probably important to the wealth and poverty of nations. In cutting-edge, innovative industries, culture usually has to do the initial work in solving team production problems. Rewards are wildly incommensurate with effort and risk, and perverse incentives are all over the place, but people do the right thing because they love cars, or computers, or whatever. Later, institutions codify and enforce the modes of cooperation that culture discovered, though even in mature industries, norms and values and intrinsic rewards are crucial to sustaining high performance.

Given my perspective on institutional economics (including culture), how would open borders affect the institutions of rich countries? Would they “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?” Or would poor people enjoy the productivity-enhancing power of sophisticated, wealth-fostering institutions (and cultures), without damaging them?

There’s a farm I know in Maine which sells veggies by an honor system. The veggies are laid out on tables in a shed, with prices, and it’s up to you to put money in their cash box. No one is watching. It’s a very convenient and affordable way to buy fresh vegetables. This business model might collapse under open borders, as a critical mass of immigrants prove less honest than Americans, and shoplifters make honor-system sales unsustainable. Or, it might not. It wouldn’t surprise me much if even more honor-system commerce took place under open borders. But I’d expect less of it. I’d also expect to see more littering and open defecation under open borders. I think the kinds of transactions that are as vulnerable as this to a deterioration in mass behavior are of minor importance to the economy, but I’m not sure.

In big business and high finance, by contrast, I doubt open borders would do any serious damage to culture and institutions, as long as open borders doesn’t mean open voting. These are elite institutions with plenty of gatekeepers, and no one rises high enough to make the rules without being thoroughly shaped by the rules first. Even the average native-born citizen knows little about them and has no power to influence them, except very indirectly at the ballot box. Big business and high finance have a much larger effect on GDP than rural veggie stands, though their relative importance for quality of life is perhaps a good deal less than for GDP.

In general, I think most civil society organizations and trust-based commercial relationships wouldn’t be harmed by open borders because one isn’t dealing with random strangers, but with people self-selected and/or screened in various ways. Universities, for example, only accept students, and hire faculty, who meet their standards. The fact that someone is physically on US soil doesn’t compel a university to do business with them in any way. The exception here is that anti-discrimination law sometimes does compel private and public organizations to deal with people they would prefer to screen out (especially under the deplorable “disparate impact” doctrine which forbids people and companies to statistically discriminate on grounds that are correlated with race, and that courts or bureaucrats should arbitrarily decide are inadmissible).

My main fear for institutions under open borders is that law and public opinion would fail to recognize that private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine and should be legal. If firms, public bureaucracies, and civil society organizations, whose members and leaders obviously have the best knowledge about those organizations’ goals, needs, and workings, were arbitrarily forced to include people they didn’t want by bureaucrats and judges, then they could sustain serious damage, and the killing the goose argument might come into its own.

Open borders might also have a beneficial impact on institutions through international Tiebout competition.

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

I occasionally hear people linking gay marriage and open borders. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas (whom I wrote about here and heresays:

We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.

And Charles Kenny, in “Why Immigration is the New Gay Marriage,” writes:

The evolution of public attitudes toward gay marriage—which a majority of Americans now support—demonstrates that cultural shifts can be dramatic and rapid when circumstances are right. Perhaps U.S. citizens will start realizing that more people aspiring to become Americans is no threat to the institutions of America, just as they have come to accept that more people wanting to get married—some to people of the same sex—is no threat to the institution of marriage.

I’ll 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. First, I want to describe the historical movement that open borders does resemble, and which it should emulate, namely: the movement to abolish slavery.

An excellent short history of the abolition of slavery, in Chapter 5 of his book For the Glory of God by sociologist Rodney Stark, which correctly treats it as part of the history of Christian social justice, begins with a sad history of this deplorable institution, which “has… been a nearly universal feature of ‘civilization’ [and] was also common in a number of ‘aboriginal’ societies that were sufficiently affluent to afford it– for example, slavery was very prevalent among the Northwest Indians,” and which, in fact, before the advent of Christian social justice, essentially occurred wherever “the average person can produce sufficient surplus that it becomes profitable for someone to own him or her” (Stark, p. 292-293). Stark describes slavery among the Northwest Coast Indians; in classical Greece and Rome; in the Muslim world; in black Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade; and in the New World in modern times. Stark pays less attention to China– space is limited, after all– but slavery also existed there.

The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, though the Mosaic law does greatly ameliorate it:

Although Jews were prohibited from enslaving their fellow Jews, and their slaves therefore came from among the “heathen,” there were still severe limits on their treatment. Death was decreed for any Jewish master who killed a slave. The Torah admonished that freedom was to be awarded any slave as compensation for suffering acts of violence: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Exodus 21:26-27). Hebrew law held that children of slaves must not be parted from their parents, nor a wife from her husband. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Jews were admonished not to return escaped slaves: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escape from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you… thou shalt not oppress him.” (Stark, p. 328)

Is it embarrassing that God condones slavery in the Mosaic Law? In such cases, one must be careful not to kick away the ladder by which we ascended. Christians believe that God is trying to redeem fallen mankind. That sometimes means meeting fallen man where he is at a given time, improving him by small steps, and condoning much that is defective with respect to loftier ethical standards that he may attain later. Compared to the brutal exploitation of slaves by so many other civilizations, slavery as prescribed in the Mosaic law is humane. Jesus later told the Pharisees that Moses had permitted men to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), and I think (and more importantly, Christians have long held) that the same principle applies to much of the Mosaic law. It was a kind of compromise between ethical perfection and human weakness. The subsequent history of the Jews shows how little they were able even to live up to this limited standard. But in the teachings of Jesus the fullness of ethical perfection was revealed, and this rendered obsolete some of the rituals and minor rules, and especially the imperfections and compromises, of the Mosaic law.

Yet even in the New Testament, slaves are told to obey their masters by both St. Peter– see 1 Peter 2:18— and St. Paul– see Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. I don’t find these passages troubling, because I see them as instances of Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and, in general, to submit to coercion and even give more than what is demanded: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). After all, if we ought to serve our fellow men, then why should it be an unmitigated evil to be legally bound to serve one of our fellow men? More troubling, possibly, is that in advising the Ephesians, St. Paul does not command Christian masters to manumit their slaves, saying only “And masters, do the same things [i.e., render sincere service] to them [i.e., to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Certainly for masters to serve their slaves and to stop threatening them is a step in the right direction, but how can any kind of slavery, even an ameliorated form, be compatible with the Gospel of love?

I would offer three defenses of St. Paul here. First, the apostles weren’t trying to make a secular political revolution, for which they didn’t have the strength, but to save souls, to work a moral transformation from within. Had they attempted to launch a revolution against slavery, the Roman Empire would have crushed them. Even semi-public exhortations to manumission in letters to churches might have been dangerous. Second, this is another case of God meeting us where we are, and not giving us moral standards we’re not yet ready to live by. What would masters in the early Ephesian church have done, had St. Paul commanded them to manumit all their slaves? Let’s assume it would have been good for their souls as well as their slaves if they had obeyed. But, perhaps they would not have obeyed, but left the church instead. Would that justify Paul in limiting his exhortations to good treatment rather than manumission? I think so. Third, what happens to a manumitted slave? Don’t think of the ancient Roman Empire as a modern capitalist economy where any random person can find a job and support himself. A typical slave would probably have trouble making it on his or her own. To urge masters to manumit their slaves into isolation and destitution might have been no mercy. The slaveless society was a social model yet to be developed.

Theologian David Bentley Hart describes (in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, pp. 176ff.) the attitudes of the early Church fathers towards slavery…

The attitudes of many of the fathers of the church toward slavery ranged from (at best) resigned acceptance to (at worst) a kind of prudential approval. All of them regarded slavery as a mark of sin, of course, and all could take some comfort in the knowledge that, at the restoration of creation in the Kingdom of God, it would vanish altogether. They even understood that this expectation necessarily involved certain moral implications for the present. But, for most of them, the best that could be hoped for within a fallen world (apart from certain legal reforms) was a spirit of charity, gentleness, and familial regard on the part of masters and a spirit of longsuffering on the part of servants. Basil of Caesarea found it necessary to defend the subjection of some men to others, on the grounds that not all are capable of governing themselves wisely and virtuously. John Chrysostom dreamed of a perfect (probably eschatological) society in which none would rule over another, celebrated the extension of legal rights and protections to slaves, and fulminated against Christian masters who would dare to humiliate or beat their slaves. Augustine, with his darker, colder, more brutal vision of the fallen world, disliked slavery but did not think it wise always to spare the rod, at least not when the welfare of the soul should take precedence over the welfare of the flesh. Each of them knew that slavery was essentially a damnable thing– which in itself was a considerable advance in moral intelligence over the ethos of pagan antiquity– but damnation, after all, is reserved for the end of time; none of them found it possible to convert that eschatological certainty into a program for the present… Given the inherently restive quality of the human moral imagination, it is only natural that certain of the moral values of the pagan past should have lingered on so long into the Christian era, just as any number of Christian moral values continue today to enjoy a tacit and largely unexamined authority in minds and cultures that no longer believe the Christian story.

It is in this context that a certain stunning insight occurred to a certain 4th-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, to whom, as far as I can tell, the abolition of slavery may be traced.

And yet– confusingly enough for any conventional calculation of history probability– there is Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger and more brilliant brother, who sounded a very different note, one that almost seems to have issued from some altogether different frame of reality. At least, one searches in vain through the literary remains of antiquity– pagan, Jewish, or Christian– for any other document remotely comparable in tone or content to Gregory’s fourth sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes, which he preached during Lent in 379, and which comprises a long passage unequivocally and indignantly condemning slavery as an institution. That is to say, in this sermon Gregory does not simply treat slavery as an extravagance in which Christians ought not to indulge beyond the dictates of necessity, nor does he confine himself to denouncing the injustices and cruelties of which slaveholders are frequently guilty. These things one would naturally expect, since moral admonitions and exhortations to repentance are part of the standard Lenten repertoire of any competent homilist. Moreover, ever since 321, when Constantine had granted the churches the power of legally certifying manumissions (the power of manumissio in ecclesia), propertied Christians had often taken Easter as an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was no doubt hoping to encourage his parishioners to follow the custom. But if all he had wanted to do was recommend manumission as a spiritual hygiene or as a gesture of benevolence, he could have done so quite (and perhaps more) effectively by using a considerably more temperate tone than one actually finds in his sermon. For there he directs his anger not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners not for mistreating their slaves but for daring to imagine that they have the right to own other human beings in the first place.

One cannot overemphasize this distinction. On occasion, scholars who have attempted to make this sermon conform to their expectations of fourth century rhetoric have tried to read it as belonging to some standard type of penitential oration, perhaps rather more hyperbolic in some of its language but ultimately intended to do no more than impress the consciences of its hearers with the need for humility… [But] Gregory’s language in the sermon is simply too unambiguous to be read as anything other than what it is. He leaves no room for Christian slaveholders to console themselves with the thought that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, generous enough to liberate the occasional worthy servant but wise enough to know when they must continue to exercise stewardship over less responsible souls. He certainly could have done just this; he begins his diatribe (which is not too strong a word) with a brief exegetical excursus on a single, rather unexpectional verse, Eccesiastes 2:7 (“I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well”); a text that would seem to invite only a few bracing imprecations against luxuriance and sloth, and nothing more. As he warms to his theme, however, Gregory goes well beyond this…

Continue reading What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

On Human (and Canine) Differences

How much do human beings differ from each other? I am not sure that either answer to this question– people differ a lot or people are fairly similar— systematically favors either answer to the question of open borders, but it affects how the case for or against open borders should best be made. Thus, one might plausibly argue any of the following:

1. Large Human Differences => Pro Open Borders. People are very different, so they have a lot to gain by trading with and learning from each other. Immigrants bring very different habits and cultural outlooks, which enables them to see entrepreneurial opportunities that natives miss, enjoy jobs that natives hate, and make art, cuisine, and music that will surprise and fascinate natives. Competition from immigrants is an overrated problem because immigrants won’t like the same things or have the same skills as natives do.

2. Large Human Differences => Anti Open Borders. People are very different, and cooperation works best in fairly homogeneous cultures. Cultural differences make it hard for people to understand each other, leading to conflict and/or alienation. A lack of trust will lead to higher transactions costs, weaken institutions, and make political order hard to sustain.

3. Small Human Differences => Pro Open Borders. People aren’t that different, so a developed country that embraces open borders will find it fairly easy to assimilate people from all over the world. They’ll find the local rules and protocols understandable and easy to adapt to, and other than there being a greater variety of skin colors on the street, countries will look pretty much the same after as before open borders.

4. Small Human Differences => Anti Open Borders. People aren’t that different, so open borders won’t really give rise to a rich diversity, because foreigners are basically just more of the same. The fun of learning about foreigners’ art, music, cuisine, ideas, etc. will be quickly exhausted, because the differences just aren’t that important. They’ll like the same things we do, and have or quickly acquire similar skills, so the main effect of open borders will be more competition for scarce resources, such as spots in Harvard’s entering class, or California beachfront land.

Those are just a few examples to illustrate why views of human differences should not be expected to map into views on open borders in any straightforward way. But views on human differences will tacitly or explicitly condition the open borders debate, so I want to offer an answer of sorts to this important question.

My answer takes the form of a mnemonic metaphor, summarizing a wide variety of impressions, which I think– though of course I can’t prove it, or even propose a way to test it– gives a pretty good idea of just how much human beings differ, namely: Human souls differ about as much as dogs’ bodies do. Which is to say, a lot, but we can still recognize a common human nature in all human souls, just as we can recognize canine features in all sorts of dogs, from the tiny Chihuahua…


… to the enormous Newfoundland…


Dogs come in colors from white to rust to grey to yellow to chocolate to black, but they all have four paws, nose, two ears, two eyes, and a mouth with sharp teeth. All dog breeds have tails and fur, though both of these vary in length. It’s really rather incredible that canis lupus familiaris is one species, and that such potential for phenomic diversity turned out to inhere in a certain European wolf a few thousand years back. What would the originals of that species think of the enormously varied descendants they would have, as a result of befriending a certain clever primate? Yet no one doubts that “dog” refers to a coherent category of things, or has much trouble distinguishing a dog from a cat. Likewise, one can recognize a common humanity in its manifold and extremely diverse manifestations.

Human appearances differ, I think, much less than those of dogs. No race of human beings is 10+ times larger than another race, as Newfoundlands are 10+ times larger than Chihuahuas. Facial features, e.g., nose length and ear shape, vary less. But these surface similarities mislead, and between the mild, celibate scholar and the swaggering pirate; the ascetic saint and the sultan in his harem; the decadent poet and the toiling Christian peasant; the Wahhabist fanatic and the urbane atheist; the illiterate Somali farmer and the Norwegian petroleum engineer and the Japanese salaryman; Achilles and Socrates; Genghis Khan and Samuel Johnson; King Tut and Saint Peter; Queen Victoria and Lady Gaga; the spiritual differences are, I think, roughly as great as the physical differences between a Chihuahua and a Newfoundland.

The classical list of seven virtues– courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love– provides a useful key to both the unity of human nature, and the diversity of its expressions. I am not such a cultural anthropologist as to have checked the following claims against every human culture (nor is anyone else) but I’ll nonetheless assert the following without much fear of informed and convincing contradiction:

1) Every culture admires people who can face peril or pain when they believe it is right, and disdains those who always give way to their fears. (Courage)

2) Every culture has some form of the notion of rights and/or property, of what is due to each individual, and distinguishes deserved from undeserved suffering. (Justice)

3) Every culture is familiar with the experiences of addiction and short-sighted pleasure-seeking, and encourages and applauds the willpower and self-control that enables some people to govern their passions and appetites. (Temperance)

4) Every culture respects thinking, planning, weighing evidence, and careful determination of the best means to pursue a given end. (Prudence)

5) People in every culture project certain desires onto the future, aim at them, and labor with a view to bringing them about, while regarding despondency and despair with aversion and disapproval. (Hope)

6) People in every culture hold and value beliefs not logically provable, and feel loyalties related to their own past or that of their family, their country, and/or some other community to which they (feel they) belong. (Faith)

7) People in every culture delight in contemplating, and will the good of, certain other people, as well as many other things, such as mountains, stars, trees, hearth and home, food, songs, stories, holidays and festivals, and/or God. (Love)

While all humans share courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love, they clearly differ greatly in the degree to which they possess these virtues, and in the ways they express them. One man has the courage to frame a bold new theory; another to speak to a crowd; another to charge into battle; another to scale the rocky face of El Capitan. Some, perhaps, are brave in all these respects; some, certainly, are brave in none of them. Some people are cynics and skeptics, and some have fewer loyalties than others, while among those who have strong faith, it often happens that what one holds sacred, another abhors, and one man’s dogma is another’s absurdity. One man thinks it just to execute the king’s orders, another to execute the king; one, that property is nine-tenths of the law, another that it is theft. Self-control might mean no sex, but a little wine and plenty of beer, to a medieval monk; no alcohol, but plenty of sex, albeit within marriage, to a modern Mormon; and free love and booze, but no animal products, to a contemporary vegetarian leftie.

While mortals ought not to judge particular cases, experience probably has made us all vaguely aware that some people are just rather deficient in virtue, not accomplishing much or even really trying, stewing in petty resentments, without many scruples about sex or money or lying, full of baseless pride and easily offended. Beware: there but for the grace of God go we, and we are probably much closer to that wretched state than we suppose. Others have more solidity about them, and can be relied on to tell the truth, to face dangers, to think clearly, to admit faults, to be fair, to give the largest share to others, to enjoy and to praise, to resist discouragement in difficulties, and/or to work hard. Virtue shines most in the course of stories and in the face of challenges. Virtue– this is the heart of the matter– makes us more real, and it is through the exercise of virtue that we become most characteristically ourselves. The saints are gloriously different, the tyrants tediously alike. Yet while virtue brings out what is uniquely valuable in each of us and makes it shine, it also makes us converge, grow more like, make contact, and understand each other. This point is so subtle– indeed it is a kind of pinnacle of wisdom, and I would never have seen it on my own, but am borrowing it from others like David Bentley Hart and C.S. Lewis and Alasdair MacIntyre and my sister Rachel Lu, the Catholic philosopher— that I am hardly up to the challenge of giving an example. But suppose the greatest jurists from the ends of the earth were brought together: wouldn’t they be able to explain and understand one another’s systems with a degree of ease and profundity that would baffle less wise and more dogmatic minds schooled in those systems? And wouldn’t the great minds across the ages, the John Lockes and the Aristotles, understand one another better than the myriad “Aristotelians” and “Lockeans” who fill in the gaps?

Now, there are two opposite errors into which people can fall with respect to human differences. On the one hand, one may exaggerate them, and become a cultural relativist like Clifford Geertz or Margaret Mead, or in a different vein Jean-Paul Sartre, denying that there is any essential human nature, and insisting that everything we take to be fundamentally natural or true or right is simply the artifact of a particular symbolic environment, and ultimately arbitrary. No. People have much more in common than that, and human nature and virtue are objective realities.

The other error is the one I think Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer make in trying to found a political philosophy on “common-sense morality.” The problem with this project, in a nutshell, is that common sense is not common. To elaborate on that, what the phrase “common sense” will mean to the kind of typical Westerner who is the target audience of Caplan’s blog and Huemer’s book, is not actually something that all human beings as such have in common, but is heavily informed by the historical experiences of the West, which have given rise to certain values, ideas, and assumptions. In some respects, for example in its ideas about freedom of conscience and human rights, the West really represents the best that man has been and done and thought, and Western common sense really represents a truer view of reality, including moral reality, and a fuller human flourishing, than other cultures have attained. But even then, as other cultures have not attained to Western common sense, an argument from Western common sense is premature, as it does not appeal to premises they accept, and a prior task must be to raise them to the level of Western common sense through instruction and exhortation.  In other respects, for example in much of what it says about “equality” and “democracy,” as well as in its weakness for philosophical materialism, Western common sense is a tangle of pious thinking and willful confusion that can’t stand up to serious critical scrutiny, and the modern West is inferior in wisdom and insight to the best pre-modern and non-Western thought.

If men’s souls are as varied as dogs’ bodies, and if one wishes to craft arguments that can appeal to all men, appeals to common sense morality are too local and facile. One must probe deeper and cast one’s net wider in order to learn better what human beings are, and what values and beliefs they really have in common. Only then will it be possible to make a truly universal case for open borders. I still have a doubtless very biased notion that a decent sketch of what that case would look like is contained in my book, Principles of a Free Society.

Global Citizenship

The article “The Global Citizen without a Country,” at Public Discourse, seemed worth linking to and quoting, as relevant to my friendly feud with Bryan Caplan, and to his long-running battles with Steve Sailer and Mark Krikorian. The article is about the “global citizen” movement, which I had never heard of, but which seems to be at least as significant a phenomenon as what Dylan Matthews (it takes an outsider to bestow such a label) calls the open borders “movement.” The scale of it is impressive:

Within a few years of the September 11 attacks, anyone on a university campus could observe the steady growth of programs and institutes promoting global citizenship. By 2009, a number of my students on a study-abroad trip to the Middle East preferred to be known as global citizens rather than Americans. President Obama, who had proclaimed himself a “citizen of the world” the previous summer, was inaugurated the night we climbed Mount Sinai, and even the brand of water we purchased at the summit— “Baraka”—seemed to proclaim a new world order.

Of the top fifty U.S. News & World Report national universities, 60 percent have programs that identify or describe themselves in terms of global citizenship. So do over half of the top twenty-five colleges. Nearly all of these programs were founded or re-branded since 2001. This is remarkable, but understandable: who would deny that we have responsibilities to the rest of the world, or that we have loyalties beyond our own country? Who doesn’t want our universities to teach more effectively about the rest of the world?

The promise of global citizenship is as expansive as the rhetoric at the opening of a new session at the UN.

Are these people we should be recruiting to the open borders movement? It seems logical: if there is to be global citizenship, surely it makes sense that there be global freedom of migration as well. Also, what is the relationship between “global citizenship” and Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism?” Cosmopolitan  roughly means “the world is my city” in Greek, so the ideas ought to be nearly synonymous, but I’m guessing Caplan would prefer to opt out of citizenship altogether. Anyway, the author is somewhat dismissive of “global citizenship”:

To re-phrase H. Richard Niebuhr, this movement often imagines that citizens without countries will bring humans without a nature into society without culture through laws without foundation…

Actual citizenship entails formal membership in a particular political community with legally defined rights and duties. We quarrel over what citizenship means in the US because we have a common vocabulary to describe that membership. By contrast, you can easily lose your path upon entering the thicket of theory that marks the language of the global citizenship movement…

The global citizen who gets the highest praise typically works for a secular nongovernmental organization (NGO) such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Doctors Without Borders. But the definition would also apply to the adherents of any world religion and to many employees of multinational corporations.

Still, none of these people has actual political membership in a global community where he must “rule and be ruled,” as Aristotle described the citizen. Religions and NGOs are not self-sufficient. Their members don’t have to debate policies that radically affect everyone in the community where they live. Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen. Their loyalties may be “dissolved by the fancy of the parties,” to quote Edmund Burke’s critique of the revolutionary notion of citizenship in France. In short, they may contribute to the civil society of one nation, or several, but they are not “citizens” of any global entity—and some of the theorists admit as much.

The problem is not that the movement uses the term “citizenship” loosely. The problem comes from its view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent.

I agree that for citizenship to be meaningful and substantive, it must be broadly understood by the people concerned. In other words, it must be embedded in tradition, not in jargon and a “thicket of theory.”

But what are we to make of this sentence: “Above all, members’ participation is voluntary, unlike that of a citizen.” Ritchie seems to assume that voluntariness is inconsistent with citizenship. This isn’t the status quo even today. Many people are citizens because they chose to be, e.g., naturalized citizens of the USA. True, most people get their citizenship by birth and keep it, but why should this be an essential criterion of citizenship? On the contrary, the Declaration of Independence states that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights… [and] to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, the Declaration of Independence seems to insist precisely on the voluntariness of citizenship, the consent of the governed. It is an ideal doubtless difficult to implement and perhaps even naïve, but surely, to the extent that membership in an organized community is voluntary, any duties associated with membership are rendered more legitimate thereby. As for “the view that citizenship in an actual country is merely arbitrary or contingent,” this isn’t so much a “view” as a plain fact. I’m a US citizen because, by accident of birth, I was born a US citizen.

I agree with Ritchie is that to build global citizenship on “humans without a nature” is to build on sand, but from there on we part ways, and I sometimes find myself impressed by how well he articulates an obviously false view, as if he’s a volunteer straw man. As Thomas Jefferson understood, there is such a thing as human nature, and human rights are entailed by that nature. States are legitimate in virtue of their services as protectors of human rights.

As for “ruling and being ruled” and “debating policies that radically affect the community in which [one] lives,” non-states often have those features in a much greater degree than even the most democratic states. My family and my church are real communities in a way that the USA isn’t, and I have a real say in how they are run, while I’ve surely never significantly influenced the policies of the USA, and probably never could. Meanwhile, many of this world’s states don’t even pretend to let their peoples “rule” as well as be ruled, or to let them freely debate and have a say in policymaking. Again, Ritchie seems to be a volunteer straw man, making arguments that obviously fail for his side and cannot help being turned to his opponents’ advantage.

I am more sympathetic with Ritchie when he argues that “global citizens”…

place little value on the legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected the rights and established the social benefits they champion. Instead, their faith is in lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future.

Yes, “lists of principles that will be carried out sometime in the future” are no substitute for the “legal, social, and cultural histories of the countries that have protected… rights.” Real progress and prosperity depend on good institutions and traditions. I wrote, I think, quite a good defense of tradition in Chapter 2 of The Verdict of Reason. It’s too long to quote in full (here’s an ungated link), but I make a forceful argument that “tradition is the lifeblood of free societies,” because “tradition has epistemic value as society’s repository of knowledge about what works and does not work,” and “tradition is an indispensable medium for people to understand each other.”

That’s part of the reason why I resist Bryan Caplan’s “cosmopolitanism.” He breezily defines cosmopolitanism as “focusing on people’s common humanity rather than superficial differences.” The reality is that what is most superficial about us is not our differences but our similarities. We all (almost) have two legs and two arms and two eyes and walk and talk and eat and vary in weight by a factor of 3:1 or 4:1 at most, and less in height, but in our souls we are worlds apart. The Hindu and the Christian live on the same earth but in different cosmoses. What one man loves, another hates. The freedom Caplan prizes does have roots in “common sense,” though I’d prefer to say, in human nature. But it is also the specific heritage of the Christian West, and no one could have imagined modern Western freedom from the evidence of common sense alone, without the heritage of a hundred generations’ worth and more of tradition. Indeed, since Caplan sometimes seems to recognize this, perhaps we don’t really disagree.

Still, human rights are a moral reality, even if it takes a lot of tradition to inculcate in us a full appreciation of them. (Indeed, we still have a long way to go.) Ritchie praises the global citizens for their concern for human welfare…

It’s impossible to read the material on global citizenship without respecting its adherents’ commitment to human rights, peace, and global access to education, medicine, clean water, and food.

… but education, medicine, clean water, and food will be effectively secured for humanity only in the context of deep and well-grounded institutions. Now, part of the point of the open borders movement is that since it’s very difficult to build good institutions, people should be allowed to move freely to places where they are already in place. That does pose some risk that the good institutions will be degraded by changes in the underlying population, but we think the risk is manageable.

The article has a good deal about Edmund Burke, whose public career, as a defender of the rights of the Indian people against British imperialism, and of the American revolutionaries to make their own nation, but then as a critic of the French Revolution and a founder of intellectual conservatism, is an interesting case study in how rootedness and cosmopolitanism can be combined. Burke rightly believed in universal values, but understood that it is only through the customs, culture and institutions of particular communities that these can be realized, and it is on the building up of these, that most of our attention and effort should focus. That is citizenship, rightly understood.

That conclusion in no way implies that citizenism is necessary, advisable, or morally permissible. It isn’t. “Americans First” is a wanton denial of our responsibilities to our fellow man; one rarely encounters such a bluntly amoral doctrine, equally intolerable from a Kantian, utilitarian, or Christian perspective. But “global citizenship” is also a misconceived ideal, for at the end of the day, citizenship must be in a polity, and there is no global polity to be a citizen of, and we probably should not wish for one. Individualism is not enough; we need communities; and membership in communities, even when that membership is not wholly voluntary, can involve us in special duties. But real communities are more local than the whole globe.

Responsibilities to the communities one is a member of should never be an excuse for injustice, cruelty or indifference to the rest of our fellow men. In advocating open borders, I am first of all opposing an evil that is done on behalf of one form of community, the nation-state. But as open borders would transform people’s communities and identities, I am obliged to have at least vague answers to large questions about how human needs for community and identity will be met. My response is that the artificial concentration of loyalties that the nation-state has tried to force on us in the 20th century will be reversed, and that is probably a good thing. It is better for justice and imagination when membership is felt in many forms and at multiple levels, when communities overlap and interpenetrate one another, when identity is more complex and interesting than a mere titular nationality. I want, not to abolish the nation-state, but to limit its scope and power, and to reverse the stultification and flattening of identity, the eclipsing of a diverse ecology of communities by banal nationalistic pieties, and the substitution of openly coercive and arbitrary for at least notionally consensual community, that the monopolization of governance by the nation-state brought about.

See also my post “Immigration, Identity, Nationality, Citizenship, and Democracy.”

Equality of Opportunity

According to Dylan Matthews’ write-up of an interview with Bryan Caplan at Vox, Caplan’s elevator pitch is:

“What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else?” George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks. It’s a pretty easy question. Obviously, such a law is discriminatory on its face, serves no rational purpose, and is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. But Caplan continues: “So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

This argument, also discussed in the “equal opportunity” tab of our permanent content, may be the most effective way to make the case for open borders in two sentences, but I’m ambivalent about it. The ethical intuition it appeals to is equality of opportunity. This is a rather novel principle which, however, is widely accepted in our society as a supremely important moral desideratum, almost a synonym for justice. But I don’t believe in equality of opportunity. Not only is it an impossible ideal, it’s not even especially desirable. And while it’s hard to quantify, I suspect that modern Western society’s pursuit of that ideal has done a lot of harm.

Before I go on, let me say that Caplan’s “elevator case” only presumes that the government policy shouldn’t actively create inequality of opportunity. That’s probably a fairly sound principle of government for contemporary applications. But it’s a short step from asking “why should people born on the wrong side of the border have worse lives?” to asking “why should people born to poor parents have worse lives?” or even “why should people born with genes that make them mentally subpar have worse lives?” Soon you’ve activated luck egalitarian intuitions that people’s destinies ought to depend only on their efforts, and not on factors outside their control, and people start demanding that government policies and individual ethics should be drafted into service to realize comprehensive equality of opportunity in the world. This is a wrong road on which Western society has already traveled a long way.

Equality of opportunity is an appropriate desideratum in certain kinds of games. Take chess, for example. Chess is structured with a view to giving players an equal opportunity to win. They start with the same number and types of pieces, in symmetric positions on the board. Moves alternate, giving players equal numbers of chances to play. Well, almost. White’s first-mover advantage in chess is a well-established fact. In a sense, that’s a flaw in chess, but what can you do? Someone has to move first. Chess would be less interesting if there were huge departures from equality of opportunity, e.g., if White got two moves for every move by Black, or if White started with one rook less. The exception here proves the rule. Sometimes a stronger player deprives himself at the beginning of a rook. This is done to give the weaker player a chance, i.e., to restore equality of opportunity. But just because equality of opportunity is a good norm for all manner of games, doesn’t make it a good norm to try to realize in the life of societies.

In the US, the sanctity of equality of opportunity is a side-effect of the way we dealt with the deep historical tragedy of American blacks (i.e., African-Americans, but like some blacks I don’t like the phrase African-American, since it makes them sound foreign, when the average black bloodline must go back further on American soil than the average white bloodline). While many waves of immigrants to the US have assimilated comfortably, American blacks remain a distinctive, and in many respects a disadvantaged, people, and I think the reason is that they never consented to be part of the American people in the first place, so instead of the sense of social contract that is felt by people of free immigrant origins, the black community is pervaded by an understandable sense of historical grievance. If to reason about justice among groups in this way somewhat offends individualistic ethical assumptions, that doesn’t change the fact of long-term black alienation, passed from generation to generation and absorbed by osmosis from a social milieu, and ultimately rooted in the historical experiences of enslavement and segregation. To regard the imposition of equality of opportunity through anti-discrimination laws as a redress for historic wrongs is, for multiple reasons, an insult to justice, yet it may well have been the least bad way to heal the harmful legacy of racial slavery on the US body politic. But that doesn’t mean that equality of opportunity is a valid ethical principle in general.

The issue goes far beyond race. Whether attempts to apply the principle of equality of opportunity to gender have wrought net good or net harm, I’m not sure. Charles Murray’s Coming Apart grimly documents (among other things) how family breakdown has created a new underclass, and it’s hard to imagine that the surge in divorce and illegitimacy in the US doesn’t have something to do with the comprehensive attack by advocates of equality of opportunity on traditional marriage and its sexual division of labor. On the other hand, a lot of women now enjoy opportunities to pursue excellence that they wouldn’t have had. But that’s good because opportunities to pursue excellence are good in themselves, not because it’s especially important for them to be equally distributed across identifiable social groups such as genders, still less because equality of opportunity across individuals is attainable or desirable.

A race-blind society is a semi-attainable goal. A gender-blind society is not. It might just be possible to make education and labor markets gender-blind, but in the marriage market, sociobiology ensures that men will tend to like somewhat younger women, and will place less value on a mate’s education and potential income, while women are instinctively hypergamous. People will continue to respond to these gendered incentives in ways that make their aggregate performance differ in education and labor markets too, and that isn’t a problem, except from the warped point of view that sees equality of opportunity as a moral imperative. A dogmatic insistence that men and women must have the same opportunities in life will certainly make the problems harder, not easier, to think about clearly, and to deal with sensibly.

Equality of opportunity is sometimes thought of as “meritocratic” and conducive to efficiency, but it can also conflict with efficiency. Norman (2003) proves this in the abstract, by showing that statistical discrimination– “stereotypes”– can be a useful source of information, and can facilitate specialization and networking. Statistical discrimination can even be Pareto-improving, meaning that even the direct victims of statistical discrimination benefit from it, since privileged groups, if not compelled to include them, become more productive in activities that are complementary to those left to the excluded groups. Norman (2003) shows only that this is an abstract possibility, but I suspect that the growth of credentialism, whose wastefulness is one of Bryan Caplan’s regular themes, is partly a consequence of the spread of the principle of equality of opportunity, which made it politically incorrect to just hire trusted cronies or co-ethnics, and forced people to rely instead on impersonal systems like college that filter people much more expensively, and are trickier for less capable people to navigate.

Economic theory provides a certain clarity here. Economists like to speak of people’s “opportunity sets.” They usually start with simplified two-good models, e.g., if you have $10, and apples cost $1, and pears cost $2, you can buy 10 apples, or 8 apples and 1 pear, or 6 apples and 2 pears, etc. But the concept of an opportunity set is extensible to unlimited numbers of goods and services, and the budget constraint concept applies not just to money but to time, and maybe to other things like willpower, social capital, and appetite. Take all this into account, and the opportunity set that each of us faces when we start life is very, very complicated. What can equality of opportunity mean except that these opportunity sets ought to be identical for every individual born? And that, of course, is absurd. Or you could try to save the concept by aiming to equalize the “value,” in some sense, of people’s opportunity sets, but those schooled in the rigorous theory of value developed by economists know that it can’t do any such work. And attempts to make people’s opportunity sets more equal, beyond a certain point, must make the world more homogeneous and less interesting. Variety is the spice of life, and much of the social variety that we enjoy has its roots in differences of experience and circumstance that began well before the age of responsibility, and which would have to be erased, for more equality of opportunity to be attained.

I think one reason people value equality of opportunity is that they identify it with the democratic social contract. Equality of opportunity is an attempt to translate into the economic sphere the principle of “one person, one vote.” The Constitution lets any American (voters willing) be president, so the capitalist economy should be organized so that everyone has a chance at being the CEO of Coca-Cola or Google. By this account, it’s because everyone had a chance at being rich, that the capitalist system is fair, and deserves our support or at least acquiescence. There’s a naïve version of this argument and a cynical version. The naïve version really believes that equality of opportunity exists or is attainable, and seeks to protect or to establish it, so that the have-nots won’t be justified in launching a revolution. The cynical version knows that equality of opportunity is unattainable, but wants to preserve it as a myth, so that the have-nots will be told they could have had it all, but for their own indolence and mistakes, and that will demoralize them too much to make a revolution. Perhaps I’m attacking a straw man here, but I’m not sure.

What’s absurd about the contemporary West’s partially sincere commitment to equality of opportunity is that Western immigration restrictions are as flagrant and unmistakable a violation of equality of opportunity as could be imagined. That’s why Caplan’s attack is so devastating. The West excludes the vast majority of mankind from opportunities to prosper in the West that many would take advantage of, and benefit by, if they were allowed. By excluding them, we condemn to poverty, poor education, limited political freedom, and often disease and/or violence many who would come to the West and flourish. Equality of opportunity demands open borders.

Inequality within the West is mild compared to global inequality. Feminists scheduled Equal Pay Day on April 14, 2014 to complain that women (collectively) have to work until that date to make as much as men made in 2013. The implicit desideratum makes little economic sense even if the principle of equality of opportunity is accepted (a few happy housewives working part-time would bring the average down for women, but it would not represent any societal injustice) but for purposes of comparison, if estimates of the place premium were used to calculate an “Equal Pay Day” for foreigners, it would have to be postponed several years. In addition to economic inequalities, many foreigners suffer from a severe lack of religious and/or political freedom.

Once an interlocutor understands that equality of opportunity demands open borders, they have two choices. They can cling to a moral belief in equality of opportunity as a compelling desideratum, and accept that this entails opening the borders. But open borders would fall far short of delivering the unattainable, boring utopia of equality of opportunity. People born in poor countries would still be disadvantaged by not knowing English, not getting as much free education, and perhaps by not inculcating the ineffable habits and values that make Westerners free and productive.

On the other hand, an interlocutor might regard open borders as the reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, and abandon that moral principle. That’s fine, too. Let’s abandon that misguided ideal and think more rationally about how to promote human flourishing. Still, there is a little merit in the idea of equality of opportunity, and we should have a bias against government policies, like immigration restrictions, that directly and massively work against it.

By the way, those who have read to the end of this post may be interested in an earlier argument of mine that “private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine and should be legal.” Also relevant is my post “No Irish Need Apply.”