All posts by Sam Wilson

Moral Intuition, Open Borders, and the Euvoluntary Principle

This is a guest post by Sam Wilson, who writes for the Euvoluntary Exchange blog. His immigration posts can be found here. Sam Wilson also wrote a guest post for EconLog containing an empirical analysis of the political externalities of immigration to the United States.

I’d like to first thank Vipul Naik for offering me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts here. I am a proponent of free migration for all and I agree that border restrictions are among the most severe barriers to
prosperity facing humanity. Freedom of movement is both a matter of basic human dignity and a necessary check on the bloodlust of tyrants. Open borders advocates support the primary cornerstone of liberty: self-determination. I am proud to count myself among their number.

At the blog I regularly write for, Euvoluntary Exchange, we spill quite a bit of digital ink investigating the intersection of everyday morality and market exchange. Needless to say, this can cover a lot of ground. Morality suffuses the whole of humanity, and the exchange relation elevates our species from scattered clusters of extended family bands to complex societies where stranger can live alongside stranger in peace and prosperity. The overarching puzzle for a euvoluntaryist like me is to identify instances where moral intuition leads ordinary people into supporting policies that undermine or thwart others’ natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. Deontological concerns conflict with consequential outcomes, and part of the euvoluntary project is to catalog and describe these conflicts in the hopes that we can help people to see how a quotidian morality can be antithetical to the human endeavor of peaceful cooperation.  Here are some of my previous thoughts on how euvoluntary exchange relates to the issues of immigration.

Keyhole solutions are the topic for today. Naik described three options:

  1. Open borders without keyhole solution A.
  2. Open borders with keyhole solution A.
  3. Closed borders and/or status quo.

From these three primary positions, we can map six sets of rank-ordered preferences:

  1. (1)>(2)>(3)     open borders → keyhole → status quo
  2. (1)>(3)>(2)     open borders → status quo → keyhole
  3. (2)>(1)>(3)     keyhole → open borders → status quo
  4. (2)>(3)>(1)     keyhole → status quo → open borders
  5. (3)>(1)>(2)     status quo → open borders → keyhole
  6. (3)>(2)>(1)     status quo → keyhole → open borders

Naik provided an excellent descriptive analysis of each of these rank orderings, including examples where examples were to be found. I’d like to extend this a bit to plumb the moral intuitions underpinning (4)-(9).

Effective advocacy must be predicated on mutual understanding. What moral principles do open borders advocates share with the median voter? How are open border policies consistent with these moral principles? How can we prompt people to closely examine their positions in light of commonly-held moral principles? How shall we coordinate a consistent message?

Let’s start by parsing anti-foreigner bias. Documentarian Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) has a show called 30 Days where regular folks do something unpleasant for a month to see if they change their mind at the end of the treatment. Episode 201, “Immigration” put a gentleman who was a strong (9) in a household of undocumented workers. By the time he was done, he was either a weak (9) or maybe a (7). Why the change of heart? Judging by his comments, I think it was a confluence of at least two factors: (A) legislative bias and (B) construal-level error. Legislative bias economizes on scarce attention: elected representatives are the presumptive experts in policy formation, so if a “law” is on the books, it (presumptively, of course) represents careful deliberation and is quasi-panglossian. Furthermore, the experiences of foreigners are processed in far mode, highly abstract, liberated from concerns of detail. It’s fairly easy to see how this confluence of cognitive shortcuts can contribute to support for the status quo. Note that this result is robust even in the absence of aesthetic objections to immigration. You don’t have to be a nationalist to trust your politicians and to glaze over the challenges of living in poverty.

I suspect that aesthetic objections define the boundary between short- and long-term coalition possibilities. Convincing (5)s or (8)s of accepting keyhole solutions as a morally acceptable improvement seems straightforward: the immense inequality imposed by strict immigration restrictions swamps the inequality that would arise from red card solutions and the regulatory apparatus needed to administer keyhole solutions will likely be less onerous than attempting to patrol expansive geographical borders. These are folks for whom the barriers to changing immigration policy are technical matters: how will the welfare state accommodate an influx of newcomers? How will the political and bureaucratic process manage the administration of the keyhole solution? I am inclined to dismiss the ethical objections grounded in claims of potential exploitation because of reasons examined in great detail at my home blog: any potential exploitation introduced by a keyhole solution will enter immigrants’ decision calculus; those that still elect to come do so with the understanding that life after migration beats their alternatives at home. Nobody is being tricked here. If they choose to come, it’s because it beats the alternative. Forcing someone to accept a relatively worse alternative to satisfy a sense of moral smugness is immoral.

But how should an open borders advocate negotiate with both the keyhole-averse and the keyhole-first people? (7)s and (5)s appear to have mutually exclusive moralities: one is so against paying for social services for immigrants they’re willing to consign peaceful people to lives of poverty, the other so adamantly against re-crafting second class citizenry that they’re willing to do the same. Deontology triumphs over consequences yet again. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this dilemma. At home, we in the euvoluntary crew make our bones by showcasing the monstrous consequences of interventions and hope that our arguments are sufficiently convincing. For grown adults with myelated frontal cortices, I worry that it isn’t, but I don’t know for sure what else to do. Suggestions are welcome.

A related, minor point concerns disingenuousness. (8)s and (9)s may claim to be (6)s or (7)s in the abstract, but if it looks like the status quo is actually under threat, they may revert to near-mode objections to immigration. This is a perpetual challenge to anyone attempting to overcome atavistic biases. There’s some literature on truth-revealing institutions, but these are typically used to solve local, small-scale public-goods provision problems. Raising exit costs ex ante will do little but ensure a coalition never forms in the first place, particularly since the narrowly self-interested people (the immigrants themselves) are expressly disenfranchised. Dishonesty is an existential risk. Account for it. Lame advice? Perhaps. I’m not sure what else to say though.

Some objections to immigration are taste-based. Aesthetic arguments are generally more immune to reasoned debate. You can’t just tell George Bush about the health benefits of broccoli and expect him to overcome his atavistic childhood revulsion. No, he just hates broccoli and he won’t eat it, and that’s that. Even the most brilliant elocutionist is going to have a hard time changing an individual’s values. It might be possible to form a coalition with folks naturally amenable to welcoming immigrants, but the enduring challenge is to build a larger constituency over the long run. Think of this as a plank in the larger platform of the liberty movement. The heavy lifting is to convince people that plebeian dignity is a worthwhile goal, that self-determination is the birthright of all people. If we can figure out how to do this, concerns about faction alignment will be trivial.

As for specific advice on how to swell the ranks of folks who appreciate the dignity of the fourth estate? I’m no marketing expert, but consistency, professionalism, and integrity have served me well in the past. Many people seem to be averse to monstrous outcomes, so a touch of consequentialist reasoning probably isn’t out of order. Discerning and redirecting deontological objections is probably important too. I find it encouraging that blatant racism has become unpopular in the US; if the same can be done with nationalism, that might be a step towards a more universal equality of opportunity. I welcome ideas about how to do this. More importantly, we should be diligent about how we raise our children. Part of the Socialist Party’s Fabian strategy was (is?) to pre-empt public education. Guiding the mind of the future median voter may be a matter of hoisting the yoke of state-approved education. Like all good economists, we know to set marginal cost to expected marginal benefit. It seems to me that we’ll be able to get more bang for our buck by sharing classical liberal values with folks who aren’t already set in their ways.