Autism Can’t Explain Away Open Borders Arguments

One of the strangest arguments anti-immigration advocates make is that immigration proponents have Asperger’s Syndrome.  What exactly is the substance (if there is any at all) of this criticism?

A brief background in Asperger’s syndrome may be helpful before continuing.  It is a mental condition characterized by difficulties in verbal and social communication, as well as a tendency to be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.  People diagnosed with it often have difficulty perceiving the feelings of others. However, people with Asperger’s generally have otherwise normal intelligence.  In fact, they are often unusually good at abstract reasoning, ordering and organizing knowledge, and focusing their attention on a single subject of interest without distraction.  Asperger’s is often considered a type of autism, but there is some debate on this topic.

Steve Sailer’s brief blog post “Libertarianism is Applied Autism,” is one of the earliest examples of this argument.  The main point he makes in this post is that libertarian economists do not realize that other people can sometimes behave violently.  He argues that a good reason for one to embrace citizenism is that citizens will assist one another in fighting against the violent people in the world.

Taken in this context, Sailer’s criticism is yet another iteration of the common “economist blind spot” attack.  He is essentially arguing that people engage in a form of non-market interaction (violence),  that anti-free-market solutions such as immigration restriction and citizenism are needed to deal with this fact, and that immigration advocates are blind to this fact.  The only difference is that this time he is claiming that the cause of this blindness is the cognitive impairments caused by autism rather than the simplifying assumptions that economists make in their work.

Other restrictionists have since made autism-related comments, but these do not really add anything new to Sailer’s original argument.  They retain the essential claim that open-borders advocates suffer from a cognitive dysfunction that prevents them from understanding certain restrictionist arguments.

This criticism is problematic in numerous ways.  The most obvious one is that many open borders advocates do engage with the “non-economicobjections restrictionists make and devote time, effort, and research to addressing them.  For instance, Bryan Caplan addresses the claims that immigrants generate political externalities and the claim that they contribute to crime. Nathan Smith addresses the “war” objection here and the “social capital decline” objection in great detail.  John Lee also addresses many of these objections and finds them wanting in the face of the incredible good that open borders could do.  And these are just a few examples.  Open borders advocates do understand these particular objections, and do make serious attempts to address them.

Furthermore, while it is true that open borders advocates do focus on the economic side of things, this is partly because it is simply the best researched topic.  Economists have done serious analyses of open borders and how it might affect the economy, but criminologists and sociologists have not done the same level of thorough research in regards to its effects on crime and society.  Open borders advocates have made serious efforts to research these “non-economic objections,” and what results on these topics they have found have been limited.

Another problem with this criticism is that it is not clear that the common-sense, intuitive view of human behavior that a neurotypical person would have is more correct than economic research.  The entire reason that economic research (and science in general, for that matter) is even done is that the human race’s common-sense view of how the world works is sometimes wrong.

There is a very large amount of psychological literature focused on phenomena such as the “fundamental attribution error” and “ultimate attribution error.”  These phenomena encompass the human tendency to incorrectly assume that a person or group’s innate disposition is the cause of their behavior, rather than external factors.  If human beings are biased towards attributing human behavior to innate dispositions, rather than external factors, an economic model the focuses on external incentives may well be more accurate than a common-sense model that disregards them.  A cynical reading of tendency of certain restrictionists to focus attention on innate factors like IQ is that they are attempting to find a way to salvage the fundamental attribution error.

Another problem with using the intuitive view when addressing immigration is scope neglect.  The human mind did not evolve to process the extremely large numbers of people that immigration policy deals with.  For this reason it seems likely that addressing immigration policy with an abstract, scientific approach, is more fruitful than using our more intuitive systems for understanding other humans.  Consider in particular the restrictionist tendency to focus on dramatic, frightening scenarios like crime, social pathology, and ethnic violence; and compare it to the open-borders advocate’s focus on economic deprivations. Also note that restrictionists sometimes seem to think that all they need to do is establish that these things could happen at all, rather than do a cost-benefit analysis of how likely they are to happen.  This is strongly reminiscent of the human tendency to focus on dangers that make for scary stories (i.e. murders, shark attacks) instead of dangers that are common and likely to happen (i.e. car crashes, heart disease).

A final objection to the “Asperger’s argument” can be found by considering what exactly it means to say that people with Asperger’s often “lack empathy.”  The term empathy has two common meanings.  It can mean the ability to perceive and notice other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 1).  And it can mean caring about other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 2).  To put it another way, Empathy 1 is about noticing the existence of other’s feelings, Empathy 2 is about caring about others’ feelings.  The “lack of empathy” in “Asperger’s syndrome” is Empathy 1, people with Asperger’s have trouble noticing if someone is happy or upset, but if they do manage to notice they display normal human levels of sympathy.

Many restrictionists, however (especially those of the “citizenist” bent), seem to be lacking in Empathy 2.  They tend to see potential immigrants in terms of IQ statistics, standard deviations and collections of “social pathologies,” rather than as people.  They lack much in the way of concern for the harm that immigration restriction inflicts upon others, particularly non-citizens.  If Libertarianism is applied Autism then Citizenism is applied Antisocial Personality Disorder. If one is to go about associating a political position with a mental disorder, it would probably be wise to check to make sure one’s own philosophy can’t be easily associated with an even worse disorder.

In light of this, it does not seem like the “Asperger’s argument” is a particularly valid criticism of open borders advocates.  Open borders advocates understand and engage with the criticisms that restrictionists claim “autism” makes them overlook.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the cognitive functions that Asperger’s and other forms of autism impair are necessary to understand the issues surrounding immigration policy.  Finally, the project of associating political positions with mental disorders is probably not a wise undertaking in the first place.


3 thoughts on “Autism Can’t Explain Away Open Borders Arguments”

  1. A few of your specific points have merit–some restrictionists should learn to be less mean-spirited–but it’s irrelevant in the big picture, and honestly, given the extremely aggressive tone taken by some of you, they deserve a ton of slack.

    The main argument being made for open borders involves a claim that we have a moral imperative to maximize global welfare, followed by a claim that open borders are needed to meet that imperative. Let’s take the first part for granted. You do realize that there is an empirical hard upper bound on the level of immigration that needs to be permitted for the immigrants to then be able to help themselves (under your usual assumptions of human interchangeability, anyway), right? Namely, the historical level of Chinese immigration to the West, which is quite small as a fraction of total Chinese population. There is no question that the know-how of Western-educated Chinese played a huge role in facilitating HK/Singapore/Taiwan and finally mainland China’s development… and also little question that China is largely capable of “helping itself” now. Moreover, when something has already been done by one group of people, all other things being equal it becomes easier for another group to replicate the feat.

    So, arguing against totally halting immigration and ripping away the ladder for the rest of the world’s poor to climb, yes, that’s defensible and most Americans today will agree with your position. But the claim that Americans are *morally obligated* to allow even more e.g. Mexican immigration than already occurs, when even one tenth the current level should be sufficient to allow the Mexicans to bootstrap themselves, is not only transparently false, but strongly implies malicious intent toward normal Americans (at least if the claim is not immediately abandoned in the face of falsifying information).

    Any level of immigration above the historical Chinese level has to be defended in terms of benefit to natives, not mythical marginal benefits to immigrants in a poor mathematical model, and especially not aggressive false appeals to moral obligations (which, as you’ve recently seen, is a strategy that is remarkably effective at getting a huge share of undecided people to turn against you). This can be done. I want to see it done. I want to see you guys push for adoption of policies in currently-dysfunctional countries that put them on track to be visibly functional; functional enough that Americans and others are happy to figuratively invite them to their houses. And I want to see you guys work with countries in which there is actually broad public support for increased immigration (they’re out there and this blog has already documented where they are), and then through a combination of trial-and-error and some sound theory develop policies that not only handle the load but thrive on it and make ordinary Americans think “I want some of that!”, instead of effectively being shills for America’s hostile elite and trying to intimidate a majority which correctly calculates that the policies you’re trying to force through will screw them over.

    But Caplan will never do anything like this, and you guys are not currently on track either. This makes me sad, because I know that some of you are really trying to help.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Do you think the “empirical hard upper bound” on the level of immigration that can be usefully harnessed by sending societies is general, or country-specific? In the case of China, it seems to me that the useful existence of Hong Kong was historically contingent, and Taiwan was also an accidental result of a violent revolution. Might more immigrants be needed in the case of, say, a poor sub-Saharan state? Does the number depend on how iron the grip is of a ruling junta?

    Could you elaborate on the “malicious intent toward normal Americans”? You might disagree with us on the facts, but I don’t think any of the bloggers on this site believe increased immigration to America (or Europe, Japan, etc) will be on the whole harmful to natives.

    1. The Chinese are not the only people who have modernized via heavy importation of foreign know-how; they’re just the most prominent example (and China itself was something of a laggard). Rwanda is a sub-Saharan state which is generally accepted as having gotten its act together lately, and this has not required a high volume of emigration.

      Ruling juntas can block the “return” part of the emigrate-and-return dynamic, so yes, they can be a problem. Beyond the obvious claim that you should generally minimize the probability that your own homeland falls to a hostile ruling junta for a long time, there isn’t a general solution here; such situations have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Accepting refugees is one tool in making life suck less for them, and there’s a place for international agreements here (fortunately, these now exist), but it’s mostly a stopgap and should be combined with other approaches if you really care about that group’s welfare.

      “Could you elaborate on the ‘malicious intent toward normal Americans’? You might disagree with us on the facts, but I don’t think any of the bloggers on this site believe increased immigration to America (or Europe, Japan, etc) will be on the whole harmful to natives.”

      That’s irrelevant; what matters is that the natives do think that, and instead of trying to persuade them by positive example (i.e. find a cooperative small country, and get open borders working there that others want to imitate you), people on your side try to intimidate the persistent 70+% majority with browbeating backed by political and media power. You take it for granted that you know better than they do what’s best for them; this is reprehensible, especially when people as intelligent as you have taken the time to you why they probably are *not* doing the math wrong (even though many of them couldn’t articulate the math).

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