Eternal Vigilance: A Response to Professor Bryan Caplan

Open Borders note: With the exception of the link to Caplan’s post being responded to, all other links have been added by Open Borders staff to ease research, and not at the behest of the author.

Author’s Note: While my original agreement with the staff at Open Borders was to write a single blog post, a recent post from Professor Bryan Caplan at the Library of Economics and Liberty caught my eye as being directly relevant to our discussion. I still intend to honor my one-week agreement, but the Open Borders staff has generously allowed me to post a short response to Professor Caplan here.

In response to your post, Professor Caplan: There is a reason that immigration restriction is fundamentally different than the other faux “policies” you list in your post. That fundamental difference is that the freedom to teach and learn how you wish, reproduce as you wish, speak and vote how you wish are all liberties of a particular group, and restricting who enters that group is the only way to preserve those liberties in the long term.

I am not swayed by the concepts of “natural rights.” They are a fine moral construct for philosophical debates, but when it comes to the world in which we live, great individuals had to sacrifice tremendously to secure those liberties from those who would trample them, whether or not they’re your natural rights. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. I am not so alarmist as to think that open borders today would lead to disaster tomorrow, or even ten years from now. But if I want my grandchildren to grow up in a nation where they have the freedom to speak, vote, reproduce, teach, learn, and live their lives as they wish, then the nation must be preserved.

If everyone in the world wanted freedom and liberty as badly as the early Americans did, then the whole world would now have governments very similar to America’s. That is not the case. People want prosperity, but the vast majority of people cannot identify the link between freedom and prosperity. They think America is wealthy because of the things they see: land, technology, etc. They don’t recognize that it is our freedom that makes us wealthy. And so they think they can come to America and enjoy all the prosperity, but also use all that wealth to create vaster and vaster government involvement until we are wealthy no more. I don’t think this will happen in ten or maybe even twenty years. But unless it is abated, I think it could happen in one hundred, or even fifty.

The most moral policy of any government is one that creates the most net freedom for its people. If a small freedom must be revoked so that a vastly greater freedom is preserved, then that policy is moral. The Founding Fathers understood this – they did not gain independence from Great Britain and then abolish all government in favor of anarchy. They created a limited government that must (as all governments must), by its very nature, infringe on liberty to some small degree. Their goal was to keep that degree as small as possible while still preserving the greater liberty. Minor restrictions on immigration are no different. I do not advocate closing the borders; I don’t even suggest a set quota. Rather, I suggest strict criteria, such that liberty is preserved.

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4 thoughts on “Eternal Vigilance: A Response to Professor Bryan Caplan”

  1. As far as I can see, major shifts in political outlook have practically always occurred within populations.

    E. g. Germans circa 1850 were overwhelmingly pro-liberty and wanted a system along the lines of either Great Britain or the US. It was not to be, not because Germans did not want it, but because their rulers had more fire power. There was still a large segment of the population that was pro-liberty in the ensuing decades, but by about 1900 it was mostly gone. And for the next half century it was not about how much less pro-liberty, but only about how much more totalitarian the Zeitgeist should be. It is hard to explain how and why this happened. Only immigration did not play a role. Germany was a country of emigration the whole time.

    So we can cross out National Socialism as something that shows a pattern you fear. Likewise Fascism in Italy occurred in a country of emigration, so did Communism in Russia or China, Japanese authoritarianism and various authoritarianisms in Eastern Europe.

    In a European context, the countries with the most immigration for a long time were France and the United Kingdom. You could argue that they also experienced a similar shift as in Germany, but it never got that bad. And on a world scale, actually the countries with the most immigration held up very well: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

    The shift in public opinion that I guess you deplore in the US: Progressives, the New Deal, etc. was home-grown and occurred in tandem with more and more restrictive immigration policies. It was heavily influenced by the shift in Germany, but via the spread of ideas, not via immigration.

    It is certainly not as clear cut. Latin American countries have had both their share of immigration and of authoritarianism although I am not sure whether immigration caused the latter. My point is not that I claim that immigration will always be pro-liberty, only that looking at historical examples it seems as if the connection runs in the opposite direction. Correlation, no causation. But if correlation has the wrong sign or is not there, causation does not even get off the ground.

  2. I was wondering whether I could even turn your argument around. Probably that goes too far, and I’d expect there to be some qualifications I am missing at the moment.

    Doesn’t collectivism presuppose that you have some collective to refer to? A collective would be a group of people that intuitively feels like a huge family, seems to have a unified purpose, is highly homogeneous, etc. (at least versus some out-group, what postmodernists like to call the Other).

    Now take a country where it is easy to view most people as such a collective: e. g. 95% speak German and are related at the local level (so you feel like you are also closely related to everybody else) or 99% in this country are muslims. This does not mean that people will necessarily adopt a collectivist agenda, but it at least makes it possible. The more you promote this idea of there being a homogeneous collective, the more you might pave the way for a collectivist agenda.

    Contrast this with a country where you have many different groups who feel like a huge family each of them, but also view other groups as different such entities, that are even a bit suspicious of them.. If there are many such groups without one so large they can see themselves as the default group and all the others just as minorities, it will be much harder to come up with the idea everybody should consider themselves as part of a unified collective. It may even be impossible. Alliances of such groups are possible, but transaction costs rise with numbers.

    In this case there would be a strong incentive to not create institutions that could be used by one group against others. And even very disparate groups could find it in their best common interest to prevent the government from becoming such a tool. So the takeaway would be: better leave everybody alone, i. e. more liberty or no erosion of existing liberty.

    A classical example would be religious toleration. When there was one Catholic church, heretics would be burnt at the stake. When there were many denominations, each of them tried to do this to the others. Since that did not work, after the 30 Years War and especially the Civil War in England many realized that religious toleration was the lesser evil (an evil as long as they remained intolerant in principle). Actually, it was a great gain for liberty. And that’s also where the Founders got their intuition from not to have an established church, but separation of state and church instead. So the precondition for more liberty was that there was more diversity.

    Or I had to think of a post by an American National Socialist on UseNet long ago where he kind of resigned and analyzed why National Socialism has such a hard time in the US. Basically, it was that the US is too diverse. And I really empathize with him (only on this point!): It is extremely hard to transplant such a movement from its original context to the US. If you define Aryans as all those of pure German (plus perhaps English, Dutch and Scandinavian) descent, there are not too many of them to begin with. As far as I know American National Socialists have tried to circumvent this problem by allowing also people of Slav ancestry in as Aryans. There were a few classical National Socialists, e. g. Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue, who were favorable to such an idea, but Hitler would have been appalled. And still with this extended definition you don’t make much headway in the US. That may also explain why National Socialism never caught on in more diverse countries, such as Switzerland or the US. More diversity, less collectivism.

    Another point would be studies that show that ethnically diverse countries tend to have smaller welfare states. I think Open Borders has a section on this.

    So the bottom line of this argument would be that immigration and diversity might block the march towards collectivism, can halt the erosion of liberty, and may even promote liberty.

    You could even wonder whether slower assimilation would be a good thing, and having a steady influx of new immigrants, so a society stays diverse.

  3. “If everyone in the world wanted freedom and liberty as badly as the early Americans did, then the whole world would now have governments very similar to America’s.”

    This feels a bit like begging the question to me. It ignores, for instance, the nature of founder effects, which I believe are huge. To be blunt, the argument that “If you weren’t able to create freedom in your community, clearly you didn’t want it badly enough” strikes me as exactly the sort of naivete which skeptics often accuse open borders advocates of falling prey to. I’m happy to give credence to this argument, but I’ve never seen the issue of founder effects more than cursorily addressed whenever such an argument is advanced.

    A moment’s thought should suggest that the individual person, in any political system, has little to no chance of changing that political system dramatically. This is why so many people chose to flee East Germany or Cuba. The political systems of many democracies today are still flawed — not as badly as the former Soviet bloc countries’, but still quite badly.

    The founder effects of the Haitian or Vietnamese or Tanzanian polities linger long after their founders have been buried. Should East German migrants have been shot because they clearly didn’t love liberty enough? If no, why should Haitian or Vietnamese or Tanzanian migrants be shot? The fact that their countries might have more nominally open political systems than the former East Germany or Cuba doesn’t alter the reality that the individual citizen in any of these countries has no realistic way to make their sociopolitical system a better one.

    Similarly, the US polity survived dramatic influxes of migrants from relatively more unfree, uneducated, and uncultured societies in the 19th century, despite being in a still very embryotic state. The founder effect, where immigrants must submit to the political system they find, is quite clear.

    Over the long run, one can argue that founder effects matter much less. But let’s have that argument, instead of assuming that even in the long run, founder effects have little to no meaningful impact on political outcomes.

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