Open borders advocates: guilty of the “not as bad as” fallacy?

RationalWiki‘s page on not as bad as describes it as a form of the moral equivalence fallacy:

There are a few different reasons someone will want to pull a “not as bad as” comparison. Consider a generic argument about something, A, and the reasoning below:

B happened, and is worse than A.
Therefore A is justified.

This is the most blatantly fallacious form of the argument and is a hindsight version of the “not as bad as” argument that states past actions can legitimise current actions. The existence of a worse atrocity in the past, however, does not actually justify anything – it merely points out that there have been similar things in the past. People who use this as a justification may be well aware that it’s logically fallacious, and use it purely as rhetoric, or as a distraction.

Open borders advocates often critique restrictionists using arguments like the master race critique from Bryan Caplan: they critique restrictionists for being unduly obsessed with the plight of the poor in the developed world, whose poverty is not as bad as the poverty of poor people in other parts of the world, or the poverty of poor people historically. Are open borders advocates committing the “not as bad as” fallacy, by trivializing, ignoring, and justifying inaction regarding the plight of the poor in the developed world, just because others have it worse?

I don’t think so. If it were the case that open borders advocates are shrugging off the harms to poor natives from immigration citing that things were worse for others, without noting any offsetting benefits to others, then this would be an example of the fallacy. However, in addition to their moral arguments, open borders advocates explicitly note their belief that open borders generate more benefits, particularly for people who may be much poorer than the poor in the developed world — in other words, poor people that the egalitarian or worldwide Rawlsian should be more concerned about. The harm wrought to poor natives is thus inextricably linked to the benefit to poorer non-natives; the inextricable link between these is what makes this a non-fallacy.

RationalWiki agrees later in the page that there is a valid form of the argument that is not fallacious, but adds further caveats:

Action B is worse than action A.
Therefore action A is the right thing to do.

This is perhaps the most valid comparison that can be drawn if discussing two courses of action that can be taken, but like most “not as bad as” arguments potentially suffers from the fallacies of the false dichotomy and argument from adverse consequences. If the argument is about ranking things from bad to worse then it’s fine; but you cannot justify A by citing only B because the two may not have anything to do with each other. This is common if Secret Option C is actually the best, but someone wants to make a red herring to avoid anyone spotting its existence.

Again, in this case, open borders advocates have proposed for consideration various versions of “Secret Option C” that could be win-win for all parties — namely, keyhole solutions such as immigration tariffs, guest worker programs, and my co-blogger Nathan Smith‘s elaborate DRITI scheme. This does not mean that all open borders advocates sign on to these keyhole solutions as truly necessary; often their signing on is in a spirit of compromise. For instance, here’s what my co-blogger John Lee said in a comment on his own post:

Thanks Nathan. I think we agree on what’s probably the best achievable policy reform for now (immigration tariffs), but I am inclined to disagree with your moral preference for Pareto-improving policies here, as well as your characterisation of them as merely “a little unfair”. I think immigration tariffs would be a massive improvement, but remain a distant second-best policy (from a moral standpoint) to true open borders. I used to consider immigration tariffs the best policy here, but have been convinced by the economic evidence that I was placing far too much weight on natives’ welfare, and far too little on migrants’ welfare. (This change in my beliefs is something I plan to write more on, so I won’t elaborate too much on it here.)

But even here, John Lee is not dismissing the harms to natives, but rather, weighing these against the gains to non-natives as well as moral considerations in coming to his conclusion that, in fact, not having immigration tariffs would be his preferred solution, if indeed that were politically feasible.

So, as a factual matter, I don’t think that open borders advocates are committing the “not as bad as” fallacy.

However, I think that the rhetoric of open borders advocates can sometimes sound exceedingly blase towards the plight of their fellow natives. For instance, in his classic post on low-skilled Americans as the master race, Caplan concludes with:

What about low-skilled Americans? They were born in the U.S. and speak fluent English. Let them count their blessings.

This comes across as remarkably blase and elitist, and it’s not surprising that Caplan received plenty of pushback in the comments. Megan McArdle (then writing under the pseudonym Jane Galt), who was sympathetic to Caplan, had to disavow some of Caplan’s language in her endorsement and strike a more sympathetic-to-all tone (emphasis in original):

I’m more sympathetic to those low-skilled Americans than Mr Caplan–indeed, if anyone has any good ideas about how to transform them into high-skilled Americans, I’m all ears. But aside from vulgar nationalism . . . in which, I confess, I often indulge myself . . . I can’t see a good reason for caring about them more than millions who live in really desperate poverty to our south. Though I feel more than a smidge uncomfortable smiling gaily at the nations janitors and short-order cooks and telling them that it’s just too bad, but we all have to do our bit to fight poverty.

On a note similar to Caplan, in a recent Twitter exchange, Alex Nowrasteh, constrained by Twitter’s 140-character limit, came across as probably more callous to the welfare of low-skilled natives than he intended to. Here’s the exchange.

I think it’s tempting for open borders advocates to resort to “not as bad as” dismissive jargon when confronted with extremely citizenist restrictionists who seem completely indifferent to the welfare of non-citizens while being very concerned about their fellow citizens, or with their more left-wing counterparts who tend to focus on territorialism, focusing on the condition of current guest workers while ignoring the potential for global gains through immigration tariffs or the expansion of guest worker programs. it’s tempting to mock citizenist restrictionists as hypersensitive, lacking in perspective, and morally narrow-minded. I know it; I’ve been there myself. But the end result of a dismissive tone is that the open borders advocate comes across as equally narrow-minded and the debate is in danger of sliding into an ad hominem exchange, often with the open borders advocate’s private charitable contributions being questioned.

Does this mean that open borders advocates should not point out the benefits to non-natives? No, I think they should, and should highlight them. Also, I don’t think it is necessary for open borders advocates to go out of their way to shed crocodile tears for fellow natives for whom their hearts don’t bleed — such fake concern is worse than an honest expression of indifference. If they do feel concerned about their fellow natives, they should of course express this concern. If they don’t feel concern, they should just steer clear of making statements that might come across as spiteful jabs at fellow natives and stick instead to a more academic tone in their cost-benefit analysis.

3 thoughts on “Open borders advocates: guilty of the “not as bad as” fallacy?”

  1. Kudos for covering all bases, I suppose, but I don’t think open borders advocates could be accused of this fallacy by anyone who’s paying attention to the debate and understanding it. Utilitarianism, Rawlsianism, and natural rights are all way above the level of such elementary fallacies as “not as bad as,” and there are strong cases for open borders from all of those premises. Lack of meta-ethical sophistication is not among open borders advocates’ besetting sins!

    1. To my knowledge, open borders advocates haven’t yet been explicitly accused of committing the “not as bad as” fallacy. But I think that this is sort of implicit in some critiques of open borders advocates and, as I said, it’s better to be self-reflective and preemptive about possible criticisms than to find oneself confronted by them out of the blue.

  2. Good piece. The Kaldor-Hicks efficiency framework is how I view this issue. Americans who are substitutes to immigrants and those who would be substitutes if more lawful immigration is allowed would face lower incomes unless task specialization along linguistic or cultural lines is underestimated. I am not an anti-citizenist like many other commentators on this blog so that wage impact on Americans bothers me a bit more than a similar impact would on people in a different country, but the economic benefits to other Americans, the immigrants, and future Americans so outweighs those costs that vastly more lawful immigration is worth the anticipated short term wage impact on poorer Americans.

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