Open borders and tolerance

This post builds on a previous post where I was critical of conflating open borders with other migration-related beliefs. If open borders doesn’t rely too heavily on migration-related beliefs, what does it rely on? In other words, why might one have a prior in favor of open borders? By prior here, I mean a strong inclination to accept a position somewhat resembling open borders while being (as of that point in time) ignorant of large chunks of pertinent evidence. I will draw on my personal experience and belief system to answer this. These are purely my personal views, and I strive here to elucidate rather than advocate.

My own belief in open borders does not arise from any particular “pro-migrant” beliefs. Migrants are human beings, just like non-migrants (contra James Donald). There may be some systematic differences due to selection effects (which could go in a pro- or anti- direction), and the nature of these differences is likely to change if migration policy changes significantly. Ultimately, however, these differences aren’t what’s driving, or detracting from, my support for free migration in a meaningful way. So what is? Fundamentally, it’s the “commonsense libertarian” approach pioneered by the likes of Bryan Caplan. But formal libertarian theory can focus too exclusively on government and coercion. So I will step back to describe my broader philosophy.

For want of a better word, that approach is tolerance. The term has many different meanings, so I will try to sketch what I mean by it. I’m not trying to say that my usage is the correct one or that others should conform.

Tolerance

Image depicting tolerance, source Patheos

Tolerance as indifference

One can think of tolerance as indifference, or simply not caring. The threshold for not caring may vary. Here are some illustrative possibilites:

  • “I don’t care either way. I don’t know this person and what they’re doing isn’t affecting me (non-negligibly), so I don’t care.”
  • “I don’t care as long as it’s not tangibly harming the people involved.”
  • “I don’t care as long as they’re not harming innocent bystanders.” Such an attitude migh be tolerant of drinking too much but not of drunk driving.

What if I do care? What if a friend is drinking too much and ruining his life? What if somebody is eating unhealthily, or has some habits that I think harm other people? What authority, and what obligation, do I have to interfere? This way of thinking about tolerance doesn’t help address such questions, and insofar as such tolerance is elevated on a pedestal, it goes against a commitment to care for the world and make it a better place. Such tolerance isn’t virtuous. At best, it is tolerable.

Thin libertarian tolerance: a presumption against coercion

At minimum tolerance implies a strong presumption against coercive intervention, even if it is for the other person’s or third parties’ good, and even more so in cases where it’s just about promoting my own interests. Bryan Caplan proposes concerned tolerance in the case that people are doing something that’s not in their own or each other’s interests: inform and educate, but beware of coercion. Even if coercion seems to pass a naive cost-benefit analysis, the complexity of the world should give one pause. This is the “thin libertarian” concept of tolerance, and, at least on paper, one could “deduce” open borders from it, combining with some general beliefs about the prima facie right to migrate. But tolerance as I use the term goes beyond this thin libertarian version, and I think that the additional aspects of it really do add to our understanding of the moral need for open borders. (See here for a backgrounder on thick and thin libertarianism).

We influence each others’ environment (duh!)

Our activities influence one another all the time. Your choice of neighbors affects your quality of life in myriad ways even if you rarely have direct interactions with your neighbors. Recently, I asked the shopkeeper at the grocery store near my residence why he had stopped stocking eggplants (brinjals). He said that people don’t buy the eggplants, so he had to throw them away. My neighbors’ non-preference for eggplants was depriving me of easy access to eggplants. This is just one of thousands of ways that the tastes of one’s neighbors affect one’s quality of life. It’s tempting to call these “externalities” although mechanisms such as rents and housing prices internalize them to quite an extent.

As it happens, my desire for easy access to eggplants is not sufficiently strong for me to be too unhappy about my neighbors’ tastes. But it wouldn’t be intolerant of me to factor this, and many other considerations, in deciding where to live. People do this all the time. It’s not intolerant to try to live in places surrounded by neighbors who share one’s values and can therefore make one’s life more pleasant, as long as one is willing to pay the price. Neither is there anything wrong about choosing a place where one’s life is perhaps not that pleasant, with non-like-minded neighbors, if one wants to cut down costs. (Some people might luck out in finding that the things they value the most can be found at a relatively cheap place). People are looking at their own preferences, understanding how their neighbors alter the landscape for them, and making (partly) informed decisions based on that.

[Sidenote: As Bill Bishop and Charles Murray have pointed out, people residentially segregate based on socio-economic status, education level, and political beliefs quite a bit in the United States, with important social, economic, and political implications, some of which they deplore. But neither of them challenge people’s fundamental freedom to choose where to live, even if they think the consequences are not always pretty.]

Is it okay to coerce people to shape their influences on your environment?

On the thin libertarian conception, it would be intolerant to attempt to coercively restrict the choices of those neighbors. On a somewhat thicker conception, I believe that it’s intolerant to be vociferously critical, or create unpleasant situations, for these neighbors on account of these choices, even though those choices do in the aggregate reduce my quality of life somewhat. While it’s within my libertarian rights to put out pamphlets shaming people for not buying eggplants, I would consider such behavior intolerant (even if it had a chance of succeeding). It would be okay for me to request people to buy eggplants so that they stay in stock — as long as I’m honest that my main motivation is personal rather than doing this for their good.

I don’t particularly love or hate the people I meet on the street, nor do I aspire to such feelings. They are people — like all the people I may not meet. They have preferences of their own, that shape the environment I live in — sometimes to my benefit, sometimes to my detriment. If I am deeply inconvenienced, I could request them to change (while being honest about whether my request is selfishly motivated, and accommodating of the fact that they are not obliged to heed my request) — and pay them if that’s necessitated. And if it gets too intolerable, I can move elsewhere. If I am not inconvenienced enough to do this, I should shrug it off.

Such tolerance is not merely for the benefit of others, but also my own — I can feel more at peace if I combine ” the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (Bryan Caplan made a similar point here). In other words, tolerance is not just about resisting the use of coercion, but also resisting the impulses that make one want to use coercion — impulses that view others as means to ends or as creatures to be manipulated for one’s benefit. Embracing such tolerance would not merely make people support open borders (or something close), it would also lead them to feel that it’s the right thing. Note that tolerance alone doesn’t imply efforts to actively advocate for open borders — such efforts might require either a specific interest in the subject or a general altruistic character combined with some reasons for believing that open borders advocacy is worthwhile enough.

While the eggplant example might seem laughably trivial compared to the stakes involved with immigration, it’s worth noting that at least some of the complaints about immigration can seem equally trivial. Consider, for instance, that “press 1 for English” is a rallying cry for a number of complaints about immigration. See for instance here and here or just Google it. But then again, trivial inconveniences are not to be scoffed at. But more on the specific issues of language in a separate post. In the meantime, check out Nathan Goodman’s post.

[On a related note, the inconveniences that people impose on each other by living near each other is one of the ingredients in the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual. I don’t disagree with the premise that people affect each other. The premise that I do disagree with is that existing government policies force integration so heavily that we need to resort to immigration restrictions to maintain people’s freedom of association and mimic an anarcho-capitalist society. I admit this isn’t a very satisfactory response, so do read our page linked above, and for a more eloquent elaboration of my point, see Bryan Caplan’s post on association, exclusion, liberty, and the status quo.]

Tolerance of intolerance

The phrase “paradox of tolerance” has been used for the seemingly paradoxical idea that “tolerance” can include tolerance of intolerance. I don’t think it’s that paradoxical in this context. Let me elaborate.

In my view, true tolerance includes tolerance, and even empathy, for people who find open borders deeply unsettling, whether or not I agree with their particular concerns. Example: people who worry about a glut of languages being spoken around them as a result of too much migration, as discussed earlier in the post. Whether or not I share these fears, and whether or not I think that too many languages being spoken around is a good or a bad thing, there is no reason to shame people for holding the view that they find such behavior deeply unsettling. Migration liberalization as forced social engineering to change people’s preferences (for instance, to make them less racist, or more linguistically knowledgeable) is no more laudable than closed borders as forced social engineering to maintain the composition of society. It may sometimes be laudable to change people’s preferences, but such changes should be done through voluntary persuasion in an honest manner (i.e., being honest about my own motives and beliefs). My version of tolerance might strike many as too tolerant of intolerance — for instance, it is a priori critical of allegedly tolerance-increasing coercive measures such as forced desegregation (the prior may be overcome in specific cases via other arguments).

It’s valid to criticize a restrictionist’s embrace of coercion to make their own lives less unpleasant (e.g., restricting migration so that they don’t have to hear foreign languages spoken in the train), and also valid to criticize the restrictionist’s drawing incorrect inferences about objective indicators solely based on subjective experience (particularly when better sources of data are available; I believe such exaggeration has happened historically as well as contemporarily). However, a tolerant person would not extend such criticism to dismissing the restrictionist’s subjective experience of unpleasantness at hearing foreign languages as entirely irrelevant or a sign of moral degeneracy.

To what extent does factoring in people’s subjective concerns about open borders affect the case for open borders?

The next few paragraphs talks specifically of the attitude that somebody (like me) who is actively arguing for open borders should have. I don’t claim that every passive supporter of open borders needs to do what I think should be expected of somebody in my position. In particular, when I talk of moral obligation or responsibility below, I use it in the sense of the ethical imperative of professional excellence (for the self-chosen avocation of open borders advocate) rather than a basic obligation stemming from negative rights (per my three-tiered view, I’m talking about tier 3 rather than tier 1).

I believe that, in the calculus of determining whether open borders are the right thing, I need to account for the subjective experiences of people who find some consequences of migration deeply disturbing. But their subjective feelings enter the equation along with the subjective experiences — and rights — of many other people, including potential migrants and those who wish to invite them. I think that, when all is said and done, caring about people’s subjective experiences should lead one in an open borders-sympathetic direction. People who are unsettled by migration are neither numerically negligible nor morally inconsequential, but they aren’t utility monsters. And I do think that, even though their concerns are worth taking seriously, they should come to the table to discuss keyhole solutions or to provide some sort of reason to believe that the problems really are insurmountable.

That said, it is incumbent upon me to try to work hard to understand the objections and perform a fair and decent analysis of it, suggesting keyhole solutions where feasible and discussing the extent to which they may reasonably be applied. Even if I’m not the one responsible for existing migration restrictions (so the “blame” falls either on the restrictionist preferences of people or on some intrinsic structural reasons that migration poses dangers), I still need to work towards finding a solution (Bryan Caplan made a similar point here). To use a somewhat inappropriate drowning child analogy, the fact that I wasn’t responsible for the child beginning to drown, or the presence of other inactive bystanders, does not absolve me of the responsibility to rescue the child.

PS: Co-blogger Nathan Smith argued that it may be morally virtuous to be intolerant of some things, such as slavery, wife-beating, and mass murder. For activities that are coercive or significantly harm others, I support the use of coercion to prevent them (i.e., prevent something that has a very high probability of leading to significant harm). I also think there could be reasonable grounds for criticism and shaming of such actions, although I’m not convinced that shaming is always necessary. I think that, in general, open dissociation from corrupt or immoral institutions — the open use of exit — accomplishes more than trying to explicitly shame them (cf. exit versus voice). But that might just be semantics. One could consider the use of social pressure to end immoral institutions an example of “intolerance” done right. I believe that many aspects of the closed borders regime today are similarly worthy of intolerance. The fact that closed borders is justified by weak arguments relying on subjective preferences may deserve intolerance. But the preferences themselves don’t deserve intolerance.

PPS: To reiterate: I believe it’s legitimate and often laudable to non-coercively, consensually, and honestly help people “improve” their preferences in the direction of greater tolerance. This is not conceptually different from helping people overcome addictions or procrastination problems or anger management issues. If, however, you’re considering the use of shaming to pressure people into changing their moral views, then I believe (qua thick libertarian) that you need to clear a higher bar. And if you are considering coercion, then (qua thin libertarian) you need to clear an even higher bar.

PPPS: My co-blogger Nathan Smith has written two posts, No Irish Need Apply, and Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal. The posts make the point that it is consistent to support open borders and allow private discrimination against immigrants, and in fact, allowing the latter may make the pursuit of migration liberalization more politically feasible. I am skeptical of the political feasibility point made by Nathan, but I do agree that my tolerance framework points in the direction of Nathan’s broader point.

Thanks to Sebastian Nickel, Nathan Smith, and Paul Crider for helpful comments

The Open Graph image for this post (the one you see if you share it on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter) is from Discover Nikkei.

2 thoughts on “Open borders and tolerance”

  1. Very well-written and clear. I agree with most of your specifics, but fundamentally, I come from a different place. To illustrate why, it might help to start with your example of distributing pamphlets to shame people for not eating eggplants. I agree this is not a good idea, and to use the word “intolerant” to condemn it has a kind of rough appropriateness. But, my reason for saying so is simply that it is not, IN FACT, shameful not to eat eggplants. If you tried to convince people that it was, you would be trying to convince them of a falsehood. If I called it “intolerant,” I would mean simply that one ought to appreciate the legitimacy of different lifestyles that lie within the moral law, and to tolerate the wide variety of innocent differences among individuals and nations.

    By comparison, consider two other cases: (a) a pamphlet campaign to pressure a company to remove a pornographic billboard, and (b) a pamphlet campaign to pressure a church to halt construction. I would applaud (a) and condemn (b). My reason is simply that the pornographic billboard is objectively a bad thing. People who feel that it would degrade their quality of life to have to look at it (which one often can’t help doing if it’s in one’s field of vision) are right to feel that way. In the case of the church, people who resent having a church in their neighborhood are probably wrong to feel that way. (It would depend a bit on the reasons; the most justifiable might be if loud church bells interfered with people’s animal husbandry businesses, or something.) I might support the forcible removal of a pornographic billboard by the government; but if the same thing can be accomplished by moral suasion, so much the better.

    Tolerance isn’t prominent in my scheme of values. A good deal of religious toleration and the like grows out of freedom of conscience; other kinds of tolerance are a result of the presumption against coercion; and humility and love for one’s fellow man yield yet other forms of tolerance. But love for one’s fellow man can also motivate zeal to reform him and bring him to repentance; and he may benefit much more from that than from being tolerated in his sins. If I follow the Golden Rule, it wouldn’t always lead me to tolerate others, since I want others to correct and reprove me when I’m in the wrong.

    A splendid classical music concert is a very intolerant place. Not a peep, hardly a movement, is tolerated in the audience; not a single note mistake or superfluous pause is tolerated in the performers. The street, meanwhile, is a very tolerant place: you can largely do what you want, and no one cares. Where would you rather be? Would you rather spend your life charmed by beautiful music, or just hang around the streets all the time? Let that serve as a parable.

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