Open borders, moral egalitarianism, and blank slatism

Co-blogger Nathan already did a good job responding to critics in the comments on Bryan Caplan’s blog post Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders, which in turn was a follow up to my blog post Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1. Fortunately for me, he chose not to critique one of the commenters that I was planning to critique, namely, Ghost of Christmas Past. It’s a long comment, laying out a cogent one-stop shop version of the economically literate restrictionist position. Responding to the comment in its entirety is beyond the scope of this blog post — rather, such a response is the scope of the entire Open Borders site. However, there’s a particular part of Ghost of Christmas Past’s post that I wish to comment upon. Ghost of Christmas Past begins with a strong claim:

Actually, Brian’s arguments for open borders have been absolutely crushed in the comments to his earlier posts on the subject (read them from the links in the side column).

Fundamentally, the problem is that Brian and other open-borders advocates are relentlessly anti-empirical on this question, which I think a “libertarian economist” should be ashamed of. Brian’s writings about immigration resemble sophomore Marxism more than anything else.

I’m interested in the second point on Ghost of Christmas Past’s list:

Second, his oft-repeated and empirically-wrong assumption that all humans are the same, their behavior simply molded by the nearly-immutable “institutions” which happen to govern society in one geographic place or another. This too, is crudely Marxist. Brian claims that immigration to the US would have no effect on US “institutions,” therefore no effect on the society which current Americans have built and enjoy, apart from driving down wages for a small segment of the population. This is nearly insane. “Institutions” are produced by the people who live under them. If you alter the people you alter the institutions. All the analyses showing that world GDP would double or whatever if there were no restrictions on migration are based on the idiotic assumption that advanced societies can instantly absorb all the world’s low-productivity people while maintaining constant marginal productivity. Such analyses are much less intellectually defensible than the “static analysis” of effects of changes in Income tax rates (raising rates will raise revenue without affecting behavior) which libertarian economists always deride when American leftists proffer them.

Apart from the empirical objection (which seems largely an objection regarding the characteristics of immigrants that harm immigrant-receiving countries, combined with concerns about political externalities, culture clash, and assimilation problems), Ghost of Christmas Past makes an interesting assertion about the beliefs that underlie open borders advocates. He/she argues that open borders advocates believe in a form of “blank slatism” — that all human beings are essentially the same, and that differences between human beings are due to their surroundings (in this case, institutions).

Even if this attack applied to some open borders advocates, Bryan Caplan is definitely not among them. Caplan has attacked blank-slatism and environmental determinism from at least two different angles: he has argued for the heritability of a number of traits, i.e., the role that genes play in explaining the variation among individuals. He has also argued for the role that free will plays in individual decisions and used it to argue against the desert of the poor. In fact, Caplan has gone farther than most by using a free will-based paradigm to study mental illness (see here). Caplan may not top the list of people who are the antithesis of environmental determinist or blank slatist, but he is definitely there on the list.

Is Ghost of Christmas Past right that Caplan foregoes his skeptical stance and embraces blank slatism on issues of immigration? Probably not. Caplan doesn’t assume that immigrants are identical to natives, or that institutions explain all the differences. He argues for specific postulates based on the evidence — in this case, evidence based on such things as the place premium, which shows that the exact same worker with identical skills can earn more in some countries than others. And Caplan doesn’t blithely sidestep the political externalities concern; he carefully tries to address it.

The extent of Ghost of Christmas Past’s confusion regarding Caplan’s views suggests a possible deeper communication problem. Upon some reflection, I think there is one plausible candidate for this communication problem. Namely, most arguments for open borders, including those espoused by Caplan, are based on what my co-blogger Nathan Smith has called “moral egalitarianism.” Moral egalitarianism is not limited to the usual egalitarian meta-ethical framework as usually understood, but also includes libertarian and utilitarian frameworks that treat all human beings symmetrically. Caplan is clearly a moral egalitarian in the sense that he believes that libertarianism-derived principles, including the right to migrate and our obligations to strangers to not hurt them, apply equally to all human beings. Ghost of Christmas Past hints at the objectionable nature of moral egalitarianism in this part of the comment:

First, the propagandistic appeal to pure emotion– Brian asks us to act out of empathy, not rational considerations, based on how we fantasize that foreigners feel about immigration restrictions. A true student of Josef Goebels, Brian starts his essays by asking readers to imagine themselves or their kin forced into exile– expelled from their homes, a very emotional matter– rather than cooly considering the actual question, which is whether the US should tell low-quality would-be immigrants– foreigners with no connection to or positive claim on the US– to just stay home or go somewhere else because the US doesn’t want them.

It seems to me that Ghost of Christmas Past is noting Caplan’s moral egalitarianism and confusing this for blank slatism. Admittedly, this does not seem a very charitable reading, but there doesn’t seem to be any reading that’s more charitable considering that Caplan is pretty clearly not a blank slatist. But this does raise an interesting question: does refuting blank slatism also refute moral egalitarianism? In other words, once we have established that human beings differ considerably, both via genetic differences and through “free will” or in other ways, does that refute the idea that any reasonable meta-ethics should treat human beings symmetrically?

This is an admittedly tricky question. If you definitely answer that differences in human beings, however large, do not refute moral egalitarianism, then a natural follow-up question is whether human beings and certain animals that exhibit human-like traits deserve the same moral status. This sets us down a “slippery slope” that gets more and more complicated as we delve deeper into the animal kingdom.

My short answer is that moral egalitarianism, in its strictest form, is not quite correct — all humans do not deserve symmetric treatment. However, the differences between human beings, while large to human eyes, are in fact pretty small compared to the differences between humans and other animals. Given this, moral egalitarianism is a reasonable approximation that serves us in good stead. In fact, the case for open borders is sufficiently robust to minor adjustments to moral egalitarianism.

A little more can be said explicitly about the libertarian arguments for open borders. In principle, some of these arguments could apply to non-human animals. However, for most animals, the concept of “open borders” is not meaningful because the animals don’t have a concept of nationality or borders, and rarely have a desire to go to another country. Most humans, on the other hand, different though they may be from each other, have a clear-cut understanding of what migration means and what nations and borders are, and large numbers of them want to migrate. So, while the moral arguments might hold, there is no practical need to declare open borders for animals.

3 thoughts on “Open borders, moral egalitarianism, and blank slatism”

  1. Your assertion that “place premium” explains place premium is circular. The term “place premium” is just another label for “institutions,” i.e., socio-economic differences which are not explained by physical geography or climate or whatever but by differences in the groups of people in one place or another. Wages are lower in Haiti than in the Dominican Republic (the two countries coexist on the same island!) because the former “place” is full of Haitians. Large scale migration will automatically destroy “place premium,” whether you analyze the question using standard economic insights (“commoditization,” “diminishing marginal returns”) or sociopolitical insights.

    Caplan is a blank-slatist when discussing immigration (even if he isn’t one when addressing other subjects). He consistently treats immigrants as fungible, not only for other immigrants, but for locals, and assumes that new arrivals are instantly imbued with local institutions (with the “good parts” only, and heroically assuming “institutions” are uninfluenced by new people). Even to speak of “place premium” is blank-slatist… and I think Caplan knows it because that is one of the memes that he threw out there then left to commenters to repeat while he moved on.

    If Caplan were not an immigration blank-slatist, he would acknowledge that we definitely should prevent some people– Romanian Gypsies are the paradigmatic example– from immigrating (yes, by force). Caplan won’t admit this because it would undermine his whole emotional-propaganda case for open borders. If we ought to exclude certain people, then perhaps we should exclude some other people too. Pretty soon we’re right back to arguing over whose distant relatives (or easily-exploited low-human-capital peasants) we want for neighbors and whose we don’t, an argument Caplan doesn’t want to have. So whether sincerely or just rhetorically, Caplan asserts that everyone is the same so we have to treat them all the same– then ups his rhetoric to claiming that people far away are exactly the same as countrymen for all purposes. Complete blank-slatism.

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