Tag Archives: Blank slatism

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. Continue reading Open borders, moral egalitarianism, and blank slatism