Tag Archives: Bryan Caplan

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.

Burkean arguments for institutional inertia

In my last post, I blegged about the strongest arguments for the moral relevance of countries, i.e. for the idea that a person’s country of origin or citizenship is relevant in answering evaluative questions, such as whether a person has a right to accept a job or rent property somewhere.

As I predicted in my bleg, some commenters have diagnosed me with outrageous naïveté for asking such a question. Another thing I could have predicted is that some people would find my explicit use of the term “morality” jarring. In my experience, a very interesting thing often happens in ethical discussions: People who routinely make strong evaluative statements, say, about the morality of military interventions or of different kinds of healthcare policies, suddenly convert to radical moral scepticism when a moral proposition is raised the merit of which they do not wish to consider. It seems to me that the state of common discourse is astonishingly lenient toward such double standards, which could be termed selective radical moral scepticism. I am well aware that the field of meta-ethics is direly lacking in any kind of consensus, but I am sure that most moral philosophers would at least agree that we should be consistent in whether or not we are radical moral sceptics.

Some of the reactions I got to the post, in the comment thread and elsewhere, motivate me to formulate the following distinction: the moral relevance of countries is distinct from the moral relevance of the fact that most people treat countries as morally relevant. This can appear nit-picky in some contexts. If you present an argument along the lines that the world is currently at equilibrium in a state where certain borders are near-universally recognised, and that disrespecting those borders could lead to large-scale violence, it seems reasonable to then say that “countries are therefore morally relevant”. To then counter this statement with the above distinction may seem like mere semantics. To appreciate that the distinction is worth making even here, simply consider the perfect intelligibility of this claim: “Prudence requires that we respect existing immigration laws because most people wrongly consider countries morally relevant”. Regardless of whether this statement is true, I hope it makes it clear that the prevalence of the belief in the moral relevance of countries can be morally relevant without countries being themselves morally relevant, and that pointing out the prevalence of moral belief X should not end the conversation on whether X is true. The ambition of Open Borders: The Case is to change people’s minds about some very widely held beliefs, including moral beliefs.

Personally, I think that by far the strongest answer  to my bleg was given by Bryan Pick. I do not know to what extent Bryan agrees with the argument he proposed (I understand he is on the side of open borders), as he was answering my bleg about strong arguments for a certain position and not necessarily expressing his own views. That being said:

Bryan explicitly referenced Edmund Burke at the beginning of his comment, and the type of argument he presented is what I’m referring to, in the title, as a Burkean argument for institutional inertia, or even, beyond that, a Burkean argument for the moral authority of institutions. Similarly to Leslie Orgel‘s Second Rule, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”, this Burkean type of argument could be summarised by the slogan “Institutions are cleverer than you are”. The idea is that institutions are time-tested, complex products of intricate evolutionary processes involving widely distributed information very different from what any individual person’s mind is suited to grasp or design. This perspective gives support to the attitude I alluded to above, according to which anyone who demands explicit intellectual arguments for established social norms must be disparagingly naïve – not in that they have missed any obvious arguments, but in that they think human argumentative powers more wise than time-tested institutions. The distinction between intellectual attitudes that rely more on the authority of institutions and those that rely more on explicit argumentation is also at the heart of Thomas Sowell‘s distinction between the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision of human nature, which he has argued is the key defining factor of the political divide between Left and Right. Adherents to the Constrained Vision need only point to the disasters brought about by social engineering to put their emphasis on humility in the face of long-standing traditions on a sound footing. (See also, however, this essay by Bryan Caplan, which is critical of Sowell’s distinction and emphasises, in particular, that many ideologies meant to be imposed from the top down, such as fascism, are not a product of rational deliberation.)

Bryan [Pick] completes his proposed argument:

Now, whether this significance extends to “such questions as where one may rent property and work” depends on an extra step. Perhaps an aspect of strategic dominance is that the local population and government are suited to each other, because of hard-won stabilization in communities via a common language, norms, etc., and outsiders can cause a sort of friction. It’s easy to take for granted how much shared conventions and etiquette (like hand signals or line queuing) make life smoother and less confrontational. [Go read the rest in his comment.]

This is good stuff, and it meshes very nicely with what I have in mind for my future post about countries and equilibrium states that I mentioned in my last post.

I think this Burkean line of argument is important. I completely agree with the proposition that it would be naïve and reckless to dismiss existing institutions simply because we cannot formulate any rationale for them that might nonetheless exist. But it is also important to note that, just as easily as the exclusive reliance on intellectual arguments in designing ways of structuring society from the top down can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to the disastrous outcomes of socialist experiments (be they Marxist or fascist or otherwise), the exclusive reliance on the authority of institutions can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to any of the institutions that existed over long periods of time in the past that are now widely recognised as having been viciously immoral: think slavery, witch hunts, torture, border wars…

Similarly to the point I made above about flip-flopping between moral realism and radical moral scepticism, I would also caution the reader to take to heart a criticism Vipul has made of Thomas Sowell in an insightful answer on Quora: It is tempting to alternate between reliance on the authority of institutions and reliance on intellectual arguments, depending on which happens to better serve your position, and Sowell himself may have proven not to be immune from this. I do not expect much disagreement from proponents of either of the two Visions when I say that the authority of institutions and intellectual argumentation are both important. Steven Pinker‘s writings on the psychology of politics, beginning in The Blank Slate, have also drawn on Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the two Visions, and he has made a strong case in The Better Angels of Our Nature for the importance of what he refers to as the Civilizing Process (which relies on institutional constraints) and Enlightenment Humanism (which relies on reason), two historical processes that are seemingly at odds with each other but that he argues need not be alternatives.

Delving a bit deeper now, I want to pick up the distinction I briefly mentioned above, between “Burkean arguments for institutional intertia” and “Burkean arguments for the moral authority of institutions”. This is, again, related to another distinction I have made above, between the argument that it is dangerous to offset existing equilibria, and the argument that the existing equilibrium is morally just. It is perfectly consistent to argue that it would be imprudent (and therefore morally irresponsible) to disrespect or abandon existing institutions while also maintaining that the institutions in question are immoral (see this post by Vipul for a discussion of the difference between philosophical and political anarchism, for instance). After all, changing institutions in a directed way involves serious coordination problems. Such change is more likely to be safe and successful if it happens through a more organic process, which involves changing many individual people’s minds (again, precisely what we are trying to do here at Open Borders).

In their weaker form, Burkean arguments do not say anything more than that. However, as Bryan also mentioned in his comment, the argument can be taken further: The evolutionary processes that shape our institutions may not just provide us with stable social organisations within which to live and prosper, but  might also be a source of moral knowledge.

To what extent this is the case is, it seems to me, a big question that our evolved psychology renders difficult to consider rationally. Status quo bias is generally considered a cognitive fallacy, even though the evolutionary rationale of this bias seems fairly clear. People with conservative sensibilities may be inclined to think of institutions as defining what is morally right, however this would seem to lead to a species of moral relativism, which I think quickly runs into insurmountable problems (this shan’t be the place for me to discuss this further).

All this raises the question of what is the right “mix” of intellectual argumentation and deference to the wisdom of institutions. It seems to me that those two things have qualitatively different roles to play: the former provides arguments directly, whereas the latter provides evidence that there is some kind of rationale for certain ways of organising society. Note that the structure of Bryan’s comment is to first make the general Burkean argument for assuming that institutions are the way they are for important reasons, even if those reasons elude us; he then proceeds to the intellectual exercise of  unpacking this initially elusive rationale, through a mixture of speculation and of historical argumentation to test his speculations against empirical evidence. In so doing, he ends up sketching out a candidate for a consequentialist moral argument for certain kinds of migration restrictions. I think the argument he proposes requires more empirical work to be made compelling, but it is a very serious start.

Moreover, this general structure of “Burkean reasoning” provides us with something of a research agenda, aimed at uncovering the rationale behind long-standing institutions.  It seems to me that it is only in so doing that we can discover whether this rationale has anything to teach us about morality (remember the distinction between the prudential presumption against offsetting an equilibrium and the moral justness of the equilibrium). Regarding the question of migration, it seems highly relevant to note that the institution of countries goes back a much longer way than migration restrictions as they exist today. Chris’ planned series “How Did We Get Here?” on the historical origins of immigration restrictions thus fits rather beautifully with this proposed research agenda, and it could lead to the uncovering of profound moral truths as well as to the demystification of evolutionary gridlocks or by-products.

Huffington Post

Bryan Caplan, Steven Camarota (of CIS) and I were interviewed at the Huffington Post this morning (http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/open-borders-immigration-poverty/517aa4a078c90a08c500032e). Talking head was never a career ambition of mine, and I don’t consider myself particularly gifted at extempore public speaking, but if it can help, I’ll do it. Comments are welcome as always, but in this case, I’d be particularly interested in tips on how to make the case to a different audience than the readership of Open Borders: The Case. From the point of view of the average viewer, are there elephants in the room that I’ve left unaddressed? Am I gratuitously opening up big new vulnerabilities for my own side? Am I missing easy ways to score points with the median viewer?

International Tiebout competition

A major reason for skepticism about open borders among many who are partially sympathetic is the fear that poor immigrants will vote for redistribution. Natives might benefit, on average, from their interaction with immigration in the market, but in the political arena, poor immigrants with little to lose will vote for higher taxes and government handouts, making natives worse off. To deny immigrants the vote would solve this problem in theory, but raises other philosophical issues about the meaning of consent of the governed, and in any case might not be politically sustainable. Opportunistic parties might hand out citizenship to immigrants who they hope will be their future constituency. Immigrants might also take advantage of their physical presence to agitate in the streets for the vote and/or directly for the government benefits they hope to win by it. In short, open borders will make government more redistributive.

But the logic of Tiebout competition points the other way. Tiebout (1956) famously argues that local governments will provide public goods efficiently if people are free to move among jurisdictions, and concludes that we can expect public goods to be provided more efficiently at the local level than at the national level. Caplan recently explained where Tiebout goes wrong: (1) local governments are not perfectly competitive but face downward-sloping demand curves for residence and so can extract monopoly rents; (2) emigrants can’t take their real estate with them so bad local governments will reduce property values; and (3) local governments aren’t for-profit corporations and don’t face the incentives that for-profit corporations do to give customers/residents what they want. All good points, but there’s still something to be said for “voting with the feet.” Local governments may not be profit-maximizing firms, but they still differ in their performance, and people do get some choice over what local public goods they want by deciding where to live. In the short run, local misgovernment may depress property values more than inducing migration, but in the long run, capital can be adjusted, and misgoverned places can revert to weeds while well-governed places teem with new high-rises. And local governments are still somewhat competitive.

In the Tiebout model, government provides public goods rather than engaging in redistribution. The people who choose to live in a location don’t mind paying for what the government does, because they regard the benefits as greater than costs. If not, they would move. The government might charge the rich more than the poor, if it’s still providing the rich value for money, and especially if the rich value local public goods more, in money terms, than the poor do, which is plausible, since they presumably get less marginal utility from a dollar but might not get less marginal utility from a statue in the park or clean air or good streetlights. But if the government charges the rich too high a price for local public goods, they’ll move to a jurisdiction with lower taxes, and explicit redistribution is ruled out by the exit option.

Garett Jones has pointed out that a comparison of state tax regimes with federal tax regimes seems to support (loosely) the Tiebout model. See “Can Progressivity Survive Exit?”:

I should note though, that while state taxation is regressive in percentages, it’s progressive in dollars.  And that’s the point of my tweet: Higher earners pay more than lower earners even though they could leave.  Perhaps some of that is altruism, but I suspect-without-proof that most of it is just that the rich (and middle class) buy more and better government services than the poor.
It’s possible that progressive income taxation could coexist with voluntary competitive government. Maybe the high-skilled need to be near each other to produce a lot, so the locales preferred by the rich can tax that demand for proximity.  The (not very progressive) New York City income tax comes to mind.But at the national level, I suspect that the reason the rich pay higher total tax rates is mostly because it’s hard to leave the nation.  Easy targets.

Jones also points to the French government’s retreat on capital gains taxes as a victory for “[the] Tiebout [model against] progressivity” (I think that’s what the title of his post means). And here he entertains the suggestion that the fact that European tax systems are much less progressive than America’s is explained by Tiebout competition. Since the EU has open borders, wealthy elites can shop among jurisdictions. I don’t know enough about European tax politics to affirm or deny the causal link here, but it fits the theory. An international comparison of corporate tax rates also suggests that Tiebout competition is at work. From the Tax Foundation’s blog, here are “Corporate Income Tax Rates Around the World.”

Country Corporate Tax Rate in 2000[1] Rank in 2000 Corporate Tax Rate in 2006 Rank in March 2006
Japan 40.9 3 39.5 1
United States[2] 39.4 6 39.3 2
Germany 52 1 38.9 3
Canada 44.6 2 36.1 4
France 37.8 7 35 5
Spain 35 11 35 5
Belgium 40.2 4 34 7
Italy 37 9 33 8
New Zealand 33 16 33 8
Greece 40 5 32 10
Netherlands 35 11 31.5 11
Luxembourg 37.5 8 30.4 12
Mexico 35 11 30 13
Australia 34 14 30 13
Turkey 33 16 30 13
United Kingdom 30 21 30 13
Denmark 32 18 28 17
Norway 28 26 28 17
Sweden 28 26 28 17
Portugal 35.2 10 27.5 20
Korea 30.8 20 27.5 20
Czech Republic 31 19 26 22
Finland 29 24 26 22
Austria 34 14 25 24
Switzerland 24.9 28 21.3 25
Poland 30 21 19 26
Slovak Republic 29 24 19 26
Iceland 30 21 18 28
Hungary 18 30 16 29
Ireland 24 29 12.5 30
OECD Average[3] 33.6 28.7

Note that the US has the second-highest (after Japan) corporate income tax rate in the OECD. This is counter-intuitive, since ideologically the US has a reputation for being free-marketeer and pro-business, with a comparatively thin welfare state and less regulation. But if international Tiebout competition is at work, this pattern is sort of what you’d expect. The US is big and geographically isolated, so corporations based in the US won’t find it very easy to hop the border. European countries face steeper competition from other jurisdictions, so companies are relatively mobile.

Open borders would make international Tiebout competition a more effective force for disciplining governments’ redistributive impulses. But here I don’t mean primarily unilateral open borders, nor open borders with very poor countries. The US government is not likely to cut taxes on the wealthy for fear that they’ll emigrate to Rwanda, or even Mexico. But it might someday cut taxes to keep the wealthy from moving to Hong Kong, or Italy, or some yet-to-be-founded futuristic free charter city. If the right to emigrate were made a global reality, international Tiebout competition might start to matter a lot.

Continue reading International Tiebout competition

It Can’t All Be About (the) U.S.

In February, National Public Radio aired a segment, part of its Planet Money series, in which it asked three immigration experts what sort of immigration system they would have if they “controlled the borders.” To NPR’s credit, one of the experts was the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh (a contributor to the Open Borders site). He proposed letting all immigrants in, except for suspected terrorists, criminals, and those with serious communicable diseases. He noted that this policy would benefit the economy and would mean that people wouldn’t have to put themselves at risk crossing the border.

Not surprisingly, the other two experts chosen by NPR did not propose open borders. One expert was the economist Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who has researched the economic impact of immigration on the U.S. and found it to be mostly positive. His ideal immigration system would be one in which employers would bid for permits allowing them to employ individual foreign workers, including low-skilled workers. The other expert was Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (we’ve critiqued Baker before). He would admit immigrants with families in the U.S. and would provide visas to highly skilled individuals who, in the words of NPR’s host, “would benefit our economy the most.” Mr. Baker said he “would like to make sure that you had a lot of immigrants at the high end” but is “less concerned about farm workers.”

The proposals from Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker seem designed to maximally benefit the U.S. and apparently make the interests of immigrants who are excluded from their systems irrelevant. Formulating such an immigration policy probably makes sense to many Americans. After all, some may think, the government should look out first and foremost for the interests of its citizens. Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto articulates this view: “The power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise that power in pursuit of its own national interest…”

Mr. Carens suggests, however, that this nationalist position doesn’t justify immigration restrictions. He explains that “When the stakes are high (e.g., legal proceedings) we normally create institutional rules to try to prevent people from being able to favor their friends and relatives. In other words, our notion of justice constrain the extent and ways in which we think it is acceptable for us to favor family members… even if we are morally entitled to favor compatriots in some ways, it is not self evident that we are entitled to favor them by excluding potential immigrants. Perhaps that form of preferential treatment goes too far.” Restricting immigration in effect would be nepotism writ large, an attempt to favor those identified as being more closely connected to us by giving them access to the U.S. labor market and denying access to those deemed less connected.

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (who has also guest blogged for Open Borders) echoes Mr. Carens in his critique of the analogy between the nation and a family: “…almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.” Despite this, Mr. Caplan points out that at the national level citizens tend to lose this sense of morality and use nationalism “as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.” Nationalism leads to immoral treatment, such as interfering with the right to immigrate.  The logic of Mr. Carens and Mr. Caplan discredits nationalist arguments around the world supporting immigration restrictions, not just those in the American context.

Given Planet Money’s focus on economics, the underlying question posed to the three experts about their preferred immigration regime may really have been: “From a purely economic standpoint, which immigration policy do you believe would most benefit current American citizens?” (Even within these parameters, the proposals of Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker are questionable; open borders, as Mr. Nowrasteh suggests, may have the most beneficial economic impact on the U.S.) Actual policymaking, however, should not exclude moral concerns. NPR should air another segment asking guests, “What would be a moral immigration policy?” That would help Americans think more profoundly about immigration policy.