Tag Archives: diversity

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.


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.

Against conflating open borders with other migration-related beliefs

For a lot of people, both “pro-migration” and “anti-migration” people, questions about how open the borders should be are almost synonymous with their answers to questions such as:

  • Do you believe that immigration (or its correlates, such as diversity of various sorts, or a larger population) is good for your country?
  • Do you believe that having more people, or people of diverse (races/religions/ethnicities) is consonant with the values of your country?
  • Do you identify with the idea of having more people, having immigrants, and/or having people of diverse (races/religions/ethnicities)?
  • Do you think immigrants are really awesome people?

The reason for the perceived equivalence in most people’s minds is, I think, that people:

  • fundamentally concede the state’s authority to have carte blanche control of migration,
  • view moral obligation to migrants per se as having minimal relevance, so that the decision of how to answer these questions is driven more by one’s belief about the benefits to current citizens and/or one’s general mood affiliation with the sort of people one wants to be physically close to, and
  • link the question of the morality of migration restrictions in a strong way with how much they like migrants or consider them exemplars of virtue.

I think that it’s somewhat unfortunate that people conceptually conflate these questions. Just to clarify:

  • It’s not unexpected or unfortunate that people’s views about the effects of migration correlate with their views on open borders — clearly, if you’re a hardcore consequentialist, then effects are all that matter, but even if you mix deontology and consequentialism, consequences have some relevance.
  • It’s also not unexpected that many open borders advocates have resoundingly positive views about how nice immigrants are, or how much they enjoy interacting with immigrants, or how good immigration is for their native economies. Both the objectively measurable and the subjective aspects of these may well be true. I’m not being critical of people for holding these views while simultaneously supporting open borders.
  • It’s more unfortunate that the focus seems to be on hinging the case for open borders on a framing that views migrants, or potential migrants, as a tool to enrich oneself, or provide one with diversity value, and setting unusually high standards of belief about the awesomeness of migrants (which may well be satisfied in some circumstances, but would not be robust to significant liberalization of migration).

When I say that both pro-migration and anti-migration people seem to make this mistake, I’m not trying to make a half-hearted attempt to be evenhanded — I think that in some ways, pro-migration people might be more susceptible to these problems in how they articulate their case. Part of this is seen in pro-migration forces congratulating themselves on being less bigoted and more tolerant of diversity than their anti-migration counterparts. But a bigger aspect might be the extent to which they tend to valorize migrants as uniquely awesome and courageous people in a manner that suggests that such beliefs are central to the arguments for free migration. “The immigrant works 16 hours a day to send money to his family, and you don’t want to let him in!” This can certainly be a valid counterpoint to the claim that migrants are lazy, but ultimately the point worth stressing is that lazy people have the right to freedom of association as well.

Apart from people debating the merits of migration, many social scientists seem to reinforce this conflation in their analyses of attitudes to migration. This type of conflation isn’t unique to migration — for instance, beliefs about the abilities or moral character of people of different races, and beliefs about how helpful it is to have people of different races around, are often treated as proxies for attitudes to treatment of people based on race, with all of them being grouped under the comprehensive header of racial attitudes.

I’m not the first to make this point. Responding to commenter Brian, Bryan Caplan had written this:

For many other important libertarian issues, appeals to self-interest are factually correct but, to use Brian’s word, “unworthy.”  Immigration is such an issue.  Yes, doubling GDP by opening world borders will enrich most people in the First World.  But these economic benefits for First Worlders are not the main reason why I advocate open borders.  The main reason I advocate open borders is that immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice against people from Third World countries.  Once someone retreats to, “Yes, immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice, but doing the right thing would be very costly,” I’m happy to delve into the social science with them.  Until then, they’re just missing the point.

Similarly, when writing about Mark Zuckerberg at the time of launch of FWD.us, co-blogger Nathan Smith had written:

Immigrants who are sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy can also gain by coming here, and we can gain by hiring them, renting them accommodations, selling goods to them, maybe even marrying them (e.g., if we have no other marital options, or if in addition to being sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy, they’re beautiful and nice). Meritocracy has its place, but is there really a good reason for the mere right to reside in the US to be allocated in a meritocratic fashion? And even if you want to discriminate in favor of the “smart and hardworking,” how?

Yet I think the point can sometimes be forgotten.

What do other think of the extent to which such conflation occurs? In particular, I’m curious to hear people’s views on questions such as:

  • Do you think such conflation is more common among pro-migration or anti-migration people? My impression is that it’s about equally common on both sides.
  • How do you think moderate pro-migration forces and radical open borders advocates compare with respect to such conflation? My impression is that moderate pro-migration forces engage in it more, because they do not fully embrace the moral presumption in favor of free migration, so see migration policy as more closely tied to beliefs about the virtue of migrants or how much they think natives can benefit.
  • Do you think the conflation is epistemically unsound? How unsound is it? Just a minor matter, or as serious as I’m making it out to be?
  • Do you think such conflation has strategic benefits when appealing to a large audience, and is that one reason why many people engage in it? I think that when appealing to larger audiences (that tend to take a more citizenistic perspective), we’re tempted to conflate the issues, and this might lead to corrupting (in my judgmental view) our own thinking on the subject as well.

PS: The Frameworks Institute has put out some memos on immigration where they claim that talking about the goodness of particular migrants actually makes listeners more resistant to migration liberalization, because once they start thinking about the moral character of migrants, they are also reminded of the bad ones, and the bad stuff is more salient in their decision-making process than the good stuff. The Frameworks Institute calls this the “Bill Cosby effect.” What they suggest is emphasizing moral arguments as well as general “the economy will grow”-type arguments. I blogged about the memos a while back.

Paul Kersey on immigration and multiethnic societies

Paul Kersey has a thought-provoking piece up at VDARE with some speculation about the potential consequences of expanded migration and/or legalization initiatives currently being mooted by US legislators and policy wonks. Kersey uses an interesting technique similar to something that has often cropped up in the posts and comments at this site (including, specifically, comments by BK): an analysis of the performance of multiethnic societies to inform the debate about the short-run and long-run consequences of open borders. While Kersey’s rhetorical style is perhaps more upfront and forthright than that employed by the typical sophisticated restrictionist, the style of argument he makes does appeal to a wide range of people.

Let me begin by noting what I like about Kersey’s approach. It seems to me that too often, discussions about the effects of policies are built on exceptionalist rhetoric that fails to learn from the experiences of other countries. For instance, discussions of affirmative action in one country often fail to consider evidence about affirmative action and similar policies employed in other countries. The same applies to discussions of the effects of the minimum wage, or of tax increases, or of conscription. The problem with ignoring other countries is that a single country usually doesn’t offer enough variation in its history to provide a lot of insight. Comparing across countries can help overcome this problem. There are a lot of caveats to be considered when doing inter-country comparisons, but it’s a tool that should be given a shot. This kind of analysis, incidentally, is one of the things that I admire Thomas Sowell for, even though I don’t often see eye to eye with Sowell’s moral outlook, empirical assertions, and rhetorical style (see here for my discussion of Sowell on migration and here for my personal views on Sowell’s output as a whole).

In addition to using an international perspective, it may also be important to extend the analysis beyond migration to other situations that might mimic the effects of migration. A common and plausible strand of thinking is that the performance of multiethnic societies compared to more homogeneous societies provides some insight into the effects open borders might have, in so far as open borders would make certain societies (the target countries of migration) more multiethnic. The use of these indirect proxies, weak and questionable though they may be from some perspectives, is better than just throwing up one’s hands or refusing to consider the question. Open borders is a radical proposal, and it behooves those discussing it to try their hardest to look at all the various things that could go right and wrong with open borders.

Based on the above, I was initially quite sympathetic to Paul Kersey’s attempt to figure out the impact of open borders by looking at two examples of racially and ethnically diverse societies that have been known to be ridden with conflict and problems — South Africa and Brazil. Clearly, my bottom line differs from Kersey’s, but I was hoping to gain some insight from Kersey’s piece on the matter. I was somewhat disappointed in this respect.

Kersey’s analysis of South Africa is similar to many other restrictionist analyses — South Africa ended apartheid, and look how bad things are in South Africa today. What does the evidence actually suggest? Grieve Chelwa did an excellent post on South Africa in the open borders debate. A very brief summary of his post: things were pretty bad and in many ways getting worse in the period 1980-1994 (prior to the end of apartheid), and things have generally been improving 1994-2008, though not very fast. But the improvement post-1994 is certainly quite impressive compared to the 1980-1994 performance. Within the 1994-2008 period, things have generally been better in the latter half of the period, and the poor performance in the beginning can be attributed to some bad leadership and statist economic policy. Grieve looks at poverty, inequality, unemployment, and crime. In the comments, BK brought up the decline in life expectancy, which is certainly one worrisome negative trend, and is mostly attributed to the HIV denialism of Thabo Mbeki. Clearly, there are no easy answers here, and South Africa is at best modestly encouraging and at worst modestly discouraging in terms of the case for open borders. With this background in mind, I thought Kersey might have some interesting insights to offer on the negative side of the ledger.

Kersey’s analysis of South Africa, however, involves block quoting the entirety of a sidebar (!) from a Daily Mail article about a rich guy shooting his girlfriend (it’s unclear whether the shooting was intentional or accidental). The sidebar laments South Africa’s high crime rate, and this is the main piece of evidence used by Kersey to conclude that apartheid was a failure. But as Grieve’s analysis showed, the rates for most violent crimes (including homicides, which have the most reliable data in general) has declined considerably since the end of apartheid, with the main exception to the trend being armed robberies (a quick-and-dirty version of the homicide data can be viewed here, but see the links in Grieve’s post for more). Probably, there are many interpretations of the statistics, but I’d have hoped that Kersey would not use a single-point-in-time number to draw conclusions about trends in post-apartheid South Africa.

I don’t really know enough (or in fact anything) about Brazil. Kersey’s analysis of Brazil looks potentially interesting, but I’d be loath to use it as an information source for reasons very similar to those that I elucidated for South Africa. I would strongly urge restrictionists like Kersey to perform deeper analyses of trends so that people on all sides of the debate have a better idea of the restrictionist end in the range of plausible conclusions one can draw from the data. By taking shortcuts and preferring sensation over substance, Kersey does both his own cause and the cause of truth a disservice.

Robert Putnam, social capital, and immigration

So I just read Robert Putnam’s E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” (links to related material are available on this site at the social capital decline page).  Before I comment, let me give a personal note, which will explain the angle from which I’m looking at this.

I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. Naturally, there’s a special edge to conversations with attractive young women (of all races), but for almost anyone, there are interesting details of their lives to explore. In the extensive travels of my younger days (“seeing the world,” as the saying goes), I interacted with tour guides in southern China, the daughters of illiterate peasants; Chinese girls selling paintings on Tiananmen Square; huge crowds of Chechens, mostly vacationing teachers, in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria in the Russian North Caucasus; a Buryat or Mongoloid ethnic in Sibera; Tuvans; Malawian peasants; Malawian government bureaucrats, and teachers; Rhodesian exiles scattered around Malawi; backpackers in Europe who came from Australia, Poland, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Japan, Korea, Germany; talkative Italian old men on the streets of Rome; vendors all over the place; taxi drivers all over the place; students of English; grad students of many fields; the congregation of a certain black Baptist church in Northeast DC; college students of all majors; former prisoners of conscience sitting next to me on a bus in Tajikistan; singer-songwriters at a festival in Dombai in the Russian North Caucasus… the list goes on and on.

I can get along with almost anyone, quite happily. But I can even more happily immerse myself in writing or reading books. A few years ago, I discovered audiobooks. It was just after my divorce, so I was glad to be distracted from my own thoughts at the time, but the habit stuck, and I soon noticed that my long-standing dislike of eating alone had been reversed. On a certain day, I suppose it must have been in early 2007, a girl from Harvard, quite attractive, was to meet me for lunch. I was working at the World Bank, and she wanted advice on how to get a job there. During the morning, I found I was resenting it. Why? Because I was in the middle of a brilliant novel, which I would have been able to “read” (listen to) during my lunch break, but for her. Then it hit me. Wait a minute, I thought. Am I actually resenting the chance to go to lunch with a cute girl? Well, yes, I was. It sounds rather brutal, but in the past six or seven years, the conclusion is undeniable that few people can compete with an audiobook for entertaining, enlightening, and edifying me. There are some: many friends, all far away alas, for ten minutes of whose company I’d go ten hours without any entertainment at all. Bluntly put, everyone else is (at least as a conversational companion) an inferior substitute for having the best thoughts of mankind fed into my ears via wires. I was grateful for their company in my younger days only because the iPod hadn’t been invented yet. (That’s not the insult it may seem to be, because I am not denying their inherent value, which is very great. But the value of my casual interaction with them is limited.)

These experiences color my reading of Robert Putnam’s work. For Robert Putnam, “social capital” is good. When I eat lunch with someone, he’d nod his head in approval, especially if that person is as different from me as possible. When I eat lunch alone with an audiobook, he would shake his head with dismay. He could doubtless understand the logic of “revealed preference,” i.e., if I could have invited people to lunch but chose to eat alone instead, I must be happier that way. But I suspect he wouldn’t believe it. And it’s true, of course, that revealed preference can’t be applied straightforwardly to social capital issues, which always involve the interests and choices of multiple people. A decline in social capital might reflect that (a) we’ve found something to do that we like better than interacting with each other, or that (b) we’ve gotten worse at solving the coordination problems involved in interacting with each other. An economist would say that (a) is unambiguously good, while I think Robert Putnam, a bit paternalistically, would object; but even an economist would agree that (b) is bad. Putnam is aware of some potential downsides of social capital– gangs, for example– but I don’t think he adequate appreciates the scarcity of time. Continue reading Robert Putnam, social capital, and immigration

Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders

As an open borders advocate, I’m always on the lookout for good arguments for open borders. But more often than not, the arguments make me wonder, “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Case in point: diversity.

Now, I don’t deny that diversity has its benefits to immigrant-receiving countries, particularly when it comes to cuisine. And I’m happy to point out that open borders can help address the concerns of restrictionists such as Mark Krikorian regarding the lack of diversity in the current immigrant flow to the United States (Krikorian is concerned that the proportion of the immigrant flow coming from a single country is much larger today than in any past era, i.e., a much higher fraction of immigrants come from Mexico to the US than for any other country to the US in any other era). And it’s also noteworthy that immigration proportion seems to be positively correlated with cultural sophistication in the United States, though admittedly correlation is not causation.

But diversity has its costs. If Robert Putnam’s work is to be believed, it leads to social capital decline. To be clear, I haven’t had the time yet to thoroughly review Putnam’s work. I would start with a skeptical prior, but haven’t studied it in sufficient detail yet to make a clear rebuttal — the point I am making, however, is that if you’re interested in specifically addressing the diversity angle of immigration, you’d better engage the most serious critiques of diversity. There are also possibilities of a nativist backlash and a culture clash. In the face of these costs, the benefits of diversity need to be established rather than blithely asserted.

Frankly, a lot of the arguments that tout the benefits of diversity fail to make any meaningful case, and/or play right into the hands of restrictionists. For instance, in an otherwise decent article for The Atlantic, Noah Smith writes:

Adding diversity to our melting pot will speed up America’s inevitable and necessary transition from a “nation of all European races” to a “nation of all races.” The sooner that happens — the sooner people realize that America’s multi-racialization is a done deal — the quicker our political debate can shed its current ethnic overtones and go back to being about the issues.

Smith seems to be playing right into the hands of restrictionist concerns here. Or consider the illegal immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas (life story) who has repeatedly written that “diversity is destiny” and “demographics is destiny” and connected this to his pro-immigration and pro-DREAM Act lobbying. His basic argument is that the 21st century is a century of diversity and the foreign-born are a formidable and growing share of the American population and electorate, so nativists, better concede defeat! I critiqued this type of argument a while back:

But more importantly, in so far as Vargas is right about the “whites versus non-whites” cleavage, this doesn’t make a case for more immigration, because the demographic decline in proportion of whites is itself largely a consequence of immigration, not merely of differential birth rates. If somebody is concerned about the decline in the proportion of the white population, this bolsters the case for immigration restrictionism. By constantly harping on the decline of white hegemony in so far as it exists, Vargas seems to be daring restrictionists. And it doesn’t seem strategic to issue dares to people who already have the upper hand.

Some people might argue that, in the context of the United States, there is an aura of moral righteousness around racial diversity that makes it particularly appealing to frame pro-immigration arguments in terms of achieving diversity. Continue reading Diversity: an unimpressive reason to support open borders