Tag Archives: Law of large proportions

Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 2

This is the second of a planned series of three blog posts regarding where open borders fit in the libertarian priority list. In part one, I laid out the overall agenda of the series:

I aim to consider three aspects to this issue in three separate blog posts. In the current blog post, I consider the extent to which libertarians do advocate for open borders, relative to many other libertarian causes (my conclusion: not much). In the next blog post, I will consider how much energy I think libertarians should devote to open borders (my conclusion: probably more than they currently do). In my third blog post, I will consider the reasons behind what I perceive as the under-supply of open borders advocacy from libertarians.

I’m glad to see that my first blog post sparked off a lot of debate. Bryan Caplan responded here. Perhaps coincidentally, a number of non-libertarian bloggers have recently blogged about the importance of pro-immigration advocacy. These include Matt Yglesias here and Adam Ozimek here. My co-blogger Nathan responded to Ozimek here.

This blog post will focus on the extent to which I think libertarians should focus on open borders advocacy. Prior to getting into the details, I want to clarify what I mean by the “should” here. My intuitive three-tiered view of ethics says that there are three tiers to ethical obligations:

  1. Negative rights ethics (don’t kill, steal, etc.)
  2. Contract/responsibility ethics (fulfill your contractual responsibilities, be honest, etc.)
  3. Excellence ethics (be nice, do a great job, give to charity, etc. — this is largely supererogatory).

When there is a conflict, negative rights ethics wins out over contract/responsibility ethics — for instance, it is immoral to be a contract killer, and if you did agree to kill somebody, it would be more moral to break the contract and not kill than to fulfil the terms of the contract. Both negative rights ethics and contract/responsibility ethics win out over excellence ethics, which are largely supererogatory.

Open borders advocacy, like most libertarian advocacy, falls outside the realm of negative rights ethics. For some people, including people hired by libertarian think tanks or advocacy groups, libertarian advocacy falls under the realm of contract/responsibility ethics — but whether or not that libertarian advocacy specifically includes open borders advocacy is a matter between them and their employers. So, my discussion of how important open borders advocacy should be within the context of libertarian advocacy is largely a discussion that’s part of the supererogatory framework of excellence ethics. The key point, therefore, is that I do not claim that libertarians as individuals have a personal moral obligation toward open borders advocacy. When I say that libertarians should engage in open borders advocacy, that’s just my shorthand for saying that engaging in open borders advocacy is the best use of libertarian resources based on my understanding of libertarianism, not that libertarians qua individuals are morally obligated to engage in such advocacy.

I will also repeat the scoping I did back in part 1, to circumvent the problem of libertarians (such as those who subscribe to the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual) who simply reject the case for open borders. The question I specifically consider is:

For a libertarian who is broadly convinced by the case for open borders, primarily from the libertarian perspective (but also based on other aspects of the case), how important should support or advocacy for open borders be, relative to other libertarian causes?

With the scoping done, I now proceed to make my case: open borders advocacy “should” be quite high on the libertarian priority list.

The law of large proportions

The law of large proportions says, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the same proportional change in something bigger is larger than the same proportional change in something smaller. (This is not a very standard term, and doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia page, but see for instance here and here). In fact, even a much smaller proportional change in something bigger could be larger than a much bigger proportional change in something smaller. This term is used in the context of energy conservation. If private automobile transit causes ten times as much pollution as mass transit, then a 10% reduction in pollution from private automobile transit constitutes as much of a reduction in pollution as a complete elimination of pollution from mass transit. In particular, a 10% reduction in pollution from private automobile transit is twice as much as a 50% reduction in the pollution from mass transit. Continue reading Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 2