There are a few different reasons someone will want to pull a “not as bad as” comparison. Consider a generic argument about something, A, and the reasoning below:
B happened, and is worse than A.
Therefore A is justified.
This is the most blatantly fallacious form of the argument and is a hindsight version of the “not as bad as” argument that states past actions can legitimise current actions. The existence of a worse atrocity in the past, however, does not actually justify anything – it merely points out that there have been similar things in the past. People who use this as a justification may be well aware that it’s logically fallacious, and use it purely as rhetoric, or as a distraction.
Open borders advocates often critique restrictionists using arguments like the master race critique from Bryan Caplan: they critique restrictionists for being unduly obsessed with the plight of the poor in the developed world, whose poverty is not as bad as the poverty of poor people in other parts of the world, or the poverty of poor people historically. Are open borders advocates committing the “not as bad as” fallacy, by trivializing, ignoring, and justifying inaction regarding the plight of the poor in the developed world, just because others have it worse?
I don’t think so. If it were the case that open borders advocates are shrugging off the harms to poor natives from immigration citing that things were worse for others, without noting any offsetting benefits to others, then this would be an example of the fallacy. However, in addition to their moral arguments, open borders advocates explicitly note their belief that open borders generate more benefits, particularly for people who may be much poorer than the poor in the developed world — in other words, poor people that the egalitarian or worldwide Rawlsian should be more concerned about. The harm wrought to poor natives is thus inextricably linked to the benefit to poorer non-natives; the inextricable link between these is what makes this a non-fallacy.
RationalWiki agrees later in the page that there is a valid form of the argument that is not fallacious, but adds further caveats:
Action B is worse than action A.
Therefore action A is the right thing to do.
This is perhaps the most valid comparison that can be drawn if discussing two courses of action that can be taken, but like most “not as bad as” arguments potentially suffers from the fallacies of the false dichotomy and argument from adverse consequences. If the argument is about ranking things from bad to worse then it’s fine; but you cannot justify A by citing only B because the two may not have anything to do with each other. This is common if Secret Option C is actually the best, but someone wants to make a red herring to avoid anyone spotting its existence.
Again, in this case, open borders advocates have proposed for consideration various versions of “Secret Option C” that could be win-win for all parties — namely, keyhole solutions such as immigration tariffs, guest worker programs, and my co-blogger Nathan Smith‘s elaborate DRITI scheme. This does not mean that all open borders advocates sign on to these keyhole solutions as truly necessary; often their signing on is in a spirit of compromise. For instance, here’s what my co-blogger John Lee said in a comment on his own post:
Thanks Nathan. I think we agree on what’s probably the best achievable policy reform for now (immigration tariffs), but I am inclined to disagree with your moral preference for Pareto-improving policies here, as well as your characterisation of them as merely “a little unfair”. I think immigration tariffs would be a massive improvement, but remain a distant second-best policy (from a moral standpoint) to true open borders. I used to consider immigration tariffs the best policy here, but have been convinced by the economic evidence that I was placing far too much weight on natives’ welfare, and far too little on migrants’ welfare. (This change in my beliefs is something I plan to write more on, so I won’t elaborate too much on it here.)
But even here, John Lee is not dismissing the harms to natives, but rather, weighing these against the gains to non-natives as well as moral considerations in coming to his conclusion that, in fact, not having immigration tariffs would be his preferred solution, if indeed that were politically feasible.
So, as a factual matter, I don’t think that open borders advocates are committing the “not as bad as” fallacy.
However, I think that the rhetoric of open borders advocates can sometimes sound exceedingly blase towards the plight of their fellow natives. Continue reading “Open borders advocates: guilty of the “not as bad as” fallacy?” »