Tag Archives: territorialism

Vivek Wadhwa, and the moral contradictions of mainstream liberal views on immigration

Last week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Let anyone take a job anywhere”, with Open Borders guest blogger Bryan Caplan and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa speaking for the motion, facing conservative intellectual Ron Unz and migration policy wonk Kathleen Newland in opposition. I’ve already given my take on the debate: Bryan fought the good fight, but Unz and Newland threw up too many blatant inaccuracies and moral contradictions for any single debater to feasibly bat down in the time allotted. I said then that I thought Wadhwa was an ineffective advocate, primarily because he seemed like a moderate open borders supporter who hadn’t thought through things very well. I take that back: Wadhwa was not an effective speaker for the motion, primarily because he is a moderate open borders opponent who hasn’t thought through things very well at all.

I was originally thrown off by Wadhwa’s seeming endorsement of low-skilled migration during the debate: “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.” Sure, Wadhwa endorsed Ron Unz’s proposal for a high minimum wage, even though Unz’s proposal is explicitly intended to bar most immigrants from coming — but paying lip service to the minimum wage is par for the course for any mainstream left liberal. What changed my mind was Wadhwa sending Bryan a harshly-worded missive which accused Bryan of failing the motion because Bryan used “silly analogies”, and failed to demonstrate how the US welfare system would provide for foreigners who come to the US. Wadhwa made it clear: “I do not advocate open borders.”

Bryan republished Wadwha’s missive on EconLog, at his request, and Wadhwa waded into the EconLog comments to defend his views. I give Wadhwa a lot of credit for this. Not many public intellectuals venture into blog comments, let alone get as deeply engaged as he did. However, I found Wadhwa’s elaboration even more disappointing than the seemingly-unwarranted missive he sent Bryan. Wadhwa first stated that he was upset with Bryan because Bryan made the focus of the debate turn on open borders, instead of “jobs”. What exactly Wadhwa intended to debate about “jobs” remains quite unclear to me, but his lack of clarity here explains in hindsight his unfocused opening statement at the debate. In response to his opening statement, Kathleen Newland chided Wadhwa that the motion was “let anyone take a job anywhere”, and not “let anyone take an anywhere job”.

I asked Vivek why exactly he opposes open borders. He’s made it clear that he wants to ban immigrants from coming to the US if they are going to work minimum wage jobs. But what is his alternative then? As I’ve written before, the primary alternative for immigrants and prospective immigrants if they are banned from coming is sweatshop or slave labour, at wages on the order of a few dollars a day, in workplaces where they run the risk of dying daily. If they can find a job here paying $8/hour (the approximate US minimum wage), I say bully for them. The remittances they send home to other poor foreigners already dwarf the foreign aid packages our governments send by 3 to 1. What humanitarian case is there for destroying the global flow of remittances and forcing hundreds of millions to live lives of sweatshop slavery?

When I posed these questions to Wadhwa, he responded:

Why do you assume that the best way of helping poor workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is to bring them here to the US? Trust me, these people don’t want to leave their families and friends, culture, heritage, and homes to be here. They would rather stay where they are and make a living minimum wage.

It’s a neat story. But I have a hard time squaring this with the fact that immigrants routinely pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the developing world, running the risk of death in the desert or on the high seas. If they are so happy at home, why are they doing these things? And why is it more humane for us to interdict them with gunboats, for the sake of banning them from earning the “inhumane” wage of $8/hour? Is that really the most humane thing we can do? What is inhumane about allowing these people to buy their own plane ticket, pay the government a visa fee or surtax, and come here to work for wages higher than they would ever dream of earning at home?

Mind you, it’s our guns and border fences that force Bangladeshis to choose between backbreaking farm work and murderous sweatshop hours. If you’re going to tell me this is more humane than allowing those Bangladeshis to seek minimum wage work outside Bangladesh, you’d better be prepared to defend it. Even if you think allowing these people a choice won’t actually result in much migration, simply the fact that these workers now have an opportunity to exit will force their employers to pay better wages and improve working conditions. Making some handwavy arguments about brain drain won’t cut it, considering the paucity of evidence of any tangible harms to the developing world from “brain drain”. The burden of proof here is high: you’re asserting that it’s basic humanitarian policy to point a loaded gun at an unarmed human being and force him to turn around, because the alternative of allowing him to go on his merry way in search of a better job is simply too inhumane to tolerate.

Wadhwa at this point departed the comments, but closed on a gracious note, with words of praise for Bryan (albeit, words I find hard to square with his missive, which claimed Bryan’s arguments failed to convince a single person). He also acknowledged that they were likely mismatched partners as a result of a misunderstanding about the motion’s wording. The discussion continued, though, with EconLog commenters trying to make sense of Wadhwa’s position.

It seems quite clear to me now that Wadhwa and Kathleen Newland from the debate are actually kindred spirits. Both believe that it’s inappropriate to permit immigrants entry unless the government guarantees them a social safety net of some kind — and that because it is impossible to extend a single country’s social safety net to every single human being, there must be strict border controls of some kind. Both favour relatively liberal immigration policies, but policies still very far from open borders: they essentially want the status quo, with slightly fewer restrictions.

Wadhwa and Newland seem to be adopting a territorialist view of some kind, whereby a government owes greater obligations to people within its territory, citizens or non-citizens, than it does to people outside its territory. This is why both favour legalising the US’s population of undocumented immigrants and why both believe it’s fatal for open borders to point out that a single government’s welfare system cannot guarantee equal benefits to every single person on earth. There seems to be “local inequality aversion” at play: Wadhwa and Newland feel uncomfortable about admitting more poor people to the US (Wadha calls this “importing poverty”) unless the government can guarantee these poor people socioeconomic uplift.

But moderate territorialism is actually quite compatible with open borders, just like moderate citizenism. During the IQ2 debate, Bryan’s retort to “but they’ll burden our welfare system” was to essentially say: “we can ban them from enrolling in welfare”. This is going to strike most people as too harsh. But more than that, it’s also not really necessary for most developed countries.

The extreme territorialist thinking that pervades mainstream discussions of immigration concludes that the moment we admit a foreigner to our territory, we assume strong moral obligations, especially socioeconomic ones, towards that person. One obligation might be, say, to ensure that every person in our territory is guaranteed a job at a good wage — perhaps one much higher than $8/hour. Now, I’m happy to admit that sure, we assume moral obligations of some kind. (Providing non-citizens the equal protection of our labour laws would be a good start!) But I reject the extreme territorialist view that our obligations to all people in our territory, citizen or not, are identical.

Open borders skeptics say it’s inhumane to allow people to starve in our streets. But we don’t need to see starvation in our streets under open borders: we can simply subsidise the return ticket home for poor foreigners who lose their jobs. Let’s say you reject that as too inhumane. But we don’t need to break the bank still; we don’t need to furnish foreigners with all the same guarantees we make to citizens. We can offer them a basic social safety net: access to some form of healthcare, perhaps unemployment insurance, etc. All these can be guaranteed at levels lower than what we guarantee natives, but levels that still prevent people from dying in our streets.

To put this concretely, government can restrict an immigrant’s access to the state’s retirement funds while still giving the immigrant basic healthcare coverage. Something similar is already the case in the US and most developed countries today. Few, if any, countries give foreigners equal access to their state benefits as they do to citizens — but similarly, few totally deny foreigners access to any benefits. Yet when economists look at the most generous welfare states, even Sweden’s, they find no evidence of the supposed looming fiscal disaster that immigration is supposed to cause. It is perfectly possible to say, as a moderate territorialist-cum-citizenist, that you support open borders with a limited welfare state for non-citizens. Feasibility is not an issue; this is the exact course our governments are already charting capably (though one could argue they could cut foreigners’ access to welfare more). Economists agree that with a limited welfare state, immigrants are not a fiscal burden.

This is not a hamhanded attempt to dismiss the implications of open borders for the welfare state. This is the ultimate implication of the moderate citizenist and moderate territorialist views that most people hold. If the state has to choose who to spend its limited resources on, there is a prima facie case for prioritising citizens. Newland breezily dismissed the claim that immigration restrictions are unjust discrimination against foreigners at IQ2 by saying: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favour.”

I completely disagree: if anything, governments are obliged to enforce labour and contract laws equally, without regard for national origin! What I am happy to say is that governments are obliged to discriminate in citizens’ favour when it comes to the social safety net. It seems absurd to me to take the stand Wadhwa and Newland have staked out: that it is just and moral to discriminate against foreigners in labour law, but completely unethical to discriminate against foreigners in the social safety net.

But this absurdity may yet be reconcilable, if you stretch territorialism and citizenism to their extremes. The flipside of territorialism and citizenism is that if someone is not currently in our territory, and not a fellow citizen, then they aren’t our problem. Sure, some bricklayer might be dying of cholera in Haiti right now — but that’s not my problem. I don’t live in Haiti, and he doesn’t live in my country. It’d be my problem if I lived in Haiti and elected the Haitian government — or if he lived in my country, subject to the administration of the government I elect. But otherwise, that Haitian’s poverty isn’t my problem, and he should bugger off.

As a result, the perverse conclusions that Wadhwa and Newland seem to endorse — that it is better to prevent the entry of an immigrant if we can’t afford to give him the same healthcare subsidies as a citizen — can actually make eminent sense. It’s not inhumane to use your guns and tanks to keep a poor person trapped in Haiti. You’re just preventing the Haitian government from “exporting poverty”. You’re preventing them from dumping their problems of poverty and squalor into your government’s lap. It’s not your problem; it’s Haiti’s problem!

But this completely denies the agency of individual migrants. No government forces these people to leave Haiti, or wherever they came from. The Haitian government can barely keep the lights turned on! They certainly don’t have the capacity to subsidise emigration or to brainwash their citizens into leaving, or to force their own people at gunpoint into boats headed for the US. And even if they did, so what? That is exactly what Cuba and Vietnam did to their own people, and the free world welcomed these people with open arms. In fact, that is what the US still does today for Cubans — allowing the Castro regime to dump the people it doesn’t want in the US’s lap.

That you have to jump through so many intellectual hoops to morally justify forcing people at gunpoint to turn away from your shores, on the basis that it’s inappropriate for them to work for the wage of $8/hour, suggests something is wrong with your thinking. These people spend thousands of dollars and risk their own lives in deserts or on the high seas to get those $8/hour jobs. That indicates strongly that what they’re fleeing is even more of a bum deal than minimum wage — perhaps, say, a sweatshop, or worse. How can anyone conclude that it is more humane to force these people at gunpoint to go back to a life — and quite possibly death — toiling away for cents an hour in a sweatshop somewhere, than it is to permit them to come in peace in search of minimum wage $8/hour jobs?

When our taxpayer-hired guns force unarmed civilians seeking work to turn back and go home, we make their poverty our problem as well. When they were suffering in Haiti, or Bangladesh, or wherever they came from, their troubles were of no consequence to us. We did not put them in the plight they faced, nor did we hinder them from uplifting themselves. But when they sought work from an employer willing to pay them a wage multiples of what they might ever hope to earn at home, we put our guns in the way. If we’re going to stop them from solving their own problem, we’d better damn well have a better solution to offer them. Nobody asked us to interfere with their job search; we took it upon ourselves to do this. It’s our duty to figure out what to do with these people now.

Now, Wadhwa and Newland believe quite strongly that a high minimum wage and greater foreign aid (or some other mechanism of “exporting prosperity”, as Wadhwa puts it) is the more humane thing to do. Wadhwa seems to think enforcing a “living minimum wage” in the developing world would slow immigration to a trickle. Supposedly this is the liberal solution to the conundrum of immigration; this is the fulfillment of the developed world’s responsibilities to the developing world citizens whom it has arbitrarily banned from its labour markets.

But are a high minimum wage, high levels of foreign aid, and government-enforced social justice in the developing world realistic options? How would we ever find the money to spend on the vast amounts of foreign aid that would be necessary to “level” the world economically, as Newland put it at the debate? How would the governments of the developing world build the capacity to enforce just labour laws — to say nothing of the capacity needed to enforce a high minimum wage? The answer is clear: Newland herself said at the IQ2 debate that there is no apparent way we can accomplish such “leveling”. So what’s the next least inhumane alternative?

Economist and mainstream liberal Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay justifying the toleration of sweatshops as the least inhumane thing we can do for the world’s poor. I excerpted Krugman for my piece on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops. His logic holds true as ever — but it really applies to immigration, not sweatshops:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. (emphasis added)

I hope Wadhwa and Newland, and all the liberals who share their views, will do their moral duty, and think things through.

The photograph of Vivek Wadhwa used in the header of this post was taken by John P. Harvey and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Immigration and Class Struggle

Consider the following paragraphs from an article in Salon about a recent immigration proposal:

“The proposal, then, is to turn most of today’s illegal immigrants in the U.S. into a new, legally resident class of non-citizen foreign serfs. They will be allowed (i.e., compelled) to work for American employers. But they will be denied all the benefits that go to the working citizen poor. And none of them will be eligible to vote for a decade and a half, at the earliest.

Quite apart from its inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, this proposal is a direct assault on the rights and interests of native and naturalized American citizen-workers. American citizen-workers are threatened by anything that creates a multi-tier labor market inside U.S. borders. Allowing workers with different levels of rights to compete for the same jobs in the U.S. economy permits employers to pit one category of workers against another. And when one group has fewer rights and less bargaining power, many employers will prefer to hire them rather than the workers with more rights and greater bargaining power.”

There are a few distinct strands here, but the basic idea is that we shouldn’t allow immigrants into the country under a system that affords them fewer rights than other citizens because a) it is inhumane to the immigrants and b) it hurts American workers.

Eventually, the article advocates giving “clean, swift amnesty followed by full, equal citizenship” to the undocumented immigrants that are here while hoping that “new waves of illegal immigration could be deterred in the future.”

The combination of preferring total amnesty for existing immigrants while deterring future immigrants seemed a bit contradictory at first to me.  Why consider the welfare of current undocumented immigrants over next years undocumented immigrants?

The answer is that I don’t think the welfare of immigrants is really the author’s driving consideration.  The author is considering immigration as one aspect of a class struggle between labor and capital:

Capitalists benefit from more unskilled immigration because it drives down wages. They prefer not to give the immigrants too many rights because this probably tends to raise reservation wages. Labor would prefer to keep out the competition, but if it can’t prevent immigration outright, they would rather have voting immigrant laborers join their side to bolster their political power.

In short, capital prefers high levels of  immigration and low levels of immigrant rights while labor prefers low immigration and high immigrant rights.

Of course, not everyone fits into these categories, so I present to you my two dimensional immigration Quadrant graph:

Immigrant Quadrants

Note that the origin of this graph does not represent zero immigration or no rights.  The axes just represent “more” and “less” along two different dimensions. Also, the representative groups are not necessarily the only inhabitant of their quadrant.  For example, territorialists also occupy the spot I have attributed to labor.  Finally, when I use the word “rights” I don’t necessarily mean that there actually exists a set of natural rights that everyone is entitled to. You can replace this axis with “privileges,” “entitlements” or whatever suits you.

Perhaps you don’t agree with my placement of labor in the lower right corner in the first place.  Before you object too much, let me concede that not all of those who identify with the labor movement would fit in this quadrant.  But I think there is a pretty significant trend in this direction.  See, for example, this rambling socialist essay noting that the AFL-CIO changed their position to one more in support of immigrant labor rights and sponsored a series of demonstrations in support of immigrant rights.  They go on to urge “immediate and unconditional amnesty for all undocumented workers” and even “a living wage of $12.50 and free universal health care.”  At the same time they concede that a demand for open borders would be an “obstacle to dialogue between socialists and native born workers.”  To help the poor in other countries they support “assisting in the economic and social development of poor countries.”

So, basically, they want to offer full citizenship and benefits to immigrants in order to achieve labor solidarity and prevent capital from pitting different groups of labor against each other.  But since high levels of continued immigration would drive down wages we need to slow the process down.  Granted, they don’t actually say we need to build a wall on the border.  Maybe they actually believe that global economic aid to poor countries will suddenly start to work.  But the overriding goal is labor solidarity and ultimately this requires accepting those who are already here and making sure that we don’t get too many more.

So, assuming you agree with my quadrants, there are a few things to note.  First, class struggle is relevant to the immigration debate, but it is orthogonal to the Open Borders/Nativism divide.  Second, open borders advocates usually don’t  insist on zero volume restrictions and full rights for immigrants — they often consider keyhole solutions that involve some trading off of volumes and rights.  And my sense is that most open borders advocates would restrict rights before restricting volume.  I am probably in this camp personally. The fact that so many people are willing to come here illegally is evidence enough for me that the benefits (for immigrants) of increased immigration are enough to justify sacrificing some political privileges.

So it seems my preferred immigration policy would probably be beneficial for capital and detrimental to labor.  Since I don’t really have a dog in that fight, maybe I should think more about ways of implementing immigration reform that explicitly favor labor, such as using immigrant fees to help support a guaranteed minimum income.

Or should I simply advocate the immigration policy I think is right and ignore the impact it might have on class struggle?


Will Natives be Blamed for Lack of Immigrant Success?

In a short post, Steve Sailer manages to both make a potentially true and not really relevant point about how some people respond to the “lack of success” among immigrants (Vipul Naik blogged about another of Sailer’s comments that were also along these lines). Sailer points out an article that argues that even high performing schools fail Latino students. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention immigration there is a point that can be made here. Namely, when do we stop saying that the problem is a native institution and the problem is the immigrant? Surely saying that immigrants have no agency in their own success or failure and are only shaped by institutions is wrong. After all, Asian students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants themselves and coming from linguistic and cultural backgrounds that are more distant than the average Hispanic child, do very well.

Of course, the problem could be a system set up that is specifically designed to fail Latinos but not Asians. That would depend upon the specific policies of the school. But even then a point could be made that redesigning the best schools for Latinos benefit could ruin what works for the rest of the student population. Thus if even the best schools fail to pull Latinos up the problem may not primarily be on the side of native institutions. This relates to a broader problem of natives being blamed for the lack of immigrant success.

There are a few points I’d make in this regard. First off, to those saying that if immigrants or their children don’t achieve parity with natives that there is a major problem, I think that view suffers from a problem my co-blogger Nathan Smith has discussed, the use of borders as a blindfold. Specifically, comparing immigrant success to native success is the wrong metric to use. Most low-skill immigrants come from countries and backgrounds which produce far poorer results in terms of education and income (even crime though immigrants may not under perform natives in that category). The real metric to use isn’t a comparison to natives, against whom they will likely under-perform for a variety of reasons beyond the failure of natives to accommodate, but a comparison to the outcomes they were achieving in their home country. Results here tend to show immigrants far exceed what results they might have gotten in their native countries.

This complaint is ultimately a problem of local inequality aversion and territorialism. The fact that individuals are better off than they were before and that global inequality is reduced is already a huge benefit to the world. This is related to the problem of compositional effects, where the average success of both sending and receiving countries can conceivably drop while still achieving a Pareto-improving outcome. We don’t need immigrants to match natives in results to make the world a far better place through immigration. As I’ve posted about before, we shouldn’t make local equality with natives a precondition for enabling people to make their lives better.

Can local inequality cause dissent? Potentially yes, though such issues are not so terrible as to necessitate banning immigrants from a country. Riots such as those that happened recently in Sweden may in part be due to local inequality (the fundamental causes still cause some dispute), but if so this may relate more to a change in inequality than absolute inequality as Sweden has had large increases in income inequality recently, but remains far more equal than most OECD countries. If the varying levels of skill and productivity immigrants and their descendants bring does cause some unrest, that is likely to be transitory. For instance, the United States didn’t see increasing violent crime in general during the major late 19th century immigration waves, and if anything immigration seems to be a factor in decreasing crime rates. If immigrant-induced inequality causes unmanageable amounts of discontent we should notice this is overall crime not simply in big flashy riots.

So no, the complaint that we need even our best schools to bend over backwards to create local equality isn’t a necessary idea for open borders. Outright hostility to immigrants isn’t justified (and that would be something to legitimately blame natives for doing), but at the same time if immigrant groups simply have less skills, productivity, or academic achievement that should not be automatically assumed to be the fault of natives. But will some groups still denounce natives if immigrants fail to match native outcomes without unfair discrimination being a major cause? Quite probably. For me however, I have to respond with a big “so what”? If such statements make a native upset, it is ridiculously easy to avoid in the modern media environment. Indeed, avoiding alternative view points might be something of a problem nowadays, but it does mean that it’s easier to avoid unfair complaints. However, to the extent people can’t avoid this though the effect might even be beneficial from Steve’s point of view. The end result may be average natives finding those who blame them for immigrant problems (or “problems” considering the gain immigrants get compared to where they came from) to be distasteful and oppose their policy prescriptions more.

Social integration isn’t a bad thing when it happens, and ideally natives shouldn’t deliberately act to exclude immigrants from society. And it can be unfortunate when the second and third generations of immigrant families feel excluded or like they don’t measure up. But I doubt even in the worst cases of feeling excluded many would wish their families still lived in poverty in the developing world. Even when adjusting for inequality, one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, the United States, is still a healthier, wealthier place to be than any major immigrant sending country. If the angst of not being fully integrated into a broader society is less than ideal, it’s also much better than being in a Starving Marvin situation. Not to mention that one of the beauties of open borders is a greater chance for everyone to find the kind of culture or society that works for them.

Open borders and the justifications for the welfare state

Three major justifications for the welfare state, distinct but related, are (1) social welfare functions may be increased by redistribution (see my previous post on “the conservative social welfare function,”) (2) the welfare state serves as a form of social insurance against the ill chances of life, and most impertinently ambitiously (3) welfare and aid to the poor generally may be a public good via its effect on the utility functions of people who are at least mildly altruistic. Jonathan Gruber’s Public Finance and Public Policy, 3rd ed. offers the following defense of argument (3), stopping at argument (1) along the way:

Why is the government involved in the business of redistributing income?… If society cares equally about the utility of all its members, then social welfare may be maximized by redistributing from high-income individuals (for whom the marginal utility cost of losing a dollar is low) to low-income individuals (for whom the marginal utility gain of getting a dollar is high). Arguments for redistribution are even stronger if society cares in particular about low-income persons, a philosophy embodied in the Rawlsian social welfare function…

The private sector, however, is unlikely to provide such income redistribution, since redistribution faces the same free-rider problems encountered in private provision of other public goods. The consumption of the poor is a public good: I would like the poor to consume more, but I would prefer if others provide them the means of doing so, since I would then get the benefits of seeing the poor consume more but not bear the costs of their increased consumption. If everyone feels this way, then there will be too little private redistribution because everyone will be relying on others to contribute… There may be a role for a government in solving this free-rider problem by taxing its citizens to provide public redistribution. (Gruber, pp. 490-491)

Let me unpack this.

Recall that a public good is defined by two characteristics: (a) non-rivalry, and (b) non-excludability. Non-rivalry means that one person’s use of a good does not preclude another person’s use of it. Non-excludability means that it is not feasible— as distinct from merely not legal as a matter of policy– to exclude anyone from using the good. In this sense (to illustrate the concept) public schools are not a public good, though the general public refuses to hear this message and public finance economists often try to weasel out of it because of its unpopularity. Nonetheless, the fact is logically inescapable, for it is quite feasible– though perhaps illegal, but that’s beside the point– to exclude a child from a public school classroom. Also, classroom seats may be scarce/rivalrous at the margin, and a teacher’s grading time is certainly a rivalrous service: I can grade student A’s exam or student B’s exam, not both.

A welfare payment is certainly not a public good. It is rivalrous: if you receive cash from the government, I can’t receive that same cash. It is excludable: it is clearly feasible not to send the welfare payment. How, then, can Gruber claim that redistribution might be a “public good?” In a rather subjective sense. If a poor person eats a meal, no one else can eat that meal, or get any immediate benefit from it. But if a certain kind of altruism is built into others’ utility functions, these altruists all get some satisfaction from the poor person eating the meal. Given that the poor person eats, these altruists can’t be prevented from thus enjoying, second-hand, his meal. Therefore, this benefit is non-excludable. Nor does one altruist’s enjoyment of the poor person’s meal prevent another person from enjoying it. Therefore, this benefit is non-rival. Being non-excludable and non-rival, the external benefits of helping the poor

I have many objections to this interesting argument. First, it seems improper, somehow, for public policy to take into account such subjective factors. If one does allow it, the practice soon leads to unwanted conclusions. Suppose that, instead of altruism towards the poor, the general population felt hostility towards some group, but didn’t bother to harm that group much because of a free-rider problem. (“I wish somebody would go beat up those nasty wogs, but I can’t be bothered to do it myself.”) If we accept Gruber’s “public good” argument for the welfare state, we should also have to argue, it seems to me, that the brutal mistreatment of unpopular minorities is a public good. Second, the attitudes imputed to the public are not observable. If they were observable, the welfare state could be financed by a Lindahl tax enjoying universal consent. Of course, this argument applies to some extent to all public goods– how much people like a public good can’t be measured effectively in the absence of revealed preference and the price mechanism– but at least in the case of other public goods, the physical use of the good– walks in the park, driving on the roads, listening to public radio, whatever– is observable. Third, the argument is, in its strange way, simultaneously flatters and insults taxpaying citizens, with a certain insolence in both respects. It tells the citizen: (a) we know that, whatever you may say to avoid paying taxes, you really do care about the poor, but (b) we know that, left to your own devices, you won’t give as much as you wish that people like you would give. If some citizen sincerely says, “No, I really don’t care about the poor at all,” the public goods case for the welfare state fails. On the other hand, if most people, when it comes to charitable matters, follow Kant’s advice and act by maxims they desire to be universally practiced, the public goods case for the welfare state fails again.

But my biggest objection to the “public goods” argument for the welfare state is that it assumes what might be called a citizenist, or perhaps a territorialist, social welfare function. That is, it imputes to citizens a certain degree of altruism towards their fellow citizens, but not an equal degree of altruism towards the rest of mankind. If citizens would like the poor in general to consume more, regardless of nationality, then their first priority would probably be open borders, though possibly, if they have a very different understanding of how economy and society work than I do, they might support more foreign aid instead. At any rate, helping poor people resident in the US would not be a very high priority. Even if citizens are assumed to have a citizenist social welfare function, that should really point them towards the citizenist case for open borders and keyhole solutions (like DRITI) that hold natives harmless. To offer the public goods case for the welfare state, and at the same time to support migration restrictions, seems to make sense only from a decidedly territorialist perspective, i.e., if citizens feel altruism towards those present in a country, or at least they’re squeamish about observing dire poverty, but place little or no value on the welfare of those not on the country’s territory. They don’t want to be made to feel pity towards the less fortunate: hence they support the welfare state, and at the same time, the border as blindfold.

It’s irritating to have such attitudes imputed to me as a citizen-taxpayer. Even more irritating is the suggestion that such attitudes are implicitly granted the moral high ground. Gruber may well be right that attitudes such as he describes are an important reason why the welfare state exists. But since some of us don’t share the territorialist social welfare function, the welfare state cannot properly be regarded as a public good. And from a universalist utilitarian or Rawlsian perspective, the territorialist attitudes on the part of citizens that undergird support for the welfare state may be among the chief barriers to rational pursuit of the welfare of mankind.

Stan Tsirulnikov on progressive immigration restrictionism

Writing at The Umlaut, Stan Tsirulnikov offers an interesting take on progressive immigration restrictionism. Tsirulnikov dubs it “immigration protectionism” and critiques it as being against the spirit of the bold changes that progressivism should be about. The targets for Tsirulnikov’s criticism include Dean Baker, head of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, for espousing strict limits on high-skilled immigration and apparently zero (?) low-skilled immigration. Another target is a piece by Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones titled How H-1B Visas Are Screwing Tech Workers. Tsirulnikov concludes:

Harkinson isn’t wrong to be concerned about the plight of struggling Americans. But as Bryan Caplan has pointed out in the past, it is morally questionable to put more emphasis on the “American” rather than the “struggling” part. Nevertheless, many progressives want to use immigration restrictions as a round-about way of helping vulnerable American workers. They know that the American public will not support direct subsidies to individual workers harmed by immigration, so they use restrictions as a cynical half-measure to prevent the supposed harm from happening at all. Baker’s proposal has the restrictions fall disproportionally on unskilled and poor foreigners, while Harkinson wants to make hiring high-skilled foreigners more difficult. But both view immigration as a potentially hostile force that needs to be managed for the exclusive benefit of Americans.

Overall, I tend to agree with Tsirulnikov. I considered progressive immigration restrictionism and its territorialist underpinnings in a blog post a little over two months ago (see also a ollow-up by Arnold Kling). I’ve also tried to address specific concerns raised by employees of the Economic Policy Institute (referenced by Harkinson’s Mother Jones piece) in the following blog posts: guest worker programs and worker abuses and Eisenbrey argues against increasing US visas for high-skilled work. Alex Nowrasteh offered a more detailed and forceful critique of Eisenbrey here.