Vindictiveness versus indifference in the open borders debate

People on both sides of the open borders debate believe that their opponents often discount, or perhaps give zero weight to, the welfare of certain groups of people:

  • Open borders advocates believe, with some justification, that the citizenist and territorialist perspectives used to justify restrictionism discount the rights and interests of non-citizens (respectively, non-residents) compared to citizens (respectively, residents).
  • Restrictionists believe, again with some justification, that those on the open borders side discount the interests of less fortunate natives who are most hurt by competition from immigrants (see here for more).

Still, there’s something potentially worse than indifference — vindictiveness. Indifference is about placing a zero or small positive weight on the rights, interests, or utility of specific people or groups of people. Vindictiveness is about placing a negative weight on their interests. In other words, it is about deriving positive utility from doing things that hurt or injure those other people.

The vindictiveness analogues of the above claims would be things like:

  • Some open borders advocates believe that a non-negligible minority of restrictionists are motivated by animus or vindictiveness towards current and/or potential immigrants. In most cases, this would not be a “first-principle” animus but rather, would be justified in terms of the immigrant having done something to deserve the animus. For instance, a restrictionist may argue that the bad behavior of certain immigrants (like taking natives’ jobs, going on welfare, or crossing borders illegally) means that they are evil and deserve to be hurt (this and this seem to be interesting blogs/websites that use similar rhetorical styles). Certainly, the claim is not that all restrictionist objections to these behaviors are motivated by animus, but rather, that some people are influenced to take restrictionist positions due to animus and vindictiveness towards immigrants for behavior that they disapprove of.
  • Symmetrically, some restrictionists have argued that open borders advocates are motivated by animus towards low-skilled natives. In one narrative, open borders is a “revenge of the nerds” against the jocks who stole their lunches and bullied them at school. In another narrative, open borders is a way for natives (particularly conservatives) to stick it to low-skilled blacks and low-skilled whites by getting cheaper and more compliant Hispanic labor instead. Another narrative is that people dissatisfied with the status quo (including libertarians, anti-imperialists, anarchists) want to use mass immigration to “heighten the contradictions” in the existing system and destroy it from within to get a blank slate to create a new utopia. (This last claim isn’t necessarily an indication of vindictiveness, but it could be). I believe I’ve encountered variants of these arguments made by Steve Sailer and also by others in EconLog comments, but I can’t locate a comprehensive list of sources. Here is one: Sailer commenting on a Caplan post:

    Dr. Caplan’s views on immigration differ only marginally from those of the editorial boards of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Barack Obama George W. Bush, John McCain, or Ted Kennedy. We should thank him for making explicit the hostility toward the American citizenry that motivates much of today’s conventional wisdom on immigration.

    Here is another:

    Indeed, much of current white conservative support for illegal immigration is a covert way of sticking it to African-Americans and their liberal supporters by importing harder-working Hispanics to drive blacks out of the workforce.

There is a key difference between indifference and vindictiveness. The former leaves a much wider door open for “win-win” keyhole solutions that work out to be Pareto improvements for all sides concerned. Restrictionists who don’t care about non-citizens can find common meeting ground with open borders advocates who are indifferent to the welfare of some subset of natives, by agreeing to a compromise keyhole solution that makes everybody better off. There are of course issues of feasibility and stability, but at least the possibility is there.

If either side is motivated by vindictiveness, however, the situation gets more complicated. Keyhole solutions may still be possible, but they’d be much harder to achieve. A restrictionist who gets positive pleasure from hurting current or potential immigrants would need a much larger bribe in order to agree to open borders. Similarly, those on the open borders side who derive happiness from seeing their fellow natives suffer the consequences of immigration restrictions would be loath to agree to keyhole solutions that end up compensating fellow natives for the (probabilistic) harms that immigration may cause.

There are a few complicating factors not specific to the open borders debate:

  • When addressing fence-sitters and the undecided, each side would tend to downplay its own vindictiveness and play up the indifference angle, at least in relative terms. When talking candidly among hardcore people, people on either side might let their hair down and make their vindictiveness (in so far as it exists) more clear in plain view.
  • When trying to find people to negotiate with on the other side, each side would prefer to meet the indifferent rather than the vindictive, for reasons alluded to above — it is easier to work out win-win compromise solutions.
  • When trying to convince fence-sitters that the positions advocated by the other side are evil, however, each side has an incentive to play up the vindictiveness aspect on the other side. It’s not necessary to portray people on the other side as vindictive. Calling the other side indifferent, insensitive, and cold-hearted could work. But calling the other side vindictive and accusing them of active cruelty, if done convincingly, could be far more powerful. We see this all the time outside the open borders debate. Some critics of feminism accuse feminists of hating men, while some feminists accuse non-feminists of being woman-haters (misogynists). Supporters of diversity and multiculturalism often accuse opponents of hating minorities, while opponents of diversity accuse supporters of being motivated by animus against the dominant group. In politics, people on each side of the political debate often accuse those on the other side of being motivated by hatred for the country when they oppose specific policies.
  • My impression is also that the farther away in time and space an issue becomes, and the more settled the associated moral question seems, the more likely people are to diagnose those with the “wrong” views as being vindictive rather than indifferent. For instance, proponents of Jim Crow laws (which were repealed in the US half a century ago) are viewed by many as being people who were motivated by hatred or animosity towards blacks, and I suspect that lynchings — which involve public and apparently vindictive humiliation of specific individuals — often come to many people’s minds when they think of Jim Crow laws. I suspect that a closer analysis would show Jim Crow laws as being motivated more by indifference to the welfare of blacks (and whites who wished to interact with them) relative to the welfare of whites holding segregationist values (and make the analogy with immigration restrictions mostly on point). A similar point can be made about apartheid in South Africa (for more on the impact of ending apartheid, see Grieve Chelwa’s post).

My personal view is that it makes a lot of sense to concentrate on the arguments offered based on indifference as opposed to those offered based on vindictiveness. So, for the most part, it makes sense to ignore the vindictiveness aspect. However, some recent discussions (not related to open borders) alerted me to the possibility that I might be prone to underestimating the vindictiveness that animates or motivates many people. Even if we don’t engage or critique arguments made from a vindictive perspective, it may be helpful to have a more accurate idea of the degree of penetration of vindictiveness on both sides of the open borders debate. If, after all, vindictiveness is the source of a person’s true rejection of open borders, then open borders advocates should have accordingly realistic expectations of the low likelihood of convincing such people to seriously consider open borders.

Constructive criticism in the comments would be much appreciated.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Sebastian Nickel for hearing out my post idea and offering some suggestions that helped shape this post. Also, thanks to Michael Wiebe for suggesting the “true rejection” link.

UPDATE: This blog post by Bryan Caplan in response to a blog post by Garett Jones is possibly relevant, though it does not deal with the issue of migration.

3 thoughts on “Vindictiveness versus indifference in the open borders debate”

  1. Re the Jim Crow analogy, I believe you are correct. Abraham Lincoln for example is probably better described as indifferent to certain aspects of American slavery (he certainly never supported slavery), but to modern ears his indifference sounds gratingly like outright vindictive prejudice. Only the most rabid abolitionists of the 19th century appeal to modern moral sensibilities; those indifferent to the evils of slavery or Jim Crow are seen as complicit themselves.

    Most people are indifferent w.r.t. the interests of non-citizens (in fact, I daresay most people are not much less indifferent w.r.t. the interests of their fellow citizens). The fact that their indifference is complicit in keeping the borders closed means that (in my view) there’s a decent chance that most people alive today will at some point be viewed by our descendants as vindictive towards their fellow human beings. Once the circle of people we recognise as having (at least generally) equal rights and standing with us expands, indifference to those formerly outside the circle appears to be vindictive, since from our contemporary standpoint, those people always as of right belonged in the circle.

    1. Re: the expanding circle, I did a post on the subject. You probably remember it, but I’m including the link for the benefit of others reading the post and comment thread. The way you’ve tied the ideas together is interesting.

  2. I’m not sure the ideal position for signalling purposes (or for the purpose of approaching the best outcome) is actually indifference. Indifference is surely superior to vindictiveness, but even better would be to signal concern for the losses suffered by the opposite side combined with an emphasis on the greater gains to be had or losses avoided for your own side. This might be a significant signaling weakness for citizenism which seems to almost inherently require indifference.

    The other point I’d make is that the level of vindictiveness seems to be highest among those with the strongest beliefs on one side or the other. I think the chain of causation probably works via people becoming vindictive towards opponents first and this then radicalizing their support. I hypothesize this on the basis that vindictiveness seems to be more likely the result of personal experiences causing strong emotional reactions against opponents. Thus people who become radicalized for a cause for non-personal reasons, or at least reasons unrelated to receiving personal harm from the opposition or representatives of the opposition, are likely to stay to the indifferent/understanding but still weighted to one side group. If the opposite chain of causation is true however, that radicalization leads to vindictiveness, that means those with particularly radical views need to be especially careful to remain charitable to the opposition.

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