Wars of liberation versus open borders

Open borders advocate Bryan Caplan talks about good and bad arguments for pacifism in his blog post How Not to Be a Pacifist. The blog post talks about the Vietnam War and the morality of US intervention in the conflict. Caplan argues that while there were strong humanitarian reasons to oppose the communist regime in Vietnam, these ends would have been better served through a policy of open borders in the US for refugees from Vietnam. He bolsters his case by considering the 300 days of open borders between North and South Vietnam.

The case that emigration is an important weapon in the battle against communist and other tyrannical regimes has been made elsewhere as well, but Caplan’s argument adds a new twist by comparing open borders with wars of liberation. My paraphrasing of his argument would be that if you think that a humanitarian injustice justifies a military intervention (war of liberation) you should also think it justifies open borders for the victims of that injustice. With this in mind, let’s look at the chart of possibilities for a person’s attitudes towards wars of liberation and open borders:

Rows represent attitudes to wars of liberations, columns represent attitude to open borders for victims Support open borders for victims of tyrannical regimes Oppose open borders for victims of tyrannical regimes
Support wars of liberation Uncommon, but consistent. Found among some neoconservatives and internationalists (liberal and libertarian). Example: My co-blogger Nathan Smith (his views on Iraq) Common, but inconsistent. Include significant fraction of mainstream US conservatives
Oppose wars of liberation Uncommon, but consistent. Example: Bryan Caplan (blog post) Uncommon, but consistent. Found among paleoconservatives, some isolationist liberals. Example: Steve Sailer (article)

The top right quadrant — support wars of liberation but oppose immigration — is the most interesting because it seems prima facie inconsistent, yet is widely held by a large number of people who identify themselves as conservative in the United States. Unfortunately, I don’t have any convincing theory or idea to explain this inconsistency.

UPDATE: See also the immigration and wars of liberation page on this site and a related piece by Jacob Hornberger.

8 thoughts on “Wars of liberation versus open borders”

  1. Is it really Prima Facie inconsistent? If they believe that there are far higher costs to immigration than wars then maybe they just want us to do the most cost effective option. Maybe they’re wrong but then it’s hardly inconsistent Prima Facie.

    1. Hi Leo,

      That’s a good point. Probably, most of these people do think that the costs of allowing immigrants from a disaster-struck area are greater than the costs of war. But I don’t think the numbers bear this out at all — even the most pessimistic estimates of the effects of immigration (from one country) don’t compare with the costs of war. In sheer terms of number of deaths, there were 100,000+ deaths as a result of the Iraq war, including about 4400 US troop deaths ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Iraq_War ). Even just looking at US troop deaths, this is pretty large compared to ~15K homicides per year in the US, and probably larger than any increase in the homicide rate through a free migration policy.

      But you’re right that one would need to do a more detailed cost comparison in order to establish the inconsistency of the “pro-war,anti-open borders” policy.

      1. Hi Vipul,

        I agree that it’s unlikely to be true.

        I wonder if it’s a similar sort of thing to when people complain about countries being poor and not their people when talking about things like international aid, except replacing poor with free.

  2. The logic behind the charge of inconsistency seems to be something like the following. Advocates of wars of liberation believe the US may, or perhaps is even obligated to, do something to help those who are suffering under totalitarian regimes. Two policies that could arguably help them– at any rate they seem pretty certain to let a lot of people get out from under totalitarian rule– are a war of liberation against the totalitarian regime in question, and to open the borders to emigrants from the country ruled by the totalitarian regime. Since the latter policy is less costly and has fewer harmful side-effects, if one supports a war of liberation, one must support accepting refugees.

    But this argument presupposes a lot. For one thing, one must place the war in a larger geostrategic context. Measuring the number of NET deaths (net, because Saddam killed people too) that resulted from the Iraq War is very difficult. I remember a 100,000 number from a Lancet study which didn’t hold up well on closer examination. Even if the “peacetime” death rate under Saddam was lower than after the invasion– I’m not sure we can even be certain of that, but it seems likely– that may not be the relevant metric. Take a look at what’s happening in Syria now. Now suppose the Arab Spring had spread to Iraq, and imagine what might have happened there. The point is that totalitarian violence is subject to huge fluctuations. If one is using a consequentialist meta-ethics, the only meaningful way to appraise the Iraq War is to postulate some counter-factual, but obviously any such counter-factual would be highly controversial.

    People don’t just live in order to live. Mere survival is not the only relevant metric here. For me, there is an obligation to live in truth, and life under a regime like Saddam’s, involving as it does an intolerable burden of lying for one’s own survival and that of one’s family, is in a rather precise and non-negotiable sense a fate worse than death. So 100,000 deaths– 0.5% of the population– is from that point of view a small price to pay for the chance to live in truth. If the death toll were ten times higher I still wouldn’t have the slightest hesitation in saying that, if I were Iraqi, I would regard the liberation as worth the price. Maybe Iraqis would disagree, but I actually suspect not: polls vary, but when I used to follow this stuff, I got the impression that a majority of Iraqis (maybe a narrow majority) retrospectively supported the liberation, even during the worst of the chaotic aftermath.

    Iraqis’ welfare is not, of course, the only consideration. Costs were also borne by the US taxpayer; but there were, at least arguably, benefits other than freedom of speech and democracy (or least, a lot more of it than before) for Iraqis. Arguably, al-Qaeda destroyed its global mystique by massacring Muslims in the heart of the Arab of the world. Arguably, that made Iraq the key to US victory in the War on Terror. Bin Laden was despised long before he was killed, which is why his death was an epilogue rather than a martyrdom. Arguably, the Iraq War reversed decades of US support for dictatorships in the Arab world, injecting irreparable contradictions into the Arabs’ paranoid victim complex, and despite the war’s temporary unpopularity, ultimately forced the Arabs to look at the US in a new and more favorable light, which is reflected in the limited influence of anti-Americanism in the Arab Spring revolutions. Arguably, the Arab Spring itself is a side-effect of the new Iraqi democracy, whose success– which only became apparent around 2010 after the success of the surge and the scheduling of a US withdrawal– goaded the pride of other Arab peoples into rising against their rulers and claiming their rights. Arguably, the Iraq War creates a credible threat against totalitarian regimes everywhere, which might continue to come in handy for many years to come. Don’t go to extremes– or you’ll end up like Saddam.

    So the humanitarian payoff for wars of liberation is very hard to quantify. Of course, it’s not very easy to quantify the humanitarian payoff of open borders, either in general or solely for the subjects of totalitarian regimes. In any case, one might support wars of liberation, even as wars of liberation, yet not on humanitarian grounds. Thus, suppose I believe in the democratic peace, and I think we should encourage the spread of democracy, usually by peaceful methods but occasionally by military force, because I believe a world full of democracies will not threaten the US with any wars. I might not put much value on the welfare of Iraqis per se. It would not be at all inconsistent to combine this view with opposition to the admission of Iraqi emigrants, which would leave non-democratic ergo dangerous Saddam in power.

    As Vipul said, I support open borders and also may favor, on a case-by-case basis, some wars of liberation. There could be some nifty synergies between the two: open borders grows the US population, giving the US more potential military recruits; refugees may lobby and/or volunteer for wars of liberation; and oppressed populations with many relatives in the US might be more welcoming to American liberators. But I don’t think closed borders + wars of liberation is much less defensible a position than closed borders in general.

    1. Hi Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment. I will eventually respond to your critique, as well as points raised by others, in a separate blog post. You’re right that the case isn’t prima facie that clear. What I think I should have said, instead, is prima facie inconsistent is the *certainty* with which people express pro-“war of liberation” views alongside anti-“open borders for victims” views. It’s the people who say, “well, obviously, we need to shed blood and treasure to liberate country X” and in the next breath say, “we can’t let people from country X come, because that’ll drive down the wages of high school dropouts by 8% and besides, what do we owe immigrants anyway? It’s not our job to take care of them.” Perhaps I’m creating a straw man here, but my impression is that many conservatives have hewed to this pair of beliefs in recent years. But I’ll need to search the web for supporting quotes to make sure I’m not falling prey to confirmation bias. Which I will hopefully do in a blog post soon.

      1. It does seem like there were some conservatives who were gung-ho for liberation, ostensibly on the most generous and humanitarian grounds, who at the same time seem never to have considered the humanitarian case for open borders. Victor Davis Hanson might be the worst offender, but then, his reasoning on immigration is so bad as to be a form of wilful ignorance. To call him inconsistent would be too complimentary, as it would suggest at least an aspiration to rational coherence, whereas Hanson is just a tangle of paranoia on this issue.

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