The Conscience of a Liberaltarian
By Bryan Caplan
Immigration restrictions are the single worst policy the First World imposes. They’re a massive violation of human freedom with awful consequences. That’s the main reason I write about the issue so frequently and so doggedly.
But to be honest, I have a secondary didactic motive. For me, immigration restrictions are a moral mirror. I want to make non-libertarians stare into this mirror and see Dorian Gray looking back at them. You say you care about the poor? That everyone is equal? That all men are brothers? Then open borders – not forced charity for your well-fed countrymen – should be your overwhelming priority. Anyone who supports the welfare state on humanitarian grounds should favor open borders. And if that’s too demanding for you, it’s the welfare state you should compromise first.
This mirror is admittedly useless against someone who favors open borders and the welfare state. While this position is awfully rare, Will Wilkinson proves that it does have proponents:
I don’t have much patience with ideal theory, but either we’re ideal
theorizing or we’re not. If we are, then I’m for “maximizing growth +
lots of redistribution + free immigration”. (Actually, to nitpick, the
idea is to reduce redistribution as a portion of national income while increasing it in absolute terms through a higher rate of growth.)
This is a position I can respect. But it still prompts me to ask, “If we had high growth and open borders, would you really want to add a welfare state to the mix?” I assume Will isn’t already giving 90%+ of his income away to help people in the Third World. Does he really think our duties to billions of total strangers are strong enough to justify forcing everyone to do what even he won’t do voluntarily? What’s so wrong with just relying on private charity? And morality aside, what about…
1. Can you really reduce redistribution as a share of income when anyone who immigrates (and maybe even those who don’t) is eligible to collect? Wouldn’t this require massive per-capita cutbacks in redistribution, even for those we now see as the deserving poor?
2. Free-market economists have been pointing out the neglected perverse incentives of the welfare state for decades. I have to think that Will sees more merit in this work than most people. This might not be enough to turn him into a welfare state abolitionist, but it’s hard to see why it wouldn’t seriously dull his enthusiasm for it.
3. More controversially, I’ve claimed (with Scott Beaulier) that behavioral economics reveals that the perverse effects of the welfare state are even worse than most free-market economists realize. Will seems open enough to behavioral econ to take this argument seriously. Giving poor people free money really can ruin their lives.
If Will responds, “You’re right in terms of ‘ideal theory,’ but I’m just trying to marginally improve policy,” I’m more sympathetic. But I still have to wonder: Why does Will show so little sympathy for libertarians who give mainstream policy-makers the intellectual ammunition to undermine the welfare state?* They’re trying to marginally improve policy too – and it looks to me like they’ve had some real-world success. Indeed, if Charles Murray isn’t on your list of libertarians who changed policy for the better, who is?
* Quoth Will:
Falling short of the “no redistribution” ideal seems likely to leave us
with a porous and inefficient safety net that continues to crowd out
civil society alternatives to state welfare. This is why, by the way, I
think libertarian influence on Republican thinking about social policy
often does hurt the poor.
Update: Broken link to Beaulier-Caplan paper fixed.