More Liberaltarian Than Thou
Karl Smith calls this line from Will Wilkinson “liberaltarianism in one sentence”:
It’s best to just maximize growth rates, pre-tax distribution be
damned, and then fund wicked-good social insurance with huge revenues
from an optimal tax scheme.
A core hope of my engagement with the blogosphere is to determine why there is so much resistance to this idea.
My challenge: From what philosophic point of view is “maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + the immigration restrictions lots of domestic redistribution naturally encourage” better than “maximizing growth + no redistribution + free immigration”? Whether you’re concern for the poor is Rawlsian, utilitarian, or even dogmatically egalitarian, “no redistribution + free immigration” is the way to go. In a world where a billion people who live on a dollar a day can’t legally move here to shine shoes, fretting about the fate of relatively poor Americans is morally perverse and morally obtuse.
P.S. I’m not claiming that Will is weak on immigration; as far as I know,
he’s solid. But I am claiming that once you take immigration
seriously, the hard-core open borders libertarian is a better liberaltarian than
anyone who sings the virtues of free markets plus a big welfare state.
HT: Eli Dourado
Jan 23 2011 at 1:40am
You’re missing another possibility here: A kind of nationalist egalitarianism. Nobody will ever actually come out and say it, but a lot of people seem to be extremely wedded to the idea of the nation-state, and to the nation through it. It’s unfashionable for a variety of reasons to admit it, of course, but it seems to be true nonetheless.
I’ve made a point of asking in the past why, if income redistribution is an unqualified good, we don’t pay for state provided health insurance for poor Africans or Indians. Nobody ever has given me a good answer that doesn’t ultimately reduce to nationalism.
I think part of the reason that nobody will ever admit to being an adherent of this ideology is because the natural label for it is none other than national socialism.
Jan 23 2011 at 2:27am
At least at the moment, the battle on economically appropriate taxation and spending seems more winnable and tractable than the battle on immigration.
Jan 23 2011 at 3:20am
Open immigration fails the utilitarian test I think. I doubt that allowing in a billion people would preserve anything like liberal free markets in equilibrium. I doubt that even with just 100 million more people, especially if the people allowed in tend to heavily favor welfare states and intervention.
So Bryan can assert this, he certainly can’t prove independence of policy to size and composition of immigrants.
Luis H Arroyo
Jan 23 2011 at 3:52am
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Jan 23 2011 at 4:03am
As commenter ajb pointed, open borders will result in probably at least 200 million people moving to the USA in the course of an year – in Europe, probably more. I even do not want to think what will happen to the markets for housing and the non-moveable (skilled) service sector (like medical care). Open borders fails the utilitarian test for native populations – drastically.
Also, I believe that it fails Rawlsian test as well. Rawls had some pretty good arguments against international distributive justice, I believe they apply against open borders as well.
Also, I really believe that ANYBODY who advocates free migration in a situation where there are anti-dicrimination laws in place is suffering from a severe form of cognitive dissonance. And whoever is advocating open borders without being absolutely sure that it will not worsen the political and institutional environment of the country he lives in is outrught “suicidal” (in social sense, at least). Both points are kinda Orwellian actually…
Also, the ongoing references to morality in every post Mr Caplan makes about immigration continue to make me wanna chew my beard. As if libertarians can’t really be moral nihilists who do not care about such issues.
Jan 23 2011 at 4:33am
To AJB: Why are you applying the utilitarian test only to native populations. There is no good reason to claim that people who were coincidentally born in another country should not be included in that equation. From a simple understanding of what is going on, it seems stupid to not count all humans. Are we going to take away an African’s ability to feed himself so that a relatively poor American can keep his small wages where they are and upgrade to an LCD tv?
To Luis: I don’t think Caplan denies that free immigration will change the social and institutional structures, but I think he reasonably sees this as less of a social problem. If it is really that bothersome then (as caplan has suggested in the past) just disenfranchise them politically. I am sure that starving Haitians would want to have a job in America regardless of whether or not they can vote.
Finally to Steamer: Anyone who currently owns a house will be much better off. I don’t quite understand why you are bringing up the skilled labor sector, there isn’t any economic reason to suspect they will be made worse off. Why should anti-discrimination laws prevent us from offering a haven for people escaping starvation and dictatorships in other countries? That seems like a minor problem at most. Yes libertarians can be moral nihilists, but he is making the claim that the only moral high ground on this issue rests on the side of open immigration.
Jan 23 2011 at 4:59am
“Anyone who currently owns a house will be much better off.”
Anyone who intends to buy one will be worse off.
“I don’t quite understand why you are bringing up the skilled labor sector, there isn’t any economic reason to suspect they will be made worse off.”
But the clients will be worse off. How do you make an utilitarian comparison? Are you even aware of the difficulties (both methodological and practical) of doing that?
Not even to mention the volatility of prices that will set in under free migration. Now, what does mainstream economic theory have to say about the effects of price volatility?
“Why should anti-discrimination laws prevent us from offering a haven for people escaping starvation and dictatorships in other countries?”
Because they prevent you from expressing your preferences for not wanting these people in your vicinity. And these preferences are an important signal.
“Yes libertarians can be moral nihilists, but he is making the claim that the only moral high ground on this issue rests on the side of open immigration.”
In the context of moral nihilism, how can you even talk of “a moral high-ground”? And what it is supposed to mean? I bet it’s something subjective and imaginary.
“Are we going to take away an African’s ability to feed himself so that a relatively poor American can keep his small wages where they are and upgrade to an LCD tv?”
I do not see any objective reason why not. Then again,you may claim that it is not moral. But the issue is not what one kind of subjective morality tells you to do or not to do.
Jan 23 2011 at 7:39am
I’m sympathetic to the immigration argument, but how do you respond to the practical concerns of neighborhoods in border states that you probably wouldn’t want to live in?
Jan 23 2011 at 9:06am
When the people living on a dollar a day figure out that they don’t have to shine shoes any more, they can instead vote themselves a portion of other people’s wages, the pretty picture Bryan paints quickly breaks down.
Jan 23 2011 at 9:37am
In the context of open borders, people must stop thinking that immigration necessarily equals naturalization.
To a world-average 20 year old, US citizenship probably has a net present value of several hundred thousand dollars. Let’s say it’s $400,000.
Here’s the breakdown of that $400,000 across the privileges of citizenship:
a. Can vote: $1000
b. Can hold elected office: $1000
c. Can serve on a jury: -$500
d. Can legally live and work in the US: $398,500
All open borders asks for is (d). All those who want to freely migrate want is (d). If open borders becomes a reality, a very long or absent path to citizenship will be part of the bargain. The fear of immigrants’ voting should not be used as an argument against recognizing the inherent right of individuals to live and work wherever they can find people willing to house and employ them.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:17am
And what makes you think politicians will uphold that bargain? They would have access to a voting bank if they broke it, and many on the left would want to break it anyway on egalitarian grounds.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:20am
This seems like a false choice especially given the current political parties.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:36am
Let me introduce you to a concept called partiality. You seem to know much about philosophy but you seem to have a gap in your understanding of the basic critiques of utilitarianism and consequentialism. Essentially, people have preferences for their own, first their immediate family, then their extended family, their tribe, village, ethnicity, region, nation-state etc… These preferences have both positive and negative externalities. But they are a fixed part of our morality. If your son is drowning, and two other children were drowning at the sametime and you could either save your son or the two other children, you would save your son. There are good reasons to think this is actually the correct moral choice, because the consequences of not having that instinct to save your son would be catastrophic for the species. Either way given the type of creatures we are, this partiality is a fixed part of our moral understanding. It cannot be wished away.
Arguing from utility as you do, you are making a Utopian argument about how the world and people should be, as opposed to how they actually behave.
You are in good company though, as this is the same argument that peter singer makes, as well as Lao Tzu. Call it universal love. See doesn’t that sound utopian.
Let me put this in terms you can understand. Paying for a social safety net seems coercive to you, but it doesn’t seem so coercive to people who voted for it. In an ethnically homogeneous country many more people support those kind of policies. So Scandinavian countries manage to have more intrusive government that is still less coercive then our own. That’s a neat trick and for most libertarians it should count as an improvement in utility.
Obviously we can’t have an ethnically homogenious nation in the USA, and no one would argue we should. However, some people would like our institutions to be stable. With open borders that is not possible. You want to get rid of our social safety net institutions so opens borders appeals to you. That feels coercive to me!
Jan 23 2011 at 10:47am
I think the whole argument here ignores the elephant in the room. We *don’t* value every one else’s welfare equally, even those with concern for the poor.
We generally have a hierarchy of care starting with immediate family and going outward to further relatives, friends, people who we interact with, and onward until finally we reach people who are culturally, linguistically, and geographically distant.
I have no problem with people fighting against existing tendencies. Society is one big control on all sorts of existing, but unpleasant, human behaviors. However, to not acknowledge that these tendencies exist seems to ensure little progress in the debate.
Right now, the debate seems to be about free-immigration supporters forcing immigration-restrictionists into logical knots to justify their position because they can’t admit they have this hierarchy of care, while at the same time failing to admit that this same hierarchy is part of the human make-up and thus something that needs to be addressed if there is to be progress on the issue.
Jan 23 2011 at 12:19pm
You want to get rid of our social safety net institutions so opens borders appeals to you. That feels coercive to me!
Removing coercion is coercive. And that’s doubleplusungood!
Jan 23 2011 at 12:22pm
You ask: “From what philosophic point of view is ‘maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + the immigration restrictions lots of domestic redistribution naturally encourage’ better than ‘maximizing growth + no redistribution + free immigration’?” Well, it’s not exactly a “philosophic” point of view, but I think the Wilkinsonian liberaltarians are prompted by a somewhat confused idea of *political realism*. They think straight libertarianism can never be popular enough to be adopted democratically, so it is unrealistic (“utopian”) to advocate it. But liberaltarianism, they think, has a chance at popular acceptance. (How great a chance has it, and how great a chance would be needed to make it “realistic”? They haven’t thought that through.)
They are playing to the crowd, though not *quite* to the extent of simply promoting all the currently popular prejudices.
Jan 23 2011 at 12:27pm
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Jan 23 2011 at 1:00pm
I’m not really going to comment on the validity of the idea, I’m merely going to point out Rawl’s theory cannot deal with immigration. Rawl’s handles globalization very badly, in fact, his A Theory of Justice explicitly assumes a closed society. The difficulty arises from the original position-determined institutional structure breaks down when you realize then that national borders are being divvied up. There are some extensions of Rawls that can work, but you really have to go down the Thomas Pogge route, but then you have to make value-judgments on the relative importance of certain rights which is something Rawl’s definitely never intended since his theory only allows for an ideal theory of justice (in fact, a major flaw in most theories of justice is they do not allow for discussions of comparative justice and relative value-judgments).
A global Pogge-Rawlsian would probably defend “free immigration + no (or rather, little) redistribution) on very difficult grounds. With such a large flux in immigrants it would be impossible to redistribute income to this extend and in the Rawlsian model inequities are OK so long as they preserve incentives that make everyone better off. The amount of redistribution required to make even the worse immigrant maximized, while still preserving incentives, would be quite small given the huge amount of immigrants flowing in.
Jan 23 2011 at 1:37pm
I am on board with open boarders.
Get rid of birthright citizenship, public schooling and all other state programs for immigrants and give me a call.
Jan 23 2011 at 5:47pm
In what universe is voting for unemployment benefits a substitute for actually getting a job? Have you known anyone to behave this way? And has it worked?
Jan 23 2011 at 7:11pm
Bryan Caplan, I think you may have stumbled upon the reason why a liberal (libertarian) and progressive political alliance has yet to form. The primary disagreement is over nationalism, not egalitarianism as we believed.
Jan 23 2011 at 7:35pm
Several people have made the point that we value others differently:
The thing is, under most conventionally accepted morality, there is a limit to how much you can do based on these preference. No one will blame you if you save your own son instead of two other children. However, if you are managing a corporation, and hire your son over several other better-qualified candidates, that’s nepotism. If your son is looking for a job it is not morally right to physically restrain people who are interviewing for the same job so they miss their interview.
In my view giving money to charities to help foreigners, or voting against foreign aid, are morally the same as helping your family instead of strangers. Restricting immigration is morally equivalent to nepotism, or to restraining people who are interviewing for the same job as your family members.
Having met the sort of people who live on the public dole, I cannot take this fear seriously. Those people are just too disorganized, scatterbrained, and low-in-conscientiousness to make a big difference politically. They’re just not the sort of people who vote frequently enough.
The majority of people who receive government handouts are middle-class and rich senior citizens. They are the major threat to our budget, because they are politically well-organized enough to actually vote for more benefits. If you want to productively fight the government taking your money for handouts, quit wasting time on immigrants and go after senior citizens.
Jan 23 2011 at 7:40pm
Completely open borders probably makes sense in a truly libertarian state. If this is the point Caplan is trying to make, fine.
But in our second-best world, it is not at all clear that open immigration is optimal.
Jan 23 2011 at 7:56pm
Optimal for whom? Optimal for the people currently living in the US, or optimal for the people currently living in the US and the people who would move to the US if the USG opened its borders?
Jan 23 2011 at 8:36pm
Caplan needs to answer as to why he thinks so many people prefer to live in first world countries. If the reasons are social and/or biological, then open borders will turn these countries into the places the immigrants came from.
Jan 23 2011 at 9:24pm
Most of the people intending to buy houses will be immigrants, so on the whole immigration policy would help Americans in the housing market. Yes some young people just starting to move into homes might get the short end of the stick, but they dont represent a large portion of the US. Most Americans own their own home.
I fail to see any reason why skilled workers would be hurt by an influx of unskilled workers. At best you could argue that unskilled workers in America are hurt by immigration. Who are they? Highschool dropouts and immigrants. Helping highschool dropouts just seems like a lost cause (they didn’t even take advantage of a grade inflated free education system).
Price volatility is a strange argument to make. Price volatility usually comes from supply side issues (think of oil), if anything increasing the size of the market for products would stabilize prices.
Markets find ways of getting around anti-discrimination laws. If you are willing to pay for the preference of not being around immigrants then the solution is probably pretty simple. Live in colder climates (most immigrants come from warmer areas), live in states that do not border the Ocean, and live in the countryside. I am sure you will be able to find a 99% white American town.
I should have been more clear about the moral nihilism: Brian is not making the argument to those people. If you are a moral nihilist then yes, his moral arguments don’t hold weight. For people who do care about morality his claim is that open immigration is the moral high ground. He has other practicality based arguments for open immigration, you should look up some of his speeches or notes on the subject.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:15pm
If I’ve read Bryan’s previous posts correctly, I think he has implied that the reasons are primarily institutional and incentives based. Therefore, since the incentives and institutions are different than in their home countries, immigrants will alter their behavior to match.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:31pm
…immigrants will alter their behavior to match.
Indeed, just as they have for the past 400 years, immigrants will self-select to match.
Jan 23 2011 at 10:59pm
Using Rawls against utilitarian liberals is inspired, I must say.
Jan 24 2011 at 4:14am
As we seem to be discussing Utopian solutions here….might it not be better if the poor countries, from which these immigrants would come, adopted libertarian rules?
In this way the benefits of freedom are not limited to the 200MM who emigrate but are extended to the 4000MM living in the countries of origin.
A win-win solution as they say….
Jan 24 2011 at 7:36am
The open borders types concede that unlimited immigration would destroy the institutions that make free markets and the rule of law possible. So their response is to argue that we ought to create a permanent caste of second class citizens.
Great idea, guys.
Jan 24 2011 at 8:57am
“So their response is to argue that we ought to create a permanent caste of second class citizens”
We already do this, the second class citizens just live in another country. Out of sight out of mind.
Jan 24 2011 at 8:59am
He’s listed The Bell Curve as one of his favorite books so he likely believes biology explains some of the productive differences within the United States. It presumably follows that differences in income, etc. between nations are also partly explained by genetics. If so, per capita this country would become less productive and the population would vote for worse policies (as Caplan should know!) if the floodgates were opened.
Now it seems that Caplan doesn’t care, as his morality is universal. Even if Somalis can’t build a first world civilization he’d probably say the improvement in their living standard would make up for any loss suffered by American society as a whole. But what about if 800 million Africans made their way to the United States? How long would America survive as a first world nation? What would happen to the institutions?
If you don’t believe in biological differences, just say it’s culture and you have the same problem, as there’s no reason to believe that the US or any other nation has an unlimited ability to assimilate every kind of people in potentially unlimited numbers.
A universal utilitarian might conclude that the first world nations would be destroyed in the long run by open borders. And then there’d be no more institutions which could support scientific and technological progress, which would be bad for everybody.
Jan 24 2011 at 9:07am
Closed border types argue that people who would rather be second class citizens in the first world must remain fifth class citizens in the third.
Jan 24 2011 at 11:35am
You are again circling around the issue hurling senseless conclusions that mean nothing. I again ask you: By what means do you even make an utilitarian comparison in this manner? The impossibility of actually comparing ordinal measures is a long-tackled issue (with no success); even assuming cardinal utility, again, you do not have the means to make a comparison. In other words – you are making a claim solely based on your opinion. As I mentioned before, opinion does not bear even the slightest weight on such matters.
“Price volatility is a strange argument to make. Price volatility usually comes from supply side issues (think of oil), if anything increasing the size of the market for products would stabilize prices.”
Price volatility can (and has) come from demand shocks (tulips, anyone?). Increasing the size of the market with a bunch of people with no or almost no skills (and increasing it continuously, for years) but still requiring high – skill services (medicine, architecture, etc.) will skyrocket the prizes. Yes, eventually, after decades, maybe we will have stable prizes – but that’s not really the point here.
“Markets find ways of getting around anti-discrimination laws. If you are willing to pay for the preference of not being around immigrants then the solution is probably pretty simple. Live in colder climates (most immigrants come from warmer areas), live in states that do not border the Ocean, and live in the countryside. I am sure you will be able to find a 99% white American town.”
You see, unlike you I (used to) live in a ethno – state, not the USA. And unlike most Americans, ethnic groups who have been around their lands for more than a thousand years tend to feel kinda bound to them. You are saying that I am not supposed to care about that. But I do.
“I should have been more clear about the moral nihilism: Brian is not making the argument to those people. If you are a moral nihilist then yes, his moral arguments don’t hold weight. For people who do care about morality his claim is that open immigration is the moral high ground. ”
On what account is it the moral high-ground? It is the moral high-ground assuming rule utilitarianism in which you care equally about the well-being of every person regardless of his origin. Who says that’s the moral system anybody has to adopt and how is that justified?
Also, I should mention that I (think I) have read all of Caplan’s arguments and I am still to find even one that is convincing. Even a bit.
Jan 24 2011 at 3:45pm
MikeP, I have long believed that it is a very interesting thought experiment to think about what would happen if USA citizens could sell their citizenship.
Jan 24 2011 at 6:00pm
Also, I should mention that I (think I) have read all of Caplan’s
arguments and I am still to find even one that is convincing. Even a bit.”
Indeed; he’s never addressed my concerns, either. I’m concerned that he’s
blinded by a feeling of self-righteousness when
arguing for open borders that’s preventing him from fully engaging the
stronger opposing arguments.
To be clear, here’s why I think it’s a really bad idea to fully open the
The birth rate of second generation Mexican immigrants is significantly
higher than that of Mexicans. Refusal to enforce the US border actively
changes the future’s demographics. It’s not just a matter of “a
second-class lifestyle in first-world country vs. a fifth-class lifestyle
in a third-world country” with the set of future people held constant.
Instead, contrary to oft-cited results about economic development reducing
fertility, keeping Mexicans in Mexico is empirically the best way to
reduce the Hispanic share of North America’s future population.
Why does the Hispanic share of North America’s future population matter?
Because we still have no clue how to create an environment where the
distribution of Mexican-American performance resembles that of the rest of
Americans, particularly at the high end. Barring an unlikely
breakthrough in educational techniques, a miracle smart pill that works on
Hispanics as well as other populations, or widespread acceptance of
germline engineering in the Hispanic community, a
majority-Mexican-American US is one that will have much less freedom to
shape its destiny than the US of today.
There are two major instances of thoughtcrime in the argument above. (i)
Mexican-Americans, due to a combination of slightly adverse self-selection
(especially compared to other immigration sources like India) and low
source population average IQ, are not on track for full assimilation;
instead they are on track to be a permanent underclass, and no amount of
education spending can fix this. (ii) By admitting them, we increase the
*global* size of this underclass, not just the portion we have to deal
To his credit, Bryan actually accepts (i). I’m not sure he’s thought
deeply about (ii), though, since as far as facts go, it’s about as Nazi as
a fact can get. However, I suggest that a refusal to deal with
demographic reality in a relatively peaceful manner–in this case, by
enforcing the border–will simply create more violence in the future.
Specifically, why is it important for the US to continue to have control
of its destiny? For one, US policies should be designed toward that end,
essentially by definition. But from a global utility standpoint, there’s
also an argument to be made that an America-dominated world is almost
certainly better than, say, a world where China and Russia project the
Also, it is bizarre to privilege the existence of unborn persons one to
three generations down the line, over the existence of unborn persons 4+
generations down, just because the former can be estimated with more
precision. This is, after all, why you correctly don’t ask every man to
impregnate every woman in sight; such behavior bodes poorly for the future
of the civilization those men are living in, so the expected size of the
short-term baby boom is more than cancelled out. (Somebody needs to
explain this to Katja
Grace, who is otherwise an exceptionally clear thinker.)
Jan 26 2011 at 5:00pm
It seems that you are saying we cannot morally concern ourselves with the ‘relative’ poverty in our own neighborhoods until we do something about the ‘absolute’ poverty half way around the world. Could we instead concern ourselves with both in proportion to our capacity to affect them? Would that be morally perverse and morally obtuse? I suppose the alternative would be to refuse to distribute surplus perishable foodstuffs to malnourished people in our own communities because, ‘there are starving people in (insert preferred nation here)’. Please reconsider your comment. People take you seriously when you say things like this. They shouldn’t, but they do.
Jan 26 2011 at 8:10pm
I suppose the alternative would be to refuse to distribute surplus perishable foodstuffs to malnourished people in our own communities because, ‘there are starving people in (insert preferred nation here)’.
The argument is that the US should probably stop abrogating the rights of impoverished people before it gives handouts to richer people.
Jan 30 2011 at 6:48pm
You’ve probably read it, but if you haven’t, check out Peter Unger’s very good book Living High and Letting Die. It makes a very similar argument (on the ethical side at least, the politics are not much explored) to yours.
As for the failings of the argument, the first comment absolutely nailed it. This sort of (rather extreme, I think) nationalism is completely pervasive. It gets REALLY fun when you try to combine nationalist utilitarianism/egalitarianism/whatever with Christianity. Maybe some people’s versions of the bible have a Matthew 19:21 like this:
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor (of your own nation only), and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Jan 31 2011 at 3:44pm
Is anybody here actually discussing the complete redistribution of private fortunes to the poor? If we were simply trying to decide how to redistribute the private wealth of the richest rulers, then send it wherever you like. But, we aren’t, are we? How far away were the poor to whom Jesus suggested giving the money? Were there international charities and foreign aid budgets in the Jordan Valley or Peraea? A convenient 800 number he could call? A charitable relief fund for foreign disasters? As long as we’re quoting the things Jesus didn’t say, here’s a good one: “Sell everything you have and find somebody really far away that needs the money more than the people here. Go ahead, I’ll wait until you get back. Then come follow me.” Matthew 19:21 seems to be a poorly chosen quotation for the point you wish to illustrate. We have the capacity to benefit so many people that arguing about which ones we shouldn’t help is sort of strange, and settling upon the ones closest to us is even stranger. It doesn’t really betray an interest in helping the far off, but rather an interest in not helping those around us in certain specific ways. You may want to listen to the words of Dr. King with respect to balancing the accumulation of wealth with the love of mankind.
And about the book of Matthew, have you read the 23rd Chapter? The whole thing? Jesus helped the poor around Him, the sick in front of Him, the guilty in need of grace and defense, even the men who killed Him, and taught others to do the same. I can’t make you respect that, but neither can I effectively reason with you about the welfare of mankind through the example of Jesus if you don’t respect His beliefs or His example, or even bother to understand the passage you are misquoting for comedic effect. So, maybe it’s better if we just leave the Bible out of it until we are all ready to deal with it respectfully.
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