The Fine Line Between Social Darwinism and Suicidal Compassion
By Bryan Caplan
Are you a libertarian? Are you tired of being called “hard-hearted”? Then I’ve got a solution for you! You’ll still be insulted. But instead of being condemned as “hard-hearted,” you’ll be mocked as “soft-headed.” All you have to do:
1. Take your hard-core libertarian writings on the domestic poor.
2. Replace all references to the “domestic poor” with “low-skilled immigrants.”
3. Publish your “new” position.
My latest essay for Hoover, “Treating Immigrants Like Strangers,” is a case in point. I begin:
Immigrants are strangers, and we should treat them accordingly.
On the one hand, this means that we should consider all of the
ways-good and bad-that immigrants affect us. We shouldn’t merely
consider the fiscal effects of immigration. We should consider the
broader economic effects, including those on innovation and
entrepreneurship. And we should consider the political effects-how
immigrants will sway our future policies and priorities.
None of this means, however, that we may ignore the welfare of
immigrants. They’re strangers but still human beings. No one is
obligated to hire strangers, house strangers, or support strangers in
the lifestyle to which they’d like to become accustomed. When someone else offers to hire, house, or support a stranger, however, we are normally obliged not to interfere.
If you disapprove of your employer’s latest recruit or your landlord’s
new tenants, you have every right to quit or move. But to overrule other people’s agreements requires a very good excuse.
These moral observations may seem obvious, but they have a shocking
implication. Our current immigration policies treat immigrants worse than
strangers, far worse. Existing laws do not simply make immigrants
ineligible for (most) government benefits, or protect your right to
refuse to hire or house immigrants. Instead, existing laws prevent
anyone in the United States from hiring or housing immigrants unless the
immigrant has government permission. This permission is very difficult to obtain, especially for low-skilled immigrants.
The upshot: to treat immigrants like strangers, we would probably
have to drastically liberalize our immigration laws – not just for
high-skilled immigrants but for low-skilled immigrants as well. Denying
government benefits to immigrants is fine; they’re strangers, so we
have no obligation to support them. Denying immigrants the right to
accept a job from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing
landlord, by contrast, requires a very good excuse.
If I talked the same way about poor Americans, people would attack my view as a cold-blooded Social Darwinism. But since it’s about immigrants – especially low-skilled immigrants – the same position somehow becomes suicidally compassionate. Sigh. It’s almost like people don’t understand their moral obligations to strangers.