When Is Abolitionism Justified?
By Bryan Caplan
In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice. The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.
This raises an interesting question: When is abolitionism justified – morally and strategically? In 1850, a pragmatic opponent of slavery could have easily said:
In my view the abolitionists are doing the anti-slavery cause a disservice. The notion of fully abolishing slavery scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.
The obvious moral objection is that comparing slavery and immigration restrictions is absurd hyperbole. But it’s absurd hyperbole to call this apt comparison “absurd hyperbole.” Yes, enslaving a Haitian is plainly worse than forbidding him to accept a job offer anywhere on earth except Haiti. But they’re both dire harms. How would you react if the world’s laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth? With weeping and gnashing of teeth.*
Once you accept the moral awfulness of immigration restrictions, Tyler’s pragmatism starts to sound more like callousness: “You shouldn’t expect people to lose sleep over massive violations of other people’s rights.” Mere amnesty and higher quotas is not good enough.
In principle, though, you could accept the moral awfulness of the status quo, but agree that Tyler’s moderate approach is the most effective (/least ineffective) way to alleviate its moral awfulness.
But is this soft-sell actually more effective? Quite unclear. Contemporaries heavily criticized the abolitionists for scaring moderates, but abolitionism won. The simplest explanation is that there’s a trade-off between bargaining and conversion. Moderates are better at bargaining with people holding preferences fixed. Abolitionists are better at changing preferences. And when the status quo is very far from righteousness, it’s preferences that have to change to get an acceptable result.
Still, I’d accept a toned-down version of Tyler’s story: Abolitionists and moderates together are more effective than either alone. You need abolitionists like me to highlight the moral urgency of open borders – to hold up a mirror to complacent First Worlders to show them how shabbily they’re behaving. You need moderates like Tyler to make concrete reforms palatable.
Yes, extremists can be very bad for a cause. But it’s generally when they’re uncivil or worse. Otherwise, extremists at least serve the function of making moderates look reasonable by comparison.
* Another helpful test: Suppose you had to choose between the following evils: (a) not being allowed to legally work anywhere but Haiti; or (b) being enslaved with probability X. What value of X makes you indifferent? My X=.33.