Scott's Utilitarian Leniency
By Bryan Caplan
My views on this are kind of hard to explain. I am convinced by
Bryan Caplan’s arguments on utilitarian grounds. And yet I view this
issue as being different from all other policy issues in one key
respect. This is the only good policy reform that I can think of that
might well make Americans significantly worse off. In other cases
what’s good for the world is generally good for America, or perhaps
roughly neutral. So is it too much to ask for Americans to agree to
open borders? Not if everyone was like Jesus. But although I’d
personally vote in favor in a referendum, if I were a typical middle
class American with the same level of selfishness that I currently have,
I might vote against. That’s why I prefer to work for more modest
gains, such as a rate of immigration of say 1% per year (i.e. 3 million
people.) I believe that would greatly reduce illegal immigration. I’d
prefer a balance of low and high skilled workers. I realize that this
would reduce the amount that we could plausibly do with low wage
subsidies, but it’s still the right thing to do. (Bryan will say that
in 1850 I would have favored “gradually” reducing slavery.)
If you are confused by my wishy-washy views on immigration, here’s an
analogy. On purely utilitarian grounds I’d have to say that
transferring my entire pension to the poor of Dhaka is probably a good
idea. If you hooked me up to a lie detector I’d have to say it’s the
“right policy.” But I don’t do it because of the thought of still
grading papers at age 83, and because I’m a selfish bastard.
Fortunately, that dilemma doesn’t occur on any of the public policy
issues I discuss in my blog. I always say what I believe (rightly or
wrongly) is the right policy. I just don’t talk about the sort of
proposals that Peter Singer might contemplate.
What’s noteworthy about this passage isn’t that Scott disavows a clear-cut application of the utilitarian principle. He disavows nothing. What’s noteworthy, rather, is that for once, Scott is vocally forgiving of non-utilitarians. Instead of ridiculing opponents of open borders for their cognitive illusions, Scott suggests that utilitarianism asks too much.
My question for Scott: Why is open borders the one issue where you seem to opt for moral leniency? (Perhaps this reflects a change of heart?)
Followup question if he’s got time: Why are you so quick to grant that open borders is a net negative for natives? Sure, low-skilled natives who rent would probably lose. But most natives aren’t low-skilled and do own land.