One of my biggest disappointments with blogs (and don’t get me started on Twitter, which is way worse) is that many of the people who comment on posts don’t engage with the author’s argument. I’m not applying this objection to commenters on EconLog because I think that, by and large, they (you) do better than commenters on the vast majority of other blogs.

I find that this failure to engage happens a lot with discussions of immigration and open borders. Recently, philosophy professor Chris Freiman, filling in on Bryan Caplan’s new blog titled “Bet On It,” wrote a post titled “There Are No Libertarian Objections to Open Borders.” His post was a little too terse and I wouldn’t have titled it that way because it doesn’t allow for libertarian objections that neither he nor I have heard of.

But what’s striking is how many of the commenters literally refused to respond to his arguments.

One of Freiman’s arguments is one that Bryan Caplan makes and has made in his and Zach Weinersmith’s graphic novel titled Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration.

Freiman writes:

The most popular objection alleges that “we can’t have open borders and a welfare state.” (This position is sometimes affiliated with Milton Friedman, but his view was actually more nuanced than it seems.) Even if we set aside the finding that estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration “are clustered around zero,” this argument is easy enough to refute. Libertarians advocate for legalizing heroin with a welfare state in place. They don’t defend state restrictions on reproductive rights even when the children will attend public schools. In short, if we took the “welfare state objection” seriously, it wouldn’t stop at the freedom to immigrate.

One commenter quoted the line, “Libertarians advocate for legalizing heroin with a welfare state in place” and replied “No, they don’t, they advocate for legalizing heroin.”

Notice how that nicely allowed the commenter to ignore Freiman’s point. The key question to ask this commenter is, “Given that we have a fairly large welfare state in place, do you advocate legalizing heroin?” Unless he’s really dense, the commenter knows that this is the issue but fails to engage.

Freiman also writes:

The second objection claims that taxpayers have the right to determine how public infrastructure is used and thus the right to restrict immigrants’ access if they choose. But this argument also proves too much. Do taxpayers have the right to prohibit people from driving on public roads if they have copies of Anarchy, State, and Utopia in the car? Surely not.

Freiman’s point is that if taxpayers have the right to determine how public infrastructure is used, there’s no stopping point. That’s why he gives the reductio ad absurdum of having Robert Nozick’s book.

How does this same commenter answer? He says: “Ok. So what does that have to do with open borders?”

What is has to do with open borders is that one of the objections to open borders has to do with taxpayers’ alleged right to determine who uses tax-funded infrastructure. One gets the idea that the commenter didn’t read the objection or just decided to ignore it and to ignore Freiman’s argument against the objection.

This failure to engage doesn’t happen only with blogs and Twitter, of course. When I used to be a regular guest on Salinas-based radio station KION, this kind of thing happened a lot when I defended illegal immigration.

I would start by pointing out that the case for illegal immigration is in some ways easier to make than the case for legal immigration because illegal immigrants tend to be more afraid of signing up for welfare programs and are even more likely than legal immigrants to come here to work.

Sure enough, the comeback would be “But it’s illegal.” That was, in the caller’s mind, the slam dunk argument.

Recognizing that the implicit principle on the part of the objector was that one should obey laws, I would point out that there are laws against adultery in some states and also laws against going over the speed limit. I would ask the questioner if he (it was always he) thought that the laws against adultery should be enforced, or I would ask if the questioner had ever speeded and gotten away with it.

Invariably, the questioner would refuse to answer but would say, instead, “How can you compare illegal immigration, with all its bad effects, with adultery or speeding?”

I would answer that I wasn’t comparing them. I was simply trying to to get the questioner to recognize that the principle of “Obey all laws” was one that he didn’t really believe. I would then point out that I noticed that he was distinguishing between illegal immigration on the one hand and adultery and speeding on the other, based on the effects of both. That, I pointed out, was where I was trying to go all along, before the questioner raised the issue of obedience to laws. “So let’s look at the effects of illegal immigration,” I would say.

Can you guess what happened next? The caller, if he was still on the line, argued that illegal immigration was wrong because it was illegal.