Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Immigrant Song

Is immigration euvoluntary? Are open borders consistent with reasonable deontological principles? What are the consequences of free association? How might immigration advocates better forward their arguments? More below the fold.

Migration itself is not a trivial, one-off, potato chip/taco truck exchange. Many, if not all exchange relationships in the home country are either altered or severed entirely when bags are packed, trains boarded and fond goodbyes waved from a receding platform. New exchange relationships are struck upon arrival to the new home, some no deeper than which local grocer sells the best Belgian endive, others as intimate and enduring as whom to choose for primary care physician. Some exchange stays neatly in the realm of the marketplace, new arrivals needing to replace worn sneakers or sweater vests; other exchanges bleed into the community, whistle tips goin’ woo-woo or public school graduation requirements shifting to fit the academic progress of immigrants’ children. The euvoluntarity of each immigrant’s exchange suffers a bit of a BATNA problem: unless we’re looking at high-skilled immigrants, alternatives for fence-jumpers are necessarily unattractive. Indeed, that’s precisely why they risk life and limb to merely have a chance to work in a relatively more affluent society. I must wonder if either forcible deportation or the laughable “self-deportation” proposed in the last presidential campaign represents the pinnacle of careful moral consideration.

So what are the moral principles at work when resident citizens seek to bar peaceful foreigners from joining the party? Arnold Kling has been promoting the idea of three moral axes that track with broad political ideology: libertarians and anarchists deem freedom vs. coercion to be the chief moral conflict, progressives and modern liberals apply an oppressor-oppressed framework to their interpretations, and conservatives interpret the world on a civilization-barbarism axis. This is something of a distillation of Jonathan Haidt’s half-dozen moral foundations, whose dimensions are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. Each of these axes contains arguments both for and against greater liberalization of immigration policy. It is to my shame that I have not previously articulated a stronger case for immigration reform using the very same moral principles as the folks whose minds I wish to change. Consider this the birth of my atonement.

Is there a libertarian case for closed borders? The closest argument I can imagine is a brain drain appeal: the native country benefits by retaining its best and brightest so that they can stay and work to build better institutions, reform political processes and establish peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice. Unfortunately, North, Wallis and Weingast (and continuing research by Nye, Johnson, Grier and many others) provide damning evidence against this possibility. The New Institutional Economics stresses the role of elites in creating and locking in institutions that generate and extract rents. To the extent that (A) potential emigrants can influence the rent-seeking behavior of elites AND (B) they must remain in-country to have an appreciable effect on their well-positioned countrymen, then a consequentialist might have the start of an argument, but it’s still one that relies on coercion to achieve an instrumental goal and one that handily ignores plausible counterfactual arguments. If the ultimate goal is to liberate the citizens of Ruritania, inviting their intellectual elite to emigrate to the West to argue passionately for the freedom of their people seems like it would be more effective than forcing them to risk imprisonment (or worse) in a futile struggle against entrenched interests. Fortunately, I am aware of few freedom-friendly people who spill much ink defending this argument (most prefer some form of a Tiebout Competition argument). Most libertarians are naturally friendly to the open borders position on both humanitarian and deontological grounds. Barring people from moving across political borders is plain coercion.

I am not completely sure I can easily cast opposition to immigration on this axis. César Chávez might provide the closest approximation to an argument along this axis that I can think of. Chávez was closely involved with labor organizations that sought to restrict immigration (United Farm Workers, eg) on the grounds that migrant workers were being exploited by farm owners. I confess I am at a bit of a loss to grasp the logic behind this, since a policy that bars workers from seeking employment wherever they can get it relegates them to chronic unemployment, which strikes me as unambiguously worse than access to a voluntary employment agreement. I simply cannot see how immigration restriction itself, on its very own face is anything but oppressive. Immigration, particularly extralegal immigration is prima facie evidence that the worker’s BATNA is more oppressive than what they’d find on the greener side of the fence. The UFW position is incoherent on these terms. Open borders is wholly consistent with the moral imperative to reduce oppression.

This axis has the benefit of some moral consistency in its opposition to free immigration. Caplan and Miller have done work on examining political externality arguments against immigration using data from the GSS and I am working on a follow-up piece that refines a few variables and expands a few questions. Broadly speaking, the political externalities case is overblown. By the third generation, immigrants are politically indistinguishable from the general population. More here.

Cultural externalities are another matter entirely. It is demonstrably (and obviously for my well-traveled readers) true that there are folks who just don’t like foreigners. They don’t like their foreign accents, they don’t like their foreign faces, they don’t like their foreign smells, they don’t like their foreign clothes, and they don’t like their foreign attitudes. It might be tempting to dismiss such people as bigots, but I’m not convinced that this dismissive impulse is warranted, and I guarantee that offhand dismissal is entirely unhelpful. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to have a well-defined set of preferences for one’s surroundings, even when there’s no actual ownership in the strict legal sense. I like living in my neighborhood, in my part of the country, listening to my choice of music, hobnobbing with my choice of friends, indulging my choice of sentimentality. To the extent that I retain sovereignty over the key elements of my cultural mix, it’s not unreasonable that I should consider an appeal to the political process to safeguard my preferences, right? Well, to the extent that this argument has merit, it seems eminently reasonable to scale the political response to the scope of the externalities. I live in Northern Virginia, so if Carlos the taco truck driver opens a bodega in Idaho Falls, it’s hard to see how my idyll is much disrupted. National-scale policy that addresses local-scale issues runs a serious risk of running afoul of hidden costs, what Bastiat called the unseen. Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that expulsion is necessarily the appropriate response. Assimilation happens in the long run, and separating equilibriums aren’t mere checkerboard curiosities: people do tend to associate with whom they prefer all on their own sans diktat. I suppose that if I wanted to make a case for open immigration to someone who cherished civilization, I’d argue that opening the borders is cheaper and more effective than attempts to export cultural values. Spreading democracy at the muzzle of a gun has a lousy track record, and for all the humanitarian good missionaries have wrought, their capacity to found civilization abroad has been limited. If the mountain is willing to come to Mohammed, why stop it?

Similar arguments can be made for Haidt’s dimensions. In-group loyalty can be recast in light of open borders as an opportunity to cement community bonds and welcome eager newcomers into the fold (this will be more convincing for cultures that celebrate inclusiveness and proselytizing). Fairness arguments will be bound in the historical narrative: why should it be only your ancestors to enjoy the benefits of liberal immigration policy? The care dimension is the purely consequentialist argument, and is obvious to anyone who has seen a commercial soliciting aid for poverty relief in sub-Saharan Africa. I encourage you to develop your own arguments using similar techniques. Rather than simply insisting that your moral underpinnings are the end-all of ethical reasoning, meeting others on their own ground might attract more attention.

Is immigration euvoluntary? Not really, but closed borders are much more non-euvoluntary. In the past, we’ve encouraged our readers to be wary of letting deontological concerns impede consideration of abominable consequences. This is my first stab at saying we don’t even have to do that if we learn how to align moral premises with good consequences. It shouldn’t be that hard. If moral principles lead to bad outcomes, it’s likely they’re being interpreted incorrectly.


Edit: Vipul Naik writes more on the moral underpinnings of immigration restriction here, using Haidt's six dimensions.

1 comment:

Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?