Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Open Borders vs The Divine Maxim of Plato

Reason hosted a debate on "Should America Open its Borders" recently. Presenting in favor were Bryan Caplan of George Mason University and Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Against, and unfortunately outnumbered, was Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. Caplan, as is his wont, relied chiefly on appeals to common sense morality. Since he's done extensive work on voter opinion, this makes good sense. Voters tend to use far-mode, impressionistic thinking when discussing policy, and it seems eminently reasonable to ask folks to employ the same sorts of moral reasoning they use in their daily lives to issues of policy. Nowrasteh mostly confined his remarks to empirical questions: do immigrants actually assimilate (yes), do immigrants vote for the bad policies that ruined their home countries (no), do immigrants commit crime at higher rates (no), etc. Krikorian went another route. Here, lend him your ear:

Note the appeal to Aristotle. Aristotle wrote that the political life was the pinnacle of the human endeavor. I beg you to grant that this is an accurate reading of Aristotle and that the conflation of the Greek city-state with the modern nation-state is not at all fatal to Krikorian's point. Even if we grant that, does it follow that any policy in the core of the game is just and fair governance so long as it flows from the will of the constituency?

In a democracy, the role of the archon is played in equal measure by each voter. I find plausible theories of expressive voting, that voters feel at liberty to shirk the best practices of idealized philosopher kings thanks to the ordinary results described by political economists. But this positive result cannot support the normative claim that voters' intents needn't be consistent with the best practices of idealized philosopher kings.

Recall via Smith, Cicero's formulation of the Divine Maxim of Plato: the sovereign is "never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents." As long as we are making appeals to NE, it's worth considering what constitutes good governance. If you would sleep easy having trapped your parents in a third world country for having the misfortune of merely being born there, then you act in accord with Plato's Maxim. Contrarily, if you find the idea of your parents languishing in misery in the service of economic fallacies monstrous, then supporting heavy prior restraint immigration restrictions on Aristotelian grounds lacks phronesis. Which would it be for the median American voter? Would the typical registered voter be cool with packing up their folks' bags and sending them off to live in Bangladesh, having committed no crime?

Look, there may be valid reasons to oppose unlimited immigration. Appealing to a lean reading of Aristotle may not be the most robust approach.

P.S. Today's podcast will be with my good friend Robin Hanson. There's a bit of a technical delay, but it should be up before midnight. I hope you'll like it.

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