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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Immigration, Three

Fernando and Dan debate immigration below, with Fernando championing the huddled masses yearning to be free and Dan a little more cautious, worrying about both welfare and communitarian reasons. As a believer in basically free immigration, I will add some thoughts.

First, it seems unwise to continue the discussion without noting the contributions some time ago by Richard Posner, Gary Becker, and Tyler Cowen. Posner and Becker each suggest a pay-to-enter system (with low-interest loans) that would be pareto-superior to our current system. Tyler Cower is basically libertarian about this, but worried about shanty-towns and underclasses. In the end, he favors trying to substitute legal immigration for illegal immigration.

I am willing to go farther than that. As a matter of basic justice, I think nothing should stop a willing landowner from selling or renting his house to somebody who would like to come and live in it, even if that potential buyer will be coming from Mexico or Manitoba or Malawi. Similarly, nothing should stop somebody from hiring folks who she likes regardless of where they live. Free trade should apply to houses and jobs too.
My friend Indivar Dutta-Gupta likes to refer to the "birth lottery". If you imagine you are going to be born as any possible baby on the earth, one of the largest random swings in your well-being will be what country you are born in. Whether we believe that the government should try to equalize these inequalities or not, it does seem trouble for the government to deliberately entrench them.
At the same time, the worries about impacts on the welfare system and the like are quite real. If we were to totally open the gates, I suspect the population of the U.S. would be well over a billion within 10 years. Now, I would be fine with drastically reducing the amount of federal welfare payments and the minimum wage in order to do this-- better poor in New York than poor in Niger-- but a lot of people would in fact be troubled by this.
I think this is Guido Calabresi's lesson about "Tragic Choices". In fact, people would like very much to turn a blind eye to certain problems because they don't like any of the possible solutions. Keeping immigrants out allows most people to pretend, most of the time, that their plight doesn't really exist, or somehow has less moral salience. Whether this is rational or reasonable is beside the point as a political matter. Psychological does not always bend to logic, so we would-be liberalizers have to figure out how to work with what we're likely to have.
[I will set aside the communitarian argument, not because I think it is obviously vapid, but because I think it is totally intractable. One person's community is another person's xenophobia. Plus, even supposing a communitarian ideal, the question of what the American community ought to look like is so highly contested that it hardly resolves the problem. Some people believe Americans should be white or black english-speakers. Others believe in the total melting pot.]
So the question is what to do. The problems are real-- it is simply implausible that current Americans would tolerate letting in large numbers of immigrants without also extending to them welfare payments that might be fiscally unfeasible. So if one believes in open immigration, as I do and as Fernando does, the question is how open of a policy we could get away with. This is surely the appeal of our current system-- having large amounts of illegal immigration and then not talking about it. We allow large numbers of people who want to come to come, withhold certain social welfare programs from them and thus keep states solvent, but avoid offending middle-class voters that both parties find themselves forced to pander to.
I in no way endorse this equilibrium, so feasible suggestions about how to improve on it are welcome.

Posted by Will Baude on November 29, 2005 at 12:44 PM in Law and Politics | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 29, 2005 2:25:02 PM


"We have the most generous and welcoming immigration policy of any nation, ever. That's unjust?"

I hope that you are either kidding or just writing without really thinking about what you are saying. If you're serious, you really ought to sit down with the Immigration and Nationality Act for a couple minutes so you can fairly compare our immigration policies with that of dozens of other countries. For instance, the many countries (E.g., Costa Rica) that allow anyone to come if they just want to invest a minor amount of money in the country (and this is unlike the treaty trader visa in America because the investment is much lower and you don't have to employ X number of people in a business -- you basically pay to stay).

We have neither a generous nor welcoming immigration policy as it currently stands.

Posted by: Curtis | Nov 30, 2005 9:23:04 PM

I didn't say unconstitutional, I said unjust. Incidentally, we do not have the most generous immigration policy of any nation ever. Our own immigration policies have been more liberal in the past than they are now.

Bottom line, I think we should find ways to let as many people as possible in, if they want to come, and other people want to hire and rent to them.

Posted by: Will Baude | Nov 30, 2005 11:37:13 AM

I might give you "awful," but how is it "unjust?" Congress has constitutional authority over immigration and naturalization. We have the most generous and welcoming immigration policy of any nation, ever. That's unjust? If, through Congress, the people decide, as they have in the past, on a moratorium, that's also unjust? Whose country is it?

What could be more just than the people of a nation deciding what kind of nation they want to have?

What's your bottom line? Do you want unlimited immigration, subject to health screening and criminal background checks?

Posted by: Sabertooth | Nov 30, 2005 9:37:48 AM

So the point is this. If person A, an American, owns a house in St. Louis, and Person E, an American employer, needs somebody to work as a machinist, nothing should stop A from selling his house to M and letting him move in, and nothing should stop E from hiring M, even if M currently happens to be a Mexican. If M's willing to come, and to obey the laws, that ought to be that.

Now I don't think it;s entirely silly to have criteria about who ought to be allowed to come-- no terrorists, no contagious diseases, etc.-- but our current system, where we enforce quotas on top of the requirements, is awful and unjust.

Posted by: Will Baude | Nov 30, 2005 8:16:14 AM

We already admit almost a million people a year, most from Latin America and most not that educated. If you want to play around with that number or mix a bit, fine. Other than that, enforce the laws against illegal immigration. If you want to redistribute birthplaces in some fashion, do it on your own dime, don't bring everyone else along for the ride.

Posted by: TLB | Nov 30, 2005 1:30:41 AM

Who's being required to immigrate? Can't think of a soul.

We have requirements for people who want to immigrate, but they're free to accept or decline.

Posted by: Sabertooth | Nov 30, 2005 12:19:23 AM

Okay, I was confused. I had thought we were hypothesizing a communitarianism that justified excluding certain people who the current club deemed to not fit-in, per Dan's post.

In any case, it depends on what you mean by "legally join and assimilate". I think that it's inconsistent with individualism to require people to join the club in any but the thinnest sense.

Posted by: Will Baude | Nov 29, 2005 10:00:34 PM

"I happen to think that one can have the collective protection of rights without subscribing to communitarian ideals that require the exclusion of those who would like to become members of it. I take it you disagree."

Smuggle premises much? Communitarian ideals don't necessarily require that anyone be excluded.

It's possible to have a robust immigration policy that welcomes and assimilates newcomers, don't you think? Doesn't assimilation inherently mean that newcomers adopt, at least in some general way, the ideals of the community they're joining?

Is it inconsistent with the newcomers' individualism for them to legally join and assimilate to a new community, if that's what the community asks?

Posted by: Sabertooth | Nov 29, 2005 9:43:41 PM

I would appraoch the question of the morality of our immigration policy from the neoconservative angle: immigrants who come here looking for a job make us stronger.

They've given us everything from radio to the Manhattan Project to computers as we know them (the "von Neumann architecture").

Immigration gives us an edge that no other country in world history has ever had, and it isn't just limited to scientists and engineers but to ordinary people who want what they build, create, and work for to be theirs.

To restrict immigration would be cutting our own throats. We would lose our edge within two generations.

Posted by: Laika's Last Woof | Nov 29, 2005 8:31:42 PM

Quoting from an e-mail I sent Prof. Cowen a while back, as it seems equally relevant here and I haven't thought of a better way to phrase it:...it also got me thinking about the premise that “National borders are morally arbitrary.” I completely accept it in so far as it means that, while engaging in ethical deliberations, the bare fact that someone is a co-national of mine should not change what final decisions I see as morally required or permissible. However, I’m not sure how this applies to agents of the government. By being elected, appointed, or otherwise employed by the government, aren’t they specifically taking on a new duty which does create additional obligations to people simply because they are co-nationals?

Posted by: washerdreyer | Nov 29, 2005 4:44:22 PM

Very thoughtful. Thanks. Tragic choices indeed. But all this talk of moral salience and plight confuses me. Is it our moral obligation to allow immigration? I know it is an American tradition but traditions are subject to change. Is it a moral duty to allow immigration? How does one propose policies to regulate a moral duty without lapsing into immorality?

Why, in the end, do we have immigration at all? I know it is a valued American tradition but we have jettisoned other American traditions. Tradition aside, what is the purpose of immigration? Is it for strictly economic reasons (we have jobs they want) or is there a moral or at least non-material element to this argument? Where does this morality come from? Isn't this sense of morality by definition created and sustained by the community at large? Do we have a duty to preserve the community that posits this morality? To do so, mustn't we exclude those whose beliefs and traditions are counter to that of the community?

What about the moral duty to our fellow citizens, our compatriots? Do we have a duty to them that mitigates our duty to the foreign-born? What of future generations? What duty do we have to our and our neighbors progeny to pass on a livable and viable society?

Posted by: Thomas the Wraith | Nov 29, 2005 4:02:15 PM

This is a good example of my point about intractability.

I happen to think that one can have the collective protection of rights without subscribing to communitarian ideals that require the exclusion of those who would like to become members of it. I take it you disagree.

Posted by: Will Baude | Nov 29, 2005 3:22:52 PM

Community is "it generally inconsistent with individualism" only to the extent that your definition of individualism is generally synonymous with naricissism. Your individualism won't survive long without a community that protect your right to exercise it.

Posted by: Sabertooth | Nov 29, 2005 3:19:27 PM

For what it's worth, I too am skeptical about community and think it generally inconsistent with individualism, which I cherish. But it seems difficult to make much progress one way or the other here.

Posted by: Will Baude | Nov 29, 2005 1:18:04 PM

Excellent, Will. As you point out, there is a huge issue of transition to an open immigration policy, and I do not have an answer. I haven't read the Posner-Becker-Cowen stuff, and I agree that it is unwise to continue the discussion without having done so. Danny raises profound questions about community, but I am skeptical about its consistency with liberal principles in most contexts (more shameless promotion: chapter 5 of my Philosophy of International Law , Westview, 1998).
On Israel: I don't think you will find many stronger supporters of Israel than your humble servant here, but the trait you cite (choosing immigrants based on Jewishness) seems to me the least attractive of the many wonderful things about that society (yes, you guessed it: to me, Israel is a bastion of civilization and enlightenment against Islamofascism)

Posted by: Fernando Teson | Nov 29, 2005 1:01:01 PM

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