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Klein Contra Open Borders: A Further Reply
Yet I oppose allowing everyone to immigrate into a country. There are cases where liberty should be sacrificed for the good, and some of those cases coincide with sacrificing liberty for liberty. That contrariety involves “liberty” polysemy, the distinction here being between the direct-liberty principle and the overall-liberty principle (see here and here).
Strangely, I say Dan’s being too libertarian here. The overall-liberty principle can’t handle cases like taxing people to save Earth from an asteroid. The Huemerian view that there is a moral presumption of liberty, which can be overcome when the overall consequences of liberty are terrible, makes much more sense. As he explains in ”Is There a Right to Immigrate?”:
The claim that an action is a prima facie rights violation, then, is not a very strong claim… But nor is the claim entirely without force: to accept that an action is a prima facie rights violation has the effect of shifting a normative presumption. It becomes the burden of those who advocate the act in question to identify the special exculpatory or justificatory circumstances that make what tends to be a wrongful rights violation either not a rights violation in this case, or a justified rights violation.
Back to Dan:
As for Bryan, I glean that he maintains the following ranking:
1. To everyone except ax murderers and such, the border should be utterly open.
2. To everyone, even ax murderers, the border should be utterly open.
3. Utterly open but with ‘keyhole’ (his term) ‘solutions’.
4. Liberalizing somewhat from the current status quo.
5. The status quo.
One could expand the list. But so far as those five options go, Bryan’s ordering seems to be: 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5.
Fine. Though as a practical matter, checking everyone to make sure they’re not ax murderers is, like Covid testing to fly on a plane, highly inconvenient. It’s good that Virginia doesn’t do criminal background checks when you cross over from Maryland. So while I don’t think it morally wrong to exclude ax murderers, the very best policy probably really is what Dan calls “utterly open” borders.
But when we talk about big reforms, three problems tend to crop up:
1. The distinction between what is posited and the ramifications of what is posited grows murky. For example, what if someone says that a ramification of the reform would be the immediate reversal of the reform. Another interlocutor might then say: “But the positing of the reform does not allow for that to happen.” Drawing a line between things posited and reactions to things posited, particularly in morals, culture, and politics, becomes murky. The question becomes: What are we talking about?
Sometimes, though I don’t see this as a major intellectual problem.
2. Big changes have large and unknowable consequences, including critical consequences about basic political stability, functionality, and integrity. Liberal civilization is not entirely natural to man. Alexis de Tocqueville worried that despotism is.
Yes, big changes often have large and unknowable consequences. But if such vague concerns can trump liberty, liberty really does die. Allowing the internet was a “big change with large and unknowable consequences.” So was abolishing slavery, legalizing divorce, allowing television, religious toleration, and the Industrial Revolution itself. A meaningful libertarian presumption requires a high probability of very bad consequences, not mere anxiety that something could go wrong.
3. The buttons that Bryan and I push are nothing more than keys on a computer keyboard, making sentences in blog posts at Bet On It. That is what we actually do, and that is often what we are debating the ethics of: What sentences we write and do not write. What Bryan writes has consequences that do not map neatly to what Bryan proposes.
My accusation of irresponsibility concerns points 2 and 3. Point 3 speaks to the inverted commas I put around ‘keyhole’ and ‘solutions.’
But my accusation comes principally under point 2. Consider the ranking above. Maybe Bryan’s ranking is correct. I don’t deny that possibility. But how is Bryan so cocksure?
If I was "cocksure,” what would be the point of invoking presumptions? What I say in Open Borders is just that (a) the positives of open borders are massive, and (b) the negatives look trivial by comparison. I spend a lot of time reviewing the evidence on both positives and negatives. The evidence on the positives is very strong. The evidence on the negatives is mixed at best. Even on purely consequentialist terms, that is more than good enough to justify open borders. If you also believe in a presumption of liberty, the case is even stronger.
Suppose that, in Bryan’s reckoning, there are uncertainties that surround possible outcomes of each of the options in the ranking. Bryan (with Weinersmith, 189) endorses the precautionary principle.
Actually, I don’t. Rather, I say that the Precautionary Principle is the best objection to open borders. But that’s not saying much. Applied generally, the Precautionary Principle would choke off almost all progress. Or as I once told a staunchly anti-immigration audience:
In the hall, someone asked me, “If you’re wrong, do I get my country back?” I could have given a Fargo-esque, “Absolutely. I personally guarantee it.” Instead, I gave the honest answer: no. I added, of course, that the same holds for every major social change. If the internet becomes self-aware and turns humanity’s nuclear weapons against it, you don’t get your country back. If half the country uses its freedom of religion to convert to fundamentalist Islam, you don’t get your country back. If fossil fuel use leads to a runaway global warming, you don’t get your country back. My point: Every policy – including the Precautionary Principle itself – could conceivably destroy us, and there are no meaningful guarantees. The best we can do is hone our numeracy – and remember that disaster forecasts are almost always wrong.
Worst-case scenarios should loom large in your ethics and dispose you against departing too far from business as usual.
My actual view is that this depends on the probabilities. As I once told Nacim Taleb: “It seems to me that every bite of food I eat is fragile in your sense. After all, any bite could be lethally poisonous, and if that possibility ever materializes, I die. My inclination is to say, ‘Who cares about fragility, when the probability of poison is so low?’”
But in this case “it’s overrated”: “Annual gains could be trillions smaller than the top quants say and still be a godsend for all mankind,” and “The status quo is already a disaster for billions of people” (190). For me, those points do not much allay the concerns that Tocqueville reminds us of. Open Borders contains a chapter on culture (81-107), but in my judgment it does not delve seriously into the matter of how mass immigration would affect the country’s moral and political bearings, functionality, and integrity. I don’t see warrant for cocksureness. The issue is not simply Culture A versus Cultures B, C, and D. It is also about the tumult of mass immigration within the reality of today’s political structures, sentiments, machinations.
Again, this seems like a flimsy reason to deprive billions of people of the right to live and work where they wish. Flimsy by consequentialist standards, and even flimsier by libertarian standards.
Dan, how would you have reacted if someone made the following argument for long-lasting strict Covid regulations? “For me, talk about individual liberty and focused protection do not much allay the concerns that Tocqueville reminds us of. The Great Barrington Declaration does not delve seriously into the matter of how Covid would affect the country’s moral and political bearings, functionality, and integrity. I don’t see warrant for cocksureness.”
I’m pretty sure you would just roll your eyes. As well you should. Vague scare-mongering isn’t enough to justify massive infringements of human liberty. Yet Covid restrictions are trivial compared to immigration restrictions. I bet Dan would rather mask for life than live in Haiti for life. I know I would.
Now, about the ranking above, 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5, I have a question for Bryan: Would such a ranking go for all countries? Or just the United States? My impression is that the book does not explicitly say.
The ranking applies to almost all countries. There are a few countries where full open borders really would likely cause civil war. Israel is the most obvious case, because we already know that mass Palestinian immigration into Jordan and Lebanon both led to civil wars. Even here, though, this is no excuse for existing Israeli immigration policies. There’s little reason to think, for example, that allowing massive non-Muslim immigration into Israel would lead to civil war. And no, they do not have a “right to their culture.” As I’ve explained before, no one does:
[C]ulture is… other people! Culture is who other people want to date and marry. Culture is how other people raise their kids. Culture is the movies other people want to see. Culture is the hobbies other people value. Culture is the sports other people play. Culture is the food other people cook and eat. Culture is the religion other people choose to practice. To have a “right to your culture” is to have a right to rule all of these choices – and more. Though I dread hyperbole, the “right to your culture” is literally totalitarian, because you can’t ensure the preservation of your culture without totalitarian rule over the very fabric of life in your society.
Back to Dan:
Suppose—it is our thought experiment—Sweden could make its own policy. Would Bryan’s ranking also go for Sweden? Would Bryan call for Sweden to open its country of 10 million people to the world’s 8 billion people? (Listen to the UnHerd conversation with Swede Ivar Arpi here.)
Yes, Sweden should open its borders. While moving a hundred million people to Sweden overnight would indeed be a disaster, nothing like that would happen in the real world. When a lot of people move to an area quickly, housing prices spike and jobs become hard to find. This in turn encourages migrants to wait until builders make more homes and businesses create more jobs. Politically, the main effect would almost surely be a major retreat from the welfare state: limiting it to Swedish citizens, more means-testing, benefit cuts, and so on. Which is a change libertarians should celebrate. Make no mistake, the Swedish welfare state deeply oppresses productive Swedes, and the more it shrinks, the better.
Would he call for New Zealand to do so?
Yes, same basic argument.
I used to be a 100-percent-free-immigration supporter and a niche libertarian more generally. Now, my inclinations are toward liberalizing immigration, prudentially. I’m agnostic beyond that. I’m not trying to defend a particular position.
Dan, you’re rarely agnostic on almost any other policy issue. Why here? Ultimately, it’s hard not to think that you simply don’t care much about the liberty of people who weren’t born in the First World. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem much more worried about Swedes losing their culture than about Syrians trapped in wretched war zones. This is strange from a consequentialist point of view, and even stranger from a libertarian point of view.
I am suggesting an attitude against 100 percent free immigration. ‘Open borders’ is a terrible slogan because it communicates a position that is foolish, and it lends itself to characterization as such even if one does not intend to stake out the extreme positions that my friend Bryan does.
To repeat a question I previously asked, would you feel any better if I replaced “open borders” with “free migration”? If not, why not? Happy to give you the last word, Dan.