Open Borders and Utilitarianism: A Socratic Dialogue
Or: "Pericles, all roads lead to open borders."
Pericles: Look, Socrates: You’ve done a great job of showing that open borders is best for humanity as a whole. But I remain a staunch opponent of open borders.
Socrates: You don’t say? Please tell me why.
Pericles: Simple: I’m not a utilitarian.
Socrates: Did I ever claim you were?
Pericles: Even if you never said so explicitly, utilitarianism is the foundation of your argument.
Socrates: Because I heavily emphasize the large positive effects of open borders on Gross World Product?
Socrates: And add that a heavy share of the gains go to the global poor?
Pericles: Right again.
Socrates: Given these two facts, almost any utilitarian worth his salt would staunchly support open borders, unless there were comparably massive downsides?
Pericles: Right a third time.
Socrates: Yet I remain puzzled.
Pericles: How so?
Socrates: Suppose I pointed out that obstetricians could avoid blinding babies by washing their hands prior to deliveries. Would that be a good utilitarian argument?
Socrates: Upon hearing this argument, would you be even slightly tempted to reply, “You’ve done a great job of showing that hand-washing prior to baby delivery is best for humanity as a whole. But I remain a staunch opponent of such hand-washing”?
Pericles: [incredulously] No.
Socrates: Why not?
Pericles: [slowly] Because in this scenario, almost any moral theory would recommend hand-washing.
Socrates: Really, why?
Pericles: Because saving babies from blindness is a wonderful thing from almost any moral point of view.
Socrates: I see. What about doubling Gross World Product? Would this, too, not be a wonderful thing from almost any moral point of view?
Pericles: Not necessarily. Perhaps the doubling goes hand-in-hand with a dramatic rise in inequality.
Socrates: What if a large share of this increase in Gross World Product went to absolutely poor people? Would this package of growth and distribution not be a wonderful thing from almost any moral point of view?
Pericles: You’re not fooling anyone, Socrates. You’re once again pushing open borders.
Socrates: I’m pushing nothing. I’m merely trying to understand your position.
Pericles: So what’s the question?
Socrates: You agree that open borders would indeed dramatically enrich humanity as a whole, especially the global poor?
Pericles: Yes, that seems most likely.
Socrates: You agree that these would be wonderful effects?
Pericles: In themselves, yes.
Socrates: Yet despite these wonderful effects, you remain an opponent of open borders?
Pericles: As I’ve told you.
Socrates: Does this opposition rest on consequentialist or deontological grounds?
Pericles: You’ll have to refresh my memory of this distinction.
Socrates: No problem, let’s start with consequentialist grounds. For the consequentialist, the only way to oppose open borders despite the aforementioned wonderful effects is to affirm the existence of additional truly awful effects.
Pericles: Right, and that’s precisely what I affirm.
Socrates: Could you be more specific?
Pericles: Sure, you’re ignoring the cultural harm of open borders.
Socrates: Is there good reason to believe that open borders would cause trillions of drachmas of cultural harm?
Pericles: The cultural harm is massive. I don’t know how to put a price tag on it.
Socrates: If you’re a consequentialist, you have no choice. Otherwise, you’re countering trillions of drachmas of economic benefits with a question mark of cultural costs.
Pericles: No, because I assign much higher weight to Greek costs than foreigners’ benefits. Utilitarianism, which counts all humans equally, is only one version of consequentialism, right?
Socrates: Fair enough. What, then, are the weights?
Pericles: You want exact numbers?
Socrates: Rough estimates will do.
Pericles: Fine, I count Greek welfare ten times as high as non-Greek welfare.
Socrates: Then you should still support open borders.
Pericles: How can you say that?
Socrates: Simple. Even if you count Greek welfare infinitely more than non-Greek welfare, a large share of the enormous economic benefits of open borders go to Greeks. To balance these, you offer only cultural costs of indeterminate magnitude.
Pericles: I misspoke. We know the cultural costs are enormous.
Socrates: Are you the only Greek who realizes this, or is it common knowledge?
Pericles: Common knowledge. That’s why almost all Greeks oppose open borders.
Socrates: Of course. Of course. But then why aren’t rents much lower in the high-immigrant neighborhoods?
Pericles: Supply and demand, Socrates. As immigrants flood into Greece, they bid up the rents.
Socrates: Spreading cultural harm wherever they go.
Socrates: Then I have a question, Pericles. Suppose immigrants carried a deadly contagious disease. Would their arrival in a neighborhood still bid up rents?
Pericles: Immigrants carry a deadly contagious disease?! This is what your open borders policies have brought us to!
Socrates: Calm yourself. The question is hypothetical.
Pericles: [grumbling] You’re asking if the arrival of plague-carrying people would raise rents?
Pericles: Probably not, Socrates.
Socrates: Why not?
Pericles: Because any Greek with the money to flee would do so. Demand would go down, not up.
Socrates: Very well. If the cultural harm of immigration is as devastating as you say, shouldn’t we expect a similar response from the rental market?
Pericles: Most Greeks don’t realize the cultural danger.
Socrates: I thought you said that this danger was common knowledge.
Pericles: Well, it’s worse than they think.
Socrates: Wait, don’t you live in a half-foreign neighborhood?
Socrates: You’re not poor, Pericles.
Pericles: Should that bother me?
Socrates: It bothers me that you have the means to escape from the massive, underappreciated cultural harm of immigration, yet remain where you are.
Pericles: Why should I have to move? Greece is my country.
Socrates: I’m not questioning your right to stay where you are. But if your story were true, relocation would be the prudent choice.
Pericles: Your point?
Socrates: Actions speak louder than words. Despite popular complaints about “cultural harm,” most Greeks’ locational choices show they barely care. And that includes you.
Pericles: The problem isn’t that immigrants pollute the neighborhood where they reside. The problem is that immigrants pollute all of Greece.
Socrates: Face-to-face, immigrants are alright?
Pericles: I suppose.
Socrates: They make tolerable workers, friends, and even spouses?
Pericles: So it seems.
Socrates: Quite strange.
Socrates: Many accuse me of endangering Greece by corrupting our youth.
Pericles: A fair accusation.
Socrates: Yet my detractors start with visible harms: After I talk to their sons at the forum, they come home and trouble their parents with impious questions.
Pericles: If you keep doing so, you’ll shake the foundation of Greek society itself.
Socrates: Perhaps you’re right. Imagine, however, that my detractors admitted that I had no bad effects on any particular student, but still claimed that I was shaking the foundation of Greek society.
Pericles: A strange position, I agree.
Socrates: Yes. If my teachings are noxious, the harms should at least be visible in my immediate vicinity. Then we could extrapolate to the aggregate damage.
Pericles: It’s logically possible that your visible harm is trivial but your aggregate harm is terrible.
Socrates: While logically possible, it’s highly implausible.
Pericles: Not so implausible. Imagine we start letting the immigrants vote.
Socrates: Funny you should mention that possibility. Some of my foes are trying to get my execution on the next ballot.
Pericles: Oh, I’m sure things will work out. But stay on point, Socrates. Immigrants could be pleasant neighbors, yet still vote for monstrous demagogues whose ascent would destroy Greece.
Socrates: Again, logically possible. And yes, some immigrants would likely vote for monstrous demagogues. But it’s not even clear that they would do so at a higher rate than native-born Greeks. Much less at a dramatically higher rate. And that’s what a consequentialist needs to say.
Pericles: You’re impossible, Socrates. Forget consequentialism. What was the other route your mentioned?
Socrates: Deontology. A deontologist who opposed immigration might argue that Greece rightfully belongs to the Greeks, so they’re entitled to exclude immigrants regardless of the consequences.
Pericles: Sounds promising.
Socrates: Less than you think. Remember, we’ve already discussed a version of consequentialism that puts zero weight on foreigners’ well-being.
Pericles: I thought we were done with consequentialism.
Socrates: Hear me out. So if immigrants have positive net consequences for Greeks alone, why would Greeks want to exercise their right to exclude them?
Pericles: Because it’s our right.
Socrates: It’s also your right to amputate your healthy arm. Yet even so, you should refrain from amputating it unless you have a strong reason to do so.
Pericles: As long as you concede our right to limit immigration, I’m satisfied. Mass immigration is massively unpopular, and open borders even less so.
Socrates: I don’t concede your right. And I doubt you accept this deontological perspective yourself.
Pericles: I don’t?
Socrates: Tell me this: Do you have any unfriendly neighbors?
Pericles: I suppose Heraclitus has been rather standoffish since my daughter rejected his marriage proposal.
Socrates: I assume, then, that you would be unwelcome in his home?
Socrates: Does he let you stroll across his fields?
Pericles: No. He even put up a “No Trespassing” sign on the property line.
Socrates: Most inhospitable. Tell me, though: Do you affirm his right to exclude you?
Pericles: [pauses] Yes, I do affirm it. He’s entitled to do as he likes with his own land, even though he’s not my favorite person.
Socrates: A standard deontological stance.
Socrates: Question: Suppose a pack of wild boars descended on your home, and you could only escape by running through the fields of Heraclitus. Would you let the boars eat your family alive?
Pericles: No. Property rights aren’t absolute.
Socrates: Isn’t this a complete rejection of deontology?
Pericles: [pauses] No. Deontology can affirm a property right, while still admitting exceptions.
Socrates: Such as…
Pericles: When the net consequences of the violation are very good.
Socrates: Like when you trespass through a field to save your life.
Pericles: A fine example.
Socrates: Are such exceptions exclusive to you, Pericles?
Pericles: What do you mean?
Socrates: Suppose you were angry at Heraclitus, and he could only save his life by running onto your property without your consent. Would he be justified in doing so?
Pericles: Yes, he would.
Socrates: All right, suppose that a foreigner will perish unless he flees into our country.
Pericles: How is that our problem?
Socrates: How are rampaging boars on your property Heraclitus’ problem?
Pericles: A specious comparison.
Socrates: Is it? Have you visited the countries from which our poorest immigrants originate?
Pericles: Yuck, what hellholes.
Socrates: Would you rather live in such a hellhole, or deal with one pack of rampaging boars per year?
Pericles: I guess I’d take the boars.
Socrates: In any case, let’s turn this around. Suppose the Greek government passed a law requiring Heraclitus to let anyone walk through his property.
Pericles: Why would the Greek government do such a thing?
Socrates: “In case of rampaging boars.”
Pericles: That’s perfectly reasonable, as we already discussed.
Socrates: You misunderstand. The government does not legalize trespassing if and when rampaging boars actually arrive. The government legalizes trespassing day in, day down, because rampaging boars could arrive.
Pericles: Despite the rarity of boar rampages.
Socrates: Indeed. But on the basis of this rare risk, they invalidate landowners’ property rights altogether.
Pericles: An absurd overreaction, Socrates. Fortunately, the Greek government would never overreact in such an absurd manner.
Socrates: I beg to differ. Invalidating landowners’ property rights is precisely what the Greek government already does.
Pericles: What are you talking about?
Socrates: Many Greek landowners wish to hire foreigners to work on their land. Many Greek landowners wish to rent their land to foreigners.
Pericles: Ah, this tiresome open borders rhetoric! Again?
Socrates: Bear with me, Pericles. You’ve moved to a deontological defense of immigration restrictions.
Socrates: Yet you’ve also granted that sufficiently dire consequences invalidate this deontological defense.
Pericles: Right again.
Socrates: Yet it is wrong to equate worst-case thinking with actual dire consequences.
Pericles: [sighs] This is getting repetitive.
Socrates: Then I shall cut to the chase. First, you cannot rightfully exclude the immigrants you most strongly oppose. If they truly come from “hellholes,” that is sufficient to override the Greek government’s putative deontological right to exclude. Residents of hellholes are in much the same position as you would be if you fled onto Heraclitus’ land to escape rampaging boars.
Pericles: It’s not so bad in those hellholes.
Socrates: Odd, because they sound awful. In any case, let me turn to my second point. Namely: If property owners wish to admit immigrants as workers or tenants, the Greek government cannot merely appeal to worst-case thinking to invalidate their decision. Per deontology, the government must demonstrate dire harm.
Pericles: I can imagine dire harm.
Socrates: So can I. But did you not already affirm that rights are too strong to overrule on the basis of highly speculative harms?
Pericles: Yes, but it is for the Greek people through their government to decide what harms are highly speculative.
Socrates: Yet earlier, you dropped the consequentialist case against open borders, instead affirming the right of the Greek people to run Greece as they please, right or wrong. Now you grant moral limits to their decision-making, but then treat them as the final arbiter of the crucial questions.
Socrates: Even though you yourself admit their judgment here is speculative at best!
Pericles: I could be wrong.
Socrates: I agree, you could be. But if you’re really so agnostic, why even call yourself an opponent of open borders?
Pericles: There’s no need to get angry, Socrates.
Socrates: I’m not angry, only puzzled.
Pericles: [checks the sun] We’re going in circles, and it’s getting late.
Socrates: You’re right on both counts, though I’m hardly to blame for either.
Pericles: I sense you want to sum things up before we part. Very well, speak your peace.
Socrates: [bemused] You start by saying that you oppose open borders because you’re not a utilitarian.
Socrates: Then you try to make a consequentialist case against open borders, but flounder.
Pericles: [dismissive] Says you.
Socrates: In any case, then you switch to a deontological case against open borders.
Pericles: All this philosophical jargon is making my head hurt.
Socrates: The jargon has its place.
Pericles: Fine, continue.
Socrates: Finally, you grant crucial exceptions to deontological principles, which seem more than strong enough to leave the case for open borders intact.
Socrates: Can we at least agree that you really haven’t thought matters through very carefully? Truly, the only constant in your thinking is your opposition to open borders. Your “moral foundation” changes minute by minute.
Pericles: I must depart, old friend.
Socrates: Can you at least agree that utilitarianism is merely one of many moral foundations for open borders?
Socrates: Progress. I’ll take it.
To be fair, the people I've seen object to open borders on "cultural harm" grounds usually believe that long-term there would be tremendous material economic harms proceeding from the cultural harms. The argument seems to go like this (let's see if I can pass the ITT for this argument I don't personally accept):
1. Modern prosperity, aka the Great Enrichment, depends on civilizational features historically specific to Western culture and to Western population groups. Some immigration opponents take these to be ideological features; some include attributes of the immigrants themselves as people, such as population average IQ or conscientiousness.
2. Sufficiently high levels of "the wrong kind" of immigration would fatally undermine these pillars of civilization in developed nations.
3. The resultant collapse of economic growth, innovation, and/or social order would produce enormous long-term social welfare costs that would outweigh the short-term benefits of better labor market matching.
This would have been a stronger dialogue if Pericles had taken something like this line.
>Socrates: Perhaps you’re right. Imagine, however, that my detractors admitted that I had no bad effects on any particular student, but still claimed that I was shaking the foundation of Greek society.
>Pericles: A strange position, I agree.
>Socrates: Yes. If my teachings are noxious, the harms should at least be visible in my immediate vicinity. Then we could extrapolate to the aggregate damage.
I'm pretty sure Garrett Jones would advise Pericles to retort "sure, but suppose your teachings made your students much better people, but much worse parents. A strange hypothetical, I admit, but run with it. One could have a coherent anti-Socrates position despite conceding that your students are made much better off by your teaching. They'd do this by saying your students are wise and graceful, but they raise mentally disturbed misanthropes. This is analogous to immigration. The one-off benefits to both migrants and their receiving communities are immense. But this is because the immigrants are heavily selected for being peaceful, productive, and cooperative. Even if we grant that all this filtering is due to the strenuousness of the journey and not at all due to the immigration filtering system you want to abolish, we have good reason to believe their children and grandchildren will revert to the mean of their ancestral country. Since this mean is more violent, more criminal, less trusting, and less productive than their immigrant descendants, we should discount the gains from open borders. With a sufficiently low time-preference, which I hope you agree our policymakers should ideally have, and something like a society-level o-ring model of economic productivity - a more aggressive assumption but not a totally unsupported one - this downside effect plausibly outweighs the initial gain from immigration."
I'm curious what your/Socrates' response would be.