Immigration and States’ Rights

Bryan Caplan (arguing the affirmative) and Christopher Wellman recently debated whether immigration is a human right.

Wellman won the debate according to audience votes, but I think his argument was significantly weaker. He made confused arguments that, when given second thought lend credence to Caplan’s position. But through hand waving he transitioned to “and therefore states’ rights!” I am far from convinced that state’s rights are valid, but I do want to explore an interesting issue he raised: the moral weight of collective phenomena.

Markets generate economic information more intelligently than any individual participant. Competition and collaboration in cultural spaces generate more and better art than any individual on their own. Society is the outcome of individual choices, but the collective is something apart from those individuals.

We have various collectives (e.g. cultural regions, markets, local communities, families, national identities, sports fandom, science, etc.), many of which are special. They provide club goods (sometimes club bads), and require the support of their members. These networks exhibit emergent properties–the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

So surely those members should have some say in the management of the collective?

This is where Wellman went off track. Yes, these collectives are important. Yes, they require some form of governance. But that doesn’t unambiguously imply involvement of government.

Consider an excellent example Wellman gives: families. Families are an essential part of the structure of society and one we are each deeply familiar with. If there’s a collective entity with moral weight, surely it’s the family.

Wellman posed the hypothetical around the 32:45 mark: what if he returned home and found that his wife had unilaterally adopted a new child? Clearly this is freedom of association run amok! But the example doesn’t imply the need for state involvement; it implies the need for couples therapy! If he and his wife together decide to adopt, then the question remains, “why should the government have a say in this?” Currently it does, which means that whatever the median voter is cool with is acceptable, even if that means preventing this adoption that clearly doesn’t affect them. That seems untenable unless we have strong evidence that adoptions tend to create large negative spillovers.

The moral weight of a family doesn’t imply either state involvement or democratic decision making. Members can be added to a family through birth or marriage. The decision is made by the one or two individuals most directly involved (perhaps with some role for other family members). And those decisions are made non-coercively. Parents may intervene to prevent teenage Romeos and Juliettes from getting married, but adults are basically allowed to make their own decision.

I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that 90% of people would agree that the way we do freedom of association in families is basically the right way to do things.


The scope of a family does not fit neatly into the boxes drawn on a map, nor do most other collective phenomena. Red Sox Nation isn’t just Boston. Regional cultures overlap. Languages cross borders.

We want the collective decision making institutions to reflect the area of spill-overs. Decisions affecting a family should be made within the family. I shouldn’t be directly involved in decisions about how to provide local public services in San Diego. Global spillovers justify global decision making, but local spillovers don’t.

When it comes to immigration, we have to ask:

  1. What collectives will they affect? (certain labor markets, local communities)
  2. Are they likely to create large negative spillovers?
  3. What is the current form of institutions governing those collectives?

There are high stakes for many potential immigrants (especially those coming from places typical Americans are most afraid of), so we should probably go a step further: if there’s a solution to some potential spillover problem that isn’t significantly more costly than immigration restrictions, we should feel obliged to use that solution. For example, it should be easier to come here to live and work than it is to get welfare benefits (although getting that policy to work raises a host of other questions).

Rights imply action

Let’s agree on this: there are collective phenomena that are special. We want to take care of these phenomena which means figuring out the appropriate form of governance for each case.

Wellman gives another family example that blows his own argument out of the water: what if he was put in an arranged marriage? This would deny him important scope for self-determination. And therefore (he argues) states, being important collective phenomena, have a right to self-determination.

How did the audience not notice this?! Immigration restrictions deny me choice over who to voluntarily associate with and so deny me scope for self-determination.

Even if it feels weird from a rational-individualist perspective, there is something special about (e.g.) a country. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon methodological individualism. We know that only individuals make choices, even if they make those choices for the sake of collectives. A collective can have moral weight but still lack the ability to choose. To my mind, this kills the idea of states’ rights (as in “right to do x” or “right to self-determination”) in general.

What we’re left with is the original question: how do we manage the collective? What decisions do we make collectively, and what do we decide piecemeal?

For many (most?) collectives, including the most important ones, we allow freedom of (dis)association and leave the state out of it. Wellman did not answer the question of “why should immigration be different?” I suspect there are strong arguments to be made, but the closest I heard in this debate is that we can think of this as a question of governance, and that government sometimes provides governance.

As Wellman points out (around the 30:00 mark) there is (sometimes) a tension between rules favoring individual freedom and rules requiring collective decision making. There are plenty of examples of scenarios where we uncontroversially prefer to limit some individual rights–we do this automatically with negative rights by denying you the freedom to murder in support of your right to life.

It’s not clear to me that the expected effects of immigrants are widespread enough to justify as sweeping a policy as “only the following people are allowed in these particular thousands of square miles.” For immigration (but not access to the welfare state), the presumption of liberty seems the way to go.

tl;dr: We have various collective goods that are special (e.g. the “character” of a community). This calls for some form of governance to allow the individuals directly involved to manage collective goods. This frequently calls for constraints on individual freedoms for the benefit of the community, but that doesn’t mean that the special collective identity of a country justifies a presumption of closed borders.

The debate over whether the nation state is violating human rights by restricting immigration (with caveats made for “obviously” reasonable restrictions like keeping out known murderers) is not closed by pointing out that there is a collective good associated with the nation state. States can be special without having states’ rights.

9 thoughts on “Immigration and States’ Rights

  1. I watched the video back when it came out and frankly do not remember all the details now. What I do remember is that Wellman absolutely destroyed Caplan. It wasn’t even close. Better arguments and better rhetorical composure.

    Sorry if the actual debate is not clear enough in my memory for me to restate the arguments. If others are interested in the debate I will rewatch it. In the meantime I would like to hear from others…. does anyone else find Caplan’s arguments and performance as worthwhile?

    • I was impressed with Wellman’s composure, but not with his arguments. I read the logic going the exact opposite way. Maybe that means Caplan and I are holding unidentified implicit assumptions that you and Wellman aren’t. Help me out… what am I missing?

    • I need to rewatch the video. I will do so if you are interested in deeper discussion…

    • I rewatched the first 60 minutes and continue to be very impressed with Wellman’s arguments, and found myself cringing at most of Caplan’s. I felt uncomfortable for him. And like both participants, I am pro immigration.

      The point is that it is a reasonable and practical expectation that people should be given the freedom to form associations and, if they choose, to control and restrict membership rights and duties. Furthermore, they can agree to solve collective problem-solving through whatever agreed rules they align on. In the case of family, it is reasonable that people have the freedom to form a marital union and as a part of that union they can agree on what conditions others join the union. They can for example agree to add an additional spouse if one agrees or if both agree, or they can flip a coin, consult tea leaves, or ask a marriage counselor.

      I certainly agree it should be a right (with a right defined as a convention so important that it isn’t even questioned) that people be allowed to leave any state. I do not in any way agree it should be a right that every other state be forced to accept anyone. This threatens the ability of the group to coordinate activities and survive. If Norway was crazy enough to allow unlimited freedom for everyone in the developing world to come to their country on the next flight, they would in a matter of months cease to be Norway. A society is a complex, emergent phenomena built up not just by formal institutions but by institutions built upon shared norms, habits and mindsets. If you drastically and suddenly change the membership with people of a different set of values, norms, habits, mind sets and cultural expectations you will completely undermine the institutions.

      Caplan’s absurd statement that open borders would double global GDP is preposterous and rejects everything a true liberal knows about how societies really work. My expectation is actually that it would lead to the impoverishment of all and the deaths of billions and a backlash so severe that there wouldn’t be a libertarian left alive who would ever repeat the mistake. A hundred million uneducated low trust, low education people without liberal values in Norway would lead to the immediate demise of Norway as we know it. The hundred million wouldn’t be better off, and those in Norway would be lucky to last the winter. (I can give other scenarios where democracy will be completely undermined by open borders but will skip them for now)

      That said, I am extremely pro immigration. I think we should do more of it legally, not less. However, I think it is extremely important that Caplan not be allowed to invite every person living in Haiti into his town based upon some childish half thought out notion that his freedom of association should be allowed to undermine the collective wishes of people to determine group membership.

      There are close to two hundred nations. If libertarians think they have such great arguments for totally open borders I behoove them to convince the people of even one of those nations to go full monte. To quote McCloskey, Give it a go! Prove my fears are unwarranted.

      In the mean time I suggest we work to increase the numbers we bring in responsibly. More importantly I strongly recommend we stop pushing this boulder up a hill and instead work on things which can actually have a chance of working such as CHARTER CITIES specifically built for immigrants. If we can’t bring them all here, and we can’t, let’s bring institutions, norms, and such to them.

    • Rick,

      Any chance you can find the time to reply? There is a segment of classical liberals/libertarians who are anti unlimited immigration. I would love to explain why. Others are free to join in of course.

      I think a continued back and forth dialogue would be productive if we want to make headway on this issue.

    • (Thanks for your patience while summer obligations have been pulling me away from my keyboard…)

      The doubling figure is an estimate with implicit assumptions behind it. You point out the most important one: change that’s gradual enough to allow for relatively smooth adjustment. If we flip a switch and move billions of people around, then disaster seems likely. This is also true of most of the things libertarians want (and many of the things liberals want, for that matter). I suspect we could incorporate the world’s poor into wealthy societies over the course of a generation, but even if I’m too optimistic, the appropriate time frame is surely less than a century. Society /is/ a complex adaptive system… it can adapt; the question is ‘just how robust is it to an influx of immigrants?’

      Okay, so you’ve sold me on opening borders gradually, but still haven’t convinced me of state’s rights (or family’s rights). Caplan inviting all of Haiti to his house might be a dick move (although Haitians voluntarily going implies that we should consider their utility), but he can only invite as many as he can fit in his home. The worst case scenario I’m seeing here is that they end up flowing out into the streets and a) becoming homeless or b) more or less fruitfully joining society. (What am I missing here?)

      I’m glad you raised the extreme case because it raises an important point: supply curves slope upwards. Norway’s capacity to absorb immigrants has an economic check: rental rates. People won’t keep moving there unless the economies of agglomeration outweigh the increased cost of living.

      If we deposit all of Haiti into some empty county in Iowa, all we’ve done is move Haiti. But “we” don’t move Haiti. Haitians move. And they’re unlikely to move willy-nilly (they can’t afford to!). They’ll move to where they perceive some ability to improve their lot. Which makes the absolute worst case scenario of universal open borders a great averaging. But consider rural Appalachia… those folks are poor but they aren’t overrunning more prosperous parts of the country.

      This is definitely an “in the mean time” sort of issue. We need to liberalize movement into our (rich) countries for humanitarian and economic efficiency reasons. But as we go we need to deal with issues like limiting externalities (e.g. by issuing way more work permits than green cards, improving our legal system’s ability to deal with conflict, etc.). We also need your reminder to try many different approaches including charter cities and whatever great ideas people might come up with in the mean time.

      tangent: I’ve got an implicit assumption in my own thinking: that 1000 years from now we’ll have economic convergence and the problems of open borders will basically become a non-issue.

      loose end: We also need to consider the difference between letting someone live and work here vs letting someone become a citizen. Not to say this is the right way to do it, but the Starship Troopers model has something to teach us: citizenship (decision making rights in the legal-political order) probably shouldn’t be automatic. (Although I acknowledge genuine problems of “social justice” being a cost of getting the rules wrong.)

  2. Rick,

    Thanks for the awesome reply. Good points across the board.

    Let me repeat that I am pro immigration. I think the world would be a lot better (for economic and humanitarian reasons) with a lot more of it. Not a little more, but a lot!

    I am composing this from the porch of my mother in laws house, looking out across the border to the hills of Tijuana.

    First let me address “state rights.” As I mentioned earlier I have no idea what a right is or where it comes from other than to define a right as a sacrosanct behavior or freedom. It is something which is so important that it shouldn’t be considered or violated pragmatically. A right to life or property for example is the belief that there needs to be overwhelmingly, incontrovertible reasons to ever violate it.

    I do not in any way agree that every state should have a presumed sacrosanct prohibition on the freedom to exclude people. Seems like a reasonable option for people to determine, if they so choose. So my take on the issue is that there is not and should not be a sacrosanct, inviolable expectation that states can’t control their borders or members. I hope some or at least one of them WILL choose open borders, but to do so I recognize they also probably need to build all their other institutions and rules with this in mind.

    Stated in reverse, I think it is entirely reasonable that people be free to form a group of limited or restricted membership. Indeed, my reading of the literature on cooperation (prisoners’ dilemma and such) is that limits and barriers on group membership is often an important part in controlling for free riders, cheats and bullies. Just as important, it helps people to coordinate activities by limiting membership to those sharing more similar values, mindsets and paradigms.

    If forced to choose to which would be the better right — the freedom to form groups with restricted membership, or the freedom to join a group even if the rest of the group doesn’t want one to join, then I would lean toward the former. But I am not forced to choose, so I will suggest neither should be a right. I will keep an open mind on the issue though. I would love it if a country volunteered to experiment with completely open borders. Preferably a country which isn’t driving the economic and technological innovation frontier. I say this because I think the odds are overwhelming that the policy will end in complete disaster. But I have been wrong before…

    On the issue of extremely poor immigrants coming to live here, I do not believe they need to rent a house. They may be better off here living out of a van or sharing a house with dozens of people, or just setting up cardboard boxes under the overpass, or lean-to’s in the woods. This would have to be dealt with, unless the community wants to allow this sort of thing. But any community which did allow it would have to then deal with the sanitation, crime, education needs for the kids who don’t speak the language, and countless other issues.

    This gets us back to some kind of “managed” or constrained immigration. Again, I am for that, especially if decentralized. For example a system of allowing anyone to sponsor one immigrant family per decade, as long as the sponsor ‘takes responsibility’ for the people they sponsor. I am also all for immigration of people meeting certain standards, such as being a doctor, having a reputable college degree, or passing an exam. The standards can vary by state. Let’s experiment and get the ideas flowing and people moving.

    On the issue of Appalachia, I would answer that the people that wanted to move already did. Today they are called Residents of Seattle or Tucson or whatever. Again, I am very pro immigration.

    However, the essence of any society is not just the formal institutions. It is a messy mixture of the institutions, the rules, the histories, the informal norms, the mindsets, the values, the human capital, the trustworthiness and the expectations of the people living in that society. Moving American institutions to Haiti or Mozambique wouldn’t create a New America. And moving large numbers of these people to America wouldn’t just expand the population of this country, it would change the very fabric of the country in good or bad ways. This is especially true for less intelligent immigrants (see Jones’ Hive Mind), or immigrants with expressly anti liberal view points.

Please keep it civil

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