Introducing: the Federation of Free States, an ongoing thought experiment

The most popular article I have ever written, in terms of views, has been, by far, “10 Places that Should Join the U.S.,” a short piece at RealClearHistory pining for an enlarged geographic area under the American constitution.

This is not a strange concept for longtime NOL readers. I’ve been pleading for stronger political ties between the U.S. and its allies for quite some time. There has been lots of push back to this argument, from everywhere. So I’m going to spend some more time explaining why I think it’d be a great idea for the American constitutional regime to expand geographically and incorporate more political units into its realm. Here is what an initial “federation of free states” would look like in, say, 2025:

NOL map United States in 2020 with 79 states

I’ve incorporated two of the strongest voices against such a federation, NOL‘s very own Michelangelo and Edwin. Michelangelo’s Pacific and Caribbean bias is somewhat acknowledged, and Edwin’s pessimistic socio-linguistic argument against adding continental European states to the federation has also been incorporated.

I’ve also tweaked the “10 places” that I originally saw fit to join the US.

In the map above I’ve got parts of Canada (the 3 “prairie provinces”) and Mexico (3 “ranching states”) joining the American federation. The prairie provinces of Canada – Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – would be admitted as separate “states,” and would thus get to send 2 senators each to Washington. According to my napkin calculations, Alberta would only be sending 3 representatives to DC while Saskatchewan and Manitoba would only get 1 representative each in the House. The ranching states of Mexico – Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León – wold likewise be admitted as separate “states,” and would also get to send 2 senators each to Washington. These three states, which have plenty of experience with federalism already, are a bit more populated than the prairie provinces, but not by much. Nuevo León would send 4 representatives to DC, while Tamaulipas would send 3 and Coahuila, 2. Why be so generous to these polities? Why not lump them together into one unit each – a Mexican one and a Canadian one? Mostly because these new states would be giving up a lot to leave their respective polities. Military protection and the rule of law wouldn’t be enough, on their own, to persuade these states into joining the Federation of Free States. They’d need disproportionate representation in Washington, via their Senate seats, in order to leave Canada and Mexico and join the republic.

Antilles (Cuba, Dominican Republic, US Virgin islands, and Puerto Rico). This is a random collection of polities, I admit, and lumping them together into one “state” is even more random. But lump them together I would. On their own I don’t think these polities would do well in a federated system, even with their own Senate seats. There’s just not enough historical parliamentary experience in these Caribbean states. If they were lumped together, though, they’d be a formidable presence in Washington. While Antilles would only get 2 Senators, its combined population would be enough to send 19 representatives to the House, more than Florida, New York, and a gang of other influential states in the current union. At the heart of Antilles joining the US as a “state” in its union is a great trade off: sovereignty in exchange for the rule of law and democratic self-governance.

IsPaJo. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan would also be incorporated into 1 voting state, though I don’t have a good name for this state yet. This isn’t nearly as crazy as it sounds. The populations of these 3 polities would benefit immensely from living under the US constitution. Questions of property would be handled fairly and vigorously by the US court system, which is still widely recognized as one of the best in the world when it comes to property rights. Concerns about ethnic cleansing or another genocide would be wiped away by the fact that this new state is now part of the most powerful military in world history. Sure, this state would only get to send 2 Senators to Washington, but its representation in the House would be sizable: 18 representatives.

England and Wales (but not Scotland or Northern Ireland). England would be the crown jewel of the federation free states. The United Kingdom is dying. Scotland wants out. Northern Ireland wants to rejoin Ireland. In England, London is thriving but the rest of the country is suffering from the effects of de-industrialization. The kingdom’s once-vaunted military depends on the United States for nearly everything. Adam Smith put forth a proposal in his 1776 treatise on the wealth of nations that’s worth re-discussing here. Smith argued that the best way to avoid a costly war with the 13 American colonies was to give them representation to go along with taxation. He proposed that the U.K.’s parliament should add some seats and give them to North American representatives. This way both sides could avoid the whole “no taxation without representation” dispute. Smith further opined that, were this federation to happen, the center of the British empire would inexorably move in the direction of the North American colonies. England and Wales would both get to send 2 Senators to Washington, giving the Isle of Liberty 4 Senators in the upper house. Wales wouldn’t get much in the way of the lower house (only 2 representatives according to my napkin calculations), but England, in exchange for its sovereignty, would become the republic’s most populated “state” and would therefore get to dictate the terms of discourse within the republic in much the same way that California and Texas have been doing for the past 3 or 4 decades. That’s not a bad trade-off, especially if you consider how awful life has become in once-proud England.

Liberia. In 1821-22, the American Colonization Society founded a colony on the Pepper Coast of West Africa and called it Liberia. The aim of the colony was to provide freed slaves in the Americas a place to enjoy their freedom, since racism was still rampant in the Americas. The freedman quickly came into conflict with the locals (a clash of cultures that has continued into the present day). Liberia, governed by its New World migrants, declared its independence in 1847 but it wasn’t until 1862, in the early stages of the American Civil War, that the US recognized Liberia’s declaration. The African continent’s first and oldest republic, predating Ghana by over one hundred years, survived, as an independent entity, the Scramble for Africa in the late 19th century and has been at the forefront of regional coalition-building in Africa since the end of World War II (when the British and French empires collapsed). Liberia, like almost all republics, has decayed politically and socially, especially over the last few decades. Federating with the United States would do wonders for Liberians, and give the federation of free states a legitimate stamp on the African continent (and breath new life into America’s own republican decay). The West Africans would send 2 Senators to Washington, and about as many representatives as Louisiana or Kentucky.

Japan (8 “states”). With nearly 127 million people, Japan’s presence in the American federation would alter the latter’s composition fundamentally. Federating the United States with Japan also presents some logistical problems. As it stands today, Japan has 47+ prefectures, which are roughly the equivalent of US states. If we added them all as they are, the Japanese would get over 100 senate seats, which is far too many for a country with so few people. So, instead, I would bring Japan on board via its cultural regions, of which there are 8: Kantō, Kansai, Chūbu, Kyushu, Tōhoku, Chūgoku, Hokkaidō, and Shikoku. The country formerly known as Japan would get 16 Senate seats (which would be roughly divided between left and right) and the new “states” would be able to send a plethora of representatives, ranging from 32 for Kantō to 3 for Shikoku. In exchange for its sovereignty Japan would get the military protection from China it wants. The US would no longer have to worry about a free-rider problem with Japan, as its inhabitants would be citizens under the Madisonian constitution. It is true that a federation would lead to more non-Japanese people being able to migrate and take root in Japan, but this is a feature of federation, not a bug. (A federation of free states would devastate ethno-conservatism in several societies around the world.)

Micronesia.” Made up of 8 current countries and territories in the Pacific Ocean, Micronesia is also a cultural territory that encompasses a huge swath of the Pacific. While it doesn’t have a whole lot of people, Micronesia has been important to US military efforts in the Pacific for centuries. Federating with the area is the least we could do for the inhabitants of the Northern Marianas, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau, Nauru, Kiribati, and Wake Island. Micronesia would only get 1 seat in the lower house, but with 2 sitting Senators in DC the area would finally get a say in how the United States conducts its business in the region.

Visayas, Mindinao, and Luzon. These 3 regions in the Philippines would do much to enrich the federation of free states. Like Japan above (and South Korea below), the Philippines has a complicated representative system that would need to be simplified in order to better fit the Madisionian constitutional system. Through this cultural-geographic compromise, the Philippines would be able to send 6 senators to Washington, but these three “states” would also get to send more representatives to Washington than New York, Pennsylvania, and a bunch of other current heavyweights. There is already a long history between Filipinos and Americans, and while the first half century was a rough one for both peoples, today Filipinos hold some of the most pro-American views in the world. Of course, Americans who live near Filipino communities in the United States know just how awesome Filipinos are.

Taiwan. Even though Washington doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan as a country (a deal Washington made with post-Mao reformers on the Chinese mainland, in exchange for peace and trade), the two polities are deeply intertwined. Taiwan spends billions of dollars on American military equipment, and the U.S. spends significant political capital protecting Taiwan from China’s bellicosity. Taiwanese statehood would not only bring two close societies even closer together, it would force China to either fight the United States or reveal itself to be a paper tiger. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take, since China is a paper tiger.

South Korea (5 “states”). Another wealthy free-riding ally of the United States, South Korea has 5 cultural regions that could easily become “states” in a trans-oceanic federation: Gangwon, Jeolla, Chungcheong, Gyeongsang, and Gyeonggi. This would give South Korea 10 senators and 50 representatives (spread out according to population size, just like all the other states in the union).

Altogether we’re looking at adding 29 states to the union. That’s a lot, but I think you’ll find that not only would we be expanding liberty but also limiting the size and scope of the federal government, and forcing it to do more of what it is supposed to do: provide a standardized legal system with plenty of checks & balances and maintain a deadly, defensive military.

Ending Empire

Check out this map of known American military bases in the world today:

NOL known US bases
h/t Dissent Magazine

Expanding liberty and the division of labor are not the only positive side-effects of an enlarged federation under the Madisonian constitutional system. Ending empire – which is expensive and coercive, and gives the United States a bad name abroad – would also be a key benefit of expanding the republic’s territory.

Most American libertarians are isolationists/non-interventionists. Most European libertarians are wishy-washy hawks. Neither position is all that libertarian, which is why I keep keep arguing that “a libertarian position in foreign affairs should emphasize cooperation, choice, and trade-offs above all else.” Non-interventionism is uncooperative, to say the least, but you could argue that it’s at least a position; the Europeans seem to take things on a case-by-case basis, which is what you’d expect from a people who haven’t had to make hard foreign policy decisions since 1945. Open borders is a cool slogan, but that’s just a hip way of arguing for labor market liberalization.

It’s time to open up our doors and start talking to polities about going all the way.

From the Comments: who is the conservative or libertarian equivalent of Nancy MacLean?

Rick posed a great question about Nancy MacLean awhile back. I haven’t been neglecting it. I’ve been thinking about it. Here it is:

Question for those more abreast than me: do conservatives or libertarians have an equivalent of Nancy MacLean? All sides have irresponsible pseudo-scholars, but how often do the various camps launch one of them to undue prominence instead of just ignoring them?

Michelangelo suggests Murray Rothbard as one example, and I had that thought as well, but that’s almost too obvious, and he’s been dead for a long time now.

Libertarians today are pretty firmly divided by the cosmos and paleos, so undue prominence is hard to get. When was the last time you saw Jason Brennan or Bryan Caplan praising the work of Justin Raimondo or Lew Rockwell?

With that being said, I think libertarians nowadays tend to launch intellectual fads into undue prominence, rather than scholars. Stuff like Open Borders or signaling or my personal favorite, non-intervention in foreign policy, tend to hold a prominence in libertarian circles that I find ridiculous. If you don’t believe me, find your nearest Cato Institute scholar on Twitter and ask him (yes, him) if his pet policy project has any potential flaws in it…

Nightcap

  1. The left-wing case against open borders Angela Nagle, American Affairs
  2. A classic account of travel in Laos Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. The remarkable rise of John Lilburne Jackie Eales, History Today
  4. The dilemma of India’s undersea nuclear weapons Yogesh Joshi, War on the Rocks

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 20): Transitional Measures and Conclusions

We must recognize than any orderly system used to select and admit immigrants involves a degree of bureaucratic slowness. Hence, the existing family preference-based program would have to be extended for several years, maybe as long as ten, while accepting no more new applications. It’s likely that the compromise solution would even have to be some sort of measure that guarantees that the last direct descendants and direct ascendants of existing immigrants have been accommodated.

To remedy the labor rigidity consequent on the abolition of family preference as the primary source of admission, the US might re-instate a new version of the 1942-1964 bracero program. I refer to a system of admission of temporary contractual workers guaranteed a minimum wage and decent living conditions by employers for a stated period. Temporary immigrants admitted in this manner would have no expectation of permanent admission to the US. The problem of “stay-overs” could be solved through a conventional bonding system. (I am puzzled about why bonding has not yet been tried in connection to immigration.) The work sojourns would have to be made renewable in law so that the US might preserve the option of keeping temp. workers who had acquired valuable and rare skills during, or even before their first, or following stay in-country. In exceptional cases, temp. workers in such a program could be channeled to the new F-1B program, perhaps with credit given for experiences working in the US and for cultural adjustment.

Conclusions

In summary: I deplore two features of current public discussions of legal immigration: They are ill-informed to an astonishing degree; and, they are often crude, lacking in both subtlety and imagination, like an argument between two people who keep cutting each other off. Unless one formulates a systematic alternative to the current system, one squarely separating immigration based on altruism from merit-based immigration, immigration based on the expected immigrants contributions to American society, the helter-skelter liberal project will continue to prevail. It is now prevailing by default in the minds of  most Americans. Those who have the energy to resist it too often limit their response to a blind “No!”In the end,  if no countervailing project emerges forcefully, we will witness the establishment of a statist one-party system in the US. Libertarians, among others, should hurry to confront their close friends and relatives who toy with the dangerous delusion of open borders.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 19; you can also read the entire essay at the “LongForm Essays” section of the blog.]

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 15): Conservative Inadequacy with Respect to Immigration

Surely, in addition to those structural tendencies for immigrants’ propensity to tend left, there is a seemingly built-in electoral incompetence of conservative and other market-oriented parties. I, for example, have been waiting for years for Spanish language Republican ads on local radio (mostly cheap radio). Even modest ones, place-holding ads, would do some good because silence confirms the Democrat calumny that the GOP is anti-immigrant. And one wonders endlessly why the GOP seldom builds on the religious ethics of immigrants which are often conservative on a personal level even as they, the immigrants, are otherwise collectively on the left. Work hard, take care of your family, keep your nose clean, save, don’t bother others, are not messages that sound alien to the Mexican immigrants I know, to Latin Americans in general, nor even to some Indians who come over.

Incidentally I make the same disparaging comments about the one French political party that is unambiguously market oriented and its inactivity toward the Muslim immigrants who are numerous in France. Several years ago, Pres. Sarkozy had two nominally Muslim women in his first cabinet but this did not set an example, unfortunately. One was Attorney General. (Note: France being France, both women were very attractive, of course!) In the US, it’s as if the Republican Party and the several libertarian groups, had in advance abandoned the immigrant grounds to the Democratic Party. It’s perplexing to me personally because every time I take the trouble to describe Republican positions in Spanish to the main immigrant group in my area, I am met with considerable interest. Explaining the attractiveness of small government to Mexican immigrants fleeing the results of one hundred years of big government that is also deeply corrupt shouldn’t be a colossal endeavor, after all. Indians have had a similar experience though they would have to be approached differently. I don’t know about the increasing number of Chinese immigrants. It would be a good question to explore.

In the past ten years or so, the GOP has fallen into a crude trap. It has allowed the Democratic Party to treat its insistence on the rule of law with respect to illegal immigrants, and on the respect of sovereign boundaries, as proof of the GOP being anti-immigrants in general. The GOP, as well as libertarian groups, have failed even to point out the obvious in connection to immigration: New immigrants compete most directly with older immigrants for jobs, housing, and government services. The facts around sovereignty add to immigrants’ generic left-tropism to ensure that the bulk of new immigrants will come and replenish a Democratic Party otherwise devoid of program, of ideas, and of new blood. (The young Dominican-American woman who won a primary in New York in June 2018 is quickly turning into an embarrassment for the mainstream of the Democratic Party.) Immigrants have the power to snatch victory out of the mouth of the Demos’ defeat.

The various libertarian groups don’t speak clearly on immigration aside from emitting the occasional open borders noise that, fortunately, they seem afraid to pursue or to repeat. Who remembers anything the Libertarian presidential candidate said on the subject during the 2016 presidential campaign? I know of one dangerous exception to the observation that libertarians seldom finish their thoughts on open borders. Alex Tabarrok argued forcefully the case in his October 10th 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders Completely.” In spite of its leftism, the Atlantic retains its high prestige and its influence, I think. What it publishes cannot easily be ignored. The article is enlightening and tightly argued but almost entirely from an ethical standpoint. Unless I missed something important, the author seems to sidestep the fact that no Western system of ethics requires that anyone commit collective suicide, or even, risk it. Thus he by-passes the lifeboat argument completely. This single article leaves pure libertarians in an intellectual lurch because it poses squarely the central issue of the moral validity of the tacit pact of mutual defense that is the nation- state: The nation-state violates your values through its very existence. Without the nation-state, it’s unlikely your values will survive at all.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 14]

Legal Immigration Into the United States: Introduction (Part 1 of 6)

This an essay about legal immigration. It includes a theoretical framework, essential facts, and subjective opinions. In this old-fashioned piece, there is no pretense of scholarly detachment. It’s a personal endeavor that I hope will be useful to others. I don’t have a hidden agenda but topical preferences I think I make clear. Footnote 1 describes my qualifications to discuss immigration. You might surmise that I have a more pro-immigration bias than most small-government conservatives but not than most libertarians (but who knows about them?). I deal with American immigration, specifically. I present rough figures only, trying to add some orders of magnitudes to the current complicated media narrative, and to establish distinctions that don’t always occur naturally. I don’t aim at precision. If mistakes of fact slip into my story, I hope readers will draw attention to them and thus, perhaps, start a conversation here. My few policy recommendations are all tentative but I hope they are logically linked both to orders of magnitudes and to conceptual distinctions.

I choose to address legal immigration specifically for two categories of reasons. First, there are reasonably good, trustworthy figures regarding legal immigration, while numbers for illegal immigration are largely estimated from data gathered for other purposes and often according to wobbly rules. Second, the relationship between legal immigration and illegal immigration is complicated enough to justify an essay all of its own. Here is a sample: Many illegal immigrants, especially many Mexicans, argue that there would be less illegal immigration into the US if there were more doors open through legal immigration. Yet, as I show below, to a considerable extent legal immigration facilitates illegal immigration and thus increases the numbers of illegal immigrants. So the numerical relationship between the two appears both negative and positive. In a co-authored article (referenced in Footnote 2) I examined the complex links between legal and illegal immigration in the special and numerically important case of Mexicans. Though that article dates back to 2009, it remains remarkably current in some respect. In the present essay I only refer tangentially to illegal immigration and only insofar as it serves my main object. Continue reading

In Search of Firmer Cosmopolitan Solidarity: The Need for a Sentimentalist Case for Open Borders

Most arguments for open borders are phrased in terms of universalized moral obligations to non-citizens. These obligations are usually phrased as “merely” negative (eg., that Americans have a duty to not impede the movement an impoverished Mexican worker or Syrian refugee seeking a better life) rather than positive (eg., that the first obligation does not imply that Americans have a duty to provide, for example, generous welfare benefits to immigrants and refugees), but are phrased as obligations based on people in virtue of their rationality rather than nationality nonetheless.

Whether they be utilitarian, moral intuitionist, or deontological, what these arguments assume is that nation of origin isn’t a “morally relevant” consideration for one’s rights to immigrate and rely on some other view of moral relevance implicitly as an alternative to try and cement a purely moral solidarity that extends beyond national border. They have in common an appeal to a common human capacity to have rights stemming from something metaphysically essential to our common humanity.

Those arguments are all coherent and possibly valid and are even the arguments that originally convinced me to support open borders. The only problem is that they are often very unconvincing to people skeptical of immigration because they merely beg the question of that moral obligation is irrelevant with respect to nationality. As one of my critics of one of my older pieces on immigration observed, most immigration skeptics are implicitly tribalist nationalists, not philosophically consistent consequentialists or deontologists. They have little patience for theoretical and morally pure metaphysical arguments concluding any obligation, even merely negative, to immigrants. They view their obligations to those socially closer to them as a trump card (pardon the pun) to any morally universalized consideration. So long as they can identify with someone else as an American (or whatever their national identity may be) they view their considerations as relevant. If they cannot identify with someone else based on national identity, they do not view an immigrant’s theorized rights or utility functions as relevant.

There are still several problems with this tribalist perspective, given that nation-states are far from culturally homogenous and cultural homogeneity often transcends borders in some important respects, why does one’s ability to “identify” on the basis of tribal affiliation stop at a nation-state’s borders? Further, there are many other affinities one may have with a foreigner that may be viewed as equally important, if not more important, to one’s ability to “identify” with someone than national citizenship. They may be a fellow Catholic or Christian, they may be a fellow fan of football, or a fellow manufacturing worker, or a fellow parent, etc. Why is “fellow American” the most socially salient form of identification and allows one to keep a foreigner in a state tyranny and poverty, but not whether they are a “fellow Christian” or any of the many other identifiers people find important?

However, these problems are not taken seriously by those who hold them because tribalist outlook isn’t about rational coherence, it is about non-rational sentimental feelings and particularized perspectives on historical affinities. Even if a skeptic of immigration takes those problems seriously, the morally pure and universalizing arguments are no more convincing to a tribalist.

I believe this gets at the heart of most objections Trump voters have to immigration. They might raise welfare costs, crime, native jobs lost, or fear of cultural collapse as post-hoc rationalizations for why they do not feel solidarity with natives, but the fact that they do not feel solidarity due to their nationalist affinities is at the root of these rationalizations. Thus when proponents of open borders raise objections, be it in the form of economic studies showing that these concerns are not consistent with facts or by pointing out that these are also concerns for the native-born population and yet nobody proposes similar immigration restrictions on citizens, they fall on deaf ears. Such concerns are irrelevant to the heart of anti-immigrant sentiment: a lack of solidarity with anyone who is not a native-born citizen.

In this essay, drawing from the sentimentalist ethics of David Hume and the perspective on liberal solidarity of Richard Rorty, I want to sketch a vision of universalized solidarity that would win over tribalists to the side of, if not purely open borders, at least more liberalized immigration restrictions and allowance for refugees. This is not so much a moral argument of the form most arguments for open borders have taken, but a strategy to cultivate the sentiments of a (specifically American nationalist) tribalist to be more open to the concerns and sympathies of someone with whom they do not share a national origin. The main goal is that we shouldn’t try to argue away people’s sincere, deeply held tribalist and nationalist emotions, but seek to redirect them in a way that does not lead to massive suffering for immigrants.

Rorty on Kantian Rationalist and Humean Sentimentalist Arguments for Universalized Human Rights

In an article written by American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty called “Rationality, Sentimentality, and Human Rights,” he discusses two strategies for expanding human rights culture to the third world. One, which he identifies with philosophers such as Plato and Kant, involves appealing to some common faculty which all humans have in common—namely rationality—and claim all other considerations, such as kinship, custom, religion, and (most importantly for present purposes) national origin “morally irrelevant” to whether an individual has human rights and should be treated as such. These sort of arguments, Rorty says, are the sort that try to use rigorous argumentation to answer the rational egoist question “Why should I be moral?” They are traced back to Plato’s discussion of the Ring of Gyges in the Republic through Enlightenment attempts to find an algorithmic, rational foundation of morality, such as the Kantian categorical imperative. This is the sort of strategy, in varying forms, most arguments in favor of open borders try to pursue.

The second strategy, which Rorty identifies with philosophers such as David Hume and Annette Baier, is to appeal to the sentiments of those who do not respect the rights of others. Rather than try to answer “Why should I be moral?” in an abstract, philosophical sense such that we have a priori algorithmic justification for treating others equal, this view advocates trying to answer the more immediate and relevant question “Why should I care about someone’s worth and well-being even if it appears to me that I have very little in common with them?” Rather than answer the former question with argumentation that appeals to our common rational faculties, answer the latter with appealing to our sentimental attitudes that we do have something else in common with that person.

Rorty favors the second Humean approach for one simple reason: in practice, we are not dealing with rational egoists who substitute altruistic moral values with their ruthless self-interest. We are dealing with irrational tribalists who substitute more-encompassing attitudes of solidarity with less-encompassing ones. They aren’t concerned about why they should be moral in the first place and what that means, they are concerned with how certain moral obligations extend to people with whom they find it difficult to emotionally identify. As Rorty says:

If one follows Baier’s advice one will not see it as the moral educator’s task to answer the rational egoist’s question “Why should I be moral?” but rather to answer the much more frequently posed question “Why should I care about a stranger, a person who is no kin to me, a person whose habits I find disgusting?” The traditional answer to the latter question is “Because kinship and custom are morally irrelevant, irrelevant to the obligations imposed by the recognition of membership in the same species.” This has never been very convincing since it begs the question at issue: whether mere species membership is, in fact, a sufficient surrogate closer to kinship. […]

A better sort of answer is the sort of long, sad, sentimental story which begins with “Because this is what it is like to be in her situation—to be far from home, among strangers,” or “Because she might become your daughter-in-law,” or “Because her mother would grieve for her.” Such stories, repeated and varied over the centuries, have induced us, the rich, safe and powerful people, to tolerate, and even to cherish, powerless people—people whose appearance or habits or beliefs at first seemed an insult to our own moral identity, our sense of the limits of permissible human variation.

If we agree with Hume that reason is the slave of the passions, or more accurately that reason is just one of many competing sentiments and passions, then it should come as no surprise that rational argumentation of the form found in most arguments for open borders are not super convincing to people for whom reason is not the ruling sentiment. How does one cultivate these other sentiments, if not through merely rational argumentation? Rorty continually comments throughout his political works that novels, poems, documentaries, and television programs—those genres which tell the sort of long sad stories commented on above—have replaced sermons and Enlightenment-era treatises as the engine of moral progress since the end of the nineteenth century. Rational argumentation may convince an ideal-typical philosopher, but not many other people.

For Rorty, the application of this sentimental ethics had two main purposes, the first of which is mostly irrelevant for present purposes and the second of which is relevant. First, Rorty wanted to make his vision of a post-metaphysical, post-epistemological intellectual culture and a commonsensically nominalist and historicist popular culture compatible with the sort of ever-expanding human solidarity necessary for political liberalism; a culture for which the sort of algorithmic arguments for open borders I mentioned in the first half of this article would not seem convincing for more theoretical reasons than the mere presence of nationalist sentiment. Though that is an intellectual project with which I have strong affinities, one need not buy that vision for the purposes of this article—that of narrowly applying sentimental ethics to overcome nationalist objections to immigration.

The second, however, was to point out a better way to implement the liberal cultural norms to prohibit the public humiliation of powerless minorities. The paradigmatic cases Rorty says such a sentimental education has application are how Serbians viewed Muslims, how Nazis viewed Jews, or how white southern Confederates viewed African-American slaves. Though those are far more extreme cases, it is not a stretch to add to that list the way Trump voters view Muslim refugees or Mexican migrant workers.

A Rortian Case against Rortian (and Trumpian) Nationalism

Though Rorty was a through-and-through leftist and likely viewed most nationalist arguments for restricting immigration and especially keeping refugees in war-zones with scorn, there is one uncomfortable feature of his views for most radical proponents of immigration. It does leave very well open the notion of nationalism as a valid perspective, unlike many of the other arguments offered.

Indeed, Rorty—from my very anarchist perspective—was at times uncomfortably nationalist. In Achieving Our Country he likens national pride to self-respect for an individual, saying that while too much national pride can lead to imperialism, “insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.” He defended a vision of American national pride along the lines of Deweyan pragmatism and transcendentalist romanticism as a nation of ever-expanding democratic vistas. Though radically different from the sort of national pride popular in right-wing xenophobic circles, it is a vision of national pride nonetheless and as such is not something with which I and many other advocates of open borders are not sympathetic with.

Further, and more relevant to our considerations, is he viewed national identity as a tool to expand the sort of liberal sentiments that he wanted. As he wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity:

Consider, as a final example, the attitude of contemporary American liberals to the unending hopelessness and misery of the lives of the young blacks in American cities. Do we say these people must be helped because they are our fellow human beings? We may, but it is much more persuasive, morally as well as politically, to describe them as our fellow Americans—to insist it is outrageous that an American to live without hope. The point of these examples is that our sense of solidarity is strongest when those with whom solidarity is expressed are thought of as “one of us,” where “us” means something smaller and more localized than the human race.

It is obvious why many critics of immigration restrictions would view this attitude as counterproductive. This type of description cannot be applied in many other scenarios at all relevant to questions of immigration at all. Liberalism, in the sense Rorty borrowed from Shklar (and also the sense which I think animates much of the interest in liberalized immigration policies), as an intense aversion to cruelty is concerned with merely ending cruelty as such. It wants to end cruelty whether it be the cruelty of the American government to illegal immigrants or suffering of native-born African-Americans as a result of centuries of cruelty by racists. This is surely something with which Rorty would agree as he writes elsewhere in that same chapter:

[T]here is such a thing as moral progress and that progress is indeed in the direction of greater human solidarity. But that solidarity is not thought of as recognition of a core self, the human essence, in all human beings. Rather, it is thought of as the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared to the similarities with respect to pain and humiliation—the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves in the range of ‘us.’

Surely, that moral progress doesn’t stop at the unimportant line of a national border. The problem is that appeals to national identity of the sort Rorty uses, or of mythologized national histories, do stop at the border.

Rorty is right that it is easier for people to feel a sense of solidarity with those for whom there are fewer traditional differences, and that no amount of appeal to metaphysical constructions of human rationality will fully eclipse that psychological fact. However, the problem with forms of solidarity along national identity is it is much easier for people to stop there. In modern pluralistic, cosmopolitan societies such as America, it is hard for someone to stop their sense of solidarity at religion, tribe, custom and the like. This is because the minute they walk out the door of their home, the minute they arrive at their workplace, there is someone very close to them who would not fit that sense of solidarity yet someone for whom they would still feel some obligation, just based off of seeing the face of that person, off of mere proximity.

Stopping the line at national identity is much easier since many Americans, particularly those in the midwestern and southeastern states which gave Trump his presidency, will rarely interact with non-nationals on a regular basis while they will more likely interact with someone who is more distant from them in other ways. While other forms of solidarity are unstable for most because they are too localized, nationalism is stable because it is too general to be upset by experience of others while not general enough to be compatible with liberalism. Moral progress, if we pursue Rorty’s explicitly nationalist project, will halt at the national borders and his liberal project of ending cruelty will end with it. There is an inconsistency between Rorty’s liberalism and his belief in national pride.

Further, insisting “because they are American” leads people to ask what it means to “be American,” a question which can only be answered, even by Rorty in his description of American national pride, by contrast with what isn’t American (see his discussion of Europe in “American National Pride). It makes it difficult to see suffering as the salient identifier for solidarity, and makes other ‘traditional’ differences standing in the way of Rorty’s description of moral progress as more important than they should be. Indeed, this is exactly what we see with most xenophobic descriptions of foreigners as “not believing in American ideals.” Rorty’s very humble, liberalized version of national pride faces a serious danger of turning into the sort of toxic, illiberal nationalism we have seen in recent years.

Instead, we should substitute the description Rorty offers as motivating liberal help for African-Americans in the inner city ,‘because they are American,’ with the redescription Rorty uses elsewhere: ‘because they are suffering, and you too can suffer and have suffered in the past.’ This is a sentimental appeal which can apply to all who are suffering from cruelty, regardless of their national identity. This is more likely to make more and more other differences seem unimportant. As Rorty’s ideas on cultural identity politics imply, the goal should be to replace “identity”—including national identity—with empathy.

Thus, in making an appeal to Rorty’s sentimentalism for open border advocates, I want to very clearly point out how it is both possible and necessary to separate appeals to solidarity and sentiment from nationalism to serve liberal ends. This means that the possibility of nationalist sentiments of seeming acceptable to a non-rationalist form of ethics should not discourage those of us skeptical of nationalism from embracing and using its concepts.

Sentimental Ethical Appeals and Liberalized Immigration

The application of this form of sentimental ethics for people who merely want to liberalized immigration should be obvious. Our first step needs to be to recognize that people’s tribalist sentiments aren’t going to be swayed by mere rationalist argumentation as it merely begs the question. Our second step needs to be to realize that what’s ultimately going to be more likely to convince them aren’t going to get rid of people’s tribalist sentiments altogether, but to redirect them elsewhere. The goal should be to get people to see national identity as unimportant to those sentiments compared to other more salient ones, such as whether refugees and immigrants are suffering or not. The goal should be for nationalists to stop asking questions of immigrants like “Are immigrants going to be good Americans like me?” and more “Are they already people who, like me, have suffered?”

This does not mean that we stop making the types of good academic philosophical and economic arguments about how immigration will double the global GDP and how rights should be recognized as not stopping with national identity—those are certainly convincing to the minority of us to whom tribalism isn’t an especially strong sentiment. However, it does mean we should also recognize the power of novels like Under the Feet of Jesus or images like the viral, graphic one of a Syrian refugee child who was the victim of a bombing which circulated last year. The knowledge that Anne Frank’s family was turned down by America for refugee status, the feelings of empathy for Frank’s family one gets from reading her diary, the fear that we are perpetuating that same cruelty today are far more convincing than appeals to Anne Frank’s natural rights in virtue of her rational faculties as a human being.

Appeals to our common humanity in terms of our “rational faculties” or “natural rights” or “utility functions” and the like are not nearly as convincing to people who aren’t philosophers or economists as appeals to the ability of people to suffer. Such an image and sentimental case is far more likely to cultivate a cosmopolitan solidarity than Lockean or Benthamite platitudes.

References:

Rorty, Richard. “American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey.” Achieving our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010. 372-388. Print.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” On Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Rpt. in The Rorty Reader. Ed. by Christopher J. Voparil and Richard J. Bernstein. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010.
352-372. Print.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.

 

What’s the difference between open borders and Open Borders?

There are two meanings here. I’ll define them below:

  • There are open borders, where borders are open and anyone can move between them
  • There are Open Borders, where borders to rich states are open to people from poor states, but the borders to poor states are closed to immigration

Open borders are fairer than closed borders. If people can move from poor states to rich ones, that’s good. But what about people who want to move from rich states to poor ones? Open Borders addresses the first issue but not the second one. Libertarians are enamored with the second first type of open borders these days, for a couple of reasons. The main reason, and the only one I’m going to name here, is that most of us are pragmatic and therefore support any kind of liberalization in labor markets we can get. If we can get our respective polities to open up their borders to poor migrants, so be it. Let’s do this in any way we can.

But what we are advocating for is not open borders. It’s labor market liberalization. I understand the need for sloganeering these days. I get it. Y’all are thinking on the margin. I’m all for Open Borders.

How, though, do we get actual open borders?

How can senior citizens from the US have the freedom to choose retirement in not only Florida or Oregon, but Tamaulipas or Veracruz, too?

How can middle class Californians have the freedom to choose between not only Texas or Colorado for relocation, but Chihuahua or Neuvo Leon?

My answer is, of course, federation, but I also realize my argument is politically unfeasible for the time being (even though it’s an old argument). Any other ideas, or is Open Borders the best we can do for now?

Reply to Matthew Strebe on Hoppe and Immigration

In response to my recent post on immigration, fellow Notewriter Matthew Strebe asserts two main objections to my defense of open borders: freedom of movement is not a right in the first place so immigration restrictions are not violating anyone’s rights, and that citizenship is relevant to the debate over the impact of policies. In order to make the case for the first, Strebe relies on Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, which has been debated at length over the past twenty or so years by libertarians. I think the second argument is inconsistent with the first and winds up begging the question. Before I delve into the argument, I should mention that I neglected to bring it up in my first post because I hadn’t really seen many people bring it up in recent years and was addressing arguments which I considered most pertinent to the current discussion on this topic among libertarians. That said, it is worth addressing again since Mr. Strebe has brought it up.

The Anarcho-Capitalist Counterfactual

Mr. Strebe presents the argument that the right to freedom of movement is not really a right at all because, in the absence of a state, people would not have the right to traverse across owned property, and ultimately free movement would become a privilege to be handed out at the whims of private property owners, an argument originally made by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

This argument gets off to a bad start when Mr. Strebe, quoting Hoppe, claims the argument for free movement to work “it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).” This assumption need not be made. Typically, when an immigrant seeks to come to another country they want to buy or rent some previously owned property which is being voluntarily sold or rented out to them. This would be perfectly acceptable under anarchism as, without a state to control who can contract with whom, there is little reason why person A can’t contract with person B just because a third party forces A away. Even from Hoppe’s perspective, borders are arbitrary; and this is hinted at when Hoppe himself calls them “unnatural” and “coercive.”

Even ignoring this, Mr. Strebe continues:

In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

Even though this federation could hypothetically happen under anarchism, this does not mean freedom of movement is a farce. Freedom of movement does not simply mean freedom to traverse land, it also means freedom to buy land regardless of location, or contract with other consenting individuals regardless of location. Immigration restrictions not only forbid movement across land, they also forbid freedom of contract. When I said “freedom of movement,” I was referring to a bundle of rights. Even if you do not accept that freedom to traverse land is a human right other rights would exist under anarcho-capitalism are still trampled upon by immigration restrictions.

Further, what government does by restricting immigration is not at all analogous to what happens when a private owner of land puts up no trespassing signs. Government not only restricts immigrants from entering publicly owned land (such as the area near the border, or national parks), they also restrict the immigrants from entering privately owned land, most of which they would be welcome to buy up for themselves or work on by its rightful owners, simply because that land is on the other side of a line in the sand called the border. It would be as if two people agreed to contract together on a piece of privately owned land in anarcho-capitalism, yet a third person who owned another piece of land unaffected by the contract used force to stop the contract from happening. Government is not only restricting movement to land that it properly owns, but it also restricts movement to lands privately held by its citizens.

Hoppe himself acknowledges this in his discussion of “forced exclusion:”

Now, if the government excludes a person while even one domestic resident wants to admit this very person onto his property, the result is forced exclusion (a phenomenon that does not exist under private property anarchism). Furthermore, if the government admits a person while there is not even one domestic resident who wants to have this person on his property, the result is forced integration (also non-existent under private property anarchism).

Of course, Hoppe still favors immigration restrictions because he believes it will result in more “forced integration,” a point Mr. Strebe brings up which will be addressed at length in a moment. My point: even under Hoppe’s own argument, it is incorrect to say “in a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land[.]” The government doesn’t own all the land, private citizens do. Restricting citizens from voluntarily contracting with non-citizens is, in fact, restricting those citizens’ own freedom of association as well.

But even if we concede that government owns some public land, this would still not be analogous to anarcho-capitalism as Hoppe argues for it. For Hoppe, the state is illegitimate in the first place because it acquires its existence (including the ownership of public land) through an immoral monopoly on force. To bring back the example of anarchism, suppose that I claimed ownership over all the land in a region which I gained by killing the previous owners and forcing everyone else on the territory into submission with guns. Does this grant me the moral right to stop people from moving onto land I stole and do not rightfully own? If so, then we have an extremely perverse notion of property rights. Government doesn’t really “own” any property, it steals it through force.[1] Private citizens own most of the land within a geopolitical border to begin with, and the land the government does own it does not rightfully own as it only acquires land through coercion.

Even if we grant that anarcho-capitalism would end all immigration and freedom of movement, how does this carry any normative force for what policies an existing state should have? As Don Boudreaux points out, under anarcho-capitalism, one is not allowed to speak freely on private property, and hypothetically a group of property owners could form a federation and ban the expression of certain opinions. Does this mean the government is justified in restricting free speech in publicly owned areas, or in the nation at large? Of course not. Further, no one would argue that this makes “freedom of speech” a farce as a human right because there is a scenario in which it hypothetically wouldn’t exist in its pure form under anarcho-capitalism.[2]

This brings us to the point about “forced integration.” To call allowing individuals to contract with other members of a nation-state or own land in a nation state “forced integration” is really bizarre. As Don Boudreaux argues:

[L]abeling open immigration as “forced integration” is disingenuous. Such a practice is identical to labeling the First Amendment’s protection of free speech as “forced listening.” But keeping government from regulating speech is not at all the same thing as forcing people to listen. Likewise, allowing people to immigrate to America is not the same thing as forcing Americans to associate against their wills with immigrants. Under a regime of open immigration, I need not hire or dine with anyone whom I don’t wish to hire or dine with. Indeed, whenever government restricts immigration it coercively prevents me, as an American, from hiring or dining with whoever I choose to hire or dine with. An immigrant who receives no welfare payments engages only in consensual capitalist acts with those (and only those) domestic citizens who choose to deal with the immigrant. Just as trade restraints are, at bottom, restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens, so, too, are immigration restraints restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens.

As Walter Block and Anthony Gregory point out, this type of argument could justify many other statist interventions:

Hoppe’s position that keeping illegals off public property because of their supposed “invasiveness” could easily be extended to other matters, aside from free trade. Gun laws, drug laws, prostitution laws, drinking laws, smoking laws, laws against prayer—all of these things could be defended on the basis that many tax-paying property owners would not want such behavior on their own private property. Such examples are hardly without a real-world basis. Large numbers of Americans would not allow guests in their homes if those guests had machineguns or crack cocaine in their possession. The principle of the freedom to exclude and set conditions for entry onto private property simply cannot be extended to the socialized public sphere, or else all sorts of unlibertarian, illiberal policies could be as easily justified as border controls. In other words, just because an individual—or many individuals—would not want act X to occur on their property does not mean that, according to libertarian law, it can be prohibited as a general principle, even on so-called “public property.”

To me, forced integration as a concept is incoherent. Allowing someone to exist within geopolitical borders is not the same as forcing others to associate with that person. It confuses the public-private distinction, which has been fundamental to classical liberal thought throughout the entire tradition.

But even if we accept it as a legitimate argument, Mr. Strebe and Hoppe need to prove why “forced integration” is more of a problem than “forced exclusion.” They believe they have shown this under democracies because democratic politicians will be a more predominant problem in democracies because democratic leaders are more likely to admit stupid riff-raff who will vote for them rather than people who the landowners would not want to associate with. Empirically, this argument seems implausible. If this were the case, then why does the US government need to forcibly stop private citizens from engaging in labor contracts with illegal immigrants?

But even if this were the case, wouldn’t that be an argument in favor of open borders? Open borders as a policy mean that democratic politicians can make no judgments on who can and cannot enter the country, including the “bums” and “parasites” Hoppe doesn’t like get in as well as the immigrants “superior” people would want to associate with. If the citizenry truly do not want to associate with these “bad” immigrants then the immigrants will have problems finding others to contract with (meaning they won’t find a job and will be destitute), face severe social exclusion by the citizens, and will be less likely to immigrate in the first place or will go back to their country due to their misery here. Freedom of association would win out under open borders. Why would closed borders—when democratic politicians really are the only ones making decisions about who can come into the country and who cannot—result in more forced integration than open borders?

Hoppe does have somewhat of a response to this when he points out how government owned roads and non-discrimination laws will increase “forced integration.” But as Alexander Funcke argues, these arguments are based on some pretty faulty assumptions:

As he notes that migrants may “proceed on public roads and lands to every domestic resident’s doorsteps […] and to access, protected by a multitude of non-discrimination laws, […]”, etc., he need to explain why they would be a greater nuance than the current population. To argue this, he claim a strong human ethno-cultural homophilia, e.g.: “[In a residential area, the] desire for undisturbed possession—peace and quite—is best accomplished by a high degree of ethno-cultural homogenity.” This claim, hinges on two questionable assumptions. First, that the ethno-cultural distances within countries dwarfs the between-state distances. This is far from obvious, New York City and London seem ethno-culturally closer than the two U.S. cities, New York City, NY, and Albuquerque, NM. El Paso, TX, seem closer to El Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, than to Boston, MA. Secondly, as Thomas Schelling and many after him has shown, what on the surface look like strong homophily often is a product of path-dependency and at most weak preference for at least someone similar.

Even if “forced integration” were a coherent concept and more of a prevalent problem, that in itself wouldn’t refute a policy of open borders. Many immigrants choose to relocate because of conditions of poverty or oppression, to find for themselves a better life. Is it just that the state should forcibly keep non-citizens impoverished simply because some citizens feel uncomfortable existing in the same geopolitical borders as someone they do not like? It’s a pretty counter-intuitive and morally questionable argument to make.

In sum, border restrictions are not consistent with anarcho-capitalism because they restrict freedom of contract and freedom of association as well as freedom of movement, even if you deny that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. And even if anarcho-capitalism would abolish immigration, that carries no normative force for why existing states should do so.

Ingroup vs. Outgrouping on Citizenship is Inconsistent with Anarcho-Capitalism

Mr. Strebe thinks that he can show why my reduction ad absurdum doesn’t work because it is enforced on non-citizens and not citizens:

[I]t assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry.

This is simply begging the question: why would such an ingroup-outgroup dynamic in regards to citizenship be morally relevant in the first place? Mr. Strebe tries to address this in his conclusion:

It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

I’m not sure why asking for a major premise to be justified is a non-sequitur, but Hoppe’s arguments are contradictory with what Mr. Strebe says here. Hoppe’s argument hinges on the idea that the government and its citizens are the only ones who have the right to exist within a nation. Here’s how Mr. Strebe’s argument above works, correct me if I’m wrong:

  1. If an individual or group has rightful ownership over a property, they may rightfully exclude others from trespassing on the property.
  2. The government and its citizens rightfully own the territory within a nation-state.
  3. Therefore, the government is justified in prohibiting non-citizens from entering a nation-state but not citizens.

How does 2 at all follow from Hoppe’s argument?[3] Hoppe claims that government is an illegitimate monopoly on force. If this is the case, how can the state have rightful sovereign ownership over any property in the first place? If it is the case that the state is illegitimate, and the ingroup-outgroup of citizenship and borders distinction is itself only a result of the state’s “unnatural” existence (which Hoppe himself admits), then how can you claim that only citizens as defined by an illegitimate government “have sovereign rights over the territory of a country?” It’s an argument that is inconsistent with the whole premise of anarcho-capitalism in the first place, and again confuses the private nature of property ownership with the coercive, public nature of government. If it is the case that the distinction between non-citizens and citizens is simply the result of the illegitimate, arbitrary use of government force, then the analogies to Medicare and eugenics are still valid.

Conclusion

I think this whole discussion is misleading because I do not believe in deontological natural rights and think Hoppe’s conception of property is untenable in the first place. Despite this, Mr. Strebe and Hoppe’s anarcho-capitalist counterfactual fails on its own terms. A state which stops its citizens from contracting with non-citizens is a fairytale in the absence of the state because the concept of “citizen” and “noncitizen” is dependent on the existence of the state in the first place. Of course, property owners could prohibit certain individuals from trespassing on their property, but that is not at all analogous with what the state does when it restricts immigration. And even if we accept everything about the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual argument, there still is no moral reason to treat non-citizens differently than citizens.

But Mr. Strebe is right about one thing: my original post did not address the problem of tribalism, which I agree is the root cause of most opposition to immigration, but that seems to be a separate issue from Hoppe’s argument and I don’t see very many libertarians making purely tribalist arguments. There are two ways to coherently argue that my reductio ad absurdum is invalid: 1) by claiming that there is some moral reason for treating citizen’s rights differently than non-citizens (tribalism) or 2) by claiming that immigration restrictions are not really violating anyone’s rights in the first place. Hoppe’s argument doesn’t make a libertarian case for tribalism: at most, it can make the case that freedom of movement isn’t really a right and so immigration restrictions are not rights-violations. I believe it fails to make this case, but that’s a separate argument from tribalism. Even if I agree that freedom of movement understood simply as the ability to traverse land isn’t a right, I can easily reply: “Sure, freedom of movement per se isn’t a right, but immigration restrictions also violate freedom of contract, so the reductio still stands.” If Mr. Strebe wants to show why the reductio ad absurdum is invalid, he will need to 1) provide an argument for why treating citizens differently than non-citizens, or tribalism, is justified or 2) show that freedom of contract isn’t really a right or that immigration restrictions do not really violate this right.

I thank Mr. Strebe for this opportunity to discuss these topics with him, and look forward to his response.


[1] It is worth noting at this point that I think that discussion over who has the “natural right” over property based on past ownership is not the best way to approach property rights, which are themselves an ever-changing result of tacit knowledge and spontaneous order, see Hayek’s discussion of property in chapter two of the Fatal Conceit. Also, I think Hoppe’s vision of anarcho-capitalism is likely not what would happen and tends too far in the direction of a perverse crytpo-feudalism. However, the point is that to say government owns property and therefore is justified in forcibly controlling who can or cannot enter a country is inconsistent with Hoppe’s own deontological arguments against government in the first place.

[2] At this point, it is worth mentioning that David Gordon argues this is not self-evidently absurd because we do not talk about “rights” when discussing the use of public land, but prudential consequences. So it is fine to restrict the “riff raff” in, for example, an airport just as it is fine to restrict movement across public roads. Even if we accept this premise, then Hoppe’s argument that we should not consider consequences and only the morality of immigration, which is how he starts his argument, is thrown out the window and we are going into the realm of consequentialist arguments, which Hoppe admits are in favor of pro-immigration even with the added caveat that economic growth isn’t the end-all-be-all of welfare because value is subjective. Hoppe’s argument against immigration will then have to hinge entirely on consequentialist cultural-based argument, such as his rhetoric about “forced integration.”

[3] I would also heavily qualify 1 with a more nuanced notion of “possession” versus “property” inspired by mutualism, but that is a discussion for another day.

The Libertarian Case for Immigration Restriction

I read Mr. Woodman’s recent post with some interest since it is generally considered a truism that libertarians are not in favor of government interference, and immigration restrictions being a prime example of said interference, are, ergo, not in favor of that as well.

What I found strange was that the most prominent libertarian advocate for immigration restrictions, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, was not mentioned. This is a particularly grave omission. Hoppe is the foremost critic of the libertarian dogma of freedom of movement, and his arguments possess the most influence. He also pivots many of his arguments around a concern that Mr. Woodman has omitted: tribalism.

In his article on Lew Rockwell, On Free Immigration and Forced Integration, Hoppe writes:

To libertarians of the Austrian school, it should be clear that what constitutes “wealth” and “well-being” is subjective. Material wealth is not the only thing that counts. Thus, even if real incomes rise due to immigration, it does not follow that immigration must be considered “good,” for one might prefer lower living standards and a greater distance to other people over higher living standards and a smaller distance to others.

The argument against immigration is fundamentally one of tribalism, though it is cloaked in economic rationalizations. Thus it is tribalism that must be reckoned with if Mr. Woodman desires to dismiss the arguments against immigration restrictions root and branch. That Mr. Woodman has not done so is regrettable, and it is an error I will attempt to address here.

Despite what I consider an omission, Mr. Woodman extensively, and mostly admirably, interrogates several consequentialist arguments “many libertarians” – presumably, he writes of those interlocutors he himself has sparred with – have made in favor of immigration restrictions. I will summarize them below.

I. Immigration Has Bad Consequences

Mr. Woodward summarizes the consequentialist argument against immigration thusly:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

However, if this logic is sound, then it gives the government carte blanche to use whatever force it wants to restrict anyone from doing anything, assuming it can prove that it causes a harm. Mr. Woodward writes:

For an example, as long as we have government-provided Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

Via reductio, this leads to a situation where force can be used arbitrarily and nefariously, which libertarians and likely most people of any political persuasion would find unsavory. Therefore, the argument in favor of government restricting immigration to avoid bad effect X is both morally untenable and inconsistent with libertarian doctrine.

II. Things Fall Apart

There are several weaknesses in this argument, the first being the contention that immigration restrictions are a restriction of an individual’s fundamental rights. As Mr. Woodman writes:

To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.”

Hoppe would argue that borders are anything but arbitrary lines demarcating abstract entities on a map. Rather, they reflect the outermost holdings of a nation, which claims ownership of the land, and has sole use and rights to it. In the aforementioned article, Hoppe writes:

in order to render the… argument applicable, it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).

Yet, very little territory these days is virginal, and the examples can be counted on one hand. In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

More importantly, it is absurd in any other society as well, all of which are predicated on some form of ownership. In a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land in the name of an abstract entity, the public, to whom it is avowedly beholden. In a monarchy, the sovereign wishes to enrich his own holdings and so will adopt an immigration policy that, according to Hoppe, would resemble most individual approaches to free association – acquire high-quality immigrants and offload low-quality citizens. In a democracy, the sovereign association of bureaucrats would seek to enrich itself (because it has temporary custodianship of the monopoly on taxation, rather than outright ownership), often at the expense of the existing citizenry, by allowing the immigration of any individual likely to enrich him – quality notwithstanding (Quote: “In fact, such negative externalities – unproductive parasites, bums, and criminals – are likely to be his most reliable supporters.”). Immigration thus becomes, in a democracy such as our own, a system of forced integration – the negation of the rights of some for the prerogative of others. This is Hoppe’s crucial point and the source of his opposition to opening immigration to all comers without prejudice. Here is the relevant passage:

Like a king, a democratic ruler will promote spatial over-integration by over-producing the “public good” of roads. However, for a democratic ruler, unlike a king, it will not be sufficient that everyone can move next door to anyone else on government roads. Concerned about his current income and power rather than capital values and constrained by egalitarian sentiments, a democratic ruler will tend to go even further. Through non-discrimination laws – one cannot discriminate against Germans, Jews, Blacks, Catholics, Hindus, homosexuals, etc. – the government will want to open even the physical access and entrance to everyone’s property to everyone else. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the so-called “Civil Rights” legislation in the United States, which outlawed domestic discrimination on the basis of color, race, national origin, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, etc., and which thereby actually mandated forced integration, coincided with the adoption of a non-discriminatory immigration policy; i.e., mandated inter-national desegregagtion (forced integration).

Even if Mr. Woodman rejects the validity of this argument, there is another weakness to his own: it assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry. Because immigration arguments look both inwards towards domestic concerns and outwards towards foreign ones, Mr. Woodman’s reductio is no longer applicable. (An important caveat: This comes with the assumption that any second-order effects spilling outside the country, such as, say, a global market distortion due to government programs for public healthcare in the United States, are not to be counted.)

 

Let’s examine that a minute.

When the members of an ingroup debate the merits of eugenics or Medicare, they debate how these policies will affect themselves – alone – well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via taxation or force on themselves will lead to the salutary result they desire.

When they debate over whether to admit immigrants from an outgroup, their debate hinges on whether the assumed future behavior of the members of that outgroup will affect them well or poorly. They are also, implicitly, debating whether the imposition of government coercion via force on others will lead to the salutary result they desire.

In both cases, the policy that wins does so based on the opinion of the ingroup as to its efficacy for whatever definition of welfare they have set for themselves. As welfare is a subjective term and does not only include economic goods, this ultimately reduces to this: welfare is whatever the people want it to be.

The ingroup can then argue, with complete logical consistency, that it both supports freedom (for itself, within the borders of its territory) and does not support it (for the outgroup, which is outside its territory and wants to come in). The reductio-into-slippery-slope that Mr. Woodman would like us to believe force inherently leads into is, in this case, fallacious. Force can certainly be directed outwards without being directed inwards. One could make an argument that acceding to a government imposition of force in one area is itself a slippery slope to force everywhere, but that is a different argument, and not the one being made.

III. Conclusions

To summarize the lines of argument thus far:

  1. Freedom of movement is a fallacy predicated on incorrect notions of land ownership. Movement from one sovereign territory to another is instead privilege of movement.
  2. Within a publicly held system such as our own, privilege of movement is dependent on the consent of the government which holds lands in the name of its citizens, its own ingroup.
  3. However, because the government seeks to enrich itself – often at the expense of its avowed ingroup – it will often pursue immigration policies that are detrimental to the ingroup, who are in turned forced to bear the burdens of the policy that enriches their overlords.
  4. The end result of democratic “free” immigration is forced integration, a betrayal of libertarian principles.
  5. Various logical points.

Mr. Woodman challenges libertarians to “justify some argument for why it [government] can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens.” It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

While Mr. Woodman has provided examples of policies restrictive of immigration being or becoming harmful economically, that does not negate the truth that a harmful economic policy may also come bundled with a salutary domestic policy. The citizenry, who do not want to associate with X group, have had their biases enshrined in law according to their desires.

Despite the centrality of tribalism in immigration, it is understandable why Mr. Woodman failed to attack the root of anti-immigration arguments. As we can observe in the current American election cycle, arguments against immigration generally take a utilitarian strain. Indeed, Donald Trump has based his opposition to immigration on the following issues:

  1. Immigrants are increasing the level of crime because many of them are criminals
  2. Immigrants are not adequately screened, leading to point one
  3. Immigrants are harming the economy

As stated by Mr. Woodman, there are clear arguments to be made against these points. However, he has failed to address why these arguments are convincing: tribalism, the doctrine of sticking with one’s kith and kin at the expense of others, is the root ideology. And there are clear – and libertarian! – arguments in favor of it.

I expect, and welcome, a hearty critique of Hoppes’s position, my articulation of it, and my response to Mr. Woodman’s article.

Most Arguments Against Open Borders Lead to Extremely Un-Libertarian Positions

One thing that strikes me about libertarians who oppose open borders is that they approach the issue of immigration completely different from how libertarians approach nearly every other issue. Arguments against immigration typically go as follows:

  1. Bad effect x will happen if we allow open borders.
  2. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

For example, many libertarians claim that because immigrants will increase deficits by using the welfare state, the government is justified in restricting immigration. Of course, this isn’t actually true, but even if it were true this in no way justifies immigration restrictions.

To be clear: immigration restrictions are a form of government intrusion into an individual’s freedom of movement. It is the government using its monopoly on force to restrict someone from doing something they’d otherwise be able to do, that is move across an arbitrary line we call a “border.” As Jason Brennan says:

At first glance, immigration restrictions look like rights violations. When we impose immigration restrictions, we do not simply fail to help would-be immigrants, but rather use violence and threats of violence to prevent them from making life-saving or life-changing trades with willing trading partners. We also harm our own citizens, who would benefit from interacting with those immigrants. We impose ourselves and cut off relationships that otherwise would have formed. We use violence and threats of violence to interfere with people who, if left alone, would work or live or trade together.

So libertarians who make this argument are substantially saying that if it can be shown to reduce deficits, using government force to restrict someone’s freedoms is justified.

If anti-open borders libertarians treated any other issue like they do immigration, it would lead to some pretty absurd, anti-libertarian policy positions. For an example, as long as we have government-provided Medicare programs, allowing people to eat unhealthy foods or smoke will increase the cost of those welfare programs; following the logic of the argument above, the government would be justified in implementing paternalist policies that restrict people’s right to consume what they want to reduce the burden of the welfare state. People with lower incomes are more likely to use welfare programs as well, so the government is justified in reducing their population size by restricting their right to reproduce through forced sterilization.

Obviously, both these positions are absurd from a libertarian perspective. Someone’s freedom from government force in areas of reproduction and what food they consume is more important than the fiscal costs. What makes the freedom of movement any different? Replace “people with lower incomes” with “immigrants” and “sterilization programs” with “immigration restrictions” in the sentence above, and the argument is the same. If the government cannot restrict freedoms in other areas in the name of deficit reduction, what makes freedom of movement in immigration restrictions any different?

Or take another example, many libertarians justify restricting immigration because immigrants are likely to vote for statist policies that will restrict liberty. Of course, this once again isn’t true, but even if it were it by itself is no reason for libertarians to support immigration restrictions. The operating principle here is that government is justified in restricting individual liberty if it increases the likelihood that pro-liberty politicians will be elected.

Again, that principle is not applied to any other issue by libertarians. Let’s say a particular demographic of citizens is more likely to vote for statist policies; by this argument, the government would be justified in reducing their population through sterilization programs in order to increase the likelihood that libertarians would win elections. Citizens who vocally advocate for statist policies through their speech also increase the likelihood that people will vote for those statist policies, so the government would be justified in restricting their freedom of speech. Obviously, both conclusions are absurd.

Further, as Bryan Caplan argues, it must be shown that there are policies that can reduce these ill-effects while violating fewer liberties than an all-out closed border policy. For example, we can eliminate the welfare cost of immigration by allowing for an open borders policy but make it illegal for any immigrant to receive welfare benefits. This allows for freedom of movement but eliminates the alleged ill-effect of open borders. Additionally, there are undisputable benefits from immigration, both in terms of increased liberty of movement and economic growth, and it must be shown that the negative effects outweigh the positive effects. Therefore, premise 2 is also incomplete as stated above.

So, in reality, these types of arguments against immigration are as follows:

1a. The government is justified in restricting someone’s liberties if it can be shown to stop bad effect x.

2a. X will happen if we allow for freedom of movement through immigration and there is no other way to stop x without restricting freedom of movement.

3a. Therefore, the government is justified in restricting immigration.

In reality, very few libertarians accept 1a, particularly if they believe in deontological natural rights. For consequentialists, it would depend on how bad x is. But for most arguments against open borders, they would not say that x is bad enough to allow for restrictions on nearly any other liberty. Further, as pointed out earlier, premise 2a is usually false because the empirical evidence suggests that x will not be a result of open borders, there is some other way to stop x while allowing for free migration, or both.

Another argument is that there is something distinctive about immigrants that justifies the state violating their rights but not citizens. If this is the case then we can replace 1a above with the following argument:

1b. The government is justified in restricting the rights of non-citizens if it can be shown to stop bad effect x, but would not be justified in violating the rights of citizens even if it would stop x.

This isn’t really a premise, but a conclusion; libertarians must justify some argument for why it can restrict the rights of non-citizens but not citizens. On its face, it seems like this principle is pretty absurd. For example, suppose that Greek citizens who use welfare eat unhealthily, and this is harming Germany fiscally because Germany helped bail out the Greek welfare state. The German government, therefore, passes a law restricting what Greek citizens can eat and tried to enforce it on Greek soil. Clearly, nobody, libertarian or otherwise, would call that justified. It is the burden of proof for open borders opponents, then, to prove why citizenship is in any way morally relevant to restricting liberties.

Perhaps there is an argument for why someone’s rights are all of a sudden less valuable because they were born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line that only exists because of state force. However, I doubt that there is such an argument that is in any way consistent with libertarian philosophy.

The death knell of Open Borders?

The world of the 1990s and aughts is now gone. A borderless, wall-less world will be relegated to the musty, threadbare realm of academia and on the white papers of a few brave think tanks. The flood of war refugees from Syria has been overwhelming Europe’s political and cultural sensibilities (Europe’s political sensibilities are quite innovative, but it is stagnating culturally; not a good combination for societies trying to manage large influxes of mostly unwelcome refugees). In the US, demagogues on the Right and the Left have been trashing immigrants and the freedom of movement in the name of the Worker.

The freedom of movement of individuals is a fundamental right that I will advocate on behalf of for the rest of my life, and yet I have been cautious in embracing the trendy calls for Open Borders by technocrats and non-paleo libertarians. My caution had less to do with my disdain for the cultures of those respective factions than it did with my inability to imagine a world of Open Borders as the prominent factions presented it. The Open Borders trend brought too many questions to my mind. For example, what if only a few countries recognize Open Borders? Why should people be free to move to one area but not to another? What is fair about any of that?

Open Borders was, in my mind, a short-sighted cultural campaign aimed at furthering freedom. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, as some such campaigns end up furthering freedom in the long run (though these campaigns can also damage the push for more freedoms, too). In this respect, Open Borders was a big success. It brought technocratic Leftists around to the idea of loosening restrictions not only on labor but capital as well. It brought lots of non-Europeans into the libertarian fold. The Open Borders campaign made the unspoken nationalisms of trade protectionism and immigration restriction taboo for smart people.

Yet, as current events so blatantly illustrate, freedom of movement is not in the same camp as, say, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is culturally sacred to Westerners. Every individual in the West believes that her freedom of speech is inalienable. This, even though free speech is always under political and legal attacks from factions vying for power over others. (These political and legal attacks, of course, are a necessary evil for a free and open society. If this doesn’t make sense, recall that “freedom of speech” is a right protected so well by states like North Korea and Cuba that the rulers of those countries consider it a crime to claim otherwise.) For those who want a world where freedom of movement is in the same camp as freedom of speech, more hard work and more critical thinking is required. My small contribution is below.

If there had been political bonds – a la (con)federation of some kind – between Syria and EU states (or other Arab states), then the horrific violence that has been tearing Syria apart could have been avoided. The opposing parties would have had to spell out their differences in a parliamentary setting, and if they could not come to any kind of agreement then the opposing parties could have hashed out their differences in a legal setting, either by suing each other in the courts or by pursuing secession options (which would have likely led all parties back into parliamentary negotiations). In fact, the legal and political jostling could have been done simultaneously.

Look at the EU. Just look! Open Borders is possible because the states involved in the confederation are bonded together politically. They had come to an agreement about Open Borders (amongst other policies) and how to recognize, respond, and respect such a policy.

Look at the US. Open Borders is possible because the states involved in the federation are bonded together politically. They had come to an agreement about Open Borders (amongst other policies) and how to recognize, respond, and respect such a policy.

Now look at Syria and the EU. Open Borders is not possible because these states have no political bonds. Instead, people are being murdered and driven from their homes. People are being harassed by policemen and bused from one country to another. People are being barred from riding trains. People are dying at sea.

Open Borders is a watered down policy prescription that is too Western-centric (ask me how). It’s better than nothing, mind you (like free trade agreements), but it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s not a comprehensive answer to the question of freedom of movement. As such, it’s easier to attack or dismiss when things go wrong. Here is yours truly blabbing at the mouth back in May of 2014:

I think that there is a way to incorporate open borders into a One Big Change-style reform while also leaving room for other improvements such as financial competition in the markets (rather than between governments) and competing tax regimes. I’d dig deeper and go a little more structural. I’d federate the entire world, and I wouldn’t make the federation out of the current agglomeration of nation-states, either. I would destroy the states currently in place and federate the administrative units that currently operate underneath the nation-state.

This, I think, would do a great job of incorporating open borders (everyone is part of the same federal union now), financial competition (no more national banks), tax regimes (you can more easily vote with your feet), and a common legal system that protects individual rights such as private property and freedom of religion.

Now, you wouldn’t want to do this in a ‘top-down’ manner. The best way to get the ball rolling on such a proposal would be to tack on a constitutional clause of some sort that merely opens the door to dialogue on closer political ties between peoples. So, in the case of the US, a clause could be adopted that makes it possible for states or disgruntled sub-states to approach the US about collaborating more intimately. An even better option would be to find an already existing clause in the constitution that allows for such a thing. Maybe nothing comes of it. Maybe people balk at American pomposity. At least, at least that is until their strong man starts bombing their neighborhoods or their social democracy starts adding a few extra zeros to its currency…

Holla back!

UPDATE: Re-reading through this made me realize that I’m addressing a different aspect of freedom of movement than the Open Borders crowd. They’re focused on the ‘why’ whereas I’m focused on the ‘how’.

The blatant fascism of Bernie Sanders

Ezra Klein, a Bruin and also a journalist, recently interviewed Bernie Sanders, an American Senator currently challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democrat Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Sanders is an old, extremely rich white man who describes himself as a “democratic socialist.” Check this out:

Ezra Klein: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …

Bernie Sanders: Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.

Ezra Klein: Really?

Bernie Sanders: Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …

Ezra Klein: But it would make …

Bernie Sanders: Excuse me …

Ezra Klein: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?

Bernie Sanders: It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.

There is much, much more stupidity here. The choice between Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders – who is supposedly the representative of a new Left – illustrates well why the American Right is currently the faction of Ideas. This is so stupid that I’m flabbergasted. I am literally flabbergasted.

There is no way this guy represents the future of the American Left. No. Way.

What would I ask the president in an interview?

My favorite podcast really hit the Big Time this week. Marc Maron interviewed President Obama last week and released the episode today. Marc Maron does a great job interviewing his guests but this episode is (naturally) pretty different. Obama mostly gives a lot of fluff, but he did make some interesting points on the role of political institutions in polarizing politics, as well as the role of [implicit] property rights in shaping political outcomes.

While I was waiting for this episode to be released I wondered what I would have done in Maron’s position. It’s tempting to say “just scream non-stop for an hour until the president agrees to be better.” But of course, that wouldn’t do anyone any good (although I think it would sell advertising on cable news). The question is then “how do I avoid throwing softballs, maintain a good conversation, and still nudge in the direction of change I’d like to see?”

One thing I think would be important were I in that position is to restrict the number of issues I bring up. The limits of human attention mean that we simply can’t handle more than a handful of things at once. Piling on all the issues and complexities of the world would only serve to reduce anyone’s ability to do anything positive. Another thing I think would be important is focusing on areas where we already mostly agree. Nobody over the age of 25 is likely to change their opinion on just about anything, so why waste your energy. That’s sunk ideology. And besides, even if you’re talking to a real piece of work, you have some obligation to do a good job of being a conversationalist, and focusing on differences is less likely to lead to a good conversation.

So what would I ask Obama in an interview?

  • What do you see as the path forward to immigration liberalization?
  • Will you please push for a bill that allows any law-abiding person to work in the United States without giving them access to the Welfare state? (I would word that differently if I were actually interviewing the president, but you get my drift…)
  • Would you please let Nassim Taleb explain his risk-management argument for climate change interventions? And can he please also be required to comment on his argument’s relationship to the Law of Unintended Consequences?
  • What is your favorite episode of South Park?

That third point should be at least a little bit controversial. I’m agnostic on whether there’s anything to be done about climate change (although I’m all for using it as an excuse to liberalize immigration for the world’s poor). I’m seriously skeptical of governments’ ability to do any good in that arena. I’d really rather not add fuel to the fire, but I think it’s important to raise the standards of debate, and I think Taleb’s argument* is the most sensible one. Not only that, it has wide applications that should push (benevolent/benign) politicians to support simpler rules and fewer interventions.

Oh yeah, and I’d ask him if he’s a secret gay muslim. (“Does your mom know you’re a secret gay muslim?” Anyone else remember playing that game?)


* Taleb’s argument goes roughly as follows: We face uncertainty, but there is a non-zero probability of a catastrophically bad outcome. Maximizing expected utility is not the appropriate risk-management strategy in this case. Our most urgent need (our highest marginal benefit course of action) is to eliminate the possibility of the catastrophic outcomes–and perhaps after that start thinking about maximizing expected utility. Essentially the argument is “don’t play Russian Roulette!” But an essential underpinning is that a probability distribution describing outcomes in complex systems often exhibits “wild randomness”. In contrast to the “mild randomness” of the normal distribution, in wildly random situations it’s difficult or impossible to even have an expected utility. The conclusion I would hope they would draw is that intervening in complex systems (and particularly creating new complexity through increased regulation and more tax loopholes) is best avoided, and particularly at the national level.

Around the Web

  1. Olivier Roy on Laicite as Ideology, the Myth of ‘National Identity’ and Racism in the French Republic
  2. Prague ’68 and the End of Time
  3. How To Spot And Critique Censorship Tropes In The Media’s Coverage Of Free Speech Controversies
  4. The Swamping that Wasn’t: The Diaspora Dynamics of the Puerto Rican Open Borders Experiment
  5. A Voice Still Heard: Irving Howe
  6. Borders and Bobbing Heads: Postcoloniality and Algeria’s Fiftieth Anniversary of Independence (so close, and yet so far…)
  7. The New Yorker on the recent scientific fraud, with its epicenter at my alma mater. (Delacroix remains startlingly relevant because of it.)