The Corner

Debating Open Borders at Reason

I took part in a debate sponsored by Reason magazine last month on the question, “Should America Open Its Borders?” I was waiting for the video to be posted to comment, and it’s up now:

Given the venue it was natural the lineup would be me versus two libertarians: Economist Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (whom Kevin Williamson writes about today) and Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. I won’t go over the whole thing since you can watch it for yourself. But I had a few thoughts.

I started my comments by noting that genuinely open borders would mean that national frontiers are treated the same as our state borders – i.e., no controls or monitoring of any kind, with terrorists, criminals, those with contagious diseases, etc. allowed to freely move between countries. Because, I continued, none of the three of us on the panel believe in that, we’re all against open borders. In effect, what libertarians seem to call for is “open borders lite,” unlimited, but controlled, labor migration.

But I think I spoke too soon, because that’s not what Caplan was saying at all. (Here’s the text of his opening statement.) His argument was that treating foreigners in any way differently from Americans was invidious discrimination, morally identical to “mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews.” He seemed to confine his comments to employment, but if not allowing a foreigner to take a job in the United States is morally impermissible, then isn’t denying him the vote also impermissible? If welfare programs exist, how can he be barred merely because he came here last week? This absurdity encapsulates the problem with libertarianism: It’s an ideology, in the worst sense of that word, as opposed to a libertarian-flavored conservatism, which is a disposition – and a sensible one, obviously.

Caplan posted at his site his thoughts right after the debate, and included a list of additional questions he would have asked me if he’d had the time. I’ll list his questions and my brief answers in the jump, but two things about his post. First, I appreciated his opening remark that “Mark has good manners and radiates little anger. Immigration opponents would be more influential if they emulated him.” Caplan also was civil and didn’t radiate anger. And also I wish more people on his side of the debate would emulate him — but they would not be more influential thereby. Caplan’s honesty about his rejection of the American people’s right to limit access to their country is, in fact, what most of the high-immigration Right and Left believe, but are not forthcoming enough to express publicly.

He ends his post on a sour note:

Though anti-immigrant, I doubt Mark actively hates them. What I sense, rather, is strong yet polite distaste for foreigners. He’s like a husband who makes nice with his mother-in-law, yet groans whenever he finds out she’s visiting. The key difference: Mark is hypersensitive. The husband feels fine once his mother-in-law is out of his house, but Mark’s distaste for foreigners is so intense that he wants them out of his entire country.

This is one of those “when did you stop beating your mother-in-law?” questions, so I’m not going to protest my lack of “distaste” for foreigners. But it does highlight the inability of open-borders folks to be able to appreciate how those who disagree with them think. Ironically, on the immigration issue Caplan fails the very “ideological Turing test” that he himself devised.

Caplan’s questions below the fold:

How much would open borders have to raise living standards before you’d reconsider? Doubling GDP clearly doesn’t impress you. What about tripling? A ten-fold increase?

How much less would gravity have to be to enable me to win a marathon? Hypotheticals like this are meaningless. And immigration policy isn’t purely an economic matter in any case.

Suppose the U.S. had a lot more patriotic solidarity. In what specific ways would it be better to live here? 

Less animosity between races, ethnic groups, classes leads to greater social and political harmony.

Aren’t there any practical ways you could unilaterally adopt to realize their benefits? Are you using them?

I don’t know what this means. I’m not being cute; I just really don’t understand the question.

Do you really think low-immigration parts of the U.S. are nicer places to live? If so, why aren’t more natives going there? Why don’t you?

Some are, some aren’t, but it misses the point. Both natives and immigrants will go where the jobs are. This question is based on the same fallacy that causes politicians to present more immigration as a magic bullet for places like Detroit. If Americans don’t want to live in Detroit, why would immigrants? Can you force them to stay there? Who’s for that, if it were even possible?

Doesn’t patriotic solidarity often lead people to unify around bad ideas? Think about the Vietnam War or Iraq War II. If so, why are you so confident that we need more patriotic solidarity rather than less?

All good things can have bad consequences. Love for your spouse may lead you to steal. Pride in your children’s accomplishments may lead you to be an insufferable jerk around other people.

Like any other virtue, patriotism has two related vices, once caused by the excess of the characteristic, one caused by the lack. For the former, we have a variety of related names: xenophobia, chauvinism, nativism. It’s a sign of the pervasive post-Americanism of our elites that we don’t have widely used names for the other vice, the lack of patriotic feeling, though some might be xenophilia, cultural cringe, cosmopolitanism, self-hatred.

I’m sincerely puzzled. How exactly is discriminating against blacks worse than discriminating against foreigners?

Black Americans are our fellow members of our national community and treating them differently because of their race or ethnicity is to admit to different levels of membership, something which is contrary to our ideal of a republic of equal citizens. Foreigners are not members of our national community and thus are legitimately treated differently. They have human rights, but not civil rights. And those human rights do not include moving into my house without my permission.

Suppose you were debating a white nationalist who said, “I agree completely with Mark, except I value racial solidarity rather than patriotic solidarity.” What would you say to change his mind? Would you consider him evil if he didn’t?

Many countries have an ethno-racial basis for their nationhood, like Japan or Swaziland or Denmark. They are, literally, extended biological families. American nationhood is more like a family that grows through adoption, and thus is not limited to people of a particular ethnic background.

The problem with white nationalists, black nationalists, and Chicano nationalists, as well as with the cosmopolitan who sees himself as a citizen of the world, is that they are all post-Americans. They may be evil as people or not, but what matters politically is that they reject American nationality. They are free, of course, to think what they want. But if they, like their predecessors 150 years ago, act on their conception of post-American nationality, then they should be punished by the duly constituted authorities.

Suppose you can either save one American or x foreigners. How big does x have to be before you save the foreigners?

Another meaningless hypothetical. If you could save either your child or x number of strangers, how big does the x have to be before you save the strangers instead of your child?

In what sense is letting an American employer hire a foreigner is an act of charity?

I’m not sure I get the question. It’s not so much that admitting foreigners to the United States is an act of charity, though it might be. Rather, our basic disagreement is over whether the American people, through their elected representatives have the right to limit access to the U.S. by foreigners. I answer “yes,” you answer “no”.

Suppose the U.S. decided to increase patriotic solidarity by refusing to admit Americans’ foreign spouses: “Americans should marry other Americans.” Would that be wrong?

No. I would certainly be against such a policy, because the family unit is the basic component of society, the first of the “little platoons,” and I think we should delegate to each other the right to bring in a spouse from abroad. But if Congress passed such a measure (which will never happen, since spouses of citizens were admitted without numerical limitation even after the 1921/24 acts, as they are now), and it were signed by the president (ditto), it would be legitimate, so long as it applied prospectively.


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