Clubbing Immigrants

Will Wilkinson has raised a fair amount of sand with a post on immigration.  Borrowing a page from George Lakoff, he attempts to recast the frame of reference: instead of nation states, now we will speak of clubs and membership.  The rhetorical aim is that such a reframing will put a downward pressure on moral inclinations involving xenophobia, in-group out-group biases, and other forms of patriotic fervor.  But as much I support Wilkinson’s moral views–I would prefer to abolish passports–I think Steven Pinker’s criticisms of Lakoff apply here as well. You see, clubs have membership fees; states have taxes. I can choose not to pay a membership fee. The club may fine me. They may even throw me out. But if I don’t pay my taxes, I am harassed, pilloried, fined, incarcerated. As Pinker said

If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail. And even if taxes were like membership fees, aren’t lower membership fees better than higher ones, all else being equal? Why should anyone feel the need to defend the very idea of an income tax? Other than the Ayn-Randian fringe, has anyone recently proposed abolishing it?

Wilkinson makes a much better argument in the comments to the post. Leaving talk of clubs behind, he wisely writes: 

My views on freedom of movement are basically the same as Ludwig von Mises in his classic work Liberalism. It’s not really much of a trick to point out that armed border guards pose coercive limits to freedom of movement and association. There is ample evidence showing that there is no single policy that would increase the welfare of the world’s poor than a small increase in openness to immigration among the world’s wealthy countries. The net effect of this to the wealthy countries is mildly positive — not even a net cost. You can try to argue that it is not immoral to forgo a huge costless gain in human liberty and welfare, but you’ll fail and leave people wondering what kind of person you are. 

My recent trip to Cairo exposed me, for the first time, to an economy that seems to have an abundance of low-skilled, cheap labor.  At every gas station, there were four or five attendants to fill the tank, clean the windows, and collect the payment.  Street level entrepreneurship sprouted up in all kinds of ways.  It was not uncommon to find someone take over a public parking area as a valet. The Egyptian custom is to leave your car in neutral so that these impromptu valets can move the cars around like some kind of sliding puzzle.  But this abundance of cheap labor has a downside, particularly when you learn how meagre their wages are. My Western hosts would express feelings of guilt from time to time. They wondered how they could justify walking in front of these folk while carrying a cup of coffee that cost the equivalent of a week’s salary for these workers. 

So my girlfriend asked me: do you think you could stomach the consequences of your views on immigration? Could I–or the majority of US residents for that matter–stomach the inequality? Could we handle living among those who have so little and make even less? 

I didn’t have a reply right away.  But I’ve settled on this. Whatever the level of their well-being, especially when contrasted with our own, we should assume these workers are better off than they otherwise would be–that if we prevent them from working in Los Angeles, they would live in worse conditions elsewhere. They want to live here.  They want to come. And they want to earn a better wage. It’s not just, it’s not fair to say to would-be immigrants, “Keep out of my view because I can’t handle how poor you are compared to me. Be poorer elsewhere.”



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9 responses to “Clubbing Immigrants

  1. Pingback: How Not Metaphorical Is “Countries as Clubs”?

  2. utilitarian

    I agree that our unwillingness to tolerate such visible inequality in our presence leads to awful behavior. However, the flip side is that in order to open immigration without greatly harming ourselves we would need to endorse more ‘draconian’ policies, e.g. not providing publicly funded education/health/welfare/retirement other benefits, refusing the franchise to migrants and their children, ‘streamlining’ (reducing due process protections) deportation proceedings for those who violate the rules or commit crimes (if we have to pay hundreds of thousands or millions to imprison people, that will defeat the Pareto-improving deal for some ratios), etc.

    In other words, to adopt Singapore’s hugely beneficial (to the migrants and the Singaporeans) immigration policies we would need to become more like Singapore in other ways.

  3. The Drunken Priest


    Thanks for the comment. At the very least, there’s no reason to believe the US’s current immigration policies are optimal. Once we reject that notion–I don’t know of anyone who defends it–the discussion gets exciting. We can talk about auctioning off citizenships, streamlining the process for highly skilled workers, offering probationary periods of up to 15 years for some, temporary work visas for others. The flexibility here is impressive and even a moderate would have to concede a move in this direction could improve the lives of millions.

    I am far more radical that that, however. Moving from the United Kingdom to California ought to be no different from a move from the Colorado to California. And in fact, I was surprised to learn via a wiki that U.S. Passports didn’t exist until 1941 (aside from some instances during war). Can you image the freedom of movement? And can you see that the US was no Singapore for over 150 years, despite having such open borders?

  4. utilitarian

    The formal passport document doesn’t mean much. It’s not as if anyone who wanted to could enter the country, e.g. Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were refused entry in the 1930s before any passport was set up. The Chinese Exclusion act, bounties or subsidies for desired immigrants and head taxes on undesired immigrants, etc, etc.

    The U.S. had relatively legally open borders, but transportation costs were vastly higher in relation to incomes. The vast majority of immigration was European, and controls were put in place to restrict non-European immigration in times and places where it reached high rates. The U.S. was open to European immigration (becoming less so as the flows grew more culturally different) but not to Asian or Mexican immigration, just as Singapore is open to skilled (mostly Chinese and Western) immigration, but blocks Malay or unskilled 3rd world migration.

    “Moving from the United Kingdom to California ought to be no different from a move from the Colorado to California.”

    I think that would probably be fabulous (accompanied with harmonization of things like pensions and public subsidies), and admire the freedom of migration within the E.U. But it works as well as it does because disparities in wealth, ability, and values are not too great between member states. North African immigrants in the E.U. exploit the welfare states at much higher rates, commit more crime, underperform in education, do badly economically, etc. Some of these problems are exacerbated by bad policy, e.g. rigid labor laws that boost unemployment, but the basic issue is differences in ability and attitudes tied to cultural markers for tribal feelings.

    If unlimited African immigration were permitted, most of the African population would want to come to Europe (open borders with Puerto Rico brought 20% of the population to the U.S., with the flow only stopping when the U.S. extended federal welfare benefits to Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico), just as polls reveal most of the Mexican population would come to the United States. If the migrants are granted the franchise, then you get massive race-based redistribution, possibly to the point of Zimbabwe-level catastrophe. If not, you get Rhodesia/Singapore/Dubai.

    I would see a Singapore/Dubai type model as a great improvement on the current situation, and would prefer truly open borders without a distinction between citizens and residents as an even better end-goal, but I think that end-goal would need to be preceded by efforts to raise the human capital of the migrants via nutrition, education, and especially genetic engineering/assisted reproduction technologies.

  5. The Drunken Priest

    Very well put. I didn’t mean to place too much emphasis on the passport–I took it as more of a symbol. But you raise many interesting points, perhaps none more important than the inherent tension between providing a generous social safety net and allowing more people, mainly unskilled and poor, to immigrate. I tend to think the latter is more important, so Singapore/Dubai models have greater moral appeal than current US policies.

    But why focus only on the low end of human capital? Nothing you’ve stated stands in the way of allowing truly open borders for those who attain a certain threshold of human capital. Why must it be everyone or no one? The bottom billion can stay where they are, while the wealthy freely circulate…peculiar tho that may be, why must everyone remain tethered to a nation state?

    At any rate, I suspect my views mirror your own for the most part. The only real quarrel I have is with the status quo.

  6. utilitarian

    “But why focus only on the low end of human capital? Nothing you’ve stated stands in the way of allowing truly open borders for those who attain a certain threshold of human capital”

    I didn’t so focus. I endorsed open borders between the U.S. and E.U. (I’d also include Japan and Korea, although the people there would be much more opposed to it than Americans or Europeans). I also endorsed Singapore’s policy of skilled permanent immigration, and would be happy to accept hundreds of millions of the best and brightest from throughout the developing world into the rich countries (this would end up being heavily weighted towards China) as equal citizens.

    If the developed world then made access to its institutions possible through guest worker programs and perhaps some amount of colonization (creating Hong-Kong like enclaves and SEZs in Africa, for instance), we could have a politically stable institutional system that would both vastly increase prosperity and let the worst-off participate without collapsing the host societies.

    “The bottom billion can stay where they are,”

    It’s important to realize that it’s not just the bottom billion, it’s the bottom 3-4 billion. The world mean IQ is 90. Measured values in Africa are in the 60s and 70s (which are not so unreasonable as one might think, if you recall that African-American IQ is 85, while Africans have much less or no recent European admixture along with diseases and malnutrition/vitamin deficiencies that can cut IQ by 15 points). Places like Mexico, Brazil, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey, and India fall in the high 80s to very low 90s, comparable to African-Americans or Mexican Americans (averaging about 85 and 90 respectively). Moreover, there are historical, political, and religious bases for Latin immigrants in the U.S. and Muslim-world immigrants in the E.U. to organize for interest-group politics and violence.

    However, all of this should be fixable in a few decades through high-powered biotech and other enhancement technologies (not to mention the possibility of the obsolescence of human labor in the face of robotics), so we shouldn’t think of this as an irremediable problem or permanent inequality of opportunity.

  7. utilitarian

    “han the inherent tension between providing a generous social safety net and allowing more people, mainly unskilled and poor, to immigrate”

    I think this misstates the issue, because it implies that abolishing the welfare state eliminates the problem. But politics is endogenous, and low-ability voters with ethnic groups to coordinate around will vote for redistribution in an open democracy, even if the state was previously minarchist.

    Have you read this book by YLS professor Amy Chua?

  8. The Drunken Priest

    I haven’t read Chua’s book, but its thesis is certainly provocative. I’ll definitely check it out. Thank you for your comments and insight!

  9. Pingback: Anti-Immigration: The Argument From Labor Quality « The Drunken Priest & Timid Scholar

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