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.”