Smash the New Aristocracy

My visceral reaction to arguments for less-than-100% open borders is to scream, and call names, and punch in the face. I will not act on these urges. I cannot punch 6 billion people in the face. Many of the people who oppose open borders are my friends; I like them. And intellectually I know that people do the best they can—they do not intentionally hold wrong moral beliefs. Instead, I write, and hope to persuade.

Let me offer an analogy. At the height of, say, the British aristocracy, one’s rights and privileges were determined by the social position of one’s family at birth. Almost all modern commentators will concede that this was deeply wrong. Whatever the barriers to achievement are in our current age, everyone seems to agree that at least the coercive ones should have nothing to do with one’s starting social position.

Today, around the world, one’s rights and privileges are determined by the physical position of one’s family at birth. It is not only the case that there are, in practice, disparities in the opportunities available to people born in different parts of the world; we have raised additional, coercive barriers to achievement that bind especially for those with unfortunate starting physical positions.

It is perhaps unsurprising that those who think they benefit from the current system wish to keep it. They trot out all kinds of practical-sounding excuses for why we cannot completely open the border. All of these reasons have analogs in the system of class-based privilege. Most of us, I imagine, would like to think that if we were aristocrats of centuries past, we would see through the lameness of the arguments for using the state to keep down the lower classes. Yet the widespread opposition to open borders today shows that we are not that good.

Go ahead. Spend some time with the analogy; wrestle with it. Tell me, if you can, where it breaks down. While I await your reply, I will tentatively postulate that there is no morally important sense in which it does. If there is such a thing as moral progress, then history will judge current opponents of open borders just as harshly as those who in the past made excuses for state-sanctioned aristocracy.

Radicals and especially libertarians are often accused, with some justification, of alienating their more-moderate allies. Perhaps that is what I have done today. A number of writers I admire have pointed to the case of Jose Antonio Vargas as indicative of what is wrong with the American immigration system. Vargas is admirable, but he will have little difficulty remaining in the United States. I am far more concerned for the hundreds of millions of potential immigrants, the huddled masses, who will never win a Pulitzer Prize. Must we, the new aristocrats, continue to oppress them?

38 replies to “Smash the New Aristocracy

  1. Make Believe Media

    What is so admirable about Vargas?

    As far as I can see he has done nothing to improve the economy of the US or any other country on the planet, which would have improved the lives of innumerable people.

    In reality, journalists are parasites who claim special privilege because they are in a position to string a few words together and pretend they are better than their audiences.

  2. Eli Post author

    Journalists can be somewhat self-congratulatory at times, but Vargas’s writing has been of value to many of his readers. He is certainly not a parasite.

  3. Stewart

    There is also a Rawlsian point to be made about the arbitrariness of geography. (although Rawls made it about initial endowments.)

  4. Eli Post author

    Stew, I agree that there is a Rawlsian analogy as well. My argument is much less demanding than the quasi-Rawlsian one, which would insist that we affirmatively help people migrate, to provide insurance against a bad draw in the geographic lottery. I am merely asking people to remove the coercive barriers to immigration.

    Interestingly, Rawls himself would reject the quasi-Rawlsian argument, on my understanding, because he intentionally limited his two principles of justice to the circumstances of a domestic society. It is an absurd limitation.

  5. Eli Post author

    Joseph, that’s an interesting connection to draw.

    You’ve put me in mind of a more direct aristocracy of time analogy. Immigration restrictions operate as if there were some best time to be alive, and time travelers to this era from periods of plague and misery were forced at gunpoint to go back.

  6. Mark

    Opening up the nation’s borders won’t really solve the differences in evironment that children are born into and raised in, though, unless you think that everyone in, say, the United States has an equal upbringing? We will have to abolish all borders, not merely national ones. Just as people born in poor countries have the right to move to rich ones, so do people born into poor households have the right to move into rich, privileged households. Most people would make the move during adolescence when they became aware of the disparity, but I think underprivileged parents should have the right to place their children in rich households early on.

  7. Eli Post author

    Mark, thanks for your comment. I think you misunderstand either the argument itself or my intention in putting it forward. For me, the problem with barriers to immigration is not that they result in inequality, but that they coerce innocent people. I don’t think it’s possible or even desirable to eliminate all forms of inequality. But it is at least desirable to eliminate institutionalized coercion of innocents, is it not?

    With respect to your reductio, I think it does not apply once you acknowledge that my argument is about coercion and not inequality. Some people certainly believe that the government owns its territory and stewards its residents in the same way that a family owns its house and stewards its minor members. That is not my view, so it’s no violation of my principles to say that poor people do not have the right to move into rich households.

  8. Eric

    What about immigrants who specifically stated that it was their intention to relocate on order to collect welfare? It’s arguable whether this happens in the US, but certainly there are European countries where people can do exactly that: arrive in the country and be on the dole within a few months. Would you also support open borders there as well?

  9. Eli Post author

    If that is a problem, then it is best solved by changing the welfare programs, not by restricting international mobility. But broadly, yes, my commitment to open borders precedes my commitment to government finances.

  10. TGGP

    Have you read “Generations of Exclusion”? It’s a good source of info on contemporary immigration, rather than relying on analogies from previous waves.

  11. Pietro Poggi-Corradini

    Traveling through the EU this summer I realized just how much freedom of movement we westerners enjoy. It’s truly staggering: doors after doors open up to us, we can pass non-chalantly across borders that used to be defended with the life of many young soldiers. We can even visit rocks in the middle of the Mediterranean miles and miles away from where we grew up, while someone who grew up a few miles away from such rocks, whose ancestors probably scampered around on similar rocks, has no such right. It’s the inequality of rights that is shocking.

  12. clayton

    National security? Beggar they neighbor?

    First is obvious. Second, if the US acted unilaterally, we would suddenly find ourselves overburdened by every other country’s discards.

    These occur to me as practical reasons to oppose open borders, despite their attractiveness ethically.

  13. Pavlos Papageorgiou

    Although I agree on ethical grounds, I wonder what you think of completely open borders from a practical welfare-maximization perspective. I’m unsure about my intuition on the subject, and I’m not a trained economist, so it’s a genuine question.

    Imagine that you have three people in two countries, ranked by wealth, A being the richest and Z being extremely poor:

    A B C X Y Z

    If you let X migrate like so:

    A B C X Y Z

    You have higher inequality in the rich country, a net transfer of wealth (as labour) from poor to rich country, and (assuming the economy in the poor country was meritorious) a significant relative drop in productivity there. That doesn’t sound obviously and overwhelmingly good.

    I’m guessing it might be better for equality if countries prefer migration between economies that are closer together economically, for example if the first country tries to attract D, and person X migrates near W. That might allow mobility with less dislocation.

    From the point of view of the exodus country, it may be better for the rich country to take in Z, the least well-off person, so that the remaining economy of X Y is more productive (the opposite of US immigration policy).

    Note that I’m not addressing the ethical issue of how or whether to stop people migrating, but just what would be better economically. Is that a well covered problem? I don’t see it in my amateur readings.

  14. Eli Post author

    Pavlos, I think one reason for the rich country to prefer immigrant Z is simple Ricardian gains from trade. Comparative advantage works best among groups with large differences in productive opportunities. If immigrant X is similar to native C (or A or B), for instance, that is a gain to the rich country, but perhaps a modest one. Immigrant Z may have a much stronger comparative advantage in the rich country than immigrant X would. I wouldn’t worry about inequality per se, but we maximize gains from trade when we have diverse trading partners, so on those grounds, we should prioritize the immigrants most dissimilar from ourselves.

  15. Michael

    So, do you favour abolishing private property? (Isn’t that just another form of aristocracy?)

  16. Michael

    What’s to stop the masses from stripping those who have of what they have? What safeguards are in place to prevent this in a mass migration?

  17. Eli Post author

    If immigrants have enough power to expropriate everyone in the US, then they have enough power to do so even if there are laws against immigration. This seems to me a ridiculous concern.

  18. Michael

    Military power and the inability to vote kind of prevent that right now.

    (You can take things via force or via democracy.)

  19. Michael

    And it’s not a matter of “expropriating everyone” (whatever that means). It’s a matter of those less fortunate taking from those who have more. What’s in place to protect those who have worked hard and acquired much?

  20. Eli Post author

    If you have a political system that lets people take from the rich, that is a problem with your political system, not with immigrants. Furthermore, the US had more or less open borders in the 1800s, and nothing of the sort happened.

  21. Michael

    Yeah, unrestricted Westward expansion in the 1800’s worked out REAL well for the Native Americans.

  22. Eli Post author

    Michael, I agree that it did not work out well for Native Americans, but that just underscores the point I made in comment 21. Native Americans did not have the power to stop westward expansion; it wasn’t a matter of making a wrong choice with respect to immigration policy.

    If you don’t have enough power to prevent people from coming and taking your stuff, then you should worry about an invasion. If you do have enough power to prevent people from immigrating, then you have nothing to fear from immigration.

  23. Michael

    Then it becomes a matter of ensuring that poor immigrants never obtain that much power—which requires restricting immigration in some fashion.

  24. Michael

    See, if immigration continued at a slow trickle, there’d never be any concern. Alternatively, if immigrants were allowed to come and work in the US without becoming citizens, thus lacking the right to vote, there also would probably not be much of a problem, even if large numbers arrived (though we’d no doubt see some strong tensions between poor immigrants and poor natives).

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  26. Arcayer

    Laws against immigration are not a militarily neutral object. We can win wars that we would otherwise lose because we have closed borders.

    Okay, so why are they militarily important?
    Let’s start with two countries-
    Country A is an evil country where there are no property rights and an upper ruling class of thugs take anything worth owning. The people live bare subsistence lives.

    Country B is a rich prosperous nation no dissimilar to America. Despite being so much richer, Country B has a much lower population.

    So, as it stands, Country A has no real prospect of winning a military engagement against Country B. If the thugs from A tried to peddle their violence in B they would slaughtered by B’s super weapons. However, if country B has open borders then A has a way to win.

    The people from Country A move to Country B. In the simplest scenario they then vote to get everything for themselves, but let’s give country B a magical constitution much better than America’s so Country A can’t do that.

    We must still remember that the people from Country A are now able to work in a safe and productive environment. Unlike their lives in Country A, immigrants can now become rich. Being the majority of the population now, they are able to become the majority of the wealth holder’s within B. This is where the main problem comes up- the immigrants from A are not good people. They are, on average, the same as anyone else from A. Thus, the people of A now turn on B, and then on each-other using the most advanced weapons available. They can no longer be stopped.

    So, it can be said that borders exist to keep evil people from becoming wealthy. This assumes a very important premise- that the people in the poor countries who are not allowed to immigrate are in fact evil.

    As a prelim, I reject any policy that leads to the extinction of the human race. This means that averages are very important. If the overall effect of a policy is harmful then edge cases don’t matter. As such, I admit that borders are an extremely brute force approach to the issue. Yes, there are innocent victims, and a lot of them, but as of right now, we don’t have the technology to offer a better methodology. If all borders are completely opened, then savages will crush the civilized in war, humanity will regress back to the stone age and a large size meteor will eventually end it all. (This scenario cannot occur in reality. If all borders are completely opened they will quickly be closed as people come to see the cost.)

    So we loop back to the question at hand- are people living in inferior countries inferior to people living in superior countries. In other words, are countries inferior due to their inferior citizenry, or because of some other force?

    I find it hard to see anything that can be accepted as the “some other force”. Nations built around trade have proven that natural resources aren’t a barrier to economic success, so most of my opponents point towards historical forces to justify their positions.

    The idea behind historical forces is, in a sense valid. Countries that are rich today are prosperous because they embrace good philosophies, and these philosophies were built up over thousands of years to where they are today. Different countries have different histories, which has led to different levels of access to the correct philosophies. A radical would assume that the people who came here would learn from the people around him and take in the better philosophies, discarding the beliefs and systems that they left behind on the other side of the border. I have not seen this happening. The people one side of the border are the same as they are on the other side of the border. Even the kids of immigrants are largely the same as their parents. This is not something we can solve through better education, or integration. Such solutions have not, when tried, succeeded.

    People like arguing that open borders would be fine if government spending were under reasonable control. I hold that the position is paradoxical. The only way to control government spending is to control who lives inside your country. The only way to do this, at least right now, is selective immigration. By insuring that only the best members of the world at large enter into the richest nations, a constant upward pressure can be placed on the civilization’s moral foundation. The only way we can select our immigrants in such a manner right now, is to take only those who have become rich or otherwise glorious despite their inferior surroundings, thus proving their overall superiority.

    This does not mean we are simply casting the rest of the world into the sea. The presence of countries like America has enriched and improved every corner of the world. It does however mean, that we need an aristocracy.

    In the past, we had nobles, class structures based upon line of descent. Why are these disdained today? The answer is simple- we replaced them. They were at the time necessary, in the same way that candles were necessary before the light bulb. They were not, when they were created, some dark force that drove the peasants down. They were a replacement, and a solution, for a yet earlier age where the peasants had no particular masters and were regularly raided by whoever happened by. By creating strict caste systems we eliminated loose caste systems. Nobility was the solution to the all against all chaos that existed during the nomadic eras.

    On a final note, artificial immigration restrictions have been built up in response to the reduction of physical immigration barriers. Immigration to America has become easier over the last three hundred years, not harder.

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  29. Luis

    Nice piece. The argument-from-caste feels slightly more persuasive than the argument-from-aristocracy, though I can’t put my finger on why.

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  32. BBChatone

    How about cultural identity? If a very large number of people moves in, a society can become outnumbered in a way that threatens its culture, values, language, etc. Someone mentions the example of first nations in North America, who suffered a cultural genocide in the hands of European migrants. I am French Canadian, and our society is a small minority of French speakers on a mostly English and Spanish speaking continent. We have the space and are generally welcoming, but aren’t that numerous. If we can’t select migrants based on language and education, and restrict the number of newcomers to make for a smooth integration, we lose the capacity to engineer our society in a way that fits our values, identity and collective goals. Then there is nowhere on the planet where we can enjoy being parts of a majority who shares our culture, and feel truly at home. That is obviously a privilege, but doesn’t the right of societies to determine their identity count for something?

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