A Matter of Justice

Typically excellent stuff from Tim Lee:

I think a far more effective approach [than cost-benefit analysis] is to use what is probably the most powerful weapon in American politics: our now deeply-rooted and emotional commitment to the principle of equality before the law. Over the last 50 years, American society has undergone wrenching transformations that moved us toward equality for Catholics, blacks, Jews, women, gays and lesbian, and other traditionally disfavored groups. We achieved these reforms not by emphasizing how reform would benefit straight white men, or by building complex models of how oppression depressed GDP, but by focusing on the cruelty of the status quo and appealing to America’s founding ideals. We’ve now reached the point where opponents of equality for blacks or Jews are not only in the minority, but are among the most despised people in society.

I think the same strategy needs to be employed on behalf of immigration reform. The problem with our immigration laws is not primarily that they are economically inefficient (Jim Crow wasn’t efficient either). The problem is that they deny civil rights to millions of hard-working individuals based on a factor over which they have no control: their place of birth. I’m sure Dixon and Rimmer mean well, but their narrow focus on the costs and benefits of immigration to American households not only ignores powerful arguments about justice, it actually undercuts them by accepting the premise that we’re justified in ignoring the welfare of the millions of people who are in such deep poverty that they’re willing to risk their lives for the privilege of picking our strawberries and scrubbing our toilets.

Preach it brother. Showing that increased immigration tends to benefit natives reduces resistance on the margin, which is worth doing. But, in my experience, laying out clearly the immense benefits to the immigrants is extremely powerful. It highlights the needless misery caused by the heartless status quo. Even then, it is more powerful still to illustrate clearly how the status-quo system of borders, passports, visas, and citizenships systematically violates basic human rights to free movement and association.

Here is a border patrol officer doing his job:

Border Patrol Agent shoots Illegal Alien

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

38 thoughts

  1. I definitely agree with both you and Tim on immigration, but I wonder if the (stupid) idea that people from different countries are “different” makes the moral argument for immigration break down, not necessarily in reality, but in the minds of many people. Whereas they were able to be convinced of the morality of helping past minorities because they were Americans, the fact that immigrants are people from different countries might be muting their concern for them.Anyway, not disagreeing in any way, since you've talked about the silliness of national boundaries in this context. It still confuses me that this would be an issue in the US, where the majority were immigrants at one point.

  2. I think Lee gets on shaky ground here when he says the problem with our current immigration system is a civil rights issue. To the extent to which illegal immigrants are “punished” they are due to actions taken entirely of their own volition with full knowledge of the consequences. Now perhaps one could say they are victims of dysfunctional systems in their country of origin but I hardly see how that becomes a civil rights issue in this country simply by virtue of them stepping over our borders.

  3. Wow, that was a really good example of what I was trying to say: that some silly people believe that civil rights are things Americans have, but not those from other countries. I think a decent retort might be: we don't beat up tourists (or illegal immigrants) because we believe that they have certain rights. So we shouldn't deny them other rights they should have, like freedom of employment or contract.

  4. decklap, would you also agree with the following?”When people were sprayed with fire hoses and thrown in jail for attempting to assert their civil rights, they were “punished” due to actions taken entirely of their own volition with full knowledge of the consequences. Now perhaps one could say they are victims of dysfunctional systems in their states of origin but I hardly see how that becomes a civil rights issue elsewhere in the United States.”The problem with our current immigration system is a human rights issue, just as civil rights were/are a human rights issue. The fact that the law in the United States today wrongfully denies those human rights is irrelevant to the rightness of their cause.

  5. Today's major beef with illegal immigrants is “national security”. It is believed that border security is one of the key elements in preventing foreign terrorists from gaining a foothold on American soil. Overcoming this view, if it is indeed misguided, will be the biggest hurdle to liberalizing immigration.Citing examples of domestic terrorists and Islamic terrorists who have legal immigrant status does not seem to be convincing that border security and draconian immigration laws are not effective in combating terrorism. This is such an emotional issue that I'm not sure exponents of immigration-law-as-national-security can be reasoned with.

  6. I think Amy (and Tim or Will) would be glad to substitute “human” for “civil” in all of the contexts here, and still maintain that Jim Crow and immigration restrictions violate them.

  7. Human rights are natural rights that would exist even in states of total anarchy. Civil rights are matters that exist strictly between a citizen and the government in question and while they may overlap you need to think much more deeply about the implications of considering the two concepts completely interchangeable. It will lead you into corners Im willing to bet you'd rather not occupy.The argument Tim-Will et al are making is one that denies the inhabitants of a sovereign state any ability whatsoever to make structural decisions about how the resources and benefits of that state are to be used and this is too silly to consider. In the same way that my human right of free movement doesn't extend itself to your car immigrants who knowingly come here illegally have exactly zero reason to expect open access to the benefits of our society. Some things simply belong to the people who made them and while you may want to make an argument against property rights I can predict with absolute certainty that this approach will do nothing to move the immigration debate forward.

  8. The territory of a nation-state is not the collective property its citizens. Dividing the commons into parcels of private property requires justification. The justification is that dividing the commons leaves everyone better off than they would otherwise be. The system of territorial nation-states is not like that. It does not work to the mutual benefit of the relevant parties.Since you don't care so little about the rights and welfare of foreigners, consider that U.S. immgration restrictions violate American citizens' rights to property and free association. For example, it is illegal for me to employ a Honduran citizen on mutually agreeable terms on my private property.

  9. I'm not saying they're same thing, just saying that if you think “human rights” better defines what Tim is getting at, then that's fine.I'm certainly not arguing against property rights either — like Will's point in reply to this, I think property rights are a great argument on behalf of widening immigration: I should be able to rent my apartment to anyone (American or immigrant) and I should be able to give them my money in exchange for services.You're talking about things that the state owns, so outline to us which of those things you think that immigrants coming here uses up. Sure, they're enjoying the benefits of things like our national defense, our liberal culture, but can we actually deny them that? Or is the quality of it decreased by them enjoying it? But really, they want access to our job market, and that is not a resource of the state. That is solely a resource of the person paying them.

  10. “The territory of a nation-state is not the collective property its citizens.”Well then Will…. it doesn't exist. This I think this is the knife edge your argument dances on. Either we have common interests AND the right to protect and define who has access to them or we do not and I while I find much of what you're saying to be compelling you do a fair amount of fudging on this point, my guess is because it puts you ultimately in a position you'd rather not be in.As a practical matter however when weighed against the totally of pros and cons I really don't think the assertion that your inability to hire a Honduran to mow your lawn really constitutes a serious restriction of your right to free association.That's a reach. Charitably.

  11. A nation-state's territory defines the jurisdiction of the government of the state. To have jurisdiction is not to have ownership. That's why the state does not own my house, even though my house is in it's jurisdiction

  12. Hmmm… you're dodging this one Will. The territory of a nation-state defines the boundary in which a citizen can reasonably expect to assert his or her rights under the rule of law. Now, you're fudging with this jurisdiction/ownership matter. My county circuit court clearly has legal jurisdiction over me if my behavior warrants their attention but they do not have ownership over me. The one does not argue against the other.In that same way the collective interests of a citizenry confers upon them the ability to make decisions in what they perceive to be their best interests relative to their borders and other issues. If you believe otherwise then it seems reasonable to assume that ultimately you don't believe in citizens or nations but Im not getting the sense you want to go there.

  13. Citizenship of a country, and permanent residency in it, are club goods. Members have every right to set rules of entry. No one has the “in alienable right” to be a resident. X billion humans do not, all and each, have the right to join the US club.In terms of the rights of illegal immigrants, the only operable rights are those granted by the American Constitution. We may all have views about what rights people should have, or which rights should be respected, but it is the American Constitution which counts here.The only way general voters have any say in the matter is if the laws passed by their elected representatives matter. This is central to all the fuss about illegal immigration: most voters understand that the argument is all about either denying them a say or insisting that they should have one that matters.Mass immigration is against the interests of resident workers, since it puts downward pressure on wages and increases crowding costs. Robert Fogel documents this well in his Without Consent or Contract. It tends to be in the interests of those whose income mainly comes from various forms of capital, since it makes their income source relatively more scarce. It also matters what the (actual) selection processes are for new residents and how well local processes manage. (For example, the US has far less problems with its Muslim population than does Europe for both those reasons, though there is an argument total percentages also matter.)Yes, US immigration policy is a disfunctional mess. But lots of Americans have entirely rational reasons to be wary of mass immigration and turning illegal immigration into a non-issue.(I speak as the happy citizen and resident of a country with a much higher percentage of foreign born population than the US and greatly enjoying living in a high immigrant area.)

  14. Or, we could spend some time advocating for limits to capital mobility so that Ricardo's comparative advantage would actually, y'know, apply to international trade. We could thereby improve the lot of less fortunate people abroad without requiring that they sever their familial/cultural ties to the region of their birth while at the same time defusing some of the political/social pressures that fuel anti-immigration sentiment here at home.But it's also terribly important for hot money financiers to jerk the chains of whatever poor countries strike their fancy, and for Will to hire a Honduran to mow his yard, and for him to decry the hypocrisy of dirty hippies, so, whatevs…

  15. Will, I appreciate your commitment to the decent treatment of human beings, but by trying to put this under the umbrella of civil rights, you are treading onto legal ground and your argument does not hold up there. I originally wrote a longer comment, but it boils down to …what decklap said.

  16. I am saying that people have rights, in virtue of being people, and among them are rights of movement and association. A person's physical location has no bearing on what moral rights he or she has, or whether others are under an obligation to heed them. Rights may be limited or curtailed for sufficiently good reason. That a sufficiently large number of people want to curtail them is not a sufficiently good reason. Suppose a majority of bigots, thinking it in their collective interest, votes to limit the rights of an ethnic minority, does that fact bear on the justification of the policy? No. Likewise, if a majority of citizens, thinking it in their collective interest, votes to limit or deny the rights of non-citizens, that fact does little to justify the policy. If you believe otherwise, then it seems reasonable to assume that ultimately you don't believe that human have rights, but I'm not getting the sense that you want to go there.Whatever justice is, it's not the will of the stronger.

  17. Many lower-class Southern whites had rational reasons to be wary of ending Jim Crow. Would you have considered that a good argument for maintaining state-enforced apartheid?

  18. Jen, I didn't say, and I don't think Tim meant to imply, that the issue falls under American civil rights legislation and jurisprudence.

  19. I don't know how you can say that it is a civil rights issue but that it doesn't fall under American civil rights legislation and jurisprudence. Unless, of course, you are talking about people immigrating to a country other than the U.S.Civil rights are, by definition, rights that are (or should be) granted to an individual by virtue of their citizenship. That is why this is completely distinguishable from Jim Crow, gay rights, and other situations where US citizens were/are treated differently based on an attribute other than citizenship.Once you make citizenship the attribute that you argue should not be a basis for treating people differently, then you are outside the scope of civil rights and more into human rights.Also, the term “freedom of association,” is commonly used in the context of US constitutional law. Nevertheless, you don't have a constitutional right to hire a person not legally authorized to work in this country. If you're talking about some other freedom of association, then you might want to make that clear.

  20. I think you're right that “civil rights” is needlessly confusing in this context, though there is a perfectly conventional sense of “civil right” that applies to rights one has against the government in virtue of being in its jurisdiction. There's a whole raft of Constitutional rights that apply to citizens and non-citizens alike simply in virtue of being a person under American jurisdiction. Civil rights advocacy groups aren't making a mistake about language when they invest time and money opposing the outrageous abuses of the basic rights of non-citizens in government detention centers. Anyway, I mean to be talking about human rights generally. When I say there is a right to free association, I mean that people are morally entitled to associate with other people on mutually agreeable terms, and others parties are under a moral obligation not to interfere. I'm a philosopher, not a lawyer, so when I talk about rights, I'm generally talking about the moral entitlements and obligations that a morally satisfactory set of laws will recognize and protect, not the actual laws.

  21. Yes, aliens unlawfully present do have certain rights by virtue of their presence, but they are not “equal before the law” as Lee suggests they should be. It's the job of lawyers to be focused on what the law is, and it can sometimes be difficult to get into the academic exercise of what some think the law should be when the same terminology is thrown around in the present tense.Thanks for clarifying the civil rights/human rights thing.

  22. There is no right that is so absolute that it comes with no responsibility on those asserting it. As the locks on your doors and windows attest there are perfectly legitimate reasons to limit the range of both movement and association and the same holds true for borders. Social resources are not infinite and it hardly makes for a “majority of bigots” to express a concern for how those resources are to be best managed and to what extent if any they are to be available to people who are not part of the given society in question.This could not be more self evident in my opinion.Your suspicion of collective interests seems merely reflexive and the examples you provide ( Jim Crow, “majority of bigots”) in arguing against its expression seem overly broad and reactionary. I get that you don't acknowledge the legitimacy of collective interests in this case but Im frankly not hearing you assert a positive basis for your position.

  23. Sigh:One aspect of high levels of immigration being in the interests of the possessors of various forms of capital is that includes disproportionate power to control the terms of the debate. Hence the endemic characterisation of opposing positions as racist, quasi-racist, soft on racism or whatever the relevant “boo” words are.Equal protection of the law for citizens is a value we can all happily agree on. That people have legitimate and illegitimate concerns, legitimate and illegitimate interests ditto. Keeping Jim Crow was not a legitimate interest or concern.But the notion that a country, such as the US is just a bunch of citizens on a piece of territory is deeply silly. The US is a polity, with all that implies. Including keeping the thing functioning, taking on obligations of mutual defense, etc. The libertarian notion that it is outrageous the US worry about defending folk elsewhere but they all have the right to move to the US and be defended in the US, that there is no issue about the rate that newcomers can be absorbed successfully into the polity, etc is using narrow theory to overwhelm broad sense.And yes, a low income worker has every right to worry about what is being denied him or her, and what costs are being imposed on him or her, by whatever public policy is adopted. Including whatever immigration policy. Having a say is actually really important.

  24. Suspicion of collective interests in this case is based in the suspicion that either (a) though they participate in shared institutions, a collective including people in Maine and Arizona lacks the kind of cohesion needed to have the relevant common interests or (b) if people in Maine and Arizona are part of a collective with common interests in the relevant sense, then people in Monterrey, Manitoba, and Maine are also part of a collective in the same sense. Societies aren't bounded by national borders. I argued that democratic sovereignty over national territory is not analogous to an individual or firms ownership of property here:http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2007/06/… Other thoughts about that here:http://www.willwilkinson.net/flybottle/2009/02/

  25. Nice. Shall I respond with “libertarianism is crap political philosophy” and a link to wikipedia's home page? Rather than my reading 150 pages of PDFs with no table of contents or index, how 'bout you boil it down for me? Or at least give me a page number or relevant chapter. Because a cursory glance at your “rebuttal” doesn't reveal any discussion of capital mobility whatsoever. Immigration liberalization is all well and good (I'm a big fan, actually), but there's no reason to think that it's the best way to alleviate global poverty.But it is refreshing to hear a self-styled classical liberal call comparative advantage junk economics.

  26. decklap – Fine, so what responsibilities would those wanting to enter the US legally have to shoulder in order to be allowed to the right of residence, and thereby the ordinary civic rights that go with it? I appreciate that the rights that go with citizenship are another thing again, but the rights we're talking about here – the right not to be arbitrarily detained, the right to retain your earnings and worldly goods, the right not to be shot on sight, the right not to be deported away from your family and friends – are quite ordinary things, not very onerous. I say this as a legal immigrant to the US who is very happy to be allowed to live here, but well aware of the facts that the grounds on which it is allowed (special abilties, since you ask) are frankly spurious. The guy who mows my lawn has skills that are valuable to far more people that mine are. Mine just have higher social status. The whole thing is shameful.

  27. simonkinahan,First of all let me say that I currently sponsor a newly legal immigrant from a Muslim country yet and Im quite proud to do it. To that end I've become much more familiar with the inefficiencies in our current immigration system than I'd like to be and as such we would probably agree on any number of specific immigration reforms. But Will isn't talking about reforms, he's asserting, albeit stealthily, that national borders are inherently illegitimate viz-a-viz individual rights and that citizens of a given country have no standing to manage immigration regardless of how sound their policies may be. Now I disagree with that on the merits but beyond that the idea that this approach is going to move immigration reform towards a new and benighted day is stunningly shortsighted.

  28. The coffee cooler argument that I can't seem to overcome here at work is the idea that illegal immigrants are “breaking the law”. People will cede that they live in dire straits, but because the “broke the law” and are “criminals”, they should be punished. Until the law is changed, so say my co-workers, they shouldn't come here. I've appealed to the more open immigration of the past, the fact that they are obviously filling jobs, to no avail. It's just my office that I'm drawing this biased sample from, but the idea that a law is being broken is what I hear more than loss of jobs, national security, etc.

  29. I don't think it will work. Mostly because look at how much support torture enjoys. Torture.Excluding and hurting brown people (and most of the fear is brown i.e. Hispanic or Arab or S. Asian) is going to be a feature not a bug to a bigger number of people than you think.

  30. There are approaching 7 billion people in the world, with, at last count, 5,043,000,000 living in countries where the average income is lower than Mexico's. To get some sense of the implications of that: Two recent surveys in Mexico (population 109,000,000) found that over 40% would move to America if it were legal.Where are you going to put them when they get here?

  31. Let's see Steve. Let's round up and call 40% of 109 million 45 million. The population of the United States was 226 million in 1980 and 304 million now. That's over 70 million more people! Where did we put them?!

  32. On the topic of the original post: is this comment thread evidence pro or con for the claim that ditching cost/benefit analysis for moralizing is the right rhetorical move in the immigration debate?Also, I think Tim misreads the evidence at least in respect to gay rights. My recollection is that support for gay marriage, for example, goes down when gay folks go the courts to plead for their rights (or at least when people hear about such cases).

  33. If you were keeping your hypothetical Honduran exclusively on your own property, you might have a point. However, I strongly doubt that is your intention.Try this one on for size: my family and I have decided we'd like to have a Bengal tiger. No one should have the right to tell us whether or not we should be able to keep a tiger on our private property.One small thing: as we are very busy, my family and I will be keeping the tiger on our property between the hours of 9:00 to 5:00, Monday through Friday. The remainder of the time, the tiger will be allowed to roam through the city, where everyone else can enjoy it. Or not.

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