Douthat's Populist Nationalism

Grinding his Christian universalism under his nationalist heel, Ross Douthat breezily sets forth a multiply fallacious argument on the premise that there is no intellectual or moral difference between confiscatory redistribution and voluntary exchange when citizens of other countries are involved:

A slightly better way of putting what Matt is driving at, I think, is this: Large-scale immigration from Mexico to the United States is a form of de facto humanitarianism, and since Americans are generally leery of humanitarian spending (primarily because we overestimate the size of our existing foreign aid budget), liberal humanitarians have a vested interest in preserving the existing immigration system. It’s a rare issue where business interests line up on the side of raising the living standards of Third World peasants, and why mess with a good thing? Better, as Matt suggests, to go after the global elite in other arenas – like tax policy, say – where the business class’s preferred policies don’t have humanitarian externalities.

To which one might respond that there’s something slightly perverse about pursuing humanitarian ends through policies that lower the incomes of your poorest citizens and raise the incomes of your richest citizens. If I proposed a new AIDS-in-Africa initiative and advocated funding it through a regressive tax that included a tax credit for families making over $75,000, I doubt that many liberals would line up behind the proposal.

I’ll muster some charity and assume that Ross is simply confused here. But he really is badly confused.

It’s a rather profound error to characterize voluntary trade between American employers and Mexicans workers as equivalent to “humanitarian spending,” as if money tax revenue had been withdrawn from the Treasury and sent to Mexicans. There is indeed a pecuniary externality of Mexican workers in the American labor market — downward price pressure from competition — and this can indeed have an effect on the pattern of American incomes. But it is a pretty basic and embarrassing mistake to confuse (1) coercive state confiscation and reallocation of income with (2) changing patterns of income from voluntary exchange.

Perhaps Ross really does think that the U.S. government has taken money from the pockets of the producers of Oceans 13 by refusing to ban Pirates of the Carribean, but I think he’s smarter than that. Government tax policy requires justification. Distribution of tax revenue require justification. Exercising our rights doesn’t.

That Ross is liable see the issue in this weird, mistaken way does indicate that he thinks some sort of nationalism is the legitimate moral baseline. The liberal (in the broad sense) presumption of freedom, on the other hand, has it that unrestricted voluntary cooperation between human beings is the moral baseline. Deviations from this require special justification. Given the liberal baseline, labor market restrictions (that’s what we’re talking about here — whether to further restrict American labor markets), besides standing as a violation of the rights of both Americans and Mexicans to freely associate and trade with one another, amount to a transfer of income from Mexican workers and American consumers to some low-skilled American workers. In addition to the basic violation of liberty, this is a monstrously regressive transfer, harming Mexican workers much more than it helps low-skilled American workers.

But Ross seems to understand the situation in a way that, as far as I can tell, completely discounts the welfare gain to Mexicans, and conceives of the effects of millions of people exercising their human rights as requiring some kind of special justification. This makes sense only relative to a nationalist worldview where “humanitarian spending” is something benighted “liberal humanitarians” want to do and the actual welfare effects of this “spending” on foreigners is simply irrelevant to the moral calculus; all that matters is the effect of the policy on persons with valid U.S. passports. If the policy turns out to (on average) reduce the incomes of low-skilled U.S. workers and raise the incomes of  higher-skilled U.S. workers, then it’s evidently “perverse.” So if we have to placate uppity U.S. humanitarian liberals by throwing money at poor people somewhere, surely this isn’t the way we want to do it.

But what about Mexican workers and their families? Who cares! Wrong passport! What about the lost liberty of Americans to trade with Mexican workers on the labor market? Well, I guess we decide what liberties Americans have based on some undermotivated nation-level idea of just distribution. Why? Who knows!? (And who cares if it keeps Mexicans out?!) I don’t think Ross denies the fact that Mexican immigration on average makes Americans better off. So a merely utilitarian nationalism would have us accept even more immigrants. You could try to dress Ross’s view up as Rawlsian nationalism, demanding that a policy improve the lot of the least well-off Americans. But I think Ross’s argument really amounts to populist nationalism, appealing to populist class sentiments to help achieve a goal he wants anyway: a less Mexican America.  

Well, I understand that a certain kind of nationalism may well be the default baseline for a broad swathe of American public opinion, but that makes it no less repugnant from the perspective of both human liberty and human welfare. Democrats and then Republicans in the American South long succeeded in winning elections by drumming up racist majorities. (Integrating blacks fully into the labor market no doubt put downward pressure on low-skilled white wages, and I don’t doubt successful politicians brought this up.) But I don’t think this speaks well of our democracy.

This whole issue really turns on what we take to be the relevant moral baseline. I would very much like to see Ross defend what I see as his form of nationalism. From where I sit, there’s something more than “slightly perverse” about denying our human rights to freely cooperate and locking very poor people out of our labor markets so that relatively wealthy people whose grandparents got here first don’t have to take a paycut.

Inequality; Lant Pritchett is Awesome; the Injustice of Labor Market Restrictions

My new project for Cato is a paper on how to not get confused when you’re trying to think about inequality. In that context, today’s NYT Magazine focusing on inequality is pure catnip. There are, of course, completely infuriating passages, such as this one, in David Leonhardt’s profile of Larry Summers:

Summers’s favorite statistic these days is that, since 1979, the share of pretax income going to the top 1 percent of American households has risen by 7 percentage points, to 16 percent. Over the same span, the share of income going to the bottom 80 percent has fallen by 7 percentage points. It’s as if every household in that bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent.

WTF!? This had better be Leonhardt’s misinterpretion of something Summers is saying, and not Summers himself, since he certainly knows better. First, nation-states do not have incomes, people do. Second, because nation-states do not have incomes, the income of nation-states is not divided by anyone into “shares” that go to different segments of the population. Third, a change in the ratio of the incomes of wealthier households to the inomes of less wealthy households has a great deal to do with changes in the productivity of various forms of capital; changing inequality in income has something to do with changing inequality in production. Fourth, the “middle and lower deciles writing checks to the rich” analogy implies that there is some counterfactual set of circumstances under which “total national income” is the same, but in which the households in the bottom 80 percent of the distribution get that $7,000 and not the top 1 percent, and that this is the baseline against which we are to judge the current pattern of incomes. Mystifying.

Anyway, what I wanted to point to is the Jason DeParle profile of economist Lant Pritchett. Kerry introduced me to this guy a few months ago, and he has quickly become an intellectual hero. His book, Let Their People Come: Breaking the Deadlock on Global Labor Mobility, (which is FREE in pdf from CGD) ought to be considered required reading for intellectually serious people who care about ameliorating global poverty.  From DeParle’s outstanding profile:

The basics are simple: The rich world has lots of well-paying jobs and an aging population that cannot fill them. The poor world has desperate workers. But while goods and capital can easily cross borders, modern labor cannot. This strikes Pritchett as bad economics and worse social justice. He likens the limits on labor mobility to “apartheid on a global scale.” Think Desmond Tutu with equations.


Indeed, Pritchett attacks the primacy of nationality itself, treating it as an atavistic prejudice. Modern moral theory rejects discrimination based on other conditions of birth. If we do not bar people from jobs because they were born female, why bar them because they were born in Nepal? The name John Rawls appears on only a single page of “Let Their People Come,” but Pritchett is taking Rawlsian philosophy to new lengths. If a just social order, as Rawls theorized, is one we would embrace behind a “veil of ignorance” — without knowing what traits we possess — a world that uses the trait of nationality to exclude the neediest workers from the richest job markets is deeply unjust. (Rawls himself thought his theory did not apply across national borders.) Pritchett’s Harvard students rallied against all kinds of evils, he writes, but “I never heard the chants, ‘Hey, ho, restrictions on labor mobility have to go.’ ”

It seems to me that Pritchett in fact shows the massive tension between the nationalist assumptions of modern welfare-statist political philosophy (i.e., Rawls) and a theory of justice suitable to a global economy. If our normative framework is broadly contractualist, which I think it ought to be, and we conceive of society as a system of cooperation for mutual benefit, then the scope of the principles of justice is the scope of actual and potential cooperation. Labor market restrictions are rules that exclude persons from participating in certain institutions of market cooperation — institutions that greatly encourage the production of wealth. This kind of exclusion requires justification, not primarily because it generates inequality (which it does), but that it limits mutually beneficial interaction for both those inside and outside the political fence. The fact that citizens of a nation state democratically endorse this kind of exclusion simply establishes that citizen-centered (club membership-centered) democratic choice is unlikely to be a decent proxy for the principles of justice when the scope of cooperation is international. We would not accept a vote among the non-slave citizens of a slave society as settling the issue of  the justice of slavery. Similarly, we shouldn’t accept national democratic demand for labor-market exclusion as even roughly tracking the demands of justice.

Pritchett’s argument for a huge international guest-worker program seems to me massively more compelling than theories of global justice that basically endorse the present system of national entrapment and exclusion, and overlay it with the additional injustice of massive, forced redistribution. A good theory of global justice starts with the recognition that just societies don’t try to limit the scope of voluntary human cooperation.  

Hey, ho, restrictions on labor mobility have to go!   

Razib!? Not You, Too!

Razib is uncharacteristically confused:

a nation is not a market, a market is a sector of a nation. There is a large underclass in the United States which we lay off and replace with some industrious Mexicans, but that isn’t going to happen, you don’t lay off citizens, or export them. That’s a reality, so one of the major priorities (in my opinion) should be choking unskilled labor so that wages rise for that sector.

Well, here we go…

(1) Markets are not sectors of nations. I just looked at the tag on my shirt. It says “Made in the Philippines.” How did it get here!? Labor markets are geographically bounded only insofar as the market for services and flows of labor are geographically bounded. But services are increasingly international (call centers, data entry, etc.). And the question at hand is whether we ought to further restrict the free flow of labor across our borders: don’t beg it.  

(2) The largely black, urban American underclass is not an underclass because Mexicans are willing to accept low wages. It just isn’t.

(3) Who doesn’t lay off citizens? I’m not sure what is being said here. (Exporting? Huh?) If there is some claim here about a special obligation to enter into labor contracts with co-nationals, I’d like to hear an argument for it.

(4) As my last post argues, a nation is basically a geographically defined club that offers a number of services to its members, and that generally denies entry and membership to others on a completely morally indefensible basis.

I am glad that Razib (and Yglesias) are clear about their straightforward protectionism when it comes to labor. Of course, the argument for free trade in labor is exactly the same as the argument for free trade in anything else–even given morally backward America First assumptions. (And once we decide to consider the issue like decent human beings, and take into account the welfare of other human beings who just happen to have been born outside our public goods provision jurisdiction, the argument for free labor is so overwhelming you basically have to reject the idea of morality itself to deny its force.) Is there a compelling argument against free trade of which I am not yet aware? Even from the perspective of the U.S. national interest, we ought to abolish wage floors and allow U.S. employers to enter legally into labor contracts with anyone with the good sense to show up here.

In the same post, Razib says we need to batten the hatches to allow us to fully absorb the immigrants we have now. Is there any evidence that we are not successfully doing this already? Is there any evidence that we could not be doing this quite successfully if we doubled or tripled the rate of immigration? We can absorb many many more high wage and more low wage workers, and we should.

The good thing about the guest worker provision in the otherwise awful immigration bill is that it provides a stepping-stone to an EU-like American common labor market.  Here is Princeton’s Douglas Massey in the August 2006 Cato Unbound on Mexican immigration:

Rather than seeking to build a wall between our two countries, we should adopt the stance taken by the European Union when it integrated poor neighbors such as Spain and Portugal in the 1980s and Poland and Hungary today. Rather than seeking to block flows of people that naturally follow from trade and investment within a common market, we should work to make sure these movements occur under circumstances that are beneficial to all concerned, promoting growth in Mexico, minimizing costs to the United States, and protecting the rights of immigrant and native workers.

Right on.

Justifying the System of States

I like Richard Chappell’s way of putting the point I was trying to make about the allocation of citizenships:

… it’s not as though citizenship is some positive entity that we’re simply omitting to provide. A non-citizen is not lacking in any intrinsic capacity. What citizenship provides is permission — it simply serves to remove the obstructions we would otherwise place in their way. In other words, social resources are liberties, and arguably should be considered the natural ‘default’ or baseline position. Citizenship isn’t something we grant; it’s something we cease to deny.

However, I’m not sure the last claim can be right. I can’t see how citizenship can be a natural default. There are no states in nature.

Suppose there is a naturally occurring orchard that is no one’s property. If someone put a fence around the orchard, or divided it into multiple fenced parcels,  and sought to exclude others from the fruit, they would need a good justification. I think there can be a good justification, which is provided by David Schmidtz in his paper “The Institution of Property.” I think it can be tempting to see the world as a big commons, like the orchard, and the boundaries of nation states as parcels that fence in the commons. Actually, I think that’s exactly the way to think about it. Then, one might try to justify the system of nation states on analogy with the justification of property. But the justification of parceling off the commons is that often this is a necessary condition for leaving enough and as good  for others–otherwise, the fruit may just disappear forever. Unless we can assign certain rights to exclude, we get all consumption and no production. Soon enough, there is nothing left to consume, and people die or suffer from deprivation. There is more to consume if there is more produced, and since exclusion is a condition of production, people need a certain system of exclusion: property rights. Are states like that?

Mostly, no. Now, a certain system of norms and institutions can be may be extremely beneficial to the people living under them. If the integrity of that system requires exclusion, than it might be justified. I take it that this is what some conservatives have in mind when they argue that if the U.S. lets in too many Mexicans, the norms that undergird broadly beneficial American institutions will weaken to the general detriminent. So, the preservation of the conditions for mutually beneficial order within a certain geographical region may be a justification for exclusion — if only as a means of keeping the in-flow of persons well-regulated. There may be no justification for keeping someone out, period, but there may be justification for making them wait in line. How fast the line should move will be an empirical matter of the robustness of the mutually beneficial institutions inside the fence to new entrants with different characteristics.

But that kind of thinking doesn’t get us anywhere near the justification of the system of states. Why do we think we can justify the nation state, but must justify the system of property? Many, perhaps most, people are made worse off by the fact that they are both fenced inside the state where they were born, and fenced out of other states. If it doesn’t make most people better off, the system of states is hardly justified. In light of the fact that most people don’t benefit from the system of internal entrapment and external exclusion that characterizes the global system of states — a rather obvious fact when you think about it for a second — don’t we have to reconsider the previous argument for exclusion? 

If there is an ongoing positive-sum game inside the fence, which billions outside the fence would like to come inside and play, then what should we say to them? If additional players to the positive sum game reduces the payoffs to the incumbent players, then the incumbent players will not want to let anyone through the fence. But if the benefit to new players is greater than the loss to incumbent players, shouldn’t we take that into account? I grasp and agree with the idea that in-flow needs to be well-regulated to avoid the erosion of the institutions that make a place attractive in the first place. Yet the idea that we discount the potentional welfare gains to people outside the fence by bringing them inside simply because they are not already inside the fence strikes me as monstrously, stupefyingly immoral.

Take any plausible liberal theory of the moral legitimacy of the nation-state. It will turn out that all but a handful of  states fail even a fairly generous test of legitimacy. How, then, can successfully liberal states justify their complicity in an overall system that literally traps billions of people in poverty and injustice? I can’t see how the system of states can possibly be justified without some kind of mutual assurance of mobility and the kind of jurisdictional competition that creates. 

Anyway, back to the point about the allocation of citizenship… Citizenship is conceptually tied to the idea of a state. A state is like a club and your citizenship is like a membership. The problem is that the system of clubs has no justfication. The few morally decent clubs have no moral basis for not making more many more memberships available, and, insofar as they wield influence on  indecent clubs, are morally obliged to not  assist them in fencing their immiserated and oppressed people in, and may be obliged to assist citizens of illegitimate states (indecent clubs) in gaining membership to some decent club or other. 

Justice, Passport Lotteries, Liberal Population Sinks, etc.

Some embryonic thoughts on justice, citizenship, and the distribution of passports…

Political philosophers sometimes completely confuse justice for something else, like some kind of disposition of stuff among people. It’s confusing and confused when they talk about “distribution” because it evokes the idea that all this stuff is just out there and that the fundamental institutions and rules of game (the “basic structure”) somehow distribute the preexisting stuff in this way or that. If the distribution isn’t fair, then someone can just redistribute it until it is fair.

This is, of course, massively confused. The deep objection to this way of thinking is that different basic structures don’t so much determine how stuff is distributed, but determine whether or not there is stuff at all, and how much. You don’t need to justify to anyone why they have less than someone else; you have to justify to them why they have less than their counterpart in some feasible, alternative set of institutions. Because wealth is created and not just moved around, and more wealth is created under certain institutional schemes than others, the question isn’t so much one of distribution as production or creation. The question of whether people live under institutions in which they can realize their capacities and reliably acquire the necessary means to successfully enact their life-plans is mainly a question of what might be called productive justice.  One of the things a morally legitimate government ensures are the institutions of production that make the achievement of good lives possible and even probable. People are owed such institutions — they have ’em coming — in virtue of being people.

Maddeningly, most people on Earth don’t have these institutions — the institutions of liberal capitalism. This isn’t primarily the fault of the rich people who do have them; it is a pathetically common form of intellectual deformation to think other people are poor because we are rich. It is primarily the fault of political elites who control poor countries for failing to set up and secure the institutions of productive justice. One thing the citizens of rich countries owe the world’s poor people is to not give money to the corrupt elites that rule them.

Anyway, corrupt rulers aside, what the world’s less fortunate most need isn’t a chunk of our wealth, but the capacity to produce their own. There are two ways to achieve this. First, install liberal capitalism where the people are. Second, let the people come to where liberal capitalism is.

Strangely, there appears to be next to nothing in the mainstream political philosophy literature (though maybe I’m missing something), that drives home the arbitrary distribution of citizenship. It’s funny, because citizenship, unlike wealth, can be created out of thin air, and is distributed according to a few largely arbitrary principles.

So here’s my idea. Individuals and families in countries below a certain threshold of average wealth can register at the Embassies of, say, OECD countries to take part in a citizenship lottery. Each of the participating countries pledges to create a certain number of new citizenships (say 1/2 percent of their current population per year — in the U.S. that would be 1.5 million). The lottery randomly picks individual/families and randomly assigns them to passports. You don’t have to move anywhere. You’re now just a family of Zimbabweans who are also Dutch citizens. Now, I don’t think this is politically feasible, but it makes more sense than Pogge’s “global resources dividend,” which completely misunderstands the nature of the problem.

Another possibility: coalitions of successful liberal capitalist countries simply buy huge chunks of territory from illiberal leaders, and start new countries in each major geographic region. Current residents get double citizenship, and all property claims are formalized. Set up liberal institutions through a kind of multilateral colonial rule.  Start handing out a regulated flow of passports to people from around the region, which can ramp up in numbers as the economic institutions are entrenched, and democratic institutions are developed. The idea is to both secure rights and justice for people who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy them, while at the same time creating regional population drain in a way that stimulates jurisdictional competition, increasing the probability that nearby nations will finally get around to implementing the institutions of justice.

Less dramatically, we should plump for ever-broadening common regional labor markets that allow people to cross borders to work in nations with better institutions and opportunities than they have in their home countries.

Why isn’t there more discussion and development of ideas like these? Could be that they’re idiotic ideas. But my guess is that if you’re obsessed with the idea that justice primarily concerns the disposition of material holdings among everyone who happens to have a passport issued by the same jurisdictional public goods provider (Basic Income Grants now!), then you’re not going to welcome the added complexity that comes from justifying not giving passports to people who would benefit massively from them. Or something like that…

Anyway, the general question: If handing out new passports doesn’t cost those of us who already have them anything (on average), then shouldn’t we, as a matter of justice, give out as many as we can until it does cost us? Shouldn’t we think a lot harder about where that limit is?