Saturday, November 2, 2013

The bleeding heart's dilemma

In a recent "Intelligence Squared" debate, Bryan Caplan gave his classic argument in defense of the statement, "Let anyone take a job anywhere." You can read his opening statement here. If you know Caplan, you know the moral force his argument has: immigration restrictions are violent means by which people in rich countries prevent people in poor countries from reaching their potential and bettering their own existence. If you believe that all the people of the world have equal moral value, then there simply is no moral defense of this practice.

Where, then, is the conflict, particularly from someone on the left? Someone on the right, after all, can claim unapologetically to be a nationalist, to think that by virtue of where he is born he is indeed entitled to certain priviliges, and perhaps even to think that his culture is inherently superior to and must be protected from others. People on the left would (rightly) think this view is awful. None of these things can justify immigration restrictions for a liberal.

There are two things that I noted in the arguments of the opposition, particularly coming from Kathleen Newland, as well as from the audience's questions. One is a subtle tribalism, which creeps in without ever being named. Whereas some might be openly nationalist, there is a different form of tribalism which protests, "We haven't done enough to take care of our own, how can we possibly take in others?" The underlying assumption is that merely coming to work in the U.S. would be impossible; you must also join our system, depend on our government benefits, receive our public education, and so on.

The second is a not so subtle nationalism. Newland is so frank as to say that part of a government's job is to be biased in favor of its own people. In other words, egalitarianism be damned--nation states are more important than human rights. I could be wrong, but I rather thought Newland was coming from a point of view typical on the left, namely that the role of the state is to embody the will of the people. And therein lies the dilemma--the will of the people is really quite often in conflict with the idea of human equality.

Caplan calls his position basic human decency. I think that's unfair, but only because our instincts are so biased against decency. His "basic human decency" is actually a moral tradition built up over thousands of years of civilization--but that's competing against hundreds of thousands of years of tribal existence, in which loyalty to the tribe was essential for survival. The concept that everyone within the tribe is equal may come naturally to a lot of us, but the concept that all humans are equal is still as radical an idea today as it ever was.

But the left claims to champion this idea. The only problem is that it can't champion the equality of all human beings and the sacredness of nation states at the same time. Either anyone should be allowed to take a job anywhere, or not. Let's just be honest about why the left could not bear to allow this: then they would actually have to see the poor. And it would be the truly poor, not just the statistical bottom 10% in a wealthy, developed nation. It would be the truly poor from all over the world coming into this rich, blessed nation with the hope of making a better a life for themselves. The sight of them all would simply be too unbearable. It is better to force them to suffer at home than to come here and make us feel guilty for not having the resources to take care of them all.

In other words, it's paternalism or bust. The best we can do for the rest of the world is develop those other nation states (whose very existence was in many cases forced by the West) so that they can support the population living there with services which meet Western standards. If those nation states won't listen and won't reform, then shame on them. And too bad for the poor, who continue to toil for $1 a day.

The fact is, Caplan is really asking us to stretch our morals to their limits. The prospect of witnessing a flood of foreigners is instinctively horrifying, not always because of the fear of what is different, but rather because of the sorrow of seeing others who are so much less well off. Do we really want to live in a country with millions and millions of the world's poor, working on wages we find obscenely low, even if it means they have a chance of earning more than they could ever dream in their homeland? It is, after all, our own country.

My contention is that the left ought to give up this "paternalism or bust" attitude. It is far too convenient to insist that others ought to change their government, and then everyone would be fine. The truth is, we have no moral reason to keep people out, only excuses which come from our instincts. If we really believe in human rights, we should also accept the right of people to start from much less than what we have and work their way up--even if that means doing so in our own neighborhood. And that might mean a lot of sad things. It might mean watching people stumble and fall. It might mean watching people live without all thoese benefits we take for granted. It might mean watching people struggle with basic things like language and literacy. And it would all be right there for us to see with our own eyes.

Of course, poverty exists already in the U.S., as it does in all countries. The reaction that the left expressly desires to cultivate against poverty is one of anger and revulsion. We should not tolerate poverty. I find it bizarrely sickening to think that this revulsion at the sight of poverty could be a reason to lock more people in it.

I'm picking on the left wing here because of their tendency to think of themselves as moral guides on this issue. They're for immigration reform, certainly. They believe we should naturalize all the undocumented Americans who have been in the country living as productive members of society for years. They believe they are being sensible in all of that. But they are unwilling to accept the ultimate conclusion of their humanist principles, which is that there is simply no excuse for any restrictions on who can immigrate to the U.S. in the first place.


  1. So you're saying we owe no more to our own children than some random person halfway around the world? Nonsensical. Sure, moral responsibility to another human never completely evaporates but I know that my family, community and nation come before a distant stranger in another country. The only way every person would view others as 100% equal would be if we were robots or living in a vacuum. I'm sure you feel very morally superior with this viewpoint, but it just lacks all common sense. Thanks.

    1. It's amazing how people can consider a nation such as the United States to be somehow a close relationship, resembling that of a family. Keep in mind, you're talking about millions and millions of people, whom you will never know personally or have any more than an incidental relationship.

      The only thing you owe to 100% of human beings is pretty basic: leave them be. Live and let live. That's hardly asking the same sorts of sacrifice required to live in a family. Rethink the categories you're working with. Your "common sense" is a lot more misleading than you think.


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