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

Arnold Kling on Freedom as Exit

Arnold Kling riffs off my post on charter cities, in particular my mention of the possibility that illiberal regimes might have free-ish markets while granting their subjects little “real freedom.” Arnold asks:

[W]hat is this “real freedom” of which you speak?

Consider the following definition of freedom: the absence of monopoly.

The absence of monopoly means that you can exercise exit, even if you cannot exercise voice. The presence of monopoly means that, at most, you can exercise voice.

Neither my local supermarket nor any of its suppliers has a way for me to exercise voice. They don’t hold elections. They don’t have town-hall meetings where they explain their plans for what will be in the store. By democratic standards, I am powerless in the supermarket.

And yet, I feel much freer in the supermarket than I do with respect to my county, state, or federal government. For each item in the supermarket, I can choose whether to put it into my cart and pay for it or leave it on the shelf. I can walk out of the supermarket at any time and go to a competing grocery.

The exercise of voice, including the right to vote, is not the ultimate expression of freedom. Rather, it is the last refuge of those who suffer under a monopoly. If we take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly, then perhaps I will have more influence over that monopoly if I have a right to vote and a right to organize opposition than if I do not. However, as my forthcoming Unchecked and Unbalanced argues, the reality is that the amount of influence I have is shrinking while the scope of the monopolist is growing.

I think there’s a lot that’s on the right track here, but also a good deal of confusion.

“Absence of monopoly” is an attractive definition of freedom only to an anarchist who insists on begging the big questions. A world in which I am bullied and coerced by lots of different people may be a world without monopoly, but that’s not a world of freedom. And Arnold is wrong that “the absence of monopoly means that you can exercise exit.” Suppose you’re in an anarchocapitalist world (a world in which we do not “take it as given that the political jurisdiction where I reside is a monopoly.”) You live in a house on a piece of property boxed in on all sides by other pieces of property. Each owner of an adjacent property has credibly committed to shooting you if you trespass on her land. There is no collusion between property-owners. They’re just independently jealous of their property rights. Here you have a situation where there is an absence of monopoly and an inability to exercise exit.

Perhaps you’ll say, “Why can’t you cut a deal with with one of the property owners?” Good question. But negotiation is voice, not exit.

Exercising the right to vote may not be the “ultimate” expression of freedom, but it is an expression of freedom. And the exercise of voice more generally is an ultimate expression of freedom if anything is, isn’t it? One thing you might want to do with your freedom is to say your piece. In fact, saying your piece is almost certainly something you’ll want to do with your freedom. People need each other. The main instrument of human survival and flourishing is social cooperation. Cooperation requires negotiation, the exchange of reasons, voice.

Of course, exit is also an ultimate expression of freedom. One thing you might want to do with your freedom is walk away. And threatening to walk away can be a powerfully effective exercise of voice. But you’re not going to profit much from life in society if all you ever do is walk away. Sometimes you can’t walk away, even if you want to, and even if there is no monopoly. Sometimes you’re boxed in by other people’s property or other people’s unwelcoming attitudes. Sometimes you’ve got to ask permission, win an argument, or cut a deal. That’s voice.

I think it’s hugely important to promote greater awareness and activism on behalf of the human rights to free movement and association, which entail the right to exit political jurisdictions. One way to tell if a country is minimally free is to ask whether its residents are free to emigrate — free to walk away. If an illiberal state allows a charter city, and allows some of its citizens to move there, that’s great. The added option, for those who get it, may represent a real gain in freedom. But I think Arnold and I would agree that even if some people are granted permission to move to a semi-independent charter city within their country’s boundaries, if they don’t have a right to walk away from their country altogether, then they don’t have “real freedom.” And I would also say, though perhaps Arnold would not, that citizens of a state do not have “real freedom” if they are denied the right to voice their opinion about the laws, or are denied the right to have some formal role in shaping the system in which they live their lives.

I’ve noticed that Arnold complains a lot about Montgomery Country, MD, but as far as I know hasn’t moved. What’s more, the U.S. won’t keep him from leaving, and there are many other political jurisdictions that would receive him. We could say that Wal-Mart has a monopoly on the land Wal-Mart sits on. But if Arnold is free to leave Wal-Mart and head to Target (which is the monopolist of its own little plot) neither has a monopoly in the relevant sense. Well, Arnold is free to leave Montgomery County for a different county. He is free to leave the U.S. for a different country. But he doesn’t do it. Isn’t this like complaining about Wal-Mart but refusing to walk away and shop somewhere else? What is he asking for? A Target inside Wal-Mart? The benefit of more choices without the bother of going anywhere to get them? Maybe Arnold is already sure that things are no better in other jurisdictions. But if there are 100 movie companies and none make movies that I like, does it it make sense to complain using the language of monopoly?

Should Freedom-Loving Americans Fear the Mexican Voter?

At Distributed Republic, Curunir cites this study by Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal finding that immigrants’ preferences for redistribution tend to be predicted by the average views in their country of origin. They also find a similar but weaker effect on the children of immigrants. Curunir writes:

Now, there are several possible reactions one could take to this finding, assuming it holds up, which is always tricky in social sciences. One is to find that the net benefit of immigration for libertarians is still positive. Another is that free movement of people is simply a basic civil right, consequences be damned (I’m not wholly unsympathetic to this view). A third would be to blame this entire problem in the existence of the state, which strikes me as true but irrelevant (since anarchy isn’t coming any time soon, I fail to see why we shouldn’t consider how our policies on immigration will effect the world as it currently is).

But what is unacceptable is to just sweep aside concerns over the cultural and political effects of immigration as simple racism. What this study shows us is that it really does matter who constitutes the voting public, and that immigration could easily change the beliefs of the people in ways libertarians will find discomforting.

I think there’s some confusion in this response.

First, it is wrong to take a preference for redistribution to say much about liberty at all–even economic liberty. Take the example of Denmark, which has the lowest level of income inequality in the world due to a population with a strong taste for redistibution. But, setting tax rates and government as a percentage of GDP aside, Denmark has a higher level of economic freedom than any country in the world. And the latest Heritage index puts Denmark at 8th in economic freedom, with no really meaningful difference from the U.S’s 6th or Canada’s 7th.

Of course, nobody in the U.S. is worried about the electoral effect of Danish immigrants. The immigration debate in the U.S. is almost entirely about Mexicans. And I think it’s better to not talk in code about abstract foreigners and just face up to the fact that we’re talking about people from the much poorer country along the United States’ southern border. It is both clarifying and refreshing to talk about the real subject at hand. So what do Mexicans think about redistribution?

Take a look at the World Values Survey. On a 1-10 scale going from “Incomes should be made more equal” to “We need larger income differences as incentives,”  Mexicans average 6.1, the same as Americans. However, Mexican answers tend to cluster toward the ends of the scale, in every income group, while American answers tend to cluster toward the middle, in every income group but the richest (of which there is a very small sample). A larger proportion of poor Mexicans strongly believe there ought to be more inequality than poor Americans. Also, a larger proportion of poor Mexicans strongly believe incomes should be made more equal. On average, poor Mexicans are more pro-redistribution than poor Americans, but less pro-redistribution than poor Canadians. Canadians in general are rather more pro-redistrubution than Americans, but Canada has the same level of economic freedom as the U.S. and arguably more freedom overall. There is, as far as I can tell, little reason to think a large influx of Mexican voters would much change the American median voter’s preference for redistribution, which is not in any case a good proxy for a preference for freedom.

But this is all to take for granted Curunir’s sadly common confusion between residency and citizenship. It is almost impossible for a low-skilled Mexican to work legally in the U.S. without family ties. There is so much family chain migration and so many “border babies” because that’s what it takes to get access to U.S. labor markets.  If we finished the work of Nafta and unified North American labor markets, there would be very little reason to worry about the electoral effects of Mexican immigration, since most Mexicans who come to the U.S. come to work, not to vote, or become American citizens. Labor migration and citizenship are separate issues. If Curunir’s worry about diluting the electorate’s taste for freedom had force, it would apply to the question of the distribution of citizenships, not the question of openness to foreign workers.


If you can help with this important study (conducted by Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development) please do: 


A major academic study seeks volunteers to help document how US limits on skilled-worker visas affect the careers of foreign students and workers like you.

The supply of H-1B visas is so limited that many applicants will be rejected by the luck of the draw.  This study, run by a Washington DC research institute, will track what happens to the careers of those who are rejected and those who are accepted, by asking you to complete two brief and confidential online questionnaires.

The visa lottery begins soon, so visit the study’s website today to learn more:

The goverment literally distributes visas, so if this isn’t an issue of distributive justice, then it’s hard to know what is.  The way the government goes about this I’m guessing has a pretty dramatic effect on th lives of people granted and denied those visas. It would be great to know what the effect really is.

Powerpoint for Peter Singer

Hey, utilitarians! This presentation by Lant Pritchett explains what you’re morally obligated to fight for: greater labor mobility. The argument is so drop-dead the only question is how long it will take for political philosophers to clog the journals with articles explaining the impermissibility of stringent migration restrictions. Can’t wait!

Is Migration Good for Development_columbia


Some libertarianish and conservatives types sometimes like to think of the territory of the U.S. as a big piece of real estate over which citizens have a kind of shared property right. There are lots of things that are wrong with this way of thinking, especially for people who think their philosophy is grounded in a strongly moral conception of property rights. Perhaps the primary flaw in the national-territory-as-collective-property schema is that very little U.S. territory was gained legitimately. Mostly it was gained in the way political territory is generally gained: war, theft, and purchase from thieves. Some worry about the fact that the Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional. But why not worry instead about the far more troubling fact that the French state could not have been the legitimate owner of large swathes of land already owned by natives? Can James Polk’s brinkmanship really be principle that determines that I have a stake in what happens in in Portland, but not in Vancouver?

I understand that this is the way the territories of kingdoms, principalities, and states are formed. Colonial criminality drew the map. That’s the way it is. No turning back. But shouldn’t we be long past the idea that these traces of regrettable history have truly weighty moral significance–that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo or the Gadsden Purchase somehow create deep moral facts about where some human beings should and should not be able to go?

Howley on Immigration: One Night Only!

Heads up Iowa City folk. As part of Human Rights week at the University, Kerry Howley will be giving a talk sponsored by the U of Iowa Advocates of Liberty. Details:

“Migration and Human Rights: How Global Apartheid Keeps the Developing World Poor”

Monday, January 26th at 7 pm

1505 Seamans Center, University of Iowa

I’ll be there!

How Not Metaphorical Is "Countries as Clubs"?

I confess that I agree with the Drunken Priest/Steven Pinker here:

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?

It had even occurred to me that I was taking a page from Lakoff. Horrors. Anyway, I agree that the big difference between a country and a club is, as Pinker observes, the coervice nature of the “public finance” of  distinctively political communities. Unlike Lakoff, I obviously disapprove of the “country as club.” Like Lakoff, I suppose, I’m urging that we pause to note the very close schematic similarities in actual political discourse and theorizing between (here using the convention of mentioning concepts by capitalizing the words that express them in English) COUNTRY and CLUB, CITIZEN and CLUB MEMBER, LEGAL RESIDENT ALIEN and GUEST OF THE CLUB, etc. Leftwingers like Lakoff want to draw attention to commonalities in these shema so that we confuse state coercion — the fact that creates problem of political legitimacy, the foundational problem of political philosophy — with the fair reciprocity of paying dues for services. He wants to use the similarities to efface the essential difference, which I guess seems pretty slimy. 

My intention is to draw attention to the fact that people do tend to confuse the COUNTRY and CLUB schemata in order to challenge the terms of ordinary and theoretical political discourse. I want people to think of COUNTRY[GEOGRAPHIC] as LARGE PUBLIC GOODS JURISDICTION and COUNTRY[POLITICAL] as LARGE PUBLIC GOODS PROVIDER. When we see countries or nation states as public goods providers covering big jurisdictions, we open the possibility of seeing the United States of America as a very big version of Iowa that can itself be embedded within, or overlap with, other public goods jurisdictions. Jurisdictions need boundaries, but they can be a lot more porous than national boundaries tied up with club-like notions of national identity and sovereignty.

Certain kinds of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all take the idea that a country is a big piece of real estate jointly “owned” by its citizens way too far. My complaint is that none of them say much at all about the justification of the principles that determine who becomes a citizen — becomes a legitimate part “owner” of the huge plot from which others may be excluded — and who does not.

Clubs versus Social Justice

So, enough with vacation pictures! Here are some riffs extending a few lines of argument in my forthcoming Cato paper on inequality… 

The pattern of wages and incomes at the level of the nation state is morally arbitrary. A fortiori, as Hayek notes, desert-based conceptions of national pattern are doubly hopeless. Wages are determined by demand in the labor maket, which is not really national and not at all under individual control. The best an individual can do to “deserve” a wage level in a certain neighborhod is to try to respond to labor market signals and acquire skill that pays. But the idea of justifying the differences between two individual’s wages is a classic category mistake. Maybe widget polishers earn more than dingus tighteners because there is a glut of dingus tighteners. That inequality is morally meaningless — completely irrelevant. Sooner or later, some dingus tighteners will learn to polish widgets and the gap will narrow. Now, if the widget polishers guild is creating barriers to entry, as cartels are wont to do, the wage gap would reflect an injustice. The injustice isn’t the gap, though; it’s the violation of economic liberty rights. Likewise, if all the widget polishing jobs are on the other side of a line that you are not allowed to cross, the inequality will reflect a prior violation of liberty. But assuming a (rare and precious) free market in labor, when it comes to wage gaps, deserve ain’t got nothing to do with it.

Do I deserve my salary? Of course I do. I’ve got an agreement with the Cato Institute. I give them certain services, they give me a certain salary. If I’ve done my job, I’ve got it coming to me. Do Cato Research Fellows deserve to make more than dingus tighteners? Again, the question is just a category mistake. Dingus tighteners deserve what their employers promise them. You can ask “What justifies the gap in pay between Research Fellows and dingus tigheners?” But what kind of question is this? Doesn’t it amount to:  “What justifies the fact that employers of Research Fellows offer more than employers of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that Research Fellows have labor market alternatives that pay better than the labor market alternatives of dingus tighteners”? Or: “What justifies the fact that certain skills are in shorter supply relative to demand”?

Do these questions make any sense? There are explanations to offer, but there is no room for questions of justification. To whom is this question supposed to be addressed anyway? Society? Whatever society is, it’s some kind of international network of cooperation, so, again, it’s super confused to attempt to address an already meaningless question to something, the nation state, which is not the kind of unit to which this kind of question of justification can sensibly be posed.

There are an indefinite number of sets of people bound by relations we might think are interesting. What’s the point of picking out one of those sets of people and then asking whether the pattern of incomes or wages among them tracks desert, or anything else? What would make you think this kind of tracking is even possible? What would make you think this is desirable?

If nationalist political theorists were to adopt a different vocabulary, they could start making sense, but then it would be clear that they’re not really doing moral philosophy in quite the way they thought they were. You begin to realize you’re doing something like the modern version of theorizing about the obligations of kings to the lesser nobility. It may seem extremely important at the time, but it lacks the universality of an authentically moral question. Anyway, my contention is that nation states really are just a special kind of club. This isn’t even a metaphor. It’s exact. Nation states are clubs. Citizenships are club memberships. Visas are club guest passes. Immigration debates are always at bottom about clubbability. It’s really not all that different to be told “Welcome home” by the U.S. immigration officer and to be kicked out by the Myanmar immigration officer. The point is that some people are members and some people aren’t, that some non-members are welcome as guests and some people aren’t. 

It would be immensely useful and clarifying if we would start being explicit about the club structrure of the globe, and the assumptions about the naturalness or inevitability of exclusive clubs at the very foundation of political philosophy. We would then be able to ask questions about how we, the club members, would like the club’s institutions organized and governed, how we would like the holdings of the members distributed, etc., But it would then be pretty hard to characterize this sort of theorizing as the core of a theory of social justice, a theory that is supposed to have some kind of deep moral bite, while running away from the obviously prior question about the justification of the rules of membership and exclusion that constitute the clubs. That the question over the justification of the distribution of club memberships and guest passes so obviously comes first but is so fastidiously ignored, or treated as a kind of special case, can be nothing but a huge embarrassment to a discipline that pretends to offer a theory of social justice. 

So back to inequality and distribution. As a matter of fact, many Mexicans and Canadians are in society with one another. Let’s say there is a pretty big difference in pay between Mexican and Canadian dingus tighteners. Part of the explanation for this, let’s suppose, is just like the difference between widget polishers and dingus tightener when the widget polishers guild uses the political system to restrict entry. Despite high demand, Canada keeps most Mexican dingus tighteners out, in effect subsidizing the wages of dingus tighteners who are members or guests of the Canadian club (not the whiskey.) So here is your intelligible question of economic and social justice. What justifies the barriers to entry that privelege some members of society at the expense of others. To draw the bounds of society at the border is a completely specious move to ignore the most basic question of justice by defining it away.

When I make this point, I get the sense that some nationalist egalitarian liberals think I’m trying to cleverly avoid confronting the allegedly baleful inequalities in the national pattern of economic holdings. But that’s not what I’m doing. I’m sincerely arguing that nationalist liberal egalitarianism is morally unserious arbitrary nonsense.