Practical vs. Moral Objections to Open Borders

By Jason Brennan

Yesterday, the Swiss did something evil: they voted to restrict immigration. Tyler Cowen comments:

In my view immigration has gone well for Switzerland, both economically and culturally, and I am sorry to see this happen, even apart from the fact that it may cause a crisis in their relations with the European Union.  That said, you can take 27% as a kind of benchmark for the limits of immigration in most or all of today’s wealthy countries.  I believe that as you approach a number in that range, you get a backlash.

…One of my objections to the open borders idea is that I think it would be negative for sustainable, actually realized flows of immigration.

Cowen’s objection might be correct as a question of practical policy, but it’s important we keep in mind what kind of objection it is. Consider two questions:

  1. What does justice require?
  2. What’s the best feasible policy, given people’s motivations, desires, and willingness to act?

We shouldn’t conflate 1 with 2. (I’m not saying Cowen makes this mistake, by the way.) Justice might require some policy, but people might be too ignorant, irrational, xenophobic, mean-spirited, nasty, rotten, misguided, silly, or whatnot, to go along with it. So, for instance, it’s not a moral objection to the argument against meat eating that most people want to eat meat and are unwilling not to eat meat. It’s not a moral objection to the wrongness of rape that many men want to commit rape. It’s not a moral objection to libertarianism that many people want to oppress others in the name of virtue or equality. It’s not a moral objection to state socialism that many people want to take advantage of socialist governments to make themselves all-powerful dictators.

When choosing among institutions or policies in the real world, we of course have to take into account compliance issues. Will people go along with the rules? Will they try to take advantage of them, or use the institutions to harm others, or rebel against the rules? But there’s a difference between A) people are rebelling against the rules because the rules are unjust vs. B) people are rebelling against the rules because they, the people, are unjust.

Think back to the debate about ending slavery in the early 1800s US. Some people said, “Of course, slavery is unjust. But we’re worried about backlash if we try to end it too soon, so we favor gradual abolition.” Others said, “Of course slavery is unjust, and we need to end it immediately.” Now, suppose the first group of people were right–had the US government declared slavery illegal in, say, 1816, this would have caused a major backlash, and, as a result, slavery would have lasted longer than in fact did. That doesn’t make slavery any more just. It simply means that people are not willing to do what justice requires, and we need to look for a second or third best solution, given how awful people are.

For any moral duty D, the fact that you don’t want to D doesn’t change whether D is your duty.

Categories: Immigration

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