Bryan Caplan  

The Conscience of a Liberaltarian

Correcting James Kwak... New from the NBER...
Immigration restrictions are the single worst policy the First World imposes.  They're a massive violation of human freedom with awful consequences.  That's the main reason I write about the issue so frequently and so doggedly.

But to be honest, I have a secondary didactic motive.  For me, immigration restrictions are a moral mirror.  I want to make non-libertarians stare into this mirror and see Dorian Gray looking back at them.  You say you care about the poor?  That everyone is equal?  That all men are brothers?  Then open borders - not forced charity for your well-fed countrymen - should be your overwhelming priority.  Anyone who supports the welfare state on humanitarian grounds should favor open borders.  And if that's too demanding for you, it's the welfare state you should compromise first.

This mirror is admittedly useless against someone who favors open borders and the welfare state.  While this position is awfully rare, Will Wilkinson proves that it does have proponents:
I don't have much patience with ideal theory, but either we're ideal theorizing or we're not. If we are, then I'm for "maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + free immigration". (Actually, to nitpick, the idea is to reduce redistribution as a portion of national income while increasing it in absolute terms through a higher rate of growth.)
This is a position I can respect.  But it still prompts me to ask, "If we had high growth and open borders, would you really want to add a welfare state to the mix?"  I assume Will isn't already giving 90%+ of his income away to help people in the Third World.  Does he really think our duties to billions of total strangers are strong enough to justify forcing everyone to do what even he won't do voluntarily?  What's so wrong with just relying on private charity?  And morality aside, what about...

1. Can you really reduce redistribution as a share of income when anyone who immigrates (and maybe even those who don't) is eligible to collect?  Wouldn't this require massive per-capita cutbacks in redistribution, even for those we now see as the deserving poor?

2. Free-market economists have been pointing out the neglected perverse incentives of the welfare state for decades.  I have to think that Will sees more merit in this work than most people.  This might not be enough to turn him into a welfare state abolitionist, but it's hard to see why it wouldn't seriously dull his enthusiasm for it.

3. More controversially, I've claimed (with Scott Beaulier) that behavioral economics reveals that the perverse effects of the welfare state are even worse than most free-market economists realize.  Will seems open enough to behavioral econ to take this argument seriously.  Giving poor people free money really can ruin their lives.

If Will responds, "You're right in terms of 'ideal theory,' but I'm just trying to marginally improve policy," I'm more sympathetic.  But I still have to wonder: Why does Will show so little sympathy for libertarians who give mainstream policy-makers the intellectual ammunition to undermine the welfare state?*  They're trying to marginally improve policy too - and it looks to me like they've had some real-world success.  Indeed, if Charles Murray isn't on your list of libertarians who changed policy for the better, who is?

* Quoth Will:
Falling short of the "no redistribution" ideal seems likely to leave us with a porous and inefficient safety net that continues to crowd out civil society alternatives to state welfare. This is why, by the way, I think libertarian influence on Republican thinking about social policy often does hurt the poor.
Update: Broken link to Beaulier-Caplan paper fixed.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (21 to date)
Andy Hallman writes:

I can't get the "even worse" link to work in the second to last paragraph.

Matt writes:

Interesting assumption that people support the welfare state for humanitarian reasons. I always wanted social insurance because I am risk averse and pessimistic, and from experience I know that people, especially the poor and unconscientious aren't good at long term planning. Perhaps I am the exception. Although I wonder how many people supported Obamacare had some health insecurity.

My ideal world is one where people have a very strong cultural imperative to work. There is a strong welfare state which helps those who have fallen into hard times through bad luck. Together with a very free market, we create a very entrepreneurial and dynamic society with people not afraid to take risks to start new projects and companies.

Theoretically this could be compatible with open immigration. Instead of government social insurance we could have a social insurance cooperative that people we screen could be allowed to join. However I don't think this would work in reality, government doesn't like competition and the groups would be heavily regulated.

Thus my realistic program is to have some level of social insurance lower than I would like, but still there, and to limit entry to our nation people who are likely to use it. The behavior distorting effects of social insurance are increased for people with low productivity/wages, for obvious reasons. Thus workers with little human capital are bad bets. In terms of having a uniform culture diversity is not a strength. My policy preferences would be to make the US more like Norway or Denmark. I realize the US won't turn into a Nordic utopia or Japan. Thirty years ago, before the 10% of Mexico's population moved here, it something very close to my policy preferences was feasible. Today its not.

Perhaps the nation-state grouping isn't really logical as a moral unit, 300 million strangers after all, but political units aren't logical, they exist because of unique historic circumstances. This puts us in the same boat whether or not you like it, and we sink and swim together. You don't want to be on a boat with a mutiny. Lets choose our shipmates carefully.

quadrupole writes:

A few questions:

1) Is there a limit to the rate at which we can assimilate new immigrants?

2) If there is such a limit, is it greater than or less than the rate at which people would like to immigrate?

3) If it is greater, how do we decide which immigrants to take?

Confused writes:

If immigrants have an unrestricted right to come to the US, do we have a right to go into other countries and correct their non-libertarian ways? Is Iran violating my right to go into Tehran and work to change their regime?

SteveV writes:

You are absolutely correct in your logic... that to support the welfare state (for humanitarian reasons) but not support open borders is hypocritical.

I have often used the same argument against socialists in a debate, e.g.: "If you believe that, then why don't you argue to give more welfare to Africa?"

I have found that most socialists retort with (unfounded) justification that "the rich" are somehow victimizing everyone else. They don't see it so much as a humanitarian argument, as a domestic issue of "social justice".

At least.. that's what they tell themselves so they can sleeep at night.

PK writes:
I can't get the "even worse" link to work in the second to last paragraph.
It's written wrong, here is the document he is referring to. It was at the end of the URL.
Evan writes:

I think I shall be the on person on this thread who refers to the famed Robin Hanson quote "Politics isn't about policy." Most people support the welfare state to "show they care," not to help people. Therefore they are not interested in optimizing their charity.

I should also mention that while the left is often more universalist than the right, a lot of leftists still have some nationalist feelings infesting portions of their minds, so intuitively they feel that helping those in your own nation first is best.

Jody writes:

Immigration restrictions are the single worst policy the First World imposes.

Not for many utility functions that decay with decreasing self-similarity.

GU writes:
"I assume Will isn't already giving 90%+ of his income away to help people in the Third World."

There is a market failure in the insurance market. Individuals cannot insure against being endowed with little or no skills that the market values. If you have the bad fortune of being non-charming, ugly, and dumb, you are pretty much screwed. A rational person, if she could, would insure against this "endowment risk." Since this is not possible (so far at least) in the private market, the government is justified in providing a welfare safety net that is essentially insurance.

One can wish to have insurance without an affirmative duty to give away all of one's money—call it The Selfish Reason to Have a Welfare Safety Net. And luckily, a robust social insurance program (at the national level) costs much less than 90% of everyone's income.

Floccina writes:

I think aesthetics is what drives a lot of the left's support for the welfare state. They want to turn ugly poor neighborhoods into pretty middle class neighborhoods.

Also in theory, if it could be effectively policed an hourly wage subsidy would avoid many of the problems associated with welfare.

MikeP writes:

And luckily, a robust social insurance program (at the national level) costs much less than 90% of everyone's income.

What about insurance against being born in the wrong country?

How can one justify this "endowment insurance" going to people who are above median worldwide while not only allowing others to remain utterly impoverished, but actively prohibiting their bettering their lives by changing countries.

GU writes:


I never said anything about immigration policy. I was arguing against Caplan's (and more generally the deontological libertarians') objection to any transfer payments.

I am a consequentialist classical liberal. I don't believe there's any right to live in a particular part of the world. If completely open immigration would make us on net better off, then we should do it. Caplan (and others) think it is simple—of course it's a net utility gain! I am not so sure, but I'm not saying that POV is wrong.

I should say that I do enjoy Caplan's "Dorian Gray" argument though. The argument I gave for social insurance does not depend on compassion and is thus not susceptible to that objection. With respect to immigration, it might also be rational to not want an insurance pool to be affected by adverse selection—too many bad endowment risks.

The problem is that insurance is an ex ante concept, but immigration is ex post. With insurance, the idea is to pay now in exchange for later payment in case of a bad outcome. With immigration, the bad outcome has already occurred (bad life in home country), so allowing open immigration is like writing insurance for someone with a 100% chance of payout. In this way social insurance only makes sense at the nation-state level. There is not a worldwide government, so it is impossible to insure the world's endowment risk; for now at least, it is a country-by-country project.

Matt writes:

On borders -

I'm motivated by being part of a national project and a people and view the maintainance of our national sovereign ownership rights over our nation is part of that, in that it allows us to act as a nation without having to personally shun people (as many self isolated nations within a larger and more cosmopolitan society, such as the Amish, the Gypsies, the Orthodox Jews, the Hindu castes do).

It's no more ludicrous to me to protect a state and territory for one people than it is to protect property rights for one person to one home, or any item of property they should be acknowledged as owning. Of course, that seems ludicrous from a utilitarian perspective as well ("To each the ability, to each the need!". "Property is theft!"). But utilitarians accept property rights as a means to ends, based on the fact that humans are not intrinsic utility maximisers but care disproportionately about their good.

(Of course, I'm not going to deal with the Libertarian perspective, since if they believe in your freedom to enter my nation's state, but they object to my freedom to enter your house and use you stuff, then they're essentially either hypocritical or don't accept my basic axiom as to the weight of national value versus individual value [i.e. national value is at least greater than zero individuals] and in either case there's no reasoning with them).

The question, ultimately, is going to be whether many people are motivated the way I am. If they are, then destroying that motivation will be disasterous for economic growth and prosperity - they'll think - why bother? if your nation isn't going to exist then who cares about long term growth? if they have a nationalist motivation. I'd actually argue that revealed preferences, as illuminated by choices in accomodation, products, voting preferences, all reveal quite a high degree of nationalistic motivation in society in general.

(Now, if a counter"argument" would be "Even if people are motivated this way, that's just not a legitimate motivation and we have to culturally engineer people into having an appropriate, individualistic motivation" then why are you any more entitled to do that than the Communist cultural engineers who believed having individualistic motivations was not appropriate or legitimate and what makes your ability to socially engineer more likely to be successful?).

MikeP writes:

I am a consequentialist classical liberal.

Curiously, so am I.

I can see the justification for a minimal safety net based on public goods arguments -- to alleviate both the public bad of revolution and the public bad of stepping over people in the street.

Yet I cannot grasp the distinction between your notion of endowment insurance and birthplace insurance. It appears completely arbitrary to say the former is justified while the latter is not.

I don't believe there's any right to live in a particular part of the world.

I of course do believe in that right, and I think the US should stop abrogating that right for the truly impoverished.

It does not bother me that part of making the borders open is that any safety net is limited only to natives. After all, immigrants have two advantages that natives don't have: they can decide not to immigrate if they are not happy about that limitation, and they can go back to their home countries if after migrating they find it's not working out.

Jason writes:

Immigrants face the same marginal incentives when choosing work/govt help as low skill Americans do. If almost everyone, even lower classes, chooses to look for work instead of living off the state, then there doesn't seem to be a strong case that immigrants mostly would choose the opposite.

Hugh writes:

The idea of the US population going from 300 to 3000 million due to a huge influx of low income people is outlandish.

Why not try to export the principles that made the US strong instead? Surely people would be better off staying in the countries they know and love as opposed to leaving their loved ones to emigrate to the US.

It is also worthwhile pointing out that emigration can leave the poor countries poorer: here in Romania there are constant shortages of doctors and nurses as they emigrate to better paying jobs elsewhere in the EU.

PubServ writes:


The notion you invoke is sentimentally attractive, but your invocation of a right to live anywhere we want conflicts to some degree with an absolute belief in property rights as applied to real property. I'm making some assumptions about your beliefs, so please forgive me if I err. You can say you want everybody to be able to enter your country, but what about your state, city, neighborhood, block, house, bedroom, bathroom, shower? I'm guessing you would draw a line at some point. If we are quibbling over where the line is, then maybe this is not the principled discussion it purports to be. It sort of undermines the righteous pursuit of each of these tenets because they conflict with one another and must therefore be mutually exclusive or moderated. How would you answer this critique?

Thanks in advance.

MikeP writes:


Simply put, I believe an immigrant's right to travel, reside, and work anywhere he wants is constrained exactly as a native's right to travel, reside, and work is constrained.

In your list, everybody should be able to enter your country, state, or city. Those with reason to be there, where said reason could be owning or renting property there, should be able to enter your neighborhood or block. And those you explicitly invite should be able to enter your house, bedroom, bathroom, or shower. There is no good reason -- at least no good reason justified by any notion of equal individual rights -- to distinguish between immigrant and native with regard to these rights.

It all falls back to property rights. You have the right to own property. You have the right to invite whomever you wish onto your property. One of the rights in your property bundle is the right-of-way to your property. Thus those you invite have a right to travel the right-of-way to your property.

Even large private housing developments mark only a middle ground where the owners have willingly limited their rights-of-way only to neighborhood-approved entrants. But this model simply cannot be extended to the greater rights-of-way that form the vast majority of the territory.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"This mirror is admittedly useless against someone who favors open borders and the welfare state. While this position is awfully rare"

Rare? I think is the standard left-wing position* in western world, no (well, perhaps not "open borders", but at least "borders more open")?

*I am talking about thinkers and intelectuals, not ncessarly about politics in government

govt_mule writes:
"You say you care about the poor? ...Then open borders ... should be your overwhelming priority. Anyone who supports the welfare state on humanitarian grounds should favor open borders."

Predicating help for the poor on emigration to a foreign land, away from family, friends, and countrymen, a land whose customs and language are unknown, is neither humanitarian nor efficient.

If I was a poor Appalachian seeking help from the Chinese, I'd much rather they built a factory with decent jobs and a school with decent teachers in my hometown, than be required to move to Shanghai.

In a more general sense, if my friend's house is falling apart and he doesn't have the capital or resources to make a good living, is it optimal for him abandon his house and move in with me, or for me to help him fix up his house and acquire the resources he needs to earn more?

Justin Martyr writes:

I think that the best explanation is that liberaltarians like Wilkinson want to affiliate with high-status progressives, not low-status conservatives. Some cognitive dissonance is a price they are willing to pay.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top