Bryan Caplan  

The Overlords of Immigration

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Missing Politics... Reconfigurations...
In his Cato Unbound essay "Against Overlordship," my colleague Dan Klein argued that the heart of the modern liberal position is the idea that the citizens of a country collectively own their country:

Although they may not be fully conscious of it, progressives and social democrats are saying that everything is owned by the state. Or, perhaps, that the substructure upon which topsoil, buildings, and other things sit is owned by the state. Either way, simply by being in the United States, you voluntarily agree to all government rules.

Klein continues:

I believe that President Obama sees himself as the duly appointed officer of the overlord. This overlord is the collectivity called "the people" or "the state." It is one big voluntary club... The state's dominion is the entire polity. As long as you are in the United States, according to the progressives, it is your contractual obligation to abide by the rules. You believe in honoring contracts, don't you?
I think Klein nails a prominent rationalization for state oppression.  But he ties these arguments to the wrong people.  Mainstream leftists aren't contractarians; they're utilitarians.  If you convince them that their favorite policies have bad consequences (a tall order!), they change their minds.  The people who actually appeal to the Overlord Argument are largely conservatives

If this doesn't ring a bell, there's a reason: You have to bring up the subject of immigration.  Then you will see many a conservative become an Overlord of Immigration.  Thus, when I point out that immigration restrictions are a gross invasion of human liberty that require compelling rationales, one comment objected:
False imprisonment is an intentional tort, recognized by the common law. One does not commit false imprisonment by locking one's doors so as to keep some other out, one commits it by locking one's doors so as to keep someone else in. If someone breaks their shoulder trying to force your door open, you have not battered them. In short, Bryan's moral argument regarding force fails, because he assumes the conclusion that keeping illegal immigrants out is unprivileged force. The ground norm is that one who is trying to break in is the initiator of force, and reasonable force used to keep him out, or eject him, is privileged. (Steve Z)
If the Overlord locks the doors of Our Nation, then, it is the immigrant who is breaking and entering - even if his landlord, employer, and grocer welcome him with open arms.  Similarly, in response to my post on discrimination and illegal immigration, another comment remarks:
So let's see: Law breaking intruders are "hated" because they're law breaking intruders. And they don't have rights because they are law breaking intruders. Are they law braking intruders or not? What you're saying is that conceiving of illegals as law breaking intruders is wrong. You're basing this on your political frame, a frame in which, ideally, there would be no such thing as an illegal immigrant. While I understand why you think that no form (or amount) of immigration should be illegal -- some forms are and the vast majority of citizens here believe that this is how things should be. Given that some immigrants are illegal enterers and therefore intruders, it's not clear why you think, people are wrong in conceiving them as what they are. (Chuch)
Here again, the Overlord Argument fits.  How else could anyone paint immigrants as "intruders" when their landlords, employers, and grocers are delighted to see them?

You might think that it would be easy to persuade conservatives to reject the Overlord Argument.  It's basically a single-issue rationalization.  And it's a slippery slope to most of the policies conservatives abhor: If your employer can require health insurance as a condition of employment, why can't your government require health insurance as a condition of citizenship?  Alas, doublethink is no monopoly of the left.



COMMENTS (24 to date)
rapscallion writes:

I think the Overlord Argument serves more as a distraction from real debates than anything else. It’s an invitation for everyone to start waxing philosophical and offering up inevitably vague first principles, ensuring disagreement because such debates are never resolved. Even if the U.S. government has the right to restrict immigrants or impose nationalized health care, it doesn’t follow that it’s a good idea to do so; even people who accept the Overlord Argument don’t believe that the government ought to impose every restriction it has the authority to impose. If restrictionists want to justify their policies they have to offer up more than just the Overlord Argument.

Cole writes:

I think the 'overlord' argument appears in conservative arguments about war as well. Its not the innocent civilians attacked on 9/11. We were attacked. If you disagree with how 'we' should retaliate then you aren't part of the 'we' and aren't American.

Pandaemoni writes:

From a legal realists view of the world, American property law is directly descended from UK law, which is in turn based on feudal principles.

Even our legal term for the title held by one who "owns" property—the kind of ownership we all think of as, in a sense, "absolute"—is "in fee simple" a feudal term. The house you buy in the suburbs in which you your spouse and 2.5 kids live is owned "in fee simple." In feudal law (and in modern American law), title "in fee simple" is not absolute, but subject to the authority of the State (which is deemed to have a greater title that has long since passed from discussion in modern law).

Under feudal law, such greater title eventually came to rest in a sovereign who was said to hold "allodial title" over most (if not all) lands within his domain.

It is because the subjects only hold their property in fee simple that the sovereign has the right of eminent domain (another feudal hangover, albeit somewhat modernized by the requirement that the sovereign pay fair value for land taken..."fair value" not necessarily being "fair market value").

Whatever the philosophical validity of Lockean or other theories of how property *ought* to have arisen, the colder historical reality is that it was an evolutionary change from feudal law into its current state. Under the principles of that law, which still seem to survive to this day, the sovereign still does have a certain sort of "superior title" in the lands owned by the landlord, employer and grocer of illegal immigrants.

Perhaps not coincidentally, "overlord" is also a feudal term.

I note that I am philosophically in agreement with the notion that immigration should only be restricted when a strong case can be made in favor of it. That's a policy position, rather a legal one. I think we would do well to screen out those with criminal backgrounds or terrorist ties, and otherwise let in any who want to come. Just because I can lock someone out of my home does not make them an "intruder." I could be locking out my friendly neighborhood handyman, whose come to fix my roof.

shecky writes:

Hit the nail on the head with this one, Caplan.

Dog of Justice writes:

How else could anyone paint immigrants as "intruders" when their landlords, employers, and grocers are delighted to see them?

Are their brighter classmates all delighted to see them? Their neighbors?

If one person enjoys the immigrant's presence, is that grounds for admission regardless of how many negative externalities the 300+ million other citizens have to put up with? Does it matter if that one person publishes a mathematical model under which the externality sum is positive, if everyone else thinks the model is flawed?

Daniel Klein writes:

You are right about conservatives, too, often talking overlordism, explicitly or otherwise.

Saying that the leftists are utilitarians does not, however, imply that they do not affirm overlordism. It just means that they are open to alternatives for the overlord -- as all owners are open to alternative rules for their dominion.

Consider two characters, both of whom favor, say, current restrictions on immigration into the US.

Character 1 says: "These rules are not a restriction of liberty. It is the illegals who are violating liberty."

Character 2 says: "These rules are a restriction of liberty, just as Caplan says, but I favor them nonetheless."

The first is an overlordist, the second is not.

I hazard to say that the second character is more likely to be a conservative than a leftist. One can actually imagine a conservative saying what Character 2 says. But it is hard to imagine a leftist saying what Character 2 says.

As for what Character 1 says, there, too, it is hard to imagine a leftist saying those words, because leftists are so unwilling to talk of liberty in how the word is meant there. However, as translation of what is in effect being said, I think that Character 1 is truer to the left than to conservatives.

Tom Dougherty writes:

"How else could anyone paint immigrants as "intruders" when their landlords, employers, and grocers are delighted to see them?"

How could anyone? Well, a landlord may welcome waves of illegal aliens pouring into one's state, for an increased demand for housing would drive up the price of housing. But a renter, on the other hand, may not see the situation as rosy as Bryan and the landlord class. Increasing rents for tenants caused by illegal aliens bidding up the price of housing might not be looked on so favorably by renters, especially those with low incomes who can least afford it.

Employers also may welcome unskilled illegal immigrants with open arms that they can pay under the table. But I can think of someone who may not welcome illegals with open arms. How about employees whose wages are cut with the influx of illegal aliens. These, usually low paid workers, face either pay cuts or unemployment. Don't you think these employees may consider illegal aliens as intruders and not just in the legal sense but also in an economic sense as well?

And grocers may see an influx of illegal aliens as a source of low skill labor a boon to their profits, but employees in such industries with the subsequent lowing of wages with the increase supply of unskilled labor will not.

Professors at universities don't have to compete against unskilled labor and are more likely to benefit from an increase in illegal immigrant labor, but surely a professor could picture himself in the shoes of someone who might be negatively effected by an influx of illegals and would not be "delighted" to see them.


RZ writes:

The typical conservative position on abortion adopts the Overlord Argument.
Neither party really adopts or rejects the argument consistently, which should tell you that it is not a good way of classifying American political thought.

8 writes:

See this comic, which is by a liberal and meant to criticize white flight.

MikeP writes:

Are their brighter classmates all delighted to see them? Their neighbors?

Well, now, I guess many people asked the same thing about blacks moving into white neighborhoods. And the conservative response, but not the liberal or the libertarian one, was that if the owner of a house wanted to sell to or the owner of an apartment wanted to rent to a black person they had that right.

agnostic writes:

How do fishermen prevent over-fishing? How do shepherds prevent over-grazing? Read the Ostroms' work; now that one got a Nobel, it's not possible to claim ignorance.

Land, housing, a spot in a "good school" (wink wink), hospital beds, the handful of low-skilled jobs currently in need of filling -- these are finite resources in fairly short supply where the greatest flow of immigration is going (i.e. southern California, not North Dakota), and that need to be protected from over-grazing, so to speak. In utopia, these wouldn't be so limited, but on planet Earth in 2011 they are.

Therefore immigration restrictionists are not like feudal landlords but a group of fishermen who want to conserve the balance that exists rather than threaten it with extinction by letting in however many fishermen want to join. Because the scale of American society is vastly greater than that of a group of fishermen or pastoralists, they may make use of economies of scale and have a more central enforcer try to keep out those who would overwhelm the existing balance.

Michael Wiebe writes:

I think Christopher Wellman takes a similar overlord approach in arguing against free immigration.

Salem writes:
If you convince them that their favorite policies have bad consequences (a tall order!), they change their minds.
I'm not sure this is true. Witness Obama, saying he'd raise CGT even if doing so raises less money. Or look at the debate on debt/aid for the Third World - the mainstream left are not particularly interested in whether this actually raises Third World living standards, they view aid and debt forgiveness as good in and of itself.

I think group political motivations are more complex than any single label, but I definitely think there's a large "contractarian" element to the mainstream left.

As for your "overlordship" argument on immigration, I think you are slightly missing the point. Klein is arguing against the notion that "we" own everything collectively, and so are justified in all dispositions of it - grand overlordship. I do not see him arguing against the notion that the government is a petty overlord - that it has the right to decide who owns a certain piece of property according to the law, or to make laws regarding externalities, etc. Even a minarchist would accept that. Therefore it is a question of what kind of imposition is created by requiring immigrants to get government permission to enter the country. It is far from clear to me that this argument is a winner for you.

ziel writes:

These philosophical discussions are all well and good, but the actual arguments being made in the body politic today are based on this thing we have called the "Constitution." In it, Congress is explicitly given the power to "establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization". So it's pretty clear that controlling who can become a citizen (and thus who is allowed to live in the country and under what conditions) is well within Congress's powers.

Now as to whether Congress has the power to force people to purchase health insurance, that depends on how you interpret the following:

The Congress shall have Power...To regulate Commerce...among the several States...And To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers.

MichaelM writes:

Pandaemoni,

Fee simple isn't actually the only land ownership title in the US. Several states have something they call alloidal (although actually isn't quite there) title, which is basically a title you buy from the state in exchange for paying a lifetime of property taxes up front. Texas is an example.

This conditional/alloidal title distinction ends up being pretty important to early American history. Shays' Rebellion was, more or less, entirely about a Western Bay Stater grab at alloidal title for their farmlands. The state was trying to tax these extremely cash poor farmers who, naturally, could never actually pay the tax. Since they couldn't pay it, these farmers (and their farm hands, and their neighbors in town, and everybody else in Western Massachusetts) took up arms to try and repeat their actions against the British a decade before.

The purpose of this tax was especially gregarious: Massachusetts scrip issued to pay soldiers during the Revolution had inflated in value severely, just like the Continental Dollar issued by the national Congress. Because of this, retired soldiers who had been living hand to foot were forced to sell it at a huge discount to Boston based currency speculators who then, promptly, turned around and used their control of the state legislature to redeem this scrip for its full face value in gold.

Gold mostly sourced from appropriating farmland from those same cash-poor farmers and selling it on the open market.

The overlords have been with us and abusive to us pretty much since the beginning in this country. Don't think modern conservatives or liberals are anything new or strange.

Steamer writes:

I have a relatively simple question for all of you who favor free immigration and are of libertarian bend:

Do you honestly believe that, in a world with no trade restrictions, no government social programmes and full rights of discrimination on whatever basis one sees fit, we will witness the amount of legal and illegal immigration we see now (and which, apparently, you see as insufficient)?
Do you honestly believe that things like outer appearance, ethnicity, linguistic and cultural differences do not matter? Do you really think that ethnic groups of people (especially ones that are practically treatened with cultural and genetic - whatever that means - extinction as will be the case in most of Europe in less than a century)will not voluntarily design rules that will discriminate against outsiders? Do you really imagine that the "us - them" division - which was prevalent throughout the whole of human history - will simply disappear?

No matter how many times I hear the argument that immigration restrictions should be abolished (even without us abolishing the welfare state and laws against discrimination), I just think how the whole libertarian community (with few exceptions, such as Hoppe) is simply being deluded on the matter.

Evan writes:
Do you honestly believe that, in a world with no trade restrictions, no government social programmes and full rights of discrimination on whatever basis one sees fit, we will witness the amount of legal and illegal immigration we see now (and which, apparently, you see as insufficient)?
No, we'd witness even more immigration, and it will be awesome! As long as America has institutions that do a better job of fostering productivity than other countries, people will want to come here to work. If other countries shape up and fix their institutions, we'll probably see less immigration. But those countries' citizens shouldn't have to wait for that.
Do you honestly believe that things like outer appearance, ethnicity, linguistic and cultural differences do not matter?
That belief is kind of one of the cornerstones of modern American civilization. If you want a justification of that belief it would be that those things are processed in Far Mode, so they don't matter in day to day economic life. In day to day life we use Near Mode, so we act as rational economic actors for the most part, and override culture because it interferes with our rational self-interest.
Do you really think that ethnic groups of people (especially ones that are practically treatened with cultural and genetic - whatever that means - extinction as will be the case in most of Europe in less than a century)will not voluntarily design rules that will discriminate against outsiders?
Some Jews do that today, they treat their family members horribly if they marry or otherwise develop a romantic relationship with a Gentile? Do you think that's right (not "should it be allowed," but "is it right"). If you do my fiancee would like to have a few unpleasant words with you.

Yes, if voluntary discrimination was allowed some groups would try to discriminate against outsiders. But rational self-interest would win in the end, and people would marry who they please. That's not a problem for me, I don't care what color people will be in the future, or what fictional characters they'll revere.

Do you really imagine that the "us - them" division - which was prevalent throughout the whole of human history - will simply disappear?
There used to be a Catholics vs. Protestants "us vs. them" division, and an Irish vs. English, a Eastern European vs. Western, and so on. All these divisions are gone, and others, such as White vs. Black, are much weaker than they were in the past. National vs. Foreign will die someday too, as well it should.
Steamer writes:
"No, we'd witness even more immigration, and it will be awesome! As long as America has institutions that do a better job of fostering productivity than other countries, people will want to come here to work. If other countries shape up and fix their institutions, we'll probably see less immigration. But those countries' citizens shouldn't have to wait for that. "

I'm not talking about what will happen in a world where only America lifts its immigration and trade restrictions. I'm talking about a world where all countries do that. Considering the fact that we are more and more able to outsource services and that the whole nature of the available jobs is changing (Arnold Kling posted about this here today), I believe that even marginal and relatively insignificant feelings of xenophobia will actually bring immigration almost to a halt.

"In day to day life we use Near Mode, so we act as rational economic actors for the most part, and override culture because it interferes with our rational self-interest. "

This is actually a ridiculous statement. Being rational economic actor does not mean that you pursue only materialistic goals. It can (and, indeed, it does) happen that people are motivated by a range of other concerns - not to mention that you can fail to discriminate in purely economic (economic here meaning work - related) context, but discriminate significantly in every other social context (choice of friends, family connections, etc.)

"Some Jews do that today, they treat their family members horribly if they marry or otherwise develop a romantic relationship with a Gentile? Do you think that's right (not "should it be allowed," but "is it right"). If you do my fiancee would like to have a few unpleasant words with you. "

I don't think it is right. I do not think it is wrong either. I am a moral nihilist (and a commited one) - to me, this entire categories are meaningless (in purely Wittgensteinian terms).

"There used to be a Catholics vs. Protestants "us vs. them" division, and an Irish vs. English, a Eastern European vs. Western, and so on. "

I do not know when was the last time you cared to poke your nose out of the States, but as an Eastern European living for most of the year in Western Europe who has spent almost a year in Northern Ireland in the not-so-distant past, I can assure you that the three "us-them" divisions you refer to are alive and kicking. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I do not know whether you are familiar with the work of Robert Putnam but it certainly sheds some light on the issue. Although I think it is somehow flawed in methodology, it is definitely correct in both its premise and conclusion - that solidarity and trust are much greater in societies that are not diverse. Indeed, in a situation when communal services, social capital and welfare are not managed by the state but are a voluntary product of free interaction, I believe that ceteris paribus a ethnically and culturally homogenous libertarian society will significantly outperform more diverse ones in standard of living (or any other relevant measure of development for that matter).

All in all, this ridiculous left-libertarian mantra is based on three completely flawed premises:
a) That the utility functions that economic agents try to maximize are (almost) exclusively dependent on material gain
b) That culture and ethnicity do not matter or matter little
c) That people are not by nature xenophobic

"That's not a problem for me, I don't care what color people will be in the future, or what fictional characters they'll revere."

You may not but a lot of people actually do. Indeed, the majority of the people on this planet care a lot about these two things. For the former, just ask an East Asian living in his own country about the general sentiment on the issue. For the latter - talk to any religious Muslim.

Steamer writes:

Oh, and one more question:

You state that you do not care about the future of your ethnicity and your culture? Do you actually care at all about anything that happens after your lifetime?

I am not asking this question pointlessly or as an ad hominem attack. I actually do have a theory that people who support left - libertarian ideas (or, actually, left ideas in general) are motivated by their own egoism as these ideas can be said to be heavily incorporated in their utility functions. In other words - they are selfishly altruistic.

Evan writes:
I'm not talking about what will happen in a world where only America lifts its immigration and trade restrictions. I'm talking about a world where all countries do that....I believe that even marginal and relatively insignificant feelings of xenophobia will actually bring immigration almost to a halt.
We can test this by using America as a model. It's a huge country, and has no trade or immigration restrictions between states and cities (except for interstate health insurance). Mild feelings of xenophobia do not seem to halt immigration to other states or cities. There was a lot of xenophobia against Okies in the 30s, but nothing stopped them from moving to California.
I do not know when was the last time you cared to poke your nose out of the States, but as an Eastern European living for most of the year in Western Europe who has spent almost a year in Northern Ireland in the not-so-distant past, I can assure you that the three "us-them" divisions you refer to are alive and kicking. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I still doubt that they are as significant as they were in the past, much as the White vs. Black divide in America is tiny compared to how it was in the 1800s.

And there is something deeply wrong with those "us vs. them" divides. Region, nationality, birth religion, are all distinctions that a person has no control over. Changing the way you treat people because of something they have no control over is unhealthy. It means there's nothing they can do to modify their behavior so you'll treat them differently. It would be like if I suddenly acted xenophobic towards tall people.

Maybe I'm some sort of mutant, but I've never felt any feelings of solidarity with people I don't know because of common ethnicity, nationality, or religion. I've felt great solidarity with the ideas that my nation is founded on, but I can't seem to feel solidarity with people I've never met for no reason other than that their parents decided to give birth to them here, or that they're slightly more closely related to me than other people.

I probably am different from other people. For some reason I identify with others more easily. I get annoyed when I watch a foreign program that's been "Americanized" because the company didn't think Americans could identify with foreigners, but the fact that the company does that must mean some people have trouble. Similarly arguments asking me how I'd feel if I was an American and a Mexican took my job don't affect me, because I can identify with the Mexican as easily as with the American.

I do not know whether you are familiar with the work of Robert Putnam but it certainly sheds some light on the issue. Although I think it is somehow flawed in methodology, it is definitely correct in both its premise and conclusion - that solidarity and trust are much greater in societies that are not diverse. Indeed, in a situation when communal services, social capital and welfare are not managed by the state but are a voluntary product of free interaction, I believe that ceteris paribus a ethnically and culturally homogenous libertarian society will significantly outperform more diverse ones in standard of living (or any other relevant measure of development for that matter).
We have such societies in America today! Most neighborhoods are culturally homogenous, and they are often ethnically homogenous too. Free immigration wouldn't change that, the immigrants who don't assimilate easily just settle in their own neighborhoods. You're confusing "society" with "nation." It's possible to have a homogenous society in a heterogenous nation.
a) That the utility functions that economic agents try to maximize are (almost) exclusively dependent on material gain
People do act on nonmaterial goals, but not if it gets too expensive. If being xenophobic cost money, people would stop.
c) That people are not by nature xenophobic
I believe the standard economic and psychological literature says that xenophobia is inversely correlated with security and wealth. As people get richer and safer, they get less xenophobic. That's why, as the standard of living has increased, tolerance of ethnic minorities, gays, and others has gone up.
You state that you do not care about the future of your ethnicity and your culture? Do you actually care at all about anything that happens after your lifetime?
I care deeply about the future of the human race. I want there to be quadrillions of humans spread out across millions of solar systems in the future.

I'm a transhumanist, so I also know, however, that to continue living, expanding, and improving in the future, the human race will have to change. Cultures will change, genetic makeup will change, everything will change, so you shouldn't get too attached to one particular iteration of humanity. I wouldn't mind if everyone in the future had a different culture, I wouldn't even mind if they'd decided to download themselves into computers and become robots.

I intend to have children, and I also intend to have myself frozen upon death on the off chance they find some way to resurrect me. So I am very interested in the future, and in ensuring it turns out well.

Peter writes:

@rapscallion: +1. Bryan once again fails to remember than some folk believe in the rule of law regardless of the unjustness of that law.

@Bryan: "If your employer can require health insurance as a condition of employment"

I don't know about you but in two decades of working I have never once had an employer require me to have health insurance nor has anybody else I have spoken with in my peer group. Curious where you are getting this.

MikeP writes:

I don't know about you but in two decades of working I have never once had an employer require me to have health insurance nor has anybody else I have spoken with in my peer group. Curious where you are getting this.

My experience is exactly the opposite, but then I've mostly been at small companies.

If you don't want the small group coverage your employer provides, you must prove to the satisfaction of the insurance company that you have health insurance from some other source, such as your spouse's employer. The insurance company does not want employers paying only for their sick employees and leaving their healthy employees out. The rates are not premised on that.

Steve Z writes:

Bryan,

Thanks for quoting me, I enjoy your writing. Unfortunately I think you are stretching my quote a bit. You wrote:

"If the Overlord locks the doors of Our Nation, then, it is the immigrant who is breaking and entering - even if his landlord, employer, and grocer welcome him with open arms."

Aren't you leaving out the polity? They do not welcome illegal immigrants with open arms. If you don't think any nation should be able to enforce its borders full stop, that is fine, but it places you in a distinct minority, and minority positions should be defended with something better than point-and-sputter. If you do think nations shouldn't be allowed to enforce their borders, what if nations gave way to voluntary associations?

rapscallion is right that the Overlordship concept distracts from discussing what the optimal immigration policy should be. Although we could theorize until we are blue in the face, the most productive way to discuss these policies would be to look at the results when countries differ in their immigration laws. Unfortunately, the US is in a rather unique situation. Ideally, we would fracture the US into different sovereignties, but that isn't on the table politically. Given how much is at stake, maybe caution is warranted?

On a side note, it seems like you are particularly passionate about immigration. You get personal and the quality of your writing slips. It is all well and good to post dialogs with angry Republicans, but it is unlikely to change many minds.

Jack Davis writes:

Dog of Justice makes a terrific point:

If one person enjoys the immigrant's presence, is that grounds for admission regardless of how many negative externalities the 300+ million other citizens have to put up with?

Exactly. Caplan's argument on immigration slightly oversimplifies the issue. It is not simply a matter between the immigrant and his employer and landlord. If the native public has to pay more taxes to cover the immigrant's education and health care, they have a stake in this argument. Caplan doesn't address this issue.

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