Bryan Caplan  

When Is Abolitionism Justified?

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Tyler on open borders:
In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.  The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.
This raises an interesting question: When is abolitionism justified - morally and strategically?  In 1850, a pragmatic opponent of slavery could have easily said:
In my view the abolitionists are doing the anti-slavery cause a disservice.  The notion of fully abolishing slavery scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.
The obvious moral objection is that comparing slavery and immigration restrictions is absurd hyperbole.  But it's absurd hyperbole to call this apt comparison "absurd hyperbole."  Yes, enslaving a Haitian is plainly worse than forbidding him to accept a job offer anywhere on earth except Haiti.  But they're both dire harms.  How would you react if the world's laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth?  With weeping and gnashing of teeth.*

Once you accept the moral awfulness of immigration restrictions, Tyler's pragmatism starts to sound more like callousness: "You shouldn't expect people to lose sleep over massive violations of other people's rights."  Mere amnesty and higher quotas is not good enough.

In principle, though, you could accept the moral awfulness of the status quo, but agree that Tyler's moderate approach is the most effective (/least ineffective) way to alleviate its moral awfulness.

But is this soft-sell actually more effective?  Quite unclear.  Contemporaries heavily criticized the abolitionists for scaring moderates, but abolitionism won.  The simplest explanation is that there's a trade-off between bargaining and conversion.  Moderates are better at bargaining with people holding preferences fixed.  Abolitionists are better at changing preferences.  And when the status quo is very far from righteousness, it's preferences that have to change to get an acceptable result.

Still, I'd accept a toned-down version of Tyler's story: Abolitionists and moderates together are more effective than either alone.  You need abolitionists like me to highlight the moral urgency of open borders - to hold up a mirror to complacent First Worlders to show them how shabbily they're behaving.  You need moderates like Tyler to make concrete reforms palatable.

Yes, extremists can be very bad for a cause.  But it's generally when they're uncivil or worse.  Otherwise, extremists at least serve the function of making moderates look reasonable by comparison.

* Another helpful test: Suppose you had to choose between the following evils: (a) not being allowed to legally work anywhere but Haiti; or (b) being enslaved with probability X.  What value of X makes you indifferent?  My X=.33.

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COMMENTS (37 to date)
John Thacker writes:
Contemporaries heavily criticized the abolitionists for scaring moderates, but abolitionism won.

Abolitionism that was willing to go to war and to draft people and supress the ensuing draft riots won. Peaceful Quaker abolitionism didn't change preferences in the South. Total military defeat and the inability to rebel did.

The peaceful abolitionism did help change preferences in the North, though, among those that didn't personally benefit from slavery. (Didn't change opinions among New York City residents, for example, with their cotton trade.)

Pajser writes:
How would you react if the world's laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth? With weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It is irrelevant how I'd react. It is important what's better. If I'm some medical specialist needed at Haiti, maybe it is better that I cannot find job anywhere else.
Ross Levatter writes:

Mr. Thacker makes an excellent historical point, but to my mind it shows, not the inadequacy of abolitionist extremism, but the dangers of relying on the State, or being overwhelmed by State action. Peaceful abolitionism may well have led, if nationalistic political forces could have been held at bay, to pushing the North to secede from the South, which likely would have ended slavery quickly by dramatically increasing the costs of slavery (eliminating the subsidization of the Fugitive Slave Act; moving the border to freedom several hundred miles south).

Eric Hanneken writes:

One more point in response to John Thacker: Slavery has been abolished all over the world (or nearly so), not just in the United States. Sometimes abolition won via bloodshed, but sometimes not.

Regarding your thought experiment, my guess is that the X for a Haitian will be a lot lower than yours.

Chris H writes:

@John Thacker

In support of Eric Hanneken, peaceful abolitionism won pretty much everywhere outside the US. From the British West Indies to Romania, peaceful movements abolished slavery in most of the world before it happened in the American South (Brazil took a few decades longer, but again the abolition was peaceful). To assert that abolition based on one pretty weird example (namely a civil war based on resisting abolition) seems like a rather weak argument.

John Thacker writes:

Abolition in general took more bloodshed the more the local economy depended on it. Something about "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it," and Upton Sinclair comes to mind.

Eric Rall writes:

Suppose you had to choose between the following evils: (a) not being allowed to legally work anywhere but Haiti; or (b) being enslaved with probability X. What value of X makes you indifferent? My X=.33.

How much of that is endowment effect?

Try turning the experiment around: imagine a Haitian being offered a choice of probability (1-X) of being allowed to freely live and work in the United States, but probably X of being enslaved. How many would you expect to accept the deal at various values of X?

mike davis writes:

Do you mean to define an abolitionist as someone who is interested only in shaping preferences and not in bargaining? If so, then you are obviously correct in your claim that “Moderates are better at bargaining with people holding preferences fixed. Abolitionists are better at changing preferences.”

But if an abolitionist is someone who believes in moral absolutes, then I’m not so sure. Can’t someone be a pragmatic abolitionist? The obvious analogy is to the question of abortion. Lots of people believe that abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent. But they might also recognize that they’re unlikely to win very many people over to their position and so be quite willing to bargain—“stopping some abortions is better than nothing”. In this case the pragmatic abolitionist could be really an effective negotiator. (“I really care about my position and so my threats and/or promises are really credible.”)

Alex Godofsky writes:

Jonathan Finegold / Eric Rall:

We actually observe plenty of economic migrants risk enslavement (or similar situations) to get jobs in places like Qatar.

Steve Z writes:

Problem: being a citizen of Haiti is so bad, it is one third as bad as being a slave. This is likely due to Haitians.

Solution: import Haitians en masse to the United States, where they will be entitled to social welfare and to participate in the political process. There will be no repercussions.

Philo writes:

Tyler isn’t just an abolitionist who wants other abolitionists to keep quiet about their true views: he really is opposed to open borders, because that would “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.” He thinks that having a billion poor people far away from us Americans allows us to function well, while if those billion people were over here among us that would spoil everything. But the mechanism that would produce this result goes unspecified.

Consider the counterfactual: A billion poor people from around the world move to the U.S. (over the next n years, for some quite small n). What would be the effect on our politics--for example, on our welfare policies? I think the question is ill-formed: it’s not specified what preliminary political changes would have brought about the massive immigration, so how can we project what further political changes would take place? Tyler thinks he knows, and he doesn’t like what he foresees; I think he’s deluding himself.

george writes:

Perhaps a little bit of this futile cause is to establish your anti-racist bona fides. That is, the fact that this will never happen, so you'll never have to live with the disastrous results proving your wrong, and you have absolutely nothing to fear from overseas competition in your parochial occupation, but you want to give everyone in the world full US citizenship, shows you aren't a right-wing racist.

Got it.

Lewis writes:

Why don't you talk more about zoning restrictions in productive areas of the US? They are effectively immigration restrictions, and when phrased that way they seem instantly much more repugnant to someone of average opinions.

There is a 'last mile' problem with immigration: America has let many immigrants into its borders over the last decade but let relatively few people of any status into the bay area, northern virginia, boston, denver and other nice places with good agglomeration economies.

Chris H writes:


Zoning laws are problematic, but they aren't as big a deal as the blockage at the border. Ryan Avent estimates that the US economy loses .25-.5% of it's GDP per year because of this, not good, but also no where near the size of the effect of preventing immigration to the US in the first place.

MingoV writes:
Once you accept the moral awfulness of immigration restrictions...

Nothing like turning an opinion into a universal moral requirement.

A counter argument:
If a Haitian cannot find work because of the political and economic situations in Haiti, we have a moral obligation to conquer Haiti and instill a government that supports capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurialism. It's morally wrong to require a Haitian to emigrate to the USA and leave behind his country, relatives, and friends just to get a good-paying job.

Samuel Stringman writes:

You should write a book on just how much immigrants' earnings increase when they move to a new country. It would help make the case for abolishing borders.

Chris H writes:

@Mingo V

I believe this falls under the common-sense case for pacifism post.

Hyena writes:

Actually, MingoV, if we had data on slavery-related morbidity, we could figure out just how many people we could maim and kill to achieve those ends, assuming they had preferences similar to Caplan's.

MingoV writes:

@Chris H & @Hyena

I hope you didn't think I was serious. I was demonstrating how one could claim that any policy, including a bad one, could be justified by presupposing that it is moral.

johnleemk writes:


Where your analogy fails is that no government (other than perhaps the Haitian government) forces a Haitian to leave his friends and family behind. Most governments, by means of armed force that treats unarmed civilians as if they are armed invaders, force such people at gunpoint to cease and desist from daring to earn an honest wage.

Samuel Stringman:

Other economists have already done this, and their work is freely available online. See:

They find that in every instance they study, workers outside the US earn at most half of what their statistical twins earn in the US. In the worst case, Yemen, they earn 16 times less than their statistical twin who happened to get into the US. There is no plausible explanation for these vast differences outside of government-enforced, coercive central planning cum social engineering that declares foreigners unworthy of the privilege to compete with natives. (I'd be really curious to see those findings reproduced for other country pairs besides developing countries and the US. Unfortunately, nobody that I'm aware of other than Clemens, et al. has looked into this. Hopefully Bryan can convince a bright PhD candidate that the place premium is worth doing a thesis on.)

Hyena writes:


It's a perfectly fine argument, actually, which generally needs to be raised in these contexts. If immigration restriction is, at least in some cases, so bad that slavery and, presumably, death and maiming are equal to it with fair probability, we've just raised utilitarian grounds for imperialism, even if it means brutal repression.

A Haitian should be free to seek employment in France, just as a Frenchman should be free to seek employment in Haiti. A Haitian should not be free to invade France, just as a Frenchman should not be free to invade Haiti.

It is extremely dishonest to remove the issue of foreign invasion from discussion of immigration, because there is nothing else to discuss in the discussion of immigration.

Brian writes:

"Yes, enslaving a Haitian is plainly worse than forbidding him to accept a job offer anywhere on earth except Haiti. But they're both dire harms. How would you react if the world's laws barred you from every non-Haitian labor market on earth?"

Yes, this is absurd hyperbole. Immigration restrictions are nothing like slavery, and are not particularly dire. Immigration restrictions do not prevent Haitians from working for employers from anywhere in the world--they just have to do the job in Haiti (where they likely prefer to be anyway) or some other country that will let them in. Besides, you can't be meaningfully barred from accepting a choice (job offer) that you don't even have. How many Haitians do you think have job offers from outside of Haiti. I can't accept a job offer in Mecca. Am I being deprived of anything meaningful? Of course not.

The absurdity of the comparison is highlighted by the misleading question. How would I react to having to be employed only in Haiti? Well, if I'm Haitian, I probably wouldn't even know I'm being restricted. I wouldn't WANT to work anywhere but my homeland, as long as I can get a job. But since I'm not Haitian, the appropriate question in this context would ask how I would feel about being barred from non-U.S. employment. My answer? I don't care in the least, since I have no desire for employment anywhere but here. But asking the question with appropriate context wouldn't serve your rhetorical puposes, would it?

johnleemk writes:
How would I react to having to be employed only in Haiti? Well, if I'm Haitian, I probably wouldn't even know I'm being restricted. I wouldn't WANT to work anywhere but my homeland, as long as I can get a job.
I guess all the Haitians who've drowned trying to get to the US, or who have been deported after getting into the US, were just looking for a nice holiday.
Finch writes:

Hold on, the hypothetical is what if Bryan were suddenly to become a citizen of Haiti, not what if Bryan were to suddenly become a typical Haitian, right? I think that's both what's proposed and the more meaningful question.

Aren't the two worlds apart? How do Princeton-educated Haitians with experience as a tenured professor at an American school and job skills that are perfectly transmittable over the internet do?

Would Bryan be sitting in his manor house behind his security team sipping daiquiris? You can't walk to Starbucks, but labor is dirt cheap. People travel there as a form of exotic tourism. He'd be near the pinnacle of society because of his human capital - what's the situation on the ground for them? My ignorance is showing here. It may still be pretty bad, particularly if you have an aversion to seeing poor people, I don't know.

Steven Kopits writes:

Whoa, there.

You're making a socialist case, that everyone should have equal access to jobs.

Freedom is about property rights. If I have liberty, then I can roll-up lock my doors and shut out the neighbors, if that's what I want. That does not mean it's nice or even optimal, but there is no obligation on the part of the individual to provide access to any good to which they claim right of ownership, with the exception of public goods and externalities. Employment is neither of these.

Now, if you accept that the globe is partitioned into nation states, then the citizens of those states "own" the rights to the state, including the laws it creates and its treatment of foreigners. No Russia or Colombian or Indonesian has rights to make policy or dispose of other people's property in the United States.

You may argue that nation states are a bad idea, but they do exist and they are the basis of law for each jurisdiction.

And you may argue that i) constrained immigration is a tragedy and a moral issue, and ii) that is economically suboptimal. These may be true. But it's not the point.

The point is that a citizen of the US has no legal or political obligation to the citizen of any other country, except that which is self-assumed for reasons of religion or personal philosophy.

Michael K writes:

Isn't that "Test" at the end parallel to the one used by John Rawls, called a veil of ignorance, where he advocated a socialistic re-distributive state? So I guess Caplan agrees with Rawls that for the sake of justice and morality we need a socialistic state.

Charley Hooper writes:

Even with open borders, I don't see a billion poor people moving to the United States.

I am free to move to San Francisco, for instance, but I either can't afford to or don't want to pay the price to live in that expensive city.

To those billion poor people, America is one big San Francisco. Very few of them could afford to live here long enough to become established. Only those with the best prospects would likely take that chance.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Although data are sparser than one might wish for, it seems likely the average Haitian IQ is 1.5-2 SD below normal and at least 3 SD below the average IQ of those who read Econlog. I will go so far as to suggest the average IQ of Haitians is at least 3.5 SD below Bryan Caplan's IQ.

So given a choice between job-seeking in Haiti and enslavement, the typical Econlog reader should not weight the choices 2:1 as Prof. Caplan suggests! The typical Econlog reader would be well qualified for a very good job in Haiti, one that would pay enough to afford native servants and concubines, satellite TV, and so-on and so-forth. Really, one must question whether Prof. Caplan thought about the question he posed for more than a millisecond before offering such an obviously bogus answer to his own query.

(johnleemk, there is no such thing as "place premium" (though misunderstanding the odd petrostate helps keep the fantasy alive). You might as well ask an econ grad student to do his thesis research on phlogiston or carrying moonbeams home in a jar as on "place premium," which is why none does. Consider what would happen if the virtually equal-sized populations of Haiti and the Czech Republic were to trade homelands. Ten years later, which population would be rich and which poor?)

Jacob A. Geller writes:

Basically, Bryan is the Thaddeus Stevens of immigration, and Tyler is... Lincoln?

David Khoo writes:

Missing from this is the effect of migration on poor countries themselves. When the best Haitians constantly emigrate from Haiti, can we be surprised that Haiti suffers? Open borders can be a form of imperialism that devastates poor countries. The very poverty that open borders claims to alleviate may partially be a result of open borders itself.

Another disturbing aspect of open borders is this idea that nations are fungible, that only economics matters while culture and history do not. If all (or simply too many) Haitians moved out of Haiti, what happens to her history, her culture, her people, her tombs, her monuments? They are obliterated -- reduced to historical footnotes. Again, open borders can be a form of imperialism.

The condescension toward Haiti (and poor nations in general) here is not an accident to me. The whole exercise smells of imperialism, of White Man's Burden, of the rich doing to the poor "for their own good". Why not listen to the Haitian people first (and not just the disaffected diaspora)? They want progress and development as a people and nation. It is far better to promote that instead of evacuating them via open borders policies "for their own good".

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The problem with the libertarian theory is
1) Refusal to accept the reality of the nations.
This may be called the denial of the political nature of man.
2) Refusal to properly ground "property" or "ownership".
Mises wrote in Human Action, chap 24 that
Ownership means full control of the services that can be derived from a good.
If ownership is full control then the notion of theft is not meaningful.
Ownership is, in fact, a right and a right is a conclusion to a series of arguments, ultimately to the moral premise that man must eat of the sweat of his brow.
Mises further says in this chapter:
The history of private property can be traced back to a point at which it originated out of acts that were certainly not legal. Virtually every owner is the direct or indirect legal successor of people who acquired ownership either by arbitrary appropriation of ownerless things or by violent spoliation of their predecessor.

Comment: He actually agrees that property is robbery! (and notice the word "arbitrary").

Thus, the confusion, ever present among libertarians, between theft and conquest, property and territory, nations and groups of citizens etc.

Clay writes:

Caplan is demanding wealthier societies and cultures to adopt people from less wealthy societies and cultures and ultimately accept being conquered. Why does Caplan forbid other children the right to an upbringing in his home? I believe the two scenarios pose the same moral issue.

Richard writes:
Another helpful test: Suppose you had to choose between the following evils: (a) not being allowed to legally work anywhere but Haiti; or (b) being enslaved with probability X. What value of X makes you indifferent? My X=.33.
You'd probably have a much higher living standard as a slave in a first world country than you would have in Haiti. So I can't give you an X without more details,
Andrew Wise writes:

I think there is something to be learned also from the people making objections to fully open borders. I generally see folks with very good educational backgrounds making these arguments - in other words, people who have the freedom to work anywhere. How about we enact restrictions on your freedom to work proportionate to your stance on immigration? I think that might change the dialog. (Not serious about that, just a thought experiment. Also, I'm sure those at the absolute bottom of the income and education scale in the U.S. object to immigration because they have the most to lose, and no other country to go to in order to better their lot. But those are not the ones we hear complaining about immigration.)

sherparick writes:

First, quite a few "anti-slavery" men, including one Abraham Lincoln argued just as you wrote. And his election in 1860 did not mean the Abolitionist won. It was the reaction of South Carolina and the rest of the deep south to the threat they percieved to their "property" in making their rebellion and initiating a war against the United States that led to abolition. Rhett, Yancey, Chesnut, and Jeff Davis turned out toe the greatest abolitionists in American history who killed slavery when they took it out from under the protection of the Federal government, a protection Lincoln made very clear up to and and past his inauguration would continue in States where it still existed. His non-compromise point is that he would not allow its extension to new territories with the hope it would subsequently decline and die out.

This goes to a discussion of ownership and private property, whether human, animal, thing, or idea. As the recent history of Government coercion on downloading to stop copyright infringement demonstrates, Government exists to defend and protect property rights, and property rights and what most people think of as "Freedom," are not the same. Once something is defined as "theft" or a threat to "property," as Abolition was in the Ante-Bellum South, it is no longer a "freedom," but a crime that must be punished (as many in the Occupy movement discovered in 2010-12).

P.S. That Proudhon and Mies agreed that all private property is ultimately based on theft and force I find highly ironic, but I do wonder at how libertarians who are not quasi-feudalists reconcile it.

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