Bryan Caplan  

Scott's Utilitarian Leniency

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A few notes on utilitarianism... Some Empirics of Moral Philoso...
Scott's recent posts on utilitarianism sent me digging for his doubts about open borders.  But if you read him literally, Scott never falters.
My views on this are kind of hard to explain.  I am convinced by Bryan Caplan's arguments on utilitarian grounds.  And yet I view this issue as being different from all other policy issues in one key respect.  This is the only good policy reform that I can think of that might well make Americans significantly worse off.  In other cases what's good for the world is generally good for America, or perhaps roughly neutral.  So is it too much to ask for Americans to agree to open borders?  Not if everyone was like Jesus.  But although I'd personally vote in favor in a referendum, if I were a typical middle class American with the same level of selfishness that I currently have, I might vote against.  That's why I prefer to work for more modest gains, such as a rate of immigration of say 1% per year (i.e. 3 million people.)  I believe that would greatly reduce illegal immigration.  I'd prefer a balance of low and high skilled workers.  I realize that this would reduce the amount that we could plausibly do with low wage subsidies, but it's still the right thing to do.  (Bryan will say that in 1850 I would have favored "gradually" reducing slavery.)

If you are confused by my wishy-washy views on immigration, here's an analogy. On purely utilitarian grounds I'd have to say that transferring my entire pension to the poor of Dhaka is probably a good idea.  If you hooked me up to a lie detector I'd have to say it's the "right policy." But I don't do it because of the thought of still grading papers at age 83, and because I'm a selfish bastard.  Fortunately, that dilemma doesn't occur on any of the public policy issues I discuss in my blog.  I always say what I believe (rightly or wrongly) is the right policy.  I just don't talk about the sort of proposals that Peter Singer might contemplate.

What's noteworthy about this passage isn't that Scott disavows a clear-cut application of the utilitarian principle.  He disavows nothing.  What's noteworthy, rather, is that for once, Scott is vocally forgiving of non-utilitarians.  Instead of ridiculing opponents of open borders for their cognitive illusions, Scott suggests that utilitarianism asks too much. 

My question for Scott: Why is open borders the one issue where you seem to opt for moral leniency?  (Perhaps this reflects a change of heart?)

Followup question if he's got time: Why are you so quick to grant that open borders is a net negative for natives?  Sure, low-skilled natives who rent would probably lose.  But most natives aren't low-skilled and do own land.



COMMENTS (9 to date)
vikingvista writes:

"low-skilled natives who rent would probably lose."

You're pretty confident that the increased abundance resulting from unleashing free enterprise across borders would not overwhelm whatever competition a few US job sectors would see? Would you say that if foreign physicians were suddenly allowed to freely practice in the US that 'high-skilled natives who own' would probably lose?

I understand that granting some concession might help establish common ground in a debate, but I think you give away a bit too much by casting too broad a brush.

Hugh writes:

Í can't understand this infatuation with utilitarianism. It seems to be ashamed of its basis in traditional morality, and claims some special standalone basis that doesn't actually exist.

I would urge all readers to adopt my own "have a good time, all the time" paradigm and forget utilitarianism.

BucketofFried writes:

How do you factor in the guilt/dis-utility of (1) believing in Utilitarianism (like Scott does) but (2) knowing you will never even come close to measuring up to the ideal? Doesn't such a high standard decrease overall utility? The global poor do not gain utility by knowing some portion of the wealthy feel guilty about not giving more. However, the wealthy certainly feel worse. Thus, a high-standard is itself utility-destroying.

The more difficult question is one of magnitude. Does a little guilt (i.e. dis-utility) lead to a minute amount or large amount of giving (i.e. utility)? I guess it's an elasticity question.

NB: the above assumes wealth transfers from rich to poor do not have any sizable corrupting effects (which I will be the first to disclaim) and is thus a "free lunch" from a global utility perspective.

Hazel Meade writes:

I am not low skilled.

I rent. I do not own any land. I am trying to acquire some, but given the housing prices in the area (N. Virginia) it isn't easy.

There are large numbers of lower to middle class Americans who either have skills or are capable of acquiring them who want to move up, buy a home, and accumulate assets.

Not to say there aren't even larger numbers who just want to mooch off the government in one way or another, but that's not fair to the many many Americans who just want the same opportunities their parents generation had.

That said, I do think freer immigration is the right thing to do on moral grounds. But Scott is probably correct that it would probably be bad for many Americans. Just the fact that as population density increases, the amount of living space per person must decrease, is going to significantly impact quality of life.

Dave Smith writes:

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Roger writes:

Utilitarianism runs into the classic sociological problem of cooperation, often illustrated by the familiar prisoners' dilemma.

Cooperation can make sense and lead to a world of higher expected overall utility than defection. However, as long as defection is a viable strategy, those choosing this path will thrive relative to the utilitarian cooperators and they will actively undermine the utilitarian outcomes. Said more directly, a world of partial utilitarians is a world which breeds exploitation, free riding, defection and cheating on the part non-utilitarians. Hence partial utilitarianism is self defeating.

There are solutions to the prisoners' dilemma. In general cooperation can be scaled up by creating institutions and norms which allow cooperators to choose who to interact with and to penalize and advertise fellow defectors/cheaters/exploiters.

My assumptions are that utilitarianism will need to scale up the same way. In other words, it is a world of progress for fellow utilitarians, with everyone encouraged to become a utilitarian and with institutions which keep us all honest.

Think of it this way... We can form networks of cooperation and utilitarianism and then seek to scale up and combine networks. This would be evolutionary utilitarianism.

txslr writes:

I have developed a way to absolutely determine the quality of art. I apply a measure called a “frangle”. The great thing about frangles is that they are perfectly precise, so they will always give you a rank ordering of art by quality. For example, you may find a Picasso that ranks 47.2342 frangles and a Titian that ranks 47.2344 frangles, meaning that the Titian is .0002 frangles better than the Picasso. In other words, there are no ties.

Now, some of you will be inclined to complain that the quality of art is actually subjective rather than objective, and hence frangles couldn't apply across people. That is alright, however, because I have developed a heuristic measure called a “delor” that approximates the results you would get with frangles. With delors, ties may occur because they are not as accurate as frangles. A delor is approximately a half of a frangle.

For those of you who are skeptical, I recently went through the Louvre and ranked all of the art in the Italian Renaissance wing by delors and I got it exactly right.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Sumner's argument sounds very persuasive. The utilitarian case for open borders is good but utilitarianism also suggests that one should give one's pension to Dhaka. That's unacceptable and since a utilitarian argument has lead to an unacceptable proposition, other arguments based on utilitarianism can also be questioned.
My first reaction was to think that giving someone the freedom to compete for a job is not the same as compelling charity but that perhaps is the moral argument and not the utilitarian one. I still think utilitarianism is a valid way to look at the problem so I'm led to think that somehow Sumner's second proposition is actually not a valid one. Although I can't explain how, I think the world would actually not be a better place if he gave his pension to Dhaka. Although superficially it seems better, perhaps in the long run the benefits are not greater than the losses. A Randian might argue so. Does that seem plausible? I don't really know how to justify it.

Christopher Chang writes:

Simon, if you place any value on future lives, giving your pension to Dhaka is probably a terrible idea--there are ways to help others which can be expected to have much larger compounding positive effects over time. (I mentioned this in the previous comment thread as well.)

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