Bryan Caplan  

Exclusion: The Uncanny Moral Valley

It's hard to raise a lot of ta... Kibbe on Venezuela for Milleni...
Suppose the people of group X are a blight on society.  They may not be uniformly bad, but statistically speaking, they're trouble.  Perhaps they're criminals.  Perhaps they're parasites.  Perhaps they're bad voters.  Whatever the specifics, they're proverbially "screwing up America" (or whatever your country happens to be).  What should be done?  Here are some remedies, in descending order of brutality.

1. Murder.  Round up the members of group X and wipe them out.  If they make any converts, murder them, too. 

2. Sterilization.  Round up the members of group X and destroy their ability to have children.  This does nothing to reduce their current poor behavior, but - in the absence of rapid conversion - ensures group X will eventually become extinct.

3. Exclude.  Enact immigration restrictions to keep members of group X out of your country.  This does nothing to undo the harm that group X currently inflicts.  Nor does it prevent the harm future generations of X will inflict.  But it does effectively contain the social damage group X inflicts.

4. Brainwash.  Subject members of group X, or perhaps just their children, to mandatory "re-education" to suppress - or at least dilute - their identity. 

5. Censor.  Forcibly silence members of group X to prevent them from spreading their identity by speaking or writing.

6. Disenfranchise.  Deny members of group X the right to vote so the political system ignores their wishes.

Mercifully, the first two measures - murder and sterilization - are now extremely unpopular.  Indeed, groups inclined to mass murder and forced sterilization now top our lists of people who are a blight on society.

The last three measures - brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement, are only slightly more accepted.  Sure, people tolerate a little propaganda in public schools.  But at least in democracies, curricula avoid blatantly disrespecting students' group identities - even if their group is widely seen as a blight on society.  Censorship is even less prevalent.  A few hate speech laws aside, democracies let people speak their minds - even if their minds are twisted and evil.  And in modern democracies, the mildest measure on my list - disenfranchisement - is nigh unthinkable.  Everyone deserves a say in their government, right?

Lest you conclude toleration has triumphed, however, note that virtually every country enthusiastically uses method #3 - exclusion.  Contrary to anti-immigration propaganda, existing restrictions are very strict; that's why human smuggling prices are so high and only a tiny fraction of would-be migrants actually come.  Countries don't just bar criminals or suspected terrorists.  "Cultural differences" alone are a common rationale for exclusion.

It's tempting to say, "Civilized countries avoid draconian policies in favor of milder approaches," but that's flatly false.  Countries avoid both draconian and mild approaches, while using method #3 to the hilt.  If you doubt exclusion is harsher than brainwashing, censorship, or disenfranchisement, just ask yourself: How many would-be migrants would decline a green card if they were warned, "If you come, your whole family must attend weekly citizenship classes," "If you come, you have to keep your beliefs to yourself," or "If you come, you can't vote."  Indeed, it's unclear that sterilization is harsher than exclusion.  Plenty of Third Worlders and refugees would gladly go under the knife to get a green card.

It's similarly tempting to insist, "Countries belong to their citizens, so their citizens have the right to decide who can come.  Our land, our rules."  But this doesn't explain popular aversion to brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement.  Families and private clubs do more than restrict membership.  They also routinely tell their members what to think, silence dissent, and restrict the right to vote.  If collective property justifies the former, why not the latter?

In videogames and robotics, designers have long noticed an "uncanny valley."  Human beings readily relate to simple stick figures.  Human beings readily relate to fellow human beings.  But semi-realistic depictions freak us out.

When modern human beings ponder ways to deal with allegedly unpleasant out-groups, an analogous uncanny moral valley emerges.  Everything from murder to denying the vote seems abhorrent.  Except, of course, for immigration restrictions, which almost everyone accepts without shame despite the immense harm they inflict on hundreds of millions of innocent people.

What's going on?  I see a severe case of "out of sight, out of mind."  Immigration restrictions don't bother us much because the people we harm aren't here yet.  All of the other measures, in contrast, have visible targets.  This also explains, of course, why immigration debates focus so much on amnesty for current illegal immigrants, rather than higher quotas for legal immigrants.  The former group feels more human than the latter.

How can we intellectually resolve the illogic of the uncanny moral valley?  The consistent authoritarian route, of course, is to say, "Since draconian exclusion is a great idea, so are vigorous brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement."  The consistent civil libertarian, in contrast, says, "Since even mild brainwashing, censorship, and disenfranchisement are unacceptable, so is exclusion," perhaps combined with the bon mot that authoritarians - trigger-happy to impose collective punishment - are the leading group X that blights society. 

Between these extremes, naturally, there lies a continuum of internally consistent positions.  Personally, though I'm far closer to the civil libertarian than the authoritarian, I draw a fine line between disenfranchisement and everything higher up the list.  As Jason Brennan powerfully argues in his forthcoming Against Democracy, democracy has only instrumental value.  Voting isn't about doing what you want with what you own; it's about doing what you want with what other people own.  And as poll taxes show, most people barely value the right to vote anyway; how many people would pay even $100 to vote this year?  The upshot: If group X is genuinely "screwing up society," depriving group X of the right to vote would be unobjectionable.  Anything harsher, though, is uncivilized.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
AnonymousUser writes:

Given that green card holders can't vote in US (as they are not citizen) and at least some countries disenfranchise non-resident citizen - and even if not would-be immigrant would need to have time and resources to arrange voting - 6 is part of immigration anyway.

I disagree on a minor point: Brainwashing isn't that rare. One of the complaints of nativists is that people they assume to be allied with immigrants are brainwashing their children.

Paul A Sand writes:

Reading the first paragraph, I thought for sure you were going to pull a gotcha here, because clearly "Group X" can be "males".

Matthew Moore writes:

Here a potential explanation, which is somewhat in line with your own suggestion:

We want our club to only admit members who don't tend to need remedial action in order to be good members. Since the value of membership comes in large part from its irreversibility, we are cautious about admittance. This is the 'once you're in, you're in' mindset. A useful analogy might be tenure. We don't want to dilute the value of tenure by imposing speech restrictions on candidates ex ante.

Basically, I think people fear that two-level membership of their club is a slippery slope to the degradation of their own privileges.

Frederick Davies writes:

You do realise that "disenfranchisement" is another word for "Apartheid", as any political system that consistently "ignores [a group's] wishes" will eventually create policies that discriminate against said group.

Psmith writes:
Plenty of Third Worlders and refugees would gladly go under the knife to get a green card.

In the absence of extremely compelling evidence, we can safely consider this an instance of Bryan mistakenly believing that everyone is really a college-educated white Westerner deep down.

roystgnr writes:

I came in to point out that the word "unobjectionable" in the post was ludicrously wrong, but I see that Frederick Davies has already begun demonstrating its wrongness.

What's baffling is that Caplan's entire theory depends on the thesis that most people's morality works via "out of sight, out of mind", a.k.a. the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics; so why doesn't he apply that theory to disenfranchising immigrants? If we could identify a prospective immigrant group whose sole negative influence on a country would be via voting, then the overwhelming reaction to that wouldn't be a logical "Let's let you come here but not vote, since that's a pure Pareto improvement!", it would be a natural "You can't let people move to this side of the border but not vote! Not letting them vote is only okay if you force them to stay on the other side of the border too!"

They don't actually say the second sentence, because cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug, but you won't see anyone protesting to expand voting rights to foreigners either. For that matter, I'm probably being unfair to the objections. "Every adult long-term resident gets to vote" seems to be a very powerful Schelling point for democracy, and to anyone who sees the value of democracy it could be unwise to fall away from that point without being confident of where we'll end up instead.

Matthew Moore writes:


I think Bryan means 'plenty' in the usual absolute sense. 1% of the non-US population is still millions.

Also, his point is more subtle. Why not offer this option and allow revealed preference to do the job? He is showing how unrealised gains from trade exist due to incomplete immigration contracting.

Khodge writes:

Can we, at minimum, not subsidize them? Of course defining "them" and "their behavior" presumes an agreement that simply doesn't exist. For the ruling elites over half the country consists of "them."

Norman writes:

Open immigration worldwide is an emotional issue, like the war on drugs. Just yesterday there was a segment on the PBS News Hour on how drug gangs are creating havoc in Rio de Janerio for the 2016 Olympics. May be a solution would be drug decriminalization.
Without government interference, free migration would allow persons the opportunity to live in the most favorable areas of their choice. It would reduce nationalistic fervor, plus be an opportunity to meet new and interesting people.
It would help in preventing war and create human harmony. People would leave areas of hostility and dictatorships. There would be no one left in those areas to fight with, or be plundered.
If free migration had been possible in the years leading up to World War II, the Jewish population of Germany would have left taking with them their capital and wisdom. Even if 10 million people departed, and scattered over the world it would not have been overwhelming.
Open borders will come in the next century after public opinion ceases to support the government's war on drugs.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

This is all premised on the idea that immigration restrictions are in place because people think immigrants are a blight on society which strikes me as very obviously wrong. (This isn't to say there aren't people that DO think immigrant groups are a blight, it's just to say that that's not the origin of immigration restrictions - though the vocal minority there may have an impact on the debate).

LD Bottorff writes:

Non-citizens who hold green cards can legally live and work here without voting. That has gone on for years without a great deal of protest. The only problem is that we don't let enough people in with green cards.

Cliff writes:

What a strange post. First you specify that the group is a blight on society, then you argue that keeping them out inflicts immense harm on hundreds of millions of people. What if we passed open borders laws, the next day 600 million "Venezuelans" came to the U.S., and a few years later voted in a bunch of Venezuelan politicians who enacted Venezuelan policies. Are you still so sure that would have improved the world?

I anticipate your objection that we could just take their votes away. But what about their children? 600M Venezuelens with a TFR much higher than the U.S. average, living in self-segregated favelas and not learning English. You think they would be totally integrated by the 2nd generation? Is that consistent with our experience with much lower numbers of Mexican immigrants?

mico writes:

Let's say group X are criminals.

Exclusion, brainwashing, censorship and disenfranchisement are not rare at all, nor regarded as bad. Euthanisation sometimes occurs, and sterilisation is sometimes proposed.

Surely this discussion is just about what behaviour we consider criminal, everyone accepting that criminal behaviours exist that justify at least some of 1-6 and possibly all of them.

While having a low IQ and poor habits is generally not considered criminal, I don't see any less reason why it should be than e.g. owning a gun or taking drugs inside one's own home. These two are crimes established on the basis that the perpetrator might harm society, even if he has not done so, and even if he has no demonstrable intent to do so.

Compassionate Realist writes:
Immigration restrictions don't bother us much because the people we harm aren't here yet.

One could also argue that people largely reject the measures you describe because most people who are a "blight in society" exist in other countries. You've yourself written that people vote more to signal than to improve policy. Using strategies 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 signals to friends of ours that we are nasty exclusionary people. Since strategy 3 affects only those who are far away, our friends (people who are nearby) have a harder time being offended by our use of it. (The fact that the US allows people to help their family members immigrate does even more to solve this issue, since any nearby friends are able to bring those they care most about, their family, to the US.)

By advocating open borders, you are removing our one acceptable strategy to deal with groups that might do real damage to our society (in the sense of making our society much more like their 3rd world societies already are) if they came *en masse*. Would strategies 4-6 be more compassionate, all things considered, than strategy 3? Perhaps. But until people are convinced that they're socially acceptable, it's dangerous to remove our last socially acceptable strategy.

Donald writes:

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Brian Holtz writes:

We geolibertarians see Caplan as being fundamentally just as anti-migration as the nationalists that he condemns. The only difference we see between them is the size of the sovereign territory from which they seek exclude migrants.

To an allodial libertarian, whether a fence is aggression is a simplistic function of whether the sovereign who erected the fence is a "state". Geolibertarians recognize that land is different from other kinds of property, that the earth has various kinds of commons, and that preventing migration can be aggression no matter the geographic size of the sovereign that fences its border.

Mike writes:

@Brian - Do you think people should have the right to exclude others from camping in their backyard? From entering their house?

Brian Holtz writes:

You have the right to exclude people from a natural space -- land, sea lane, orbit, spectrum -- only if you pay the geo-rent you thus expropriate from the excluded community.

If this idea is novel to you, please google "geolibertarianism".

Floccina writes:

Is 4 the reason people often call for getting children of lower income folks into school earlier?

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