Scott Sumner  

How much idealism is ideal?

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The New York Review of Books has a Thomas Nagel review of a new book by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

An ideal that cannot be implemented is futile. The question is, how much of a drag on moral ideals should be exercised by the stubborn facts of human psychology? How far can moral ideals ask us to transcend our self-centered human dispositions without becoming unrealistically utopian? As Appiah says,
Some aspects of human nature have to be taken as given in normative theorizing..., but to take us exactly as we are would involve giving up ideals altogether. So when should we ignore, and when insist on, human nature?

I would suggest that to idealize in this context is not to ignore human nature but to regard it, rightly or wrongly, as capable of change. Only if the change is impossible or undesirable is the idealization utopian.

Appiah illustrates a different kind of reason to avoid excessive idealization with the example of immigration policy. To even pose the problem that faces us we have to take the existence of national boundaries as given, as well as the fact that some states treat their own citizens with flagrant injustice or are beset by chaos and severe deprivation. In thinking about what obligations such a situation places on stable and prosperous states, it is no use imagining a unified world without state boundaries, or a world of uniformly just states in which people are free to move from one to another. Such ideal possibilities do not tell us what we should do now, as things are.

Appiah's response relies on the idea of fortunate nations each doing their fair share toward alleviating the plight of those seeking asylum, while acknowledging that many nations probably won't meet this standard. This too is an ideal, but it doesn't depend on imagining a world very different from the actual one.


This immediately made me think of Bryan Caplan's push for open borders. Is that being too idealistic?

In my view, the article misses several important considerations:

1. Consider the problem of migration within China. Today, rural Chinese citizens are not free to migrate to the big cities. In one sense it would be futile for me to advocate free migration within China. My goal would be unrealistic, unlikely to succeed in 2018. And yet I don't regard this sort of advocacy as futile, as free migration within China is very likely to be achieved at some point in the future. So we need to think in terms of the time dimension, a policy that is unrealistic today may become realistic at some point in the future. In 1700, the anti-slavery movement looked hopelessly utopian. I recall a time when advocacy of gay marriage was viewed as being just as "futile" as is advocacy of open borders today.

2. Of course open borders at a global scale is a much more difficult objective than within China. But is such advocacy futile? Let's suppose that open borders would boost global welfare, but at the cost of reducing welfare for people already living in advanced countries. Does that make the goal impossible? Perhaps, but doesn't the same argument apply to foreign aid? Bill Gates donates billions of dollars to people in poor countries. The US government has a foreign aid program. These programs may boost global welfare while reducing domestic welfare. These actions would be difficult to explain in a model where people are not at least slightly altruistic. And yet foreign aid somehow exists. (And even if foreign aid is motivated by foreign policy considerations, not altruism, the same argument might apply to open borders, which would make America more populous and hence more powerful.)

3. Even if Bryan does not achieve his goal of open borders, the passionate advocacy of this policy might lead to partial victories, such as an increase in the level of immigration.

4. It is very difficult to predict which policies are realistic and which are impossible to achieve. Take the example of the 2016 presidential election. Imagine polling political scientists in 2015 on the following question:

How likely is that that a candidate with strong support in the extreme fringes of the alt-right would be elected president in 2016, despite the fact that 4 of the past 5 presidential candidates in his own party refused to endorse him?
I'd guess that most experts would have said the chances were near zero. Politics is full of unexpected surprises.

Critics of utilitarianism often point to the fact that its adherents (including me) almost never live up to the ideals of this highly egalitarian value system. And that's true. But that doesn't mean that it's futile to clearly stake out the issues, and try to show what's optimal. It's understood that people are imperfect, and will often favor their own utility over the welfare of strangers. Nonetheless, we need to be clear about what's best, even if it's is not currently achievable. We need a goal to aim at; while we decide how much sacrifice we are willing to make for the overall well being of society.

I would not expect Americans, or the Japanese, or the Swiss to immediately opt for open borders, even if that regime were optimal. But I would try to educate all three groups as to the advantages of immigration. I'd also hope and expect that they adopt an immigration policy that allows considerably more immigration than would be allowed under a regime that takes no account of the welfare of foreigners. Recall that Americans turned away Jewish refugees during the early 1940s. Is it possible that Americans might have done somewhat better if they had been fully informed of the issues at stake?

There is no reason to treat "ideals" and "human nature" as two alternative choices. We can recognize that both are important. We need to try to figure out and clearly describe the ideal policy regime, and then use that as a lodestar to aim at with the full understanding that human nature will never allow us to get 100% of the way to an ideal society.

The same argument applies to non-utilitarian value systems, such "natural rights libertarianism". If you believe in that system, it's worth fighting for even if you can never achieve 100% success.

We also need to understand the different roles played by different people in society. The democratic system helps to prevent policy from getting too far out ahead of the public. The immediate implementation of Bryan's open borders proposal might lead to a backlash against immigration, whereas this sort of backlash is less likely from a more cautious proposal that advances through both houses and is signed by the President. The role of intellectuals is (and should be) very different from the role of policymakers. Broad policy goals (not details) should reflect the wisdom of voters, even if the average voter is not very smart. Intellectuals should try to shape public opinion (although they will always be less influential than filmmakers.)




COMMENTS (7 to date)
Kurt Schuler writes:

Bryan Caplan is not being idealistic enough. The ideal is not open borders in a world where some countries are rich and free and others are poor and unfree; it is a world where all or at least most countries are rich and free. Migration between the United States and Canada, at least to the extent that it is by people whose ancestors have already been citizens for at least one generation, is not a big political concern because there is justifiably little fear that immigrants will be a burden on taxpayers or import political ideas and cultural practices wildly at variance with existing ones. Migration between Libya and Italy is a big political concern because the fears I mentioned are quite plausible.

Libertarians tend to ignore the cultural and political aspects of immigration, which ultimately are more important than the economic aspects for the people already living in the country. If you don't believe me, ask a Shoshone Indian, if you can find one, how unlimited immigration to the western United States worked out for his people.

These considerations argue for focusing on changing governance and culture in poor and unfree countries rather than letting a billion people from such countries immigrate to the United States if they want to come.

MikeP writes:

What I find interesting -- albeit completely predictable -- is the oblivious myopia typical of the progressive intellectual.

Appiah illustrates a different kind of reason to avoid excessive idealization with the example of immigration policy. To even pose the problem that faces us we have to take the existence of national boundaries as given, as well as the fact that some states treat their own citizens with flagrant injustice or are beset by chaos and severe deprivation.

The example conditions that must be taken as givens are manufactured to fit the present day progressive position on immigration, one based on refugees and asylum and driven by emotions that are framed in the media. But they are not based on any principle or true ideal. The actual second condition that must be taken as a given isn't that some states suck: it's that individuals by no fault of their own are born in some state.

It is continually irritating that the people who want to prohibit 95% of immigration are called pro-immigration while the people who want to prohibit 98% of immigration are called anti-immigration. A conversation about idealization and ideals should start with, you know, ideals -- like Bryan Caplan starts with. But progressives appear to be preternaturally incapable of actually thinking in principles, so they really can't identify actual ideals.

Which really makes a book about action based on idealization and ideals somewhat pointless, an animated conversation taking place in a vacuum.

Robert Schadler writes:

It is always disappointing when really smart people who have so much to offer and have already contributed a great deal to our understanding of the world get trapped in their ideological lacunae.
Does "open borders" include organized invasions, whether Genghis Khan or MS-13 gangs? Would it make any sense if a country like Canada were bordered by India and China?
If extreme libertarians want to open their own homes to whomever wants to whomever wants to enter, let them do so. And they might refuse to call the police when something unwarranted happens as a result. But proposing open borders for absolutely all simply seems weird and makes all of their other good work less credible.
Likewise, progressives on the left who advocate "equality" -- a mathematical concept that makes no sense with regard to a complex group of people. Equality is achieved by subtraction as well as addition. Focus on growth and addition for those who need something more -- opportunity as well as philanthropic activities -- but not a preposterous and impossible ideal of "equality."

Joe munson writes:

Open borders seem somewhat unique to me in that so many interest groups will win/make so much money if it were implemented.

Is it idealistic to think that something that will make large megacorps and billionaires so much money will eventually pass?

Weir writes:

If I'm the author of a utopia I write all the characters, and they all agree with me, which is why it's a utopia. It's the one ideal policy regime. Nobody disagrees with my correct views on everything, so there's no conflict or argument. Why would I get into arguments with characters I've created? Why would they argue back?

So it's perfect, but it's solipsistic. Is utopianism always a kind of solipsism? I think so, because in real life there are other people with ideals of their own. Other people are idealists too, and if everybody's allowed to be the author of some utopia, we'll all write different books. To pretend otherwise is to imagine that other people are just pieces on a chess-board that I can push around as I like. Maybe they object, but I'm certain I have their best interests at heart. And we see a lot of that in real life. Idealists can treat people with contempt. They aren't held back by self-doubt or a decent respect for the opinions of others.

If I'm a utopian, do I even feel that I belong to the same society as people who disagree with me? Maybe the only society I belong to is a heavenly society, the society of the elect. Fallen humanity is beneath me, and earthly society is merely existing society, and that's utterly trivial under the aspect of eternity. Those people are just passing through. I'm on the right side of history. My ideals are eternally and objectively true.

The danger is that this excessive self-regard leads pretty quickly into writing off other people's objections as of no significance. I'm as incorruptible as Robespierre. I'm another man of iron like Lenin. People can make arguments using logic and evidence, but I've already established that reasoned debate is pointless. People who disagree with me are in denial. They're guilty of hate speech. I don't have to argue in support of my correct views. I simply ban the opposition. I defund them, deplatform them, disinvite, denigrate, make them toxic, eliminate them utterly. Because my ideals are the correct ideals, this gives me a lot of leeway.

It's a species of delusion. It's self-flattering. It turns "experts" into idiots. What does it say about "political scientists" if they can't hear themselves speak? If a cartel polices the borders of acceptable opinion, then any single defector from that cartel stands to win a lot of votes by saying the same thing that a majority of poll respondents have been saying for years. That shouldn't be as much of a surprise as it was to me, for example. I thought Hillary was a shoo-in. We can keep insisting, despite the evidence, that the winner of the election represents the extreme fringes of public opinion. But that's delusional.

It's 1972 all over again. It's Pauline Kael. If nobody I know ever votes any different to me, if my assumptions always go unchallenged, I'll end up like Barbra Streisand, and I'll believe the guy who tells me he cloned my dead dogs. I'll believe anything: "Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those 30 or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."

Scott Sumner writes:

Kurt, I don't think the Native American analogy is a good one, because the problem there was not immigration, it was violence and theft. I don't expect new immigrants to steal our land using guns.

The point about a billion immigrants is much more persuasive, and is the reason I do not expect Bryan to succeed in the short run.

Mike, You said:

"It is continually irritating that the people who want to prohibit 95% of immigration are called pro-immigration while the people who want to prohibit 98% of immigration are called anti-immigration."

Very good point.

Robert, See my reply to Kurt.

Hazel Meade writes:

Part of the point of being idealistic is to get people to think about what is actually right and wrong, instead of merely what is in their self-interest. If you try to think of the world in an ideal state, you're forced to think of other people are equals, as human beings with the same inherent rights as you. That leads to a different formulation of what the just approach to topics like immigration is - to start with the idea that the pieces of paper that were assigned to you are birth are not relevant to who you are and what your moral worth is as a person. We're all equals, where do we go from here?
Maybe open borders is not politically viable, but we could at least think of people who have lived here since they were children as equal to American citizens in deserving the same right to live and work here.
And then we can also start thinking of things like how people from some parts of the world don't have more of a right to come here than others. We get closer to a just and humane immigration policy if we start by imagining what the ideal state would look like.

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