Is more illegal immigration the best we can do?

Will Wilkinson on Bryan Caplan’s (false?) dilemma:

Bryan Caplan lays down a challenge to liberaltarians:

From what philosophic point of view is “maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + the immigration restrictions lots of domestic redistribution naturally encourage” better than “maximizing growth + no redistribution + free immigration”?  Whether you’re concern for the poor is Rawlsian, utilitarian, or even dogmatically egalitarian, “no redistribution + free immigration” is the way to go.

I cry foul. I don’t have much patience with ideal theory, but either we’re ideal theorizing or we’re not. If we are, then I’m for “maximizing growth + lots of redistribution + free immigration”. (Actually, to nitpick, the idea is to reduce redistribution as a portion of national income while increasing it in absolute terms through a higher rate of growth.)  I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is better or worse relative to various ethical standards, and neither does Bryan.

If we’re doing non-ideal theory and Bryan says that I can’t have free immigration together with lots of redistribution, then I’m going to say he can’t have “no redistribution” without repressive oligarchy or civil war. That’s worse on any standard than the immigration restriction Bryan thinks my formula entails, so I win! Right? Well, who knows? I don’t think this is a fruitful debate, either.

Wilkinson is right: the real fruitful debate is how to navigate a social safety net for citizens without increasing the inequality between citizens and non-citizens in a way that produces repressive international oligarchies or actual war. Oh wait, that’s what we actually have.

As with many debates among libertarians, this comes down to a textual analysis of the sacred texts of Milton Friedman. Harking back to a previous post, Wilkinson concludes:

Friedman’s view is that a certain kind of unrestricted welfare state makes illegal immigration good, because it severs residency from welfare eligibility. Friedman is unequivocal about the desirability of free migration. Anyone really committed to Friedman’s stated view about welfare and immigration should by no means try to restrict immigration, but instead should try to enable illegal immigration. A devout Friedmanite should stand stoutly against every fence, every border cop, every increase in the INS budget, any proposed database check for a new workers’ legal status, etc. I think it makes more sense to argue first for a guest worker program. But if that is in fact impossible, then Friedman has it right: more illegal immigration is the best we can do.

Again, this comes down to identifying the least advantaged group: is it poor Americans, or poorer non-Americans? Wilkinson is right to notice that Rawls fails to address this problem in his own work, but for this we have Thomas Pogge: see for instance, “Severe Poverty as a Violation of Negative Duties.” Pogge, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to offer by way of effective policy (though he thinks he does), but he’s the current gold standard for how we ought to judge our ideal theory commitments when it comes to comparing international and national rights and duties. He comes not to bury Rawls, but to globalize him.

Here’s my challenge: what can the far left offer here? If there’s a basic income, who gets it? How does the far left see redistribution and immigration issues interacting?

The old line is that capitalism and imperialism guarantee open borders for money and goods, but closed borders for people. But there never was much agreement on how to deal with this: should we close the borders to money and goods, or open them to people? Or do both? Are immigrants scabs?

One reason the far left often gets ignored is that they refuse to respond on the issues that force decisions between domestic and international proletarians. That’s supposed to be ideology: properly understood, this question dissolves in the recognition of the true solidarity of all workers, whether they live on less than a dollar a day or collect a $36,000 pension for three decades. This refusal to judge is pretty typical: most on the far left can’t even decide if they prefer agrarian or urban proletarians.

UPDATE: Freddie DeBoer substitutes sneer for argument:

(There’s a class of politico out there that thinks the only way to show respect for the needs of Indonesian mill workers is to demonstrate total callousness towards unemployed Detroit factory workers, and that’s cosmopolitanism!)

I’m not a “politico,” and I don’t feel at all callous to Detroit factory workers. I worry about them both.

However, it’s important to note that the Indonesian per capita GDP  is $2,349 while the Michigan per capita GDP is $32,079. Also, Michigan has unemployment insurance and the full gamut of US social insurance, while Indonesia is one of the four OECD countries with the worst social protections. Until the economic downturn here in the US, Indonesia also suffered from negative rates of foreign direct investment, which is part of why they couldn’t afford a more extensive welfare state. Now that the FDI trend has improved (in large part because of FDI deregulation that no longer forces de facto nationalization of foreign investments) Indonesians are indeed capturing some of the jobs, like a new Hyundai tire plant, that would otherwise go to Detroit workers. Is it callous to say that, while they both need it, the Indonesians needs it more?





One response to “Is more illegal immigration the best we can do?”

  1. […] As I wrote recently, the dark side of the basic income proposal is that it privileges citizens over non-citizens. Perhaps this dark side is mitigated a bit if every nation-state in the world enacts a basic income, but there’d still be horrible inequalities between nations. However, in this post I want to argue that this kind of inequality is both better than the status quo. […]

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