Jeff Jacoby's wise words on immigration

Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek writes about a great piece on illegal immigration by Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe, "The demonizing of illegal immigrants".

This next wave of pilgrims is criticized for entering illegally even when they're on good behavior here, but

For most illegal immigrants, a legal option simply doesn't exist. Under current law, a young Mexican or Salvadoran who wants to improve his life by moving to America and working hard at a useful job generally has just two options: (a) Enter illegally, or (b) stay out forever. Several hundred thousand a year choose option (a).

People who come here in the traditional American way—without asking some self-righteous gate-keeper for permission—are "criminals," yes, but so is every person in Atlanta who drives 56 miles per hour on I-75 and I-85. Which is, oh, everybody. That hardly seems grounds for not letting them do productive work when they arrive at their jobs. Along the same lines, Jacoby writes:

Someone who crosses the border without a visa in order to find work doesn't deserve to be branded a "criminal." Doing so only inflames and confuses an issue that is contentious enough as it is. And it cheapens a word that should be reserved for those who purposely harm others through genuinely wrongful behavior: embezzlers, rapists, arsonists, murderers.

The demonizing of illegal aliens keeps us from having a rational discussion about US immigration policy.

And lastly, with a message that ought to remind conservatives of how much they, too, love big government:

Twenty years ago this week in Berlin, President Reagan uttered his memorable challenge: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Conservatives who extol Reagan's legacy might ask themselves what he would have thought of the idea that our response to hard-working risk-takers so eager for a piece of the American Dream that they endanger life and limb to come here should be a Berlin-style wall of our own. I suspect it's a notion he would have scorned, along with the suggestion that all we really need to know about immigration we learned in kindergarten.

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Any limits at all?

I have a question for you. You seem to be in favor of immigration because you hold certain *values* about it.

What about the effects of immigration? What if it were the case that immigrants hurt the US? You might not believe this to be true, but hypothetically speaking, let's say that it was. Let's say immigration hurt the US in a major way. Would you still hold those values above all else? Would you support immigration no matter how badly it hurt the US?

Could you be more specific?

Could you be more specific? It's not quite the case of asking me to imagine a square circle, but it still needs concretes to make me think of a scenario in which immigration could be "hurting the US," whatever that would mean.

Perhaps you mean immigrants would be taking jobs that would then put natives out of work? And that this would be the end of the equation? This just don't make sense.

Eating up social services? These are provided by the state, and doing something about the provision of these services would be on my mind rather than accepting defeat at the first level of investigation.

In any event, it's not properly moral to worry only about people in the US. It's equally valid to improve the lot of someone to whom Fate arbitrarily assigned not being born here.

Forced sterilization

Limits on immigration are morally the same kind of thing as forced sterilization since they both violate the rights of the individual (to different degrees, but both are violations). So your question about immigration can be transplanted to forced sterilization.

Suppose that the population was getting out of control, and people were suffering from the overpopulation of the country. Would that make forced sterilization okay? Suppose it was shown that blacks were disproportionately adding to the misery. Would this discovery justify the targeted, forced sterilization of blacks?

I can really only give you my view. In my view, right and wrong are not affected by the actual ramifications from now into the future. We are ourselves of course the product of evolution, and therefore the product of natural selection based on the ramifications of things in the past. So in that sense, human morality, being human, is dependent on ramifications. But today, the human animal is what it is. It may some day evolve into something new, but today we are what we are now, regardless of the consequences of what we are now.

The human animal is in some ways not well-adapted to the current environment. Food is so easy to find and exercise is so easy to avoid that many of us have become unhealthy.

Similarly, it may be that human morality is not well-adapted to the current environment. Maybe human morality will lead to the eventual extinction of the human race given current conditions.

Nevertheless, it is what it is. Right and wrong are what they are regardless of their eventual future consequences. People have a right to go where they want, and they have a right to reproduce if they can get someone of the opposite sex to cooperate in that endeavor. It is wrong, it is evil to sterilize someone against his will, and it is wrong, it is evil, to lay claim to a territory and not let anyone in unless that territory is rightfully your property. And the territory of the US is not rightfully anyone's property.

Re: Forced sterilization

Limits on immigration are morally the same kind of thing as forced sterilization since they both violate the rights of the individual (to different degrees, but both are violations).

WTF? A limit on immigration is about as much a violation of individual rights as a limit to one's ability to work in Google's offices and demand to be paid. If you have the skills to be a net contributor, then even if the US won't let you immigrate, some other country usually will. Yes, there are important boundary cases such as pretty much everyone closing their doors to the Jews in the late 30s; but elite universities and other organizations were similarly discriminatory back then. It didn't take "open borders" to solve the latter problem. So I don't see why it's necessary for the former.

Now, let me clarify that I think "open borders" can work. But only when you have created a system that is either (i) robust enough such that just about everyone's kids can be net contributors (an initial transition cost is acceptable as long as the long-term consequences are positive), or (ii) enough self-selection occurs such that the non-contributors tend to leave. I would like to believe (i), but the facts on the ground (such as what I've seen of the LA Unified School District) make it extremely obvious that we aren't there. That leaves us with (ii), and hard truths like Milton Friedman's "You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state." And anyone with a shred of a sense of responsibility to their fellow citizens realizes that that means you get rid of the welfare state first, then open the doors, rather than opening the doors first under the assumption that you're helping to eliminate the welfare state by forcing it to collapse under its own weight. That may happen eventually, but in the process you're ruining hundreds of millions of Americans' lives. Maybe you're okay with this because you're part of the elite that is insulated from the negative consequences. But you're not going to convince many people outside that elite, hence the ~80% public opposition to the current Senate immigration bill.

Yes, immigration limits and forced sterilization have one consequence in common. But last time I checked, when there are two ways to achieve a result, and one way is a billion times worse than the other, the two courses of action are not "morally equivalent" even if in a narrow sense they arrive at the same end state. You can make a million dollars by creating a product that enriches people's lives and selling it to a fair number of people, or by a bit of insider trading. Are they morally equivalent? Alternatively, you can have a strong military via superior technology and motivated volunteers, or forcing lots of slaves to fight for you. Are they morally equivalent? Does the existence of the latter practice (if only in ancient times) automatically mean the goal of a strong military is evil?

I will conclude with a remark on the welfare of Mexicans. Unlike many opponents of the Senate bill, I actually do believe the US has some responsibility for the well-being of Mexican citizens. My bird's-eye view of history is that the Allies conquered the world in '45, and a few decades later the US-led subset of it defeated the Soviet-led subset. While we don't assert political control over other countries (well, okay, we did in Iran in 1953, and that ended up working out horribly), we design and enforce the playing field. I think we could, and should, indirectly force the Mexican government to do a better job of serving the interests of its people, if for no other reason than our own self-interest (their our neighbor and they aren't moving away).

But we have no responsibility to grant citizen-level privileges to every Mexican who crosses the border. If it turns out to be to our advantage to do so, then it should be possible to convince the bulk of the voting population, at which point we can implement such a policy. On the other hand, any attempt to suppress debate, like what obviously occurred with the Senate bill, is a glaring indication that the bill's authors know the bill cannot stand up to debate, that they think it only works to the advantage of their corporate lobbyists while screwing the middle class. They're not necessarily right about this, but maybe you immigration advocates should convince them that they don't need to act in an openly evil fashion to achieve their goals, before you try to convince the rest of us.

Clarification

A limit on immigration is about as much a violation of individual rights as a limit to one's ability to work in Google's offices and demand to be paid.

Okay, I need to clarify this. Preventing your people from leaving your country can indeed be a gross violation of individual rights, to be shunned as much as forced sterilization.

But accepting immigrants is a totally different matter, as long as we have created a "market" where it is to the advantage of a country to accept good people.

It's not your country

You and I appear to disagree about whether the country belongs to you (or to a collective "us") in the way that Google's offices belong to Google. Google became the owner of its offices in the right way: by buying the land from a previous rightful owner (or, alternatively, by establishing ownership of previously unowned land by developing it, but I assume that its offices in Mountain View were not built on previously unowned land).

I deny that anyone rightfully owns the territory of the United States. The government has, to be sure, laid a kind of claim on the territory, but I consider any such claim illegitimate (considered as a claim of ownership), because it did not come about in the appropriate way. For example, I purchased my home and the land it sits on. The government never purchased that same land. It did not develop the land - the person who built the house developed the land. Nor did it purchase the land from the person who developed it - I am the one who did that.

And unless an entity owns land, then it has no right to prevent someone else from occupying the land. The US government has the many "rights" it claims only in the moral universe of Might Makes Right, which is not the moral universe that I reside in.

Nor does the American public, taken as a whole, have any rights over the territory. I own the land I have bought. I do not, by virtue of my membership in American Society, have part-ownership of the entire territory of the US. The claim that my membership in this collective grants me part ownership of the territory is just mumbo jumbo with no basis in anything legitimate that I can discern.

Preventing your people from leaving your country

It's not my country (except in a sense that does not imply ownership). It's not our country. It's not the government's country. If I do not own a bit of land, I do not have the right to prevent someone from either exiting, or entering, it.

we have created a "market"

This "creation" of the market does not establish a property right because we never agreed with each other that our diverse individual businesses would be collectively owned and at the mercy of the decision of the majority. If everyone in the country except myself is against my hiring a Mexican, then I still have a right to hire the Mexican because I never agreed to subject my hiring decisions to the majority decision.

Re: It's not your country

I deny that anyone rightfully owns the territory of the United States. The government has, to be sure, laid a kind of claim on the territory, but I consider any such claim illegitimate (considered as a claim of ownership), because it did not come about in the appropriate way.

By depending on an argument this dumb, you are doing far more damage to your own side than I could possibly do. (Which is too bad, since as I remarked in my original post, I wouldn't mind seeing open borders once we've created the conditions for them to work properly.) You may as well argue that human life is illegitimate, since we have to kill other lifeforms for our sustenance, we can't survive on solar power alone. In both cases, there is an ideal that may be worth aspiring to, but the messy reality of our history and evolution prevent retroactive application.

International law consists of (i) what groups of constantly changing powers find it in their common interest to enforce (ultimately, not all that much), and (ii) the laws of physics. Power grows out of the barrel of a gun, whether we like it or not. The question is, how nice of a society can we build on top of these apparently unpleasant laws of physics and game theory.

Frankly, I think the political organization of the world that started to calcify after the post-WW2 nuclear standoff sucks in many many ways. But it's the reality we have to deal with. I don't live under the illusion that I can eliminate the foibles of the Chinese Communist government just by declaring them illegitimate. No, I have to do the hard work of figuring out how to actually get from point A to point B.

If everyone in the country except myself is against my hiring a Mexican, then I still have a right to hire the Mexican because I never agreed to subject my hiring decisions to the majority decision.

Is it okay for me to dump toxic waste into the Mississippi even if everyone except myself is against it? I never agreed to subject that decision to the majority. It's just a contract between me and the laws of physics, and since I'm able to execute the action the laws of physics are obviously giving their consent.

Yes, the negative externalities involved with hiring a Mexican aren't as bad as those involved with dumping toxic waste. But they exist, and we perceive them to be significant enough such that we pass laws controlling the behavior. Of course, we may be wrong about this, which is why we have a political process to change old laws. You are encouraged to use it. (Though, as I mentioned in my previous post, the powers-that-be on your own side obviously have no confidence in the ability of their position to stand up to the debate our political process is designed to encourage.)

Alternatively, you could take advantage of polycentric law, which if you didn't notice, already exists. The implementation isn't seamless, but if you don't like the laws in the US there are a lot of other countries you can move to. Or, if you think they all suck, you could stake out some international territory in the sea, or some barren strip of land nobody really cares about.

I wasn't presenting an argument

By depending on an argument this dumb, you are doing far more damage to your own side than I could possibly do. (Which is too bad, since as I remarked in my original post, I wouldn't mind seeing open borders once we've created the conditions for them to work properly.)

I wasn't presenting an argument. I was stating my view. Any "argument" that I presented was presented entirely inside of my view - I was simply explaining how my views held together internally and not trying to convince anyone else. I said as much here: "I can really only give you my view." I was responding to the following question:

Would you support immigration no matter how badly it hurt the US?

That's a yes/no question. It is not a request for a persuasive argument but merely a question asking for a thumbs up or thumbs down. I went slightly further than answering the question by explaining how my views held together - how my general views resulted in my specific view on this particular matter.

I am not in the habit of proselytizing. I do not commonly think of intellectual discussion as activism. I do not go door to door spreading the word like a Jehovah's Witness. Therefore your statement that I am doing "damage" to my "side" misconceives my goal, which is to answer a yes/no question about my position as clearly as I can.

You began your response not with an argument but with an insult - which was an interesting way to start a comment in which you lectured me on the methods of persuasion. Your argument itself was weak, being a failed attempt at a reductio ad absurdum. Reductios are inherently weak because they are usually questionable attempts to extend another person's ideas. The attempt is usually questionable because the person attempting to extend the idea

  • usually does not understand the idea to begin with, so is not in even a starting position to extend it; in fact, his position is worse, since he is hostile and therefore unlikely to give it an honest go
  • extends the idea by combining it with his own thinking. Therefore any weakness in the extension is likely to be traced to imperfections of the critic's own thinking
  • is arguing in ignorance of the other person's full set of ideas, which ideas are likely to be relevant to any attempt to extend the particular idea

In short, most reductios are a waste of everybody's time and not worth responding to. Yours strikes me as falling into that category.

Re: I wasn't presenting an argument

You began your response not with an argument but with an insult - which was an interesting way to start a comment in which you lectured me on the methods of persuasion.

There is a difference between calling an idea dumb and calling a person you're debating with dumb. Is Communism, in light of what we know today about its track record, dumb?

You claim I've misunderstood your position. Well, educate me. I called your idea dumb because I could immediately see not just one (in which case there likely is some subtle point I'm missing), but lots of ways it broke down. To take another example, when you stated that Google is clearly the rightful owner of its land, you based that on the stated assumption that they bought the land off a previous rightful owner. Trace this chain back. Do you change your opinion on whether Google's claim is legitimate if two or four centuries ago, that bit of land was taken by force from American Indians? Illegitimate all the way down? Why not; what's the fundamental difference? Louisiana Purchase okay with you? The French tended to be more cooperative with the Indians...

As for methods of persuasion, to be blunt, I'm more interested in persuading other readers than you. I have enough experience arguing with utopian dreamers that I know better than to expect to change their minds; but I can warn others off. Enough uncontested posts like yours creates the appearance that open borders is a rational policy with broad justification. Maybe this is actually true, but I'll need to see the arguments.

I was simply explaining how my views held together internally and not trying to convince anyone else.

That's fine. You have no obligation to spend all the time necessary to convince me, even if your position is correct.

But if you didn't notice, there's a sort of war going on. Our political elite is fighting to force this bill through in the face of unprecedented public opposition. As far as I know, this is a landmark event; nothing this brazen has happened in the entire history of Congress. I consider it my responsibility to run any faulty arguments that inadvertently lend cover to these conspirators into the ground when I can. Nothing personal.

Your argument itself was weak, being a failed attempt at a reductio ad absurdum. Reductios are inherently weak because they are usually questionable attempts to extend another person's ideas.

Would you prefer that I not try to express my understanding of your ideas? I'm a lot less likely to find out that I fundamentally misunderstood you if I never put my misconceptions on (figurative) paper to be identified.

Ah, Jeff Jacoby

Just don't let Jacoby know that some immigrants might once have said nice things about gays, or harbored negative thoughts about any Israeli policy ever. He'd change his tune pretty quickly in that case.