Immigration is a necessary component of a realistic utopia

In The Law of Peoples, one of his last works, John Rawls sketches a normative theory of international relations amongst decent and liberal nations. He does not discuss immigration and defends his omission by saying that it would not be relevant in an ideal society:

There are numerous causes of immigration. I mention several and suggest that they would disappear in the Society of liberal and decent Peoples. One is the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, the denial of their human rights. Another is political oppression… Often people are simply fleeing from starvation… Yet famines are often themselves in large part caused by political failures and the absence of decent government. The last cause I mention is population pressure in the home territory, and among its complex of causes is the inequality and subjection of women. Once that inequality and subjection are overcome, and women are granted equal political participation with men and assured education, these problems can be resolved… The problem of immigration is not, then, simply left aside, but is eliminated as a serious problem in a realistic utopia.

I find this passage deeply unsatisfying. Neglecting discussion of immigration by saying that it would not be relevant if the entire world were a decent (or ideal!) society strikes me as manifestly unhelpful. Even if the long-run steady state of ideal societies might result in little concern for immigration policy, immigration between decent and indecent societies would likely be a significant determinant of the transition dynamics to the realistic utopia. Surely liberal societies ought to have concern for immigration policy in this context.

But such thought experiments and omissions might be entirely appropriate in political philosophy. It’s not my field, so I do not know its assumptions and techniques. For the sake of argument, concede everything that Rawls says above and contemplate the “realistic utopia” condition. Rawls is still wrong.

Why? Economic geography! In a world of increasing returns and agglomeration economies, it makes no sense to keep people trapped within historically-produced arbitrary boundaries. It massively decreases human welfare. We want people to be free to gather in densely populated areas and reap the gains of more complex and frequent human interaction. We also want them to move freely to respond to geographically idiosyncratic shocks. People are a resource and borders impose transaction costs that impede allocative efficiency.

For thoughts along these lines, see Lant Pritchett’s “Boom Towns and Ghost Countries.” With labor mobility, there are countries that would become “ghost countries” akin to ghost towns. But due to immigration barriers, there are instead “zombie countries” populated by “human beings, who through no action or fault of their own, are trapped in economically non-viable regions.” Ghost countries are preferable to zombie countries, even in a world governed by “liberal and decent Peoples.”

4 thoughts on “Immigration is a necessary component of a realistic utopia

  1. Emmanuel

    I am no fan of Rawls’ brand of political philosophy. Its applicability is very, very limited–the “veil of ignorance” and all that. My preference is for the work of David Miller, which you can apply to a broad range of real-world situations.

  2. Curt Doolittle

    Your position does not account for the negative affect of immigrants on the capitalized BEHAVIORS (Habits), institutions, and aesthetics, that made the appealing destination possible.

    If people move To A from B, that means A is more attractive. If the rate of adaptation of B-people to the A-environment is low enough, the capital accumulated by A-people, in all it’s forms, is simply consumed by B-people, at A-People’s expense.

    Property, aesthetics, skills, social behaviors are all opportunity costs born by A-people. So the debate over immigration is not an absolute question of the free movement of people at all times, but one of capital accumulation by immigration, or capital degradation by immigration. Otherwise you’re just stealing from the people who made sacrifices in order to accumulate the capital stock that made one place more attractive than the other.

    So, there is some maximum rate of immigration that retains or is additive to, the country’s capital stock. Thereafter, there is a net negative. At some point, it indistinguishable from a locust swarm.

    Efficiency, which you seem attracted to, is an income-statement look at the world. But a society, which means, a group of people who have a set of habits that allow them to cooperate and accumulate capital both collectively and individually, is a balance sheet problem, not an income statement problem.

    As far as I can tell from history. Rapid immigration is how the middle class consumes the society’s accumulated capital stock. This is another example that illustrates the problem of the income statement look at economics versus the balance sheet look at economics. If you look at income statements, whether as a citizen, a corporation or a state, you will happily lie to yourself about what’s going on, because there is no measure of change in the capital stock. Not because we CAN’T measure it, but because we DON”T measure it.

    The most simple example to consider is a popular Brand (Say, Eddie Bauer or Ralph Lauren). If we made a new clothing style, and exploited it completely, it would no longer be scarce enough to attract members. It loses it’s status appeal. Often, CEO’s take over companies, burn the ‘Brand’ (the company’s social capital) by over extending the brand by using debt (opening too many stores for example). The company folds, the debt holders are the victims of bankruptcy, and the consumer is left with an unfashionable wardrobe. If the company had been required to declare brand value on it’s balance sheet, everyone could have seen the company’s, and the brand’s demise.

    Credit money for the example brand above, and credit money for immigration cause the same results. They allow people to consume the accumulated efforts of others. In fact, I’m pretty sure, that that’s all we have been doing with fiat money for a very long time: consuming accumulated capital.

    So, from this perspective, immigration that is not accumulative, isn’t a question of fairness. It’s simply a matter of theft.

  3. Sean Sullivan

    I believe a fair summary of your post would be that we should allow immigration only so far as it is a net benefit to society – the idea that, “there is a certain rate of immigration that retains, or is additive to, an country’s stock. Thereafter, is a net negative.” This Exclusive-Club paradigm this is the wrong way to look at immigration. It is only because of the great demand for US living and our severe restrictions on its supply that we even consider taking such measures.

    The first implication of the statement is that we can somehow determine the marginal rate of return on immigration. It is a difficult calculation because immigrants are not a homogenous group. Each comes with different skills and abilities, and the market’s demand for those skills and abilities changes. While the marginal cost of immigration might be easier to determine (e.g. increased use of social institutions, infrastructure, and the like), the benefit they are likely to bring to society is hard to determine. Beyond basic facts like education or criminal background, we cannot say with much certainty whether or not the immigrant will be a net gain or loss for society. This basic inability to forsee what a human will contribute to a society will inevitably force some brilliant minds to create wealth in other countries because they were not allowed into ours. Or worse, some contributions to society will be delayed or never realized at all because of faulty immigration policy.

    In determining our net loss/gain, we neglect to define a time period for when this gain or loss is realized. It should also be determined if this net gain/loss includes progeny. For example, Barack Obama Sr. only studied in the US for a few years before leaving to return to Kenya, but his son his now the President of the United States. Depending on how far out we measure and whether we include descendents or not, the net value will change.

    This same logic might also apply to deportation. We could easily argue that “there is a certain rate of deportation that retains, or is additive, to a country’s stock. Thereafter, is a net negative.” Many criminals are a net negative on society – they consume resources for years in state and federal prisons while contributing little back. Their absence from society can also cause other members to misallocate their resources, whether visiting the criminal in jail or spending more to counter the criminal’s absence. These criminals are broken windows, and deporting them would be a net benefit. If society is to be so particular about whom it allows to join, it only makes sense to maintain rigorous standards for staying as well. No business would retain an employee simply based on his or her resume, but by the quality of work performed.

    In brief, we ought to allow in as many of those who do desire to become productive members of society as we can. We are naturally limited by available housing, food, employment, and the like. These inherent limitations will signal to others the price for immigrating. The individual can then weigh the expected costs and benefits, compare it with present conditions, and then make a choice. In this way we create a market for labor. Increased labor mobility is just as good for productivity as the increased mobility of all other forms of capital. In this way, we can hope to increase both the income statement and the balance sheet, and not just for our nation but also our trade partners.

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