Archive for November, 2009

How libertarians confuse means and ends

November 26, 2009

When it comes to arguing politics, the most common rhetorical mistake is the confusion of means and ends.

For instance, the end of libertarianism, that is to say its goal, is the maximization of liberty. Sometimes, the issues that affect freedom are complex because there are actions that increase freedom for some people while decreasing it for others.

Instead of performing the arduous task of determining how each policy will affect every single person, libertarians use heuristics, or shortcuts, as a way of efficiently making the right decision. They balance the cost of making the wrong decision with the cost in mental energy of figuring out the right one.

My complaint with the libertarian movement is that it relies too heavily on these heuristics. Too often, libertarians are unable to see when their (usually) reliable heuristics misfire and reduce freedom instead of advancing it. The rules of thumb that were created to efficiently achieve libertarians’ goals have become ends in themselves – to the detriment of liberty.

A case in point is Ron Paul’s strong aversion to free immigration within North America. In a 2006 article that appeared on lewrockwell, Paul warns us of the proposed “NAFTA Superhighway” which would run from Mexico to Canada. Paul sees the breakdown of borders as a serious threat to sovereignty and therefore a cause for concern:

The ultimate goal is not simply a superhighway, but an integrated North American Union – complete with a currency, a cross-national bureaucracy, and virtually borderless travel within the Union. Like the European Union, a North American Union would represent another step toward the abolition of national sovereignty altogether.

This is a textbook case where Paul’s obsession with upholding national sovereignty has become an end in itself and leads him to support policies that reduce freedom. Paul’s obsession with sovereignty is so strong that he is blind to the fact that borderless travel would be a positive aspect of a North America Union and is an argument in its favor.

Paul continues:

The real issue is national sovereignty. Once again, decisions that affect millions of Americans are not being made by those Americans themselves, or even by their elected representatives in Congress…Any movement toward a North American Union diminishes the ability of average Americans to influence the laws under which they must live.

Essentially, Paul is arguing that Americans have less freedom if they lose the ability to vote on the policies that affect them. Again, Paul is confusing means and ends. Whether or not it’s a good idea for policies to be decided through voting depends entirely on how likely the voters are to select good policies. If it turned out that previously autocratic countries became more repressive upon granting their population the vote, that would be an argument against democracy. Democracy is simply a means to good government, not an end in itself.

In the same vein, if upholding national sovereignty requires restricting immigration, and therefore restricting freedom, then that is an argument against upholding sovereignty.

P.S. Oddly, Paul and other libertarians are able to understand this point if you change the issue from immigration to gun control. Libertarians widely praised the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case, in which the Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban that had been enacted by the district’s city council in 1975. On that issue, libertarians didn’t mind the fact that the wishes of the district’s population were overridden by a centralized authority.

“Patriotic” immigration controls

November 8, 2009

I listened to a bizarre argument against immigration the other day. Mark Krikorian, who runs the Center for Immigration Studies and who is a frequent contributor to National Review, was interviewed by the Hoover Institute’s Peter Robinson about his book The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal.

Krikorian makes the argument that immigration hurts poor Americans, and that it should be restricted on those grounds. Robinson asks him why he isn’t interested in the increase in well-being of the immigrants who move to move to the United States. Here is Robinson’s question in full:

Robinson: You’re saying that the bottom quintile, the 20 percent poorest American citizens are disproportionately hurt, in absolute terms, they’re worse off than they would be if we did not have immigration, so the question would be, what is the moral argument on which you prefer the well-being of the bottom quintile of American citizens, who, although they may be worse off are still better off than the poor folks in Mexico? What is the argument that permits you, in good conscience, to prefer the well-being of these working-class folks in El Paso over the poor folks in Ciudad Juárez who want to move to El Paso?

An excellent question indeed. I was interested to hear Krikorian’s response, which turned out to be less than impressive:

Krikorian: It’s called patriotism. We have a greater obligation to Americans than we do to foreigners. That is a moral statement. It’s not a factual statement. You can disagree with that. There are a lot of people who do. The Wall Street Journal does. They don’t see what one philosopher calls the “concentric circles of obligation” where your own family is most important to you, then you’re countrymen, and then humanity as a whole. We have to have priorities.

I do agree with Krikorian that relationships should play a role in determining how we treat people. It’s probably a good rule of thumb to give special consideration to your immediate family members over strangers. They provide you with a ready-made support network when you are lonely, when you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, or if you have to move from one apartment to the other.

It’s difficult to see how countrymen are similar to family members in this sense. A person in New York is every bit as much a stranger to me as someone in New Delhi.

Further, it’s mysterious why governmental jurisdictions should enter into the equation. Why not make moral worth dependent upon business relationships instead of political ones? If I work for a transnational company – such as Wal-Mart – shouldn’t I give greater weight to the concerns of my fellow employees in Beijing than I do to someone who works at a competing firm in my own country?

There is one obvious solution to the problem of immigrants hurting poor citizens, and that is to strip the poor citizens of their citizenship. If there are people who are making you waste money on raiding fruit orchards and senseless wall-building to keep them happy, why not just kick those people out of the “circle” so you don’t have to care about them anymore? That would seem to be congruent with Krikorian’s moral reasoning.

P.S. Robinson later asks Krikorian if he argues for stricter immigration control on utilitarian grounds, and he flatly says “no.” What, if any, moral system he is using is anyone’s guess.