Would open borders cause unsustainable waves of immigration? Consider Michael Huemer’s discussion of rule consequentialism.

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Michael Huemer rule consequentialism

It seems as though every time the topic of immigration comes up, someone inevitably will say, “There is no way that a massive invasion of immigrants—especially immigrants from the third world—would be anything but a disaster for the destination country.”  It’s intended to be a “Got ya!” statement, catching its victim off-guard since he apparently never fully considered the consequences of his position.

First of all, no libertarian that favors open borders argues that they have some desired number of immigrants they hope to see come to their country.  They only desire that market forces lead to some happy equilibrium of immigration (yes, even with some government intrusions creating perversions in the market).  Yet that doesn’t quite answer the objection.  Does it make sense to worry about huge waves of new people with different cultures and different languages wreaking havoc on both local and national cultures?

It is undeniable that loosening immigration restrictions would increase immigration, but because some might immigrate, would unsustainably huge numbers do the same?  In his book, The Problem of Political Authority, Michael Huemer addresses the shortcomings of this sort of argument as it relates to rule consequentialism.  Huemer does not address immigration in his explanation, but the parallels are obvious.

I claim that one may break the law when what the law commands is not independently morally required and no serious negative consequences will result.  This sort of suggestion is commonly met with the challenge: ‘What if everybody did that?’  This question is meant to suggest a moral argument against the sort of behavior at issue, but the precise content of the argument is not so obvious.  It does not seem to be a simple consequentialist appeal—the suggestion is not that, in breaking the law, one is likely to actually cause everybody to do the same thing (whatever exactly counts as ‘the same thing’).  Rather, the suggestion seems to be that the fact that it would be bad if everybody did something is by itself a strong reason not to do that thing.  This idea is closely related to that of rule consequentialism in ethics.  Rule consequentialism holds that, rather than always choosing the particular action that will produce the best consequences given the present circumstances, one should act according to general rules, and one should choose the rules that, if generally adopted, would have the best consequences.

In some cases, this idea is plausible.  Take the case of a newly planted lawn on a university campus.  Students and professors are tempted to take short cuts across the lawn while walking from building to building.  One person cutting across the lawn will have no noticeable effect.  But if everybody does it, the pristine lawn will be marred by an ugly footpath running through the middle of it.  Assume that the aesthetic disvalue of the path outweighs the total benefit it provides in terms of time saved.  In this situation, many find it plausible that one ought not to walk across the lawn.  This appears to be an illustration of the ‘What if everyone did that?’ principle, the principle that one ought not to do what would be bad if generally practiced.

But in other cases, the principle seems absurd.  Suppose I decide to become a professional philosopher.  This seems permissible.  But what if everybody did this?  Everyone would philosophize all day, and we would all starve.  Presumably this does not show that it is morally wrong to be a professional philosopher.  We will not in fact starve, because the farmers are not all going to be become philosophers merely because I decide to become one.  In this case, ‘What would happen if everyone did what I do?’ seems irrelevant.

One might try to save rule consequentialism from this objection by taking a more nuanced view of the ‘rule’ I am acting on.  Perhaps when I decide to become a philosopher, I am not acting on the rule ‘Be a philosopher’ but on some more complex rule, such as ‘Be a philosopher, provided that there are not already far too many philosophers’ or ‘Choose the profession best suited to you, provided that there are enough people in other professions that your doing so does not have serious negative consequences.’  If everyone acted on either of those rules, then we would not all starve.

But just as I may claim to be following the rule ‘Be a philosopher, provided that there are not too many philosophers’ or ‘provided that there will be no serious negative consequences’, individuals who choose to break the law could often claim to following some such rule as ‘Break the law when what the law commands is not independently morally required, provided that there are not too many people breaking the law’ or ‘…provided that your doing so will not have serious negative consequences.’  The proviso tacked onto the end of this rule is perfectly parallel to the proviso tacked onto the ‘Be a philosopher’ rule, so whatever rationale allows us to include the latter proviso will almost certainly license inclusion of the former.  It appears, then, that rule consequentialism itself is defensible only if it does not support a general defense of political obligation.

It’s worth asking the question of how the proviso regarding the suitable number of immigrants is established.  I mentioned in the beginning that libertarians hold that market forces would bring about some level of equilibrium of immigration.  If people in the host country are offering better-paying jobs and/or the risk for a better life is worth the trek, then immigration will continue.  If that stops, then the net immigration will likely stop as well.

To use Huemer’s example of the philosophers, the reason why not everyone would choose to be a philosopher is because too many people in that field would cause the economic incentives to be a philosopher to fall.  Other professions would see increases in the incentives to enter them.  Once a good equilibrium is established, then the incentives would level out.  Can you imagine how much money you could make as a farmer if most of the other people in the world were philosophers?  That would undoubtedly push some people into the field of agriculture (and every other profession with a high demand).

It is only through the free exchange of goods and labor via signals from prices that effects a healthy market of migration—or any other market.  To claim that the state could choose immigration levels without deference to decisions based on supply and demand is to claim that the economic calculation problem has been solved.

In other words, if you want to virtually guarantee either a shortage or an oversupply of immigration, then the state choosing immigration levels is your best option.


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