Debts and Profits, Ours and Theirs

Reader, if I were to set off, unannounced and uninvited, on a journey to your home and become stranded along the way, would you have a “moral responsibility” to come and pick me up? At first glance this would seem a most implausible claim. It is not obvious that it would gain in plausibility if I were in some sort of peril.

You might even wonder how it is possible to have a responsibility to someone whom you’ve never met. Well, presumably in much the same way that it’s possible to have a responsibility to someone who doesn’t currently exist; and clearly we do have responsibilities to those who don’t currently exist (even should they never get around to existing at all), otherwise why all the fuss over environmental issues?

In any case it would be wrong (not to say naïve) to dogmatically insist that the rules that apply to us qua individuals apply to us qua government. So it is not impossible that we do, in fact, have a “moral responsibility” to take in however many immigrants it is we want to take in. As with some other “moral responsibilities”, it is sufficient simply to assert that this one exists with enough force (or tears) to guarantee that it actually does. And, in all honesty, reader, how could any decent human being doubt for one moment that we have a moral responsibility to take in however many immigrants it is we want to take in? QED.

But what if some hard-hearted fellow, not much given to moral philosophy, were to reject our proof? How might we convince him?

A very popular method is to appeal to his economic interest: Immigrants will, at some point, make us better off financially.

There are a few things to say about this.

• Does this mean each immigrant will make us better off? Surely not. But then, what to do with all those unproductive immigrants? Do they not have the right to come? (A peculiarly Lockean question.)

• “At some point”? Is my pain here and now commensurable with my joy ten years from now, such that I can subtract the one from the other and arrive at some positive sum? Pace Heraclitus, do we step into the same river twice? Why assume that today’s losers are identical with tomorrow’s winners?

• Does “us” mean each of us individually, or just some rough aggregate of the mass of people? Will Peter and Paul each gain, or will the gains of Peter somehow outweigh the losses of Paul such that ‘Peter-and-Paul’ are better off though Paul is not? (And why should Paul accept this?)

• “Better off financially”. More tax money in the pot means more money for the government to buy me the things I like, certainly – but if there are more voices asking for more goodies I stand that much less chance of getting the things I like from the government. How rational is it for democratic man to will a larger, more diverse tax base?

But the most serious – and the most obvious – point is that we are assuming that men care about money to the exclusion of all else. Yes, the weekly shop may be a few shillings cheaper, but (and at the risk of sounding hysterical) at what cost? Economic arguments are all well and good provided economic outcomes are valued more highly than cultural ones; but that any given individual will do this is not at all certain, and to say that he should is horridly paternalistic.

To tell a man, for example, to stop complaining about his noisy, loutish neighbours because they have an excellent work ethic is to miss the point by a long way. Such a long way, in fact, that he could easily be forgiven for not giving the time of day to other, more sensible, things you might have to say to him.


3 thoughts on “Debts and Profits, Ours and Theirs

  1. I would reject the premise of your argument. The burden is not on the “open borders” contingent to demonstrate some benefit of liberty of movement but rather the burden lies with the “controlled borders” set to demonstrate why freedom of movement should be curtailed. This is called the “presumption of liberty,” which you should know is central to the de Jasay skeptical method

    And I would object to the characterization of “taking them in” in the same sense that if traveled to city B from city A and found a barricade and an army guarding city B and they asked “why should we take you in”?

    I would reply: “I’m not asking you to take me in. I’m asking you to step aside.”

    I would be careful articulating a reason why they shouldn’t step aside because in doing so you are likewise torpedoing every liberty you hold dear…that is, you will validate the legitimacy of replacing liberty with permission.

    The view of the welfare state is a demarcation line between “classical libertarians” and “classical liberals.” The classical libertarian view(that is, the one enunciated by the 19th century radical french liberals such as Bastiat) holds the welfare state to be a poor man’s plunder that is a rational response to the larger organizing principle of plunder of political economy(e.g., Bastiat, The Law). Whereas classical liberals seem to view it as a lower class socialist drain on an otherwise productive free market political economy(a view that isn’t in any sense, however, supported by empirical fact).


    1. The post does two things:

      1. Criticises (or rather, mocks) the idea that we have debts to strangers.

      2. Criticises the sloppy use of language that leads to unthinkingly accepting utilitarian principles.

      So…. I don’t know what to tell you, mate.


      1. well, in re-reading what you wrote, I suppose there are two interpretations:

        (i) the open border immigration position relies on either (a) impersonal duty moral argument–debt to strangers or: (b) economic utilitarian argument

        and to show the problems with (a) and (b) likewise shows the problems with the open border immigration position

        (ii) relying on (a) or (b) to make the case for the immigration position leads to other bad conclusions

        if your post is (ii), i would more or less concur. If (i), i would dissent.

        My position is to reject both the moral analogy and the economic premise, characterizing both as misplaced burdens.


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