open borders and the rawls-munger test
While discussing a recent paper on public opinion and slavery in the pre-Civil War South on Econ Talk, Michael Munger gets into the arguments made for slavery:
Munger: … what Montesquieu asked was this: ‘We always hear people talking about how great slavery is. And you say, well, slavery is beneficial to you and it’s beneficial to the slaves; but it’s mostly slave owners who say stuff like that.’
Russ: Which makes you think.
Munger: Well, suppose we all go into a room. And when we come out, some of us are going to be slaves, and some won’t. Now, do you still believe in slavery? And if that’s then standard, then okay. But otherwise I’m not persuaded that this is really a moral argument about how we should live our lives. And so, what’s interesting is: there are these conventions. And then there are these challenges. And I think Rawls deserves credit for having said, ‘Here’s a standard that it would have to pass.’ … I don’t know we’re going to end up believing. But if you think ‘Yes,’ then in order for you to persuade anyone else that it’s actually just, it would have to pass these sorts of tests. It’s not exactly the same thing as understanding persuasion. But it is a way of problematizing the conventions that come down to us that we just accept because they are traditions.
Excellent point. I call this the “substitution test” for an ethical argument. For any policy X, you are free to make the arguments for why people A and B should accept X. Then, you have to put yourself into the position of A and B. If you wince at X at any point, then that’s probably a good reason to think twice about X. It’s related to the Rawlsian argument that one should evaluate policy from an “original position,” stripped of our actual interests.
Application to open borders: Say you are arguing that we should shut out all Syrian refugees because we’re afraid of terrorism. If you woke up and found yourself to be a Syrian refugee, would you make the same argument? If you faced death and torture in Aleppo, wouldn’t you want to argue that not all Muslim people are terrorists? Or that collective punishment and guilt by association are wrong? Or that maybe you should be given the chance to prove that you aren’t a terrorist? Or maybe that the value of saving millions of lives outweighs a few lives lost due to a few terrorists that the police didn’t screen out? Or that you’d be willing to pay an extra tax to compensate people who were harmed by migration?
In other words, most people people in the position of the Syrian refugee would not argue for shutting the gates and voluntarily returning to the burning ruble. Instead, they would almost certainly consider much more modest policies for addressing the perceived problems with migration so that lives could be saved. There’s a lot of moderate middle ground that people ignore when they promote closed borders.
Restrictionists, the ball is in your court.