Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
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.
did bill clinton accelerate black mass incarceration? yes, but he did put a bunch of white people in prison to even it out
Pam Oliver has a fascinating post that empirically investigates incarceration trends during Clinton 1 era (1993-2001). It’s an impressive post. Professor Oliver pulls up a lot of data on overall incarceration rates and breaks it down by race. You should read it yourself, but here is my summary, diagrams are from her article:
- Imprisonment rates, overall, kept on increasing during the entire Clinton 1 presidency.
- By race, Black imprisonment rates increased till about 2000 and then plateaued. It started at 75/100,000 and then peaked around 200 per 100,000 and then stabilized. There are huge increases, in rates, for Whites, Hispanics, and Native Americans. Asian rates seem to be stable.
- The story of racial disparity is a bit more complex. Roughly speaking, the Blackness of the prison population peaked around 1995 (see below). Then the Black/White ratio in prisons began to decline.
My interpretation. First, you have to distinguish between between absolute and relative effects. To be blunt, Black mass incarceration in absolute terms unequivocally increased during the Clinton 1 years. Period. Perhaps the only qualifier is that it eventually stabilized, but the Black imprisonment rate never declined or even remotely went back to the levels of the 1980s or early 1990s. Mass incarceration was built in the 1980s and 1990s and it was here to stay.
The real question is why it stabilized. One hypothesis is that it was a policy effect. Perhaps in the late-1990s, there were policy changed that took effect circa 2000. A second hypothesis is that the prison system became saturated and there weren’t any more people to imprison from that population. Professor Oliver’s data are not enough to settle the question.
Second, the real story is in relative rates. Imprisonment became a much more equal system in the 1990s. In other words, prison shifted from being a Black institution to more of an all American institution. My hypothesis is that the drug war machine simply reached its limit in imprisoning Black and expanded by targeted low income white.
In this data, the American prison system appears as a hungry beast, ruthlessly scooping up low SES populations one at a time. After being built in the 1950s and 1960s by liberal reformers, the American justice system now had the power to quickly and swiftly punish people. In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican and Democratic administrations turned this machine on urban blacks and went unstopped until the early 2000s. The machine then turned to poor whites in the 1990s and a similar machine was built to imprison and deport Mexican and Central American migrants.
Francis Fukuyama wrote that we reached the end of history because liberal capitalism won over its socialist and fascist competitors. The sad truth is that the history must continue and the next chapter will be the struggle to liberate the world’s people from predatory prison states.
Over at National Review, I’ve seen some puzzling articles about Gary Johnson, the libertarian candidate for president. First, there was an article that argued that Johnson was not truly libertarian. This strikes me as odd since politicians, especially successful ones like Johnson, are usually pragmatists, not college professors and it is strange for a conservative magazine to judge who is libertarian enough. Second, there was an article urging Johnson to court the right. This is also odd in that, aside from taxes and gun rights, libertarians have opposite beliefs from conservatives on issues ranging from migration, war, and cultural issues. These aren’t small differences. They’re YUGE.
Ultimately, though, libertarians should not court the right for practical and moral reasons. In practical terms, the libertarian-conservative alliance has been a complete failure. When libertarian candidates run for office within the GOP, they rarely get any support. In the last three presidential primaries, we’ve seen libertarian candidates run in the GOP and they have all failed miserably. Simply put, Republican voters have consistently rejected libertarians at almost every opportunity.
There is also policy. Except for the economic deregulation of the late 70s and early 80s, the conservative movement has sided against libertarians. Conservatives have supported nearly every single war in decades, they have sided with the expansion of police powers, they have sided with the war on drugs, they have stood for deportations of non-violent migrants, they have sided against women, minorities, and queer people when they have asked for civility and enforcement of rights, and they have sided with the massive expansion of the surveillance state after 9/11. How these stances emerge from a deep respect for individual people is beyond my ken. Whatever has been gained by the alliance of conservatives and libertarian is so paltry in stature that it requires a magnifying lens to observe.
Does this mean that libertarians should flock to liberals or the Democratic party? I don’t think so. One could easily write an equally long article about the incompatible aspects of modern liberalism. Libertarians, for example, are comfortable with wealth that is earned through the production of value, while liberals see economic inequality as inherently unfair or corrosive.
Instead, I suggest that libertarians approach politics through openness and bridge building. First, libertarians should stand their ground just as much as liberals or conservatives, but be open to interacting and cooperating with all manner of people. Not only is it smart for a movement that is a very small numerical minority, it is also consistent with the view that freedom of speech, diversity, and respect for others is part of the libertarian ethos. Second, libertarians should be a bridge. There are many issues where libertarians can maintain integrity while bringing things together instead of contributing to a polarized political environment. For example, libertarians can be part of the conversation on police powers that draws together concerned people on the left and right. In the end, what I want is a movement that makes the world a better place. That will happen with engagement and civility, not partisanship or pandering.
Philosophers are famous for thought experiments. You concoct a hypothetical situation in order to test a claim. Thought experiments are crucial because they force you think clearly about the limits of your claim. However, in practice, thought experiments leave people cold. They seem contrived and counter-intuitive. This post is about one way to help you evaluate whether a thought experiment is useful. I make no claims to originality, only usefulness.
Ethics motivates this discussion because ethicists are constantly cooking up thought experiments to test the limits of ethical theories. Let’s start with two examples:
- Trolley car problems (see the wiki for a history): In this situation, there is a runaway car. It is about to run over five people. If you pull a switch, it will run over one person. People die either way. Should you pull the switch?
- Wilt Chamberlain (from Nozick): Imagine that you live in a society with 100 people. Each person pays $1 to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Inequality is increased as Wilt becomes $100 wealthier and every one becomes $1 less wealthy. Is this a just state of affairs?
Independent of my ethical priors, I have always found trolley car problems to be bizarre and Wilt Chamberlain to be intuitive. It was only recently that I was able to articulate the difference. Trolley car problems, in my view, are rare, artificially constructed situations. Wilt Chamberlain is a crisp form of a common situation.
At the Washington Post blog, Ilya Somin has a column on why people who favor color blindness should also favor open borders. He starts off with a great quote from Abraham Lincoln:
In a famous 1855 letter, Abraham Lincoln drew a connection between racism and hostility towards immigrants, then epitomized by the nativist Know-Nothing movement:
“I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”
Lincoln understood the similarity between racial prejudice against blacks and xenophobic hostility to immigrants. That is one of the reasons why he took a favorable view of immigration throughout his career, and opposed efforts to exclude potential immigrants from the US or otherwise discriminate against them. So too did a good many other prominent 19th century opponents of slavery and racial discrimination, such as Frederick Douglass.
Republicans: if the founder, and possibly greatest president, of your party favored migration, maybe it’s time to soften up and mellow out about immigrants. Just sayin’.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about open borders at Wellesley College as a guest of the Freedom Project. My talk summarized the view that open borders is a “common grounds” position. People who are liberal and conservative should support it. It is trans-ideological and bipartisan in nature. The liberal argument for open borders is very easy to defend. The best way to end poverty and lessen inequality is simply letting people move to places where they are more economically productive. For libertarians, the issue is equally straightforward. Migration restriction is nothing but a barrier to trade and personal freedom.
The case for conservatives is a little more subtle because there is no single intuition that motivates conservative critiques of migration. In my talk at Wellesley, I broke it down this way. Each bullet point merits a longer discussion, but I present the summary here:
- “Retail conservatives:” The rank and file conservative might oppose migration because immigrants reduce employment for natives, increase crime, or create undue stress on social services. In these cases, research either shows that there is simply no evidence to back it up or that negative effects are way, way overblown. Additionally, retail conservatives who promote family values and self-reliance should applaud immigrants because they improve their economic situation through hard work, not hand outs.
- “Philosophical conservatives:” There is a strand of more sophisticated, philosophical conservatives that are motivated by the writings of folks like Burke and Oakeshott. One might summarize their view as a suspicion of radical change and social engineering. If so, the they should vehemently oppose closed borders. What is more radical than drawing a line and proclaiming that people on one side can’t move to the other? Aren’t migration controls an attempt at social engineering by legislators? Don’t borders violate the organic social order of communities?
- “Cultural conservatives:” Some conservative migration critics are worried that migration might undermine the valuable things about Western culture. I think there are a few sensible responses. First, Western culture has survived socialism, fascism, communism and a whole lot more. America is much tougher than waves of low skilled labor. Second, in public opinion research, one often finds that migrants aren’t terribly different than natives in terms of political opinion. Third, Western societies tend to “chill out” migrants. If you want to decrease the anti-Western sentiment in the world, let people migrate to the West and their kids will be much less hostile than those back in the home country.
To sum up, there are a number of conservative criticisms of open borders and there are a lot of very intuitive and strong responses.
My view of the Obama administration is that immigration reform is a second tier issue and they have little interest in pushing hard for change. For six years, Obama’s administration did little, or might have even encouraged, the massive increase in deportations, including those without criminal records. Obama proposed some extremely modest reforms which have had almost no effect on making it easier to lawfully move between nations. In some cases, he has been blocked in the courts. In other cases, the administration has been unable to properly implement its own very modest reforms.
For example, one reform was that children escaping from gang violence in Latin America could apply for asylum. Seems reasonable, but not when you learn that 0 children out of 5,400 applicants have actually moved to the United States from crime ridden nations. From The New York Times:
“Really, it’s pathetic that no child has come through this program,” said Lavinia Limón, the president and chief executive of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit organization. Pointing to administration officials, she added, “I wonder if it were their child living in the murder capital of the world, whether they would have more sense of urgency.”
When you read the details of the policy, you quickly realize that the policy was never intended to actually let anyone in. Like most immigration policy, the rules are designed to prevent migration, not make it legal:
State Department officials said the program was also slowed by the requirement of DNA tests for parents in the United States and their children in Central America before the children could be granted entry. The officials said some parents had taken a long time to have those tests performed, further extending the delays. The process also includes security checks, medical screenings, payments for airline flights, and other paperwork.
It should be no surprise that people in impoverished areas would have problems with paying for medical tests, paternity tests, airline tickets, and endless paperwork. Most native born Americans would be hard pressed to produce this amount of materials.
In my book, Obama will go down as the deporter of children, many to their deaths. May his successor see the world as a place for free people.