Sunday, December 1, 2013

A fine quandary for left liberals

This provocative column by Paul Collier offers up an object lesson in applied ethics. Collier argues that liberals who advocate open immigration usually overlook or undervalue the adverse impact on less developed countries of self-selective migration: emigration drains away the brightest, most ambitious, hard-working, and talented individuals, harming the home country even as it helps the migrants and their families.

Let's grant for now his factual premise, which is that for small countries at least, the brain/ talent drain of emigration imposes a real net cost on those left behind. Do liberals concerned about helping the "bottom billion" then have a duty to oppose liberal immigration policies, at least with respect to immigration from smaller countries vulnerable to the brain drain? If the answer is in the affirmative, we must live with our message to the would-be migrants: You will be forced to stay where you are, for what we judge to be the good of your countryfolk.

From the perspective of distributive justice-- say a Rawlsian stance-- we may be tempted to concur with Collier that it is worth sacrificing the interests of the better-off of the poor to help the worst-off of the poor: maximin is a demanding taskmaster. I am generally down with Rawls, but why then my discomfort at Collier's conclusion? We needn't look far: Let's consider a bright and ambitious young African-American woman from the South Side of Chicago. She earns a scholarship to an Ivy League school and leaves town, never to return. So much the worse for the South Side. Should Yale or Princeton have ignored her application... or should Connecticut or New Jersey have declined to issue her an "interstate visa," in the interests of economic development on the South Side?

These Nozickian worries impose themselves whenever I think about immigration policy. Collier is a smart rhetorician, and he smartly pushes some liberal buttons: Allowing the most talented of the poor to immigrate, he writes, "appeals to economists as efficient, since the [migrants] are indeed more productive in the rich world than the poor.... It appeals to libertarians as freeing human choice from the deadening weight of bureaucratic control." He need not add: "Too bad it hurts the poorest of the poor."

Well played, Paul, but must the Rawlsian throw in the towel? Let's not forget that Rawls himself insisted on the "priority of liberty." If we require freedom of movement for a Chicagoan, why not a Ghanaian? Is that national border not "arbitrary from a moral point of view," as Rawls would put it? From behind the veil of ignorance, would we not place a very high value on guaranteeing a person the opportunity to escape from poverty, and pursue their life plan where it had a good chance of succeeding? Ultimately, Collier's argument demands an answer to the vexing problem of borders: What is so important about national sovereignty that it can trump the requirements of justice?

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