Tevye the Milkman, Libertarianism, and the Open Borders Fantasy

 

“…Political freedom and escape from tyranny demand that individuals not be unreasonably constrained by government in the crossing of political boundaries. Economic freedom demands the unrestricted movement of human as well as financial capital across national borders…” — Paragraph 3.4 of the 2016 Libertarian Party platform

I have nothing against Libertarians. In fact, some of my best friends are Libertarians. If one of my children wanted to marry a Libertarian, like Tevye the Milkman I would question G-d, grit my teeth, put on a brave face, and give them my blessing and my permission.

On the one hand, there is about 80 percent overlap between Libertarian and Conservative political values, and in practice we tend to arrive at many similar policy positions: the rule of law, strong private property rights, freedom of contract and of association, free trade, respect for constitutional authority, low taxes, light and economically literate regulations, federalism, a government of limited and enumerated powers, frugal fiscal policies, monetary discipline, and so on.

On the other hand, Libertarians don’t have much use for the Conservative’s attachment to tradition. In fact, some Libertarian positions seem utterly unmoored, not just from tradition, but from reality. Take for example, the Libertarian view of migration, expressed, inter alia, in the above-cited 2016 party platform. Without any limiting principle, this position would mean the end of both nations and states. Even on the level of utopian fantasy, I don’t get the appeal.

On the other hand, Libertarians advance a powerful universal moral claim that is consistent with both traditional liberal values and advanced economic thinking. Here, for example, is Alex Tabarrok, professor of economics at George Mason University, making this moral claim:

There are fundamental human rights. There are rights which accrue to everyone, no matter who they are, no matter where they are on the globe. Those rights include the right to free expression. They include the right to freedom of religion. And I believe they should also include the right to move about the Earth.

And here is Michael Clemens, another Libertarian economist at the Center for Global Development, making the economic case:

So, you know how in real estate they say that value is all about location, location, location. It’s the same for the value of your labor. And that has a remarkable implication. It means that barriers that keep you in places where you’re less economically productive keep you from making the contribution you could make. And for every person who’s kept in a poor country, that’s a tiny little drag on the world economy that adds up. So, what that means is that even a modest relaxation of the barriers to migration that we have right now — I’m talking about one in 20 people who now live in poor countries being able to work in a rich country — would add trillions of dollars a year to the world economy. It would add more value to the world economy than dropping all remaining barriers to trade, every tariff, every quota — and dropping all remaining barriers to international investment combined.

Tabarrok again:

It’s actually very simple. You take a person from a poor country, a country like Haiti for example, and you bring them to the United States or another developed country, and their wages go up. Three times, four times, fives times. I’m told, sometimes as much as ten times. So, it’s an incredible increase in living standards simply by moving someone from where their labor has low value, moving them to where their labor has high value. It’s far more effective than any other anti-poverty program we’ve ever tried.

There is a kind of voodoo economics quality at work here: simply exposing a person from a poor country to the spacious skies and purple mountains’ majesty of the United States creates a ten-fold increase in that person’s welfare, and a net increase in the welfare of the world. Amazing. Are there any negative externalities associated with this transaction, multiplied millions (or billions) of times over? Neither economist tells us. If there are, presumably they are negligible, and it’s in poor taste to ask. (Pay no attention to Hamburg and Malmö.)

On the other hand, both Tevye and his creator Sholem Aleichem were immigrants who settled in New York City. Aleichem did well there, and I have to believe that Tevye did too.

On the other hand… I also believe strongly in individual rights, and I think that elevating group rights to preeminence, which is what we are doing here in the United States, is incompatible with our political traditions and notions of liberty. We will come to grief for it. But I don’t see how it can be a universal individual right to live anywhere on the globe one pleases. I may be a simple barefoot Virginia country lawyer, but I am used to thinking of a “right” as a claim for which a duly constituted political or judicial body has the power to grant relief or redress. No such body can grant relief for the claim advanced by Professors Tabarrok and Clemens, which has little basis in custom or practice. It is a purely abstract assertion that founders on such deeply rooted legal principles as state sovereignty.

Libertarianism shares with Marxism and other bastard stepchildren of the Enlightenment this abstract ideological quality, disconnected from the realities of lived human experience. For Marxism, the fatal conceit is its obsession with equality; for Libertarians, it is hyper-individualism. Like most primates, human beings are social, hierarchical, and tribal. Hierarchical means that humans are constantly jockeying with one another for social status, and a society of perfect equality is therefore a dangerous delusion. Tribal means that we are deeply, irrationally attached to exclusive collective identities, as anyone who has ever attended an American high school or a major team sporting event can tell you. There is no escape from the tribalism, it’s so deeply ingrained in us. Try to suppress it, and it comes out in other forms. Dissolve the 20th century American national identity, and you get the vicious and stupid identity politics of the 21st.

It seems to me that the error at the root of social contract theory is the understanding that the basic pre-political social unit is the individual. This understanding is ahistorical and wrongheaded as a matter of anthropology and psychology. The basic pre-political social unit is the family and tribe (which is really just extended family). Being an Old World immigrant myself, as well as a member of Tevye’s very ancient tribe, I am deeply sympathetic to Edmund Burke’s insight that human societies have an organic character, that their members are connected to each other and to past and future generations through bonds of partnership and obligation, and aren’t merely fungible, interchangeable economic units. Like any partnership, this is a kind of contract, but very different from what Libertarians and liberals believe. It encompasses nationalism, for one thing, whereas those other views tend to lead to borderless one-world utopianism. Of course, from a certain point of view modern nationalism is a deliberately manufactured construct. But what makes nation states such powerful political actors, and nationalism such a potent force in international politics, is that they are both the political manifestations of, and tap into, a very deep human feature. I also don’t think you can build a free society on the basis of a deracinated abstraction lacking a demos, as the EU enthusiasts are learning the hard way.

On the other hand, wasn’t it nationalism that brought us the worst crimes and conflagrations of the 20th century?

No. Western elites learned all the wrong lessons from the 20th century. After the Second World War they came to see in the nation-state not the fullest political expression of peoplehood, the seat of law and legitimacy, a celebration of human variety, and the font of culture, art, and human flourishing, but rather the heart of genocide. They completely misconstrued Adam Smith’s dictum that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. The horrors of the 20th century were caused not by nationalism in general, but by German nationalism in particular.

The true lesson of the 20th century is that public policy works best when it works with the grain of human nature, not against it. Perhaps overcoming our irrational tendencies is a worthy individual goal. But the road to anti-human hell is paved with attempts to eliminate them altogether. The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.

On the other hand…

No. There is no other hand.

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  1. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    My utopian ideal would be to export the rule of law, constitutional limited government, sovereignty of the people, property rights, and robust faith in the Judeo-Christian God (pick your flavor).

    So how do we accomplish that? I think part of the process is that young, bright, idealistic people from around the world come to the United States to study in our universities, to get jobs and earn some money, and then they return home — perhaps just for a visit, but it’s not uncommon for people to come here for a while to study and/or earn some money and then eventually return home to live with their extended families, marry, and start their own family.

    Then when they return home, they tell their families and friends “you know, the U.S. is actually a pretty great place to live, it’s nothing like all that anti-American rhetoric I learned growing up. I’ve been there, it’s not like that at all.” And they start advocating for reforms in their home countries to make it a bit more like America.

    I don’t think you can just learn about property rights, rule of law, democracy, and so forth from a book and then put it into practice, it needs to be a lived experience. People need to come here and live our lifestyle and get a taste of it or they’ll never be able to replicate it in their homeland.

    That would be ideal. Hasn’t worked that way with Mexicans or South Americans generally. Once you’ve traded your freedom for government redistribution (which we’re rapidly “progressing” toward), it’s hard to get it back from the power hungry who work their way to the top. Our founders knew this, but it seems the Constitution isn’t water tight and we’re about to be swamped by the administrative state.

    The majority of Americans want single payer health “care.” Let that sink in.

     

    • #31
  2. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko
    @JosephStanko

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    That would be ideal. Hasn’t worked that way with Mexicans or South Americans generally.

    It’s not so black-and-white as that, Mexico for instance has made a lot of progress in the past few decades, especially since joining NAFTA.  Recall that in living memory for some Mexico was a one-party state, many industries had been nationalized, and in Catholic Mexico it was for a while illegal to practice the faith!

    Now Mexico has a genuine multiparty democracy, a growing economy, and Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beloved national icon.  Yes, clearly they have a long, long ways to go to get to where we are, but they are headed in the right direction.  As you say, it’s hard, these things don’t happen overnight.  That said, a major reason for the steady decline in illegal immigration from Mexico over the past decade has been an improving Mexican economy and more job prospects for Mexicans at home.

     

    • #32
  3. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    It seems to me that much of the Open Borders Libertarians also are close to, if not outright, anarchocapitalists. They have no use for states and are of the opinion that markets can handle everything that comes from human action. It’s a long explanation requiring another post.

    This is where my 1787 libertarianism differs. I would certainly want as weak a central government as possible in our federated republic, but I also recognize the rights of sovereign states to define immigration policy. I do not think it is appropriate to sacrifice the will of those striving to govern themselves for the sake of an economic theory of labor and freedom of movement internationally.

    • #33
  4. Larry Koler Inactive
    Larry Koler
    @LarryKoler

    Oblomov: Libertarianism shares with Marxism and other bastard stepchildren of the Enlightenment this abstract ideological quality, disconnected from the realities of lived human experience. For Marxism, the fatal conceit is its obsession with equality; for Libertarians, it is hyper-individualism.

    I’ve compared Marxist thought and Libertarian thought a little differently: Marxists (after they kill all the complainers) believe that people are altruistic enough to form a stable country and Libertarians (God help us if they get in control of a country) believe that people are rational enough to form a stable country.

    • #34
  5. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    Hang On (View Comment):
     

    Oblomov: The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.

    Isn’t that what Kantian-based multinational organizations claim to be doing? And Schengen and the open borders to refugees follow on from this.

    They’re doing it wrong.

    • #35
  6. Oblomov Member
    Oblomov
    @Oblomov

    ToryWarWriter (View Comment):
     

    –You kind of remind me of some of my atheist friends who point out the pagan roots of Christianity, like the previous 2000 years of scholarly work by theologians hasn’t explored this idea and debated, discussed and explored it.

    Ok, so sock it to me.

    • #36
  7. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Oblomov (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Oblomov: The main challenge for the modern social order is managing and moderating the more malign and destructive forms of our nature. No one said it was going to be easy.

    Isn’t that what Kantian-based multinational organizations claim to be doing? And Schengen and the open borders to refugees follow on from this.

    They’re doing it wrong.

    Haven’t we taken care of the big stuff already? The fine-tuning takes real discernment and we seem to be failing that part.

    • #37
  8. Songwriter Inactive
    Songwriter
    @user_19450

    Oblomov:Dissolve the 20th century American national identity, and you get the vicious and stupid identity politics of the 21st.

    Yes.

    And thanks for the terrific, well-thought post.

    • #38
  9. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Oblomov: There is a kind of voodoo economics quality at work here: simply exposing a person from a poor country to the spacious skies and purple mountains’ majesty of the United States creates a ten-fold increase in that person’s welfare, and a net increase in the welfare of the world. Amazing. Are there any negative externalities associated with this transaction, multiplied millions (or billions) of times over? Neither economist tells us. If there are, presumably they are negligible, and it’s in poor taste to ask. (Pay no attention to Hamburg and Malmö.)

    Great post.  As a student of economics, I do have to correct this one section.

    Please understand that I am not taking a stand one way or another on any question of what is good policy for America, nor on what is morally right or wrong.  Just representing orthodox economic theory.

    The idea that moving labor from a place where it is unproductive to a place where it is productive increases world standards of living is not “voodoo economics”. It’s basic textbook economics.

    For an example, if you moved an American farmer to the Sahara Desert, his productivity in terms of output of food per hour of labor would go down.

    The output of the productive sector is increased when the inputs (labor and capital) are brought together in one place and their use coordinated by a skilled manager to maximize profit.

    If you want to argue against immigration from an economics viewpoint, you can state that your goal is to prevent wages of current Americans from dropping in the short term.  Here you would be correct.  The movement of capital from America to  meet labor outside America, and the movement of labor to America to match up with capital in America, both have the short-term effect of lowering real wages of the pre-existing Americans.

    • #39
  10. @gossamer Coolidge
    @gossamer
    @GossamerCat

    Oblomov: The true lesson of the 20th century is that public policy works best when it works with the grain of human nature, not against it.

    Not just the 20th century.  The true lesson of every century, I suspect.

    • #40
  11. @gossamer Coolidge
    @gossamer
    @GossamerCat

    As a biologist, I point out to my open-border friends that one of the most important steps in the evolution of life was the cell membrane.  So one of the very first things living things did was find out a way to create a border.  A defined border, with controlled inputs and outputs.

    //

    • #41
  12. Justin Hertog Inactive
    Justin Hertog
    @RooseveltGuck

    “I may be a simple barefoot Virginia country lawyer….”

    LOL

    • #42
  13. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Justin Hertog (View Comment):
    “I may be a simple barefoot Virginia country lawyer….”

    LOL

    Now we all know what to look for when we ride the Metro in Washington DC.

    • #43
  14. Hypatia Inactive
    Hypatia
    @Hypatia

    Dear @oblomov, fantastic post!  I particularly looooove  your clear statement that it wasn’t “nationalism” that caused the 20th century ills : it was German nationalism.

    Yes.

    Today in our country, though, the expression of any kind of patriotic or nationalist sentiment will earn you the N-word.

    We have, or have had, a secure country in the US, a country where everyone else wants to put their investments, where everyone else in the world, thanks to the 1965 INA, thinks they can come and be taken care of.

    The US is, as Pope wrote, ” The glory, jest, and riddle of the world”.

    Contrary to B.Hussein’s famous statement, yes, we did build that!

    Yes,  we should be…..dare I say it? proud. 

    And  yes, we should attempt to preserve it, the place everyone wants to be.

    If we relinquish control of our borders , there won’t be any here here.

     

    • #44
  15. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Western Chauvinist (View Comment):
    My utopian ideal would be to export the rule of law, constitutional limited government, sovereignty of the people, property rights, and robust faith in the Judeo-Christian God (pick your flavor).

    This – then they wouldn’t have to leave. There are examples of countries that explicitly rejected petty corruption and embraced economic freedom and prospering very well – measured in singular years.

    The problem in Haiti is corruption and turgid property laws.

    • #45
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