Donald Trump wants to make immigration merit-based. While many people will reject that view on a variety of grounds, some nonetheless think that admitting educated, wealthier persons is preferable to admitting folks who will take low-end jobs.
This idea, however, is mistaken for empirical and moral reasons. Educated middle-class immigrants are not the only ones that create wealth. The economies of California and Arizona, for example, are literally sustained by millions of immigrants who perform low-paid, low-level jobs in farms, restaurants, and factories. Immigrants who take low-end jobs are as beneficial to the United States as those who take high-end jobs. I suppose the numbers are too complicated to compare the benefits of each class, but I have little doubt that the immigrants the president wants to exclude create great wealth (the White House says they receive state benefits, but it does not say that the wealth they create outweighs those costs.)
In addition to these well-known economic reasons, there are moral reasons to reject merit (high education, wealth, and so on) as a basis for immigration. One is this: The state should liberally admit immigrants because they are entitled to better themselves by trading their skills and entrepreneurship with willing trading partners across the border. Those skills may be specialized or non-specialized; the principle applies to all migrants willing and able to work. I borrow the underlying principle, the ethics of trade-tested betterment, from Deirdre McCloskey, who developed it recently (albeit as a historical, not normative, thesis) in her massive volume Bourgeois Equality. She calls it the bourgeois ethics, and for that reason I call my thesis the Bourgeois Argument for immigration. (This post summarizes my contribution to an upcoming volume by CUP, The Future of Classical Liberalism, edited by Todd Henderson).
The idea is that persons who seek to better themselves by offering their labor or entrepreneurship to willing buyers across borders should be accorded the same dignity and respect to do so that natives enjoy. The argument is consistent with, though not reducible to, two standard pro-immigration arguments: the recognition of migrants’ right to free mobility, and the recognition of the immense economic benefits of immigration. McCloskey argues that the enormous jump in global prosperity (the Great Enrichment) between sometime in the early- or mid-eighteenth century to the present day was caused, not by technological advancement or the establishment of property rights, but by a Gestaltic change of ideas originated in Northwestern Europe. She argues, first, that contrary to the conventional wisdom advanced by the intellectual and artistic elite (which she calls the “clerisy”), the middle-class of traders, inventors, and managers, far from being selfishly materialistic, was much more ethical than its critics recognized, and has been so for much of human history. For McCloskey, a radical change in social mores was the real cause of the Great Enrichment. This novel ethical outlook is simply the recognition of a new liberty and dignity of commoners and the activity on which they specialized: the ethics of trade-tested betterment.
I adopt McCloskey’s idea with three friendly amendments. First, I treat the bourgeois ethics as a normative principle, and not just as a historical ethical development that had enormous beneficial consequences (although I largely agree with McCloskey’s account.) The bourgeois ethics is, I think, a proper way to treat others above and beyond whatever relational bonds (compatriots, friends, family) we may have with them. Respecting their right to better themselves through trade is a special case of according them dignity and respect. Second, borrowing the bourgeois ethics does not commit me to accept McCloskey’s controversial claim that institutions had a minor role in the improvement of people’s lives around the globe. I suspect (but will not argue here) that McCloskey exaggerates the differences between her approach and that of institutionalists like Acemoglu and Robinson. Be that as it may, my argument here is ethical, not historical, so I don’t need to take sides in that dispute. And finally, I extend the Bourgeois Argument to immigrants. McCloskey, I think, is content to describe the surge of the bourgeois ethics within nations. It is entirely unclear that those who promoted and practiced the bourgeois ethics were thinking of elevating foreigners to the equal treatment that local traders now enjoyed.
The Bourgeois Argument, I said, is a special case of a principle that mandates treating others with dignity and respect, which means treating them as rational free agents. But the literature offers divergent interpretations of the principle. Ronald Dworkin, for example, thinks that the state has a duty to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and that the way to do this is to erase the unfair effects of citizens’ differing starting points. A redistributive tax policy secures to people the material benefits that erases such unfairness and allows them to pursue their life plans with chances of success. Whatever the other merits of this approach, it treats persons as passive beneficiaries of the transfer of resources. As such, the state’s benefits cannot in itself embody respect for the beneficiaries, since such transfer has at best an indirect relationship with the beneficiaries’ agency, dignity, or autonomy. The thought is that, thanks to the benefit, the beneficiaries’ prospect will be equalized, as it were, and they will eventually be capable of functioning as productive members of society.
In contrast, the bourgeois ethics sees persons as agents, as masters of their own destinies. Instead of payments, individuals receive the recognition of their agency and the encouragement to offer their skills in the market to better themselves and their families. The bourgeois ethics sees persons, not as passive beneficiaries, but as active agents. In contrast to Dworkin’s view, the Bourgeois argument emphasizes ethical equality: the equal freedom of every person, native or not, to offer their skills and talents in the market. For that reason, the bourgeois ethics is, I believe, closer to the core notions of dignity and respect than mainstream egalitarian ethics. It encourages persons to work and innovate, and it discourages resentment and misplaced feelings of entitlement. If McCloskey is right that the bourgeois ethics has been a main factor in global prosperity even with relatively closed borders, then affirming the Bourgeois Argument for immigration portends even greater things to come. This is where the Bourgeois Argument nicely dovetails with the economic findings on immigration. Recognizing the migrants right to better themselves through trade is the right thing to do, and it is also a sure recipe for significant (indeed, massive) increase in prosperity and the corresponding alleviation of poverty.
The bourgeois ethic replaced the old hierarchical ethic that forced traders to remain in their assigned social places. Joseph Carens defends open borders by pointing out that immigrant status is “the modern equivalent of the feudal class privilege.” A person who has immigrant status lacks standing to better herself through trade with the natives. Immigration status means denial of bourgeois status in McCloskey’s sense and it is in that sense, as Carens suggests, a remnant of the feudal hierarchical ethic. Notice that this objection is different from the luck-egalitarian objection given by progressive supporters of freer immigration. The luck-egalitarian argument for free immigration is that someone born in a poor country does not deserve such fate, and therefore immigration controls should be relaxed to undo the arbitrariness of persons’ having been born there rather than here. I do not pass judgment on this argument, although I am generally skeptical of luck egalitarianism. Here I simply notice that the inequality created by immigration laws is a legal inequality, not an inequality caused by the accident of birth. This is why the luck-egalitarian argument is not needed to condemn these laws. The immigrant’s access is denied him by armed guards at the border. It is not that we should grant him access to nullify accidents of birth. Maybe that consideration applies, maybe not, depending on one’s evaluation of luck egalitarianism as the basis of a sound political theory. But regardless, surely every liberal, progressive or classical, will agree that coercively enforced inequality is presumptively wrong.