Liberty, Current Events

The Bourgeois Argument for Freer Immigration

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.



    Prof. Teson:
    Assume that as a matter of political reality there will always be some upward limit on the number of immigrants we admit. If so, shouldn’t the state, as a fiduciary for its citizens, seek to admit those who will bring the greatest benefit to the host country? Obviously, there is no easy way to make this determination, but we might establish a plausible set of criteria, and then adjust based on experience. If not, what system would you suggest?

    • One way to make this determination is to let the market decide: If one can get a job, one gets to stay. This ensures that the immigrant brings a clear benefit to somebody within the host country.


        Agreed. But I don’t believe that’s within the realm of the politically possible, at least for the foreseeable future.

        • Fernando Teson

          Hi Mark and Ryan: thanks. What Ryan said. The upward limit is set by the market. And I agree that there are daunting implementation problems. FWIW, the argument in the post authorizes the state to scan for criminals and terrorists. The Bourgeois argument favors traders, not predators.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Okay, but voters are, I suspect, not going to accept “anyone with a legitimate job offer gets to move here.” Perhaps they will accept this proposal up to a specified limit. So, if this is so, should the state regulate entry based on perceived benefits to the US?

          • Lacunaria

            I’m beginning to think that your questions don’t even make sense to them, because their premise is that the state is simply their moral ideal if justice could be perfectly enforced by it.

            That shouldn’t involve any compromise, so voting is not at all a meaningful constraint to them.

            They basically have to ignore the fact that the state wouldn’t exist without compromise and that, absent a state, people would aggregate for distinct categories of defense and probably compromise on immigration.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I can’t speak for Prof. Teson, but many libertarian philosophers don’t like to ruin a beautiful theory by acknowledging messy details. No sane libertarian believes the state is a positive good, merely the lesser evil in a world filled with aggressor nations and domestic criminals. By its very nature, the state coerces its citizens and thus infringes our rights. In order that this infringement not turn into an outright violation, its officials are required to compensate us with effective national defense and law enforcement. In the realm of immigration this means no degradation of the rule of law and admitting the most productive immigrants if political realities require this. That’s my view, anyway.

          • Lacunaria

            Yeah, where “messy details” is actually voluntary compromise.

            I basically agree with you that it’s a kind of exchange/compensation, but I don’t think they define the state that way, especially if the rule of law is then determined by the majority.

            The common theme I see is that there is no compromise involved in defense or, relatedly, immigration.

      • Sean II

        Well, it ensures this for a time. Things might look different on a longer look. Example:

        Pretend it’s 1999 and there’s an island off our coast where, for whatever reason, the locals are a race of expert travel planners. Assume half of the island’s 200,000 people would move here tomorrow if they could.

        Should we open our border and let them in? Hell yes, say the economists. We need travel agents. We’re in the midst of an endless summer, in case you hadn’t noticed. More people are taking more elaborate vacations than ever before. Why, industry analysts are predicting a 12% growth in the demand for agents between this year and next.

        Obviously, to prevent this transaction between willing sellers and willing buyers of travel agent labor would be like leaving billion dollar bills on the sidewalk. Boats away!

        And sure enough it happens just as predicted. Demand for travel agents goes up, but thanks to our island friends supply goes up even more. Now more people than ever can afford to hire an agent and take the trip of their dreams. “So you think 20-01 is gonna be a good year…”

        But then a weird thing happens. An ignorant loon with insufficient respect for economics goes out and writes some code that just replaces travel agents. Damn thing works so well that after a decade we only need half as many people doing that job, and eventually the number we’ll need is: none.

        No problem, say the economists. Those guys will find something else to do. We’ve seen this same panic raised and slaughtered many times: stone axes, machine looms, washer/dryers, automatic teller machines. The nightmare scenario of permanent unemployment never arrives.

        Sure, some crazies will try to tell you that labor force participation is plummeting, having recently fallen back to 1970s levels. But, um, that’s a good thing. The market isn’t about fetishizing work. It’s about preferences. Probably most of them aren’t working because they don’t want to, and our society is rich enough to accommodate that. An increase in the number of people who don’t work is really just an increase in total utility. We should rejoice.

        But what if it’s not that. What if it turns out that for many of the newcomers travel planning was their main skill, and they didn’t have anything else worth selling?

        In that case, win-win becomes lose-lose. We get a constituency is need for transfer payments. They get the misery of unemployment.

        The relationship that exists now is NOT “willing sellers, willing buyers”, it’s “welfare clients, tax oxen”.

        It stops being voluntary and becomes coercive.
        Now substitute “low skill labor” in general for “travel planning” in particular.

        Does anyone seriously think we’re gonna need MORE unskilled labor in 10 years than we do today? Okay, if you think that, how about 20?

        Can anyone not see the machine juggernaut that’s coming for those jobs just as surely as the internet came for white collar jobs like travel agent?

        That’s the problem with “let the market decide” here. The market can only tell us who meets the “willing buyer, willing seller” test today.

        It can’t tell us how things will look in 10 years. For that we need to consult other sources, like computer science and biology.

        Those consults yield a pair of very different predictions: 1) The tech for large scale replacement of low skill labor is coming on fast, and 2) So far we don’t have any reliable way to raise human capital in populations where it is low. That tech isn’t coming fast enough.

        Of course, we could also just look for counter-examples to the model. Europe and the UK are providing an excellent case right now.

        • Does anyone seriously think we’re gonna need MORE unskilled labor in 10 years than we do today?

          I think “yes” is a defensible answer to this question. It is at least easy to imagine a world in which we do, and it’s not a dystopian world, either, it’s just a world in which Mercedes sales increase, and the service department needs to hire more people to hand-wash the cars after getting an oil change. I didn’t even know people still got paid to hand-wash cars until a couple of months ago.

          Also, most people – even immigrants – are low-skilled labor for part of their lives and high-skilled labor at other times in their lives. Do we have any evidence that suggests that immigrants tend to be exactly who and what they were when they crossed the border, decades after the fact?

          It’s also true that the United States has a lot more open space than most other countries. Plenty of room to accommodate new people, and they’ll all need living spaces and places to buy their groceries, etc., etc. Immigration is a boon for reasons beyond just the immigrants’ contributions to the labor force.

          • Sean II

            1) The question with such jobs is “how many for how long”. My buddy who moved to Texas last year keeps telling me about the glories of abundant service labor, and I don’t doubt it (although like Mickey Laus I do worry about what kind of culture that gets us the long run).

            I also can’t see demand for that increasing as fast as it would have to, in order to keep pace with probable demographic trends.

            Remember: the GOOD scenario here is one where everyone gets a maid and car washer and a lawn guy who gets paid less and less all the time.

            What could possibly go wrong?

            2) “Also, most people – even immigrants – are low-skilled labor for part of their lives and high-skilled labor at other times in their lives.”

            This I’m afraid is not true. Human capital (otherwise known as “g” in the kind of economies we’re talking about) is remarkably stable over the course of individual lifetimes. There are a handful of people – Jason Brennan is a ready example – who do menial factory work at one end of life and write books for Oxford press at the other.

            But these are the exceptions, not the rule. And in any case there’s a test we could have given Jason when he was working in that factory which would have accurately predicted his capacity to do the book writing later on.

            3) Granted on the physical space argument, we fo have plenty. But that objection doesn’t answer any claim of mine.

            Indeed, in honor of the previous thread, let me be the first to say I am NOT worried about “living space”.

          • Regarding your first point, I believe that markets are better at predicting this in aggregate than you and I are from the comfort of our chair – which I of course do not mean as a slight. We both agree that we ought to find an equilibrium, I just think that the marketplace, not USCIS, ought to determine what that equilibrium is. But I think it’s a defensible claim to suggest that in 10 years’ time we’ll need more low-skill labor, even if only in absolute terms.

            Regarding point two, maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on my own experience then. But it seems that a lot of immigrants I know started out as clerks and no-skill laborers and are now technicians. Anecdotes, for sure, but common enough in my life to warrant a fair generalization, at least locally.

          • Sean II

            I like markets for lots of reasons, but when it comes to prediction, science is better.

            That was part of the point with my travel agent analogy.

            In 1999 a student of the market would have told a travel agent: “Stay invested – things in this industry are good and getting better”.

            A student of computer science would have said: “cut your losses and go to code school”.

            And a student of evolutionary bio or psychometrics would have said: “uh oh, the capacity to learn code is not so widely distributed as the talent for travel agenting. Some people can’t make the switch.”

          • Let us assume that science is better at predicting outcomes than markets. If true, this still does not establish that USCIS is better at applying science than markets are at producing favorable outcomes from less-than-scientific predictions.

            One good advantage markets have over science is that they do not end up producing highly politicized outcomes because there is by definition no overseer in charge of enforcing the outcomes.

            So, one more mark in favor of market outcomes, in my opinion.

          • Sean II

            Cuts the other way, I think. The system we have now is the most arbitrary and least transparent of our options.

            What I’m proposing would give LESS discretion to customs officials.

            Think of college admissions before the SAT. Very arbitrary and prone to capture. Tough graders in high school = tough luck. Easy graders = foot in the door. Prep school headmaster knows admit guy at Brown, you’re in. No connections and no money to buy them, you’re fucked.

            The SAT helped fix that, by giving schools a VALID and consistent predictor of performance. It actually took discretion away from the old sleaze network.

            I’m proposing something like that for immigration. An SAT or a frank IQ test would be one of the key components.

            And part of my hope is precisely to end the current game of “how good is your coyote, lawyer, fixer, and your raw luck” as a means to decide who gets to stay or go.

          • It’s important to note that the SAT is administered by a private organization, and the use of its scores for college admissions is voluntary and optional.

            Can you think of any existing test administered by the US government the contents of which have not become highly politicized? Given the government’s track record here, why do you suppose that in this one case they’d be able to adhere to science and reason?

            And secondly: considering everything you’ve said about the way companies make hiring decisions, why do you suppose this is insufficient as a filter, and that a potentially over-politicized, government-administered is a better filter?

          • Sean II

            Well, now that you mention it privatized third party testing might not be a bad idea.

            Of course you’re right there will always be political pressure, but we know exactly which way it will tend: in the direction of giving breaks to people who flunk the test.

            This history of civil service exams is instructive on this point.

            I guess my answer is: I’m okay with that. I’d take a test that at least TENDS to select (and above all attract) people who’ll prosper here in the long run, even with a certain level of gaming and even cheating to sneak in lower skill people.

            I’d especially take that over the wildly dysgenic system we see in Europe, where they actively filter in FAVOR of “young, male, low skill”.

            I’d also take it as a clear improvement over the mildly (but steadily) dysgenic system we have in the US, where the door is really only open to the ultra high skill (H1b) and the ultra low, with a big irrational hole in the upper middle between.

          • Let me see if I understand your position correctly. It sounds like your preferred system would look something like this:

            A. Instead of using a points system, test prospective immigrants directly.
            B. Structure the test such that a “passing grade” results in all or most ultra-high-skill immigrants, and much more of the “upper-middle-skill” immigrants than the current system allows, but that much fewer of the current low-skill immigrants make it through.

            If that’s correct, then I have two follow-up questions:

            1 – Would this result in a net increase of total annual immigrants, a net decrease, or no change? (It sounds like an increase, but I’m just checking.)
            2 – Is there any reason to suppose that the current education visas issued to foreign students couldn’t serve as a proxy for something close to your preferred solution?

          • Sean II

            A) Not quite. I do still want points. Even I don’t have that much faith in a single test.

            B) That’s the essence of it, yes. I’d be happy to change tack on the bias against lower skill if, heaven may hope, our labor force participation trend were to reverse.

            1) An increase, almost certainly. The present arrangement is pretty damn stingy, in terms of categories it favors. Basically it lets in two groups: Meso-Americans armed with raw proximity to the border, and people with advanced degrees. My preferred approach would add more categories, hence likely more people.

            2) No, and I have a good reason: education signaling races are a great evil, and probably a major cause of dysgenic breeding (because they keep smart people tied up in wasteful activities until 30ish).

            Did I already do my joke about the definition of an upper middle class nanosecond? It’s the length of time between when your Dad stops saying “use protection, don’t ruin your future” and when your mom starts asking “where are my grandchildren?” These days many people miss that window altogether.

            So I’m big fan of testing over schooling, and would prefer to avoid any policy that tends to become yet another subsidy for higher ed.

          • I think I agree that what you’re describing would be a marked improvement over the current system. Much, much better.

            Regarding my question #2, I only meant that, since international students must take a college entry exam, a TOEFL, obtain a letter of admittance, and prove fiscal solvency, it sounds like this type of immigration is roughly meeting your guidelines. In theory, we could adopt a similar practice for non-students: Take an exam, demonstrate “linguistic solvency,” obtain a letter of employment, and prove short-term fiscal solvency, and you’re in. As you know, I’m in the open borders crowd, but it seems like both what you’re suggesting and what I’m implying here are two improvements that could be made to the current immigration system to improve things quite a bit.

          • Peter from Oz

            Any prediction was more to do with technology rather than science.

        • Anomaly

          Libertarians often seem to share the blank slate view of human beings with the radical left: all migrants with a job are basically the same. But of course it’s not true.

          Same for the appeal to abstract rights to run around planet earth wherever you like unless there’s a clear reason you shouldn’t be allowed to. That’s no less fanciful than an abstract right to free health care, a stimulating job, and a great sex life. Many of us just shrug our shoulders and move on.

          • Sean II

            Funny you should mention. Talking with my wife last night about a work dilemma, I advised her to go ahead (as she was already inclined to) and sidestep a paper principle in favor of a positive result, saying “everyone’s consequentialist about what they know best”.

            Hey, it’s my own little addendum to Conquest’s laws of politics!

            And it does indeed seem true. People tend to push rigid deontic principles in proportion as they are ignorant of something, or removed from its consequences, or both.

            Meanwhile our world has improved dramatically in the two centuries since we first got serious about letting consequences into the moral discussion.

            Turns out “let justice be done though the heaven’s fall” is a terrible idea.

            Turns out the way to make ethics and other human affairs share in the scientific revolution is by calculating and considering results.

            Maybe I should call myself a Hayekian rather than a libertarian. Because I’m not really in favor of “drug legalization”. I’m in favor of “let’s legalize weed and molly and see what happens”.

            I don’t really believe we should cut heroin loose tomorrow. I know way too much about opioid addiction not to be a consequentialist about that.

            I want to move away from what we’re doing, because it is obviously producing much harm and little good. But I want to go slow, and be careful, with lots of measuring and checking along the way. And above all I want a path of retreat in case we turn out to be wrong.

            That strikes me as the scientific method applied to policy.

            The other way of thinking – “people have a sacred right to put black tar in their veins if that’s what they want” – strikes me as religious thinking.

            Likewise for immigration. And a long list of other issues.

  • Deirdre McCloskey

    Dear Professor Teson,

    What an interesting argument! Yes, preventing people called “foreigners” from offering peaceful bourgeois deals to you or me is a species of ancient mercantilism (or modern Trumpism, or Argentinian dependency theory or North Korean self-sufficiency). It was challenged historically by Liberalism 1.0, as Dan Klein calls it. As I would argue, if such neo-nationalism as our immigration laws (dating actually in rigorous and enforceable form only to the 1920s, and being merely the updated version of a mercantilism that in the Middle Ages was exercised by urban guilds) is justifiable, why not restrict my trade to other citizens of, say, Chicago, or the near South Side of Chicago, or my building, or my apartment? Built my own accordion (which I bought from the Czech Republic). Let me add to your point two characteristically economic arguments: (1.) trading with more people expands opportunities and (2.) tree migration has the same effect on prices as free trade in commodities. We can trade with Juan Valdez either by importing something from Colombia or be having Juan come to Chicago and provide it to us as our neighbor.


    Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

    • Fernando Teson

      Dear Professor McCloskey:
      I’m flattered and homored that my little post caught your attention. I agree with both your additional points. Congratulations on your magnificent oeuvre.
      All best,

  • Sean II

    “…some nonetheless think that admitting educated, wealthier persons is preferable to admitting folks who will take low-end jobs.”

    An important possibility seems to have been missed here.

  • pj

    Thankyou, sharing.

  • Swami


    My head was nodding in agreement to many of your points… the excellence of McCloskey’s Bourgeois trilogy (especially the latter two), the importance of a shared mindset of dignity and respect, and even the caveat that the separation between formal institutions and shared mindset (or what McCloskey calls rhetoric) is not as wide as she suggests.

    Indeed, the latter point is why I disagree with your conclusions. Before elaborating though, let me stress that I am in general very pro immigration. The problem is with extremely large shifts in immigration and how this can interact and influence the dominant cultural mindsets/norms/values/rhetoric and the formal institutions of the receiving country.

    Let me provide a hypothetical. Let us say we have a city called El Paso, which has a half million well educated, liberal people with Bourgeois ethics, high levels of interpersonal trust, the rule of law, representative democracy, extensive social safety nets, for the indigent and unemployed, and the practice of providing free health care in case of emergency treatment to anyone who walks through the door of an emergency room.

    Next, let us assume we use a principled argument to convince ourselves that people globally should have something called a “RIGHT” to freely move anywhere they want. As a result, let us say three million people move into El Paso to gain the benefits which have been created there. The problem is that these three million people are uneducated, with a clan-based zero sum, mystical worldview with extremely low levels of trust and no grasp of Bourgeois ethics. Suddenly the schools, safety nets, and hospitals are taxed to the max with newcomers who bring little or no contribution into the system. They speak a different language, have different habits and customs, including the custom of responding in violence when anyone violates their customs (such as violations even as mild as wearing tee shirts mocking their sacred prophets). Elected representatives are now greatly based upon tribal or clan affiliation.

    As a result of the influx of people with a different ethics/mindset/customs, the dominant informal institutions which created El Paso no longer exist. Crime levels sky rocket. Trust plummets. Absent the ability to solve problems in a decentralized manner, the citizens resort to an increasing dependence on rules and regulations and police enforcement. The cost of medical care, which is subsidizing millions of free riders, becomes unaffordable to everyone. Taxes go though the roof, falling primarily on the higher earning original bourgeois residents. The influx of competing labor drives down wages in some fields, causing temporary disorder and creative destruction. Any bourgeois left quickly flee to greener and more bourgeois fields elsewhere.

    The point is that formal institutions and the informal mindsets and beliefs are inextricably linked. The original institutions which make up El Paso depend upon a foundation of the informal ethics and values of the people. That is the bedrock of society. If you slowly add some people with a substantially different mindset, this is not much of a problem because of the effects of conformance. However, unlimited migration can actually lead to the opposite. Culture can flip, and thus open immigration can destroy the very institutions responsible for the modern world.

    Let me be really succinct. If McCloskey is right on the importance of shared rhetoric, values and mindsets in creating the institutions and success of the modern world (and we both believe she is), then it follows that extremely large immigrant shifts can actually undermine and destroy this dynamic. Thus “coercively enforced inequality” as defined as some type of rational border controls, may be necessary to sustain the “Great Enrichment”.


      Well, your willingness to consider the real-world consequences of applying lofty and noble sounding principles disqualifies you from any career in philosophy. Hope you have something better going for you.

      • Swami

        Yeah, and sometimes I suspect it disqualifies me from being a respectable libertarian too.


          That too.

      • Sean II

        You raise an interesting point, which I briefly discussed with Rob G. awhile back:

        The great fault of most philosophy pre WWII was overreach – big systems built around big gurus with any inconvenient parts of reality cut off to make the bed fit.

        That problem has been reduced by making the discipline less system and guru oriented, more sciency in the size of the arguments it takes on, but that shift has necessarily also made it and it’s practitioners less broad.

        Hence, a joke:

        Philosophy 1800 –

        Seeker: “Tell me, wise master, what is the meaning of life?”

        Sage: “Great news. We’ve just got that completely figured out…”

        Philosophy 2017 –

        Seeker: “Is it okay to congratulate my sister on her marriage even though I think it’s a mistake?”

        Sage: “Um, well, ethics of lying. That’s really not my area. I’m more of a late Nietzsche guy. Why don’t you ask Professor Fallis across the hall. I don’t want to step on any toes here.”


          Agree. I think an increasing specialization/tunnel vision is the trend in all social sciences and the humanities. Much of the low hanging fruit has been picked, so to get that Ph.D. and make a name for yourself, you must get ever more esoteric. Hard to keep up with the overarching stuff in that tenure-track environment. There’s more to it than that, but it’s a big part of the reason IMHO.

    • Fernando Teson

      Thank you very much for your excellent comment. In the original article from which the post was excerpted I discuss the problem you raise, although not as extensively as it warrants. The Bourgeois ethic favors traders, persons who act upon that ethic, and thus have a positive-sum mindset willing and able to offer their skills across the border. It does not favor or protect predators and parasites. The immigrants to El Paso that you discuss in your hypo are folks who (as you desribe them) are predators and/or parasites. These immigrants should not be welcome precisely becuase they intend on preying on natives, not trading with them. The state can therefore exclude them (if they are terrorists or criminals) or condition their admission to a renunciation of welfare payments, or to some other condition. This is a problem of implementation (serious, to be sure) but not of principle: traders are welcome; predators and parasites are not. That is why I do not support open borders. The Bourgeois argument is more restrictive in that sense, although of course very much pro immigration.

      • Swami


        Excellent response. I agree in theory with experimenting with trade-based open admissions. This could be by admitting bourgeois people into existing nations, and also by experimenting with charter cities which come to the less bourgeois areas.

        A possible worry is that any system set up to allow in the bourgeois can be captured by political parties with distinctly opposite goals. Short term, parasites can be of value to certain interest groups.

        Reasonable, smaller scale experimentation is the key….

        • Sean II

          “Reasonable, smaller scale experimentation is the key….”


          Libertarianism was born of reason, and should listen to its mother.

  • ” The immigrant’s access is denied him by armed guards at the border. ”

    As a serial immigrant who is married to a serial immigrant, I disagree. Generally, the “armed guards” are a much smaller issue than cost, logistics, and all the personal, familial, cultural and linguistic bonds that bind us to our home country.

  • thevaccinemachine

    At one time I thought your page was interesting, then found it amusing and finally concluded it to be worthless trash – bye