Apparently, Daniel thinks I spend a good deal of time saying nothing more substantive than that I do not agree with things I disagree with. ~Will Wilkinson

In the two particular cases in question, I think that a skeptical reader might not find that much more to the arguments Mr. Wilkinson advances beyond his assertion of moral abhorrence for policies and norms that he does not support, plus the occasional dismissive reference to nationalism or a “national coalition” thrown in here and there.  How substantive that is, I will leave to others.  My concluding remarks for both responses sought to draw out what seemed to me to be the root of the disagreement, which was a disagreement over basic assumptions.  In the remainder of both posts, I did attempt to address at least some of the rest of what Mr. Wilkinson had to say.  Perhaps these attempts were lacking. 

In any case, the two posts in question are expositions of the observation that conservatives do not hold his kind of libertarian assumptions about national identity and borders, because, among other things, they do not and cannot take liberty to be the moral baseline.  They make distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, nationals and non-nationals, which they consider to be not simply prudent but actually obligatory and right.  Neither do conservatives, or most people for that matter, judge the efficiacy and worthiness of U.S. immigration policy on the basis of whether it aids the populations of ”developing” nations, because we do not think that it is the role of the U.S. government to set its policies to maximise the prosperity of the populatiions of “developing” nations.  Having put up a rather eccentric set of standards, Mr. Wilkinson finds that conservatives are not measuring up.  That’s all very well, but I don’t know that it tells us very much.  That is why I wrote the concluding remarks that I did.   

My concluding points in these two cases were to draw attention to the fact that the points of contention between Mr. Wilkinson and his interlocutors are not disagreements over anything like measurable practical benefits for the world’s poorest or anyone else.  They are disagreements between libertarians such as Mr. Wilkinson and conservatives, because the two are sharply, seemingly irreconcilably at odds about basic values.  He berates conservatives for privileging the interests of fellow citizens and countrymen (which he finds “morally abhorrent”), but beyond asserting that this act of privileging is wrong he does not give any persuasive reason why this should be so, except to fall back on his assumption that distinguishing between citizen and non-citizen is arbitrary and wrong. 

He wrote:

For example, this liberal finds the claim, implicit in much of the immigration debate, that I ought to heavily discount the welfare gains to non-citizens simply because they belong to a different national coalition morally abhorrent. I don’t doubt that many people take themselves to have an “inescapable” moral obligation to treat outsiders unfairly, or to even positively harm them (even kill them!), if it redounds to the benefits [sic] insiders. But I deny that there is any such obligation to escape in the first place. 

There’s no question of an obligation to treat outsiders “unfairly”–the so-called “unfairness” comes in distinguishing between insider and outsider–since it only seems like unfair treatment to someone who thinks there should be no distinction.  Yet there is no good rationale for abolishing the distinction, or at least none that has been presented in these posts.  The point is that there is not an argument I can see for why there is no obligation.  It is simply a restatement of Mr. Wilkinson’s assumption that none exists.  Hence my original conclusion. 

He then made the point that the (to use Levin’s phrases) “contractual way” and moralising according to “continuity and generation” are both equally artificial, which prompted me to respond that, if this is true, their equally artificial nature simply underscores  that people opt for one “way” or another depending on what functions they valued most.  This drives home the point, implicit in the entire discussion about moral sentiments, that the adherents of the two ”ways” judge morality by significantly different standards.  If it is true that “the liberal dimensions of the moral sense are uniquely amenable to defense by rational argument,” it would be interesting to see some of that kind of argument in these cases.        

In the latest post, Mr. Wilkinson tells us that “the global system of exclusion through citizenships, visas, and borders has manifestly failed to make the world’s least well-off better off,” though the system was never designed specifically to make the “least well-off” better off.  The basic question remains: why should that system be upended or radically changed, when the system of exclusion has actually worked to promote competition and innovation that have benefited most nations enormously?  Furthermore, is it even certain that such a proposed massive influx of poor labourers into developed economies would have the beneficial effects attributed to the proposal?  The idea might be as humanitarian and high-minded as you please, yet the costs of absorbing all these people (and the more, the better, because we wouldn’t want to be heartless and cruel, would we?) could weaken or stall those developed economies to the detriment of all.  

Conservatives argue that there is a hierarchy of loyalties based on natural affinities and social relationships, and that it is, in fact, a disordering of moral priorities to pretend that our obligations to our next-door neighbour and to a man on the other side of the world are effectively the same or even close to being comparable.  Proximity, kinship and shared citizenship create bonds between people that do not exist with others.  Conservatives here are no more personally ”indifferent” to the suffering of the world’s poorest nations than are the people of any “developed” country.  What Wilkinson calls “indifference” to foreigners’ suffering, conservatives call loyalty to compatriots (and a rejection of the sentimentality that allows us to see nothing around us closer than Africa).  The false choice that Mr. Wilkinson would have us make is to believe that there is something particularly pernicious and vicious about valuing such loyalty, and that the only way to show concern for the suffering of the world’s poor is to open the gates and create a huge, exploited underclass in our own country.  

I assume that Mr. Wilkinson’s concern for the world’s poorest is not a kind of rhetorical moral blackmail, though he still deploys it rather heavy-handedly.  Naturally, he does not extend the same assumption of good faith to his interlocutors, but imputes to them “morally abhorrent” views, he hints of bad faith and disregard for other people’s human rights, and describes the ideas to which he objects as “repugnant, and dangerous” and “poisonous.”  He says things like: “Levin wants to defend the shudder when it comes to, say, cloning, but (I trust) not when it comes to the subhuman treatment of the Dalits.”  Levin argues that there are some obligations that we owe family and neighbours that we do not choose, which means in Mr. Wilkinson’s view that he would not really think twice about tacitly endorsing the worst aspects of a dehumanising caste system. 

Don’t you see?  Any reasonably strong concern for purity and hierarchy must lead to tolerating the treatment meted out to untouchables.  That sounds like a very fair conclusion based on what the man said.  This is the sort of tendentious stuff that religious conservatives in particular have had to put up with for years: if you strongly espouse a moral precept, you must obviously endorse the worst fanaticism imaginable and you cannot possibly object to it.   Oh, yes, and then there is the charge of indifference to the suffering and injustice suffered by billions.  But, no, really, there is an argument in there somewhere.   

Telling us that that our immigration policy should be geared towards reducing global poverty is revealing in its own way, but takes no account of the ever-greater immiseration of the population left behind by the mass emigration advocated here as a solution.   Is Mr. Wilkinson “indifferent” to the suffering and injustice that those people who remain  behind (and inevitably many people will remain behind) will experience?  I wouldn’t assume that he is.  Yet that seems to be a likely outcome of the proposal he has endorsed.  Rather than stripping the most destitute of nations of their human resources, it would be best for all involved in the long term if they remained in their own countries.  This would in all likelihood hasten the pace of domestic reforms that would gradually make these places increasingly liveable and prosperous.  For each horror story from the “developing” world, there are success stories in the same parts of the world that suggest that mass abandonment of the poorest countries is not the only alternative to dead-end developmentalism.  As Easterly says:

But this doesn’t quite square with the sub-Saharan Africa that in 2006 registered its third straight year of good GDP growth — about 6%, well above historic averages for either today’s rich countries or all developing countries. Growth of living standards in the last five years is the highest in Africa’s history. 

At the moment when things may be looking up, with the obvious notable exceptions, we should call on people to flee their countries just as they beginning to enjoy some limited prosperity?  The failures of international development efforts in many parts of the world are well known, and Mr. Wilkinson and I are in agreement about that much.  However, some “developing” nations have actually managed to improve social and material conditions quite considerably (those Dalits that concern Mr. Wilkinson so much are politically mobilised now and have elected officials drawn from their ranks–unthinkable only a couple decades ago).  It seems to me that the benefits for future generations in these countries would be greater still, if more of their most capable and industrious people did not resettle elsewhere but instead remained to build up those countries rather than essentially abandon them.