Rights Ex Machina: Immigration Continued

Will Wilkinson, as is often the case, fires off an incisive yet polite rejoiner to someone’s primitive and poorly-reasoned arguments against Kantian universal hospitality. In this instance the bunk at issue is partly mine. Indeed, raging against Gerson contributes to making one think less like a logical positivist and more like a fencer on absinthe, so I have Will to thank for putting the issue in a way that makes it easier to pick apart.

Exhibit a:

Yes, Americans get a better shake in life than most people in the world in virtue of having had the good sense to get born in the United States, which does have relatively excellent institutions. Yes, those institutions are a main reason so many people come to live and work here.

Some of those institutions — indeed, the ones that hold the whole thing called “The United States of America” together — are not economic but political. The healthy and/or proper functioning of those institutions is maximized when the number of noncitizens migrating about is not high. I’m not square enough to argue that the best polity has zero noncitizens in it. But in libertarian utopia we’re talking about millions and millions of people seeking the enjoyment of economic institutions while bothering little with the political ones that structure, sustain, and justify the economic ones. I suppose the whole libertarian point is that I have this quite backwards, that the economic transactions of individuals underwrite and justify political order. But even so, that says nothing about these magic moral rights, exhibit b:

The welfare gains that would come from even a mild decrease in coercive limits on travel and free association are awesomely huge, which of course implies that the status quo system of limits does not leave most people better off than they would be in a feasible alternative system. And this suggests that the global-level system of division and exclusion lacks moral justification.

[…] everyone, no matter who printed their passport, has equal claim to the respect of their basic rights. Citizens are under a strict obligation not to harm or violate the rights of non-citizens. The status quo system, which limits the freedom to travel and cooperation without benefiting most of those whose freedom is limiting, amounts to both a substantive and moral harm; it denies some basic conditions for human flourishing and a thereby constitutes a violation of basic rights. What non-citizens have coming to them, is the recognition of their rights, moral respect as persons.

In order for this argument to work, the moral right to move around the surface of the Earth freely must simply be stipulated — first as a right, then as a moral right. It’s obvious that limiting such movement often impedes the interests of various people, but as I keep arguing, not satisfying somebody’s interest is not the same as harming their interest, either legally or morally speaking. Presumably there is some floor at which one is a major jerk for treating basic interests like clean drinking water as mere interests. But the standard Will and Martha Nussbaum and others keep using is ‘basic conditions for human flourishing,’ and aside from that standard always being a sliding scale, it’s an entirely different scale than the one which triggers a gut reaction to treating basic conditions for human survival as interests, not rights. The bottom line is that a moral argument can be launched from the stipulation that all human beings have a right to flourish, but to prove by moral argument that all human beings have a right to flourish that includes the right to be anywhere where they seem to have a much better chance of flourishing seems to me to require a bit more work — indeed, to rely on language that works outside the context of rights.

I hope this exchange has legs because there’s more to say and of course time is always pressing. But that’s blogging for you.