Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How will you celebrate Cesar Chavez Day?

On Thursday, we’ll be one of ten states officially observing Cesar Chavez Day. Looking for something to do? Maybe listen to a recent Donald Trump speech!

Trump, the likely republican nominee (!), favors going further than we already do to enforce restrictions on immigration from Mexico. He favors these policies because he thinks Mexican immigrants “are bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Even more often, Trump justifies his policies, which include a “huuge wall,” in terms of the economic and fiscal costs of Mexican immigration. Last year, for instance, he said, “The effects on jobseekers have been disastrous.” An ad he ran in January purported to show people “pouring across the southern border.”

During the 1960s and 70s, Chavez had a similar concern that Mexican immigrants would disadvantage American workers, mainly workers who were members of his United Farm Workers union. The typical concern is that new entrants willing to work for less will depress wages. This led Chavez to take drastic measures to restrict movement across the Mexico border. For example, he directed his union officials to investigate farms and report undocumented workers to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and to picket in front of INS offices demanding that they crack down on undocumented workers. The most controversial episode occurred in 1973 when Chavez helped organize an Arizona Minutemen-like hundred-mile “wetline” encampment of UFW workers to prevent those he sometimes referred to as “illegals” and “wetbacks” from entering the US at the Mexico border. According to reports of the incident in a New York Times story, the UFW representatives used “clubs, chains and five-foot-long flogging whips comprised of intertwined strands of barbed wire” to beat back job-seeking Mexicans.

Of course, Chavez and Trump’s concerns about the social and economic effects of immigration are silly. As reported by The Economist, violent crime has dropped over the last 30 years while immigration from Mexico was increasing (sorry, full story gated). And Brookings reports that immigration increases incomes and opportunities for Americans.

But the moral and political philosophy of Chavez and Trump’s preferred policies are even more worrisome. They advocate standing between and forcibly interfering with people who would otherwise be able to trade or work with each other. Again, I think they do this for economically dubious reasons, but let’s assume they’re right. Let’s also assume that, for some reason, it’s morally appropriate to implement policies that prioritize the economic interests of Americans over those of Mexicans. Even if it is, that’s still very different from forcibly interfering with Mexicans (as well as the Americans they would otherwise be able to trade or work with) in order to prioritize the interests of (some other) Americans. I just can’t see how to justify that.

For example, my oldest daughter is interested in getting a job at a used bookstore this summer. Now, I prioritize her interests over those of every other person who also wants to have that job. She isn’t just a fellow citizen, she’s my daughter and I love her. A lot. Still, I just can’t see how that could justify me using force to interfere with a voluntary agreement between the bookstore owner and someone else’s daughter or son who also wants that job. Surely it would be wrong of me to do that.

But why should that case be different than similar cases involving Mexican workers? If the priority I assign to my daughter’s interests doesn't justify my use of coercion to prevent others from getting the job my daughter wants, how does the priority others might assign to fellow citizens justify their use of coercion against people who were born in Mexico?

For that matter, why should it be permissible to coercively interfere with Mexican migration (as well as the Americans who want to trade or work with them) but impermissible to coercively interfere with internal migration? After all, job markets don’t care where the increased competition for scarce jobs comes from. If Chavez and Trump’s mercantilist arguments for barring migrants from Mexico work, the same considerations should apply to migrants wherever they come from. Should we build a wall to protect our economic interests from job seekers from Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, in addition to Mexico, to keep out those who want to trade, work or live with people here in California? How huuge should it be? I can’t think of a single anti-immigration argument that, in principle, couldn’t also justify restrictions on internal migration.

One more example: in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a massive migration into the US workforce. There was over that time, in fact, a supply shock of about 27 million women. Was this influx of, for the most part, lower-wage workers bad for domestic wages or the economy more generally? Well, of course not, but should that even matter in an evaluation of whether or not policies designed to keep women out of the work force are justified? I don’t think so. Such policies were illiberal. We should think the same thing about restrictive immigration policies.

I actually don’t recommend using your time off on Thursday to listen to a Donald Trump speech. You might instead read up on my favorite March holiday.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Kyle,
    Thanks for this informative and thoughtful reflection on immigration policy, something that's been an interest of mine for a while as well. First, a bit more info, along the lines of what you shared about Chavez and which gets forgotten as individuals are reified for all the other good they've done. Another presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders has also, as a good labour prioritizing social democrat, voted against more liberal immigration reform, including against the recent amnesty for those undocumented migrants already here. Like Chavez, but unlike Trump, his concern was for the condition of workers already here surviving at the low end of the economic spectrum.

    Second, I completely agree with you about the inability to justify -- economically, morally, politically -- restrictions on the free movement of labour. Indeed, back when Canada, USA, and Mexico ratified NAFTA, my original concern then, as now with each successor treaty, was that this and other "free trade" agreements between nations only ever free the movement of goods and capital, sometimes services. They do not free labour to move equally seamlessly and without impediment or restriction. The worry, from the left, has always been about the suppression of wages, as though the arrival of more paid workers into the workforce won't stimulate economic expansion, which historically leads to improved wages and living conditions -- for everyone.

    An excellent real world example to debunk this sort of protectionism is the EU. When Spain and Portugal were being considered full partnership in the 1980s, the worry in Germany and France was that low paid labour from those new countries would depress wages in the other member states. Quite the contrary resulted. Spain and Portugal now have highly developed economies and Germans have easy access to enjoyable Mediterranean retirement villas. The free movement of labour also decreases the incentive for businesses to relocate to countries with cheaper labour. That cheaper labour is often, economically speaking, only cheaper because it is captive – it cannot move to pursue higher paying jobs when those jobs are behind national borders lined by a huuuge wall and patrolled by armed thugs.

    Once labour is free to move with the goods, services, and capital, then a new equilibrium is possible. The political pressure should then be placed on the governments to ensure the new equilibrium is to everyone's benefit -- e.g.: by enforcing and expanding existing fair practices laws, etc.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Indeed, I cited data about the effects of captive labor the last time I posted something here about immigration:

      It's not that I don't care about people who are less well-off here. I agree with you that freer immigration will help them. But it's also important to see that the less well-off here aren't the worst off. You only see what that really looks like when you head to parts of Mexico, Haiti, Africa, South East Asia, etc.

  2. Kyle, thanks for this piece of thing. I have a question. Are you *&^%# crazy?

    Actually, what I mean is that I'm not sure every reader will understand what they are buying into if they say they agree with you. An easy defense of Trump and Chavez is that they aren't necessarily against immigration, they are against illegal immigration. Building huuge walls is a pretty radical response, but generally speaking it is not radical to want existing laws to be enforced.

    But, wait, it turns out your real point isn't about Trump or Chavez at all. Your real point is that there shouldn't BE any laws anywhere that restrict the flow of labor. Anyone (who isn't a criminal or a terrorist or a carrier of a deadly communicable disease) should be able to work, and therefore live anywhere in the world they want. Now I’m sure Trump and Chavez would disagree with you, but most people would! Yours is a profoundly libertarian notion and there are even lots of people who think of themselves as libertarians who aren’t comfortable with it.

    I think non libertarians would respond to your bookstore analogy by saying that it is a highly questionable analogy. It would be wrong for you, as a private citizen, to interfere with the liberty of the bookstore owner to hire who it wants. But that doesn’t mean it would be wrong for the government whose laws make owning and profiting from a bookstore possible, to interfere with this. It may have any number of reasons for wanting to restrict the pool of prospective employees to a proper subset of the world’s able-bodied citizens. Just as it may have any number of reasons for preventing territories, states or provinces within its jurisdiction from imposing such restrictions. The only way you can escape the burden of examining all of them is by trumpeting personal liberty as the highest value.

    One other thing. Here is a quotation from someone I admire.

    [Ethical prescriptions derived from the hard thinking of philosophers] "ignore the wisdom of local, evolved customary rules that reflect the negotiated settlements and practices people have hit upon to lubricate social interaction. These are the rules that have currency in the sense that the relevant people have internalized them and acknowledge them to be authoritative. If the philosopher’s recommended application of the ethics is too different from local custom, it will fail and may even make things worse."

    Well, Mr. Ethicist, we, like most countries on earth, have a local custom, and it is: Non citizens who want to work here need special permission. So scram.

    All that said, I actually am one who agrees with your view on labor. NAFTA really had a very limited economic effect on the U.S., but it was net positive. It would have been even more positive in economic terms if it opened the borders to labor.

    1. I think I can see three arguments.

      1. “They aren't necessarily against immigration, they are against illegal immigration.”

      This is obviously question begging (and maybe a little naive).

      2. “Your bookstore analogy … is a highly questionable analogy.”

      The following shouldn’t be considered controversial or even particularly libertarian: prima facie, if it’s wrong for ordinary individuals to Φ, then it’s wrong for states to Φ. In other words, states aren’t morally special. They should be held to the same moral standards that any individual is. We rely on a principle like this all the time when we criticize state actions, past and present. We reject the notion that states *just have* some sort of special, magical moral authority that allows them to play by different rules.

      Of course if someone wants to argue that, in a particular instance, there are special considerations that make it ok for the state to do something that would be wrong for an ordinary individual to do, I’ll listen. But the burden of justifying this falls on that person.

      Then I notice that a) when they try to meet that burden, there’s a whole bunch of empirical social science that’s really inconvenient for the arguments they invoke (follow the links) and b) if they ignore that evidence, then their arguments should lead them to restrictions on internal migration and other policies limiting entry into the workforce -- and if they think not, I’m willing to listen to what they think the difference is.

      3. “We, like most countries on earth, have a local custom” and we shouldn’t mess with it.

      Good principle, but poor application. First, we had open borders until the 1880s. The laws that shaped our current system weren’t implemented until the 1920s. These top-down restrictions were implemented because of a mix of racism and private rent-seeking. Furthermore, they changed the status quo ante equilibrium where most people who crossed our southern border did so as seasonal migrant workers: coming, working, then going home to their families. Obviously, you disrupt this if, the economic incentives to come and work here being what they are, you make border-crossing much more difficult and dangerous.

      Second, it’s easier to justify removing a restriction than to justify introducing one. Introducing restrictions that interfere with the way things are done tend to fail or make things worse. But the main argument for removing one is usually going to be just that there isn’t sufficient reason for having it.

    2. My thoughts.

      1. It is only question begging if you are thinking categorically, i.e. failing to distinguish degrees. For example, someone could advocate a quite liberal stance on immigration with respect to how difficult it is to actually move here and become a citizen, an open border stance with respect to free trade, but maintain a strong opposition to your proposal and a strong enforcement position with respect to illegal immigrants. It's naive to think Trump or Chavez would hold this view, I agree. But it’s a perfectly legitimate position intuitively.

      2. I think you are right that we should accept this as a prima facie principle. I think you are allowing that this has to be duked out on empirical grounds. You have your studies, they have theirs. It’s going to get bloody. This is very similar to my stance on privacy, btw. There should be a prima facie commitment to transparency, i.e., in a liberal society access to knowledge is good, knowledge restriction is evil. But there may be cases in which this principle should be overridden on empirical/consequentialist grounds. Unfortunately, the empirical case is hard to make for many of the things that people feel strongly should be private.

      3. Open borders first allowed Europeans to decimate the Native American population and create a slave trade. Appealing to the past as a more enlightened time is generally dicey business. But, you are also in the unenviable position of claiming that the majority of countries are in the wrong, since closed borders in this case is more common than not. Countries (like Singapore!) who take on lots of non-resident workers usually have specific reasons for doing it. It does not seem to me (though I'm happy to be corrected) that they think open labor borders is just a really good idea generally speaking.

      I think the reason for this is that most people think it is ok to be concerned about the preservation of culture, and to use immigration laws to achieve these aims. Imagine (imagine!) that a democratic country is faced with a burgeoning labor pool of people who do not believe in democracy at all. They come here to work, they have children (are they citizens now?), they create a market for schools and churches that share their views. Etc.

      Again, I am actually in your camp here. But my point is just that there's a lot of empirical stuff to sort through here, and maybe even deep moral disagreements about the legitimacy of this kind of aim.

      This is a very, very provocative piece! Own it.

    3. 1. It's question begging to assume that the current relative strength of immigration restrictions are justified in the face of an argument for thinking that they aren't. If you change the laws the person is defending, then it may not be.

      2. Speaking as someone who's looked at the best, most frequently cited, studies on both sides, I think you're assigning too much weight to "they have theirs."

      For example, political and cultural worries? Turns out, the political views of immigrants don’t differ from those of natives by very much and are virtually non-existent by the 2nd and 3rd generations (see last link in the OP). But to the extent someone really thinks this could be problem, why not also worry about internal migration?

      3. It seems odd in the extreme to attribute genocide and the slave trade to a policy of open borders. I only meant (obviously?) to respond to your suggestion that the fact that we have these restrictions now is some kind of evidence that implementing them was a good idea. No, it was racism and rent-seeking.

      Singapore is interesting mainly because the government, more isolated from democratic pressures, see the economic benefits of more foreign workers and largely ignores widespread native opposition.

    4. 1. Yes. Though it is not question-begging to believe that current laws need to be enforced whether or not they are optimal.

      2. This is social science. Little if any of this research meets serious evidentiary standards. That's why, I think, your point from the WITIT is so important. We should have overwhelming evidence before recommending a change that the majority of people in a culture would be so strongly opposed to. But I understand you aren't saying that it should be imposed against the will of a population, and this does not in any way speak against the need to re-educate in the way that you are doing.

      3. I don't think it's so odd. Native Americans let us in and we wiped them out. Perhaps it's pure racism that makes people worry about that sort of thing today. It's hard to know where a legitimate aim of cultural preservation ends and racism begins. I think they overlap pretty strongly, don't you?

    5. 1. Right. There are lots of things that don’t beg the question. But all these proposals that don’t beg the question might still be as unjust as I think they are. And they probably are even if the well-being of non-US citizens is worth only 1/10th of that of US citizens.

      2. It should matter that most economists, regardless of political stripe, continue to find, over and over, that less restrictive immigration policies don’t have the bad economic consequences people worry about. I’m with you, in general, in having a healthy skepticism for a lot of social science, but it seems unhealthy when it leads someone to say, “so I get to believe whatever I want about politics and economics, and I’m going with the stuff that supports the ideology I acquired without any good evidence.”

      But, no: I’m not saying we should impose anything. I’m saying we should remove an imposition. For example, there were impositions against women entering the workforce in the mid-20th Century. There was some fairly strong opposition to removing them by a pretty significant chunk of the population, many of whom were worried about their economic livelihood. But those impositions were not any more legitimate for that.

      3. It’s only not very odd, and only relevant, if you think keeping out people bent on genocide and slavery is incompatible with what I’ve argued for. But I do agree that worries about cultural preservation overlap a lot with a kind of thinly veiled racism/xenophobia. Wouldn’t people be more worried about our open border with Oregon and them “takin muh jerb” if it weren’t?

  3. 1. Right. 2. Right. 3. Right.

    I don't put much stock in cultural preservation, not only because it usually smacks of racism, but because in the long run it can lead to social collapse (in the Jared Diamond sense.) If you look at a place like Japan, e.g., it is just killing them. Their population is both aging and dropping like a rock and their commitment to cultural homogeneity makes it nearly impossible to harness the power of immigration to do a thing about it.

    But I don't really see how economists can conclude over the long term that immigrants don't radically change a culture. I get the point that they are typically absorbed, and that their grandchildren are unrecognizable to them, but they do make their mark. But in large numbers they will make their mark. If there had never been a slave trade, and a civil war over slavery, I think it's reasonable to believe that the U.S. would be a culturally very, very different place today. Far more like the majority of European countries in their generally revolting attitudes toward people of African descent. Hispanic immigration has surely fundamentally changed the culture of California over the years and it will continue to do so. (If Trump wins the Republican nomination and loses the general election, we will likely have Hispanic voters to thank for that! There's an influence for you.)

    So I'm inclined to suggest that your view has to be regarded as a wholesale rejection of any fundamental right to cultural preservation. Put differently, I don’t think the evidence you cite about the cultural effects being minimal is all that important to you. If the evidence were otherwise, you would still hold this view. Am I right?

    1. Sorry -- I didn't mean to suggest that economists concluded that immigrants won't/haven't change a culture. The link merely presented some data showing that the political views of immigrants aren’t very different from natives, and get closer over time. But, a) I definitely agree with you about the benefits of diversity: there's a U Michigan political scientist, Scott Page, who uses computational modeling to show how societies (or workplaces, etc.) where everyone sees the world in the same way can get stuck when confronted by a problem that their worldview isn't very well equipped to deal with. The book is called The Difference ( More generally, I’m thankful today’s culture is different than the culture 100, 50, 20, even 10 years ago. So, b) yes, I deny that there’s any kind of (claim) right to cultural preservation. There are, obviously, ways to change a culture that are impermissible (e.g., the conquistadors, etc.) but the problem with those cases isn’t that a right to cultural preservation has been violated. Furthermore, c) if there were a right to cultural preservation, then we probably shouldn’t think of that right as one held by the US as a whole. It would make more sense to think it were held by distinct cultures, more local communities, or at least regions. To protect that right, we’re back to restricting internal migration.

    2. I like this a lot. It's a tough sell though when this is brought out into the open, isn't it? I think that intuitively most people are attracted even to the local preservation of culture. In fact, that's kind of where people feel it most intensely as a right: families, neighborhoods, towns. Lots of people seem to deeply resent their localities turning into places they don't recognize anymore and that they feel increasingly alienated from. The Donald gets this.

  4. So, like most parties I attend, I am late to this one. But I guess I am not so sure that putting limits on internal migration is such a bad idea, in principle.

    Even if it's done for straightforwardly racist or xenophobic reasons.

    Imagine that California decides that it's had quite enough of what it calls "midwestern migrants" to its sunny shores.

    So: No more Indianans (too bad for me). No more Pennsylvanians (sorry, Kyle). No more Texans (sorry, Randy). And so on. California even builds a big wall around every square inch of its border--even the ocean border!--just to prove how serious she is. (Maybe it gets the Chinese to build and pay for this wall--since they are historically quite accomplished in this arena-- "they still have a wall that can be seen from outer space!").

    When pressed for why they took this measure, imagine massive number of Californian residents and natives say "well, you know, it's a mix. We didn't like their accent. They talk funny. It's their twang. Their "takin muh jerb" and all. And we didn't like their culture. Their style of conservatism. Their 'guns and religion.' And we frankly didn't like their whiteness, or their maleness, or their occasional white maleness. They aren't the democratic future of our world. They're flyover country. We'd rather fly over it than see it."

    Now, then: I think such a decision would be a practical disaster. It would be foolish on so many levels. And yet, it's hard for me to see that the morality of rights has been implicated.

    Are anyone's rights violated by such a backwards decision as this?

  5. Sheesh, bullet-biters...

    I think an argument I rehearsed here ( for basic agency rights includes things like the freedom of movement and the freedom to trade, including trades that involve a person's labor. More broadly, there's a basic moral presumption against coercing people, and the burden of justification falls on the coercer. So, the reason it would be wrong to coerce potential migrants is that all those reasons you cited for doing so are very bad. No one has cited reasons sufficient for overcoming the justificatory burden.