Who Matters?

Daniel Larison kindly responds at length. There's too much to discuss in one post. I'll start here:

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.

Well, I'm not taking liberty as the moral baseline. My baseline in these posts has been primarily a concern for human well-being. People improve their material condition chiefly through cooperative exchange. Rules that restrict the liberty of people to move to where the economic opportunities are directly negatively affect their prospects. Whether or not you take a condition of liberty as the baseline, the fact is that people do worse in a world where their liberty is denied. Or at least that is my claim. Like everyone else, I make the distinction between citizen and non-citizen, national and non-national. But, like Daniel in his better moments, I also think it is possible to consider our obligations to others as fellow human beings, and not only as countrymen, teammates, or fraternity brothers. The issue between Daniel and me isn't over the fact that some people are citizens and other people aren't. The issue has to do with the moral salience or relevance of this fact. Daniel seems to me to want to either deny the possibility of prioritizing our humanity over our more local, exclusive attachments, or to affirm the perversity of doing so. I agree that it is “eccentric” to ask whether the global system of mostly sealed borders hurts people — even when those people don't go to our church, or live in our town, or hold the same passport as we do, or speak our language, or look much like us. But good people will ask it anyway. If they find that the system does hurt people, good people will not consider this irrelevant to policy.

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.

This is silly. I don't deny that fellow citizens may have special obligations to one another, so I can't deny that the distinction between citizen and non-citizen is “wrong,” though it is pretty arbitrary. Yes, I deny that it is generally morally permissible to weigh the interests of citizens more highly than the interests of non-citizens. But with no persuasive reason? Perhaps part of the problem here is a conflict in views about which set of assumptions is the default, and thus who bears the burden of establishing something different. Daniel apparently finds it intuitive or natural that someone born in Minnesota must weigh the interests of someone born on a U.S. Naval base in the Philipines more heavily than the interests of his co-workers who live a mile away across the Canadian border. I don't find this intuitive at all. I don't find it that intuitive or natural that I owed a person less regard on Tuesday because they weren't sworn in as a citizen until Wednesday. The reasons I think privileging the interests of people of my nationality is wrong are basically the reasons I would cite when explaining why privileging the interests of people of the same race or the same sex is wrong. Nationality, like race and sex, is generally a morally irrelevant attribute. If Daniel is unmoved by the assumption that the lives and interests of black, whites, men, women, Ethiopians, Danes, and Americans ought to be weighed equally, unless there is a very special justification for weighing them unequally, then I am not sure what I will be able to say to him.

Yes, United States policy doesn't govern Ethiopians (those not already in the U.S., at least), so the U.S. needn't have their interests specifically in mind when crafting its public health policy. But the issue is rather more complicated when the policies in question are policies for assigning nationality or legal residency. It is up to democratic citizens to choose these policies. How heavily ought we (and every other democratic public) weigh the interests of people we might admit within our borders? My position is more heavily. Daniel's position seems to be “not at all,” if that's what we want. And he seems to think that's what we should want.