Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Rights and freedom as moving targets

This Matt Ygelsias post on immigration talks about an issue I have with libertarian arguments for more states rights. Here is his observation about immigration and freedom:

I was watching an episode of the excellent BBC/Discovery Channel collaboration Human Planet the other day and it featured a bit on the Korowai people of southeastern Papua who were uncontacted until the 1970s and live in giant treehouses. It was pretty cool stuff. But it’s also obviously a very difficult, very strenuous, very limiting life. If someone wanted to leave that life and go take a crummy job in a rich country, I’d find that very understandable. You could watch television, for example, and have access to basic health care services.

As usual Matt is spot on. The ability of a lot of people in the world to move to the US would enhance their freedom. But we don't let them do that. Of course, we can't let everyone in. But I agree with Matt that we should be letting more immigrants in. It would help both them and us.

A common libertarian or maybe just state's rights conservative argument is that states should have more rights because if the people who live in that state don't like the things their state does they can just move to another state. This is slightly different than the scenario Yglesias is talking about. It would be much easier to move from a state in the US to another state in the US than it would be to move from Papau to the US.

 But even in the US it could potentially be very difficult. Even for a typical middle class person or family there would be some risk involved by packed up, presumably quitting your job, and trying to find a more free place to live in which you can also find another job. That's especially the case now and during recessions in general. It would be even more difficult for poor people. Just look at New Orleans during Katrina. Many of those people didn't have anywhere to go or the means to just plain get out of the way of a natural disaster. So the prospect of many people being able to pick and choose which state would most enhance their freedom is a bit shaky.

The other difference between the Papau example and the US state to state one is that there is a big difference between the expected freedom gained by moving from Papau to the US and the expected freedom gained by moving from Tennessee to Arkansas (Though if you are a Muslim living in TN that gap may be narrowing since TN is trying to ban Sharia law/just being Muslim). One reason I don't support the conservative vision for more states rights is because if they had their way I think there would be significant gaps between states as far as some freedom goes. The TN and Sharia ban is a good example. Abortion would be one where there would be stark differences between states.

That would be bad because as I said, its just not plausible that everyone can simply move in order to find the best freedom spot. Plus if you are one of those people that find it difficult to move there is a good chance you are a political minority, meaning that you don't belong to a big enough political coalition to exert enough power to change policy in your favor. Muslims in TN can't. They have to rely on people who think freedom of religion is an important right. Poor people everywhere can't affect policy.

In the end the two scenarios would work out I think in a similar way. Within the US, only the well off and politically powerful would be able to move around in search for more freedom. And within the world as a whole, poor people from places like Papau will find it extremely difficult to be able to enhance their freedom by moving to a country like the US. So if we are concerned about freedom I think the way we run things in the US is working just fine and changing it to favor more states rights would just leave more people less free. And if the US relaxed its immigration policy just a bit there would be more people more free.

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