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Hierarchies of Rights

December 27th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Kerry Howley is ably defending her phenomenal Reason cover story on guest worker programs against all comers, and en passant makes a wonderful—and generalizable—point worth dwelling on for a moment:

Here’s another way to think about it: Clubs have positive duties toward their members, including those of the welfare state. But the negative duty not to harm outsiders exists prior to clubs, and denying people the ability to cooperate with one another violates their rights in a very basic way. Our current policy is one of coercively preventing cooperation. In saying “we can’t let people into this country unless we confer upon them all the rights and duties of citizenship,” you are saying that we need to violate their right to move freely and cooperate unless we can give them welfare benefits. But that’s backwards.

Given the externalities associated with large-scale immigration, not all of which are functions of a munificent welfare state, I don’t know that I’m prepared to afford the right to cross-border cooperation quite as strong a trump status as Kerry seems to, but she’s got her finger on a somewhat perverse phenomenon I’ve written about before. If I may abuse Camus for a moment: When material welfare dons the apparel of a fundamental right—through a transposition peculiar to our times—it is our fundamental rights that are called upon to justify ourselves.

I’ve mainly talked about this in the context of various forms of paternalism: Most people in liberal societies seem to concede that adults have some sort of basic right to make decisions, even unhealthy ones, about their own bodies. But once health expenses are paid from public coffers, the same people will often argue, private health risks “impose” costs on the public, and are subject to regulation. But this is backward: A “right” that can be revoked by the provision of a benefit—one the “recipient” has no option to decline—is no right at all.

Bracketing for a moment the question of whether we want to call migration a “right,” I think Kerry is clearly right about this: A foreign worker’s moral claim to peacefully cooperate with a willing American employer is prima facie far stronger than that worker’s claim to American healthcare resources of other perquisites of citizenship. (At any rate, we don’t seem to feel any obligation to provide those when said worker stays abroad.) There is something quite bizarre about refusing to acknowledge the strong claim on the grounds that we believe we lack the political will to refrain from then granting the weaker one, especially when denying both leaves the worker manifestly worse off than recognizing only the first.

Tags: Moral Philosophy



5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joseph // Dec 27, 2007 at 8:37 pm

    But this ignores the salient fact that we care about our neighbors a lot more then a stranger (remember mirror neurons?). If geographic borders mean anything in a globalized world, they still mean that a group of people who live together have obligations to one another and derive privileges by living near one another that someone who does not live near us do not, at least as a right, enjoy .

    Once a guest worker enters into our land, the logic of nearness places an overwhelming pressure on us to provide them with the benefits that we all enjoy. We aren’t, or I at least wouldn’t, prevent a guest worker dying from cancer receiving medical aid from the American health care system. But if that’s the case we go down a slippery slope, one Mccardle succinctly summed up.

    McCardle made the excellent point that there are cultural costs to allowing a massive transient population into American without any expectation of assimilation. That’s the major concern Yglesias offered, too.

    And yet it seems like pro and anti guest worker factions are talking past one another. Some liberals and libertarians are arguing that,” Look at all the benefits that accrue to guest workers. If you are concerned about their welfare, than you should embrace guest worker programs.”

    But what Yglesias and McCardle are arguing isn’t about relative improvement in the migrant’s life but the relative cost to our society. So to respond to an argument that there are costs to us associated with a guest worker program by pointing to the benefits that the guest worker receives is really beside the point.

  • 2 southpaw // Dec 27, 2007 at 10:37 pm

    A foreign worker’s moral claim to peacefully cooperate with a willing American employer is prima facie far stronger than that worker’s claim to American healthcare resources of other perquisites of citizenship.

    Change that ‘peacefully’ to ‘lawfully’ and you get to the heart of the problem. Presently, the cooperation under discussion is in violation of the law. In the proposed system, a new class of people lawfully working in this country (but not citizens) would be created in order to ratify and legalize the current unlawful cooperation. What people object to (rightly, I think) is the idea of enshrining that second class existence into law. A better solution, one that Yglesias posited this morning, would be to get control of the situation so that the vast majority employment relationships are conducted as allowed by the current legal regime, and then increase legal immigration if necessary.

  • 3 Blech // Dec 28, 2007 at 3:04 am

    Thanks for saying en passant. In passing would’ve been confusing.

  • 4 fishbane // Dec 29, 2007 at 2:50 pm

    If I may abuse Camus for a moment

    I didn’t know you were so kinky.

  • 5 Matt // Dec 29, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    The Reason article was good- not perfect but one of the best journalistic pieces I’ve seen on immigration. For those who want a more academic view I can’t recommend highly enough Howard Chang’s article here:


    Some of his other articles available on SSRN are also relevant but this one most directly. I don’t completely agree with his position, but it’s vastly better then the poorly articulated (at best) garbage that one usually finds even from fairly to very smart folks like Matt Y and Mark Kleiman