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Economics and the Moral Weight of Citizenship

Monday, 18 Mar 2013 | 5:36 PM ET
Willy Stöwer

Tyler Cowen's column in Sunday's New York Times makes a strong case that it is a mistake to see economics as a cold, calculating science bereft of morality. At its heart there has always been something deeply moral about economics, an often-unstated premise about the equal moral worth of people and their interests.

But, when he tries to argue that there is something wrong with considering matters such as trade and immigration primarily from the viewpoint of national interest, Cowen also unintentionally exhibits a moral blindness that inflicts many economists.

One enormous issue is international migration. A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, quantified these gains in a 2011 paper, "Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?" He found that unrestricted immigration could create tens of trillions of dollars in economic value, as captured by the migrants themselves in the form of higher wages in their new countries and by those who hire the migrants or consume the products of their labor. For a profession concerned with precision, it is remarkable how infrequently we economists talk about those rather large numbers.

Truly open borders might prove unworkable, especially in countries with welfare states, and kill the goose laying the proverbial golden eggs; in this regard Mr. Clemens's analysis may require some modification. Still, we should be obsessing over how many of those trillions can actually be realized.

In any case, there is an overriding moral issue. Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn't dream of producing a study that counted "men only" or "whites only," at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data.

So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration? The nation-state is a good practical institution, but it does not provide the final moral delineation of which people count and which do not. So commentators on trade and immigration should stress the cosmopolitan perspective, knowing that the practical imperatives of the nation-state will not be underrepresented in the ensuing debate.

Let's engage in a thought experiment to examine Cowen's assertion that the nation is a "good practical institution" that fails to "provide the final moral delineation of which people count and which do not."

Say that a cruise ship is sinking in the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere near Ireland. The Irish know they can get a rescue helicopter there in time to save some passengers, but it is unclear whether the helicopter will be able to make a return journey for a second rescue mission. It is also unclear whether help from other nations will arrive in time.

The rescue helicopter can save 25 of the 300 passengers on board.

Of course, Cowen is right that we would deplore a policy that instructed the rescue team to rescue "men only." We would not, however, feel the same about a policy that instructed the team to rescue "women and children first." This is an indication that when we are making distinctions about policies we do not rely on an analytical egalitarianism that refuses to say some people count more than others.

Cowen is also right that we would deplore a policy that instructed the rescue team to rescue "whites only." We would also deplore one geared at "Asians only" or "Africians only" or "Latinos only." So our egalitarianism counts for something.

But let's say that there are 15 Irish women and children on board the sinking ship. Would anyone begrudge the Irish rescuers saving these passengers before the others? Of course not. If anything, I'd argue that this is exactly what we would expect.

Preferring your fellow countrymen's interests over those of foreigners is not equivalent to saying that other people do not count. It is saying that, when not fully compatible, their interests do not count equally.

Attempting to claim that economics cannot—or should not—recognize the moral weight of citizenship is a smear against economics that its friends should avoid making.

Follow me on Twitter @Carney

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