PHILOSOPHY FOUL! Brad DeLong and Eric Umansky both praise today's John Tierney column which deploys John Rawls's notion of a veil of ignorance to argue for a more liberal immigration policy. I agree with Tierney's conclusion, but he's abusing the philosophical material here which just happens to be drawn from my alleged former area of academic expertise.

The entire argument of A Theory of Justice proceeds under certain idealizing assumptions, notably the assumption of a "closed society" in which the only entrance is birth and the only exit is death. Consequently, you can't apply the argument to questions of immigration policy. Relatedly, the crucial move in Tierney's argument is to appeal to the benefits of immigration to immigrants which seems correct to me, but would be rejected by Rawls. In The Law of Peoples he considers the possibility that the principle of giving priority to the poorest should be extended on an international basis and rejects it. He says we have an obligation to assist foreigners suffering from severe absolute deprivation which would render lots of foreigners eligible, but not especially Mexican immigrants (which is primarily what this is about) who come from a middle-income country and who tend not to be the very poorest Mexicans. Now this, I would say, is more of a flaw with Rawls than with our current immigration policies, but it's worth being accurate. I think Rawls' writing probably supports something akin to Michael Lind's arguments for restrictionism.

--Matthew Yglesias

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