I’ve been looking again at a two-year-old discussion on immigration policy between Jonathan Portes and Martin Wolf, and particularly on Wolf’s take on the reasons that ought to inform policy. As far as I can tell, Wolf’s position is a kind of national-weighted consequentialism. Immigration policy is to be viewed as an aspect of economic policy, and the relevant considerations are simply whether a policy is beneficial to existing members of society, with no weight to be given to the interests of immigrants. Portes raises the interesting objection that, once we factor time into our national felicific calculus, then the well-being of future members who have yet to be naturalized ought to count, but this is a mere wrinkle in the argument. Wolf’s view is that
countries are like clubs. They can decide who members are. Once you are a member, you matter to the club. If you are not a member, you don’t.
I hope that Wolf doesn’t mean what he says. The disanology between clubs and countries is pretty stark, since countries are compulsory associations which most people don’t have a choice about, whereas clubs are not. Moreover, most people think that countries do not have an unlimited discretion to decide on who their members are, that Nazi laws to remove citizenship from Jews were unjust, that policies that are blatantly discriminatory on racial or gender lines have no moral standing, whatever the insider electors think. We also, I hope, think that laws that condemn generations of minority permanent residents to non-membership — until recently a feature of German citizenship law — are unjust. So at best Wolf must mean that countries have a discretion to admit as members outsiders with no other moral claim to admission or membership.
The interesting question, then, when we have got the discretionary membership issue out of the way is what could justify national-weighted consequentialism? Whilst there might be all kinds of deontological reasons for states to favour insiders over outsiders (the global justice literature is about little else), in my experience, economists don’t think in those terms. Rather, they think of themselves as being consequentialists all the way down, and of rights, powers, permissions etc as being ultimately justified by outcomes. If I’m right that this is the picture, then the claim would have to be that a global system of nationally-weighted consequentialisms, perhaps by assigning the promotion of individual interests to particular states, gives rise to the best consequences overall. That’s an empirical claim, but one that is very very unlikely to be true since it locks so many people away from opportunities they would otherwise have to be productive and makes the world a poorer place as a result. So I’m still puzzled. What do economists think justifies national-weighted consequentialism?