Tyler concedes the moral high ground to advocates of open borders but argues that the proposal is “doomed to fail and probably also to backfire in destructive ways.” In contrast, I argue that the moral high ground is tactically the best ground from which to launch a revolution. In Entrepreneurial Economics I wrote:
No one goes to the barricades for efficiency. For liberty, equality or fraternity, perhaps, but never for efficiency.
Contra Tyler, the lesson of history is that few things are as effective at launching a revolution as is moral argument. Without the firebrand Thomas “We have it in our power to begin the world over again“ Paine, the American Revolution would probably never have happened. Paine’s Common Sense, the most widely read book of its time, is about as far from Tyler’s synthetic, marginalist argument as one can imagine and it was effective.
When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire. Whatever one may say about this revolution one can certainly say that it was not brought about by a “synthetic and marginalist” approach. If instead of abolition, Clarkson had settled on the goal of providing for better living conditions for slaves on the voyage from Africa it seems quite possible that slavery would still be with us today.
In more recent times, civil unions have gone nowhere while equality of marriage has succeeded beyond all expectation. The problem with civil unions, and with the synthetic and marginalist approach more generally, is that even though it offers everyone something that they want, it concedes the moral high ground–perhaps there is something different about gay marriage which makes it ok to treat it differently–and for that reason it attracts few adherents. Moreover, the argument for civil unions doesn’t force the opposition to enunciate the moral arguments for their opposition and when the moral ground of the opposition is weak that is a strategic failure.
The moral argument for open borders is powerful. How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living? Indeed, most moral frameworks (libertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and others) strongly favor open borders or find it difficult to justify restrictions on freedom of movement. As a result, people who openly defend closed borders sound evil, even when they are simply defending what most people implicitly accept. When your opponents occupy ground that they cannot–even on their own moral premises–defend then it is time to attack.