One of the main issues that has come up in my recent discussion on the blog Rhymes with cars and Girls is whether the US government should look out for US citizens exclusively.
I concede that allowing more immigrants into the country will put downward pressure on the wages of certain groups of citizens. For these people, immigration hurts their personal interest.
In my view one of the most important benefits to increased immigration is that it helps foreign citizens escape poverty. But is it okay for the US government to adopt policies that help foreigners at the expense of some Americans?
The author of the blog, Crimson Reach, specifically asked the question of whether we should follow the principle that any time a proposed policy will help foreigners by 10 times the amount it hurts Americans we should adopt it. He argued that taking this principle to its logical conclusion would imply it would be good for the US to keep sacrificing until we are the poorest nation in the world. We could take it further and say it is conceivable that this policy could result in killing all Americans to save a bunch of people elsewhere.
This is an interesting question and I am glad it has been raised. My answer to the question is that I would support a modified version of this principle. Specifically, I don't want to make an argument about how the US adopts policy aside from conceding that the present representative democracy is satisfactory. That is, the US should adopt policies that a sufficient majority of its citizens support.
This changes the question to what American citizens should support. I think citizens should vote according to two basic principles.
- People should vote according to their personal interests (including on behalf of friends and family).
- When personal interests are not overwhelming, people should vote according to what is best for strangers.
When taking the interests of strangers into account, I don't think people ought to count the interests of other Americans as significantly more important than non-American strangers.
My modified principle would read something like:
When a policy will help foreigners by an amount that is ten times as much as it hurts Americans AND the majority of Americans are not significantly harmed by the policy, it should be adopted (through the usual democratic process).
It is still conceivable that this policy taken to its logical conclusion could impoverish all existing American citizens through a series of policies that harm various different groups. Just about any principle can lead to this result if we consider the most pathological scenario, but the limitation that people should vote in their best interest creates a pretty strong protection against it.
As the author Murray Kempton once said, "the biggest mistake you can make is to follow your ideas to their logical conclusions." Life can't be solved with a single principle and there will always be the need to compromise, but this doesn't mean we can't adopt meaningful guidelines that help us evaluate our options most of the time.