Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Selfish Nation State

In a comment to a Caplan's post on growth, redistribution and immigration, reader MichaelM makes the following insightful comment:
I've made a point of asking in the past why, if income redistribution is an unqualified good, we don't pay for state provided health insurance for poor Africans or Indians. Nobody ever has given me a good answer that doesn't ultimately reduce to nationalism.
I think part of the reason that nobody will ever admit to being an adherent of this ideology is because the natural label for it is none other than national socialism.
This may indeed be true when it comes to most nationalists and socialists that I know.

I believe however that I can make a quasi-libertarian case for some amount of conditional redistribution in open societies not based on nativist criteria. To that, redistribution is qualified by commitment to the values of open societies. Societal participation, contribution and access to benefits is conditional on the support of those values. Immigration is open, but only to the extent that there's commitment to these values -- which has to be shown in part by "moving in".

The idea is that open societies shouldn't be in the business of supporting individuals that are committed to the values of closed societies. They should allow however individuals that are committed to the values of open societies to immigrate. Obviously, open societies could and probably should support one another.

Now, this argument poses a few practical problems of its own. How do you measure an individual's level of commitment to the values of an open society? Isn't this intrusive? Should individuals that aren't committed be exiled from open societies? Would such possibly draconian rules be compatible with the values of open societies themselves? BTW, what are the values of open societies?

Up to a certain extent, modern open societies try yet to guide their policies, even if in a somewhat awkward fashion, by this principle. They would probably do better however if they would acknowledge it more explicitly.

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