Sunday, June 16, 2013

Immigration and Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion

It looks like immigration reform will eventually grant amnesty to 10 million or so people, in the process encouraging more illegal immigration.  I differ with my libertarian friends on this, as I would restrict immigration to those with high skills, like what those evil Canadians do.

An essential reference for this argument is Derek Parfit's Repugnant Conclusion.  He notes that it seems inevitable ethicists will prefer billions of people barely subsisting to having a mere million people living the epitome of the good life.  That is, the chart below shows the quality of life on the y-axis, the quantity on the x. There will always be a wide and short alternative that dominates the present, and thus, in the limit we will by moral choice have 100 billion humans living like wild dogs.

 How can this be?  Well consider the following.  Say population A contains 1 million people living with an average gdp/capita of $30k/year.  Then look at A+, which has that population plus 1 million more earning $20k/year.  Clearly, A+ dominates A, because it's just the same thing plus more people, each of whom is presumably happy to be alive.  But then, B has 2 million people making $25k/year.  This has to dominate A+, because its the same average and total prosperity, plus greater equality.  Thus, B, with more and poorer people, dominates A via transitivity.  On can extend this ad infinitum, so basically Haiti writ large dominates Iceland or anywhere.


Piyo said...

At what point would this kind of deliberation push you toward considering people already in the US as part of a "repugnant" scenario, causing you to advocate their removal?

Eric Falkenstein said...

There are many poor people in LA county (or Detroit). Is there any obviously better situation that would involve their deportation or extermination (as in A to A+)? None that I can think of.

So, I don't think this leads there.

Wesley said...

When you say *you* would restrict immigration to only the highly skilled, how literally do you mean that? If you you had to be the enforcer, would you be willing to use violence against my neighbor's gardener just because he is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador and has minimal education?

The reason I ask is this: while there are a lot of potential immigrants that I would prefer remain outside the US just so I don't have to smell them, I'd be unwilling for reasons of conscience to use violence against people just because they broke a law that I too would break if I were in their position. And I can't see any way that a person could rationally favor a law and simultaneously be unwilling to enforce it at the same time for reasons of conscience.

Also, your reply to Piyo is interesting relative to your original post. If you favor a skill threshold, why wouldn't you favor deporting current citizens who are below that threshold?

roystgnr said...

Are most "ethicists", however that category gets defined, really total utilitarians? In the PhilPapers survey, only about a quarter of the philosophy faculty and student respondents said they "accept or lean toward" consequentialist ethics, and total utilitarians would almost certainly consider themselves a subset of consequentialists.

Unknown said...
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Eric Falkenstein said...

Wesley: Don't take the phrase literally, rather, as it's commonly understood, ie, those are my policy preferences and I don't want to be a dictator. As per enforcing the law, we have specialists for that who are paid, police, and that seems to work reasonably well.

As per deporting the low-skilled, I don't see how it's fair to Iceland (eg) to move them there. So, I'd focus on minimizing them statistically and maximizing their utility by creating incentives and institutions that reward work for low skilled people, one pillar of which is to stop bringing in more low skilled people.

Robert Michel said...

Derek Parfit's argument is bullshit, because you cannot compare the utility of different people. The level of measurement of utility is only on the ordinal scale but the argument requires at least one on interval scale, because only on the interval scale and higher you can summate utility.

Mercury said...

B “dominates” A only because the goal of “population ethics” is to promote the acceptance of wealth redistribution by central planning on a global scale.

How about these “population ethics”:

The US population is roughly 316mm. There are many hundreds of millions of people outside the US with relatively low standards of living who would prefer to live in and have the ability to emigrate to the US. So, putting selection criteria aside for a moment, ask yourself what US population level you would be happy with and what that would likely mean for your own standard of living. Would it be 400mm? 700mm? 1.5 billion?

Remember that the dramatic increase over the last 50 years of the percentage of Americans with college degrees (education ethics!) wasn’t accomplished by building more Harvards and MITs it was accomplished by lowering standards and raising prices.

luckyscum said...

it's not a zero sum game, eric. they don't take resources from "you".

it's the institutions "you", whatever "you"-the chosen ones- elected and perpetuate that don't integrate them properly. but that's a different taboo conversation, right? not everyone has to be a software engineer to be productive.

not that I have a solution on how to fix those institutions myself, mind you.

Mercury said...


The above charts and arguments are the product of Stanford, not Falkenstein and belong to the larger school of thought (of which Obama is a member) that says it most certainly is a zero sum game (which is the whole principal behind active wealth redistribution). But since we both agree that it is not a zero sum game that means that different inputs (increasing the population in this case) can either create a greater sum (increased per-capita GDP/income or whatever your metric is) or result in a lesser sum via wealth destruction.

Our institutions are now primarily motivated by self-perpetuation and are otherwise guided by a world/life outlook that puts heavy emphasis on vague principals such as multiculturalism which by definition is not much concerned with integration beyond: take the handout, vote for more.

Projecting that greater population will result in greater per-capita wealth this time because that’s what happened last time assumes at the very least that all the moving parts now are much the same as they were back then.