Will Wilkinson and Daniel Larison have been carrying on an interesting exchange concerning, ultimately, the moral legitimacy of national borders, with relevant crosstalk by Tim Lee and Jeff Martin (aka Maximos). (And yeah, I know I left out a bunch of stuff...but you'll find it all, if you're interested).
Rather than offer a blow-by-blow account, I'll try to reduce the argument to its fundamentals:
[UPDATE 10/2 - Will Wilkinson has posted an interesting response. Unfortunately, some very local obligations will keep me from giving it the attention it deserves until this evening. In the meantime, go check it out!]
Will Wilkinson, the putative libertarian in this debate, argues for more or less open borders on explicitly Rawlsian (or Rawlsish) grounds: "the global system of exclusion through citizenships, visas, and borders has manifestly failed to make the world’s least well-off better off. On the contrary, it has trapped billions in miserable poverty."
In other words, maximizing the minimum (i.e., making the least well-off better off) should be our overriding moral goal. So Americans should welcome unlimited immigration from Mexico, Zimbabwe, etc., even if it makes most Americans worse off, because it makes the immigrants from Mexico, Zimbabwe, etc., better off — and Mexicans, Zimbabweans, etc. are less well-off than Americans. So, from a Rawlsian (or Rawlsish) point of view, their interests count for more than ours do.
Daniel Larison, if I read him aright, denies both Wilkinson's major and minor premises.
In the first place, he denies that the goal of making the least well-off better off trumps our obligations to our fellow countrymen: "Conservatives argue that there is a hierarchy of loyalties based on natural affinities and social relationships, and that it is, in fact, a disordering of moral priorities to pretend that our obligations to our next-door neighbour and to a man on the other side of the world are effectively the same or even close to being comparable."
In the second place, he denies that unlimited immigration from Mexico, Zimbabwe, etc., necessarily makes the worst-off better off: "Letting in those who can escape the nightmare is all very well and good, but it is almost certain that the most motivated and most capable will be among the first to abandon their “prisons”...leaving their neighbours to endure even greater hardships as conditions continue to deteriorate." Moreover, even those who "escape the nightmare" may end up creating "a huge, exploited underclass in our own country." Worse still, "the costs of absorbing all these people...could weaken or stall those developed economies to the detriment of all."
So how do I score this debate?
On the second point, I simply have no idea. If our illegal immigrants from Mexico were turned back at the border and forced to find their opportunities at home, what would they do? Would they agitate for needed reforms? Or for violent revolution? Or would they just end up working quietly for less, or not working at all, or what? This seems to me entirely speculative. And it seems odd to worry about immigrants being "exploited" in the U.S., given that they presumably wouldn't come here and stay here unless they preferred it to conditions at home. As for the possibility that "the costs of absorbing all these people...could weaken or stall" the economy, I'm no economist, but those who are just don't seem to be losing much sleep over it.
On the first point, I think that Larison is on much firmer ground. Wilkinson writes that "[p]art of what it means to have a thoroughly liberal moral sense...is to see the claims of ingroup solidarity as weak and easily defeated by competing considerations." So he "finds the claim, implicit in much of the immigration debate, that I ought to heavily discount the welfare gains to non-citizens simply because they belong to a different national coalition morally abhorrent." But, if we are to take this as no more than an expression of moral sensibility, it seems pretty bloodless compared to Jeff Martin presenting the contrary view: "where I was born does tell me quite a bit about the nature and objects of my moral obligations, as from those by whom I am surrounded I have received innumerable benefactions: I have received my identity, my education, the goods of order and conviviality, the social and moral environment which has become my native atmosphere, and so forth. And by receiving these gifts, all of them unchosen and yet (partially) constitutive of my personality, I have entered into a nexus of mutual obligation, and thus requite these gifts with contributions of my own."
Works for me.
So Wilkinson needs an argument, if he's going to get anywhere here with anybody who doesn't already feel as he does. And he suggests that he's got one: "the liberal dimensions of the moral sense are uniquely amenable to defense by rational argument."
OK, fine. So what's the argument? As Larison writes, "it would be interesting to see."
Having spent all too many years of my life studying and teaching philosophy at some very good schools, I can testify that Wilkinson's universalist moral sensibility is shared by the overwhelming majority of academic moral philosophers today. But I can also testify that this has nothing at all to do with "rational argument." There is no serious and generally accepted "rational argument" for discarding one's local obligations in favor of "the least well-off" of the world.
In fact, come to think of it, there's no serious and generally accepted argument for discarding one's own self-interest in favor of same.
There's just a bunch of Kantian and post-Kantian and pseudo-Kantian clap-trap that nobody really believes.