Tagged: victimless crimes

Why debate about a wall?


What underlies the debate about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border?

As with so many seemingly intractable political arguments, debaters usually don’t explicitly state their premises describing which moral values are informing their position, because they rarely even realize their opponents are even operating on different moral dimensions.



A compressed argument from the right might take the form:

  • Premise 1: The government’s primary role is to provide security, in the form of law enforcement, to its citizens and legal aliens.
  • Premise 2: A government has the right to control who enters its borders.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the government’s policy should be to spend more resources enforcing laws against illegal border crossings, and one such tool would be a wall to help prevent said illegal border crossings.

Some on the right might find the above argument completely obvious and convincing, but the argument has many unstated premises with which to disagree. A decompressed form of the argument with more premises stated explicitly, might take the form:

  • Premise 1: The government’s primary role is to provide security, in the form of law enforcement, to its citizens and legal aliens.
  • Premise 2: A person’s national origin conveys probabilistic information about their security risk inside the United States.
  • Premise 3: Legal immigration channels provide a necessary audit of the security risks of foreigners entering the country.
  • Premise 4: It is possible and practical for unskilled workers to enter the country legally and work legally, but illegal immigrants are criminals who merely prefer to cut corners.
  • Premise 5: A foreigner’s proclivity to circumvent legal immigration channels into the United States demonstrates a disrespect for the rule of law and an unhesitating willingness to commit criminal acts.
  • Premise 6: Law enforcement should devote resources to prevent criminal activity, including illegal border crossings.
  • Premise 7: A wall would be an effective tool to restrict illegal border crossings.
  • Premise 8: The marginal financial costs of a wall are less than or equal to the combined marginal economic and security benefits of a wall.
  • Premise 9: Deference to authority moral foundation: Following the law is an important moral value in and of itself, so it’s wrong for rule-violators to go unpunished.
  • Premise 10: In-group loyalty moral foundation: The government should grant preferential treatment to United States citizens and legal aliens in the form of economic protectionism.
  • Premise 11: Fairness and reciprocity moral foundation: By selling their labor off-the-books and without paying taxes, illegal immigrants don’t contribute to paying for government-provided infrastructure and services.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the government should construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Contrast the above argument from the right to the below argument from from the left:

  • Premise 1: Harm and care moral foundation: There are desperate, impoverished people who are attempting to improve their lives by crossing the border to work in the U.S.
  • Premise 2: Fairness and reciprocity moral foundation: Such impoverished people are poor from circumstances beyond their control, based on wherever they happened to be born.
  • Premise 3: In-group loyalty moral foundation: There’s no special moral obligation to confer privileges, rights, or resources on the basis of national origin.
  • Premise 4: Deference to authority moral foundation: It’s not particularly important to follow or enforce unjust laws.
  • Premise 5: Liberty and oppression moral foundation: Laws restricting the free movement of people are oppressive.
  • Conclusion: Constructing a wall to more strongly enforce an unjust law is undesirable.

Spelling out all of the unstated premises improves the discourse and reveals what exactly the impasse is. This is a similar technique to “Tabooing the words.”



The argument for or against a border wall actually follows a distinct pattern observable in many other political debates. The specific “wall” debate is generalizable to more-or-less any debate about harsher crackdowns on victimless crimes.

What were the policy objectives of alcohol prohibition in the 1920s? The intended objectives were to (1) reduce alcohol consumption in order to (2) reduce the the social ills caused by alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, when governments successfully achieved (1), they made (2) much, much worse. The policy problem with prohibition wasn’t that the government failed to reduce alcohol consumption—the problem was that by harshly cracking down on a victimless crime, they drove the activity underground into a black market, fueled organized crime, and made production, sale, and consumption of alcohol much more dangerous. The costs created by prohibition proved much higher than when alcohol had been legal.

The logic of harsher crackdowns for victimless crimes almost always fails, 180° from the intended policy objectives. Some other examples:

  • Modern-day marijuana prohibition
    • Modern-day marijuana prohibition fuels violent, depraved Mexican drug cartels.
    • There are no equivalent “tobacco cartels” or “alcohol cartels,” because neither tobacco nor alcohol are traded on a black market.
  • The illegality of prostitution
    • Prostitution is largely an illegal, underground business, which makes it more dangerous for prostitutes and their johns. Prostitutes or johns who find themselves in danger can’t rely on law enforcement for protection or recourse.
    • Driving prostitution underground makes sex slavery and human trafficking a viable business model. Ceteris paribus, pushing the supply curve to the right with legal, regulated prostitution businesses would obliterate the slavery business model.
  • Exploiting tax loopholes instead of paying taxes
    • U.S. corporations hire lobbyists, lawyers, and accountants to create, find, and exploit tax loopholes—if taxes were simply lower, it would be more cost-effective just to pay the taxes. The stated intent of high corporate income tax rates is to extract more revenue from corporations, but the higher tax rates spur firms to find clever ways to pay less in taxes.
    • Even though Arthur Laffer was empirically wrong about his parabola’s numerical values, his concept was more or less correct. Hauser’s law holds.

The logic of harsher crackdowns applies in the same way to human migration. By driving the victimless crime of human migration underground, the government is spurring social ills—funding organized crime through cayotaje, and making living and working more dangerous for laborers who are merely seeking to sell their labor.



Much of the immigration debate can be stripped down to two opposing outlooks. The core question is whether, on net, outsiders are:

  1. Either a cost to the United States, consuming resources and predating on American citizens;
  2. Or a benefit to the United States, looking to improve their lives by consensually selling their labor and participating in positive-sum economic transactions in iterated games.

The explanation from Matt Taibbi on the rise of Trump, the leftist-style economic protectionism on the right, and the “politics of resentment” applies to the immigration debate as well.

It seems like a historical accident that the left and right divided on the immigration debate in the way that they did. Why didn’t we see labor unions on the left promote economic protectionism against immigrants, and the free-marketeers on the right promote free markets for unskilled labor?



One cliché heard from the right is “being only against illegal immigration, and for legal immigration,” which presumes that it’s at all possible for unskilled workers to enter the country legally. It’s not.



The same logic of 180° unintended consequences from harsh crackdowns on victimless crimes applies for “national security” concerns as well. It would merely promote cayotaje to crack down more harshly on current immigration laws before actually reforming laws to make immigration for unskilled immigrants legal.

Because immigrants are primarily seeking to sell their labor, there would be no reason migrate illegally if legal immigration were actually a viable option.

Just as the repeal of alcohol prohibition eliminated the revenue stream to organized crime during prohibition, legalizing immigration for unskilled workers would eliminate cayotaje. At the moment, potential terrorists and dangerous criminals are free to use the cayotaje infrastructure, which decreases national security.