The Aluminum Rule

In line with what many other religious traditions have preached as well, Jesus said: 

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

This has been called the Golden Rule. Not everyone feels ready to follow the Golden Rule. So I would like to propound the Aluminum Rule, framed as a less demanding version of Utilitarianism:

When acting collectively–or considering collective actions–put a weight on the welfare of human beings outside the in-group at least one-hundredth as much as the welfare of those in the in-group. 

To make clear what this means, conducting cost-benefit analysis that put a weight of zero on non-citizens, for example, would violate the Aluminum rule. 

It might seem that the Aluminum rule would not have much bite, but that is not so. In “Inequality Aversion Utility Functions: Would $1000 Mean More to a Poorer Family than $4000 to One Twice as Rich?” talked about results that indicate that there is actually quite wide agreement that a dollar means at least 4 times as much to someone who is living on half as much income. Extending that elasticity (of 2 or more) to lower levels of income, it means that a dollar would mean something like 100 times as much to someone who has only 1/10 the income. Thus, a weight of 1/100 on someone in the out-group can be counteracted by someone in the out-group having an income only 1/10 or less of those in the in-group. Given the enormous differences in income levels between the typical individual in various different countries, following the aluminum rule would then mean that the welfare of those in relatively poor nations would bulk large in overall Aluminum-Rule calculations.

One might think that this would recommend that we do more foreign aid. It isn’t that easy. As Angus Deaton argues in his wonderful book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, foreign aid is very often literally corrupting, by putting money in the hands of people who don’t necessarily have the welfare of other people in their nation at heart. No, the most reliable way to help people in poor countries is to let them in. As I wrote in “The Message of Jesus for Non-Supernaturalists”:

The essence of oppression is to run things for the benefit of an in-group at the expense of an out-group. In my post “‘Keep the Riffraff Out!’” I point out three ways in which we routinely use exclusion to run things for the benefit of an in-group at the expense of an out-group.

The first is to put up fences and guards to keep out immigrants desperate to become part of a well-run liberal democracy. Why do we keep them out? In order to benefit a subset of citizens—of the in-group—even at terrible cost to those being kept out. Or when they get in despite our best efforts, we keep them in constant fear of deportation and thereby keep them at the margins of society.

We are often moved to compassion when we see pictures of people suffering in other countries, and send money to help. But other than limited areas such as fighting illness, it is very difficult to make things better over there where evil rules. But if we focus on helping people rather than helping nations, it is simplicity itself to help the people in other nations: let them in! It is much easier to bring the people to good systems of governance than it is to bring good systems of governance to people where they are. Where they are, evil systems designed for oppression will fight us tooth and nail. Here at home, we only have to fight the evil in our own hearts, with a fundamentally good system designed to keep our own evil in check backing us up.

The cost-benefit calculus for more open borders is only strengthened by considering how it may save those of us already in well-run countries. As I wrote in “Why Thinking about China is the Key to a Free World”:

Strengthening the free world numerically

Bringing more people into the free world is easier than it sounds. The key is to focus on people, not patches of ground. Although it is hard to bring a patch of ground currently subject to an oppressive regime under free institutions, the economic importance of land—apart from what is on top of the land—continues to decline relative to the importance of people, education and training, ideas and capital. Once one focuses on people, the answer is clear: bring people to where freedom already rules. That is so easy it is hard to do the opposite. Many people in benighted countries seek freedom and the prosperity that full freedom enables. Standing in the way of those hopes, many otherwise free countries make strenuous efforts to keep those people seeking prosperity and freedom out.

Currently, there is much agonizing about the dangers of allowing refugees from war-torn Middle-Eastern countries to come into safe-haven countries for fear that this might let terrorists in, even after strenuous efforts to identify potential terrorists to keep them out while letting others from those war-torn countries in. I do not think a man who willingly allowed himself to be crucified in order to demonstrate the power of love would take such a position. But be that as it may, rest assured that even if one takes such a position, there are many, many people from other benighted countries who can be let in who pose no such danger.  

I don’t mean to suggest at all that the only implications of the Aluminum Rule are for immigration policy. I would love to see the outcome of many calculations based on the Aluminum Rule. The principle of the Aluminum Rule can go far in illuminating what we should do, and may yet prove a stepping stone toward the Golden Rule itself.