In the Letters section of The Economist this week, a few people wrote in defending the deportation of illegal immigrants in America. The logic was basically that these people have broken the sovereign laws of America and amnesty only rewards rule-breaking. Why go through the incredible hoops and costs of legal immigration when you know amnesty is just on the horizon? Isn’t this unfair to those who have followed the rules and spent a fortune on fees to get citizenship legally?

I used to agree with this logic, but now I’m not so sure. Illegal immigrants are illegal so in one sense holding them accountable for breaking the law makes sense. But what about when the law is unjust? As I get more sympathetic to a policy closer to basically-open-borders I see any restriction on migration (aka free trade of labor) as unjust.

You can think of it a few ways, though the level of convincing any of these analogies will do is largely dependent on your agreement with the unjustness of the laws. First, I want to let free all non-violent drug offenders from jail. I think the War on Drugs is embarrassing. Pardoning all of them – one might say, well what about all those who went through the hassle of getting their medical marijuana prescription, or who paid to get a license as a dispensary in Colorado or Washington? Aren’t you just forgiving people that broke the law? On the further extreme, if we pardoned all those who refused to pay a poll tax – what about all those poor people who saved up for months so they could vote in the 1800s? They followed the rules, aren’t we just rewarding people for breaking the rules?

The point is that granting amnesty to people who have broken an unjust law really shouldn’t be that big of a deal. Yes, illegal immigrants are by definition illegal. But if you think they should be legal this doesn’t really matter. I know there’s a delicate balance between rule of law and civil disobedience. But this seems to be yet another case of the two sides talking past each other.

Matt Welch disapprovingly reports on Gary Johnson’s consequentialist approach to drug policy:

At the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson implored Republican voters to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” of the criminal justice system…. [C]onditions are becoming increasingly ripe for a Johnsonian cost-benefit analysis to conclude that drug prohibition needs to go the way of alcohol prohibition. It remains my hope, even my conviction, that these hardheaded arguments will reverse this evil policy during the next decade or two.

Yet we can’t assess the corrosive and life-destroying faults of the criminal justice system—and our complicity in creating them—merely by looking at the bottom line of a spreadsheet.

Americans have created a system in which criminals who have served their sentences can still expect to remain incarcerated for life. Voters continue to reward prosecutors who are notorious for locking up innocent people. Our periodic national panics about terrorism and immigration have created a system where defendants do not have access to a public lawyer, prisoners can rot indefinitely, and 30-year residents of the U.S. can get deported for Reagan-era misdemeanors.

Why did all this happen? Because we let ourselves be OK with the ends justifying the means.

Welch prefers the Ron Paul approach:

I’m grateful that Gary Johnson wasn’t the only libertarian-leaning candidate at the first GOP debate in South Carolina. Before the former New Mexico governor gave his hardheaded consequentialist answer to the drug war question, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who has always been more interested in principle than pragmatism, gave perhaps the most unusual answer in presidential campaign history. When asked about legalizing heroin, Paul analogized personal drug use to freedom of religion. When the stunned panelist asked him whether he had indeed just cited heroin use as an example of liberty, Paul said yes.

Contra Welch, I’m especially grateful to have Johnson involved in this debate. It’s widely accepted that, when deliberating about whether a policy is good or bad, consequences are important. They may not be the only important metric with which to judge policy, but they matter a great deal. This is, for most people, just common sense, and I happen to think it’s also correct.

Libertarians, however, like Welch, tend to have an aversion to consequentialist thinking. They often prefer to evaluate policy based on how well it aligns with libertarian first principles like the non-aggression principle. The problem with this is that a lot of libertarian-ish policies make sense from a consequentialist standpoint, but they fail to receive the serious consideration they deserve partially because their most vocal advocates are libertarians who make first principles-based arguments that are only convincing to other libertarians. When Ron Paul compares the freedom to use heroin with freedom of religion, his libertarian base eats it up, but most other people find it at best unconvincing and at worst ridiculous.

So it’s nice to have an advocate of libertarianism like Gary Johnson who makes arguments that appeal to values held by a wide range of people and contribute to giving libertarian policies the intellectual support they deserve