Undocumented protesters

Executive Action, Not Legislative Reform, Is How U.S. Immigration Policy Gets Made Now

Post by David Bennion (occasional blogger for the site, joined July 2013). See:

Last Thursday, President Obama announced several measures to liberalize U.S. immigration policy by executive action. First is an expansion of the program initiated in 2012 which gave quasi-legal status to undocumented youth, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The age limit for qualification for DACA has been removed, and the date before which an applicant must prove he or she entered the U.S. has been moved from 2007 to 2010. DACA-style benefits will also be extended to undocumented parents of U.S. citizen or permanent resident children who have been in the U.S. since January 1, 2010, and have not been convicted of certain crimes. This new program for parents will be called Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA). The White House estimates that these two reforms, along with an expansion of waivers for family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who are currently ineligible for green cards and reforms to certain employment visas, will protect about five million people from deportation. That’s in addition to the nearly 600,000 who have already benefited from the DACA program.

Vivek Wadhwa believes the changes to employment visa processing will be good for immigrants and tech companies that rely on immigrant labor. Prerna Lal and Dara Lind both posted helpful summaries of the deferred action programs.

Applications for DAPA will not be accepted for another six months. The Department of Homeland Security concurrently made changes to its guidelines on enforcement priorities which will become effective in January. The new guidelines will penalize recent entrants and those convicted of certain crimes, while deprioritizing people who had been deported and reentered the U.S. prior to 2014.

As Dara Lind noted, DACA was an improvement over earlier failed prosecutorial discretion initiatives because the program “has demonstrated that formalized protections work much better than vague promises.” Like DACA and Temporary Protected Status, a type of executive humanitarian relief, once granted, DAPA is unlikely to be taken away. The government emphasizes that deferred action is completely discretionary and can be revoked at any time and for any reason. In practice, it is very unlikely that President Obama would rescind or significantly restrict these discretionary programs once they are implemented. It is harder to take something away than to never grant it in the first place. DACA beneficiaries have been able to come out of the shadows, integrating into communities, making their status known to more people, and becoming more active politically. While excluded from the franchise, the moral power they possess as victims of systemic oppression amplifies their voices. It will be difficult politically for Congress or an antagonistic president to rescind DACA or DAPA in the foreseeable future. Any presidential candidate who runs on a promise to rescind the programs will lose the Latino vote by a large margin, effectively dooming his or her candidacy. These programs are here to stay and will hopefully be expanded further.

The deferred action program has serious flaws.

President Obama’s announcement fell far short of what activists had hoped for. The DAPA program excludes parents of DACA beneficiaries. The program leaves out anyone who has already been deported and prioritizes enforcement against those who try to come back to rejoin their families in the future. The president’s “Felons, not families” messaging is a slap in the face of communities of color targeted by an unjust criminal justice system. Queer immigrants are less likely to have U.S.-born children than hetero immigrants and hence less likely to qualify for the program, and agricultural workers were not included.

The number of DAPA beneficiaries will likely be much lower than projected. A good rule of thumb is to divide by half the projected number of beneficiaries to get the true number. 1.2 million people are purportedly eligible for protection under DACA, but after two and a half years, fewer than 600,000 have actually navigated the process successfully. This is due to the difficulty of documenting presence when one is undocumented, high filing fees, disqualification for minor criminal convictions, lack of reliable legal services, and ingrained distrust of the government.

DACA applicants have advantages in navigating the system that many older immigrants don’t have: most speak English and have been able to access information and resources online. But even many undocumented youth have been unable to apply for DACA or have had applications denied, though they are technically eligible for the program, because they have been unable to prove physical presence in the U.S. I expect this to be an even bigger factor with parents, since they will not have school records, as many DACA applicants did. It can be difficult to document your life when you are undocumented, but that is what the government requires. Many people have been living in a way so as to escape detection. Many have been unable to open a bank account, get a loan, buy a car, get health care, or do any number of things that middle class citizens take for granted that would create a paper trail. Now the government wants ironclad proof that applicants were here since a date certain, and too often begins with the assumption that evidence presented is fraudulent.

Whether it is acknowledged or not, the Department of Homeland Security’s primary mandate is to deport people. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the agency within DHS tasked with adjudicating DACA and DAPA applications. When reviewing applications, USCIS too often looks for reasons to deny rather than reasons to approve. The pattern with this administration has been to announce a policy reform that is supposed to benefit the undocumented community. By the time the policy is implemented, the cameras have turned away and DHS reverts to norm, denying applications for lack of evidence or using discretion against rather in favor of an applicant.

The DAPA program will exclude a large number of people with criminal convictions regardless of family ties or length of presence in the U.S. Convictions that might result in minor penalties for citizens, like a first-time DUI offense, categorically disqualify potential applicants. A third misdemeanor offense of any kind is a ground of ineligibility, which will screen out some undocumented activists who have participated in multiple civil disobedience actions.

In addition, as Dara Lind points out, for political reasons, the government may send contradictory messages about the program to applicants: “that they should apply now because the program is safe, but that it could be taken away at any time” by Republicans. This may discourage people from applying, especially since this president has deported more noncitizens than any other.

In all, I estimate that only two to three million people will be approved under the DAPA program, far below the five million projected by the White House. This may undercut the political benefits meant to accrue to Democrats as the shortcomings of the system once again come to the fore.

While the new programs are a flawed and partial remedy, and will make things worse for some people, obtaining benefits under the programs will be life-changing for many people. They will be able to work legally and live without fear of immediate deportation. They will become more visible and further integrated into their communities.

So, under these conditions, what can we expect going forward?

Deportations are likely to continue at a historically high rate.

The federal government is likely to continue deporting large numbers of people because DHS’s new enforcement priorities still cover more than enough people to maintain ICE’s existing deportation quota of about 400,000 per year. Unnecessary imprisonment of noncitizens will continue as the so-called bed mandate remains in place, which DHS construes to require it to imprison 34,000 immigrants at any given time for civil immigration violations. Operation Streamline, the federal program to criminally prosecute, jail, and deport immigrants crossing the border, is still in place. Many of those convicted through Operation Streamline were arrested while trying to rejoin families in the U.S., and now face 20-year or, in some cases, lifetime bars on returning to the U.S.

The new enforcement priorities escalate the government’s punitive response to refugees fleeing violence and corruption in Central America. The administration is going ahead with plans to construct the largest immigration prison in the country, primarily to jail refugee women and children until they can be deported. The president’s initiative calls for 20,000 additional border officers, though the mechanism for funding those officers is not yet clear to me.

The DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel itself estimates that deportations will not significantly slow after the new policies are implemented:

[W]hile the potential size of the program is large, it is nevertheless only a fraction of the approximately 11 million undocumented aliens who remain in the United States each year because DHS lacks the resources to remove them; and, as we have indicated, the program is limited to individuals who would be unlikely to be removed under DHS’s proposed prioritization policy. There is thus little practical danger that the program, simply by virtue of its size, will impede removals that would otherwise occur in its absence.

Mark Noferi of the American Immigration Council notes that deportation numbers may remain high due to an increased use of expedited removal at or near (within 100 miles of) the border and the high-by-historical-standards levels of funding for immigration enforcement.

Given the low percentage of people I expect to successfully complete the process, seven to eight million undocumented people will likely still be in limbo, at varying degrees of risk of deportation. The deportation machine has been built and is running smoothly. It won’t disappear just because the president has placed some people off limits. DHS may now go after those who are not protected more aggressively than before.

Political divisions around immigration will become more entrenched.

The political dynamics that pushed the president to announce the deferred action measures are likely to persist. Legislative reforms are not on the horizon, and additional discretionary measures will be the only viable form of relief for the foreseeable future. The polarization and political salience of immigration policy will only deepen.

After the 2012 general election, I had begun to believe predictions that demographic changes in the electorate would inevitably lead to broad legalization relatively soon. Given the demands of the two-year election cycle, House Republicans might succumb to the temptation to demagogue immigrants. But, the thinking went, more reasonable voices in the GOP would prevail as the party looked ahead to 2016 and the prospect of failing to win the White House and the Senate. I read with interest Tim Dickinson’s analysis of Karl Rove’s political strategy in 2010 of winning state legislatures in order to reshape House districts more favorably for Republicans. Dickinson and others predicted that the strategy of spreading GOP voters among a larger number of districts–turning more districts red, but a lighter shade of red–would eventually backfire as the proportion of Democratic voters grew and turned the districts blue again. However, others rebutted this theory, arguing that the concentration of Democratic voters in urban districts, combined with the increased polarization of the electorate, provides Republicans with a structural advantage in the House that could forestall demographic electoral benefits to Democrats in that chamber for many years.

The Democrats’ demographic weaknesses in midterm elections become strengths in presidential elections. In elections where there is a high percentage of Latino voters and a sharp distinction between candidates on immigration policy, Democrats hold the advantage. This held true for Harry Reid in 2010 and President Obama in 2012. By announcing and implementing the new deferred action programs, the president may have secured the White House for the Democrats again in 2016. Arguably, this was the only way not to lose it.

GOP base voters, who are older and whiter than the electorate as a whole, view the demographic changes brought on by the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965 as an existential threat to the party and the country. They will not willingly compromise on this issue, and will punish Republican candidates who do not take a hard line. The base has now defined amnesty as any liberalization of immigration policy. While the GOP establishment beat Tea Party candidates in most cases this election cycle, the exceptions, such as Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss to restrictionist-leaning David Brat, pushed even mainstream candidates far to the right on immigration policy. GOP Senate candidates Scott Brown and Tom Cotton ran on the urgent, yet mythical, threat of Ebola and ISIS overrunning the southern border. This in turn pushed Democratic politicians to take ridiculous positions, such as Kentucky Senatorial candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s accusation that Mitch McConnell had supported amnesty. Even one-time children’s rights advocate Hillary Clinton urged the government to deport refugee children who had crossed the border.

I believe that the GOP’s populist base will push the party to fight broad legalization until the party is overwhelmed by brute electoral force generated by the demographic tipping point as nonwhites become a majority in the U.S. This tipping point may be the most momentous political event in the U.S. in the coming decades, aside from possibly climate change. I believe immigration policy will track that broader demographic event. Until the political environment acknowledges the changing demographics (which, given California’s experience, should precede the actual demographic tipping point), individual GOP politicians will find political benefit–really, political survival–in opposing the legalization of undocumented immigrants.

But by opposing legalization, Republicans will find it very difficult to win national elections. The Latino electorate is growing each year, while the proportion of white voters shrinks. Immigration policy is a highly-salient issue for many Latino voters. The strategy of some Republicans will be to oppose the deferred action programs while claiming to support legislative legalization. GOP candidates who take this position will likely face primary challenges from the right. Meanwhile, many Latino voters will oppose any candidate who threatens to rescind the programs. This dynamic places the national GOP at a disadvantage, while also creating a hostile environment for comprehensive immigration reform.

If it’s true, as Talking Points Memo proposes, that Democrats won’t be able to win the House back until at least 2022, and the GOP views legalization of undocumented immigrants as an existential threat, then the U.S. may not see broad legislative legalization for another eight years or more.

Further reforms are likely to come from the executive before they come from Congress.

Because there are many shortcomings with the new executive measures and deportations may continue at a high rate, many immigrant rights activists will continue to criticize the president’s deportation record. In fact, some undocumented activists interrupted the president during his speech announcing the program in Las Vegas to ask why he left their parents out. The administration’s response to both pro and anti-migrant critics has been “pass a bill.” However, because of the factors I described above, it is unlikely that Congress will pass a bill in the next several years. This is why the most likely avenue for further expansion of immigrant rights in the U.S. is through further executive action from President Obama or the next president.

I hope to see more immigration civil rights litigation in the courts, which have historically been an important part of civil rights advances. However, the courts move slowly, and Congress and the president have for years strengthened the immigration system’s immunity to attack in the courts.

The legal justification for the deferred action programs rests in the ample discretion of the executive in matters of immigration and foreign policy. The president may have regretted his claim last year that he had no authority to stop deportations beyond the DACA program. The White House took greater care this time to insulate itself from future demands to expand the deferred action programs, but it is already being asked to do just that. The White House took the unusual step of making public the memo from the Office of Legal Counsel setting out the legal arguments for the DAPA program and against expanding the program to parents of DACA beneficiaries. The latter argument rests on dubious legal grounds that would have also precluded the initial DACA program. The OLC memo may cause the president or his successor problems down the road, as organizers pressure them to expand deferred action to parents of undocumented youth.

The increasing convergence and formalization of prosecutorial discretion immigration policies makes them more vulnerable to challenge by opponents. Offloading immigration policy into the realm of discretion is a function of the increased power of the executive vis-a-vis Congress, growing political polarization, and an immigration regime widely seen as morally illegitimate. Prosecutorial discretion works for immigrants when the president feels magnanimous, but not when he is the Deporter In Chief.

Oppressed people draw moral power from the fact of their oppression. Even before the DACA program was announced, “undocumented and undeportable” organizers had carved out a safe space for themselves by coming out publicly, fighting deportation defense campaigns for their peers, and staging civil disobedience actions. Changes in immigration policy reflect and reinforce changes in norms, as the line between documented and undocumented has become more and more blurry. “Illegal means illegal” is no longer a useful or even accurate catch phrase. This incremental, quasi-legal progress may provide a template for immigration liberalization in other assimilationist countries. It’s a type of adverse possession: physical presence eventually leads to legal rights based on moral considerations.

However, as is becoming more clear with respect to DACA beneficiaries, the deferred action programs also represent a step towards formal recognition of an underclass of workers who are legally, indefinitely excluded from full participation in U.S. society. This should remind U.S. citizens of the country’s shameful legacy of state-sanctioned stigmatization and exploitation of disfavored groups.

The promise of legislative legalization has eluded advocates for at least 15 years. Executive relief will likely be the only viable form of formal protection for undocumented immigrants for the next several years. Claims that Obama can’t expand deferred action further will ring hollow, given that he said the same thing about the programs he just announced. Activists and advocates would do well to remember how unreliable both major political parties have been and how fickle a reform strategy that relies solely on electoral politics can be. Comprehensive immigration reform should not be the sole focus of immigrant rights organizing. Now is the time to escalate action beyond elections and Congress and to utilize unconventional strategies to highlight the moral incongruities of the immigration system. Here are some ideas for action (though the DAPA program makes #7 moot).

The immigration system isn’t broken, it is working as intended. But it needs to be broken; we need to break it. The closed-border immigration system is a key element in a regime of global apartheid that mocks the ideals of justice, equality, and liberty. When we mourn those left out of the most recent reforms, let’s not forget those who’ve already been deported or who never had the chance to leave to pursue a better life.

Image credit: Steve Pavey, Portland Occupier

Bienvenidos a la Republica Argentina

Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders

US President Obama just announced a major policy change that will, at least temporarily, allow some immigrants a reprieve from the threat of deportation. Co-blogger Michelangelo’s pointed out that this is still extremely far from the true liberal reforms which the unjust, draconian US immigration system sorely needs. People are falling over themselves to contest the constitutional permissibility of Obama’s actions — for more on that, see our guest blogger and law professor Ilya Somin’s take. Irrespective of that legal issue, Michelangelo is right that we need to dream bigger — so let’s talk about one country in the world which legally enshrines freedom of movement as a universal human right: let’s talk about Argentina.

Now, I don’t have the time or space in this post to cover every single aspect of the Argentinean story: despite the many parallels between Argentina and any number of Western or developed countries you can name,  Argentina is not the canonical open borders country; it does not represent a template that can be copied whole sale. Neither can it be a representative test case illustrating the likely effects of open borders if another country were to adopt them.

The empirical learnings to be had from the Argentine experience are worth a whole set of blog posts, if not books. Today, I want to just talk about the laws and constitution that govern immigration to Argentina — for in of themselves, they prove that what so many restrictionist naysayers call legally and philosophically impossible can in fact be done without the nation-state collapsing into a black hole of philosophical contradictions.

Argentina, like the US and many other countries, has a long history of being shaped by migration. Prior to the abolition of international open borders in the early 20th century, as much as a third of the Argentine population was comprised of immigrants. Over the course of the 20th century, restrictive immigration laws were introduced by various dictatorships, and the immigrant population eventually dwindled to a small fraction of its former size. So far, the Argentine story is much like that of every other country in the world: open borders up until the early 20th century, and restrictionism thereafter.

Up until a decade ago, Argentinean immigration law was like that of any other country’s. It disclaimed and disdained any concept of freedom of movement as a human right. Sizeable populations of undocumented migrants lived in the shadows, legally separated from the course of ordinary human life, and routinely deported when discovered. This legal-philosophical framework, we are supposed to believe, is the natural order of things: it is impossible to have an immigration law that abolishes arbitrary deportation, impossible to have an immigration law that recognizes mobility as a human right.

But in 2004, the Argentine government swept all this away, and adopted a new immigration law, simply labeled Law 25.871. This unremarkable name aside, the law is sweeping in its defence of movement as an inalienable human right. Article 4 states simply:

The right to migrate is essential and inalienable to all persons and the Republic of Argentina shall guarantee it based on principles of equality and universality.

The law does not go as far as to abolish visa or border controls, but it lays out a simple — at least on paper — process to immigrate to Argentina: find an employer or family member who will sponsor you. Once sponsored, you become a temporary resident. After one to two years, you can apply for permanent residency. After a few more years, you become eligible to apply for naturalisation as a citizen. There are no visa caps or quotas to worry about — something which already puts the Argentine system way ahead of every other country in the world in respecting the human right to migrate.

But Argentina goes further: not every individual who enters Argentina might be able to find a sponsor. And although the law prohibits entry without a visa or similar legal documentation, people will find a way in — not least because you could always just overstay a temporary visa. It’s virtually impossible to seal your borders without becoming a military dictatorship. And Argentina recognises this, with Law 25.871 declaring that those who migrate to Argentina without legal residency are simply “irregular migrants”.

Remarkably, Law 25.871 bans discrimination against irregular migrants in the provision of healthcare or education. Deporting an irregular migrant requires a court hearing, and generally may only be executed if the government offers the irregular migrant a chance to regularise their status, and the migrant refuses this offer. Exceptions, of course, are made for criminal convicts and the like, but otherwise, deportation is rarely enforced, and instead large-scale “amnesties” — though the more accurate term would be regularisations — have been the norm. The International Detention Coalition summarises Argentine deportation policy:

Migration decisions are made by immigration authorities but are reviewable by a court, with no detention during this period. Legal aid is available throughout the deportation process for all irregular migrants. Deportation and detention are both decisions that must be ordered by a court, with detention used only as a final resort after all other remedies are exhausted. Detention is limited to 15 days pending removal. In practice, migrants who have been committed to prison for criminal offences are the only immigration detainees.

One American immigrant to Argentina worried about his spouse overstaying their visa and becoming an irregular migrant describes what happened when he asked an immigration official what he should do:

Then we spoke with another, much kinder immigration official who assured us that there is absolutely no deportation law in Argentina. She laughed when I told her that I feared that a white van would come to our house to take my spouse and deport him. She told me that Argentina is not the United States and they don’t treat immigrants this way. The only time that Argentina would ever consider deporting someone who is illegal is if he or she commits a crime.

Imagine that — a country with no deportations! It’s not just easy if you try: it’s actually real! But not all is roses, naturally: the continued existence of large populations of irregular migrants in Argentina points to the failure of the government to live up to the law it passed. Anecdotal evidence suggests that bureaucratic red tape often constitutes a barrier to successful sponsorship — and while this is a mere headache for middle-class immigrants, for semi-literate members of the working class, complying with the requirements of immigration laws can be more than onerous.

Argentina is hardly unique in this regard: when my family immigrated to the US (after first overcoming the ridiculous quotas that kept us waiting for about two decades after our visa petitions were first submitted), we had to provide documentation from the local police in every jurisdiction we’ve lived in showing that we’ve been citizens in good standing with the law. Obtaining this documentation is at worst a nuisance for a middle-class person — and even then, since documentary burdens like these are many and cumbersome when you’re dealing with immigration authorities, a lot of people in our shoes would have outsourced this gumshoe work to an expensive lawyer. For a working class person who might have frequently moved around a lot without keeping many records, and whose educational attainment may not go past elementary school, obtaining this sort of evidence can border on the impossible.

Aside from the burdensome red tape that makes legal residency difficult to attain, Argentina also strangely upholds legal persecution of irregular immigrants: landlords and employers who do business with irregular migrants are singled out for punishment by Law 25.871. Clearly this has not stopped Argentineans from doing business with irregular migrants, but this does seem discordant with the rest of the law: notably Law 25.871 explicitly states that all leases and employment agreements which irregular migrants enter into will be upheld and enforced by the courts, even though entering into these agreements is in of itself an offense.

Argentina does not have truly legal open borders, but it comes remarkably close. If the bureaucratic requirements for obtaining residency were loosened and the fines for employing or renting to irregular migrants were abolished, I think Argentina would basically have open borders — because every person seeking to travel to Argentina for work, study or pleasure would be free to do so. Those seeking to commit crimes would still be punished and subject to exclusion; all others seeking to move and live in peace would be let in peace.

Argentina is a remarkable counterpoint to those who allege that open borders are by definition inconsistent with national sovereignty, or that open borders by definition threaten the social compact governing the welfare state. We on this blog have spoken a lot about how governments are free to limit migrant access to welfare, and other similar policies that we call keyhole solutions.

Argentina is faring just fine despite throwing these out the window: even irregular migrants have full access to both private and public education and healthcare, and are generally allowed access to other social benefits too. In fact, other keyhole solutions we’ve discussed, such as the imposition of tariffs or additional surtaxes on migrants, are unconstitutional.

That’s right: Law 25.871 didn’t pull the concept of the right to migrate out of thin air. Argentina’s history of open immigration dates a long way back, all the way back to 1853 when it adopted its constitution. Article 16 consciously adopts an egalitarian stand on the rights of citizens and foreigners, treating them all as inhabitants entitled to the same freedoms under Argentine law:

All its inhabitants are equal before the law, and admissible to employment without any other requirement than their ability. Equality is the basis of taxation and public burdens.

The rhetoric about equitable taxation is remarkably repeated twice more. Article 20 of the Argentinean constitution elaborates on egalitarian treatment of foreigners:

Foreigners enjoy within the territory of the Nation all the civil rights of citizens; they may exercise their industry, trade and profession; own real property, buy and sell it; navigate the rivers and coasts; practice freely their religion; make wills and marry under the laws. They are not obliged to accept citizenship nor to pay extraordinary compulsory taxes. They may obtain naturalization papers residing two uninterrupted years in the Nation; but the authorities may shorten this term in favor of those so requesting it, alleging and proving services rendered to the Republic.

No extraordinary taxes — and foreigners enjoy all the same civil rights as citizens! And Article 25 of the constitution states:

The Federal Government shall foster European immigration; and may not restrict, limit or burden with any tax whatsoever, the entry into the Argentine territory of foreigners who arrive for the purpose of tilling the soil, improving industries, and introducing and teaching arts and sciences.

No tariffs on the entry of immigrants either! We’ve proposed such schemes as potential mechanisms to mitigate possible fiscal burdens of managing migrant inflows, but Argentina has expressly ruled these out — and yet nobody can say that open borders or open immigration are what is ruining Argentina. Argentina has easy naturalisation (you can become a citizen within five or six years of entering the country) and birthright citizenship for anyone born on its territory — all things restrictionists dread — and yet hardly anyone can say this is what’s ruining the country.

If anything, Argentina seems to have been designed as a decisive rejection of all the philosophical ideas immigration restrictionists hold dear. Most arguments for the arbitrary restriction of immigration rest on this moral philosophy sometimes labeled as “citizenism”: the belief that the government of a country is justified in excluding, abusing, and mistreating non-citizens as long as this is for the benefit of its own citizens. Even if these non-citizens come in peace, even if they want to work with you, work for you — the government has no business considering any of this. The government is established for the benefit of current citizens alone, to the exclusion of all others.

Acuerdo_de_San_NicolásArgentina Constitutional Convention, source La Guia 2000, discovered via the Wikimedia Foundation

Well, the preamble of the Argentine constitution explicitly rejects citizenism — I’ve added emphasis to make this clear:

We, the representatives of the people of the Argentine Nation, gathered in General Constituent Assembly by the will and election of the Provinces which compose it, in fulfillment of pre-existing pacts, in order to form a national union, guarantee justice, secure domestic peace, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves, to our posterity, and to all men of the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil: invoking the protection of God, source of all reason and justice: do ordain, decree, and establish this Constitution for the Argentine Nation.

A constitution that insists on treating immigrants as virtual equals with citizens, and a constitution that enshrines immigrants’ rights to justice, peace, welfare, and liberty: it sounds like an utopian dream, but it is real, and it’s in Argentina.

There are many things not to recommend about Argentina; its overly burdensome red tape, both in immigration and in just about every other arena of public life, famously strangle ordinary economic activity. The long legacy of Peronism has seen Argentina’s economy stagnate, and even today, Argentina’s government chronically mismanages the public fisc. But none of these problems have anything to do with immigration, and everything to do with problems endemic to the culture of Argentinean public life — a culture that has remained remarkably resilient despite Argentina’s long history of open immigration and now its reopened borders.

Argentina is far from perfect, but its constitution and immigration laws show us the way forward in guaranteeing the just and equitable treatment of all human beings subject to our governments’ laws, be they citizen or foreigner. In drafting their constitution, Argentina’s founding fathers drew on the constitution of the United States. Perhaps now those Americans opposed to open borders and freedom of movement would do well to take a page from the Argentine playbook, and remember the wisdom of their own founding fathers.

The American and Argentine tradition of open borders did not emerge from a legal or philosophical vacuum, after all. At the founding of modern Germany in the 1860s, German legislator Wilhelm Liebknecht articulated the legal rationale for egalitarian principles like those upheld in Argentina’s constitution and immigration laws:

A right that does not exist for all is no right… Gentlemen, it is necessary for us to proceed in the same fashion that England, that free country, has already taken, and to extend to foreigners the same right that exists for Englishmen. There is no such thing as police expulsion in England; the government there does not have the right to deny someone their place of residence.

Or, as one of Liebknecht’s colleagues put it,

…it is a barbarity to make a distinction between foreigners and the indigenous in the right to hospitable residence. Not only every German, but every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog.

I could not have said it any better myself. Argentina is not perfect, but its laws come far closer to the wisdom of our ancestors on freedom of movement than the laws of virtually any other country today. Obama’s action to provide relief from deportation for a few million American immigrants is welcome, but it is not true justice. There cannot be justice until America, and every country in the world, recognises that every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog. Stop the deportations — not one more!

I am indebted to Barbara Hines’s The Right to Migrate as a Human Right: The Current Argentine Immigration Law and discussions with members of the Open Borders Action Group for their assistance in preparing this article.

Source for featured image: We didn’t keep track of the original source, because there are many similar images available via Google Search. This might have been the original source.

Protests against irregular migrants

What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

A common retort to suggestions that our governments regularise the status of irregular immigrants is that these people are “criminals”, they’re “illegal”, and just what part of illegal don’t I understand? The mainstream immigration reform has adopted this rhetoric too, even if they claim to reject it; the rhetoric of US President Obama (who at the time I write just announced a deferral of deportation for some few million migrants) and others has been chock full of insistence that irregular immigrants owe a debt to society, that they ought to do some sort of penance — perhaps pay a fine — in return for any sort of regularisation. In short, the mainstreamers say that they do understand that these migrants are “illegal”, and that they do intend to punish them — just not as badly as the hardcore restrictionists want.

I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property, you ought to pay the price. But if all you’ve done is an honest day’s work, if all you’ve lived in is a home you’ve paid the price for, then there is nothing to punish you for. Living in the shadows our government forced you into for dreaming of a better future for yourself and a family was more than punishment enough.

The persistent, shrill cries of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” are pretty blind to the meaning of the term “illegal” in the first place. For instance, most of these people don’t seem aware that it’s not a crime to be present without a lawful immigration status in the US; this is such basic legal knowledge that it didn’t make any headlines when the Supreme Court acknowledged this in an aside as part of a larger ruling on immigration law. For another, most of these people routinely break the law and get indignant when it is actually enforced against them. Just witness the furore when bicyclists are ticketed for cycling on the sidewalk, or when drivers are caught speeding by automated cameras. If committing unlawful acts in the course of ordinary business makes immigrants “illegal”, that makes everyone “illegal”.

Now of course people will say immigration law is on a special plane of existence, something that deserves far more respect than menial traffic laws. Sure. I simply say: let the punishment fit the crime.

The consensus is that half of all undocumented migrants in the US entered lawfully at a border checkpoint, and simply took up residence or employment in violation of the terms of their visa. There is no crime in paying rent for a residence, and no crime in searching for work. If an immigrant applying for my job is stealing from me, then who did I steal from when I applied for the job I hold now? Is it only a crime when immigrants do it?

These undocumented migrants should be punished appropriately for any actual crimes they have committed. If they drove drunk, if they shoplifted, if they committed welfare fraud, whatever — they should do the time, and pay the fine. But they should not be deported or excluded from the country they call home. As long as they are willing to accept the laws of their new home, and accept the punishments of these laws, they should be allowed to stay. They entered legally. The most they should be required to do to stay is fill out a basic form, and submit to legal proceedings for any other unpunished crimes in their past. Innocent immigrants who have done nothing worse than pay rent and earn honest wages deserve an apology for the persecution that our laws unjustly put them through.

As for the other half who entered without inspection at a border checkpoint, they should submit to a screening comparable to what they would have gone through at the border, and register with the authorities. Again, the idea is to make restitution for the original offense. The original offense, in legal parlance, was “entering without inspection”. So let the punishment fit the crime.

But it wouldn’t be fair, you might say. What about all the immigrants waiting in line? Well, whose fault is it that they are waiting in that line? Isn’t it your fault that the government you elected made crappy laws which have kept out all these innocent immigrants, and forced them to choose between waiting in a line that will never end (literally: some visa categories have backlogs that exceed 80 years), or migrating illegally?

I do agree it is not fair to do amnesties in a one-off manner. It is not fair to the good people who want to immigrate legally, but who are banned from doing so by irrational quotas and queues. It is also not fair to all of us who are harmed by the bad apples, the actual criminals, who either hide amongst the innocents in the undocumented population, or worse, take advantage of these migrants’ warranted fear of the government to abuse and exploit them.

Many governments — such as those of France and Germany, to name a couple you may have heard of — do not do one-off amnesties; instead, anyone who migrated illegally but who has otherwise complied with the law for a sufficient length of time is allowed to register with the government and become a legal immigrant. If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community. That’s the fair thing to do, instead of having these one-offs.

But at the end of the day, if being fair to those immigrants in line is what bothers you so much, well — it’s the line your government created. The absurdity of having queues backlogged such that people applying today would have to wait an entire human lifetime to get their application approved is something only a government could create. The problem isn’t those good people forced to choose between waiting in line versus entering by other means to rejoin their families or seek gainful employment. The problem is your government and the stupid laws it made up.

Now, those laws aren’t stupid you might say. I agree: to the extent that they protect us from criminals, contagious disease outbreaks, and other harms, they are good laws. But to the extent that they “protect” us from people who just want to pay the market price to live in a safe home and work in a functioning economy, they are bad laws. To the extent that they treat someone whose ambition is to earn minimum wage washing dishes 18 hours a day as if he’s the scum of the earth, they are evil laws.

I’ve written before that the best way to secure the US’s border with Mexico would be to open it. Drug lords and slave traffickers rely on being able to disguise themselves among the masses of innocent people crawling through sewers to rejoin their families; let those innocent people buy bus tickets instead of paying thousands to coyotes, and where will the criminals hide? Restrictionists scoff at the idea of these immigrants being innocent — but you tell me, where’s the sense in treating someone who just wants to mop your floors for minimum wage as if he is the equivalent of a murderous drug trafficker?

I understand the intuition that one should comply with the law, and that failing to comply with the law generally marks you as a bad person — somewhere on the scale between reckless and just plain criminal. But this intuition only works for laws where the burden of compliance applies equally to everyone. Everyone knows what it means to not steal. But does everyone know what it means to comply with immigration law?

I would bet anyone that the majority of citizens of any country have no idea how the typical migrant in their country should comply with their own country’s immigration laws. Why should any of us know? All we ever did to comply with the law was be born. We didn’t have to do anything else, just slide out of the right person’s uterus at the right time, on the right soil.

Anyone in the US who has ever been in trouble with their taxes should know the feeling: you did everything right, and yet apparently your filing was still illegal — the government says you didn’t pay enough taxes. US tax law is so complicated that in some cases even the Internal Revenue Service throws up its hands and admits it doesn’t know what the law says. Yet for all your trouble, the public lambasts you as a tax evader, blasts you for not paying your fair share. And that is pretty rich, when virtually everyone who files taxes has likely fallen afoul of some technicality in the law (did you really report on your tax return the $20 in income you earned from that casual bar bet with your cousin?).

Multiply this frustration a few hundred times over and you can imagine the frustration of complying with immigration law. Some of the best, most honest and decent people I have personally known have been “illegal”. In some cases they didn’t even realise it until after the fact: as a student, your visa bans you from working more than a certain number of hours. Exceed the limit, and bam, you’re “illegal”. In other cases, delays or government processing issues while you’re transitioning from one visa type to another mean that you can “fall out of status” until your new visa is approved. Bam! Illegal.

And these are the lucky ones: they were already present in the US, and nobody could conveniently detect they’d committed these violations of immigration law. Usually nobody would ever be the wiser that they had, for a period of time, been “illegal”. Millions more such innocent people are trapped in the unlucky position of either waiting decades in line, or just jumping a fence that shouldn’t be keeping them out in the first place. Long wait times for immigrants to the US aren’t unusual; they’re the norm. Stories of the insanity of immigration law are a dime a dozen: see this, this, this, or this.

But how many citizens know of this? They know nothing, of course: the law has nothing to do with them. They can feel free to demand 100% compliance with the law, because they will always be 100% compliant. All they have to do is breathe. It’s pretty easy to follow the law when you have to do nothing. How can you demand people follow the law when you yourself have no idea what the law demands, and you yourself don’t have to do anything to comply with it?

I am making no claim to perfection here. As a Malaysian, I have no idea what laws the foreigners living in my country have to comply with. When people ask me about how easy it is for foreigners to live in Malaysia, all I can say is “Well I saw a lot of them in my junior college so I think it’s pretty easy to come in”. I honestly have no freaking idea what our visa laws are; I have no reason or incentive to, because by definition, it is impossible for me to ever break the law!

Claims that “Well, my ancestors followed the law” ring pretty hollow. After all, what laws did your ancestors follow? In the case of most Americans, their ancestors immigrated legally because all you had to do to immigrate was not be Chinese. If by definition it is impossible for you or your ancestors to have broken the law, then it is pretty rich of you to insist that you know exactly what laws others should comply with. Yet people often pretend they know exactly what the laws are, and blame the victims of these abusive laws for not submitting to their unwarranted punishment.

Anti-Chinese poster

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you want people to prove their loyalty and knowledge of your country by passing a test, then why don’t you subject yourself to that same test? Why not? Didn’t your schooling prepare you for that test?

If millions of ordinary people can waste 20 years of their adult lives waiting for government permission to pay rent and apply for jobs, why not you? What makes you so special? Isn’t it unfair to others who did wait those decades in line, who actually complied with the bullshit hoops your government made them jump through? Your ancestors didn’t jump through those hoops — so don’t you owe it to them to follow the law on their behalf?

And so on you go, railing against “amnesty”, even though there’s a good chance if you are American that you are only here today thanks to an amnesty your ancestors arguably didn’t deserve. I refer, of course, to that time some of your ancestors took up arms in violent rebellion against the lawful government of the United States, and were rewarded with an unconditional amnesty for their trouble.

At the end of the day, there is nothing that makes sense about most immigration laws. A handful of restrictions actually target terrorists, criminals, or contagious disease carriers. The rest of these laws just treat people who want to pay market rent for a safe home and the chance to earn the market wage for honest work as though they are criminals for doing the same things as everyone else. There is no sense in treating a minimum wage cook like a cutthroat, and there is no justice.

The real question isn’t what part of illegal don’t I understand; I’m well aware that, at least far as my own country goes, I don’t understand, because I have no reason to! No matter how many laws I break or how many wrongs I commit, I’ll always be in compliance with Malaysia’s immigration laws.

The real question is, what part of “illegal” do you understand at all? You don’t understand any of it. You don’t know what it’s like to be worried that accidentally working one extra hour a week this semester might mean that you’ll get deported. You don’t know what it’s like to earn pennies a day, banned from earning the dollars which your hard work could easily earn you because this year, only 23 people from your country of millions will be given work permits.

The persistence in which people pretend that complying with the law is no burden, that if their ancestors could do it then so can anyone else, truly boggles the mind. Laws which ban parents from paying to put a roof over their children’s heads and ban dutiful children from sending home money to care for their aging parents criminalise the virtues we so often commend to ourselves. What can this be, if not hypocritical injustice? Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

South-South migration and the “natural state”

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

This blog post builds upon an Open Borders Action Group post of mine and the comments on it.

In an earlier post on what open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can learn from each other, one of the things I had said open borders advocates can learn from scholars of migration and development was the importance to give to forms of migration that currently exist, as opposed to what might exist in a hypothetical open borders world:

More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: […] [I]t might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

World Press 2014 Signals from DjiboutiWorld Press 2014 photo: Signal from Djibouti, source National Geographic. The photo shows people from Somalia living in Ethiopia trying to catch Somali cellphone networks at the border of the country so as to talk cheaply with their families.

This post can be considered a partial attempt to put that learning in practice. Here are some examples of “South-South migration” that I have in mind when listing my general observations. Each of these should deserve its own post. For those that don’t already have posts I link to a relevant news article or paper:

Some of the salient features of much of this South-South migration:

  1. In most of the cases, the destination countries of migration are large and somewhat heterogeneous economically. The average GDP per capita in the destination may be somewhere between 2 and 5 times that in the source country (with the exception of the somewhat special case of migration from North Korea to China, the range is more like 2 to 3 times). However, this hides a large degree of intranational variation in the destination country. The destination countries, despite their poverty and Third World status, generally have greater scope for people to become rich and successful. They have bigger cities with more opportunities. Compare, for instance, Afghanistan with Pakistan. Pakistan scores pretty poorly in terms of GDP per capita or HDI. But it has cities like Karachi and Lahore, that are (relatively speaking) thriving centers of commerce. Similarly, Indian cities offer opportunities that most Bangladeshis can’t access in their home countries. Even if the migrants don’t initially move to cities, the promise is there.
  2. Large parts of the destination country are rural, and the rural-urban gap on many development indicators is huge. Moreover, the rural areas may not really have much affiliation with or integration into the national identity. Many people in rural areas may not even have any form of documentation establishing citizenship or national membership. Thus, many natives are also “undocumented” and in some ways indistinguishable from migrants. The role of ethnicity as betrayed by appearance and accent is therefore greater than the role of formal citizenship.
  3. Migrants tend to move to border towns and to some large cities, generally those with pre-existing diasporas (cf. diaspora dynamics). These are the places where the issue of migration has the greatest salience, and anti-migration sentiment may be more common, and expressed more openly and virulently than in most developed countries.
  4. There is usually no pro-migration or pro-migrant movement per se, though there may be NGOs focused on providing services for migrants.
  5. If anything, intranational migration might be more salient in many parts of the country. In fact, intranational migration may also quantitatively swamp international migration, as is the case in China and India (here’s a blog post on intranational migration within India and a blog post discussing large-scale migration within India and China). But insofar as there are no real constitutional ways of restricting intranational migration, it might never become a politically important issue at the national level. In many regions, on the other hand, intranational migration may take on more significance than international migration in political rhetoric, even if politicians have little power or little interest in actually curbing such migration.
  6. At the national level, the importance of migration is minimal. This is partly because the destination countries have many more pressing problems. Anti-migration movements are relatively localized, and pro-migration movements are negligible.
  7. For many people in such countries, the issue of open borders and migration restrictions is a largely theoretical one, and their answers to it might represent generic ideas of human fairness untainted by personal interest, so to speak. This might explain why India, despite not being known for having a high degree of tolerance and welcome for foreigners of different races and ethnicities, had a roughly 25-25-25-25 split in the World Values Survey question of how open migration policy should be.

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: wisdom/desirability, technological/financial feasibility, and moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

In many ways, both current South-South migration and historical migration are closer to the “natural state” of migration and the responses it engenders. All is not hunky-dory with this natural state. The occasional outbreak of riots against immigrants, while quantitatively negligible, as well as the more frequent displays of overt private prejudice, are disconcerting. But for all that, the system is still a bigger win-win for migrants than the strict border controls that much of the developed world has successfully implemented, and that the developing world is rapidly building out.


We still have much to do

In a speech late yesterday President Obama spoke about the need to fix the United States’ immigration system and announced a series of executive actions his administration was taking. The full text of his speech can be found here, and the Department of Homeland Security’s fuller description of Obama’s executive actions can be found here. If you are wondering about the constitutionality of Obama’s actions I refer you to Law Prof. Ilya Somin’s post on the issue and his updated version.

I agreed with much of what President Obama said last night. Immigrants have shaped the United States. We are a nation of immigrants. Our national epic begins with a group of migrant Pilgrims fleeing religious prosecution in Europe and settling in the new world; we celebrate this event every year on Thanksgiving. I cannot think of a better time for immigration reform.

President Obama conceded in his speech that the bill passed last year by the Senate was imperfect, it was a compromise on both sides, but nonetheless it was an improvement over our current system. Here too I agreed with the President.

I diverge with the President however in thinking that one of the main issues of immigration reform is what to do with our nation’s illegal alien population. By all means I have a vested interest in seeing some sort of legal status conferred to this population. The life of an illegal alien in the United States is difficult, but it is infinitely better than the life of those who weren’t able to make the trip at all. What we should concentrate on is reforming the system so that everyone who wishes to come to the United States has the opportunity to do so.

President Obama spoke about the need to make it “… easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy…” but this is still missing the point. President Obama seems to believe that the United States need a specific type of migrant and that the government is capable of screening for them whilst simultaneously denying entrance to ‘undesirables’. One of the reasons I support Open Borders is precisely because we can’t know what type of migrant we need.

If I may lift a page from F.A. Hayek, the question is not whether immigration should be planned but who should plan it. Many people believe by default that it is the state that should plan for society. In this respect most mainstream pro-migrant and anti-migrant advocates are only marginally different. They may differ in how they believe the state should plan, but they nonetheless believe it should plan. The radicalness of Open Borders is the belief that the role of planner should go not to the state, but to the spontaneous order that is created through the actions of individuals.

Whether a migrant is employed by a firm should be a decision made by his potential employer. Whether a migrant finds housing should be a decision made by his potential landlord. Whether a migrant is accepted into a given church, club, association, or Jazz band should be up to these respective groups. Whether a potential migrant is able to succeed in his mission should depend on his ability to find employment, housing, and social ties through voluntary transactions with other individuals. There is neither need nor place for the state to become involved in these transactions.

The executive actions undertaken by the Obama administration yesterday have improved on the status quo, and to that extent I welcome them. These reforms are not enough though, we still have a long way to go before we reach Open Borders. The United States immigration system must be replaced with one led by the market process. Immigration systems elsewhere must also be reformed. The posts on Open Borders: The Case are US-centric because most of our writers are Americans, but this should not be confused to mean that only the United States needs to adopts Open Border policies. Israel, the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and every other polity should adopt Open Borders. By all means let us celebrate the marginal improvements the Obama reform has brought, but let us not forget that our end goal is something far more radical.


What should the Obama administration do?

The Obama administration is expected to announce a series of executive orders later today (8pm EST) regarding immigration policy. Many suspect that the President may provide relief from deportation and work permits to millions of US illegal aliens, among other changes. The best sketch of what we can expect has been provided by Fox News, which has allegedly received a ten point draft of what Obama will announce.

I have reservations about the Obama administration attempting to pass immigration reform via executive order. My chief concerns are that it sets precedent for greater executive discretion in migration policy, and that congressional Republicans will simply spend the remainder of Obama’s term trying to reverse ‘Obamigration’.

Co-blogger Nathan Smith and Bryan Caplan penned a more optimistic perspective on Obama’s use of executive powers back when the administration first announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.  Caplan seems less optimistic about this latest round of executive action.

My reservation should not be taken to mean that the Obama administration should stay quiet on immigration. Far from it, there are two major steps the administration could pursue if it were serious about being more pro-immigration.

1. Negotiating NAFTA 2.0

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is celebrating its twentieth birthday this year. The trade agreement improved trade relations between the United States, Canada and Mexico in several sectors, but it fell short on several others including labor mobility.

Obama could call up his counterparts in Mexico City and Ottawa and begin negotiations on expanding NAFTA to remove any remaining trade restrictions between the three countries. The issue of labor mobility was ignored in the initial phase of NAFTA to minimize political tensions, but surely after two decades we can begin dialogue on allowing the free movement of people across North America?

The Schengen Area in the European Union provides us with a prime example of how to, and how not to, implement a free movement zone among the North American nations. Ideally a free movement zone between the North American nations should allow the unrestricted movement of individuals, while not creating tax burden on the host nations to provide state welfare.

I have written on this possibility previously. Of related interest Freakonomics recently had a podcast on a US-Mexico ‘merger’.

2. Allowing the Federalization of Immigration Policy.

It is unlikely that we will see sweeping reforms of the immigration system at the federal level in the near future. Even if last year’s Senate immigration bill were passed the system would only be marginally improved. Things are more optimistic at the state level though, and several state legislatures have signaled willingness to pursue their own regional policies.

Unfortunately most state legislators have curbed their proposals in fear that the federal government won’t stand for their actions. If the Obama administration made it clear that it were willing to see states take a more proactive role in shaping immigration policy things might turn out for the better in the long run.

For comparison let us consider marijuana legalization efforts. At the federal level marijuana is still illegal, but the Obama administration has thus far tolerated its legalization by the states of Colorado and Washington. In the most recent midterm elections Alaska, Oregon, and Washington DC all passed legislation to legalize marijuana. At this rate it won’t be long before marijuana is legal nationwide.

Why not allow states the same leeway in immigration policy? If Utah wishes to grant legal status to its illegal alien population and create a guest worker program for its state, why not allow it to do so? If New York wants to grant citizenship to its resident migrants, why stop it? Allowing states to set their own migration policies might lead to a few of them adopting anti-migration policies, such as Arizona, but this is a small cost to be paid.

The Obama administration should set parameters under which the states can work and thereafter sit back and watch them experiment with migration policy.

I have previously written on the subject in We Need More San Franciscos and Thoughts on State-Based Immigration Reform . My co-blogger John Lee has also explored the concept as it relates to Canada’s immigration system . Alex Nowrasteh and his colleagues at the Cato Institute have teased the idea out in previous events , and policy analysis papers . The Reason Foundation has also begun toying with the idea recently.

Why I’m sticking with open borders, or, plucking the not-so-low-hanging fruit

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

I started Open Borders: The Case about 2.5 years ago, in March 2012 (you can read the site story, my personal statement for the site, and some general background for my involvement with open borders). My active involvement with the site has reduced a lot since summer 2013, but it’s still the biggest single topic on which I semi-regularly write stuff for the general public. I have considered switching my attention to other topics such as drug policy (both recreational and medical), organ trading, economic freedom broadly construed, existential risks, cause prioritization in effective altruism, and animal welfare. However, I’ve decided to stick with open borders. This includes participation at the Open Borders Action Group, more blogging here, and other miscellaneous work. In this post, I’ll describe my reasons.


My reasons in summary form:

  1. My estimates for the value of open borders, or the extent to which we can realistically move to open borders, haven’t changed much.
  2. There are two countervailing, roughly canceling effects in terms of the extent of marginal impact of open borders advocacy, so on net that hasn’t changed much either.
  3. I am still well-positioned to help take Open Borders: The Case to the next level.
  4. Other causes, including the most promising ones, seem less promising than open borders.
  5. There is value to personal specialization. I’ve already acquired experience with thinking and writing about open borders, so I can do more by sticking to it.

A quick review of the Drake equation

Before delving into the reasons, I’ll recall a framework I developed a while back in my Drake equation post. I wrote there:

\text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz


  • W is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • x is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set x = 0.1, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely Wx, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • y is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product Wxy is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • z is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting z = 10^{-4} for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

#1: My estimates for W, x, y haven’t changed much

After a few years of reading, thinking about, and discussing open borders, my broad estimates of the gains from complete open borders, the fudge factor, and the extent to which we can realistically move in the direction haven’t changed. To some extent, my estimate for W has fallen somewhat, but this is compensated for by an increase in x. I’ve moved in the direction of embracing lower estimates of the GDP gains from open borders, but also reduced my probability estimate of open borders being a total dud or having net negative consequences, so the fudge factor x improves correspondingly. Open borders feels like a somewhat more known quantity. Moreover, the degree of uncertainty regarding consequences reduces further considering that we aren’t going to have complete open borders. Overall, I continue to believe that the product Wxy falls somewhere between 500 million and 500 billion dollars, as I’d stated in my Drake equation post.

For a different take on the numbers, see Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations (that I excerpted in an Open Borders Action Group post). Berger’s summary estimate for the gains from open borders (included in an earlier table in that doc) offer the range $300 million – $3 trillion per year (middle estimate $150 billion) for what seems like the analogue of Wxy. This closely accords with my numbers, though Berger’s methodology is a little different and arguably more concrete and object-level.

#2: Two countervailing effects on z approximately cancel each other

How has the z value for Open Borders: The Case, and affiliated efforts, changed over time? There are two countervailing considerations:

  • Open Borders: The Case has exhausted some of the very low-hanging fruit. We now play a defining role on the subject: since at least the middle of 2014, and possibly earlier, we’ve topped web searches for open borders. In some ways, we’ve reached our asymptotic potential, and in many other ways, we’re at diminishing returns: even if additional effort yields positive returns, they’re not as high as the initial returns. One could argue that my very first 25 hours of work on the site, which led to this, had the highest return per unit time.
  • On the other hand, now that we’ve done the basic work of building out the case and collecting a community interested in debating the issue, each new post generates more discussion and can more quickly lead to better ideas. When I started blogging, there were only a couple other bloggers and a few commenters with whom we’d go back and forth. Just a year ago, we had about 900 likes on Facebook. Now we have over 1800, or about twice that number. The Open Borders Action Group launched in February 2014, and now has over 600 members and 20+ fairly active participants. Thus, we can quickly have discussions with 5-10 active participants without somebody needing to spend a couple of hours researching a post. And both our active participants and our readers include a fair number of people who might be able to influence the implementation of actual migration policies in different places in the world.

#3: Open Borders: The Case will survive without me, but I can still contribute a lot to taking it to the next level

I was very active in the first 1.5 years of the site, and my job back then was to help grow the community and build the site and blog to the point where it could continue to run and grow without me. I worked hard to recruit people to the site who’d be willing and able to write great stuff (I’ve written a very long Quora answer on this). I think I’ve succeeded. I can have a busy week where I barely check in on the site, and there are still new blog posts and new draft posts, many new discussions on OBAG, and lots of site visitors. I could completely stop my involvement with the site and it wouldn’t collapse.

At the same time, there is so much more to do on this front. The world is still very far from open borders (this circles back to #2). Open Borders: The Case has established a niche that, while close to pre-existing libertarian-leaning blogging on the issue, is sufficiently distinctive. As John Lee wrote in an interview with Lis Wiehl:

The main thing which I think differentiates Open Borders from many other immigration advocacy groups is that we are the only ones who really take global freedom of movement seriously. It’s not merely that we champion it; it’s that we honestly ponder the question of how the world might be different — both for better and for worse — if people could freely choose where to travel, where to settle, and where to work or study.


Our mission is to offer a rational assessment of what the world would look like under open borders, and to articulate the case of why our governments and societies must respect the right to migrate (except in those extreme cases where infringement might be justified — just the same as with any other right).

The way things are going, we are establishing and solidifying our position as the premier place for philosophical analysis of the case for freedom of movement. Continued growth on this front would not be a laughing matter. But to actually get the world to open borders, so much more needs to be done. If we just keep posting and publishing stuff similar to what we’ve been publishing, we might continue to gain more adherents and grow traffic, but at the core, there won’t be progress.

Co-blogger Michelangelo recently asked about next steps for the open borders movement, and suggested we move in the direction of coming up with concrete actionable policy proposals, perhaps setting up a think tank to do so. In another recent post, I talked of the distinction between philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs and reframed Michelangelo’s suggestion as moving from a philosopher focus to a wonk focus.

Personally, I think a move in the wonk/entrepreneur direction is warranted, though I think of it a little differently. I think Open Borders: The Case should offer something so unique, so distinctive, that people feel wowed by it, and inspired to consider and work towards a world of open borders. We need to break new ground content-wise, combining in-depth exploration of the current realities of the world with our pro-open borders ideals, and coming up with stuff that’s captivating to read, whether it’s co-blogger Nathan’s lessons from slavery, co-blogger John’s takedown of the international refugee system, or my recent post on snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs. But there’s a lot more to do. It’s possible that such an evolution would occur even without me (some of my co-bloggers have done a great job with writing compelling material that breaks new ground, with no prompting on my part). But I do think that I could significantly accelerate the process, simply by being focused on it and pushing harder for it.

#4: The relative value of other causes

An affirmative decision to continue with open borders is also a decision against pursuing other causes, at least in the short term. A full evaluation would compare open borders with these other causes. And indeed, I think that open borders offers a lot more value than the other top contenders (this comports with Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, where open borders has the largest upside by a huge margin and also the largest median case gain, though it’s tied for that status with other options).

I think the case for focusing on open borders over drug policy liberalization, free organ trading, economic freedom, and free trade is relatively clear. One might argue that now that a site on open borders has been created, there’s more low-hanging fruit in the other domains. This circles back to my point #2 and (to a lesser extent) point #1, so I won’t go in depth here. Moreover, I also think that, given its high potential, open borders continues to be relatively neglected (relative to drug policy, for instance). For instance, it’s relatively neglected among libertarians, as I’d discussed in these two posts.

The one economic freedom-related cause that I think offers high value and is relatively neglected is the economic freedom-related cause of allowing freer foreign direct investment. I’m mainly going by Bryan Caplan’s assessment of this cause as the most promising after open borders (see also this blog post by him). This is something I hope to investigate at greater depth. If its tractability proves extremely high, I might switch attention to it (i.e., it might have higher x, y,z values to compensate for the lower W value). Until then, I’ll stick to open borders.

#5: The value of personal specalization

When I first started Open Borders: The Case, my knowledge of migration-related matters was fairly shallow. Over the last few years, I’ve learned many things. Nonetheless, there still remains a lot to learn. If I start a website on a new topic, I’ll have to learn a lot about that topic. If, on the other hand, I continue working on Open Borders: The Case, I can build on the knowledge I’ve already acquired and be even more effective.

Philosophers, wonks and entrepreneurs

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

I’ve talked about open borders and migration-related issues with people coming from a range of different perspectives (including a wide range of open borders supporters at different levels), and I’ve often found that people are talking past each other. This is partly because of fundamental differences in the mindset that people bring to thinking about the current state of the world and how to change it. In this post, I describe three main (plus some additional) perspectives on the world, and their meaning in the context of open borders.

Philosophers, specifically moral philosophers and ethicists

The moral philosopher or ethicist is interested in figuring out the right course of action, but in a very abstract sense. The moral philosopher may consider questions such as whether we have a duty to vote, whether we are obliged to obey and respect governments’ authority, whether we should eat meat, or whether we have an obligation to make large donations to end poverty. Some of the questions considered refer to the moral choices that individuals face, while others refer to moral choices faced by collectives, represented through intermediaries such as governments, businesses, or other organizations.

Some moral philosophies are deontological, so practical considerations, including the costs and consequences of the relevant alternatives, are not that important. Other moral philosophies are consequentialist, so practical considerations matter in answering moral questions (the most salient example is utilitarianism, where different choices are compared in terms of utility). However, although a consequentialist perspective might seem to be more practical, it is still a philosophical perspective: practical considerations matter only insofar as they shed light on what is right.

Examples of open borders philosophers include Michael Huemer, Jason Brennan, Joseph Carens, and Bryan Caplan. One interesting example to illustrate how the philosopher perspective uses practical considerations merely as a tool of philosophical argumentation is offered by the way people such as Huemer (e.g., here) and Caplan (e.g., here) typically deploy keyhole solutions. When Caplan brings up keyhole solutions, he’s not actually advocating them, let alone offering a specific keyhole solution that he is fully getting behind. In fact, as he’s clarified, he thinks pure open borders is preferable to keyhole solutions, or what I call the (1) > (2) > (3) preference ordering in this post. Rather, he’s using keyhole solutions to win the debate on whether it’s feasible to move in the direction of open borders.

As I noted in my post on Bryan Caplan’s open borders advocacy:

Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.

Commenter BK agreed and went further:

So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.

But from the philosopher perspective, establishing the existence of keyhole solutions can be sufficient to make a case even if one doesn’t feel the onus of developing or recommending them (in Bryan’s case, the logic is analogous to the logic of his views on desert: if one could come up with some way that a person could avoid a bad situation, then they do not deserve sympathy for that bad situation; similarly, if one could come up with keyhole solutions that could in principle allow for open borders, then one has no excuse to maintain the closed border status quo).

When Open Borders: The Case began, it had a fairly heavy philosophical bent. This made sense, because philosophy seems to offer a good place to start an investigation into a change as big and complex as open borders. I feel that this site (and the “open borders movement” at large) has exhausted the philosophical perspective more than the other perspectives. There’s still work to be done with respect to outreach and refinement, but the most important new ground to break on the question won’t come from a purely philosophical angle.

To the extent that work remains on the philosophical side, I believe it will be something of the sort where we apply philosophical reasoning to concrete, specific problems that exist in the world today. Thus, rather than writing another generic post about the right to migrate, we could argue that open borders is the only ethically consistent way of dealing with refugees and DREAMers.

Wonks and policy catalysts

The wonkish perspective to open borders focuses on finding practical solutions or paths in a public policy context. Wonks are interested in the philosophy and ethics insofar as it tells them what subjects to focus on, and insofar as it provides some moral boundaries within which they can explore alternatives, but they’re more interested in working out the details of proposals that are, or might soon become, practical proposals for serious considerations.

Historically, there have been a lot of migration wonks (see for instance our list of migration information web resources and pro-immigration web resources), but few of them, even those whose recommendations push in the direction of freer migration, have identified with the cause of radically freer migration, let alone with “open borders” as a term. Partly, this could be because they are genuine moderates. Partly, this is because wonks, focused as they are on what’s immediately feasible, may lose sight of the ultimately desirable North Star. There are examples of wonks who, even as they propose moderate keyhole solutions, appreciate open borders as a potential end goal. Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett come with a more distinctively academic pedigree, but are still focused on finding ways to get from here to there, and advocating for their particular keyhole solutions with governments, the public, and the intelligentsia. A particularly salient example is Clemens’ work on expanding the H-2 program in the United States to Haiti and trying to make it more easily accessibl to Haitians.

There are also a few wonks at libertarian think tanks who address migration-related issues, and at least in principle support radical open borders, even if the proposals they table for immediate consideration are more gradual. Examples include Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation. And then there are people like Matthew Yglesias who view open borders as a worthy end goal but offer far more moderate proposals for immediate consideration. Moreover, even those who are naturally philosophers can don a wonk’s hat and come up with practical proposals. Open Borders: The Case blogger Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal (that he designed before this site came into existence) and co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s suggestion of making use of NAFTA’s labor provision are examples.

Open Borders: The Case has represented the wonkish perspective to a fair degree, though somewhat less so than the philosopher perspective. My co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s recent post suggesting next steps for the open borders movement basically argues that it’s time for the open borders movement to shift focus from the philosopher perspective to the wonk perspective.

But there’s a very important third perspective that is often ignored in this context, and may well be more promising than it looks.


Entrepreneurs, like wonks, are focused on practical, immediate changes. However, unlike wonks, the practicality of entrepreneurs is not directed primarily at influencing policy. Entrepreneurs do not assume they have the ear of political decision-makers, or a special seat at the table in political negotiations. Rather, they’re attempting to find ways of attacking problems, starting off as ordinary people (albeit with some financial resources and personal connections).

Philosophers tend to be morally judgmental, telling people and institutions what they should believe and do. Wonks tend to be largely accepting of public opinion and belief systems, and tend to either move it at the margin or attempt to influence government policy holding public opinion fixed. Entrepreneurs try to directly sell stuff to the people, attempting to either change public opinion or ignore it and still provide value to the minority that defies the public. The entrepreneurial perspective hasn’t really been given much importance on Open Borders: The Case, or in policy discussions of migration in general. This makes prima facie sense: the main obstacles to open borders seem like policy obstacles, and policy change seems essential. Apolitical entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a good fit.

But I’d like to argue that entrepreneurs are more important than that. Consider business like Uber and Airbnb. Both companies (and many others in recent years) began by operating in a legal gray area, but soldiered ahead, despite injunctions and threats from city governments. And at some point, their services had a sufficiently large loyal following from users that city governments couldn’t really shut them down (but at the same time, they got big enough that they couldn’t ignore government threats, so they reached compromise “keyhole solutions”). For concrete examples with Airbnb, see this and this. And Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s disregard for legal barriers is part of the reason for the company’s success.

What would the analogous situation be for migration? Illegal immigration similarly represents a challenge to the status quo. Just like Uber has done more to challenge the status quo of highly restrictive taxi medallions than numerous academic papers and think tank reports on the subject, continued illegal immigration has done a lot more to keep the issue of migration restrictions and their effect live than the economic or philosophical literature on the subject could alone. One of the main reasons politicians in the United States even consider passing immigration reform is the large number of illegal immigrants who make the issue salient and hard to sweep under the rug. As my co-blogger Nathan Smith says, “heightening the contradictions” through continued amnesty for illegal immigrants might ultimately be the most feasible path to increasing freedom of migration. There are close parallels between such amnesty and post-facto legalization of the gray area services provided by companies like Uber and Airbnb.

Thus, one could argue that those who facilitate illegal migration directly (as human smugglers or document forgers) or indirectly (by providing legal assistance or employment opportunities to illegal immigrants) are making entrepreneurial moves in the direction of open borders. Such entrepreneurs invoke mixed feelings even among open borders advocates, given that operating a successful business of smuggling people in and forging documents can require engaging in many unethical and even violent activities (partly to avoid border controls, partly because the underground nature of the activity makes legal or open means of recourse difficult). A recent post of mine on snakeheads (human smugglers from China), with a special focus on the recently deceased Sister Ping, went into some detail on this matter. The tactics used by some of these people are several shades worse than Uber’s shady tactics to gain market share.

One doesn’t necessary have to directly help people migrate illegally in order to facilitate illegal migration or use illegal migration to help challenge the status quo. One can also assist illegal immigrants once they have migrated, with jobs, educational opportunities, places to stay, and evading immigration enforcement. These fall within the broad category of civil disobedience, on which we’ve done a few posts before.

That said, it’s not necessary to concentrate solely on breaking the law to make an entrepreneurial impact. Some other, more legally above-board routes of an entrepreneurial nature are described at our migration arbitrage business opportunities page and my philanthropic possibilities blog post. A particularly noteworthy example that I’d love to investigate further is CITA, a nonprofit that helps farmers in the United Stateas connect with people interested in doing farm work in nearby countries such as Mexico, so that they can legally apply for H-2 temporary work visas. There may be similar opportunities in other locations, such as Svalbard, Argentina, the UAE, Singapore, Sweden, and Thailand, where at least nominally there is considerable freedom of migration for people who have a job offer in the receiving country.

The social/moral psychologist

A fourth perspective, that is not seen so much from people when they are trying to push the world towards open borders, but that is a very important complement to such pushes, is that of the social or moral psychologist. Such a person strives to understand the world, and the way that humans are behaving in it. Social scientists are part of this spectrum, while moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt are in a different part.

Wonks versus philosophers: two apparent conclusions and why they’re premature

Some might interpret wonks’ apparent practicality as evidence that wonks are more keen to actually see open borders through than philosophers. This is not necessarily true. Many wonks may be motivated at least partly by their paycheck (not that this means they’re saying things they know to be false, but at minimum their proposing practical solutions doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more serious about migration liberalization).

One can also err by interpreting the divide in the opposite way. A person used to wonk-speak may consider a philosopher a starry-eyed extremist who lacks practical sense. But this isn’t necessarily because the philosopher’s actual practical recommendations (if he/she were required to come up with those) would be more extreme, it’s simply that the philosopher is trying to address a different question. Similarly, for those used to moral philosophy, the wonk’s moderation may seem like wussiness, but that may not reflect objective truth. The wonk/philosopher divide is thus closely related to the moderate/radical divide and the moral/practical divide, but it provides a slightly different focal perspective on these divides.

Some hybrids

I think of FWD.us (that we’ve blogged about in the past) as an ill-conceived attempt at an entrepreneur-wonk-philosopher hybrid. Coming from (and attempting to embody) a Silicon Valley culture, FWD.us adopted the machismo of entrepreneurs. It borrowed a little bit from philosophical language, but offered no clear idea of what the underlying moral beliefs were and why. But its proposed path to success was purely wonkish. In light of this confused hybrid, it’s unsurprising that the group hasn’t really been able to achieve much, and that Joe Green, the President and CEO, was ultimately pushed out.

The DREAMer movement offers another interesting kind of hybrid. At one level, DREAMers are entrepreneurs: they’re engaged in openly defying and disobeying an existing system of laws, thereby making the contradictions between those laws and commonsense morality more apparent. At another level, to the extent that they propose, or at least stand behind, policy changes, they are playing the wonk. And to the extent that they directly appeal to people’s conscience about the correct way to treat DREAMers, they are engaging in moral philosophy.

The DREAMer hybrid has ben most successful in the entrepreneurial sense: they were able to acquire sufficient political salience that a DREAM Act has sort-of-been in the works for a while, and in June 2012, Obama passed his de facto DREAM Act called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The credit goes to DREAMer thought leaders such as Jose Antonio Vargas and his organization Define American, as well as numerous other grassroots organizations that have pushed for the issue. As wonks, the DREAMers have been relatively weak, offering no compelling long-term or robust solution. As philosophers, I think they’ve been even weaker. My co-blogger Michelangelo, himself a DREAMer, takes issue with what he considers flawed DREAMer logic and proposes instead that the DREAMer movement should use the case for open borders as a foundation. Occasional blogger David Bennion has argued that the DREAMer movement, and undocumented organizers at large, could pave the way towards open borders, and cited his own work for the DREAM 30 as an example.

Pro-immigration organizations such as the Immigration Policy Center, not explicitly pro-open borders, offer an interesting hybrid. They’re largely wonkish, but they also engage in and indirectly promote various forms of activism that could be construed as entrepreneurial. Personally, I’ve found their philosophical foundations to be poor. This isn’t necessarily an overwhelming criticism, because they specialize in something else. There is also a somewhat related issue of how their pro-immigration stance could conflict with certain kinds of keyhole solutions, and how they may be reluctant to consider trade-offs that improve greater freedom of migration in exchange for fewer immigrant rights (I discussed this a while back in this post, but there’s a lot more I hope to say on the rights-volume trade-off in future posts, probably referring to the work of Martin Ruhs).

Addendum: philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs against migration

The philosopher/wonk/entrepreneur distinction also applies to those who oppose some or all migration. This reference page on our site discusses the various philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments, and includes commonly used argument types such as citizenism, territorialism, and local inequality aversion. Unsurprisingly, I think that the philosophical bases for arguments against freedom of migration seem weak, but that’s what you’d expect from a blogger on Open Borders: The Case.

The anti-open borders wonkish perspective is represented by organizations such as those listed on the anti-immigration web resources page. In the United States, the most respectable (in the view of legislators) of the anti-immigration think tanks is the Center for Immigration Studies.

What about anti-immigration entrepreneurship? The Minutemen and various other vigilante justice and citizen initiatives to identify and report illegal immigrants come to mind. One could also argue that websites like VDARE offer interesting (if confused) philosopher-wonk-entrepreneur hybrids.

Introduction to Institutional Economics

Whether open borders would really “double world GDP” depends greatly on how it will affect institutions. So let me offer a brief introduction to institutional economics.

There is one problem, however, that must be dealt with first. Institutional economics has become identified with economists like Dani Rodrik and Daron Acemoglu, with papers like “The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development” and “Institutions Rule”  and with books like One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth and Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. All this is, as I see it, is fairly marginal relative to the real insights that institutional economics has to contribute, and the real task it has to do.

In the past couple of decades, there has been a boom in loose, hasty “institutional” narratives about comparative development, because “institutional” stories provide an interpretation of “total factor productivity”– the residual differences in international income that can’t be explained by factor endowments– that is (a) difficult to refute, because theoretically weak, and (b) somewhat politically correct. Cultural explanations of the wealth and poverty of nations are politically incorrect, though Deirdre McCloskey has ventured one. Racial/biological explanations are even more politically incorrect, though Greg Clark hints at one in A Farewell to Alms. But a book like Why Nations Fail stepped into a kind of vacuum, telling development economics what it wanted to hear. Its ascendancy is a disaster for the field. For lack of space, I’ll outsource my criticisms to Duncan Green and Jeff Sachs, satisfying myself with a few cryptic dicta. Property rights are not “inclusive economic institutions;” on the contrary, they exclude. They also permit “extraction,” e.g., coal mining, harvesting crops. “Inclusive economic institutions” ought to mean communism; to link democracy and capitalism by calling them both “inclusive” makes no sense. Non-democracies are no more “extractive” than democracies, in general. If anything, democracies take more resources from productive people by force, via tax and transfer systems. It’s not in the interest of democratic majorities to establish pro-growth institutions because, as Arrow’s impossibility theorem long since proved, it’s meaningless to speak of the interests of democratic majorities. It often is in the interest of autocrats to establish pro-growth institutions, so as to have more to extract: this is Mancur Olson’s “stationary bandit” argument. No matter how much we wish it were true, and no matter how much jargon we dress it up in, development is not a function of democracy. The thesis that growth depends on “inclusive economic institutions” which “inclusive political institutions” help to establish, while “nations fail” because “extractive political institutions” establish “extractive economic institutions,” has no merit.

(By the way, I’ve lamented the ascendancy of Acemoglu and Robinson before. See also Bryan Caplan’s link, and the comments below it, where I voiced more of my complaints. To my surprise, the Wikipedia page on Why Nations Fail actually links to both my post and Caplan’s! And here’s a post, “Comment on Smith’s Critique of Why Nations Fail,” with an extensive discussion following, in which I participated.)

I want to get back to basics. Here’s the core of institutional economics, which, by the way, has nothing to do with democracy. It starts, like most things in economics, with supply and demand:

Demand and supply 2

Think of that chart as the central corridor of economics, of which every feature is a door into a room containing some subfield. Open the “D” door, and we enter consumer theory, with utility functions, budget constraints, own price and cross price and income elasticities of demand, etc. Open the “S” door, and we enter the theory of the firm, with long-run and short-run total and marginal and average cost, shutdown points and breakeven points, and behind that, isoquants and isocost lines; or, as an adjoining room behind the same door, we can enter industrial organization, with perfect competition and monopolistic competition and monopoly and oligopoly. Open the “P” door, and since prices are measured in money, we step into monetary economics, with price stickiness, and the equation of exchange, and various theories of the short-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Let “P” be wages and “Q” be employment and you’ve walked into labor economics. Let “P” be interest rate (or rate of return) and “Q” be quantity of loanable funds (or shares) and you’ve taken your first step in financial economics. Draw a new line below the equilibrium price and call it “world price” and you’ve got yourself an international trade model. Focus on “consumer surplus” and “producer surplus” and you’ve entered welfare economics. Push D down and to the right, or to the left, and call the gap between old D and new D a “tax,” or a “subsidy,” respectively, and you’ve entered public economics.

What about institutional economics? Where’s the door into that?

To enter institutional economics, stop to notice a few of the assumptions that must lurk in the background for the chart to make any sense. In particular:

  • Specialization. The model requires that some people have a surplus of the good to sell, while others have a need for the good to be met. Surpluses and unmet needs arise from, or at least are greatly multiplied by, specialization. Because I make X all the time, I’m very good at it; but for the same reason, I don’t have time to make any Y. So I supply X and demand Y. Thus supply and demand are born.
  • But not too much specialization, because you need competition too. The basic supply-and-demand model assumes price-taking behavior on the part of both buyers and sellers. Only competition can ensure that. But now suppose that a society of 1,000 people divides its work into 1,000 tasks so that each person is a monopoly provider of the one thing they do. There’s no competition, and no reason for suppliers to be price takers. So markets of the kind shown in the chart, with their nice efficiency properties, occur only somewhere in the middle of a spectrum running from no specialization to perfect specialization.
  • Property rights– including complicated contracts. Demanders must have some kind of property rights to the money they bring to market. They must have power to transfer these rights. Likewise, suppliers must have property rights in the goods they bring to market, and power to transfer them. “Property rights” can mean legal property rights, credibly backed up by a government, or customary rights, or private promises, or perhaps, occasionally, even the mere informal trading of favors. Often legal property rights and social trust are both necessary, as when contracts are signed, but cannot be made sufficiently detailed to cover all contingencies.
  • Some method of executing transactions, and it shouldn’t be too costly. Institutional economists talk a lot about “transactions costs,” and that sounds really, really BORING. Sure, it does take a bit of time and effort to move money from hand to hand, ring up cash registers, sign checks, mail stuff, etc., but is that really important enough to merit our attention? To this objection, the first answer is that “transactions costs” include things like contracts and search and establishing trust and getting incentives right. Transactions costs in this sense can plausibly be estimated to comprise more than half of US GDP. Second, and even more importantly, transactions costs determine the size of the network of specialization and trade. The transactions that don’t happen are as important as the transactions that do. Everyday example: the typical reader of this post probably does his or her own dishes, even though the value of his or her time is a good deal higher than many people who live nearby. Why? Because it’s too complicated to find them, hire them, communicate the nature and scope of the job to them, move them physically to where the job needs to be done, coordinate their entry and exit, and structure their incentives properly. Heighten entrepreneurial cunning and social trust enough, and you’d press a button, and some underemployed person in your neighborhood would come and do your dishes for you at an easily affordable cost, while you devote yourself to business or pleasure.

So how does institutional economics relate to the supply-and-demand chart that is the heart of economics? Institutions determine what markets exist at all, and who participates in them. Institutions enable– or fail to enable– enough people to do business with each other that all sorts of specialized markets can come into existence, creating wonderful productivity increases and wonderful consumer and producer surplus. And institutions take up the slack when markets can’t operate because specialization has been pursued too far to be compatible with competition.

Even though Adam Smith’s trumpet triumphantly declares, in the title of Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations, that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” economists have a bias against believing it, because it creates fundamental problems for the theory of competitive markets, a bias well-expressed by Becker and Murphy’s paper “The Division of Labor, Coordination Costs, and Knowledge.” When I read this paper for the first time in grad school as part of my dissertation research, I was very annoyed with it, because it missed the point in such a lucid and convincing way. Today, I love the paper for the same reason: it expresses a fallacy that pervades the economics profession, in a form that’s clear enough to be straightforwardly defeasible.

Becker and Murphy start by assuming that society’s tasks are infinitely divisible, that productivity in any given task depends on specific human capital, and that specialization raises productivity by allowing workers to focus their specific human capital acquisition efforts on one narrow task and therefore to acquire more of it. So far, the model points to perfect specialization, i.e., a society in which everyone is the unique specialist in one very narrow task. But then they argue:

Conflict among members grows with the size of a team because members have greater incentives to shirk when they get a smaller share of the output (see, e.g., Holmstrom (1982)). Moreover, efforts to extract rents by “holding-up” other members also grows as the number of members performing complementary tasks increases (see Chari and Jones (1991)). Further, the chances of a breakdown in production due to poor coordination of the tasks and functions performed by different members, or to communication of misleading information among members, also tends to expand as the number of separate specialists grows… Principal-agent conflicts, hold-up problems, and breakdowns in supply and communication all tend to grow as the degree of specialization increases.

They go on to assume that average coordination costs have the functional form C=C(n), dC/dn>0, that is, average coordination costs increase with the size of the “team.” That’s why they think that “sometimes the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, but more frequently in the modern world it is limited by other forces.” To support this claim empirically, they go on to give many examples of markets where there seem to be quite a few fairly substitutable specialists. The facts they cite would constitute evidence against the theory that “the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market,” if that theory implied that there should be only one monopolistic specialist in most tasks. But it does not, and the literature they cite in support of the concept of “coordination costs” implicitly contains the reasons why the extent of the market can limit the division of labor well before the technical limits of useful specialization have been reached. Most “coordination costs” are related to missing markets, and would be mitigated if the market were large enough.

Start with the “team production” problem of Holmstrom (1982). The output of a team is usually such that the sum of the marginal products of its members is greater than the value of what the team produces. But that’s a complex and jargon-ridden way of saying it. Let me try again. There is a popular saying that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” Now, if that’s true, what happens if you take one part away? The whole is no longer a whole, and its value is greatly reduced. That reduction in value is the “marginal product” of the part, in the sense that it is what that part adds to the value of the whole, provided all the other parts are in place. But, precisely because “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” every part has a large “marginal product.” The traditional theory of the firm assumes that each factor is paid its marginal product. If “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” then the sum of the marginal products of the parts is greater than the whole, so each factor can’t be paid its marginal product within the team’s budget constraint. And that creates “hold-up problems,” with each team member being in a position to blackmail the rest for a large share of the team product. Such hold-up problems can cause the team’s cooperation to break down, even though its potential product is more than enough to pay team members their opportunity costs.

But now suppose that the market is large enough that every team member is readily replaceable. If you want to interrupt me here, and object that even if outsiders were ex ante replaceable, once the team has begun work, its members gain lots of project-specific knowledge that makes them irreplaceable, then you haven’t meditated deeply enough on the condition that “the market is large enough.” In a large enough market, there will be many other teams working on very similar projects, at a similar stage, so team members remain replaceable throughout the project. In that case, the hold-up problem is easily solved. If any team member demands an undue share, just fire him and poach a similar person from some other team. If the market isn’t quite that large, maybe there’s a moderately similar team member who can be recruited if someone demands too large a share, and that at least mitigates the problem. The larger the market, the less the “coordination costs” associated with moral hazard in teams, relationship-specific or asset-specific or project-specific knowledge and investments, opportunism, hold-up problems, etc. A similar logic applies to production breakdowns due to logistical problems or miscommunication: the larger the market, the easier it will be to buy key spare parts when there’s a bottleneck.

And so, in my dissertation, I proposed the following modification of Becker and Murphy. Rather than C(n), average coordination costs are C(n,N), where n is the size of the team, and N is the size of the market. C(n,N) is an increasing function of n, but a decreasing function of N. Division of labor is limited by the extent of the market, but there isn’t perfect specialization, precisely because as the economy approaches that limit, coordination costs become too high. People under-specialize to avoid getting trapped in monopoly-monopsony relationships where they’re vulnerable to opportunism, hold-ups, coordination failures, etc. To the extent that monopoly-monopsony relationships are inevitable, that’s what firms, those “islands of planning in a market sea,” are for. Where market relationships would be dysfunctional, power relationships arise instead. In a world of perfect information and costless and complete contracts, there would be no need for “firms” or “jobs”: we’d all be free agents, trading goods and services. But because a boss and employee need to do a lot of relationship-specific investment, and the boss has better information about the value of various things the employee could do, the economy is mostly organized as firms and jobs, instead.

The role of “good institutions,” then– at least, as I read it: but the issue is very complex– is not so much to give people political representation and redistribute income, or even to provide public goods, tax or prohibit activities with negative externalities, subsidize activities with positive externalities, and ensure that industries remain competitive. I don’t think it’s even primarily to enforce property rights in an everyday sense– plenty of regimes can do a decent job of preventing shoplifting and trespassing– but rather, to do arcane things like protect minority shareholders, and put Martha Stewart sent to jail on obscure charges that most people can’t understand. Why does it matter to protect minority shareholders? Because then people will hand over their hard-earned money to companies they’ve barely heard of, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. And that allows firms to raise cash for new projects, and for people like Mark Zuckerberg who have done something really useful to become billionaires through an IPO, mitigating the burden of nondiversifiable entrepreneurial risk.

How important are institutions for comparative development? That’s too difficult a question for me to answer with much confidence, but tentatively: I think culture does a lot of the work that is sometimes attributed to “institutions,” but culture and institutions together probably are the main explanations of differences in “total factor productivity.” To see what I mean by “culture,” consider the question: why do US universities really create and disseminate knowledge, when it’s ridiculously difficult to monitor what a professor actually does in the classroom? Because professors are inducted into a culture of learning, to the point where we really care about knowledge and truth and rigor, etc., not (only) for the sake of payday or tenure or even prestige, but for its own sake. We give Ds to terrible students, even if it gets us bad teacher evals, because it’s wrong to tell the world that someone understands economics, who doesn’t. And I’m sure similar forms of professionalism apply in many fields. I’m skeptical, on empirical grounds, of Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” as a theory of comparative development, but I think that kind of explanation, concerning how culture, history, and religion shape individual behavior and values in a way that isn’t reducible to homo economicus, is probably important to the wealth and poverty of nations. In cutting-edge, innovative industries, culture usually has to do the initial work in solving team production problems. Rewards are wildly incommensurate with effort and risk, and perverse incentives are all over the place, but people do the right thing because they love cars, or computers, or whatever. Later, institutions codify and enforce the modes of cooperation that culture discovered, though even in mature industries, norms and values and intrinsic rewards are crucial to sustaining high performance.

Given my perspective on institutional economics (including culture), how would open borders affect the institutions of rich countries? Would they “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?” Or would poor people enjoy the productivity-enhancing power of sophisticated, wealth-fostering institutions (and cultures), without damaging them?

There’s a farm I know in Maine which sells veggies by an honor system. The veggies are laid out on tables in a shed, with prices, and it’s up to you to put money in their cash box. No one is watching. It’s a very convenient and affordable way to buy fresh vegetables. This business model might collapse under open borders, as a critical mass of immigrants prove less honest than Americans, and shoplifters make honor-system sales unsustainable. Or, it might not. It wouldn’t surprise me much if even more honor-system commerce took place under open borders. But I’d expect less of it. I’d also expect to see more littering and open defecation under open borders. I think the kinds of transactions that are as vulnerable as this to a deterioration in mass behavior are of minor importance to the economy, but I’m not sure.

In big business and high finance, by contrast, I doubt open borders would do any serious damage to culture and institutions, as long as open borders doesn’t mean open voting. These are elite institutions with plenty of gatekeepers, and no one rises high enough to make the rules without being thoroughly shaped by the rules first. Even the average native-born citizen knows little about them and has no power to influence them, except very indirectly at the ballot box. Big business and high finance have a much larger effect on GDP than rural veggie stands, though their relative importance for quality of life is perhaps a good deal less than for GDP.

In general, I think most civil society organizations and trust-based commercial relationships wouldn’t be harmed by open borders because one isn’t dealing with random strangers, but with people self-selected and/or screened in various ways. Universities, for example, only accept students, and hire faculty, who meet their standards. The fact that someone is physically on US soil doesn’t compel a university to do business with them in any way. The exception here is that anti-discrimination law sometimes does compel private and public organizations to deal with people they would prefer to screen out (especially under the deplorable “disparate impact” doctrine which forbids people and companies to statistically discriminate on grounds that are correlated with race, and that courts or bureaucrats should arbitrarily decide are inadmissible).

My main fear for institutions under open borders is that law and public opinion would fail to recognize that private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine and should be legal. If firms, public bureaucracies, and civil society organizations, whose members and leaders obviously have the best knowledge about those organizations’ goals, needs, and workings, were arbitrarily forced to include people they didn’t want by bureaucrats and judges, then they could sustain serious damage, and the killing the goose argument might come into its own.

Open borders might also have a beneficial impact on institutions through international Tiebout competition.

Snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

I recently read The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream by Patrick Radden Keefe. The term “snakehead” is used for a person who manages human smuggling operations for people from China (note that “human smuggling” should not be confused with human trafficking). The book is a fascinating, and in some ways disturbing, story of the huge network used to smuggle Chinese people illegally into the United States. I discovered the book when reading up an obituary of Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), one of the most reputed snakeheads.

Sister Ping
Image source: The New Yorker

There is a lot of interesting material in the book, and although its relevance to the basic moral case for migration is fairly limited, it sheds light on many aspects of the realities of the ground. The book’s focus is the complex human smuggling operation of people from China and neighboring areas (but mostly from the northern part of Fujian province in China) to the United States, with most of them ending up in the Chinatown in New York City. But much of what it discusses is relevant to migration in other contexts.


The book paints a poignant picture of the strength of people’s desire to migrate. There is also plenty of material in the book that sheds light on the international refugee system, and in my view it strengthens the case laid out in John’s recent post. The book does a good job of going beyond the simple (albeit mostly correct) narrative of migrants as ordinary, innocent people who simply want a better life for themselves. Rather, it notes how migrants, like the rest of us, care about their own (and their families’) long-term survival and flourishing deeply enough that they can sacrifice their own short-term interest, as well as a number of ethical scruples, in order to make that happen. Arguably, there is a strong selection effect, both for legal and illegal immigration: people who undertake such arduous journeys are the ones with the most to gain and the least to lose, which could tell us something about the sort of people they are. But the basic urges moving them are present in all of us. Many of the people we know would have taken similar decisions under similar circumstances.

Unfortunately, the existing immigration system makes criminals of these migrants, in both senses of the word: it labels the act of unauthorized border-crossing as a crime, and some of the measures that people take to evade detection often involve them committing, or indirectly financing, activities that are criminal in a more objective sense. While the migrants and their facilitators who engage in the latter are in some (albeit not all) cases blameworthy, some part of the blame also falls on those of us who support the existing closed borders system that aims to shutter off such a basic human desire, in full cognizance of the unintended but easily anticipated consequences. (I’ve had a draft post on the ethics of illegal immigration for a while, but it’s not going to be finished any time soon. But you can read my co-blogger Nathan’s take on the subject or our background page on the morality of violating restrictive immigration laws).

#1: Who migrates, how, and why?

The book’s focus is on Cheng Chui Ping (better known as Sister Ping), who owned a modest storefront and restaurant in Chinatown in New York City, but whose main business involved servicing migrants in two ways: facilitating their smuggling into the United States, typically via an intermediate country such as Hong Kong or Thailand, and providing a low-cost service for them to send remittances back home.

The operations managed by Sister Ping, and others with whom she collaborated, were extremely complex. Her money transfer system relied on peer-to-peer movement of money: the person sending money gives it to Sister Ping in New York, and her Chinese counterpart gives the money to her family. Occasionally, she may need to physically transfer some money between her New York City and Fujian operational centers. Banks do the same thing (at least in principle) but bureaucratic and regulatory overhead make them more costly, and moreover, many of Sister Ping’s clients didn’t have bank accounts. Sister Ping’s operation is similar to the Hawala system, an extremely cheap system of money transfer in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The people smuggling operation similarly required cooperation from people at different locations. First, people were smuggled from China to a holding country such as Thailand or Hong Kong. Thailand was good for holding because there was a sufficient density of corrupt officers who could be bought to look the other way as people waited en route to the United States. The trip from Thailand to the United States could be undertaken by plane or by ship. Usually, the ships sailed across the Pacific and landed in California. Sometimes, they went via the Indian Ocean, stopping in East Africa or South Africa before setting off across the Atlantic. Since landing directly on the US Coast was tricky, sometimes they would land in one of the Central American countries and then cross by land or by boat.

This operation is pretty nontrivial and involves considerable risk. The money transfer and human smuggling business netted revenues in the billions of dollars annually during their peak, and the gains to the migrants and their families back home were considerably greater.

The smuggling operation was complex and impressive. But more than simply marvel at the ingenuity of the operation, we should note how it often failed people: there were accidents en route that killed people, and often the smuggling operation wasn’t successful. Sometimes people would be caught on arrival. The sad fact is that the closed border system led to much ingenuity, risk, and effort being directed to undoing the damage of closed borders, rather than to moving the world further forward (cf. the parable of the broken window).

The fees for smuggling were high. Even back in the 1980s, smuggling fees could be as high as eighteen thousand dollars. A pretty huge sum. And although the snakeheads like Sister Ping made a profit, the profit margin wasn’t extraordinary: the price was high because the costs and risks were high. So why were migrants willing to pay the fee, and how could they afford it?

The answer to the why is pretty clear: a huge place premium: The pay in Chinatown in New York City, even for somebody doing a menial job and with zero English language skills, was an order of magnitude more than what the person could make in rural Fujian. The male adult of the family could migrate, send remittances home, and work really hard so that his wife and children could enjoy a good standard of living (relative to the other natives) back home. (For more on the network of jobs accessible to these migrants, see this New Yorker piece).

What about the question of how? In short, diaspora dynamics, which in this case literally involves early migrants paying for later migrants.For the most part, smugglers like Sister Ping held migrants who’d just arrived in captivity until their family members and friends within Chinatown had paid the smuggling fee. The migrant was then released and not tracked. He now owed money, but not to Sister Ping, but to his relatives. And that created a stronger incentive system to repay. Either way, Sister Ping didn’t have to track the migrant or worry about what he ended up doing.

But how did the relatives come there in the first place? This is the basic idea of diaspora dynamics: the first few people are unusual in some way: unusually wealthy, unusually enterprising. They either migrated legally or were able to personally finance their unauthorized journey into the United States. Both of these signal some unusualness relative to the reference population they were from. Then they smuggled their relatives in. And they smuggled their relatives in. And so on. This does suggest that, after a few iterations, the selection effects could be somewhat weaker than one might expect a priori.

#2: Non-cooperating countries

A Slate article talks about the importance of spoiler countries and corrupt officials in facilitating the global human smuggling network:

Sister Ping’s operation involved associates in dozens of countries, and corrupt officials in a string of strategic entrepôts. In the early ’90s, she funneled passengers through Bangkok, Thailand, where corrupt airline inspectors turned a blind eye to phony documents. By the late ’90s, she was sending ships full of migrants to the shores of Guatemala, from whence they could proceed overland through Mexico. She didn’t need to worry about the Guatemalan navy. She had them on the payroll.

This was one of the most surprising (and daunting) themes to emerge in my research: If criminal organizations, like multinational corporations, are mobile and opportunistic and can migrate wherever they like, engaging in a kind of jurisdictional arbitrage and seeking out an optimal environment in which to do business, then all it takes is one spoiler country, like Thailand or Guatemala, to render them virtually untouchable. When Sister Ping fled the United States after the Golden Venture incident, she settled in her home village in Fujian Province, where she enjoyed the protection of the Chinese authorities and proceeded to continue running her business for six long years. The FBI knew exactly where she was. But when they asked China to extradite her, Beijing brushed them off.

At least she was confined to China, you might say. But she wasn’t. She traveled all over the world during those years—even, amazingly, to the United States. How? When she was finally arrested in Hong Kong in 2000, she had a passport with her picture and someone else’s name. It was issued by Belize, a classic spoiler country.

Is the existence of spoiler countries a feature or a bug? If you consider the current closed borders system a moral anomaly, then it’s a feature, but if you strongly respect the status quo, it’s a bug. Some might argue countries don’t have the prerogative to be lax about facilitating migration to other countries while strictly enforcing their own migration laws, for that may be hypocritical. I don’t buy that argument. Nonetheless, some of the spoiler countries have relatively lax de facto immigration laws too, in some (albeit not all) senses. Thailand is arguably one such example (more on Thailand in another post).

#3: Sister Ping’s time in China

There is some level of irony in Sister Ping’s relationship with the Chinese government. On the other hand, she lent a helping hand to a large number of people who were escaping political and economic problems created through government policies, including some who were directly persecuted by the government. On that account, we might expect that Chinese government officials would take a negative view of Sister Ping. On the other hand, Sister Ping had helped a lot of people in northern Fujian migrate and become rich, and they had in turn sent back money and enriched their villages back home. This made her a popular figure back home in her region. Even if the government officials’ own feelings for Sister Ping were ambiguous, the people’s love for her made it difficult for the officials to take action against her. It would be a needless risk to their popularity with no upside. But it is ironic that the woman who facilitated so many people from China claiming refuge in the United States spent the latter half of the 1990s seeking refuge in China from the United States regime.

The irony dissipates somewhat by taking a bigger view. People want to be free and comfortable. Free to make choices in their own lives. Free to move elsewhere if those places offer better opportunities. Both the Chinese and the US government have a mixed record when it comes to curtailing those freedoms. The Chinese government’s record is more generally negative: after disastrous experiments with Maoism, the country has liberalized considerably but much progress remains to be made with respect to political and economic freedom. The United States government does a better job in protecting political and economic freedom for people within its territory, but getting in there can be tough (to be fair, the Chinese don’t have a great track record with immigrants either, particularly those from North Korea, who basically have nowhere else to go). Sister Ping and her clients appreciated the United States for its strengths. That’s why she migrated there and helped facilitated her clients’ moves. At the same time, they did not “respect the law” in the cases where it inhibited their basic freedoms. And to the extent that the very flawed Chinese government tolerated Sister Ping, she was happy to seek refuge there.

#4: What motivates people like Sister Ping?

Snakeheads (the people who head the human smuggling operations) differ considerably in their intentions and integrity. But the best among them, such as Sister Ping, seem like upstanding folks. Sister Ping was fairly wealthy. But more than most wealthy people, she had very little opportunity to bask in her wealth. She needed to maintain a very low profile in order to avoid getting noticed by the police, the immigration agencies, and local rival gangsters who might rob her. She generally kept her word to clients. Unlike other snakeheads, she stayed true to her 100% money-back guarantee: in case of a botched operation (even an ultimately successful one) she didn’t charge her clients.

So why did she enter the business? For reasons that, I think, are very similar to the reasons people become entrepreneurs. Ambition, a desire for power, a keen sense for business opportunities, and a desire to have an impact. And a cold, calculating utilitarian ruthlessness. A concern that the balance of her actions was highly positive for her clients, not necessarily that every individual action was beyond reproach. As Keefe (the author of the book I’m drawing on) wrote in The New Yorker:

To the end, Sister Ping remained defiant. Illegal migration is an inherently precarious business. Mattathias Schwartz recently wrote for The New Yorker about the lengths that African migrants will go to wash ashore on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and Jim Dwyer, at the Times, published a heartbreaking piece about the death of a young Ecuadorian girl seeking to reconnect with her parents in the United States. In Sister Ping’s view, the balance of her contributions outweighed the costs. “My life remains valuable,” she insisted, during the sentencing phase of her trial. “It remains valuable.”

In Chinatown, many people seem to agree. Her death was front-page news in New York’s Chinese-language newspapers, with articles describing her “righteousness,” and calling her an “immigration hero.” “Her warmth moved everyone,” a local man who came from her village back in Fujian told the Times.

Over in Silicon Valley, there is a stereotype of the bold entrepreneur who forges ahead bravely, taking risks and not caring for social convention. Perhaps one of the most flamboyant examples of the entrepreneur who’s willing to fight hard, John Galt-style, and doesn’t mind appearing arrogant, is Travis Kalanick, Uber CEO. While some of his business choices are arguably ethically challenged, others seem to be ahead of their time in challenging common but mistaken moral norms (such as the norms against surge pricing). Regardless of the specifics, Kalanick is an impressive entrepreneur: after a decade of working on businesses that failed despite being promising, he didn’t give up, and he got it right the third time, with Uber. This is a man who perservered and it paid off, for him, and the large number of people whose lives have been improved by Uber.

But the risk-reward ratio faced by Kalanick pales compared to what Sister Ping faced. Kalanick may end up a billionaire if Uber continues to execute well. Sister Ping probably had just as much, or perhaps even more, business sense, but because she chose to operate in an underground business, the opportunities to her were limited in scope. She had to adopt even more unsavory tactics than Kalanick, including outright violence. And even though she acquired money, it was far less than what Kalanick could accumulate, and she had little opportunity to live it out lavishly due to other constraints. When it comes to the risks, there is no comparison. Sister Ping spent the last 14 years of her life in prison. Kalanick will at worst have to pony up money in a lawsuit and shut down Uber, and in the median case will probably do pretty well for himself.

The following passages from the book illustrate Sister Ping’s determination and relentless resourcefulness:

Whenever people asked Occhipinti about Sister Ping, he told a story that he thought demonstrated just how untouchable she had become. Early on, he had gone to see her at the apartment in Knickerbocker Village, on Monroe Street. He’d taken along another investigator and an interpreter. Occhipinti didn’t have much to bust her on, but he made it clear to Sister Ping, through the interpreter, that he was on to her and he would get her eventually. To Occhipinti’s surprise, Sister Ping wasn’t fazed in the slightest. “You don’t have the time to get me,” he remembers her saying. “Or the resources.” He made a note of the meeting, and it ended up in Sister Ping’s file. It became part of her lore within the agency. But what always struck Occhipinti about the exchange wasn’t just the arrogance of it, or the insult, so much as the fact that she was right.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 55-56). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

A segment on Sister Ping’s brief jail stint in the early 1990s (distinct from her end-of-life jail stint starting 2000):

Sister Ping did go to prison, in upstate New York. She hated it […] She no doubt was also troubled by the opportunity costs of remaining in jail. Goldenberg had asked that she be permitted to serve her time in a halfway house in New York, arguing that she should be close to her four children, but also that if she was removed from her base of operations in Chinatown, “she would merely languish and her time would not be used profitably.”


She could still communicate with Yick Tak and the rest of the family in New York City, and as her lawyer had observed, Sister Ping was eager to use her time profitably. The nature of the alien smuggling business, after all, is that there is a pipeline. It sometimes took months to move people from Fuzhou or Changle to Chinatown, so at any given moment there were numerous people at stations along the way: in Shenzhen or Hong Kong, Guatemala or Belize, Tijuana or California, Vancouver or Toronto. “Sister Ping had to keep working from prison,” Patrick Devine explained. “Because when she went in, there were already dozens of people en route to the U.S.”

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 94-95). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

But rather than merely admiring the net benefit that Sister Ping may have given her clients, the more important lesson we should take is that our perverse migration restriction regime made it the case that a business that involved such violence and high risk to life and limb was still one with high social value and a decent personal profit opportunity. How much better would the world be if the need for this kind of innovation was eliminated through a more open regime for legal migration? Sister Ping’s innovative energies could then have been directed to creating additional value rather than merely undoing the damage of immigration restrictions (yes, I know I’m repeating myself here).


The book is interesting in two other senses that each deserve their own post.

#1: Writers on the subjects of ethnicity, race, culture, and immigration in the United States often describe Chinese immigrants as a model minority, with Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants being contrasted unfavorably with the Chinese. While the case for Chinese superiority cannot be completely ruled out, this book does a good job of deflating the strongest and most exaggerated forms of the myth. Highly selected people who migrate from China through legal channels, and their children, disproportionately inform elite commentators’ impressions of Chinese immigrants. Illegal immigration and human smuggling from China to the United States suffers many of the same qualitative problems that illegal immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries does. If the United States had a land border with China and an ocean separating it from Mexico, it’s plausible that Mexicans would be touted as the model minority for Chinese to emulate (note also that the population size difference makes it easier to select highly successful Chinese immigrants). More in this OBAG discussion on Facebook.

#2: There is plenty of discussion in the book about various attempts to game the ambiguous rules for refugee status among Sister Ping’s clients. How morally justified were these attempts to stretch the spirit of the rules? This is a topic that requires a post of its own, but the upshot is that almost inevitably, a close examination of each individual case would make one sympathetic to it, even if it did not fit the narrow framework of political persecution reqired to qualify for refugee status. Chapter 13 of the book talks about the People of the Golden Vision, a movement that arose to release a bunch of people who landed ashore in New York City after the ship smuggling them, called the Golden Venture, ran aground. The chapter describes how ordinary Americans, whose prior views on immigration ranged across the spectrum of mainstream views, came to identify with the story of the immigrants. Once people got to hear the people’s stories and interact with them up close, they were convinced that these people should be granted the opportunity to stay in the United States. This is a topic that deserves a separate blog post, since it offers a blueprint of sorts for successful activism in the migration domain, and also provides insight into how actual contact helps resolve people’s moral contradictions in the direction most consistent with a free migration regime.

#3: The relation between human smuggling and organized crime at different levels is worth exploring. The book discusses the connection between snakeheads and local gang activity in Chinatown, with gangs playing important enforcement functions for snakeheads. This too is a topic worth further exploration in a separate post, in the broader context of understanding the role of crime in both the enforcement and the defiance of migration controls.

A request to moderates: show your work

Post by Vipul Naik (occasional blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

As I posted on the Open Borders Action Group, I was struck by a passage from Madeline Zavodny’s piece in Peregrine titled Immigration Policy and the Surge:

Deporting them back to such bleak conditions may seem heartless (although not as heartless this summer’s sight of US citizens blockading buses carrying these migrants, reminiscent of protests against buses carrying black children to white schools some fifty years ago). But allowing them to remain in the United States for more than a few weeks guarantees bigger illegal inflows in the future and reduces further the possibility of comprehensive immigration reform.

Zavodny is a prominent speaker on immigration-related issues (for samples of her work, see her Senate testimony and her write-up on immigration and American jobs). She seems to have a generally favorable impression of work-based migration at all skill levels and has defended migration liberalization in many contexts. My co-blogger John Lee had briefly described her contributions to a Cato panel on immigration in July of last year. She’s writing for a journal devoted to the policy analysis of immigration. Therefore, it is reasonable to hold her statements to high standards.

Zavodny’s first sentence argues that governments deporting people is not as bad as private citizens demanding that governments deport people. At first sight, this seems puzzling, because advocating that something be done is rarely considered to be worse than actually doing it.

The puzzle is deepened by the fact that in her next sentence, as well as in the rest of the article, she seems to endorse at least some level of deportation as a necessary evil. So why exactly does she advocate that government do something, yet consider it heartless for others to advocate the same? As I wrote in a comment on my OBAG post, based off of a private discussion with John Lee (who has written the defining piece on how open borders differs from mainstream moderate immigration reform):

Seems like the main point of difference between many mainstream people and hardcore restrictionists is that the mainstream people endorse it, but are proud that they don’t boast about it. They endorse deportation as a “necessary evil”

But this attitude, too, is morally mysterious. Imagine that you are about to cross a bridge, and a police officer stops you, brandishing his weapon and forcing you to back off. If he shouts invective at you, calling you a loser who doesn’t deserve to cross the bridge, you aren’t going to be pleased. But would you really consider his behavior fair if he said “The bridge will snap in two if you go in there. Sorry, I don’t mean to hurt you, but if you move forward, I’ll shoot you!” or something similar? What if you point out that the bridge hardly looks on the verge of collapse, and besides, many other people are getting on and of it, and he simply brushes you off, repeating, “I don’t mean you any ill will, but you got to back off or I’ll shoot you. Give your family my regards.”

Now, if there actually were a good case that the bridge would collapse, and/or if he had good reason to believe that, and you sensed that, it might be different. But if he claimed in a blasé fashion that the bridge would collapse, yet offered no reasons, that wouldn’t come across that differently from shouting invective or displaying personal hostility.

The analogy with moderates should be clear: many moderates reflexively oppose large-scale admission of refugees or migration liberalization, while at the same time seeking to distinguish themselves from more hardcore restrictionists who, in their view, display unsavory prejudicial attitudes (in fact, even some hardcore restrictionist groups, such as Center for Immigration Studies, take pride in their lack of hostility to immigrants, as we’ve discussed before. But that’s a separate topic). But, as I’ve discussed before, few moderates care to spell out clearly why they think of open borders as going too far. Or rather, the reasons they offer seem like blithe dismissals, not the sort of strong, compelling evidence you might want to summon when denying people such a basic right.

There’s a good chance that people such as Zavodny could make, or cite, good arguments against open borders of the sort that we try to address on this site. Analogous to the bridge that’s just about to collapse, she might argue that open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Or she might take a more distinctively citizenist line, something that’d be consistent with her public writing on immigration. She might even come up with new arguments or new variants of existing arguments that give pause to open borders advocates. But even if she is simply relying on arguments made by others, it is important for her to clarify what her particular mix of reasons is.

Whatever her reasons, I think she owes it to the people whose deportation she implicitly and explicitly endorses, and to the people whom she is proposing to shut out, to be more explicit. And the same goes for all people who publicly propose moderate steps, particularly if they style themselves as being morally superior to those who wear their restrictionism on their sleeve.

PS: I think everybody debating a big change such as open borders should ideally lay out their reasoning more carefully. I try to do this myself, and also encourage other open borders proponents to do so. I believe we do a reasonable job, but certainly people have been critical of us for not reasoning carefully enough, and I’d like to continue improving on that front. Moreover, I’m not claiming that just showing one’s work makes one immune to criticism. Those who disagree with us are welcome to dissect and critique our writing (as some have done) and the bloggers here do write detailed critiques of moderates who push back against open borders (as co-blogger Nathan did with Gene Callahan and many of us have done with Tyler Cowen). But I think we should (and do) respect people more who seriously try to grapple with the question “Why not open borders?” interpreted non-rhetorically, even if we have many object-level criticisms to make of their arguments.

Do immigrants cause traffic?

A common argument against migrants, domestic and foreign, in Los Angeles is that they increase congestion on the city’s already strained roads. In Malibu , one of Los Angeles’ most beautiful beach communities, residents are trying to pass legislation that would attempt to discourage further population growth in a misguided attempt to reduce congestion in the area. There is some truth to the argument as the most congested cities in the United States are also those with the largest percentage of foreign-born residents. If one were to run a quick regression on a city’s congestion level vs. foreign-born population I’m sure they’d fine a degree of correlation.

Given the likely existence of this correlation, should immigration be restricted to reduce traffic congestion?


Not at all. Migrants are attracted to economically well off cities. Well off cities grow large in size and in turn the largest cities tend to have the worst traffic congestion. For that matter congestion on roads isn’t caused by large populations but by inadequate pricing of roads. Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other highly congested cities wouldn’t suffer from their current congestion problems if they charged drivers a distance based use fee. The exact fee would vary between cities, but it would likely be no more than a few cents a mile with a surcharge during peak driving hours.

The adoption of distance based user fees would not only serve to reduce congestion, but also provide a stable funding source for maintaining current infrastructure and new developments. The United States’ is currently struggling to properly fund its transportation costs. Earlier this year the Highway Trust Fund had to receive funds from the general revenues in order to stay afloat. Roads have traditionally been funded through at-the-pump gasoline taxes, but increasing automobile fuel efficiency and political gridlock have made these taxes increasingly obsolete. Even if the current gasoline tax system could be reformed it would fail to promote a significant reduction in congestion as drivers would have little reason to worry about the marginal cost of travel besides the price of gasoline.

If the concern is that migrants are increasing congestion one shouldn’t seek to restrict future migration, deport current migrants, or even restrict development. There is an infinitely simpler and effective keyhole solution – adopt distance based user fees. Related arguments, such as the concern that an increase in a city’s population makes finding parking more difficult, are likewise best dealt with the adoption of better pricing mechanisms .

October 2014 OBAG roundup

After the Open Borders Action Group roundup of September 29, we decided to switch to a monthly frequency for OBAG roundups. This is the roundup for the month of October.

You can join OBAG on Facebook here. You can access all roundups published on our site here.

At the end of the month, OBAG membership rose by about 30, and currently stands at 581.

Both in order to reduce the time spent creating this and to keep it short and high-quality, we’ve opted for only the most salient items from the month. The roundup is not comprehensive. If you’d like to search the entire archives, you can do a search within the Facebook group, which is public.

In-depth labor mobility and migration control investigations

General observations about migration and people’s opinion on migration

Specific current and historical situations

Open borders and migration policy activism opportunities

  • Post by Vipul Naik, October 31, 2014, linking to Update on Open Philanthropy Project by Holden Karnofsky, the GiveWell blog, October 30, 2014. 2 likes, 2 comments. Quoted portion:

    In June, we hired Shayna Strom as our Director of U.S. Policy. Shayna comes to GiveWell from the White House, where she was the Chief of Staff and Senior Counselor at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. She is based on Washington, D.C., and she is investigating our two leading contenders for priority causes in U.S. policy – labor mobility and criminal justice reform – at a higher level of depth than any cause investigation we’ve done so far, aiming to get a full lay of the land and develop a preliminary strategy for where we expect to concentrate our grantmaking. She is also aiming to surface more potentially promising causes.

  • Post by Vipul Naik, October 28, 2014, asking for existing BuzzFeed-style posts that make arguments for open borders. 3 likes, 4 comments.
  • Post by Michael Wiebe, October 28, 2014, suggesting the slogan for promoting migration to the US: “It doesn’t matter where you’re born. What matters is how American you are on the *inside*.” 3 likes, 3 comments.
  • Photo post by Fabio Rojas, October 22, 2014, sharing an open borders sticker. 3 likes.
  • Post by Fabio Rojas, October 13, 2014, linking to the Archer Wiki description of Coyote Lovely, an episode of Archer related to migration. 5 likes, 2 comments.

A Halloween Case for Open Borders

Halloween has long been my favorite holiday. I’m amazed more libertarians don’t share a similar love for the holiday – it is the closest equivalent we have to a free market holiday. Halloween teaches children about opportunity costs; trick or treating may be ‘free’ in monetary terms but every kid understands that there is still a cost in terms of time spent walking house to house. It also teaches children about the benefits of trade (i.e. trading the candy you don’t like for candy you do like), the benefits in capital investment (i.e. those with the best costumes get the most candy), and even the value of open borders.

When I was a small child in Los Angeles’ Koreatown I would be dressed in my costume since the early morning and ready to go trick or treating as soon as possible. After all every minute spent idle meant less potential candy! When nightfall came though I would not be trick or treating in my native Koreatown, I’d be making the trek to the city’s richer neighborhoods in the west side. Residents of Koreatown weren’t stingy when it came to giving out candy, but there was a high place premium in the other neighborhoods. The residents of the west side, and other rich neighborhoods, gave out king-sized candy bars for the same work that I would perform in Koreatown.

These neighborhoods, with well-lit streets, calm traffic and several houses huddled together, were also better suited to trick or treating than my own neighborhood’s high rise apartment complexes, congested traffic, and poor pedestrian infrastructure. Not only were the rewards for trick or treating higher in these richer neighborhoods, but the costs were also lower. I wasn’t the only Angeleno who migrated neighborhoods for Halloween – the streets overflowed with families from across the metropolitan area.
To my knowledge no nativist movement has ever sprang up to try to discourage any of this. Local children have not formed a trick or treater union and demanded that no candy be given to ‘migrant’ trick or treaters. The homeowners in these neighborhoods have not refused to give candy to these migrant trick or treaters. And why should they?

These migrant trick or treaters clearly benefit from their temporary migration; they get more candy than they would have otherwise. However the homeowners and local children benefit as well. The fun of Halloween isn’t solely about getting as much candy as possible – there is also a degree of fun to be had in seeing everyone else dressed up. It is also, in the case of the homeowner who spent time in decorating their house for the festivities, a chance to be praised on how great one’s house looks. Halloween is very much a social holiday. Allowing migrant trick or treaters to enter their neighborhood has allowed homeowners and local children alike to greater enjoy Halloween than if they erected a border and shooed away outsiders for the night.

It would of course be absurd for a neighborhood to erect a border for a single night, but other means could be used to exclude migrant trick or treaters if that was desired. Local schools could give children badges to be worn on Halloween to help homeowners discriminate against migrant trick or treaters. The fact that we don’t see a serious attempt to separate local and migrant trick or treaters is a sign that all parties understand that they benefit from open borders for Halloween.

It would be nice if the same could be said about open borders in general. All the same I am glad that we have such a sweet holiday to help us make the case in favor of open borders.

What Open Borders Can Learn from the Abolition of Slavery

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

I occasionally hear people linking gay marriage and open borders. Thus, Jose Antonio Vargas (whom I wrote about here and heresays:

We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.

And Charles Kenny, in “Why Immigration is the New Gay Marriage,” writes:

The evolution of public attitudes toward gay marriage—which a majority of Americans now support—demonstrates that cultural shifts can be dramatic and rapid when circumstances are right. Perhaps U.S. citizens will start realizing that more people aspiring to become Americans is no threat to the institutions of America, just as they have come to accept that more people wanting to get married—some to people of the same sex—is no threat to the institution of marriage.

I’ll explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement. First, I want to describe the historical movement that open borders does resemble, and which it should emulate, namely: the movement to abolish slavery.

An excellent short history of the abolition of slavery, in Chapter 5 of his book For the Glory of God by sociologist Rodney Stark, which correctly treats it as part of the history of Christian social justice, begins with a sad history of this deplorable institution, which “has… been a nearly universal feature of ‘civilization’ [and] was also common in a number of ‘aboriginal’ societies that were sufficiently affluent to afford it– for example, slavery was very prevalent among the Northwest Indians,” and which, in fact, before the advent of Christian social justice, essentially occurred wherever “the average person can produce sufficient surplus that it becomes profitable for someone to own him or her” (Stark, p. 292-293). Stark describes slavery among the Northwest Coast Indians; in classical Greece and Rome; in the Muslim world; in black Africa long before the Atlantic slave trade; and in the New World in modern times. Stark pays less attention to China– space is limited, after all– but slavery also existed there.

The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery, though the Mosaic law does greatly ameliorate it:

Although Jews were prohibited from enslaving their fellow Jews, and their slaves therefore came from among the “heathen,” there were still severe limits on their treatment. Death was decreed for any Jewish master who killed a slave. The Torah admonished that freedom was to be awarded any slave as compensation for suffering acts of violence: “And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall go free for his eye’s sake. And if he smite out his manservant’s tooth, or his maidservant’s tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth’s sake” (Exodus 21:26-27). Hebrew law held that children of slaves must not be parted from their parents, nor a wife from her husband. Moreover, in Deuteronomy 23:15-16 Jews were admonished not to return escaped slaves: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escape from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you… thou shalt not oppress him.” (Stark, p. 328)

Is it embarrassing that God condones slavery in the Mosaic Law? In such cases, one must be careful not to kick away the ladder by which we ascended. Christians believe that God is trying to redeem fallen mankind. That sometimes means meeting fallen man where he is at a given time, improving him by small steps, and condoning much that is defective with respect to loftier ethical standards that he may attain later. Compared to the brutal exploitation of slaves by so many other civilizations, slavery as prescribed in the Mosaic law is humane. Jesus later told the Pharisees that Moses had permitted men to divorce their wives “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), and I think (and more importantly, Christians have long held) that the same principle applies to much of the Mosaic law. It was a kind of compromise between ethical perfection and human weakness. The subsequent history of the Jews shows how little they were able even to live up to this limited standard. But in the teachings of Jesus the fullness of ethical perfection was revealed, and this rendered obsolete some of the rituals and minor rules, and especially the imperfections and compromises, of the Mosaic law.

Yet even in the New Testament, slaves are told to obey their masters by both St. Peter– see 1 Peter 2:18– and St. Paul– see Ephesians 6:5 and Colossians 3:22. I don’t find these passages troubling, because I see them as instances of Jesus’s teaching to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and, in general, to submit to coercion and even give more than what is demanded: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41). After all, if we ought to serve our fellow men, then why should it be an unmitigated evil to be legally bound to serve one of our fellow men? More troubling, possibly, is that in advising the Ephesians, St. Paul does not command Christian masters to manumit their slaves, saying only “And masters, do the same things [i.e., render sincere service] to them [i.e., to your slaves], and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Certainly for masters to serve their slaves and to stop threatening them is a step in the right direction, but how can any kind of slavery, even an ameliorated form, be compatible with the Gospel of love?

I would offer three defenses of St. Paul here. First, the apostles weren’t trying to make a secular political revolution, for which they didn’t have the strength, but to save souls, to work a moral transformation from within. Had they attempted to launch a revolution against slavery, the Roman Empire would have crushed them. Even semi-public exhortations to manumission in letters to churches might have been dangerous. Second, this is another case of God meeting us where we are, and not giving us moral standards we’re not yet ready to live by. What would masters in the early Ephesian church have done, had St. Paul commanded them to manumit all their slaves? Let’s assume it would have been good for their souls as well as their slaves if they had obeyed. But, perhaps they would not have obeyed, but left the church instead. Would that justify Paul in limiting his exhortations to good treatment rather than manumission? I think so. Third, what happens to a manumitted slave? Don’t think of the ancient Roman Empire as a modern capitalist economy where any random person can find a job and support himself. A typical slave would probably have trouble making it on his or her own. To urge masters to manumit their slaves into isolation and destitution might have been no mercy. The slaveless society was a social model yet to be developed.

Theologian David Bentley Hart describes (in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, pp. 176ff.) the attitudes of the early Church fathers towards slavery…

The attitudes of many of the fathers of the church toward slavery ranged from (at best) resigned acceptance to (at worst) a kind of prudential approval. All of them regarded slavery as a mark of sin, of course, and all could take some comfort in the knowledge that, at the restoration of creation in the Kingdom of God, it would vanish altogether. They even understood that this expectation necessarily involved certain moral implications for the present. But, for most of them, the best that could be hoped for within a fallen world (apart from certain legal reforms) was a spirit of charity, gentleness, and familial regard on the part of masters and a spirit of longsuffering on the part of servants. Basil of Caesarea found it necessary to defend the subjection of some men to others, on the grounds that not all are capable of governing themselves wisely and virtuously. John Chrysostom dreamed of a perfect (probably eschatological) society in which none would rule over another, celebrated the extension of legal rights and protections to slaves, and fulminated against Christian masters who would dare to humiliate or beat their slaves. Augustine, with his darker, colder, more brutal vision of the fallen world, disliked slavery but did not think it wise always to spare the rod, at least not when the welfare of the soul should take precedence over the welfare of the flesh. Each of them knew that slavery was essentially a damnable thing– which in itself was a considerable advance in moral intelligence over the ethos of pagan antiquity– but damnation, after all, is reserved for the end of time; none of them found it possible to convert that eschatological certainty into a program for the present… Given the inherently restive quality of the human moral imagination, it is only natural that certain of the moral values of the pagan past should have lingered on so long into the Christian era, just as any number of Christian moral values continue today to enjoy a tacit and largely unexamined authority in minds and cultures that no longer believe the Christian story.

It is in this context that a certain stunning insight occurred to a certain 4th-century theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, to whom, as far as I can tell, the abolition of slavery may be traced.

And yet– confusingly enough for any conventional calculation of history probability– there is Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger and more brilliant brother, who sounded a very different note, one that almost seems to have issued from some altogether different frame of reality. At least, one searches in vain through the literary remains of antiquity– pagan, Jewish, or Christian– for any other document remotely comparable in tone or content to Gregory’s fourth sermon on the book of Ecclesiastes, which he preached during Lent in 379, and which comprises a long passage unequivocally and indignantly condemning slavery as an institution. That is to say, in this sermon Gregory does not simply treat slavery as an extravagance in which Christians ought not to indulge beyond the dictates of necessity, nor does he confine himself to denouncing the injustices and cruelties of which slaveholders are frequently guilty. These things one would naturally expect, since moral admonitions and exhortations to repentance are part of the standard Lenten repertoire of any competent homilist. Moreover, ever since 321, when Constantine had granted the churches the power of legally certifying manumissions (the power of manumissio in ecclesia), propertied Christians had often taken Easter as an occasion for emancipating slaves, and Gregory was no doubt hoping to encourage his parishioners to follow the custom. But if all he had wanted to do was recommend manumission as a spiritual hygiene or as a gesture of benevolence, he could have done so quite (and perhaps more) effectively by using a considerably more temperate tone than one actually finds in his sermon. For there he directs his anger not at the abuse of slavery but at its use; he reproaches his parishioners not for mistreating their slaves but for daring to imagine that they have the right to own other human beings in the first place.

One cannot overemphasize this distinction. On occasion, scholars who have attempted to make this sermon conform to their expectations of fourth century rhetoric have tried to read it as belonging to some standard type of penitential oration, perhaps rather more hyperbolic in some of its language but ultimately intended to do no more than impress the consciences of its hearers with the need for humility… [But] Gregory’s language in the sermon is simply too unambiguous to be read as anything other than what it is. He leaves no room for Christian slaveholders to console themselves with the thought that they, at any rate, are merciful masters, generous enough to liberate the occasional worthy servant but wise enough to know when they must continue to exercise stewardship over less responsible souls. He certainly could have done just this; he begins his diatribe (which is not too strong a word) with a brief exegetical excursus on a single, rather unexpectional verse, Eccesiastes 2:7 (“I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well”); a text that would seem to invite only a few bracing imprecations against luxuriance and sloth, and nothing more. As he warms to his theme, however, Gregory goes well beyond this…

Continue reading

Ebola is utterly irrelevant. Open the borders.

Post by John Lee (regular blogger for the site, joined October 2012). See:

The Ebola crisis in West Africa has well and truly frightened the citizens of the world, in vast disproportion to the risk it actually poses to most people outside a relatively small region of Africa. People seem to think Ebola makes a slam dunk case against open borders. But Ebola is actually virtually irrelevant to the question of whether we should have open borders.

The Ebola-/disease-argument for closing — whether selectively or in broad indiscriminate strokes — the borders generally runs as follows:

  1. There is a dangerous disease
  2. This disease is transmitted from person to person
  3. Some foreign people have this disease
  4. Preventing these disease-bearing people from entering our country would eliminate the risk of them transmitting this disease to us
  5. Therefore it would be justified to ban at least some foreign people from entering our country

Now, I think this argument is as a general rule logically sound. It does omit some proper elements of feasibility assessment, risk sizing, and cost-benefit analysis by assuming the worst case scenario in some cases (e.g., that allowing even one foreign person with the disease to enter would be an immense danger) and assuming the best case scenario in others (e.g., that a travel ban would be perfectly implementable and would completely halt the spread of the disease).

It turns out that when you assess the empirical evidence, there’s zero proof that a travel ban would actually halt the spread of Ebola. And in any case, the risk of Ebola becoming widespread in the developed world is exceedingly small — Ebola is a disease that is relatively easy to stop in its tracks when you have a functioning healthcare system (Nigeria has been spectacularly successful at combatting Ebola, and it wasn’t just lucky).

But let’s say that for whatever reason, a travel ban of some kind would contribute to stopping Ebola, or otherwise pass some reasonable cost-benefit analysis. I’d be willing to consider a travel ban in such a scenario. Does this make me a hypocrite for advocating open borders? Does this mean that I actually oppose open borders? I obviously don’t think so.

The “Ebola gotcha” is not any kind of “gotcha” at all. It only appears to be such a trump card if you don’t understand what open borders is in the first place. Of course Ebola is a gotcha argument for those who advocate allowing anyone to go anywhere, irrespective of the actual circumstance. That’s a gotcha argument against open borders in the same way that child porn is a gotcha argument against freedom of the press. After all, you support the prosecution of child pornographers, don’t you? Well, you obviously oppose freedom of speech then.

In human society, every right and freedom is balanced against other liberties. Open borders refers to freedom of human movement — a freedom that must be balanced just like any other. You can dream of a million cases where someone should have their freedom of movement circumscribed — I’ll likely agree with you on most if not every single one of them.

The point though is that freedom of movement is a right which belongs to every human being — it is not a right which can be arbitrarily circumscribed. Restrict the movement of people carrying dangerous diseases? I’m all for that. Put up walls against armed invaders? Seems like a decent idea. The point is that none of these have anything more than the vaguest connection to nationality. You don’t have to be a foreigner to decide to be a drug runner, a terrorist, or a contagious disease-carrier. You just have to be human.

So if you want to ban people with contagious diseases from travelling, that can certainly be justified — but the point is that to achieve its goals, this ban would have to be blind to nationality. If your concern is Ebola, it makes no sense to ban foreigners from entering your country, while still allowing your citizens carte blanche to come and go. That would be the equivalent of banning Facebook because you’ve noticed an uptick in child porn on the internet.

This is why even most of the hysterical proposals for an Ebola-based travel ban actually are arguably consistent with an open borders philosophy: to the extent that they target travellers from particularly Ebola-stricken areas, irrespective of citizenship, they are in theory justifiable. It is not in principle different from applying a different set of procedures to travellers from regions where, say, yellow fever is endemic. The point is that these restrictions are tied to a concrete and articulable reason — you don’t get magically exempted from them just because of your citizenship.

The way our countries’ immigration laws single out non-citizens for arbitrary discrimination and persecution which we would never subject citizens to is what makes them so objectionable. It’s one thing to temporarily restrict travel from disease-stricken regions — e.g., subject travellers from those areas to additional screening. It’s a completely different thing to accept “Ebola” as a reason to ban some foreigners from entering purely because of their nationality, even as we would allow an identical citizen in their shoes free entry.

The “argument from disease” or “argument from armed invasion” against open borders is a complete red herring because it makes up a strawman definition of open borders. Ebola is not a reason to oppose open borders; it’s about as relevant to freedom of movement as child pornography is to freedom of speech. There will always be contagious disease and there will always be sick people perpetrating violence against innocents. To the extent possible, our governments should contain the spread of disease and punish violent criminals. This is not an excuse for our governments to visit injustice upon innocents.

An open borders regime has nothing to do with letting Ebola run rampant. A responsible open borders regime would adopt travel policies that limit the spread of Ebola to the extent possible, while minimising the impact on the mobility of innocent people who have had nothing to do with the virus — irrespective of those people’s nationality.

Sadly, the connection between “foreignness” and disease is a strong one in our minds. Take this recent story for example:

…the flight attendants surrounded the [African] woman and asked her to leave the plane (and threatened to call the airport police if she wouldn’t get off the plane)…

Let’s just be clear about some things about this woman: she was 34, felt she quite possibly could be pregnant, and lived in Boston. She’d been to Nigeria back at the beginning of the year, but came back in fine health. She felt a little nauseated; that’s it. Her eyes weren’t bleeding, she wasn’t spraying revolting fluids out of anything, she was simply a young woman trying to get home.

I was sitting next to a woman who worked at the UNC School of Public Health, who was traveling on the plane with a bunch of other colleagues who knew something about diseases and epidemics. And, interestingly, one of them, an older white man, mentioned he’d been to Liberia recently, and was technically much more of a potential ebola risk than the woman. Nobody asked him to leave the plane.

The well-intended but still harsh and ignorant prejudice these flight attendants exhibited is the exact sort of bigoted “logic” behind the Ebola-motivated arguments for closing borders. If Ebola is your true concern, then you would target those who actually pose the risk of Ebola, irrespective of their nationality.

Ebola is not a gotcha argument against freedom of movement for the same reasons that terrorism is not a gotcha argument against freedom of speech. If you are carrying a dangerous disease, or if you are engaged in armed violence against others, it doesn’t matter which country you’re a citizen of — your freedom of movement can and will be curbed. Open borders is simply about guaranteeing the inverse. If you don’t present a clear threat to anyone else, then no matter where you hail from, it is an abominable injustice for our governments to prevent you from travelling in peace.

Junk the international refugee system, and open the borders

Post by John Lee (regular blogger for the site, joined October 2012). See:

Refugee and asylum are hot topics these days, with conflict across the world and criminal violence often forcing people to set off for distant lands in search of a better life. It seems to me that most people arguing this issue operate under two misapprehensions regarding how refugee law works:

  1. They believe that refugees don’t have very particular or special rights to migrate under the law — refugees crossing a border without submitting to inspection is unlawful, and countries don’t have special obligations to accept refugees who set foot on their territory.
  2. They believe that international and domestic law adequately protects the rights of refugees, and that most of the problems to do with refugee and asylum-seeker rights originate from governments failing to adhere to their legal obligations, rather than any fundamental failing of refugee law.

Remarkably, I’ve encountered people who hold both views. Usually adherents of #1 are people who don’t know much about refugee law, and/or anti-immigration restrictionists, while adherents of #2 are generally mainstream left liberals. But there are certainly some people who appear to hold both sets of beliefs (possibly because they completely misunderstand both how refugee law works and the actual situation refugees face).

It’s actually pretty easy to debunk belief #1 — international law, and the domestic law of most developed countries (the US included) gives anyone fleeing persecution or torture the right to seek and obtain asylum outside their home country, becoming a refugee. You need to do nothing special to enter another country. If you have a legitimate refugee claim, crossing the border without initially obtaining any papers or passing any government inspection is completely legal. (If you think this doesn’t make sense, then consider that it wouldn’t make sense to prevent people from fleeing the Holocaust because their papers at the time weren’t in order.)

After you’ve left your home country and entered the country you’d like to seek asylum in, you must begin the formal process of obtaining refugee status — i.e., you have to start filling out forms and making your case for asylum. In most cases, this means a judge or other government official has to formally rule that you are a legitimate refugee. If they do, then you’re typically scot free and become a legal immigrant under the country’s immigration laws. If the judge rules you’re not a legitimate refugee — maybe the violence you fled wasn’t the right kind of violence — then you’ll be sent home.

Sometimes, you might not want to resettle permanently in the country you initially flee to. In some cases, governments, charities, and/or international bodies will help you migrate elsewhere under a formal refugee resettlement programme. This is usually centrally managed or planned by some large government or intergovernment bureaucracy.

Most countries are reluctant to help refugees resettle; the United Kingdom for example has said it will only resettle 500 refugees from Syria — a country beset by a civil war which has displaced millions of innocents. (“Displaced” of course is an euphemism for “forced millions to leave their home under the threat of murder, rape, or torture”.) As a result, the queues for resettlement are long and few refugees have any serious prospect for being resettled elsewhere — which is why most Syrian refugees are trapped in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon.

What I’ve just described is not fanciful or imagined — it’s the international refugee system as codified in international law and the domestic law of many countries. The “illegals” who show up in your waters on rickety boats or cross the desert straddling your border are, in many cases, people with legitimate asylum claims — which makes what they’re doing completely legal. They are no more wrong than a Jew fleeing the Holocaust would have been in trying to get to your country.

Now, it seems funky that I think the belief #2 I described is wrong. This system of refugee management has its flaws like any human creation, but it certainly sounds like it would, if implemented properly and in good faith, enable refugees to migrate away from persecution and violence. The line it draws between refugees and those seeking to migrate for other reasons is perhaps arbitrary, but not unreasonable on the face of it — if we had to pick and choose only one type of migrant for some reason, most of us would probably agree we ought to welcome the person fleeing murder.

But in the real world, it turns out that figuring out which side of this arbitrary line one is on can be difficult. It’s actually unclear, for example, whether child migrants to the US fleeing gang violence in El Salvador (“fleeing gang violence” here being an euphemism for “running away from people who’ve threatened to rape and then kill them”) actually legally qualify for refugee status. Even if they don’t, they arguably qualify for other protective status of some kind offered by US immigration law, but this is hardly a well-settled legal issue.

Some refugee advocates think the US government should offer special parole to these Latin American migrants, since they don’t fit any typical legal category of refugee. Others, like the UN and even the president of Honduras, argue that although they might not meet the technical definition of refugee, these people certainly fit the spirit and intention of refugee law, and should be classified as such.

Putting aside the thorny issue of child asylum-seekers for the moment, let’s reflect on the ludicrousness of the fact that most countries will not permit anyone claiming refugee status to actually legally travel there. If you enter irregularly, you can fully assert your legal right to stay — but it is illegal for you to travel in order to assert this legal right of asylum!

Say you want to fly from Guatemala to the US, or from Syria to the US, you need a visa. If you can’t prove you have the legal right to travel to the US, no airline or shipping company will issue you a ticket. Since almost all refugees can’t prove they have this right — thanks to the legal system requiring you to be present on the country’s territory to assert your asylum claim — almost all refugees and asylum-seekers are compelled to enter via irregular means, and seek out the aid of smugglers.

The refugees or migrants undertaking an arduous and dangerous journey from Somalia to Italy or Guatemala to the US do so not because they are criminals who have to resort to illegal means by virtue of their own evil — they do so because there is no legal way for them to travel to the US. Some refugees and asylum-seekers resort to other types of crime to travel in search of safety — I have heard stories of Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka flying to Western countries by faking fraudulent tourist or immigrant visas in their passports. After boarding their flight using this false documentation, they destroy the fraudulent documents, and claim asylum upon landing. This sort of fraud or human smuggling is just the perfectly-foreseeable and indefensible outcome of a legal system which criminalises the ordinary travel of people who already have the legal right to migrate.

Worse still, any good faith implementation of this legal system still must grapple with the problem of differentiating legitimate refugees from mere “economic migrants” or people seeking to reunite with family. Since international refugee law is silent about the rights of non-refugee migrants, even countries following this legal system in good faith feel free to persecute economic migrants. So if, say, the US government takes measures to deter Latin Americans from coming, this will inevitably discourage not just economic migrants. This will also discourage those who already have the legal right to migrate from exercising those legal rights accorded to them under US and international law. And there’s nothing wrong with this under refugee law, because state violence and coercion of economic migrants is perfectly fine.

To put the implications here in more concrete terms, ostensibly civilised developed countries really do try hard to intercept migrants — almost indiscriminately — before they reach their soil. If you can keep a potential asylum-seeker from touching land, then you can prevent them from ever asserting an asylum claim in the first place — even if they would be completely entitled to do so under your country’s laws. The international refugee system creates a perverse incentive to try very hard to keep refugees from coming, by offering this as a legal channel to stop them. And while states can certainly go overboard in taking harsh measures here, virtually all of them can find some ostensibly good-faith justification for doing so. After all, they aren’t intercepting these migrants for the sake of punishing refugees — they just want to stop economic migration!

This is exactly why Australia tries very hard, for example, to intercept migrants before they reach its waters, and to “process” any asylum claims offshore in countries like Nauru. While what they are doing might run afoul of the spirit of the law, Australia claims to be abiding by the exact letter of international and domestic refugee law. Similarly, the coast guards of European states like Greece and Italy often work to intercept migrants’ boats before they enter their waters — and if these boats do enter their waters, it is not unheard of for the coast guard to actually tow them back out. Such tows or “pushbacks” are actually illegal under refugee law, but there is nothing to prevent the coast guard from doing this, and there’s a very strong incentive to keep these people from touching land and asserting any claims of asylum.

Finally, the international refugee system in at least one important respect appears to be a figleaf for rich countries to disguise how they foist the responsibility for dealing with refugees onto poorer countries. Consider the present Syrian refugee crisis: millions of Syrians have been forced to flee their homes. Many of them live in camps in Syria. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and become refugees there.

Under refugee law, these people are now trapped in the country they’ve initially claimed asylum in. The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan aren’t trying to gas them to death like Bashar Assad is, nor are they trying to oppress them in the way the Islamic State is presently doing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So these people have no legal way to leave the countries they initially flee to — and Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan just have to deal with these populations.

In theory, the UN and various governments would work together to help resettle these refugees elsewhere in the world, so they don’t just burden the countries immediately next to the calamity that caused them to flee. In practice, rich countries like the UK agree to take a couple hundred refugees and call it a day.

People claim that taking refugees would overwhelm their countries. People from the West and other richer countries (like my own, Malaysia) can give all sorts of great excuses for why they cannot take in more than a few hundred refugees. But Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon had no choice but to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees — this was and is their obligation under international law. Short of the conflict ending, there is no way for these migrants to leave. If a refugee living in Jordan or Turkey tries to migrate elsewhere, they can be legally rejected and treated as a mere “illegal” — they’re just “economic migrants”, not real “refugees”, since the governments of Jordan and Turkey don’t actually try to kill these people.

I won’t argue that these countries are perfect, or that they’ve been perfectly able to cope with these inflows, but it’s plain as day that these refugee flows have not caused a humanitarian disaster to befall the nationals of these countries. I don’t see masses of Turks, Jordanians, or Lebanese starving or going without shelter because of resources diverted to caring for Syrian refugees. If these poor and relatively small countries can cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees, it is frankly absurd that far richer and larger countries like Australia, Canada, the US, or the UK — or even Malaysia — can only cope with taking in a few hundred. Yet this absurdity is exactly what the international refugee system would recommend.

The international refugee system was meant to protect the rights of refugees to seek refuge from violence. Yet the outcome has been something quite plainly different. People seeking asylum from countries like Syria or Afghanistan who are caught by Australia and “processed” offshore live in detention camps where the conditions are so terrible that they often wish they’d never come — which is likely the desired effect from the Australian government’s point of view. Children fleeing threats of rape or murder from places like Honduras are now at risk of being deported back to face their assailants, simply because they might not technically be refugees. Governments pursue harsh measures to deter channels for migration, in the name of “legitimately” excluding economic migrants, even if these harsh measures force legitimate refugees to undertake arduous and dangerous journeys which leave them at the mercy of illicit smugglers and violent criminals.

Now, of course, you could argue that it’s only “fair” to take some measures to deter economic migration, even if harming a few refugees is the resulting collateral damage. Refugee advocate Sonia Nazario vehemently demands the deportation of economic migrants. The operative assumption seems to be that these migrants aren’t fleeing “real” danger or suffering.

I’ll let journalist Stephan Faris field this one, from his book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration:

Life expectancy in [Nigeria] is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30.

If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.

And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred.

The modern refugee system at its heart is incapable of assisting many fleeing truly horrific danger and suffering.

If a murderous dictator wants to murder your child, and you’re willing to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers who specialise in human trafficking via life-threatening desert or sea routes so your child can make it to Western soil, you might be able to make a claim of asylum and save his or her life.

But if your child dies from diarrhea because his parents were forced to live in a country with terrible health infrastructure and a poor medical system, then that’s totally fair. Any attempt you might have made to bring him to a country where doctors actually know how to treat diarrhea would have been mere “economic migration” — an unlawful act!

Development economist Lant Pritchett captures the absurdity well in his book Let Their People Come:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Almost as a perfect reductio ad absurdum, Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times has compared the low mortality rates in the United States to the even lower mortality rates in Singapore to discuss the issue of less than 20,000 missing Americans — with no mention of the issue that is smaller by orders of magnitude than the missing people in any poor country.

Nothing about the modern refugee system makes sense. The way I see it, we have two choices. Either we can accept that, as much as we wish otherwise, we are little better than the governments of World War II who chose to let people fleeing violence die and suffer, in the name of “national defence” and “sovereign borders”. Or we can accept that every human being has the right to pursue a better life, as long as they are willing to pay the price to get there — the price of their ticket, and the price of lodging.

Trying to arbitrarily redefine migration as a privilege accessible only to “legitimate” refugees is no way to protect human rights. Drawing this arbitrary line is merely an excuse for tolerating government oppression of innocent migrants, even the actual refugees among them. If we really care about human rights and the rights of refugees, then we ought to just junk the international refugee system — and open the borders.

A Future Nobel Peace Prize for Open Borders: The Case?

The Nobel Peace Prize was recently awarded to two individuals working to improve the lives of children in South Asia. The winners are Malala Yousafzai, a teenage girl from Pakistan who is an advocate for girls’ education, and Kailash Satyarthi  of India, who has worked against child slavery in his country.

These are undoubtably amazing individuals worthy of acclamation, including the Nobel Peace Prize, but if Open Borders: The Case plays a major role in achieving its objective of realizing universal open borders, it will be even more worthy. The magnitude of the improvement in the lives of people around the world under open borders would surpass the accomplishments of Ms. Yousafzai, Mr. Satyarthi, and other winners of the prize.

Let’s begin by examining the potential impact of open borders on the cause of eliminating child labor compared to the impact Mr. Satyarthi has had. Mr. Satyarthi’s organization has reportedly freed about 70,000 child laborers in India, which is impressive.  However, there are more than 150 million child laborers worldwide, so his accomplishments are dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem.

Open borders, on the other hand, offers a way to pull millions of child laborers out of their predicaments. Child labor appears to be largely a function of poverty.  The United Nations notes that “poverty emerges as the most compelling reason why children work. Poor households spend the bulk of their income on food and the income provided by working children is often critical to their survival.”  Open borders would allow these families to migrate to countries with more prosperous economies where the adults could earn enough to sustain the family, while well-funded educational systems could provide the children with an education. By enabling families to escape the conditions which lead to child labor, open borders may be the best way to transform the lives of a large portion of child laborers.

In the case of girls’ education, notwithstanding Ms. Yousafzai’s incredible story and worthy efforts, it is not clear how much of an increase in the number of girls receiving an education can be realized through her and others’ advocacy and charitable work. According to the Malala Fund, 66 million girls worldwide are not in school. The recently established Fund provides resources at the local level for girls’ education in developing countries. Hopefully over time it will have a great impact, but that remains to be seen. Open borders, by providing families in developing countries access to countries that provide education equally to both genders, would allow girls to quickly acquire schooling without waiting for changes to be made in their home countries. The increase in remittances through open borders could have a similar effect in home countries.(See my previous post on how open borders could benefit women more generally.)

Similarly, in the struggle against global poverty more generally, open borders would likely surpass the accomplishments of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winners Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank. Mr. Yunus won the prize for developing micro-credit, involving loans to poor people in developing countries, “into an ever more important instrument in the struggle against poverty.”  However, as the BBC states, “the evidence for microcredit lifting people out of poverty remains highly contested.” While the BBC notes a report that found that 10 million Bangladeshis got out of poverty through microcredit over about a 20 year period, the poverty threshold was remarkably low: $1.25 a day.  Similarly, the New York Times reported that “most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.”

While the benefits of micro-credit are contested, open borders is potentially, in the words of Bryan Caplan, “the greatest remedy for poverty ever discovered.” One study suggests that under open borders, “there would be a 46% increase in wages for those who stayed in poor countries, and migrants to rich countries would see their wages rise by 157%.”  Another study suggests that open borders would increase world GDP by 50-150%, presumably with much of the increase flowing to migrants.  Migration helps migrants earn a higher income in developed countries than what they would earn in developing countries, even without a change of skills, and remittances also help.

Lant Pritchett makes a similar point when he compares microcredit and migration (as noted by Robert Guest):  “… as Mr. Pritchett points out, the average gain from a lifetime of microcredit in Bangladesh is about the same as the gain from eight weeks working in the United States.  After doing a quick calculation of the total benefit that Grameen Bank confers on its clients, he asks, mischievously: ‘If I get 3,000 Bangladeshi workers into the US, do I get the Nobel Peace Prize?'”

Open borders might also contribute to the “peace” part of the Peace Prize. Nathan Smith has argued that “open borders would facilitate world peace, by giving each nation a stake in the prosperity of other countries, where some of their own relatives live, by letting people from estranged nations meet on the territory of third countries and find out that they are not devils, and by reducing a bit the importance of just who controls what territory.”

If (hopefully when) open borders are realized, it certainly will have been the result of efforts by individuals and groups throughout the world, making assigning credit to one or two entities difficult. However, at this point in time, Open Borders: The Case is playing an important role as a repository of ideas for achieving open borders. If its work creates a chain reaction leading to open borders, it will be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize.

What should be next for the Open Borders movement?

Readers of Open Borders: The Case will have noted the slowing down of new content in the site. Is this a sign that my co-bloggers and I have lost interest in the cause? Not at all, the slowdown is but a sign that we have made the general case for open borders and are at this point working on closing up any leftover holes in the argument. This begs the question: Now that the case has been made what should the open borders movement do?

Below are some ideas of what the movement should do next. I encourage my fellow bloggers and our audience to offer their own suggestions.

In the short term:

In the immediate future my hope is that we can compile the best articles on the site and edit them into a comprehensive booklet that can be easily digested by the general public. To cut down on costs the booklet could be initially released via online format.

If possible this booklet should be translated into the major world languages in order to better reach non-English audiences. Open Borders: The Case already has a German-language sister site, Offene Grenzen, but it is not difficult to imagine the benefits of making the case for open borders in Spanish, Russian, or Chinese.

Another minor changes that we could pursue is formalizing a system to deal with media inquiries. On occasion we have received requests from media outlets or journalists and they have been resolved through proxy.  It should not be difficult to organize a ‘Press Info’ page with a general summary of the case for open borders and procedure to contact us for further inquiries.

In the longer term:

My longer term hope though is the creation of a group that actively proposes practical steps towards an open borders world to the general public and government officials. Open Borders: The Case has touched upon some possible solutions such as Nathan Smith’s Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It (DRITI) or my own proposal to use NAFTA and other trade agreements to expand the free movement of labor but more could be done. Open Borders: The Case has managed to make an elaborate case in favor of an open borders world. What we need now is a group that works on translating the case for open borders into a reality, an “Open Borders: How to Implement” group if you will.

Due to resource constraints such a group should focus on encouraging pro-immigration policies in the United States, the European Union, and Australia-New Zealand as lifting immigration barriers to these areas would do the greatest good.

Some may feel that the creation of such a group would be redundant as several pro-migrant groups already exist. However pro-migrant is not the same as pro-immigration and this leads to times where our allies favor public policies that are not necessarily reconcilable with a pro-immigration view.

There may be several professional pro-migrant advocates, but pro-immigration professionals are much rarer. This shouldn’t be confused to mean that the open borders movement is small. There are many academics, think tankers, and other policy advocates who favor open borders, but only a small fraction of them concentrate their day jobs on advancing the open border case.

I imagine that our best course of action would be to set up shop in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only is the Bay Area home to a large number of migrants, but it houses many firms with a vested interest in seeing immigration restrictions eased. As with any organization it will be important to find a reliable pool of patrons for activities and the Bay Area seems as the best option.

For an idea of how much revenue would be needed to set up shop I have compiled a listing of think tanks and similar advocacy groups in the Bay Area:


And here are figures for some think tanks and similar groups devoted to immigration issues:


Proxy offices will have to be opened up in DC, Canberra, Brussels, and elsewhere to reach government officials, but a Bay Area office should be the center piece in outreach efforts with the general public. Costs can be minimized due to the advent of telecommuting but a physical location is necessary to allow for regular events aimed at the general public and government officials to be conducted.

By all means work on Open Borders: The Case should be continued and, as I noted above, there are still a few patches in the overall argument that need to be filled. As these things are done though work should begin on creating an “Open Borders: How to Implement” group.

On Human (and Canine) Differences

How much do human beings differ from each other? I am not sure that either answer to this question– people differ a lot or people are fairly similar– systematically favors either answer to the question of open borders, but it affects how the case for or against open borders should best be made. Thus, one might plausibly argue any of the following:

1. Large Human Differences => Pro Open Borders. People are very different, so they have a lot to gain by trading with and learning from each other. Immigrants bring very different habits and cultural outlooks, which enables them to see entrepreneurial opportunities that natives miss, enjoy jobs that natives hate, and make art, cuisine, and music that will surprise and fascinate natives. Competition from immigrants is an overrated problem because immigrants won’t like the same things or have the same skills as natives do.

2. Large Human Differences => Anti Open Borders. People are very different, and cooperation works best in fairly homogeneous cultures. Cultural differences make it hard for people to understand each other, leading to conflict and/or alienation. A lack of trust will lead to higher transactions costs, weaken institutions, and make political order hard to sustain.

3. Small Human Differences => Pro Open Borders. People aren’t that different, so a developed country that embraces open borders will find it fairly easy to assimilate people from all over the world. They’ll find the local rules and protocols understandable and easy to adapt to, and other than there being a greater variety of skin colors on the street, countries will look pretty much the same after as before open borders.

4. Small Human Differences => Anti Open Borders. People aren’t that different, so open borders won’t really give rise to a rich diversity, because foreigners are basically just more of the same. The fun of learning about foreigners’ art, music, cuisine, ideas, etc. will be quickly exhausted, because the differences just aren’t that important. They’ll like the same things we do, and have or quickly acquire similar skills, so the main effect of open borders will be more competition for scarce resources, such as spots in Harvard’s entering class, or California beachfront land.

Those are just a few examples to illustrate why views of human differences should not be expected to map into views on open borders in any straightforward way. But views on human differences will tacitly or explicitly condition the open borders debate, so I want to offer an answer of sorts to this important question.

My answer takes the form of a mnemonic metaphor, summarizing a wide variety of impressions, which I think– though of course I can’t prove it, or even propose a way to test it– gives a pretty good idea of just how much human beings differ, namely: Human souls differ about as much as dogs’ bodies do. Which is to say, a lot, but we can still recognize a common human nature in all human souls, just as we can recognize canine features in all sorts of dogs, from the tiny Chihuahua…


… to the enormous Newfoundland…


Dogs come in colors from white to rust to grey to yellow to chocolate to black, but they all have four paws, nose, two ears, two eyes, and a mouth with sharp teeth. All dog breeds have tails and fur, though both of these vary in length. It’s really rather incredible that canis lupus familiaris is one species, and that such potential for phenomic diversity turned out to inhere in a certain European wolf a few thousand years back. What would the originals of that species think of the enormously varied descendants they would have, as a result of befriending a certain clever primate? Yet no one doubts that “dog” refers to a coherent category of things, or has much trouble distinguishing a dog from a cat. Likewise, one can recognize a common humanity in its manifold and extremely diverse manifestations.

Human appearances differ, I think, much less than those of dogs. No race of human beings is 10+ times larger than another race, as Newfoundlands are 10+ times larger than Chihuahuas. Facial features, e.g., nose length and ear shape, vary less. But these surface similarities mislead, and between the mild, celibate scholar and the swaggering pirate; the ascetic saint and the sultan in his harem; the decadent poet and the toiling Christian peasant; the Wahhabist fanatic and the urbane atheist; the illiterate Somali farmer and the Norwegian petroleum engineer and the Japanese salaryman; Achilles and Socrates; Genghis Khan and Samuel Johnson; King Tut and Saint Peter; Queen Victoria and Lady Gaga; the spiritual differences are, I think, roughly as great as the physical differences between a Chihuahua and a Newfoundland.

The classical list of seven virtues– courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love– provides a useful key to both the unity of human nature, and the diversity of its expressions. I am not such a cultural anthropologist as to have checked the following claims against every human culture (nor is anyone else) but I’ll nonetheless assert the following without much fear of informed and convincing contradiction:

1) Every culture admires people who can face peril or pain when they believe it is right, and disdains those who always give way to their fears. (Courage)

2) Every culture has some form of the notion of rights and/or property, of what is due to each individual, and distinguishes deserved from undeserved suffering. (Justice)

3) Every culture is familiar with the experiences of addiction and short-sighted pleasure-seeking, and encourages and applauds the willpower and self-control that enables some people to govern their passions and appetites. (Temperance)

4) Every culture respects thinking, planning, weighing evidence, and careful determination of the best means to pursue a given end. (Prudence)

5) People in every culture project certain desires onto the future, aim at them, and labor with a view to bringing them about, while regarding despondency and despair with aversion and disapproval. (Hope)

6) People in every culture hold and value beliefs not logically provable, and feel loyalties related to their own past or that of their family, their country, and/or some other community to which they (feel they) belong. (Faith)

7) People in every culture delight in contemplating, and will the good of, certain other people, as well as many other things, such as mountains, stars, trees, hearth and home, food, songs, stories, holidays and festivals, and/or God. (Love)

While all humans share courage, justice, temperance, prudence, faith, hope, and love, they clearly differ greatly in the degree to which they possess these virtues, and in the ways they express them. One man has the courage to frame a bold new theory; another to speak to a crowd; another to charge into battle; another to scale the rocky face of El Capitan. Some, perhaps, are brave in all these respects; some, certainly, are brave in none of them. Some people are cynics and skeptics, and some have fewer loyalties than others, while among those who have strong faith, it often happens that what one holds sacred, another abhors, and one man’s dogma is another’s absurdity. One man thinks it just to execute the king’s orders, another to execute the king; one, that property is nine-tenths of the law, another that it is theft. Self-control might mean no sex, but a little wine and plenty of beer, to a medieval monk; no alcohol, but plenty of sex, albeit within marriage, to a modern Mormon; and free love and booze, but no animal products, to a contemporary vegetarian leftie.

While mortals ought not to judge particular cases, experience probably has made us all vaguely aware that some people are just rather deficient in virtue, not accomplishing much or even really trying, stewing in petty resentments, without many scruples about sex or money or lying, full of baseless pride and easily offended. Beware: there but for the grace of God go we, and we are probably much closer to that wretched state than we suppose. Others have more solidity about them, and can be relied on to tell the truth, to face dangers, to think clearly, to admit faults, to be fair, to give the largest share to others, to enjoy and to praise, to resist discouragement in difficulties, and/or to work hard. Virtue shines most in the course of stories and in the face of challenges. Virtue– this is the heart of the matter– makes us more real, and it is through the exercise of virtue that we become most characteristically ourselves. The saints are gloriously different, the tyrants tediously alike. Yet while virtue brings out what is uniquely valuable in each of us and makes it shine, it also makes us converge, grow more like, make contact, and understand each other. This point is so subtle– indeed it is a kind of pinnacle of wisdom, and I would never have seen it on my own, but am borrowing it from others like David Bentley Hart and C.S. Lewis and Alasdair MacIntyre and my sister Rachel Lu, the Catholic philosopher– that I am hardly up to the challenge of giving an example. But suppose the greatest jurists from the ends of the earth were brought together: wouldn’t they be able to explain and understand one another’s systems with a degree of ease and profundity that would baffle less wise and more dogmatic minds schooled in those systems? And wouldn’t the great minds across the ages, the John Lockes and the Aristotles, understand one another better than the myriad “Aristotelians” and “Lockeans” who fill in the gaps?

Now, there are two opposite errors into which people can fall with respect to human differences. On the one hand, one may exaggerate them, and become a cultural relativist like Clifford Geertz or Margaret Mead, or in a different vein Jean-Paul Sartre, denying that there is any essential human nature, and insisting that everything we take to be fundamentally natural or true or right is simply the artifact of a particular symbolic environment, and ultimately arbitrary. No. People have much more in common than that, and human nature and virtue are objective realities.

The other error is the one I think Bryan Caplan and Michael Huemer make in trying to found a political philosophy on “common-sense morality.” The problem with this project, in a nutshell, is that common sense is not common. To elaborate on that, what the phrase “common sense” will mean to the kind of typical Westerner who is the target audience of Caplan’s blog and Huemer’s book, is not actually something that all human beings as such have in common, but is heavily informed by the historical experiences of the West, which have given rise to certain values, ideas, and assumptions. In some respects, for example in its ideas about freedom of conscience and human rights, the West really represents the best that man has been and done and thought, and Western common sense really represents a truer view of reality, including moral reality, and a fuller human flourishing, than other cultures have attained. But even then, as other cultures have not attained to Western common sense, an argument from Western common sense is premature, as it does not appeal to premises they accept, and a prior task must be to raise them to the level of Western common sense through instruction and exhortation.  In other respects, for example in much of what it says about “equality” and “democracy,” as well as in its weakness for philosophical materialism, Western common sense is a tangle of pious thinking and willful confusion that can’t stand up to serious critical scrutiny, and the modern West is inferior in wisdom and insight to the best pre-modern and non-Western thought.

If men’s souls are as varied as dogs’ bodies, and if one wishes to craft arguments that can appeal to all men, appeals to common sense morality are too local and facile. One must probe deeper and cast one’s net wider in order to learn better what human beings are, and what values and beliefs they really have in common. Only then will it be possible to make a truly universal case for open borders. I still have a doubtless very biased notion that a decent sketch of what that case would look like is contained in my book, Principles of a Free Society.

The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP — Bryan Caplan

Creative Commons License Executive Action, Not Legislative Reform, Is How U.S. Immigration Policy Gets Made Now is licensed by David Bennion under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.