Weekly OBAG roundup 23 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Artistic and literary depictions

General points related to migration and public opinion about migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates)

  • Post by Akiva Malamet, July 26, 2014, linking to Should We Welcome Open Borders?, a Foundation for Economic Education debate video between Jason Brennan and David Inserra, July 20, 2014.
  • Post by Vipul Naik, July 27, 2014, linking to a YouTube video from 1980 where Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush discuss illegal immigration, and argue in favor of freer migration between the United States and Mexico. 10 likes, 3 comments. Also reblogged by Fabio Rojas here.
  • Post by John Lee, July 26, 2014, linking to and quoting from People Flows in Globalization by Richard Freeman, Journal of Economic Perspectives, 20 (2), pages 145-170. 5 likes, 10 comments.
  • Post by John Lee linking to Nick Rowe on fiscal policy (and reply to Caplan) by Scott Sumner, EconLog, July 24, 2014, where he discusses some of his concerns related to migration. 2 likes, 2 comments.
  • Post by John Lee, July 25, 2014, linking to a discussion of pieces in the 1970s in Reason Magazine that defended apartheid as the lesser evil relative to communism. 1 like, 5 comments.
  • Post by Samuel Wilson, July 25, 2014, linking to his blog post Sumner’s Switzerland, July 25, 2014. 2 likes.
  • Post by Brian W. Ryman about the views of the United States Founders on migration. 1 like, 3 comments.
  • Post by John Lee linking to a critique of citizenism: Xenophobia and Politics by Steven E. Landsburg, Forbes, March 28, 2005. 4 likes, 1 comment

Specific current and historical situations

Site content, outreach, and meta

Weekly OBAG roundup 22 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Blegs and suggestions for artistic and literary depictions

  • Parodies of anti-immigrationists by Michael Tontchev, July 15, 2014. 4 likes, 11 comments.
  • Post by Jacob Syma asking about portrayals of immigration in media, July 17, 2014. 2 comments.

General points related to migration

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates, etc.)

Specific current and historical situations

Site content and meta

Review of Proposed Solutions for the Unaccompanied Children Crisis

Post by Michelangelo Landgrave (occasional blogger for the site, joined February 2014). See:

Proposed Solutions to the Unaccompanied Children Crisis

Yesterday Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced new legislation to stop federal funding from going towards the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA ) program as a solution to the recent surge of unaccompanied children seeking to enter the United States.

DACA is seen by several conservative groups as being the chief explanation for why there has been a recent surge in unaccompanied children attempting to enter the United States. However the surge in unaccompanied children is better explained by an increase in violence in Central America and a desire for family reunification.

Even if DACA explained the recent surge, Senator Cruz should be aware that no federal funds go towards the management of the DACA program. The DACA program is funded by user fees; currently set at $465. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which administers DACA, is unique in being funded almost entirely by user fees. If only that were the case with the rest of the federal government!

In short this means the Cruz’s proposed legislation would not affect the operation of the DACA program. It would nonetheless harm several migrants holding humanitarian statuses. The second portion of Senator Cruz’s legislative proposal is worded in such a way that it could deny work authorization to both DACA recipients and holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Senator Cruz may prefer that less humanitarian migrants reside in the United States but surely he should agree that so long as they are here it is preferable that they work to maintain themselves instead of being forced to rely on government welfare. Why then does he wish to force humanitarian migrants to rely on government welfare? So long as these humanitarian migrants are with us they should be allowed to work to pay for their own expenses and minimize taxpayer burden.

The Texan senator is not alone in granting proposals to solve the recent surge of unaccompanied children. The Obama administration has requested an additional $3.7 billion in funding to increase border enforcement, hire additional legal staff, provide for the care of these children, and other expenses. The chief problem with this proposal is that it focuses almost entirely on the short term and, as a libertarian, I’m extremely doubtful of its cost efficiency. $295 million of the emergency fund would go towards addressing long term issues driving humanitarian migration from Central America but no accountability mechanism exists and actual details of the long term plan are missing. What guarantee is there that these billions won’t end up being misused?

The Obama administration has also mused with proposals to use expedited processing for these unaccompanied children. Currently Mexican nationals receive expedited processing and are sent back almost immediately after being presented to US border patrol authorities, but non-Mexican nationals are processed differently under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA). While expedited processing may work with Mexican nationals, whose home nation borders the United States, it is less appropriate when dealing with Central Americans and other non-Mexican nationals. Significant portions of the unaccompanied children are eligible for relief under existing humanitarian migrant programs and many of them would find themselves denied access to these programs under expedited processing. The current process may take longer but that is a worthwhile price to minimize the amount of humanitarian migrants being denied entry.

The Obama administration is not alone in calling for expedited processing of the unaccompanied children. Senator David Vitter (R-Louisiana) and Congressman Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana) are introducing a new bill today which will do just that in addition to raising the bar for unaccompanied children to be granted access to a humanitarian migrant status. This is all too reminiscent of how Australia has been handling its own humanitarian migrant crisis; instead of accepting more refugees or creating programs to quicken their integration into civic life the country has pursued a policy of making it increasingly difficult for these migrants to enter lawfully. Will the US also follow in Australia’s footsteps and try to relocate these migrants into ‘a safe third party country’ like Haiti?

Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Congressman Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) have introduced a similar proposal, the HUMANE Act . Representatives Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Goodlatte (R-Virginia) have both already made a similar proposal, the Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act ; Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has a review of that particular proposal up for those interested. The text of these proposals differs only cosmetically and all suffer from the same conceit that the answer is to simply deny lawful pathways for migration.

The best response in the short run is to advocate for the Obama administration to re-designate Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador for TPS. As I have noted previously, most of Central America has received relief under the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program previously. A significant portion of Central American migrants in the US are present under the TPS program and if the Obama administration re-designated these countries then the children could enter lawfully and reunite with their families here.

TPS Designated Countries

Some might be skeptical about using TPS to resolve the present crisis; might it not encourage further waves of migrants from these countries? El Salvador and Honduras have both been TPS designated countries and are significant sources of accompanied children. Then again Nicaragua received TPS designation at the same time as Honduras and provides a negligible amount of unaccompanied children. Guatemala meanwhile has not been designated TPS eligible. Previous designation of the TPS status may have had some effect on the number of migrants trying to enter from those countries, but it begs the question of why there are so few Nicaraguans among them .

The above proposal is ultimately only a keyhole solution for the immediate future. In the long run TPS and other humanitarian statuses should be reformed to allow lawful family reunification. Contrary to what some conservative commentators believe, a significant portion of non-citizens from Central America are not illegal aliens but instead hold TPS and other humanitarian statuses. A new pathway should also be created to allow minor children to be sponsored by their extended relatives or to make adoption easier. Families will try to reunify regardless of what barriers are placed between them and it is therefore best to promote policies that provide a legal way to do so.

An earlier draft of this post was posted at California College Libertarians.

Open Borders and the Child Immigrants from Central America

Post by Joel Newman (occasional blogger for the site, joined January 2013). See:

As the arrival on the U.S. border of thousands of minors from Central America has consumed the attention of U.S. politicians and the media, open borders is rarely suggested as a policy option.  One exception is the Libertarian Party, which has issued a strong statement in favor of open borders  for these children, as well as most other would-be immigrants.  Another, noted in a previous post,  is from Ross Douthat of the New York Times: “One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket.”

As Mr. Douthat suggests, open borders would release the government from spending enormous amounts of money detaining Central American child migrants and adjudicating their cases. (President Obama is requesting billions more for these purposes.) Open borders also would help the child migrants and their families immensely.   Families could be more easily reunited and wouldn’t have to pay thousands of dollars to have their children smuggled into the U.S., and the children wouldn’t be exposed to dangers on their long journey to the border, nor would they have to endure often miserable stays in U.S. detention.  The children also could escape horrendous conditions in their home countries, without the fear that they would be deported back.

Related to the inability to consider the open borders option for these child migrants are references to the situation as a “crisis” (here and here) or a “problem.”  Apprehending, detaining, and adjudicating the children is a self-imposed policy choice Americans have made, and it is this interference with the migration flow that is creating the strain on government resources.  Without this interference, the “crisis” or “problem” wouldn’t exist for the government.  The child migrants would travel safely to the U.S., disperse throughout the country, link up with (or arrive with) family, and start new lives. Some schools may see an increase in their student populations, which would involve some strain and expense for school districts, but eventually the children, like their U.S.-born peers, would become working members of society.  (See here for information on the economic impact of immigration on the receiving country.)

Beyond these self-evident advantages of open borders in addressing the child migration flow, here are three additional thoughts about the flow and the commentary surrounding it.  The first is that given the dire conditions and limited resources for children in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, the source countries for most of the recent child migration, the U.S. should facilitate their migration, in addition to opening the borders.  Loans could be provided to families or individual children to use for air transportation to the U.S., and once families are working they could begin to repay the loans.  This support could be provided exclusively by private organizations and individuals, but in a previous post on facilitating migration, I noted that the government may be in a better position to help than private entities.  As previously mentioned, this would allow poor families to avoid ground transportation through an often dangerous Mexico.  It also would enable them to quickly escape the violence and poverty endemic in their homelands.  Graphic descriptions of the dystopian conditions in the three aforementioned countries have appeared in recent articles and reports, including the following from the New York Times about conditions in Honduras:

Narco groups and gangs are vying for control over this turf, neighborhood by neighborhood, to gain more foot soldiers for drug sales and distribution, expand their customer base, and make money through extortion in a country left with an especially weak, corrupt government following a 2009 coup… Carlos Baquedano Sánchez, a slender 14-year-old with hair sticking straight up, explained how hard it was to stay away from the cartels.  He lives in a shack made of corrugated tin in a neighborhood in Nueva Suyapa called El Infiernito — Little Hell — and usually doesn’t have anything to eat one out of every three days. He started working in a dump when he was 7, picking out iron or copper to recycle, for $1 or $2 a day.  But bigger boys often beat him to steal his haul, and he quit a year ago when an older man nearly killed him for a coveted car-engine piston.  Now he sells scrap wood.  But all of this was nothing, he says, compared to the relentless pressure to join narco gangs and the constant danger they have brought to his life.  When he was 9, he barely escaped from two narcos who were trying to rape him, while terrified neighbors looked on.  When he was 10, he was pressured to try marijuana and crack. “You’ll feel better. Like you are in the clouds,” a teenager working with a gang told him.  But he resisted.  He has known eight people who were murdered and seen three killed right in front of him. He saw a man shot three years ago and still remembers the plums the man was holding rolling down the street, coated in blood.  Recently he witnessed two teenage hit men shooting a pair of brothers for refusing to hand over the keys and title to their motorcycle. Carlos hit the dirt and prayed. The killers calmly walked down the street. Carlos shrugs. “Now seeing someone dead is nothing.”  He longs to be an engineer or mechanic, but he quit school after sixth grade, too poor and too afraid to attend.  “A lot of kids know what can happen in school. So they leave.”

The New York Times piece adds that “asking for help from the police or the government is not an option in what some consider a failed state. The drugs that pass through Honduras each year are worth more than the country’s entire gross domestic product. Narcos have bought off police officers, politicians and judges. In recent years, four out of five homicides were never investigated.”  (See also here for information on conditions in El Salvador and here for conditions in a number of countries.)

The second idea is that the emphasis that some are putting on ensuring that the child migrants receive due process to determine if they are refugees, while possibly helping some immigrants stay in the U.S., is harmful to the open borders cause.  It helps to legitimize the exclusion of those who are not determined to be refugees. Sonia Nazario, the author of the aforementioned New York Times piece  describing conditions for children in Honduras, urges the creation of refugee centers in the U.S. where the children’s cases can be adjudicated.  She emphasizes the need for officers and judges to be “trained in child-sensitive interviewing techniques” and that children be represented by a lawyer.  However, she doesn’t hesitate to condone deportation for economic child migrants: “Of course, many migrant children come for economic reasons, and not because they fear for their lives.  In those cases, they should quickly be deported if they have at least one parent in their country of origin.”  Similarly, Jana Mason, a United Nations employee, states that “… these children, if they need it, should have access to a process to determine if they’re entitled to refugee protection.  If they’re not, if they don’t meet that definition, we fully understand, then they’re subject to normal U.S. deportation or removal procedures.”  Their implied message is that if the children get a fair examination of their refugee claims, they have been treated fairly, even if they end up being deported.

So what Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason are saying is that if the only problem Carlos, the previously mentioned 14 year old, has in Honduras is that he only gets to eat two out of every three days and lives in a tin shack, he shouldn’t be allowed to emigrate to the U.S. And some children do want to migrate for economic reasons.  In a recent survey of Salvadoran children who wish to migrate to the U.S., some cite this reason for wanting to migrate.  Referring to children living in the most impoverished areas of the country, the survey’s author writes that “this desire for a better life is hardly surprising, given that many of these children began working in the fields at age 12 or younger and live in large families, often surviving on less than USD $150 a month.”  Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason also imply children shouldn’t be allowed to migrate if their sole reason is to reunite with family already in the U.S., but again many want to migrate for this reason.  According to the survey of Salvadorans, about half have one or both parents in the U.S., and about one third identify family reunification as a reason for them to migrate.

John has noted that this effort to exclude non-refugee migrants can result in the exclusion of refugees.  Notwithstanding Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason’s emphasis on a pristine asylum process, the process of identifying who qualifies can be flawed, especially if you consider the history of asylum adjudication.  As I’ve written previously, asylum is very narrowly defined under the law, and it is easy for asylum applicants to not qualify.  Furthermore, when politics intrude, asylum decisions can be tainted.  During the Cold War, asylum seekers from Communist countries were favored over those from non-Communist countries, including El Salvador and Guatemala, according to Bill Frelick and Court Robinson (International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 2, 1990)  And the recent arrival of immigrant children has become highly politicized, with “pressure on the president from all sides,” according to The New York Times.  The Times reports that “… administration lawyers have been working to find consistent legal justifications for speeding up the deportations of Central American children at the border…”  In addition, the outcome of an asylum case can depend greatly on who is adjudicating the case.  Finally, as Ms. Nazario suggests, if the U.S. doesn’t make it easier to apply for refugee status in Central America, refugees will still have to make a dangerous journey to the U.S. to even be able to apply for asylum.

The larger point is that it is immoral, with some rare exceptions, to stop people from migrating, regardless of their reason for doing so. There is, as John suggested recently, no justice in “an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth…”  Similarly, the group No One is Illegal, which supports open borders, suggests that it is morally impossible to bar some immigrants while allowing others to enter: “… the achievement of fair immigration restrictions — that is the transformation of immigration controls into their opposite — would require a miracle.”  Refugee advocates like Ms. Nazario and Ms. Mason, by emphasizing a distinction between those who deserve to be allowed to immigrate and those who do not, do harm to the effort to achieve the ability of all people to migrate freely.

The third idea is that the U.S. may bear some responsibility for the violent conditions in Central America.  In the case of Guatemala, the U.S. helped overthrow a democratic government in the 1950s, leading to a succession of repressive regimes and a civil war with massive killings of civilians by the government.  While it is difficult to prove causation, this legacy may account for some of the country’s current violence and poverty.  In addition, the U.S. deportation of Central American immigrants in the 1990s apparently has contributed to violent conditions in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  Matthew Quirk, writing in The Atlantic six years ago, explained this link:  A small number of Salvadoran immigrants formed the MS-13 gang in Los Angeles in the late 1980s,

but MS-13 didn’t really take off until several years later, in El Salvador, after the U.S. adopted a get-tough policy on crime and immigration and began deporting first thousands, and then tens of thousands, of Central Americans each year, including many gang members.  Introduced into war-ravaged El Salvador, the gang spread quickly among demobilized soldiers and a younger generation accustomed to violence.  Many deportees who had been only loosely affiliated with MS-13 in the U.S. became hard-core members after being stranded in a country they did not know, with only other gang members to rely on… MS-13 and other gangs born in the United States now have 70,000 to 100,000 members in Central America, concentrated mostly in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The murder rate in each of these countries is now higher than that of Colombia, long the murder capital of Latin America.

Finally, the Libertarian Party has pointed out that “… U.S. government policies have caused the conditions that some of these Central American children are fleeing. The War on Drugs has created a huge black market in Latin America, causing increases in gang activity and violent crime.”  (For more information on connections between the drug war and immigration, see here.)  While U.S. contributions to problems in certain countries may not support a case for open borders, it does add another layer of U.S. responsibility for doing what is just for migrants from these countries.

In conclusion, establishing an open borders policy, combined with U.S. facilitation of migration, is the only moral and pragmatic response to the influx of Central American children.  Efforts to aid only a portion of the children in their quest to stay in the U.S. are morally insufficient and help to justify immigration restrictions.

What we can learn from Glenn Beck’s humane gesture and the response

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

Glenn Beck (website, Wikipedia) is a political pundit in the United States who’s been described as a conservative with libertarian leanings. Beck has a large fan following. His shows can be quite mesmerizing, even if you don’t agree with him. He’s able to convey a mix of curiosity and honesty even when his statements are all wrong, and one often gets the sense that he’s sharing his own inner struggles with his viewers.

Beck has a streak of independence from mainstream wisdom that can be both an asset and a liability. On the one hand, this independence attracts him to conspiracy theories that most people dismiss, and that are often false, and exaggerated even when true. On the other hand, he can sometimes stick his neck out to courageously make an important and true point despite the fact that this would be detrimental to his ratings and subscriptions.

The story

In late June 2014, there were a couple of stories in The Blaze (a website owned by Glenn Beck) about Beck asking his audience to show compassion to the children who had been crossing the U.S. border illegally. His foundation, Mercury One, was accepting donations to help feed and house the children, and was targeting to raise $300,000. One article noted:

Beck has stated that the Obama administration is “directly responsible” for the recent flood of illegal immigrants from Central America. And though he believes every person who crossed into the United States illegally must be sent home, Beck and the charity he founded, Mercury One, have chosen to do all they can to help ensure the refugees have basic necessities like food and water.

An earlier article noted:

Beck said the American people have to make a choice. They could “run down to the border” and secure it themselves, but “that doesn’t fix the humanitarian crisis, and we have to err on the side of humanity.”

“If we’re going to be Americans, a choice has to be made. And we always make the right choice,” Beck said. “As people, we always do. We would rather extend ourselves and see the life of a child protected than err on the side of being silent, still, and [seeing] harm come to a child. … Acting in a compassionate way is what makes us human. It’s what makes us Americans.”

Beck said the tens of thousands illegal immigrants flooding our border “have to be sent home,” but that we can’t stand by while so much suffering is happening “on our side of the border.”

“I’m not talking about, we’re going to send them into our cities,” Beck said. “I’m saying, can we please get them port-o-potties? Can we get them portable showers? Can we feed them? You want to show the world what it means to be an American? Then let’s do that. Let’s put the well-being of others on the highest pedestal.”

On July 8, 2014, The Blaze published an article by Erica Ritz about Glenn Beck’s announcement that he would be “bringing tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears and soccer balls to McAllen, Texas on July 19 as a way to help care for some of the roughly 60,000 underage refugees who have crossed into America illegally in 2014.” Here’s the video segment:

Issue Hawk noted (based off of the same video):

Beck plans to go to the border on July 19, bringing with him, according to Mediaite.com, “tractor-trailers full of food, water, teddy bears, and soccer balls.” He will be joined by religious leaders and two Congressmen who could stand a lesson or two in compassion, Reps. Mike Lee of Utah and Louie Gohmert of Texas. He then said this decision has cost him money (vis-à-vis subscriptions/donations) and garnered “violent” hate mail from his audience.

Beck’s attitude on immigration is much different than is currently espoused on conservative media. “The best way to secure our borders and to make America a safe place,” he says, “is to make it accessible to all those fleeing poverty, oppression, and violence. Anybody in search of a better life.” He mocked those (like Sarah Palin) who claim that this is solely the President’s fault (or part of a secret agenda).

Beck’s announcement met with a lot of critical pushback in the comments on the Blaze story, mostly expressing strong disapproval of Beck for lending any sort of helping hand to the “illegals”. It was also covered in a few other sources:

  • The Huffington Post also published the story, and responses there were mixed: some viewed Beck’s approach as cynical and insincere, some expressed reactions similar to those common on the Blaze, and some expressed admiration of Beck.

  • Gawker covered the story with the title Glenn Beck Angers Conservatives by Being Humane to Immigrants, pointing out how Glenn Beck’s humane gesture got heavy pushback from conservatives, including legislators.

  • Jonathan Topaz covered the story in an article titled What Glenn Beck fears could destroy him for Politico, July 9, 2014.

  • Over at Big Journalism, John Nolte offered a more sophisticated criticism of Glenn Beck, arguing that showing compassion to the illegal immigrants only incentivized more of them to cross, and to risk their lives in the dangerous journey. While his own criticism was prima facie reasonable, Nolte seemed oblivious to the statements of other critics of Beck, as evidenced in this paragraph (emphasis mine):

    Beck’s desire to help kids caught in a geopolitical crossfire through no fault of their own is laudable. We all want to help. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that it’s wrong to use American taxpayer dollars to feed, house, and offer medical care to these children. No one opposes that.

    Beck thinks more needs to be done.


  • In a post on Hot Air titled Glenn Beck, the border crisis, and the Republican Party’s empathy gap, Noah Rothman argued that conservatives had the problem of being and/or giving the impression of lacking empathy for suffering people, and Glenn Beck’s gesture was a good counterexample, but the pushback against him illustrated the problem again. He also pointed out many instances of lack of left-wing empathy, but said that conservatives needed to take more proactive steps to turn the narrative around.

  • In a post titled Glenn Beck Trucking Supplies to Border for Illegal Immigrants, Surprising People Who Base Their Opinions on Stereotypes at Reason‘s Hit and Run blog, Ed Krayewski wrote:

    Beck appears to be the only prominent figure, left or right, interested enough in the crisis at the border to do something himself and not just use it as a political opportunity to push for his preferred policy solutions. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to Beck over the years.

  • In an article titled What Glenn Beck Got Right About The Border Crisis in The Daily Caller, July 11, 2014, Matt K. Lewis praised Beck’s humanitarian decision, and also noted:

    Personally, there are a lot of things I like about what Beck is doing. Conservatism shouldn’t be just about politics, and, of course, it isn’t. Conservatives (even the evil Koch brothers!) tend to be charitable — at least, in terms of giving money.

    Nolte argues that Christian charity should be done in secret, and to a certain extent, I agree. But isn’t there something to be said for leaders who are willing to set a positive public example? Isn’t there something gained from Glenn Beck challenging his audience to put aside politics and anger — and instead react to a humanitarian crisis simply as humans and people of faith?


    Additionally, isn’t it possible that Beck and Gohmert and Lee will — having seen the plight of these refugees — come away changed or have a different perspective? One wonders how bad things must be in Guatemala or Honduras for a mom and dad to pay a coyote to smuggle their child into a foreign land. Perhaps this will result in some introspection.

The analysis

  1. Whether Beck’s approach will actually help the children he intends to help, and whether his method of doing so is cost-effective, are questions I have no idea on. I am generally skeptical of gifts in kind, and I also have no reason to believe that Glenn Beck has a good track record of effective use of charitable donations. Finally, even if it were effective, an altruistic donor should still compare it against other, perhaps even more cost-effective ways of doing good. I have no specific evidence against Glenn Beck, but my general Bayesian prior suggests it’s highly unlikely to be a good place to donate money.

  2. The main value of what Beck is doing is symbolic: it raises the status of the issue, and makes the point that private individuals can (and arguably should) extend a helping hand. It elevates the humanity of migrants over their “illegal” status. Seeing a major figure (hitherto) respected by a large number of restrictionists make this point publicly has huge value, even if his specific actions are not that helpful.

  3. Of course, one can read this cynically and say that Beck is just looking for publicity, perhaps sacrificing short-term financial interest for long-term gains with a new demographic or target audience. Another possibility is that Beck was influenced by a big donor who made donations to Mercury One conditional to Beck using the money to take these actions (Beck does indeed mention an anonymous donor who gave $100,000, but there’s no evidence that the donor provided explicit input to Beck’s decision). I don’t have enough inside information to know the extent to which either of these is true. However, it is largely irrelevant to the analysis here: I’m interested more in the symbolism of the action itself rather than Beck’s possible ulterior motives.

  4. On the other hand, as my co-blogger John Lee pointed out eloquently a few days ago, the issue is primarily one of justice, not compassion. The presumption of freedom of movement across borders should be built on basic rights rather than on special pleading based on extenuating circumstances. The Libertarian Party agrees, saying:

    Ultimately, the fact that many of these children are fleeing dangerous situations isn’t the issue. Even if they were coming to the United States for fun, we should still allow them to enter. All foreigners should be allowed entry into the United States unless the government can produce positive evidence that they pose a threat to security, health, or property.

    Beck, on the other hand, seems to be motivated largely by compassion. He urges us to “err on the side of humanity” and says that when America is no longer good, it stops being great. So clearly, Beck is quite far from an open borders advocate. But compassion can be an important first step in recognizing the humanity of other people. This isn’t to say that restrictionists don’t recognize the humanity of potential migrants in theory, but many of them seem to forget it in practice or deprioritize it relative to other considerations. By highlighting the issue, Beck is trying to force people to more explicitly confront the dilemma. Some, like John Nolte, rise to the challenge by arguing that the treatment of migrant children is unfortunate but is the lesser of two evils. The more common response in the comments is to continue to refuse to confront the dilemma, and to shout Beck down.

  5. All that said, Nolte’s general class of criticism is correct in a broad sense, although it may very well not apply here. Namely, being more welcoming to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization. On the other hand, raping people who crossed borders without authorization reduces the incentive to cross borders without authorization. Offering amnesty to people who crossed borders without authorization increases the incentive to cross borders without authorization, whereas shooting them on sight reduces the incentive. It may well be the case that the primary reason for the recent surge of child migrants was worsening conditions in Central America. At least that’s what Dara Lind suggests on Vox.com. The other hypothesis is that a 2008 law passed to protect sex slaves has meant that children are less likely to be deported, and therefore incentivizes more child migration (more here). Whatever the reason, there should be a Bayesian prior that changes to the level of welcome at the margin affect migration decisions.

  6. The above leads us to two closely related contradictions in the compassionate moderate approaches to migration championed by progressives and Glenn Beck. First off, it isn’t very logically consistent to show compassion to migrants once they have crossed the border, while having little concern for those outside (cf. territorialism). The inconsistency is even weirder if you simultaneously think of illegal immigration as morally wrong. Think about it: you’re saying that if somebody who does not matter does an action you consider immoral, he or she starts mattering a lot more! Related to the moral contradiction is the practical implication: territorialist compassion incentivizes more illegal immigration, thereby heightening the contradiction with continued emphasis on border security and the rule of law. These points were made by co-blogger Nathan Smith here and Joel Newman here.

  7. What I find personally heartening about Glenn Beck’s thinking is that even though he is clearly far from open borders, he is employing some of the core elements of reasoning used in establishing the open borders presumption, and his thinking appears to be evolving fast. As the quotes above show, on June 25, he was putting emphasis on the fact that after feeding people, it was important to send them home. But by July 8, he had dropped explicit reference to sending people home, and even suggested that, in an ideal world at least, the United States should be open to people fleeing poverty and oppression. This does not mean he favors open borders in the current world, but he seems to have acknowledged a presumption of freedom of migration, even if very vaguely and in passing. What’s perhaps even more encouraging is that this rhetorical shift occurred despite significant pushback from his fan following. Whatever Beck’s inner views, the fact that he saw an opportunity to evolve in a direction opposite to what his audience was incentivizing him to do suggests that his public statements on the issue might continue to try to push his audience to think of the humanity of migrants.

    All in all, I don’t expect Beck to become a champion of open borders any time in the near future. The best-case scenario I consider plausible is that he acknowledges a presumption of free movement, but rather than actively campaigning for it, blames politicians in a vague way for politicizing the issue for personal electoral interest. If pressed, he might retort with some of the reflexive libertarian retorts against open borders. Of course, I’d be happy if I were wrong about this and Beck went all the way to open borders, if he could do so while still retaining at least something of a public presence.

    At the same time, I consider it quite unlikely that Beck’s views, or his choice of emphasis, will move in a more restrictionist direction. It’s very hard to stake out a humanitarian position and then return to “illegal”-bashing rhetoric. Even if he wanted to, I think Beck (or anybody else, for that matter) would find it hard.

  8. Beck’s admittedly limited, confused, and compassion-heavy moves will probably do more for the open borders cause than other, more minor, political pundits (such as John Stossel or Andrew Napolitano) who embrace open borders far more completely. That’s because Beck connects with a larger audience at an emotional level. And going by Wikipedia views and Google Trends, Glenn Beck appears to be the most read-about and most searched-about pundit among top American television and radio pundits. Rush Limbaugh (website, Wikipedia) is the only other figure who performs comparably. So Beck is in a position to influence a lot more people than most pundits.

    There may be a lot of visible pushback against him right now, but Beck has set a precedent and next time around, there will be more open support for him from within the conservative flank (cf. Asch conformity experiments). Even if Glenn Beck fades out as a pundit himself (due to this issue or any other), it’s likely that future firebrands will pick up where he left.

Weekly OBAG roundup 21 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Blegs and suggestions for artistic and literary depictions

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific observations (including links to videos, debates, etc.)

Specific current and historical situations

Site and community meta

I don’t care about immigration sob stories. This is about justice, not compassion

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

To many, even those sympathetic towards it, I imagine liberalising immigration policy is just another pet bleeding heart cause — similar to saving the environment, helping battered women, aiding the homeless, etc. It can seem arrogant of open borders advocates to compare our cause to historical antecedents such as the abolition of slavery or apartheid. And I get these sentiments — in fact, I quite agree with them on a very fundamental level.

In the daily news, it’s rare to not come across a photograph or story of some activists fighting for an immigration-related cause. Sometimes it’s for the cause of allowing immigrants in the US to get in-state university tuition benefits; other times, it’s protesting the detention of asylum-seekers (whether in the US, UK, Australia, or elsewhere); most commonly, it’s a protest, somewhere in the US, demanding the cessation of deportations. Recently, the cause celebre has been, of course, the problem of children migrating to the US. Now, to be fully honest with you, I often look at these pictures and read these stories, and feel that I just don’t care.

Now, of course I do care very much about the issues at stake here: I spend a lot of time writing about open borders, for pete’s sake! So why do I read about immigration in the news and just go “meh”?

To add to the puzzle, this is actually a very personal and emotional issue for me. It’s impossible, actually, for me to understand migration without reference to emotion and personal experience. As a child, I lived for years knowing that my mother could be deported if she and my father were to separate, or even if she were to be widowed, thanks to my country’s immigration laws. As a student in the US, I wondered whether I’d ever be able to get a job here, with visa laws effectively banning me from taking a job outside investment banking or management consulting. And now as a US resident, I’ve seen my friends — and even my girlfriend — be forced to leave this country, thanks to its patently ridiculous laws.

So why then my disconnect from all these stories? My epiphany came when I read a story in the Washington Post about an American woman bidding her Bangladeshi husband farewell before his impending deportation. I’ve felt the same fears and worries they do and lived through similar frustration and farewells thanks to arbitrary immigration controls. I could put myself in their shoes.

Now this actually made me despair further: how can advocates of liberal migration laws win people’s hearts and minds with sob stories like these? Hardly any citizens will ever face the violent force of their own governments’ exclusionary immigration policies. How can citizens begin to care about the effects of their immigration laws, let alone be moved to support changing them? How, when even someone like me — one who deeply cares about immigration and demands open borders – can only be affected by a story that’s personally connected to my own?

Then, I read this comment on the Washington Post article:

Sorry, but she is making a choice here and it is not for her husband. If she is placing all these things before him, then it cannot be helped. If I were in her shoes there would be no way that I would not be on that plane with my spouse. I might miss Kansas, but I would make the necessary arrangements and I would be at his side.

Our actions reveal where are loyalties lie, and this lady appears to be more concerned with living in Kansas and the job she loves and all the rest, than in being with the man whom she married.

My reaction to this was anger. I fumed. To restate the cold logic here: “If the government forces your husband to live in a strange country where there are no jobs for you or him, and you choose to keep your job and the home you’ve both shared for decades, you clearly just love money and comfort more than your husband.” Pretty easy to say this when you’ve never had the government kick your partner out of the country — as has actually happened to me and to many of my friends.

After I calmed down, I asked myself why a commenter might react to the story in this manner. As a general rule, people are not randomly vindictive. So why the harsh reaction aimed at this woman and her husband? The obvious answer is that the commenter did not think to question the justice system’s decision to exclude someone; if the system has decided, the decision must be correct. Justice must be served.

But why is it that we don’t think to question the justice of this system? Why does this story not move us to ponder whether the law here was just? Why do the journalists and activists putting these stories out there not explicitly question the justice of an immigration system which arbitrarily excludes innocent people purely because of their condition of birth?

I’ve come to think that the reason I don’t care when I see pictures of hunger strikers protesting deportations, or picketers demanding immigrant access to certain benefits, and so on, is because these stories have always been framed in terms of compassion – not justice.

This is not to say I consider myself heartless or lacking compassion, although I am not in any place to judge myself. Rather, it is that when I read about stories which don’t directly affect me, it is simply difficult to relate to them on an emotional level. And when these stories try to engage me by asking me to feel compassion for those affected, I only feel a sense of weariness.

There are a million causes in the world, and almost all of them seem to be asking for my compassion when I open the daily papers. Today it’s genocide in Darfur; tomorrow it’s children being kidnapped in Nigeria; next week, it might be people rendered homeless in the wake of a natural disaster (tsunami? hurricane? earthquake?); next month, perhaps another school shooting. I don’t have the time or energy to be emotionally invested in every single one of these issues.

And to the degree that I might choose to invest my emotions, there’s no particularly compelling reason to choose immigration as my humanitarian cause du jour over, say, victims of domestic violence or poaching endangered animals. You can tell me all the reasons why I ought to care more about immigration, but if you have to give me a 21-point list of reasons why I ought to care — if your sob story cannot speak for itself — then you’re not likely to win me over.

It may strike one as galling to so baldly rank and prioritise humanitarian or compassionate causes, but this is exactly what all of us as citizens and individuals do all the time. Virtually every one of these activism stories pulls at the humanitarian, compassionate angle, but none of us has the time to devote to more than a handful of such issues.

Now, the compassionate angle I think actually works especially well for many causes. But I think for migration it seems singularly unlikely to work; if anything, it can easily become counter-productive. Unlike with a cause like animal rights or famine relief — almost everyone’s played with a pet or felt the pangs of hunger before — few of us have experienced the feeling of being persecuted by the state under the aegis of arbitrary immigration laws. You can’t count on your audience to share the emotional experiences you might have as a migrant, activist, or journalist who has personally seen the horror of arbitrary immigration laws.

When you play up the compassionate angle in the story of a victim of deportation, what are you asking for? Unlike with many humanitarian causes, you are not asking for charitable donations. Rather, you are asking people to demand a change or an exception to settled law.

Now, we can certainly demand that laws be changed on compassionate or humanitarian grounds. But how convincing is this? If people believe the justice system has found someone guilty of a crime, are they going to believe the criminal ought to get clemency simply because we ought to have compassion for the criminal? In an ideal world, this could perhaps be true. But in the real world, people believe that if you’re a criminal, you ought to pay the price set by the justice system.

As a result, the constant framing of immigration as a question of compassion perplexes me. This is like asking for a slave to be set free, not because laws permitting slavery are barbaric and need to be repealed, but because poor Uncle Tom really needs to be free, and oh isn’t it such a shame that in this case the law is irrationally separating him from his family?

I mean, yes, the law is inhumane and barbaric and evil — but that’s the whole point! Asking for compassionate special pleading on purely humanitarian grounds, without ever questioning the barbaric law that is in place, simply throws your entire case away. Somehow, this is the modus operandi in how immigration activists campaign for liberal reforms!

Put more bluntly, the case for more liberal migration laws, and yes, open borders, cannot rest on compassionate grounds. Yes, one can make such a compassionate case. But there are a million things needing our compassion. What makes immigrants so special?

The point is not that immigrants are special. No, the point is that immigrants are just like you and me. The point is that our law owes them justice, same as the law owes any and all of us. We cannot use the force of law to exclude people from society in an unjust manner. We cannot allow our government to perpetrate injustice and oppression in our name.

That’s what makes immigration and open borders so compelling to me. I don’t see immigrants as some group in need of special pleading or special compassion from me or the government. I see migrants as ordinary people who, same as anyone else, need to be treated justly. The reason I care so much about this issue is not because I feel immigrants need my special attention — although I think there is a case for more compassion towards those who are strangers in our land. I simply believe that immigrants, like all of us, are entitled to just treatment under the law.

Rohingya being deported from Bangladesh

Immigration reform and open borders are not about making life better for a special, deserving class of people. They are about abolishing systems of injustice which unjustly oppress ordinary people. The woman who loses her deported husband does not need our compassion; she does not need a special exemption from our irrational laws. What she needs, what millions of others like her need, is justice.

Weekly OBAG roundup 20 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

General observations about migration, its morality, and its effects

Opinions of others about migration: general points

Opinions of others about migration: specific individuals (includes links to videos, debates, etc.)

Site meta

The inaugural issue of Peregrine, and the citizenistic case for migration liberalization

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

The Hoover Institution recently started a new online journal called Peregrine on immigration to the United States (website, Wikipedia). The journal is part of the Hoover Institution’s Conte Initiative on Immigration Reform. Judging by its inaugural issue, the journal seems to lean in a pro-freer-migration direction, but with a citizenistic focus. In particular, there’s an emphasis both on keyhole solutions and on a preference for high skill, ideas that are perhaps more common among technocrats, policy wonk types, and part-of-the-way-free-market intellectuals (compared to hardcore libertarians, civil rights-oriented people, and people with a more progressive/egalitarian bent).

I’m going to look at some of the pieces in their inaugural issue to better illuminate the distinctions between the open borders position and moderate immigration reform ideas.

The survey

The inaugural issue includes a survey of 38 members of the Hoover Working Group on what type of change to United States immigration policy they would prefer. The following are the results (more on the linked page):

  • 89% favored a switch to a more merit-based immigration system ceteris paribus (i.e., for any given number of admitted immigrants, they favored a more merit-based allocation than the current system).
  • 86% favored additional merit immigrants.
  • 72% favored unlimited green cards for scientists.
  • 65% favored an “equilibrium bond”.
  • 63% favored limiting the number of family-based green cards issued, holding the total number of immigrants admitted constant.
  • 58% favored an equilibrium market.
  • 57% favored a long-term green card, allowing for unlimited green cards but a longer path to citizenship.
  • 38% favored restrictions on green cards that vary cyclically with economic conditions in the US.
  • 36% favored open borders subject to “a background check and some kind of assimilation test such as English proficiency and knowledge of U.S. history.”

It’s worth noting that this is probably not a scientific sample, and the selection bias makes it unrepresentative even of the technocratic or policy wonk world. It’s still interesting that over a third of the respondents favored (essentially) open borders, and many other favored fairly expansive keyhole solutions, particularly for high-skilled workers. For the US population as a whole, the comparable number according to the World Values Survey was 7%. In fact, according to the WVS, the highest proportion for “let anybody come” across all First World countries was 18%, found in Sweden. The disparity between the views of the experts surveyed by Hoover and the general public is consistent with the general economist consensus in favor of freer migration and the fact that smart and more informed opinion tends to be more supportive of migration liberalization.

The survey was also discussed in an Open Borders Action Group post.

John Cochrane’s article

University of Chicago financial economist John H. Cochrane (blog, Wikipedia) penned a piece for the inaugural issue answering the question What is the Optimal Number of Immigrants to the US? He republished the piece on his own blog, and it was picked up across the blogosphere (for instance, here, here, and here).

Prima facie, Cochrane’s argument and conclusion seem quite closely aligned with the typical arguments of open borders advocates. Cochrane notes that the United States is nowhere close to being saturated. He points out that asking for the optimal number of immigrants is the wrong question.

But Cochrane’s framing quickly shifts to the citizenist case for open borders. Cochrane (emphasis mine):

What is the optimal number of imported tomatoes? Soviet central planners tried to figure things out this way. Americans shouldn’t. We should decide on the optimal terms on which tomatoes can be imported, and then let the market decide the number. Similarly, we should debate what the optimal terms for immigration are – How will we let people immigrate? What kind of people? – so that the vast majority of such immigrants are a net benefit to the US. Then, let as many come as want to. On the right terms, the number will self-regulate.

In the rest of Cochrane’s essay, where he considers different sorts of keyhole solutions, he toggles between pointing out what he (and many open borders advocates on this site) view as a problem with the use of state power for citizenistic goals and continuing to make the citizenistic case for open borders with keyhole solutions. For instance, he begins by critiquing the moral view that underpins nationally based welfare states, but is quick to stop and switch to offering keyhole solutions:

Why fear immigrants? You might fear they will overuse social services. Morally, just why your taxes should support an unfortunate who happened to be born in Maine and not one who happened to be born in Guadalajara is an interesting question, but leave that aside for now. It’s easy enough to structure a deal that protects the finances of the welfare state. Immigrants would pay a bond at the border, say $5,000. If they run out of money, are convicted of a crime, don’t have health insurance, or whatever, the bond pays for their ticket home. Alternatively, the government could establish an asset and income test: immigrants must show $10,000 in assets and either a job within 6 months or visible business or asset income.

When it comes to concerns about suppressing the wages of natives, he starts off with reviewing the empirical social science, then switches to the moral argument, and finally offers potential keyhole solutions:

You might fear that immigrants compete for jobs, and drive down American wages. Again, this is not demonstrably a serious problem. If labor does not move in, capital – factories and farms — moves out and wages go down anyway. Immigrants come to work in wide-open industries with lots of jobs, not those where there are few jobs and many workers. Thus, restrictions on immigration do little, in the long run of an open economy such as the US, to “protect” wages. To the extent wage-boosting immigration restrictions can work, the higher wages translate into higher prices to American consumers. The country as a whole – especially low-income consumers who tend to shop at Wal-Mart and benefit the most from low-priced goods – is not better off.

And finally, if it did work, restricting labor benefits some American workers by hurting Mexican workers. Is it really America’s place in the world to take opportunities from poor Mexicans to subsidize our workers’ standard of living? We are a strange country that rigorously prohibits employment discrimination “because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent….” and then requires such discrimination because of, well, birthplace.

But if that’s a worry, fine. The government could license protected occupations such that only US citizens can hold the protected occupational licenses. Too intrusive? Well, that’s what we’re trying to do by keeping people out, and good policy is not produced by putting nice appearances on nasty policies.

Overall, Cochrane comes off as somebody who has all the trappings of an open borders advocate, but whose frame of approaching the issue is still dominated by mainstream terms of discourse. In particular, he seems to grant a lot to citizenism as a framework to argue within, and rarely makes moral, rights-based arguments for the right to migrate. This would probably make him more appealing to the technocrats and policy wonks reading him, and would probably also earn him praise from some of the critics of this site such as occasional commenter Christopher Chang.

Sidenote: Cochrane sounds remarkably similar to Bryan Caplan back in 2007. Caplan seems to since have evolved in his presentation style to focus more on rights-based arguments and a more universal, big-picture perspective (as evidenced here and here). It’s possible that Cochrane will evolve in a similar direction if he spends more time reflecting on migration over the coming years. Indeed, as my co-blogger John Lee noted, Cochrane’s addendum when he republished the piece on his own blog suggested that he was already shifting in the direction of making the moral case more forcefully. I also posted about the parallels between Cochrane’s piece and Caplan’s early writing to the Open Borders Action Group, but it hadn’t gotten any comments there at the time of publishing this piece.

Richard Epstein’s article

Though not as radical as Cochrane, University of Chicago and New York University law scholar Richard Epstein (Wikipedia) also pushed back at the idea that numerical limits on immigration were the right way to go. Reflecting his classical liberal and legal background, Epstein suggested instead trying to come up with a clear criterion defining what sort of potential immigrant might be let in. His own view was that the criterion should be tailored so that the marginal immigrant did not pose a significant burden on the country. On the whole, he was optimistic about the possibility of coming up with criteria that eliminate the need for long queues without hurting the interests of the United States:

Immigration rules should not envision in advance some quota on the number of persons who will be allowed in on permanent visas. They should avoid patterning principles. Rather, the rules should set out the test by which individuals should be allowed into the country.

Here is one example. Suppose that it is thought that individuals should be allowed into the United States if they can prove that they can support themselves in the country for a period of say three years. The appropriate rules in question then could ask that individuals seeking immigration gain a certificate of prospective employment from a domestic party. It may well be that the initial permit will be subject to modification if the immigrant loses the job, changes the job, changes marital status or whatever. But for these purposes, the key step is the first one. Once the basic test is established, then let the number of immigrants take care of itself: an equilibrium in which those who can meet the test get in, those who do not, do not get it.

One caveat to this proposal is that this three-year period need not be set into stone. A second caveat to this proposal is that it might not work at all. Neither caveat gets us back to a system of quotas and targets. It could be that the leading indicator for immigration practice should be something other than a promise of employment. But whatever the test, this country is large, and so long as the proposed standards are not perverse, we should let the numbers take care of themselves.

The rest

The remaining articles in the inaugural issue were less radical, and perhaps a better reflection of the conservative/classical-liberal/technocratic/policy-wonk approach (as opposed to both the egalitarian/progressive and hardcore libertarian approaches). Here’s a brief summary:

  • Clint Bolick of the Goldwater Institute recommends increasing work-based migration and limiting family migration to only the nuclear family.
  • Lanhee Chan recommends a more rational approach that reduced the long queue for green cards, but did not provide clear specifics of just how far to push in the direction of liberalization.
  • Beth Ann Bovick recommends a shift to work-based and skills-based migration so that migration could help with the recovery and growth of the United States economy.


Overall, the survey findings as well as individual essays provide additional confirmation of the economist consensus in favor of freer migration (see also here), while also confirming that even economically informed and aware people are not open borders advocates. They see the arguments for freer migration, but don’t think of open borders as feasible. And they concede citizenistic goals, so the main reason they are more pro-migration is largely that their economic literacy causes them to be more optimistic about the benefits of migration to citizens.

More Thoughts on Climate Change and Open Borders

Post by Joel Newman (occasional blogger for the site, joined January 2013). See:

In 2012 Nathan suggested that the negative impacts of climate change likely “… will fall disproportionately on poor countries…” but that the ability of residents of those countries to migrate to more prosperous countries would allow them to escape “… possible humanitarian catastrophes.”  He concluded that “if we are altering the climate, we need to adapt to that, and migration, moving from the areas most damaged by environmental change to the areas most favored by it, is one of the most powerful instruments of adaption available.”  Open borders would provide a means for people to escape Third World countries like Bangladesh and island nations in the Pacific which are likely to be negatively affected by global warming.  In this post I will examine additional aspects of the relationship between climate change and open borders.

First, the ability to emigrate from advanced countries may be important in the future if climate change severely impacts those countries.  In a previous post I observed that open borders would be beneficial to citizens of advanced countries by allowing them to access opportunities outside of their home countries.  This availability to move to other countries would be especially important in certain climate change scenarios. In the book American Exodus, Giles Slade states that severe droughts, heat waves, forest fires, superstorms, and other adverse weather events associated with climate change will lead to many lost lives and expensive damages in the U.S.  (A recently released report also discusses the negative impact of climate change on the American economy. )  He predicts that “… as America’s Southwest dehydrates and its northeastern shorelines erode… many more human migrants will seek out cooler climes and higher ground.  Canada, of course, is the obvious destination for Americans suffering from the increasingly ‘hot, flat and crowded’ conditions of the United States in the 21st century.” (p. 221)  While the book hints that areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska could serve as refuges for Americans in this scenario, open borders would provide Americans another sanctuary in Canada.  Open borders also might be essential to residents of other advanced countries who might be threatened by climate change, such as those living in southern Europe and Australia.

Second, climate change can drive migration, but migration from developing countries to developed ones also might drive climate change.  Vipul has noted that some argue that “if open borders prevailed, many people would migrate to the developed world, and their resource consumption would increase dramatically… It could exacerbate problems of resource scarcity as well as global warming.”  This argument that open borders would accelerate global warning needs to be thoroughly addressed.

One response to the argument is that it is unjust to have a de facto policy of keeping would-be migrants poor by preventing them from moving to an advanced country.  The Immigration Policy Center observes that “blaming immigrants for climate change suggests that less-developed countries should stay that way… Based on this logic, unauthorized immigration isn’t the problem, increased wealth and international development are.”  In an effort to combat global warming, should there be a global campaign to keep the residents of developing nations poor and to impoverish residents of advanced countries?  If this idea is outrageous, how is it acceptable to single out a specific group, residents from poor countries wishing to migrate to advanced ones, for such treatment?

Another possible response to the argument is that, as Nathan points out in his post, since some regions could benefit from global warming  and so long as the world has open borders, people can adapt to the accelerated warming caused by migration through further migration, like the idea of Americans emigrating to Canada.  Klaus  Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, who have researched the economic impact of global warming, write that even in extreme scenarios of climate change, “… the overall welfare effect of climate change is negligible.  Although agricultural productivity declines in some places, it increases in others.  As long as the world can trade and people can move, the impact is minimal.”  However, they note that in “very extreme” scenarios, “things could turn disastrous… welfare would decline precipitously.”

So could we have open borders without the risk that the world could warm up too much?  Apparently, yes. Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA, highlights the current different environmental impacts between those in advanced and developing countries and the implications of higher levels of consumption by individuals residing in poorer countries.  He states that “the average rates at which people consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases, are about 32 times higher in North America, Western Europe, Japan and Australia than they are in the developing world.  That factor of 32 has big consequences.”  He also notes that “what really matters is total world consumption, the sum of all local consumptions, which is the product of local population times the local per capita consumption rate.”  Not surprisingly, “people who consume little want to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle.  Governments of developing countries make an increase in living standards a primary goal of national policy.  And tens of millions of people in the developing world seek the first-world lifestyle on their own, by emigrating, especially to the United States and Western Europe, Japan and Australia.  Each such transfer of a person to a high-consumption country raises world consumption rates, even though most immigrants don’t succeed immediately in multiplying their consumption by 32… if the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold.  It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people.”

However, Mr. Diamond apparently does not promote restricting migration as a solution.  Instead he sees the solution residing in the more intelligent use of resources.  He states that “we could have a stable outcome in which all countries converge on consumption rates considerably below the current highest levels… whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.  Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates.  Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life.  For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion…”  He notes fisheries and forests could be managed sustainably, though most are not. He predicts that “within most of our lifetimes we’ll be consuming less than we do now” and “per capita consumption rates in many developing countries will one day be more nearly equal to ours.  These are desirable trends, not horrible prospects.  In fact, we already know how to encourage the trends… I am cautiously optimistic.  The world has serious consumption problems, but we can solve them if we choose to do so.”

Similarly, an article on the website for the Center for American Progress  notes that “for years, anti-immigrant groups have waved the green flag to push a xenophobic agenda… And while there is a relationship between population growth and environmental destruction, it is a complex one.  Environmental impact is determined not just by our numbers, but by how we use our resources—our systems of production and consumption and the policies that shape them… it’s crucial to reduce consumption in the affluent countries, by, for example, investing in mass transit and ‘green’ urban planning that can reduce the environmental impact (and greenhouse gas emissions) of large, growing cities.”

Increased immigration could actually reduce consumption rates in host countries.  Vipul posits that the increased population density that open borders would create in advanced countries with relatively low density, such as the U.S. and Canada, could reduce the per capita carbon footprint in those countries.  For example, the enlargement of municipalities through immigration could make mass transit feasible where it wasn’t before.  This difference in population density may explain why the U.S. economy is more  carbon-intensive than that of Western Europe.  Increased density could mitigate the increased carbon footprint from larger migration flows.

In conclusion, open borders could be important for people in both advanced and developing countries to escape the negative consequences of climate change.  At the same time, fears of accelerated climate change due to increased migration shouldn’t undermine open borders; rather than fighting an unjust campaign to keep those in the developing world poor, advanced countries must focus on how resources are used.

Open Borders tops web search for open borders

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

On June 30, 2014, I noticed that this website (openborders.info) is the top Google Search result for open borders. I verified that this is robust under anonymization, and also posted about it on Open Borders Action Group, where the commenters confirmed my observations. This blog post contains some information about the search performance of the term. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long we’ve been on top for the term. All reported ranks below are as of July 1, 2014, but clicking the links will take you to the current results at the time you click. The ranks you see could therefore differ from the reported ranks. Google and Bing search results may vary by person and location. Dogpile (website, Wikipedia) and DuckDuckGo (website, Wikipedia) use Google Search but anonymize the search query so as not to bias it with the user’s search history or other user-specific information. Results reported for Dogpile and DuckDuckGo should therefore be consistent with each other and stable across persons.

Results for open borders, plain and simple

Search term Google.com Bing.com Dogpile DuckDuckGo
open borders #1 #1 #1 #1
“open borders” #1 #1 #1 #1
open border #2 #2 #3 #3
“open border” #2 not in top results not in top results not in top results

For the open border search query, the result that beats it in non-anonymized search (for me) is the Wikipedia article on open border. In anonymized search, openborders.info ranks #3. It is beaten by the Wikipedia article and U.S. Open Borders.

Some of the commenters on my Open Borders Action Group reported similar results on other Google domains (google.ru, google.co.in) with English-language search queries. Read the comments, or try searching the domains yourself.

How much traffic has this search term driven to the website?

As of July 1, 2014, a total of 1061 visits to the site were from the open borders search term. This is the second highest search term in terms of the number of visits. The highest is pro immigration arguments (1200 visits), for which DuckDuckGo search gives our US-specific pro-immigration arguments page as #2.

Results for variations of the term

For the following variations of the term, openborders.info pages come in the top ten search results on DuckDuckgo:

Search term Rank Page shown
libertarian open borders #2 Libertarian case for open borders
open borders double world gdp #1 Double world GDP
open borders bryan caplan #1 Bryan Caplan
open borders america #4 main page
open borders us #2 main page
open borders israel #6 Blog tag Israel
open borders with mexico #7 Blog tag Mexico

Feel free to suggest other search terms and permutations in the comments, or try them yourself!

Other caveats

  • Search volume for the term “open borders” (with or without quotes) is quite low compared to search volume for other migration-related terms, in particular immigration reform. See a comparison of the search terms on Google Trends.
  • Almost all the top results for open borders, apart from Wikipedia and this website, are critical of open borders. Some of them are critical of open borders as an idea that has not yet been implemented, but many are using “open borders” as a (pejorative) term for the status quo. This suggests that most people searching for the term are searching for something different from what we are offering. It is interesting that both Google and Bing decided to rank us above these pages for the term, even though many of these pages are on sites with higher PageRank (albeit the sites aren’t necessarily that focused on open borders).

Possible implications

  • If this website is able to retain its top spot, then the future fate of the idea of open borders, with all its ramifications, is intricately tied with the fate of this website. To the extent that the idea of open borders catches on, this website will also catch on. In particular, if open borders becomes a big issue for discussion, or ever comes close to implementation, this website is likely to play an important role in the public conversation. The usual caveats apply: it could happen that the way that open borders reaches the public consciousness is through some terminology that is quite different from “open borders”, in which case this website need not play a role.
  • Increasing the brand recognition of open borders as an idea would automatically increase the brand recognition of this website. This makes publicity and advertising easier: rather than having to get people to remember a URL or click on it, we simply have to imprint the “open borders” term into their minds.

Historical ramifications

Back when I was starting the site (see my personal statement for the site for more on the history) I considered names of the “open borders” variety as well as names of the “free migration” variety. I settled on the former because it felt more right. It seems that this was a reasonable choice. Although free migration sees more search traffic than open borders, a lot of the search results there are dominated by companies offering website hosting that promise to migrate your website for free. It would have been very difficult to build a brand around the “free migration” name that was catchy and easy to Google.

PS: I’m in the process of compiling various web and social media analytics data for the Open Borders website. I’ll be uploading the data in the form of Excel spreadsheets both to the Open Borders Action Group files section and to this website. The list of pages that currently have linked Excel files is below:

Weekly OBAG roundup 19 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations

Outreach and meta

The Ethics of Illegal Migration

Post by Nathan Smith

Is it morally wrong, or morally permissible, to migrate to a country illegally?

The question matters, to those who have done it, to those who feel indignation at others who have done it, to those who profit by the labor of those who have done it, to the friends and neighbors and children of those who have done it, to those who are considering doing it, and to policymakers who must decide how to deal with those who have done it or may be tempted to do it in future. But above all, it matters to those who are faced with the choice: should I migrate illegally to a foreign country or not?

To be faced with this as a live option at all, a person must be in a position such that they want to migrate illegally. That is, considering all other factors, migrating illegally must seem to them better than their other options. In particular, (a) they think either they would be better off living in another country, even illegally with all the risks and inconveniences that entails, or that they can benefit others they care about by doing so, or both; and (b) they either cannot get permission to do so from the government of that country, or can do so only excessive cost and inconvenience. Usually, though, illegal migrants seem to be people who had no realistic option of migrating legally, even at great cost and inconvenience.

The question at hand is: If a person wants to migrate illegally (in the sense specified), should they not do so for specifically moralreasons? Presumably the answer is not an unqualified yes or no, since one can invent extraordinary cases in which the act of illegal migration is clearly morally right or morally wrong.  If a migrant’s goal is to commit a terrorist attack, or steal, or abandon a wife and family, or escape justice after committing a heinous crime, or avoid paying burdensome but quite affordable debts, then he is clearly in the wrong. If a migrant is being hotly pursued by a gang of killers and crosses an international frontier in a desperate effort to save his life, or if he has secret information about an imminent terrorist attack which, if he can only arrive at the spot in time, he can prevent, saving millions of lives, there can be little doubt that the act of illegal migration is justified. The real question is how much, and what kind, of moral weight the law has in determining whether particular acts of migration are right or wrong.

There seems to be a widespread feeling that, except in strange and extreme cases, it is simply wrong to disobey the law per se, as if anything “the government” (whatever that means) forbids (requires) magically becomes morally impermissible (obligatory) for all of “its” citizens/subjects. I have this feeling myself, but as I can’t justify it directly, I take it that the generalization “it is wrong to disobey the law” holds (usually) true for a variety of often overlapping reasons that, between them, cover most of the cases. Most, but of course, not all. I don’t think anyone really holds that it is always wrong to disobey the law. As a Christian, I am not at liberty to hold that view, since the prophet Daniel and many other Biblical heroes violated human laws that were contrary to the laws of God, and many, many Christian saints were martyred for refusing to obey the law by worshipping the Roman emperors.

Recently, I was discussing the duty of obeying the law with my father, a law professor, and he seemed to recall that in the past I had expressed strong scruples about disobeying the law as such. I told him, that had never been my position, and that my most general reason for obeying the law is to avoid the temptation to lie to escape detection. But afterwards, I wondered whether I really had held the position he remembered, and if so, what arguments I had for it, that I might have forgotten. In a way, I would like to hold that position, since my complex of arguments for obeying the law seems to differ a bit from the historic position of most Christian churches, as far as I am able to discern it. I have the sense that they felt obeying the law was wrong as such, except when conscience forbade it, as in the case of the prophet Daniel or the Christian martyrs, rather than that it is usually wrong for a variety of indirect reasons. But I can’t see a way of justifying the attitude that seems most typical of Christians in the past. Not that this threatens any crisis of faith. The best arguments I can offer get me close enough for comfort to what is in any case only a rather imprecise perception of what most of my fellow Christians have thought. But if I did at some point find reasons for advocating a more robust and inherent duty to obey the law, I’d be interested in what they were. Anyway, here’s what I have to offer right now.

One reason to obey human laws is that they may coincide with natural laws. Thus, one should not murder, regardless of whether the law forbids murder or not. But as human laws do seem invariably to prohibit murder, we assimilate our condemnation of murder into a general condemnation of “breaking the law.” Likewise, one should not steal, whether the laws protect property or not, but human laws reinforce this duty. However, while killing is an objective fact quite independent of any government definitions or decisions about it, I don’t think government can be made irrelevant to the business of defining property rights. Some property rights really are simply natural rights. If a man settles on wild land to which no one had a previous claim, and cultivates it to feed his family, his property rights to that land are natural in a simple and readily perceivable sense. (This insight is associated most famously with John Locke.) But in complex commercial societies, it is not practical to establish consensus about property right by tracing all of them to such elemental origins, and courts and laws and judges are indispensable aids in defining and agreeing upon who owns what. Still, the duty not to steal is part of natural law and would apply even in the absence of government, and the reason to respect property rights remains fundamental and pre-political even when political actors have helped to adjudicate who owns what.

A second, related reason to obey the law is that it serves as evidence of what the natural law is. Suppose that action A does not seem to me to violate the natural law, but the government of the country I live in has prohibited action A. Suppose further that I view the government of my country as generally just and reasonable. I may then judge that, if judges and legislators have seen fit to make action A illegal, they probably have some good reason for thinking action A is a violation of natural law, which I happen not to have understood. I should try to understand it, but meanwhile, I should obey the law, to reduce the risk of doing something wrong. Of course, this argument only applies inasmuch as the government is generally just and reasonable. If I live under a crazy, arbitrary, absolutist king or dictator, and the laws reflect his mere random whims, the law of the land ceases to be evidence about the content of natural law, and this reason for obeying it disappears.

Modern democracy presents an interesting case here, because modern democracies typically claim to be enforcing, not the natural law, but the “will of the people,” whose “sovereignty” consists in being able to make whatever laws they like. That I have moral reasons to obey the natural law is a tautology, since by the natural law I mean the moral law. But the “will of the people,” even if the concept itself were not naïve, has no power morally to command. A man ought to do what is right, not what his fellows approve of, unless he is fortunate enough that his fellow men are wise enough to want him to do what is right. We might conclude, then, that since under modern democracy, public officials do not even claim to govern according to natural law, no one should regard their judgments as evidence about right and wrong. But I would be inclined to give democratic laws more credit than this, because I don’t think democratic publics are so corrupt as to feel they have an arbitrary, “sovereign” right to make any laws they like. I think they know there are such things as unjust laws, and that democratic majorities have a duty not to make them. I also think that democratic majorities are reasonably good judges of what laws are just, reasonable, and appropriate, when they themselves are burdened with obeying those laws. The horror stories about the political ignorance of ordinary people miss an important point, namely, that the rule of “rational ignorance” about politics ceases to apply when a person is faced with the duty of complying with the law. Then they have an incentive to understand it, and think about it, and that makes them informed voters. But that qualification shows why the “wisdom of crowds” principle has no force when it comes to immigration laws. Voters are citizens and therefore they are not prospective immigrants, so they have little incentive or opportunity to see the law from a prospective immigrant’s point of view, in order to judge its reasonableness or lack thereof. And that is why democracies’ policies on immigration, ever since they got into their heads the baneful error that restricting it is okay, have always been wildly unreasonable.

A third reason one should obey man-made laws is because the government serves as a focal point for setting expectations, and thereby solving coordination problems. Thus, natural law has nothing to say about whether societies should make people drive on the right or the left side of the road, but it does say that whatever side others are driving on, one should do the same, for one ought not to needlessly jeopardize one’s own life or those of others. Society might be able to solve this problem in a decentralized fashion if it needed to, but surely if there is a government, there should be no objection to its taking the lead here.

The argument that one ought to obey the law because the law is serving the common good by solving a coordination problem is clearly valid here, but are there a significant number of similar cases? Daylight savings might be another example, except that it seems to have hardly any moral relevance. Money, I think, is another example. I think it is wrong to counterfeit money, though of course in a Lockean state of nature there would be no objection to making pieces of paper of a certain description, because (a) it is against the law, and (b) in this case the law is solving a coordination problem for the common good. Even some quite arbitrary and micromanaging regulations could be defended as solutions to coordination problems. For example, suppose the law regulates the size of oranges that can be sold in grocery stores. Natural law has nothing against selling very small oranges per se, but if the law has created a general expectation that oranges must be a certain size, then by selling smaller ones, I might mislead customers. But, you say, customers can see the size of oranges they are buying! All right, but what if someone is selling batteries with very little power, or appliances that emit fumes harmful to health, or building houses that have an unusually high risk of fire of collapse? Granted, some people might recognize the inferiority of these products and still buy them, but should societies not be able to opt out of at least some of the inconveniences of caveat emptor? While I would hesitate to affirm that such regulations can justify the use of coercion, certainly I think one moral reason to obey the law is that government is solving coordination problems for the common good, and you should help it to do so by following the rules.

A fourth reason to obey the law would be that one has agreed to do so through a social contract. If valid, this argument has great generality, but it depends on the social contract having some kind of reality. And it takes a heroic effort to maintain that the social contract has any reality in the face of the obvious fact that we never actually sign one. Yet I do tend to make somewhat reluctant and embarrassed attempts to argue this, because I think we need at least some legitimate government (albeit we could do just find with a good deal less of it than we have), and the social contract is the governed countries, do in fact morally will for there to be a government rather like the one they have. Even if their permission is never asked, they do give their permission through their intentions and attitudes and desires and states of mind. And the manner in which they occasionally ask for its assistance carries a sense of entitlement that reflects their real sense of duty to, and their intention to, uphold their end of the bargain. I might try to argue that many gratified Constitution, but some others too, have a historic warrant from some sort of old social contract. I would then try to argue that such commitments can be presumptively passed on from generation to generation, unless explicitly and conscientiously repudiated, since we owe so much to our parents and may be regarded as having a duty, in return, to uphold the commitments that they regarded as valuable and important, inasmuch as conscience permits us to do so. Probably the sum total of these arguments would still be a bit lame, but they might have a little bit of force, and what force they have favors obeying the law.

A fifth reason to obey the law is that to break the law may involve lying, or an intention or temptation to lie under certain circumstances. The penalties governments impose on lawbreakers are usually sufficient to make lawbreaking a bad plan, except for those who expect to escape detection. Detecting lawbreakers would be easy if everyone always told the whole truth. The government would only have to ask you whether you did it. Of course, there is a difference between telling the whole truth and not lying. It is not lying to refuse to answer an unwelcome question. Often, a lawbreaker is never asked whether he broke the law or not, so he does not have to lie, or even to refuse to answer. But he certainly might be asked, and he deserves little credit for not lying if he intended to do so at need, but simply never found it necessary. There is a danger, too, that without directly lying, one might deceive by allowing falsehoods to be assumed true. Depending on the circumstances, this might be almost as culpable as a direct lie. All this lends to lawbreaking a strong aura of dishonesty, and one’s duty to the truth is a strong reason to obey the law.

Civil disobedience stands out as a case where, far from being dishonest, breaking the law is uniquely and specially truthful. The whole point of civil disobedience is that one does not try to escape detection and punishment. On the contrary, civil disobedience tends to be deliberately public, and one submits willingly to whatever punishments the oppressor chooses to perpetrate, hoping that the moral burden of administering unjust punishments will break the oppressor’s will and cause him to repent. I don’t think civil disobedience has to be deliberately public, but I do think it has to be resolutely honest. One can be civilly disobedient without actually courting arrest, or advertising one’s lawbreaking. But one has to speak about it openly, and avoid any deceit.

A sixth reason to obey the law is simply that you should presumptively comply with any request that anyone makes of you, including if that anyone is a government. Of course, this presumption isn’t a very strong reason for action. If someone asks you to, say, give them a ride to work, you probably should if it’s no great inconvenience, but it doesn’t take much to override that. It may be no great sin to refuse even if your only reason is that you’re very tired, or your favorite TV show is about to come on. Still, one reason to pay taxes (for example) is just that the government says it needs the money, and it’s usually good to be obliging when someone requests something of you.

Now, how do all these reasons for obeying the law affect the ethics of undocumented immigration?

One reason that I’m unusually lenient in my attitudes towards migrating illegally is that I put a lot of weight on the social contract as a reason for obeying the law, and this argument doesn’t apply to foreigners. If it’s difficult to defend the claim that an American should obey US laws because they’re part of a social contract, to say that a foreigner should obey US laws because of a social contract is an obvious non-starter.

To save space, I’ll dismiss the first two arguments by saying that migrating illegally is not against the natural law, and that the judgments of democratic legislators on this point are of negligible value, because they are serving voters who are not subject to the immigration laws they vote for through their representatives. Of course, there’s more to be said, and I even think some vague and highly attenuated version of the “collective property rights” might have a little force, such that migrants might act unjustly if, after migrating, they made no effort to assimilate and effectively appropriated large and important parts of a nation’s territory in such a way that natives no longer felt safe and at home there. A weak duty to assimilate might also arise out of the coordination problems that occur when, say, ignorance of English becomes widespread. All such arguments seem hardly worthy of being put in the scales against the desperate economic needs of migrants who need to feed their families or earn the money to pay for essential medical care, but they may have a (very) little force.

The sixth argument, the argument that one ought presumptively to comply with any request, is obviously weak, but if it were really the case that no one in a country wanted you there, that might be a pretty good moral reason not to go. In practice, though, the people most directly concerned with an immigrant’s decision usually want him to immigrate. Thus, Mexican migrant workers are declared illegal by the government, but welcomed by the growers, and probably by landlords, grocers, and churches as well. So I don’t think the sixth reason to obey the law has any force in most cases.

By far the strongest reason not to migrate illegally comes from the duty not to lie. To that, I’ll return. But first, let me say that there do seem to be a few weak reasons why a migrant should obey the laws of a country he wants to migrate to, and if there is not at least something to put in the moral scales against them, I would hesitate to condone an act of illegal migration. Suppose, for example, that an affluent Bostonian has a perfectly satisfactory life in the US, but has a fancy to live in Toronto. Canada won’t give him a work visa, but he still wants to go, so he moves to Toronto and works on the black market. I can’t find it in myself to judge this hypothetical person. I rather like his spirit of adventure. But I probably would advise a person against taking the moral risk of breaking the law for so casual and non-compelling reason.

In more typical cases, illegal migration is motivated by real economic desperation. No jobs at home. A family to feed. Maybe fear of religious persecution, or gang warfare. Scanty earnings are channeled into remittances. Or parents make huge sacrifices, living in the shadows for decades, so that their children may have a better life. All such morally serious reasons for illegally migrating easily override the weak arguments against it, except for the argument from truth, to which we now turn.

If we accept the absolute duty never to lie (admittedly a controversial claim), does that rule out illegal migration? Is it possible for an illegal immigrant to live in truth? Can one navigate modern life in America, or Europe, or elsewhere, without legal status, and without lying?

It seems to me that it would be almost impossible to be an illegal immigrant without using falsehoods in various formal and bureaucratic contexts. For example, one might get work, or a driver’s license, using a fake Social Security card. The question is whether there is such a thing as a morally permissible legal fictionwhich can be used without lying. I hope there is, because I often use legal fictions myself. Case in point: If one engages in online commerce, one will often have to click boxes saying “I have read the terms and conditions,” in order to complete a transaction. In these cases, I usually don’t even click the hyperlink to glance at the terms and conditions. If I do, I never read them thoroughly. I don’t think I would be capable of doing so, written as they are in mind-numbing legalese. Boredom would overwhelm my powers of attention long before I got to the end of them. So, if lying to a form counts as lying, then I tell lies all the time. Is that a sin? Should I shun online commerce, on pain of being a liar?

I don’t think so. It would probably be a better world if our understandings of consent were modified such that the types of contracts we recognize as valid were calibrated to what people could reasonably be expected to understand. But our current institutions routinely make use of “I have read the terms and agreements” as a legal fiction, and we do not really expect people to do so. By the same token, it is well-known that fake Social Security cards are widely used in the economy, and I think there are some industries in which employers routinely accept fake Social Security cards. They may prefer not to be made explicitly aware that a given employee is illegal, to avoid culpability, but they would not be surprised to discover it, or consider themselves deceived. In these contexts, to present a Social Security card is not to assert, “I am such-and-such a person,” but simply to give an employer a means to clear a bureaucratic hurdle. It therefore does not qualify as lying, and is not inconsistent with the duty of living in truth. Of course, the bureaucrats to whom the Social Security number will be reported, and the politicians and voters who stand behind them, really do want to know the truth. But they are not morally present in the situation, because they are not available to be reasoned with. To have the right to be told the truth to, one must be available to listen to the whole truth. In the same way, if I were face-to-face with a representative of the companies I engage in online commerce with, I would say, “I can’t really read this agreement, you know. It’s exorbitantly long and I’m not a lawyer.” But a form is not a human being and doesn’t have the same right to be told the truth. The people behind the forms forfeit the right to be told the truth if they demand information in unreasonable ways, and are not available in person to be held accountable for their unreasonableness.

Even if it is sometimes morally permissible to use fake Social Security cards, the duty of telling the truth will doubtless involve extra risk and sacrifice for those who migrate illegally, over and above what they would face by being here without any scruples about lying. There may be jobs a person cannot conscientiously take, because conventions have not given the presentation of a Social Security card the nature of a legal fiction. One might have to tell such employers the card was fake, to avoid really deceiving the employer. Social relations might also involve special dangers. You never know who might be a tattle tale, but again, you can’t lie.

So, to someone who was considering migrating illegally, but was not sure whether this was a morally acceptable thing to do, I would advise them to examine themselves and make sure that they were really determined not to tell any lies in the process, with the tricky but important exception of legal fictions. I would advise them to think of themselves as engaged in conscientious civil disobedience, and to err on the side of telling more of the truth than honesty demands. I would ask them if they had the courage to tell the truth at great personal risk, and the magnanimity to face the injustices of the system, should they be arrested and deported, without rancor or bitterness, and in a spirit of love and forgiveness. If not, I would advise them not to migrate illegally.

Another Take on Moderate Vs. Radical Approaches to Immigration Policy

Post by Joel Newman (occasional blogger for the site, joined January 2013). See:

The mainstream debate in the United State over immigration policy focuses on whether there should be “immigration reform” or not, with reform being generally synonymous with the immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate last year and endorsed by President Obama.  The bill would raise legal immigration levels by 50 to 70 percent within five years and legalize the millions of undocumented individuals already in the U.S., while also spending more money on tightening control of the southern border.

Earlier this year, John examined the similarities and differences between those backing “immigration reform” (“moderate reformers”) and those promoting open borders.  He noted that both groups share the beliefs that immigration can be beneficial economically and socially to a receiving country and that immigration enforcement is often inhumane.  Yet, as John points out, moderate reformers “shrink from any inexorable conclusion, no matter how firmly the evidence may point towards it, that open borders could possibly be the right thing to do.”

I recognize that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and have written how moderate reforms can benefit some immigrants, and Vipul has pondered whether the work of the moderate reformers may be more valuable than that of open borders advocates. Nonetheless, the moderate reformers’ intransigence in their thinking about open borders is vexing.

So it is satisfying when the reform camp is challenged in the mainstream media to consider an open borders policy.  Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, criticizes reformers with regard to the recent influx of children from Central America.  Mr. Douthat argues that “the mere promise of an amnesty” has been a factor in the migration.  He then presents an open borders solution: “One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket.  Come one, come all.  But this is not the answer that President Obama or the congressional architects of an immigration bill would offer.  Instead, the official promise is always that we’ll get amnesty and a system of enforcement that will deter and deport and police employers more effectively…”  While I disagree with Mr. Douthat’s position that building “a more effective enforcement system” should be attempted before considering amnesty, I applaud his suggestion that the open borders position on the migration of children and immigration generally makes more sense than that of the reformers.

Similarly, on the PBS Newshour Jan Ting of Temple University, a foe of increased immigration levels, has pushed reformers to clarify their thinking: “… I think we have to answer the fundamental question: Do we want unlimited immigration to the U.S. or not?… I actually think a rational, coherent argument can be made for completely open borders… we have just got to make up our minds.  Is illegal immigration a problem, yes or no?  If it’s not a problem, let’s let everybody in.”

In the long run, it will be beneficial to the open borders cause for the moderate reformers to embrace open borders and join us in pushing for its realization.  At the same time, perhaps in the short run it might be beneficial to have both groups, with moderate reformers achieving some gains for immigrants while open borders advocates begin pushing for larger gains in the more distant future.  Open borders advocates also can lay the groundwork for moderate reformers to join our cause by continuing to point out the flaws in their thinking, as John has done.  Opponents of both reform and open borders, like Mr. Douthat and Mr. Ting, are welcome to help out in this effort.

The inconsistent social engineers: why do we have border controls, but no birth controls?

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

I’m not sure who first observed this, but a lot of arguments against allowing people to move freely are based on a set of premises that boil down to: “People are bad. Immigration brings more people ‘here’. Therefore free immigration is bad.” In March this year, British comedian Stewart Lee did a fantastic monologue about this, stepping back through the history of the British Isles and denouncing various peoples who’ve settled the land along the way. After going through the Romanians, the Poles, the Huguenots, the Saxons, and so on, he finally got to the evolution of land-based animals: “They crawled out of the sea onto the land – OUR LAND!” Lee wound up his misanthropic speech with a thunderous denunciation of the Big Bang: “Remember the good old days? When you could leave your door unlocked? Because there was nothing there? Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a Big Bang!”

(I’d link to a video or transcript of this great monologue, but the only extant video I could find seems to no longer work, and nobody seems to have thought to transcribe it. The quotes I’ve furnished here are actually from memory and not verbatim.)

The typical objections people have to greater immigration are after all just as applicable to higher birth rates:

  • More people entering the labour market causes a rise in unemployment and lower wages
  • More people by definition means there will be more criminals, since criminals are people
    • And worse still, if lower-socioeconomic status people have higher birth or immigration rates, we would expect overall crime rates to go up disproportionately
  • More people by definition require larger state expenditures, both for the upkeep of public goods and services like roads, and also for benefits programmes
    • And again, if lower-socioeconomic status people have more children or immigrate more, then the economic burden on the state will increase disproportionately
  • More people create adjustment costs — someone, whether it is the public or private sector, will have to build more homes, open more schools, hire more nurses; the list goes on and on

If all these arguments are valid defences for strict border controls, why not have similar ones for birth controls? Would it not be a catastrophic risk to our society if lower-socioeconomic people began giving birth to more and more children? Co-blogger Johnny Roccia has blogged about this, and more recently guest blogger Bryan Caplan blogged about a hypothetical world of eugenics over at EconLog, After all, if you’re happy to advocate arbitrary and broad-reaching state power over people’s ability to move, because of all the attendant ill-effects of, you know, dealing with human beings, why stay silent about reproductive restrictions? Shouldn’t advocates of border controls who complain about population growth leading to more crime, more welfare payments, fewer jobs, and so on, be worried not just about immigrants but also newborns? Economist Daniel Lin makes light of this on his Twitter, but surely he has a point:

Now, there are some extreme environmentalists who advocate immigration restrictions as just one form of population control among many, but they are a fringe minority. Their minority status is thus puzzling: if people truly worry about where jobs will come from, or who will pay for the burgeoning benefits cheque, or how to manage a growing incidence of crime — to cite three of the most common ills associated with immigration, but also with population growth in general — why focus all energy on stopping immigration, and not consider devoting some effort to implementing a government-backed eugenics policy? Why not ban welfare recipients from having children? Why not sterilise all habitual violent criminals? Why not cap the number of “low-skilled” workers allowed to reproduce, lest the number of low-skilled people in the economy outpace its ability to create jobs for them?

Now, some people do bite the bullet and say “Yes, eugenics is a good idea and the government should be doing something there too.” To these people, I don’t have a lot to say; we will probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t see a compelling reason, except perhaps in extreme scenarios, for the state to regulate human reproduction. I don’t see an existential threat to our societies or the human race posed by our general lack of eugenics programmes.

But most people try to distinguish border controls from birth controls in some way. The argument is that it’s unjust and immoral for the state to restrict births, but it is not similarly unjust or immoral for the state to restrict human movement. People who argue that migration controls and birth controls should not be compared in this manner often take three tacks:

  1. International migration is an uncommon, unnatural desire, while reproduction is not;
  2. Birth rates are generally predictable, while international migration rates are not;
  3. Immigrants originate from different cultures, while natives give birth to and raise children from a common culture.

Even if you take all their premises for granted, all three are essentially arguments for violent and coercive social engineering by the state. The first argument assumes that the state has a right to quash “unnatural desires”, even if no individual can point to a specific wrong that was committed against them in the process of pursuing this “unnatural desire”. The second assumes that what social changes the state can predict and manage are tolerable, while social changes that the state cannot predict and may not be able to manage are intolerable. And of course the third gives the state explicit authority to use force (not just nudges or incentives) to micromanage the cultures of a society, which seems like the epitome of violent social engineering to me.

But even the premises of these arguments are questionable. To the first argument, UN economists already estimate there are about 250 million international migrants in the world, and another 800 million domestic migrants. This is what occurs even under highly restrictive border regimes; if migration policies were liberalised, we would expect the true numbers to be much higher. How many of those domestic migrants would choose to move internationally instead? These numbers exclude temporary migrants too; those people would also benefit significantly from open borders. If hundreds of millions of people want to move, and do move even under highly restrictive border regimes, in what sense is this desire unnatural or uncommon?

And to the second argument, yes, there is a natural, fixed limit to how many children a woman can bear, making childbearing rates somewhat more predictable than migration rates. But migration rates are hardly impossible to manage either; indeed, to a large degree they can be quite predictable. The main constraint hampering a state’s ability to predict free migration flows today is that we haven’t had open borders for so long that it is difficult to tell what migration flows might result. But that’s an argument at best for gradual opening of the borders; it’s not an argument for maintaining arbitrary border controls in perpetuity.

Finally to the third argument, most countries have plenty of heterogeneity even internally. If the state has a legitimate interest in taking coercive action to prevent the current mix of cultures from changing too much, should the state gear up for action if one cultural group’s birth rate falls behind another? Should the state force citizens from regions or ethnic communities with low birth rates to give birth at gunpoint? Should the state forcibly prevent the births of citizens in regions or ethnic communities where the birth rate seems out-of-whack with what the state believes is warranted or manageable? Shouldn’t Americans be concerned about plummeting birth rates in New England, the cradle of American institutions? Or worried about soaring fertility rates in culturally distinct states like Utah or Texas? Is there not a risk that New Englanders will literally die out, or that Texans will outbreed and therefore wipe out the rest of the American nation? At some point, cultural micromanagement implies not only a strong role for the government in border controls, but birth controls too.

Now, of course, there are plenty of other efficiency-based arguments for implementing either stricter reproductive controls, strict border controls, or both — ones that rest purely on the consequential or utilitarian outcomes of these policies. The eugenics analogy can’t by itself make a comprehensive case for open borders. But what it can do, as economist Scott Sumner’s argued, is really compel us to doubt the wisdom and justness of the typical arguments we use to defend arbitrary border controls.

Scott is not an open borders supporter, though he advocates significant liberalisation of immigration policies. But he found Bryan’s eugenics hypothetical to powerfully illuminate how the arguments we deploy for border controls are actually rooted in exactly the sort of injustice that we would immediately decry if manifested instead in advocacy for reproductive controls:

I’ve actually met academics that favor China’s one child policy. I’m pretty sure they’d be horrified by this story. They’d say it’s unfair to punish the innocent child for the sins of their parents. But is it really possible to have a clean, antiseptic one child policy that doesn’t punish the children?

Now ask yourself how many of those academics that supported the one child policy actually thought through what would happen to the millions of children born in violation to that policy? I’d guess not very many. Now let’s consider immigration restrictions. Is there a clean, antiseptic way to keep out illegal immigrants?

Bryan has not convinced me that 100% open borders are clearly the way to go. But he has convinced me that my objections to his arguments are not as reliable as I might have assumed. My reservations about open borders are actually pretty similar to the reservations that people in a eugenics society would have had to a proposal for an open birth policy.

The fact that superficially similar arguments against birth restrictions would have been rejected out of hand by a eugenic culture should, at the very least, make us do a bit of soul-searching.

Let’s face it, most people oppose open borders at the gut level, and then they search for logical reasons to support the position that had already formed in their reptilian brain.

None of this is to say that all border controls are bad, or that all birth controls are bad. In some cases, the state may have compelling reasons to restrict human reproduction, or human movement. (Forcible sterilisation and mandatory residence registration of sex offenders comes to mind.) There may be a human right to a family and a human right to migrate — but all the same, as long as we accept the authority of our governments, no right is truly unqualified.

But before our governments take coercive action against these rights, they are obligated to weigh the far-reaching implications of doing so, and comprehensively rule out more humane alternatives. The callous attitude towards human life implied by eugenics wrought untold horror and injustice throughout the 20th century, even in what we once thought to be “civilised” societies. Just because the government can micromanage our culture and society through birth controls does not mean it always ought to do so.

And the desire to have a family is just as strong and natural as the desire to move for a better life. We cannot exclude someone from our society and economy without just cause — just as we cannot forcibly sterilise someone, or coercively matchmake a couple, without just cause. Before we enact broad, far-reaching curbs on the exercise of these human rights, we need to be sure that strict controls are the only tolerable option we have to achieve the ends we have in mind. If we wouldn’t force innocent people to have sex at gunpoint to achieve this goal, it’s worth asking why we’d be all right pointing guns at innocent people to accomplish the exact same thing.

Weekly OBAG roundup 18 2014

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Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

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

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way – be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services – failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

Weekly OBAG roundup 17 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations


Weekly OBAG roundup 16 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations

Outreach and meta

Double World GDP? Another Economic Model of Open Borders

The claim that open borders would “double world GDP” is one of our side’s better talking points. Of course, it’s just a guess, based on theoretical models calibrated to the data, which amounts to a sophisticated, but still very fallible, form of extrapolation. These models are easy to mock if you understand them well enough to see their weak points. Yet, what alternative is there? The question of what the global economic impact of open borders would be is interesting enough to be worth answering tentatively. I’ve been working on my own, which has evolved somewhat since I wrote about it a few months ago. Meanwhile, I came across a new one, “The Global Welfare and Poverty Effects of Rich Nation Immigration Barriers,” by Scott Bradford (2012).

First, Bradford’s conclusions. Under open borders (with an exponential distribution of skills, more realistic than the uniform distribution that Bradford also considers), total world output would rise from $74 trillion to $130 trillion. Not quite “double world GDP,” but a more than 75% increase. Wages in rich countries would fall by 7.5%. Since Bradford, like John Kennan, does not model human capital as an independent factor of production, but simply interprets “skill” as multiplying a person’s labor power, this 7.5% wage drop would equally affect workers at all skill levels. 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%.

Bradford chooses to focus on the poverty impact of open borders, but this turns out to be sensitive to an assumption about the inherent fixed cost of migration. If this cost is $10,000, the fraction in poverty would fall by 66%. Raise it to $20,000, and poverty is reduced by only 42%.

Now for the model’s Achilles heel:

[The model] implies that 94-97% of the poor region workforce, or about 2 billion workers plus their depends, would move to [the rich countries] if they could. That is unrealistic. As long as total factor productivity is higher in the rich region, and capital can move along with labor, our analysis implies that the great majority of poor region workers would be economically better off, and would increase world output, if they could move freely to the North. Even if the results in this paper are off by an order of magnitude due to elements not captured by our simple model, opening up migration has great potential to boost incomes around the world.

Where does this concession leave the model? If the author’s verdict on his own projections of migrant numbers is “That is unrealistic,” then what exactly is he claiming? He can’t be claiming that the prediction of 94-97% migrating won’t come to pass, but the prediction of raising world GDP by 75% will, since the latter depend logically on the former. What does the “even if the results in this paper are off by an order of magnitude…” sentence mean? It could be read as, “For some reason that I don’t really know, let’s assume ten times fewer people would migrate. If the effects are proportional, you’d still see a big increase in global incomes and a lot of poverty reduction.” But to conclude with such vague hand-waving as that seems to render pointless the paper’s effort to give a logically precise description of the world and assign precise, empirically-grounded values to certain parameters and variables. If the predicted migration flows are unrealistic, then the model is leaving out something important– or many things. If those things were understood and incorporated, we have little reason to think the model’s other results would be preserved, or scaled down in any predictable way.

Actually, given his other assumptions, Bradford’s estimates of the number of migrants are, if anything, indefensibly low. You might ask how 90%+ of the population could afford to migrate at all if migration costs are assumed to be $10,000 or $20,000. But Bradford’s migrants optimize an intertemporal utility function, and migration is a long-term investment in living in a better place. But it’s hardly plausible that the cost of migration would be $10,000, let alone $20,000. Bradford cites empirical evidence for this, but here, extrapolation is illegitimate. If only a skilled elite is migrating, they’ll do it in a relatively comfortable and expensive way. Under open borders, there’d be economies of scale in the migration process itself, and mass migration would find the cheapest ways to move. You would expect, for example, to see a revival of people traveling by ship. There’s no point in that now, because anyone who can hope to travel internationally values their time enough to prefer a plane ticket and a few hours’ journey to spending weeks on a boat. The market for international passenger travel by sea would be tiny. Under open borders, with billions of poor people on the move, ocean-going ships would offer international travel for a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket. So even the fig leaf of respectability that Bradford’s model derives from the 3% of people in poor countries that are predicted to stay put, we must take away. (I think a tiny number of poor people would still stay home without that, merely for the sake of the cheap land left behind by the mass exodus.)

I don’t want to come across as too negative, though, because I know by experience how difficult it is to do what he is attempting. You can’t project what the global distribution of income would be like under open borders without first having a fairly thorough explanation of what it is like now. You really need a theory of the wealth and poverty of nations even to get a model of the global economic impact of open borders off the ground. And economists haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory by their successes in explaining the wealth and poverty of nations.

Bradford (2012) could have followed Kennan (2012) by simply assuming that “strong attachment to home locations” will prevent everyone from wanting to move, and then adopting an arbitrary assumption, or an assumption with very weak empirical motivations, about what share of people would. I respect Bradford’s frankness about his model’s failure to predict realistic numbers of migrants as much as (not necessarily more than) I respect Kennan’s ad hoc measures to reduce the number of migrants his model predicts. The question which brings both of them to grief, in different ways, is: Given the opportunity to migrate to countries that are much more productive and have higher standards of living, why would anyone stay home? It’s not that answers to this question are difficult to propose. The trouble is that it’s very hard to quantify them, even in the loosest and most arbitrary way.

So, can I do better? I think so. My model will include human capital as an explicit factor of production; economies of scale at the city level; and differences in the cost of capital across countries due to country risk premiums. But what it will predict, I won’t know until I’m done calibrating it. Stay tuned!

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

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