Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement

Recently I wrote a long post on the history of the abolition of slavery, arguing along the way that the abolitionists set a great example for the open borders movement to follow. I promised then to “explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement.” I do so here. To keep the scope limited, I focus on the US case.

Currently, the gay marriage movement stands out as the paradigm case of a successful social movement, so it is sometimes suggested as a model to emulate. There is some overlap between the two causes, e.g., Andrew Sullivan gave a friendly link to Dylan Matthews’ Vox article about open borders. Jose Antonio Vargas, a leading civil disobedient and immigrant civil rights activist, whom I praised in my article “A Face for the Faceless,”  is also gay and sees gay marriage as a major moral cause of our times, along with immigration reform. (Vargas does not seem to support open borders, but as a champion of civil disobedience, I consider him crucial in moving immigration reform forward.)

I. Inclusiveness, Tolerance, “Why Not?” and Cheap Ways to Gain the Moral High Ground

First, a few superficial similarities between the open borders and same-sex marriage movements.

People vary in their degree of attachment to the status quo, and it is among those least attached to the status quo, whom we might call the “why not?” people, that open borders and same-sex marriage both tend to make their first and easiest converts. “Why not?” isn’t really a good reason to open the borders or recognize same-sex marriage, of course. But some people seem to presume that if they can’t immediately think of an answer to “why not?” there’s probably a good reason to stick with the status quo, while others presume that there isn’t. I’ve seen those who give way to “why not?” embrace same-sex marriage and open borders with similar ease.

Open borders and same-sex marriage can both be associated with values like “inclusiveness” and “tolerance.” An “inclusive” person will gladly include same-sex couples in the institution of marriage, and gladly include foreign-born persons in the American nation. Would “inclusive values” also implied letting women be Catholic priests, mediocre students study at Harvard, and untrained amateurs work in the dental profession? Such questions expose the ultimate vacuousness of “inclusiveness” as a value. Again, a “tolerant” person might gladly tolerate same-sex couples getting married and foreign-born persons living in the USA, but would he or she also tolerate rape, murder, hate speech… or even people talking loudly in a classical music concert? For that matter, would tolerant people tolerate Christian pastors preaching from Romans, chapter 1 (in which homosexuality is condemned as unnatural, shameful, and a divine punishment for idolatry)? Vipul has reflected more deeply and sympathetically on tolerance than I’ll attempt to do; but as I see it, tolerance and inclusivity are too wishy-washy to do any real work in ethical argument or constitutional design. Still, there are such things as more or less tolerant attitudes or temperaments, and in my experience, inclusive, tolerant people tend to be the first to embrace open borders and same-sex marriage.

Another secret of the gay marriage movement’s success is that supporting gay marriage is a very cheap way for people to feel good about themselves. To work in soup kitchens or serve in the military are costly ways to enhance one’s own moral self-esteem and appear good in the eyes of others; but to say “I’m for gay marriage” is very easy and cheap. It’s equally cheap and easy to say “I’m for open borders.”

In general, this kind of “cheap talk” is a crucial driver in the history of virtue. Plenty of people are willing to praise virtue who don’t bother to practice it. And since people like praise, widespread praise for virtue motivates others to practice it. Eventually, one hopes, and it often happens, that people will come to practice virtue for the love of virtue rather than for the love of praise. And it is when virtue remains steadfast in the face of the world’s murderous hatred, as in the cases of Socrates and Jesus, that virtue shines most brightly, and does the most good. But people don’t usually learn to love being virtuous until they’ve practiced it for a while for other reasons. The mere threats of power do the initial work, causing children to stop hitting each other and stealing cookies and telling lies. Later, praise becomes the main motivator, and people behave bravely or prudently or justly in order to win the praise of their fellow men. Without punishment and praise doing much of the early work, it is doubtful whether anyone would achieve much virtue. British abolitionists made their cause one to be proud of long before the British made major financial sacrifices to buy out the slaveholders and abolish slavery. American abolitionists, too, raised people’s moral outrage against slavery for decades before their moral fervor reached a point where over 300,000 Union soldiers died liberating the black slaves of the South. If the open borders movement can make “I’m for open borders” widely recognized as a badge of moral honor, that will be a major point gained.

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits– but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Finally, I think generous motives are a commonality of the open borders and same-sex marriage movements. The main reason non-LGBT individuals advocate same-sex marriage seems to be a desire to benefit LGBT individuals. The main motive for advocating open borders seems to be charity towards the world’s poor. But there are generous motives on the other side as well: among social conservatives, who want to protect the institution of marriage for the benefit of children; among Christian pastors who want to save homosexuals from sin and Hell; among nativists who want to protect the wages of their fellow citizens from foreign competition; and among moderates like Tyler Cowen who favor more immigration but think open borders is too risky.

II. Open Borders Advocates Have Much Stronger Arguments

Second, in my view at least, the open borders movement is vastly superior to the gay marriage movement in the quality of the arguments it has at their disposal. The following two slogans…

1. “Gay people are not demanding special treatment, just the same freedoms that everyone else takes for granted: to love whom they please and to marry whom they love.” From the conclusion of The Economist‘s “The gay divide.”

2. Open borders is “the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP.” From Bryan Caplan, adopted as the motto of this site.

… may serve as an illustration.

“Love whom you please and marry whom you love” is, prima facie, a blatant falsehood. We love many people, including our children, our friends, and our favorite writers, living and dead, as well as our pets, our countries, and the beauty of nature. Setting aside loves of non-persons, much of the love we have towards other people is not suitable for being embodied in marriage. We love our children, but cannot marry them. We love our friends, but it has been well-understood until recently– what the official position on this is in our new topsy-turvy world is supposed to be, I have no idea– that most friends are not proper candidates for marriage. One marries only one other person (at a time); one hopefully loves many other people. A married man may quite innocently love another man’s wife, as a friend, a formative influence on his thought, or a sister in Christ; but he can’t marry her. We don’t “love whom we please, and marry whom we love,” for love takes many forms and most of its forms can’t properly be expressed in marriage. If we try, gallantly, to save slogan (1) only by reading into the word “love” the meaning “love in a manner suitable for expression in marriage,” we only render the slogan wholly question-begging. For whether or not homosexual love is suitable for expression in marriage is just what the whole dispute is about.

Slogan (2) is as hard-hitting and cogent as slogan (1) is silly and evasive. Each of the four words “efficient,” “egalitarian,” “libertarian,” and “utilitarian” is the gateway to volumes of argument. The slogan captures the meta-ethical* robustness of open borders. Whatever your premises may be, says the slogan, they compel you to favor open borders. Is freedom your top value? Open borders vastly expands the freedom of human beings to meet their needs and pursue their dreams. Is utility what you care about most? Open borders is efficient and doubles world GDP. Are you an egalitarian, specially concerned to help the least well-off? Open borders will specially benefit the least fortunate members of the human race, those with the ill-luck to be born under corrupt dictatorships and totalitarian tyrannies and/or in the world’s poorest countries. Of course, all these claims can be contested– the claim that open borders would (roughly) double world GDP is highly contestable, though I tentatively believe it– but slogan (2) declares the terms of a bold and honorable debate.

Other than the uncritical prejudice that “nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment,” I can never discern their meta-ethics of same-sex marriage advocates. From what meta-ethical standpoint, for example, would they respond to the following argument?

Same-sex marriage shouldn’t be recognized because it will get many homosexual and bisexual men and women stuck in relationships they’ll want out of, and they should be free to leave without the stigma and complications of divorce. Yes, straight marriage has the same downside, but it has a larger upside: children. Not in every case, but in general. And that makes it worth it. But gays will be better off without the institutional pressure to commit. That’s not “paternalistic,” by the way, unless you think that it’s “paternalism” to allow no-fault divorce and thus deprive people of the right robustly to bind themselves in marriage, and for that matter, that it’s “paternalism” to abolish slavery and thereby prevent people from selling themselves into it. Civilized societies do not recognize unlimited rights of self-binding, and since the chance of children (among other things) makes the stakes for straight couples different from those for same-sex couples, to recognize different degrees of self-binding is appropriate. Strong self-binding in same-sex couples is still less desirable because sexual orientation seems to be fluid: there’s a good chance that a gay or lesbian spouse will not even self-identify as gay or lesbian in ten or twenty years. Moreover, gays and lesbians generally do not conform to the norms of permanence and exclusivity that define (heterosexual) marriage. And there’s no reason either to expect or to desire that they should. Permanent, monogamous marriage is desirable for reasons arising from the special complementarities and jealousies of male and female, long understood by human tradition and more recently elucidated by evolutionary psychology. Those reasons do not cross-apply to same-sex couples. If “marriage” is made available to gay and lesbian couples, it will be behaviorally different. We would do wrong to try to force it to be behaviorally the same, to force same-sex couples into heteronormative molds. But if we don’t, it’s inconvenient to use the word “marriage,” which until now had a quite definite meaning, to describe LGBT arrangements that tend to be quite behaviorally dissimilar both from straight marriage and from each other. And it might be worse than inconvenient, if the “marriage” label facilitates the spillover of LGBT practices and norms into straight people’s behavior. Leading advocates of same-sex marriage have suggested that “married” gay men are likely to be “monogamish” rather than monogamous. That’s fine for them, since there’s no reason either to desire or to expect that same-sex couples should be permanent or exclusive, but would be disastrous for straight couples, who need all the willpower and cultural reinforcement they can get to fight temptation and maintain the sexual exclusivity that is crucial for the happiness and stability of their marriages.

I could imagine utilitarian and natural rights counter-arguments to this, but I think gay marriage advocates would be reluctant to use them, because any commitment to an explicit meta-ethical position levels the playing field too much. You can’t very well call an opponent of same-sex marriage a “bigot,” or allege a “bare desire to harm,” if the question turns on a delicate balance of utilitarian arguments pro and contra. Or, if your ethics are based on natural rights, you might with difficulty be able to maintain the position that the natural rights of man include a hitherto-undiscovered right to marry a person of one’s own sex, but you can hardly deny that there is any “rational basis” for resisting a claim about human nature that most of historic mankind, including all the great thinkers of the past until five minutes ago, would have dismissed as absurd. Since gay marriage victories have mostly been won through the courts, it damages the cause to permit opponents to discharge the absurdly easy burden of showing that they have some sort of arguments for their position, and aren’t just acting from spite towards homosexuals. If they do that, they raise the question: Why don’t we settle this through the democratic process, instead of having courts throw out democratically-passed laws by reinterpreting constitutional clauses in ways that would have amazed their authors? Same-sex marriage advocates prefer to avoid these deep waters, and stick to what works best for them, namely, the shallow semantics of “equal rights,” which enjoys enormous popularity even though the notion does not stand up to moderate critical examination. If they can bandy the phrase “marriage equality” about enough, while alleging “discrimination,” and creating an aura of inevitability by citing rising public support and telling opponents they’re on “the wrong side of history” (though the trend towards rising support seems to have paused, perhaps plateaued), without ever getting bogged down in a straightforward philosophical argument about what marriage is, they can come off looking like the muddle-headed good guys in a fight with pedantic puritans, and win by a kind of attrition, as the exhausted and intimidated public shrugs and decides to drift with the times.

Now, open borders advocates could follow this example, basing their case on “equal rights,” and insisting that “equal rights” be extended to all human beings. I’ve written before about how equality of opportunity, if seriously pursued, points to open borders more urgently than to any other single policy. I regard this more as a reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, than as a positive argument for open borders. Open borders is a wise, feasible, and beneficent reform, while equality of opportunity is an ideal both unattainable and undesirable, a nihilistic delusion, the pursuit of which, if sufficiently aggressive, would require an ever more invasive leveling government, and impoverish mankind by erasing much wholesome, pleasant, and productive diversity. But since “equal rights” is a widely accepted ideal, open borders advocates could, in principle, take advantage of this error by pushing our agenda under the fashionable slogan.

I think it’s a bad idea. First, people won’t be as easily duped by the empty semantics of equal rights on a really important question like migration, as they are on a question like same-sex marriage which many think won’t really affect them. Second, though the successes of the same-sex marriage movement have certainly reduced my faith in the power of reason to influence public opinion, I still think good arguments are ultimately a valuable asset to any cause, and bad arguments are a liability. I think the same-sex marriage movement would use better arguments for their cause, if such arguments were available. They are available for open borders.

I can’t resist one last illustration of the unfathomably bad quality of some arguments made by the same-sex marriage movement, as an example of what not to do. Apologies for a couple of interruptions [in brackets], but I got so impatient with the disinformation that I couldn’t wait till the end of the blockquote to correct it. Will Saletan writes in Slate:

The first thing to understand is that homosexuality isn’t a sin. It can’t be, because it isn’t a choice. It’s not like promiscuity or premarital sex or cheating on your spouse. It’s just the way some people are born. [Note that this is myth: identical twin studies prove that homosexuality is not genetically determined.] If you’re not sure about this, talk to people who are gay. They’ll tell you that they didn’t choose to be gay, just as you didn’t choose to be straight [which is probably true but does not imply that people are born homosexual]. Their lives would be a lot easier if they could switch. Many of them have tried. They’ve learned the hard way that they can’t change their sexual orientation any more than you can change yours.

This beggars belief. Saletan seems incapable of understanding the very, very simple distinction between homosexual attraction, which is presumably largely involuntary and is not a sin, as Christian churches have always understood, and homosexual conduct, which is what Christianity and most other faiths and cultures condemn as a sin. Is he really so stupid as not to be able understand that distinction? Or is he just obfuscating in order to confuse his audience? I have no idea, and I suppose I don’t really care, but it’s very depressing. How is one to deal with people who make such terrible arguments? If I were debating someone for whom I had moderate intellectual respect, I would swiftly punish such lapses with open scorn, which is sometimes an indispensable tool of argument, a way of raising the intellectual level of discussion by getting the simplest errors out of the way quickly, a way to signal to one’s opponent to be more careful, more responsible, more rigorous. Certainly, if I were ever so foolish as to make such an argument, I would want my opponent to teach me a lesson by ripping me to shreds with the utmost contempt, so that I might never commit such a blunder again. But one can’t use open scorn all the time without the debate getting unedifying. Which makes it difficult to talk to advocates of same-sex marriage.

There is a delight simply in reasoning well, in arguing honestly, in being ruled by logic and evidence and seeing where it takes you. May the open borders movement continue to be infused with this delight. May we strive to be admired even by our opponents for our fairness to all arguments, our open-minded acceptance of all manner of logic and evidence, the clarity and rigor of our thinking. Our task is not to put the reasoning mind to sleep, or bludgeon it into silence, but to awaken it.

III. Christianity

A notable difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that whereas Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of the same-sex marriage movement, institutional and pious Christianity already has pro-immigration leanings, and may develop into an open borders ally.

The movement to abolish slavery was an overwhelmingly Christian achievement. By contrast, Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of same-sex marriage. True, some churches have endorsed it, but that’s a quick route to decline and schism. As a rule, it’s the strict churches that remain strong, while churches that prefer fashion to faith lose their credibility and  unravel. Religion is the most-cited reason in polls for opposing same-sex marriage. Some pastors are now refusing to perform any civil marriages at all, basically on the ground that same-sex marriage has rendered civil marriage a travesty which should not get church legitimation. Indeed, given the firm opposition of Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants, it’s not clear what same-sex marriage advocates think their endgame is. The church has been around for two thousand years and it’s not going to disappear. It doesn’t change its mind about such things. The persecution of bakers, photographers, and others whose consciences forbid them to assist with gay “weddings,” may foreshadow the answer to this question.

The Christian position on open borders is different. I’ve written about “the coming Catholic movement for freedom of migration” and about how the Old Testament law provides a template for an open-borders society.  My co-blogger John Lee, impressed by the Bible’s teachings on immigration, asked “Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?” but the analogy with slavery would counsel patience. Christian societies tolerated slavery for generations, but in due course it was Christians who spearheaded abolition. We may hope the same pattern will hold for open borders. Already, Christian churches are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Religious piety is a predictor of favorable attitudes to immigration, and most Christians support immigration reforms that would let undocumented immigrants stay. Advocacy of immigration reform by Catholic bishops and the pope has been strong and persistent, attracting angry attacks from nativists. Evangelicals have been less favorable, but a description by Michael Gerson of how evangelicals are split on immigration is somewhat encouraging:

In the immigration reform debate, evangelicals have become a political prize claimed by restrictionists and reformers alike. Both sides have a case to make.

Of the major American religious groups, white evangelicals are the most skeptical about immigration. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, more than 60 percent believe that the growing number of immigrants “threatens traditional American customs and values” and more than half view immigrants as an economic burden rather than contributors.

At the same time, many evangelical leaders and institutions — including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — are high-profile advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers…

[There is] an interesting distinction between cultural issues among white evangelicals. Those who attend worship services more frequently are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage — tending toward the traditionally conservative position. But immigration provides a contrast. Those who attend worship services more frequently are less likely to see newcomers as a threat to American values. They tend toward the less typically conservative view.

I’m sorry to say that it’s possible to read the public opinion data differently data, and I wish that my fellow Christians were more unanimously Christian in their views on immigration. My confidence here doubtless reflects my own Christian faith, which is strengthened by but also colors my view of the long history of Christianity driving progress towards social justice, though often much too feebly and haltingly. In part, though, hope simply has nowhere else to turn. Open borders is a very remote goal, whose base of support, though possibly growing, remains minuscule. Without the Christian churches coming on side eventually, it’s hard to imagine what strategy could lead to success. The abolition of slavery was a consequence, not simply of Christianity, but more specifically of Christian revivalism, of an upsurge in Christian piety. I suppose my hopes rest on some new Great Awakening sweeping the Christian churches, strengthening them, strengthening the pious within them relative to the complacent and lukewarm, and further Christianizing the churches through deeper reflection on the moral imperatives latent in the Gospel message. It has happened before.

There are even some respects in which open borders arguments are favored by the Christian reaction that the same-sex marriage movement is provoking. Civil disobedience to the same-sex marriage movement by Elaine Huguenin, Jack Phillips, and Melissa Klein should make Christian conservatives more sympathetic to civil disobedience by Jose Antonio Vargas or Fabian Morales. There’s a tension between demanding a stronger, more invasive government to deport undocumented immigrants, and trying to stop a strong, invasive government from imposing a top-down revolution in social values by suppressing the traditional view of marriage. A leading slogan in the struggle against gay adoption is that “every child has a right to a mother and a father.” The pope is on board.  Research indicates that children do better with their mother and father, which in any case should be obvious from sociobiology, since it’s in the interest of each sex’s selfish genes to have whatever parenting strengths the other sex typically lacks, and not to waste resources on parenting strengths the other sex has in abundance. Now, if every child has a right to a father and mother, it would seem to be a violation of this right when deportation separates families. Again, as opponents of same-sex marriage movement have appealed to natural law, a new interest has been kindled in the important but difficult and long neglected idea that law should have a basis in moral reality and can’t be regarded simply as an arbitrary social convention. Natural law reasoning favors open borders, since laws restricting migration are clearly mere social conventions rather than moral fundamentals. That if same-sex “marriages,” though recognized by the state, can’t really be marriages, because they have no basis in natural law, then “illegal” immigrants can’t really be illegal because they haven’t violated natural law, is hardly an obvious deduction. But both ideas grow out of natural law thinking, and the more people reflect on and commit themselves to the first claim, the readier they will be to understand the second. My 2010 book Principles of a Free Society was an argument for open borders from natural law premises.

IV. Open Borders, Same-Sex Marriage, and Constitutional Democracy

Finally, there are basic tactical differences between how the same-sex marriage movement has achieved success, and how the open borders movement might do so. Both movements have a problematic relationship to constitutional democracy, but not in the same way.

Although polls now show majority support for same-sex marriage, relatively few of the victories of the same-sex marriage movement have been at the ballot box. Not until 2012 did two states, Maryland and Maine, approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box. By contrast, 30 states have passed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in most of the USA, but this is a result of judicial decisions, not referenda or even the acts of elected officials. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more pushback from same-sex marriage advocates against same-sex marriage being imposed by the courts. Now that it seems to enjoy majority support, same-sex marriage could presumably get democratic legitimation, being passed through referenda. Courts that overturn same-sex marriage bans have to do so by interpreting constitutional clauses in ways that their original authors, as well as many generations of jurists until quite recently, would have disagreed with, and indeed, would have found amazing and ridiculous. Such “legislating from the bench” is a logically absurd and anti-democratic practice, but it has worked, for now. Should the open borders movement follow suit, and look for success through the courts?

Ilya Somin has offered, here at Open Borders: The Case, an originalist argument that the Constitution doesn’t authorize Congress to restrict immigration. I would be delighted if this logic were to persuade the Supreme Court. Am I being inconsistent and opportunistic here, deploring judicial review when it goes against a side I’m on, and asking for it when it would help a side I’m on? No. I don’t object to judicial review when it represents a good-faith effort to realize the intentions of the authors of the laws. It seems plausible that the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend to endow the new federal government with power to restrict immigration, as distinct from the power to confer citizenship; or at least that if some might have desired to endow it with such power, they didn’t put anything in the Constitution which they regarded as comprising a grant of that power; and that if they were informed that future judges would discover they had not granted that power to Congress, they would either have nodded with approval, or at most, found the judgment an unfortunate but understandable reading of their words. By contrast, if the authors of the 14th Amendment had been given a time machine and seen President Obama claiming that the 14th Amendment requires nationwide same-sex marriage, they would have not only have clarified their language to exclude this interpretation in the clearest possible way, but would probably have added a few clauses to call down God’s curse on any lying scoundrel of a judge who might someday perpetrate any such absurdity. So while the pro same-sex marriage decisions are anti-democratic and illegitimate, a pro-open borders decision would be right and proper.

But I don’t expect it to happen. Originalism has been defeated and defeated for decades as the Supreme Court has systematically eviscerated the enumerated powers doctrine and persistently expanded federal power, using the flimsiest of reasoning. In effect, the Court has overturned the limited government principles established in the Constitution and replaced it with omnicompetent government restrained only by positive limits such as those stated in the Bill of Rights. To apply originalist reasoning such as Somin’s on a consistent basis would require the Court to overturn half the legislation passed in the 20th century, radically rewriting the social contract. That would be a lot less undemocratic than it might sound, since the voters could, after all, re-establish everything the Court overturned through constitutional amendments; but it’s still hard to imagine the Republic tolerating such an unexpected overhaul. And while the new equilibrium that would emerge after this sort of originalist revolution might be more libertarian than the status quo, I’d be very surprised if the voters didn’t pass some sort of constitutional amendment restoring the government’s right to restrict migration. So I doubt open borders could be established through an originalist revolution in the courts, and anyway I don’t there’s any chance that an originalist revolution will occur.

Much more promising is the executive branch. David Bennion has argued in this space that “executive action, not legislative reform, is how US immigration policy gets made now.” I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s executive semi-amnesty, on the substance, and I also think, tentatively, that presidential nullification is probably a good constitutional innovation. It’s one more check on the abuse of power. It might also weaken the rule of law, if lots of presidentially nullified laws remain on the books ready to be re-activated by a friendly president. What I would really like is a combination of presidential nullification with a robust doctrine of desuetude. Then, if presidents left the laws unenforced for a few years, they would cease to be laws, making a nice way to roll back the large excess of laws that the country is burdened with.

Presidential nullification is far less undemocratic than non-originalist judicial review, since presidents are democratically elected. Still, I won’t stress the democratic credentials of the open borders movement vis-a-vis those of the same-sex marriage movement, because I’m far more of a believer in freedom and justice than in democracy, and I care far less about whether the people or a hereditary monarch is “sovereign,” than about how robust are the limits on the sovereign power, and how conformable to the natural law are its statutes and conduct. There are serious difficulties in defining democracy, which the open borders issue forces into the open. For example, I have little doubt that US open borders would be established very swiftly if foreigners could vote in US elections;  does that make open borders a highly democratic policy, or is it irrelevant? I have sometimes argued that “immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law,” since democracy is a good thing because the people who have to live under the laws get to have a say in making them; and the set of people (citizens) who have a say in making immigration laws is the exact inverse of the set of people (non-citizens) who are subject to them. Doubtless my usage here deviates a bit from the mainstream; but I don’t think the mainstream has any clear or consensus notion of what democracy is, or why it is good.

Even my objection to non-originalist judicial review is not that it’s democratic but that it’s dishonest. Judges of the “living Constitution” type pretend to interpret the law when they’re really imposing their own policy preferences arbitrarily, so I condemn them as frauds. I much prefer someone like Tsar Nicholas II, who didn’t pretend a commitment to democratic norms. I would like liberal judges better if they said openly: “American voters often do things we think are bad, so we’re selectively overturning democracy in the interests of what is good and right.” Then I’d hope our new judicial overlords proved to be more just and beneficent than the democratic regime they supplanted. But liberal judges’ pseudo-democratic posturing denies me the option of respecting them.


* I use the word “meta-ethics” in a slightly different sense than philosophers do. For me, utilitarianism is a meta-ethical position; virtue ethics is a meta-ethical position; natural rights is a meta-ethical position; Kantian deontology is a meta-ethical position. Such meta-ethical views relate to the meaning and source of morality generally, as distinct from ethical views, such as whether it’s right to divorce a silly and spendthrift husband, or to spare someone’s feelings by telling a lie.

Migration: putting the individual at the center

One of the core arguments for free movement of people is the economic logic of the free movement of labor. But of course people are more than just labor, and migrants make the journey for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t for economic gain (or welfare benefits maximization, in the cynic’s version of the narrow economic motive), then the migrant must be fleeing oppression, if the typical migration discussants are to be believed. The role open borders could play in offering sanctuary for the oppressed is important, of course. But this too, is not the full story.

The stories of students studying in foreign universities are also familiar, and I suppose could be construed as human capital development and thus economic in nature. But of course, not all (or even most?) students seek higher learning only for its economic benefits. Perhaps their parents expect it of them; or it is what their peers are doing; or they have the scholar’s instinct to learn; or they hope to find love and value the kinds of people who attend university; or they are enchanted by the sheer romantic adventure of it all. Or perhaps education is a convenient vehicle for the intended aim of moving far away from the student’s home.

People cross frontiers because of family, evoking sympathy from moderates and cynicism about anchor babies and phony marriages from immigration skeptics. But people move to get away from family as well. The bonds of family and village can stifle and suffocate, and sometimes the only way to escape the kind of life and values you see around you is to physically leave. And perhaps the easiest way to get far enough away to find the right mix of desired opportunities and personal contacts and values is to leave your country of origin.

Incidentally, distaste for the culture of Oklahoma played no small role in my own eventual migration (within the US) to California. It’s worth noting in my case that economic calculation played no role whatsoever in this decision; instead, it was educational opportunities (graduate school in chemistry) and the desire to live in a more cosmopolitan locale, far away from the “Bible Belt” of my rearing.

There are still other reasons to move. Someone might be interested in moving to another country simply because of a fascination with the culture there. Consider a young Westerner who has studied Japan through much of her childhood. Perhaps she is of Japanese descent and wishes to learn and experience more of a culture that is mostly alien but for an easily overlooked familial connection. Or she wishes to study one of the Japanese schools of Buddhism and must do so in Japan. Or perhaps our young Westerner has no connection to Japan at all. She just got hooked on manga by a random twist of fate and the love of the language and udon and the rest came along later.

This last gets at something entirely missed by models built only on economistic concepts like wage gaps and place premia: glamour. As goofy as it usually becomes on close inspection, some foreign lands just seem to have a magical allure. Consider the mythologies surrounding New York City or Hollywood or Paris. These cities are romanticized out of all proportion to reality in movies, in popular literature, and in the dreams people share with one another. Or to those non-urbanists in the audience, take the American western frontier, the “wild west”. These examples are colored by my own American experience, of course. I don’t know much about the mythologies surrounding life on the rich side of Europe’s guarded borders, except for my vague, leftish fantasies about maybe some day moving to a land free of cowboy conservatism. And I know nothing of the sparkling, rapidly modernizing cities of India and China and the hopes and dreams they represent for nearby hinterlanders. And as an irreligious mongrel, I will likely never appreciate the importance attached to holy lands and ancestral homes. Perhaps glamour is just killer marketing, but even if it is just marketing, it hardly matters. We feel the effects.

Or sometimes the effect is not felt. John Lee’s recent exposition of the all-things-considered quite open borders of Argentina is an illuminating example of what gets people moving and what doesn’t. Given the freedom to immigrate that Argentina respects, the country’s history of immigration, and the high wages of the Argentine labor market compared to much of the world, one would expect to see floods of migrants to the country. But wage gaps aren’t everything. Maybe no one knows about Argentina’s mostly open borders, or maybe the country gets bad press for its unenviable macroeconomic management, or maybe the aspiring migrants of the world have not had time to adjust their hopes and dreams to include this new possibility.

Then there is the romance of the expatriate, who chooses to dwell within a new country, for work or school or whatever. The expatriate is not a permanent immigrant, however long she might stay in her host country. She has no intention of assimilating, and perhaps even relishes the identity of being a stranger in a strange land. Among a certain set of expats, which country they live in doesn’t even matter that much, as long as it’s somewhere different from their birth country. Some will teach their native language, or join a multinational volunteer program, or find work–any work–in order just to stay abroad. And some will hop from country to country as opportunities present themselves, staying one step ahead of the little things in life that tie one down. Work, school, teaching, etc., are for these rootless cosmopolitans just means to the purpose of migration.

And there is no good reason to think that the desire to migrate for the sheer hell of it is something limited to rich kids from OECD countries, other than what might uncharitably be called neocolonialist assumptions about the people of “developing” nations. Laura Agustin, in a work filled with interviews of migrants exercising agency, describes this “metanarrative” in which

leisure is considered an aspect of western modernity that facilitates tourism, which is characterized by the absence of work, while migration is undertaken by less modern people impelled by identifiable causes to leave home. The tourism and pleasure seeking of people from ‘developing’ societies rarely figures, as though migration and tourism (and working and tourism) were mutually exclusive. […]

Armed conflict and loss of farms may push people away from home, while labour shortage and favourable immigration policy may pull them elsewhere: the basic concept is unarguable, but it also envisions migrants as acted upon, leaving little room for desire, aspiration, anxiety or other states of the soul. In contrast, first-world travellers are imagined to be modern individuals searching for ways to realise themselves.

We all, rich and poor alike, experience push and pull factors of economic forces and, in very bad cases, geopolitical forces. But we all also access any of a variety of personal reasons like those I described above to exercise agency, both in how we react to external forces and how we formulate and execute our life plans in circumstances we find ourselves in. Ignoring the centrality of the individual agent in decisions to migrate in an attempt to understand migration in terms of impersonal forces robs migrants of the dignity of their lived experiences.

Nevertheless, there are important differences between the well-off citizens of rich nations and the least fortunate among us: with the education, personal connections, and financial and institutional resources common in the rich world, we the lucky ones can form our aspirations with a greater awareness of alternative possibilities. An illiterate subsistence farmer, to take an extreme example, has not seen enough of the world to know what he is missing. A woman growing up in a society that fails to respect the rights of women and forsakes their education and development may never learn that women can lead other kinds of lives.

Migration is a valid choice for the plethora of reasons described above, but it’s worth noting that it is the option to move that is of value rather than movement itself. After all, movement isn’t always voluntary. The individual’s desire is frequently to remain wherever it is she calls home, and this desire can be thwarted by violent upheavals, forced migrations, and human trafficking. Also, the capability to move may be valued even if it is never exercised. I may fervently wish to move to that shining city on a far-flung hill and plan my life accordingly, even if life in its intricate twists and turns ultimately presents me with something completely different to settle my yearning feet. The planning itself and the decision to change my mind will have been the products of my own agency, no one else’s, and there is something worthwhile in that. Finally, I may value the freedom of movement so that someone else might exercise it. Perhaps I will stay rooted, but my son will chase dreams taking him far, far away.

It’s important also to make room for contingency in life and in the decisions we make. I met my spouse on a blind date arranged by a casual friend who, one fateful evening, instant-messaged my wife-to-be by accident. Stupid luck can radically change our lives. Random events affect migrants as well–the chance meeting that provides a crucial contact abroad, or falling in love while on a work assignment or studying in another country, or hearing about an employment opportunity while on a religious pilgrimage. These chance scenarios present a person with good reasons to make migration decisions that aren’t captured well by economic push-pull models, nor by the tear-jerking stories of violent political crises or persecution (compelling though they are).

I should point out that I don’t mean to impugn simplified economic models categorically. I only mean to caution their use. They usefully model what the world would look like if people acted only according to their economic self-interest, which is indeed a powerful force. But economic self-interest is but one of a range of motives, a plethora of which may act on an individual all at once. Homo economicus, like homo refugeeus, is a cartoon that doesn’t reflect the rich diversity and texture of human agency.

The point I’ve alluded to thus far but will now make explicit is that the right to migrate–or more precisely, the capability to choose where one lives–has both instrumental as well as intrinsic value. The focus of most economic accounts of migration is its instrumental value, that is, the role of migration in facilitating other, more traditionally understood economic projects like finding higher wages and developing human capital. But as I hope I’ve illustrated above, migration for many people can be seen as valuable in and of itself. One migrates to work, but might also work to migrate. I have tried to flesh out an agent-centered view of migration, where the decisions made by individuals to move or not to move, and where to move and how, are understood as belonging to the individuals involved, whether those decisions are heavily constrained by external forces or not. The versatile instrumentality, the intrinsic value, and the dignity inherent in the choice to move or stay make the freedom of movement a strong candidate for fundamental human right, the abrogation of which requires powerful and particular justification.

Consider an analogy with the freedom of speech, which is considered fundamental at least in the democracies of the developed world. One could list all of the reasons why people value the ability to express themselves. Free speech creates a marketplace of ideas, allowing unpopular but meritorious ideas to gain a foothold and with time possibly come to dominate. The benefits redound to us all in the forms of technology, philosophy, religion, education, sexuality, etc. Free speech allows art and literature to flourish in a way that state-controlled arts and letters cannot hope to match. Art, literature, and the entertainment forms of modern media also bring people together, strengthening the existing bonds of human relationships and communities, and engendering new relationships and communities. Volumes have been written on these instrumental advantages of free expression. But self-expression is also a valuable experience all on its own, in terms of pure amusement, organization, catharsis, and spiritual fulfillment. The limits to freedom of expression we accept as reasonable (Crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater) do not damage the principle involved. We still presume freedom of expression is valuable unless very strong arguments are brought to bear in particular cases. The capability to express oneself is, quite simply, the kind of thing a person has reason to value.

International migration is an entirely natural phenomenon that should evoke no more suspicion than moving over to the next town. People have a palate of reasons for migrating that reflects the diversity of their individual histories, relationships, dreams, and even whimsical fantasies. These are reasons that even the most rooted among us can understand with a bit of imagination. The multiplicity of reasons to migrate is wide-ranging enough that it makes sense to consider it a fundamental human capability–the kind of capacity a person has reason to value without needing to appeal to other ends. And migrants themselves are just folks, from all races and classes, from all creeds, from all genders and sexualities, from all parts of the world.

With all of this in mind, it becomes obvious that the violent enforcement of border controls around the world is both hopeless and hopelessly misguided. It is hopeless because movement is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. As such, like the urges to speak one’s mind to be heard, to make friends and to love lovers, to labor and to enjoy the fruits thereof, the urge to move will find a way by cussed grit and ingenuity. Fences and gunboats will extinguish some dreams and rack up body counts but, short of truly totalitarian crackdowns, they will not halt the flows of humanity. But the control of the border does warp the experience of migrants, creating or worsening conditions of fear, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. And the project to control the border is misguided because it ignores the basic, human element at play: individuals making decisions about their own lives for their own reasons. People move. They always will. Embrace them.

This post was inspired by Hein de Haas’s paper, “Migration Theory: Quo Vadis?”, which formulates a model of migration in the capabilities framework. This framework is implicit in the post.

Paul Krugman

Krugman and Cowen on immigration; or, rallying the economic profession around open borders

Co-blogger Joel Newman recently authored a fine post calling out Paul Krugman on his seeming endorsement of unjust immigration laws. Joel notes that Krugman eagerly endorsed excessively restrictive immigration laws introduced in the US in 1924, without even mentioning or criticising their basis in primarily racist and empirically-unfounded bigotry. Krugman essentially endorsed closing the borders because, in his own words,

The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

The chief problem with this argument is Krugman’s implicit assumption that it would have been impossible — whether for fairness or politically practicable reasons — to design a welfare system that excludes non-citizens. Limitations on benefits access for non-citizens are what we call keyhole solutions, policies aimed at solving a particular problem by targeting it in a keyhole fashion — using a swatter instead of a nuclear bomb to kill a fly.

We know Krugman’s assumption of unworkability is unjustified because  many welfare systems, including that of the US, already exclude immigrants from most benefits. Don’t take it from me; take it from the federal government. If you need a one-sentence summary, here it is:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

“Qualified Aliens” basically refers to what we colloquially might call “legal immigrants”. Unauthorised immigrants never qualify for federal benefits unless and until they become legal immigrants and pass the five-year waiting period.

What of universal, non-means-tested benefits, like Social Security, which is often seen the crowning jewel of the New Deal? Or of Medicare, the crowning jewel of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” follow-up to the New Deal? Well, anyone half-familiar with the economics of these laws knows the answer: citizen or not, virtually nobody can qualify to receive benefits from either of these programmes without working for at least 10 years (see this report from the conservative Heritage Foundation for more). You would never see a flood of immigrants bringing their aged and infirm to cash in on American universal social benefits, because unless these aged and infirm worked for a decade, they would never qualify.

Are these limitations on immigrant welfare access immoral, or politically infeasible? That doesn’t seem to be the case to me. Obviously they are politically feasible; if anything, it would have been quite politically impossible to enact some of these programmes without such restrictions! And although every government decision is fraught with moral trade-offs, it seems more immoral to deny anyone, native or foreign, the right to go where they please in peace than it would be to allow them liberty of work and travel at the expense of higher bars for them to access state funds for the indigent. I tend to think Krugman would agree; to my knowledge he has never criticised bars on immigrant access to welfare as fundamentally unjust — while he has routinely deplored in the past efforts to deprive foreigners of jobs and opportunities that they can and want to seize.

Krugman is certainly a terribly smart economist, so I believe he understands all these issues I raise, possibly much better than I do. That’s why his wording is so careful. He says that “absent [immigration] restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.” (emphasis added) He never says these claims would have been justified or valid, but he also never calls them out as clearly unjustified and invalid either, even though such assertions clearly would have been completely baseless by design in the very New Deal that the US got!

It is quite uncharacteristic of Krugman to essentially surrender to bigotry and ignorance in a policy debate. He is basically saying: “A bunch of stupid bigots would have made some false claims about a good policy if we didn’t forcefully exclude immigrants from our shores, so it’s a good thing we catered to these bigots’ unfounded prejudices.” The Krugman I’ve been reading for almost a decade would never have said anything close to this — except, alas, on immigration.

I don’t think Krugman needs to be persuaded of the economic feasibility of keyhole solutions like benefit access limitations. After all, he links to this fantastic review of the economic literature on immigration, which finds that thanks in no small part to the limitations on welfare access which virtually every country has enacted, the average immigrant to the developed world is a fiscal breakeven. Immigrants don’t tax social welfare systems anywhere as much as the typical non-economist might expect, because social welfare systems are perfectly capable of serving citizens while limiting immigrants’ access.

It is very unlike Krugman to notice such a gaping economic fallacy, and refrain from exploiting or belittling it. The only explanation I can see of the issue is that, like most centre-left moderates on immigration, he has fallen prey to a series of mistakes leading him to underrate the importance of the issue. I can only hope that Krugman eventually listens to reason — that he listens to himself.

Just look at Paul Krugman discussing the topic of domestic migration — now here is the Krugman I know, lambasting unfounded economic thinking. Within the US, domestic migrants have mostly moved to “Sunbelt” states like Texas. Their politicians boast of business-friendly policies and low taxes. But, Krugman astutely points out, these policies don’t seem to be showing up in the productivity or wage figures.

From wage data, it seems that migrants to Sunbelt states are actually leaving more productive climes for new homes in a less productive region! Krugman argues the data has to lead us to conclusion that the main reason they move is because they actually take home more money, despite earning less. The cause of this?

Because living there is cheaper, basically because of housing. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rents (including the equivalent rent involved in buying a house) in metropolitan New York are about 60 percent higher than in Houston, 70 percent higher than in Atlanta.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

And this, in turn, means that the growth of the Sunbelt isn’t the kind of success story conservatives would have us believe. Yes, Americans are moving to places like Texas, but, in a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way, leaving local economies where their productivity is high for destinations where it’s lower. And the way to make the country richer is to encourage them to move back.

Migration is an extremely important issue because it is the primary way that our societies make better use of scarce human talent. A mind is a terrible thing to waste — so it would be particularly sad if the innovator behind the next Facebook or Tesla was forced to live in the boondocks because he or she just couldn’t live where all the other innovators are, because of laws designed to exclude people like him or her from the places where those innovators live.

But the same logic applies to less-skilled workers too: if we need more housing and services for smart people who want to live in cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, then we also need more construction workers and bus drivers and baristas and barbers. You can’t have a city that’s purely populated by high-skilled workers; it would be inefficient if every barista in town had a PhD. So it would be just as much of a shame if baristas with just a high school education couldn’t live in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.

Again, I don’t need to explain any of this to Krugman. He clearly gets it. But he strangely ignores the importance of this productivity problem when it comes to international immigration. All he needs to do is listen to himself, and apply the identical productivity insights to movement across international borders.

The wage gaps Krugman talks about are, as he says, a measure of inefficiency and impoverishment: that people are forced to work in less productive jobs, earning lower wages, ultimately impoverishes everyone. People’s talents, whatever they may be, are not being put to their fullest use. But the immigration restrictions Krugman supports have exactly the same effect as the strict land use laws he laments.

And although the effects are conceptually the same, the magnitudes are not. The wage gaps Krugman discusses are on the order of 10 to 20%. But the wage gaps created by restrictions on movement across international borders are on the order of 100 to 1400%! These wage gaps are immense, and they have never existed in regions with unified labour markets, where workers are legally allowed to move across borders and work.

See the seminal economic paper by Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett, and Claudio Montenegro for more — but trust me, the effects are huge. No matter what assumptions or methods they use, economists studying the issue virtually always conclude that the inefficiencies resulting from our laws restricting the movement of workers between countries are on the order of 50 to 150% of world GDP: trillions of dollars. Simply put, they dwarf the problems Krugman complains about when it comes to the inefficiences created by policies that drive people to migrate from Massachusetts to Texas.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely agree with Krugman that strict land use laws, which aim to prevent the “wrong” types of people from being able to live in certain areas, are inefficient and reprehensible. I applaud him all the more for drawing attention to them. Unconscionably strict land use policies are deeply-entrenched in American law; so deep that Krugman’s fellow pro-immigration economist and New York Times columnist, libertarian Tyler Cowen, has declared he cannot support open borders because it would not be politically feasible to let so many poor people live in rich countries — because the only way to truly allow poor people to come would be to repeal and overcome the strict land use regime prevailing in much of America.

The parallels actually are quite striking; both Krugman and Cowen neglect to think of, or at least discuss, how keyhole solution-type policies could ameliorate the political costs of immigration that they worry about. After all, as Krugman himself has observed, immigrants gain immensely from being able to put their labour to more productive uses, in more productive regions.

They would be willing to pay a lot for the ability to live and work legally in a country like the US; that’s why they shell out thousands in fees to smugglers when the law, unjustly and inefficiently, bans them from coming legally. It would be far fairer and efficient to let immigrants compensate their new neighbours for the costs (even if these might be purely psychic costs incurred by those with anti-immigration prejudices) of living near immigrants. Both Krugman and Cowen know this — and even if it doesn’t fully comport with their sense of propriety, it is surely fairer to give immigrants some choice in the question of how to appease these bigots with political power, rather than to just ban most immigrants from coming altogether.

Both co-blogger economist Nathan Smith and myself have politely criticised Cowen before for his odd and inconsistent thinking about immigration, so I suppose it’s only fair that we hold Krugman to the same bar. And I can think of no better articulation of that bar than Cowen’s own, in one of his New York Times columns:

Often, economists spend their energies squabbling with one another, but arguably the more important contrast is between our broadly liberal economic worldview and the various alternatives — common around the globe — that postulate natural hierarchies of religion, ethnicity, caste and gender, often enforced by law and strict custom…

One enormous issue is international migration. A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, quantified these gains in a 2011 paper, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” He found that unrestricted immigration could create tens of trillions of dollars in economic value, as captured by the migrants themselves in the form of higher wages in their new countries and by those who hire the migrants or consume the products of their labor. For a profession concerned with precision, it is remarkable how infrequently we economists talk about those rather large numbers.

Truly open borders might prove unworkable, especially in countries with welfare states, and kill the goose laying the proverbial golden eggs; in this regard Mr. Clemens’s analysis may require some modification. Still, we should be obsessing over how many of those trillions can actually be realized.

In any case, there is an overriding moral issue. Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn’t dream of producing a study that counted “men only” or “whites only,” at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data.

So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration? The nation-state is a good practical institution, but it does not provide the final moral delineation of which people count and which do not. So commentators on trade and immigration should stress the cosmopolitan perspective, knowing that the practical imperatives of the nation-state will not be underrepresented in the ensuing debate.

Economists have never let bigotry or prejudice get in the way of just and fair economic policies. That’s why Krugman worries so much about cost of living forcing engineers and construction workers to live in Dallas instead of New York: because the arbitrary exclusion of strict housing laws prevents these people from earning the wages they command in a fair market. It’s a problem of both social justice and economic efficiency. That people worry about new neighbours, or tall buildings, is not a good enough reason to arbitrarily exclude these people from living in places where they are willing to pay the market rent to earn their market wage.

After all, such excuses have often been cited in the past to exclude women, Jews, or blacks from the labour and housing markets by the force of law. That’s why, as Cowen observed earlier in his piece, economists were among the loudest and most consistent critics of slavery; the field’s derogatory nickname, “the dismal science“, originates from slavery advocates mocking economists’ at-the-time “absurd” view that blacks be given choice and agency in their work!

This long tradition of fighting for social justice and human prosperity should compel both Krugman and Cowen to seriously weigh the costs our immigration laws impose on the poor of the world, and the drag they impose on the productivity of the human race. Indeed, it should weigh on all economists. The consensus of the profession is that the current immigration regime is inefficient, and that most of the excuses given for maintaining it are unfounded.

Yet when they write about immigration, Krugman and Cowen often tiptoe about this consensus, and seemingly shrink from confronting the poorly-grounded rationales typically proffered in defence of immigration restrictions. It would be a shame for them to shrink from this, when their intellectual ancestors boldly placed themselves on the front lines fighting for social change, knowing that no less than fairness for broad swathes of humanity and prosperity for all humans stood at stake.

And should you doubt that both equity and efficiency are at stake here, I’ll defer to public policy student Daniel Kay Hertz’s words on the matter. He writes of zoning and land use laws, but with one or two modifications, his is just as eloquent a summation of the problem with modern immigration laws:

…the idea [is] that no one has a “right” to live in elite urban centers like San Francisco, and so affordable housing in those places isn’t actually a social justice issue…

But either way, applying this argument in favor of restrictive zoning is pretty ludicrous. After all, the reason that so many people can’t afford San Francisco isn’t because of the impartial workings of the market; it’s because the government is artificially inflating prices. If the government decided to impose supply restrictions on, say, milk, causing prices to go up to $20 a gallon, and people asked the government to stop doing that, it wouldn’t really make any sense to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, not everyone has the right to drink milk.”

Or, more pointedly, it’s as if you lost a race because someone was holding onto your ankles the entire time, and when you complained they responded, “Well, somebody had to lose.” Yes, of course. But the game was rigged.

Moreover, this kind of argument assumes – without saying so – that residents of wealthy neighborhoods do have another kind of right: the right to expect that their neighborhoods will stay the same forever. They don’t. Nor do they have the right to dictate where or how other people live. There’s surely some legitimate interest in incrementalism, to prevent the perceived chaos of massive and ubiquitous projects in a previously low-rise, quiet area. But that suggests that government should allow steady, even growth, not quash it altogether.

…What about, they say, the huge depopulated areas in Detroit, the South Side of Chicago, Philadelphia, the rest of the Rust Belt, and so on? What’s wrong with pushing people to live in those places?

There is a hint of sense in this – building more houses when we have these houses over there, sitting empty, isn’t ideal – but I don’t think it takes an awful lot of poking before it falls apart. If your plan to bring back economically devastated areas is to force lots of poor people to live there by denying them the option of living somewhere with, say, safe streets and decent schools, then…I’m not really sure what to say. That seems self-evidently like a disaster, both from a practical perspective – exactly what sort of renaissance do we expect to happen if we encourage lots of lower-income people to congregate in places that are already resource-starved, without an escape hatch? Has that ever worked out? – and from a moral one. Not to mention the legal one: remember, again, that the reason these areas are so expensive is because of government interfering in the market. The status quo isn’t neutrality; it’s a massive redistribution program to the wealthy from everyone else.

Zoning and land use laws are a serious problem, whether you look at them from the point of view of equity, or efficiency. But for all the reasons Hertz lays out, so are immigration laws. And the problems at stake with unjust, inefficient immigration laws are far bigger: literally, trillions of dollars bigger.

I first encountered Krugman as a young student in high school. One of my favourite pieces, to this day, is Krugman’s stirring defence of sweatshops. There is nothing noble in paying poor people a pittance for their labour, of course. But as Krugman pointed out, how can it be more noble to forcefully deny poor people even the choice  to be paid this pittance? How can it be right to deny people the chance to earn a wage of any kind, and to force them to live lives of subsistence farming, living literally hand-to-mouth, simply because we feel we have the moral authority to do so?

When he penned pieces like those, Krugman had no qualms calling out uncritical opponents of sweatshops on their bigotry:

The real complaint against developing countries is not that their exports are based on low wages and sweatshops. The complaint is that they export at all. And so the supposed friends of poor workers abroad are no friends at all. If they got their way the result … would not just be no sweatshop–it would be no job.

That’s the Krugman I fell in love with; that’s the Krugman who changed my life, convincing me to major in economics. We need that Krugman again more than ever, to speak out against the injustice and idiocy of immigration restrictions. Let me quote Krugman then to Krugman now:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to [immigration], to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard…

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty.

Amen, Mr. Krugman. The hopes of millions remain at stake when it comes to immigration laws that unjustly ban them from earning the market wage they could command by moving. Laws that create wage gaps on the order of thousands of percentage points, and productivity losses on the order of trillions of dollars are unconscionable. The fates of billions of poor people hang in the balance. Thinking things through, and speaking economic truth to power, is not just good intellectual practice; it remains our moral duty.

I am grateful to Carl Shulman of the Open Borders Action Group for his comments and suggestions that were incorporated into this piece.

How can migrants afford huge smuggling fees? Three answers

Even in the historical era of near-open borders, migration was not free of cost. But the main costs of international migration were similar to the costs of intranational migration: the cost of transporting one’s person and belongings, and of finding work, lodging, and sustenance at one’s new home. Legal restrictions on migration imposed no financial cost. At some immigration checkpoints, such as Ellis Island, officers turned back migrants who they thought would be unable to sustain themselves, but they did not charge an admission fee. So migrants simply had to demonstrate that they had enough money to take care of themselves for a few days while they looked for a job, rather than pay a huge fee to the officers.

Today, legal travel costs are quite low. One can get a one-way flight between diametrically opposite corners of the world for well under $2000. This is far from a negligible amount of money for the world’s poorest people, but it’s something that people above the very lowest rungs of poverty could probably access in loans. Particularly given the huge place premium, it seems like people would be quite willing to lend money to finance journeys, and travel costs wouldn’t be a bottleneck. For migrants with more assets back home, moving costs could be greater insofar as they may need to dispose of their assets before moving, but again, this cost is a small proportion of the migrant’s net worth. (Two somewhat related posts of mine: factors that would constrain migration if borders were opened quickly over a short span of time, and selection effects for migrants: some a priori possibilities. The latter discusses the way that moving costs could lead to selection effects for migrants).

At present, however, legal migration is a very difficult option for many people. Those who seek to migrate unlawfully have two options: either enter on a tourist visa or temporary work/study visa and then overstay it, or smuggle oneself in illegally. But temporary work/study visas are pretty hard to get too. Consular officers are quite cautious about granting tourist visas to people who seem like they are trying to use it as a pretext to migrate, and the tourist visa option is also thereby rendered unavailable to many potential migrants (in fact, consular officers have an extraordinary level of discretion here and little accountability to the visa applicants they deny, see my co-blogger John’s posts on the subject here, here, and here). Moreover, coming in on a tourist visa leaves a legal trail for the migrant, making it potentially easier for authorities to track the migrant down. Thus, the incentive for people to cross borders surreptitiously, despite the considerable physical discomfort and danger. In the United States, somewhere between a third and a half of migrants who are not currently in legal status are people who actually crossed the border without authorization.

As discussed on our coyote fees page, the costs of smuggling oneself in illegally are nontrivial (if you’re just interested in the prices, see this Havocscope page). Costs vary heavily by source country but are generally at least ten times the legal travel costs. Illegal immigration from China or India to the United States costs in the range of $50,000. And these are the pure financial costs, not the other costs of the journey, including the physical risks. This raises a natural question: who but the very wealthy could afford such sums? After all, most of the people who migrate illegally aren’t well-off. Where are they getting this money?

The most obvious answer (which is a non-answer of sorts) is that most people don’t. The legal barriers to migration are successful in keeping a significant fraction, probably a vast majority, of potential migrants, out. This is exactly why we are far from open borders and it’s such a radical proposal. As my co-blogger David Bennion wrote:

The immigration system isn’t broken, it is working as intended. But it needs to be broken; we need to break it.

Nonetheless, enough people do migrate in this manner for the phenomenon to be worth understanding. As I discussed in my blog post on snakeheads such as Sister Ping, a fair number of people migrate all the way from China to the United States in cramped ships, paying the huge human smuggling fees.

I outline three interconnected answers below.

#1: Personal and family savings back home

Many migrants save up money for over a decade in order to be able to finance their journey. In some cases, they liquidate their assets for the purpose.

In many cases, parents save up money over the course of their lives so that their children can access better opportunities. Just as some parents save up for their children’s college education while others save up for their children’s marriage, some parents save up so their children can be smuggled out of the country. For instance:

Liu’s father, a fisherman, had scraped together every penny he could possibly find to fund his son’s journey to the U.S. – using his savings, borrowing from families and friends. He paid $30,000 upfront to the smuggler – an astronomical figure for an average Chinese villager, whose annual income was a few hundred dollars at the time.

Also, the human smuggling and money transfer business have close connections, as relatives in the home country may send money to smugglers to pay off debts for successfully smuggled family members:

When the families of new arrivals wanted to send money to America to satisfy a relative’s snakehead debt, Sister Ping [a human smuggler] could pay that sum out of her reserves in New York.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (p. 46). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

One phenomenon observed in education is that, in poor families, the family often makes a bet on which child’s education it’ll finance (beyond the very basic level it can afford for all children). For instance, they may bet on the child who is smarter and more studious and therefore use combined family savings to finance her college education. The hope is that this child, once she gets a good job (made feasible by the human capital/signaling/networking benefits of a college education) can in turn provide support to the rest of the family, perhaps by financing the education of her siblings. This kind of triage makes some rational sense in places where there’s a huge income premium for those who get a college education, so that having one college-educated kid and one middle-school-educated kid is a better strategy than having two high-school-educated kids. In some cases, the belief may be factually irrational and based on inaccurate beliefs about the return to education. Here’s a quote from Poor Economics on the phenomenon:

Parents also tend to believe that the first few years of education pay much less than the next ones. For example, in Madagascar, parents believed that each year of primary education would increase a child’s income by 6 percent, each year of junior high education by 12 percent, and each year of senior secondary education by 20 percent. We found a very similar pattern in Morocco. There, parents believed that each year of primary education would increase a boy’s earning by 5 percent, and each year of secondary education by 15 percent. The pattern was even more extreme for girls. In the view of parents, each year of primary education was worth almost nothing for them: 0.4 percent. But each year of secondary education was perceived to increase earnings 17 percent.


This belief in the S—shape means that unless parents are unwilling to treat their children differently from one another, it makes sense for them to put all their educational eggs in the basket of the child they perceive to be the most promising, making sure that she gets enough education, rather than spreading the investment evenly across all their children. A few doors down from Shantarama (the widow whose two children were not in school), in the village of Naganadgi, we met a farming household with seven children. None of them had studied past second grade, except the youngest, a twelve-year-old boy. They were not satisfied with the quality of the government high school, where had spent a year. So the boy was attending seventh grade in a private boarding school located in the village. A year at school cost the family more than 10 percent of its total income from farming, a considerable commitment for just one child and clearly an impossible expense for seven. The lucky boy’s mother explained to us that he was the only intelligent child in the family. The willingness to use words like “stupid” and “intelligent” to refer to one’s own children, often in their presence, is entirely consistent with a worldview that puts a large premium on picking a winner (and in getting everyone else in the family to back the winner). This belief creates a strange form of sibling rivalry. In Burkina Faso, a study found that adolescents were more likely to be enrolled in school when they scored high on a test of intelligence, but they were less likely to be enrolled in school when their siblings had scored high.28

Banerjee, Abhijit; Duflo, Esther (2011-04-26). Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (pp. 88-89). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Anecdotal evidence suggests something similar for migration. Rather than making an egalitarian effort to save enough money for everybody to migrate simultaneously, families try to save enough so that one person (typically a young male) can make the move. The hope and expectation is that once the person is settled, he can help finance the migration of others, and/or provide financial assistance to them so they can have a better standard of living back home.

Both aspects of this lead to the conclusion that even this apparently unselected migration is likely to be heavily selected. Individuals who can save a large chunk of their income for over a decade to pursue a dream of smuggling themselves into a distant land are unlikely to be very ordinary, even if their qualifications on paper look no different from those of others around them. Insofar as families pool their resources to finance the migration of one member, there is also intra-family selection. This does mean that the selectivity of such migration may be stronger than what we might believe a priori. It also means that opening the borders might lead to lower selectivity even for “unskilled” migration.

Political refugees are likely to fall disproportionately in this category. Many of them are relatively well-off by the standards of their home country and the main reason they are fleeing is that they belong to a persecuted minority (sometimes directly on account of their relative wealth).

Another implication worth noting is the potential for differential selectivity. Given the low human smuggling fees from Mexico to the United States, those who are able to pay the fee may not be as heavily selected as those from China who pay the much higher fees. This suggests that, even for illegal immigration arising through unauthorized entry, migration from China may be more heavily selected than migration from Mexico. Therefore, we should be cautious about using the comparative performance of migrants from these countries to draw strong conclusions about the culture of the source countries and we should be careful before generalizing group differences for observed immigrants, even illegal ones, to the open borders scenario.

UPDATE: I raised some of these issues in an Open Borders Action Group post, and Carl Shulman commented on the post, linking to Cynthia Feliciano’s research, and noting that treating illegal immigration as unselected is a reasonable assumption overall in the US context because Mexican migration dominates numerically. A later comment by him suggested that migration to the UAE might provide a better idea of the level of selectivity we would see under open borders. See also Carl’s blog post on migration to the UAE.

#2: Financing by family members already in the destination country

In many cases, the families of potential migrants that are already in the destination country finance their journeys. They’re trying to get their spouses, siblings, children, or parents to join them. For close relationships, where resources are pooled anyway, the financing may be a gift. For somewhat more distant relationships, the financing may be in the form of a loan, albeit one made informally with flexible payment terms. Because we’re talking of family members in the destination country who have probably been there for a while, the amount of money is still large but not unthinkably exorbitant, thanks to the huge place premium.

This ties in very neatly with #1, because the implicit deal or payout in #1 is usually #2. It also ties in with #3, loans.

Note that the degree of selectivity here is lower. This also ties in somewhat with diaspora dynamics. In my blog post on snakeheads who facilitate smuggling from China to the United States, I mentioned this source of financing as an important one for many migrants. Here is the quote from the book:

One misconception about the snakehead business is that the smugglers will bring people over and then force them to work as indentured servants for years in order to pay off their debt. Such an arrangement would make very little sense from the smuggler’s point of view. A busy smuggler like Sister Ping didn’t want to keep track of scores of debtors at various stages of repayment, any of whom might skip town during the months, or more often years, that it took them to come up with $18,000. Instead, the smugglers would hold passengers once they arrived in the United States, giving them thirty-six or seventy-two hours to satisfy the debt. Such an arrangement might be unimaginable in any other ethnic community, but familial and communal ties among the Chinese in America were so strong that a new arrival could count on a guarantor cobbling together a five-figure fee by borrowing small amounts from many people—$1,000 here, $500 there. The immigrant was thus indentured not so much to the snakehead as to his own family.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (pp. 44-45). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Elsewhere in the book, Keefe notes that many migrants who were smuggled in recently spend the first few years saving up money so as to be able to pay for their relatives to be smuggled out:

older relatives [in Chinatown] who were largely absent, working day and night to pay off snakehead debts or raise money to send for more relatives.

Keefe, Patrick Radden (2009-07-15). The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream (p. 65). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

#3: Loans from outside the family

Even with the huge smuggling fees, migration pays off, thanks to the place premium. This makes it possible, at least on paper, to have a good business model of lending to such migrants. The main problems relate to enforcement: how does the lender collect on delinquent buyers, given the underground nature of the whole operation? Some ways this can be done:

  • Using family members in the source or destination country as guarantors, and collecting from them either immediately or if the lender fails to repay (cf. the quote above).
  • Having connections with gangs in the local community in the source or destination country, that can use violence or threats of violence if people fail to pay up.
  • Having connections with the employment networks used by migrants (such as Chinatown’s kitchen network), making it difficult for people who haven’t repaid loans to be able to get a job or otherwise survive in the community.

This method of financing is most common for semi-legal or gray-area migration, and might describe migration to places such as Malaysia and the UAE (the latter even being legal). It also describes a decent fraction of illegal migration from China to the United States, with close connections between the lenders and the snakeheads who facilitate the actual human smuggling.

Loan financing has also been common historically. Back in the era where the main cost of migration was the travel cost, the credit-ticket system financed journeys through loans, that needed to be repaid through what often came close to indentured servitude. The legal immigration to places such as the UAE is often financed through loans in a similar way, with the lenders often confiscating the passports of the migrants until the time that the migrants repay the loans. There has been considerable debate surrounding the ethics and legality of the enforcement mechanisms used. On the one hand, it could be argued that in the absence of explicit legal recourse, such coercive measures are necessary to make lending profitable. On the other hand, the prima facie ethics of the actions is questionable. This is an issue worth a separate, detailed exploration. (Incidentally, Carl Shulman’s blog post on the UAE is worth reading if you’re interested in a comprehensive and balanced assessment).

See also an Open Borders Action Group post where I provide a summary of the three explanations and various commenters offer their thoughts on them.

My “Apparat” Piece

Open Borders note: Additional links have been added to the piece to facilitate reader exploration

Recently, I was invited to write a piece on open borders for the Russian online magazine Apparat. It was published as “7 причин, почему мир должен отказаться от государственных границ”, or something like, “Seven reasons why the world should abolish state borders.” The Spanish-edition translation is here. To what extent the Russian expresses a sentiment I’d endorse is hard to say, since, unlike some, I don’t want to abolish borders, but to allow people to migrate across them. (Jurisdictional frontiers between states are fine.) I wrote the article in an interview format, after which it went through the usual editorial process. I saw and approved a Russian-language draft, but what actually got published was different again.

The below is a kind of back-translation from the Russian. I’ve tried to strike a balance between accurately reflecting the meaning of the Russian text and accurately reflecting my own views, which were sometimes a bit obscured, not so much in translation, as in the editorial process. Sometimes I substituted back in passages from the original English version.

(their introduction)

To open the borders of states to all who wish to cross them is one of the most radical and unpopular ideas all over the world. However, not long ago in the USA, there appeared a movement among economists and scholars by the name “Open Borders.” Activists in this movement believe, that to prohibit people from moving to any country is not only immoral, but also greatly inefficient: the elimination of borders will substantially improve the world economy. Members of Open Borders assiduously defend their point of view in scholarly publications, interviews, and on their blog. Apparat asked one of them, the writer and economics professor Nathan Smith of Fresno Pacific University, why it’s a good idea to open the world’s borders.

(extracts from my e-mail interview)

  1. Open borders would improve the welfare of mankind

Open borders are estimated to be able to double world GDP. To see why, it’s first necessary to review economists’ efforts over the years to explain why some countries are so rich, and others are not. In part, this depends on how developed the social and political institutions of a country are. So when people move to places with more developed institutions, their productivity increases. It’s a lot easier to open a business in the USA, than in Afghanistan.

Second, open borders would raise the productivity of many industries [even in the West] by allowing greater specialization. American professors often mow their own lawns, and that may serve as a symbol of the inefficiency of migration control. Very few have the capability to research physics or philosophy, while almost anyone can mow a lawn. It would be more efficient, if professors hired others to mow lawns and focused on physics and philosophy. Billions of people worldwide would be glad to do such work for a few dollars an hour, but immigration restrictions prevent this.

Third, changes in the immigration regime could prevent productive activities from being relocated to suboptimal places. In the past thirty years or so, millions of factory jobs have moved from the USA to China, although it would be more convenient to locate them in America, where the legal system is more developed, and they would be closer to the US market. Open borders would allow workers to move to jobs, rather than jobs to workers.

  1. Unskilled workers are valuable, too, not just immigrants with higher education

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says that the USA needs to open its borders to “all the smartest and most talented,” because educated people stimulate innovation and positively influence the economy. It’s a strange misconception, though widespread, that only skilled specialists can benefit the economy. Unskilled workers also contribute.

I live in the Central Valley of California, one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the country. Most of the harvesting is done by Mexicans. Many of them are poorly educated and don’t speak English. Native-born Americans benefit from this. With no one to collect the harvest, agricultural land would lose value. In principle, farmers could hire native-born Americans, but then fruit would be more expensive and many farms would go out of business, while Mexicans would lose work that pays better than they could earn at home.

  1. Open borders will not erase international diversity

Concerning the influence of immigration policy on the cultures of different nations, it’s important to understand one thing. We should care about the welfare of people, not cultures or countries. It’s wrong to lock people into a country, if they want to emigrate and assimilate elsewhere.

But open borders would probably not deplete the world’s cultural diversity. I like to use Ireland as an example. Ireland was the homeland of many generations of emigrants, to the extent that today, many more people of Irish ancestry live outside Ireland, than in the country itself. This didn’t kill Irish culture, but on the contrary, helped it to spread. St. Patrick’s Day is now widely celebrated in America, and people all over the world love Irish music. Emigrants value the cultures they bring with them, and teach the foreigners among whom they settle, to love them as well.

  1. Open borders can address global inequality

Today the idea of open borders is very unpopular in the Western democracies. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. There was a time, when slavery was taken for granted, but now it’s been abolished, and everyone agrees that its abolition was right.

Europeans today attach great moral significance to having an egalitarian society, in which universal education, high taxes and high wages make the population relatively homogeneous. Because of these values, they don’t want to see poor immigrants on the streets [so they shut them out]. But how can economic equality within a country be regarded as a moral triumph, when there is far more inequality internationally is far greater?

Those who advocate open borders believe that helping the needy is a natural moral duty towards every person [not just co-nationals]. If you think about the economic, political, and other opportunities that open up before immigrants, the inconveniences to natives that would likely occur seem insignificant by comparison.

  1. Mass emigration would benefit poor countries

For the most part, poor countries would benefit from emigration. Emigrants send money home, and some return with useful skills and foreign contacts. They can be a positive influence on their relatives back home, inspiring them to become politically active and get educated. Emigration can also raise wages by making labor scarce.

I don’t think open borders would actually cause any country to be completely depopulated, though some of the world’s poorest countries might lose 80-90% of their populations. But if [for the sake of argument] there were a country where absolutely everyone emigrated, while one would hardly say that that country benefited from the change, it would be good for the people, who would find better lives somewhere else.

  1. Life needn’t get worse for the native population

Open borders would not lead to mass unemployment among natives, though it probably would lead to lower salaries for many. A fair comparison is furnished by the entry of women into the workforce since the 1960s. This probably did contribute to stagnation or decline in the wages of men, but not to mass unemployment, since labor markets are flexible, with a tendency to equilibrate. Something similar will happen with migration: no mass unemployment, but many wages will stagnate or fall. To offset this, it’s possible to charge surtaxes on migrants, and use the proceeds to compensate natives who suffer income losses due to competition from immigrants.

The dangers posed by immigration—for example, to Europeans, who especially fear Muslim immigration—are much exaggerated. That said, it would help if western Europeans were firmer in their principles. The cultural habits of Europeans were profoundly shaped by the influence of Christian and capitalist values, but today few of them have much belief in either. A kind of moral relativism prevails in Europe today, which makes it difficult for them to defend what is valuable in their heritage, to induce immigrants to assimilate to it.

I believe the problems of crime, violence, and ethnic hatred, which could arise under open borders, are also greatly exaggerated. In the USA, the crime rate has fallen sharply in the past twenty years, even as the number of immigrants has grown.

  1. Open borders and open citizenship are different things

American democracy has many faults, but it’s still pretty good as forms of government go. For two hundred years it has protected freedom of speech and religion, maintained civil peace, and to some extent, economic liberty. But if a few billion people migrated to the USA from all over the world and enjoyed the right to vote, the polity would be transformed beyond recognition. So it’s important to distinguish open borders from open citizenship.

To grant the right to vote to all comers is too risky. Under open borders as I envision it, hundreds of millions of people would live in the USA, under American laws, with their human and property rights respected, and with the right to work, but without rights of political representation. Some would be naturalized as citizens, and could vote and run for office, but naturalization would be a much slower and more restricted process.

Two subtle lessons from the “Your in America” Twitter bot

A while back, I had come across the Your in America bot. The bot locates instances of people tweeting complaints about immigrants and tourists in the United States not speaking English, where the tweets contain the grammatically incorrect phrase “your in America” (as explained here, it should be “you’re”).

The typical lesson that I suspect many people would draw from this is that the tweets are ironic: the authors of the tweets themselves don’t demonstrate good knowledge of English. Some might argue that such tweets demonstrate hypocrisy. I suspect that many people will look at these tweets and chuckle at their moral superiority to what they would consider the unsophisticated nativist right, a phenomenon I discussed here. While there’s some legitimacy to such a feeling of moral superiority, I think it’s not the main lesson to draw.

As I discussed in an earlier post, true tolerance, and true empathy, extend to the concerns of people who find the consequences of migration deeply unsettling. The people authoring the “Your in America” tweets are unsettled by an aspect of migration — the way it brings them in contact with people who are speaking a language they don’t understand — and this can be personally unsettling as well as impose business and operational costs. As such, this concern does not deserve to be mocked.

I draw two main lessons.

#1: Language proficiency has many levels

Familiarity with a language is not a binary feature. Different people need different levels of comfort with various languages. As an active blogger and writer who uses the English language quite extensively, I certainly need to be aware not merely of the distinction between your and you’re, but also subtler distinctions such as the distinction between the noun and verb forms of affect and effect. As somebody who deals with code and data and numbers in my day job and my side projects, I need to be fast at arithmetic operations and numerical estimation to a level most people don’t. On the other hand, I don’t need to be proficient at talking with a specific accent for maximum comprehensibility to a particular crowd. Nor do I need to have skill at giving great extempore speeches, because my work, side projects, and personal life don’t require such skills.

Those who say “your in America, learn to speak English!” do know English. They know English well enough to send out a tweet that makes some sense, even if it’s not grammatically perfect. Most likely, their day job and their personal interests don’t require a higher level of familiarity with the subtleties of the English language. This is fine — what matters is that they are good at their chosen job. Their failure to remember formal elementary or middle school grammar is neither here nor there.

Similarly, for many immigrants and tourists, the choice to not learn to speak the local language fluently may be the most rational choice given their goals and circumstances. First off, it’s hard to learn a new language fluently as an adult, and immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, have a lot of things to worry about (such as finding a job while navigating the risk of deportation). Moreover, many of them have support structures that allow them to survive well through a very basic functioning knowledge of the local language. For instance, many of the Chinese immmigrants to the United States who enter unlawfully look for jobs in Chinatown’s kitchen network, where the need for English langauge familiarity is minimal. Similarly, if you’re an agricultural day laborer, you just need to know enough of the local language to understand the overall instructions — and even that requirement is mitigated by the presence of bilingual intermediaries who can work as supervisors.

I grew up in Delhi, the capital of India, where Hindi is the most common vernacular language. I pursued my undergraduate studies in Chennai, a city in South India where the vernacular is Tamil (my undergraduate education was purely in English, as is typical for post-secondary education in India). I tried mastering enough of the local language to be able to communicate in shops and restaurants, and I felt that spending more effort learning the language didn’t pass a cost-benefit analysis (I would have invested more if I had been confident I would stay in Chennai much longer). My refusal to learn the local language better was somewhat frustrating to me, and possibly both frustrating and offensive to some of the locals I met, though I did try to show that I was making a sincere effort to learn the local language. Similarly, for a two-month stay in Paris, I mastered a small set of French phrases and tried to get by with those. Again, I tried not to be openly offensive — I’d start out trying to use French phrases and then switch to English if the other person seemed willing to accept that — but I probably offended and irritated a number of people inadvertently. I can empathize with the frustrations of people who can’t understand the stuff those around them are saying in a foreign language, while also understanding that for many immigrants and tourists it’s simply not realistic to spend too many of one’s resources mastering the local language.

[For a more detailed treatment, see my co-blogger Nathan’s blog post on the linguistic externalities of open borders.]

#2: Contempt and suspicion for outgroups is universal — but let’s not make it the basis of coercive policy

Another important lesson is that contempt is a human universal. While much of the concern behind the “Your in America” tweets is driven by genuine difficulty communicating and understanding across linguistic barriers, some of the tweeters are expressing their superiority over, and contempt for, the non-English-speaking migrants. Similarly, the more linguistically sophisticated people can express their moral superiority by chuckling at the linguistic incompetence and hypocrisy of the tweeters. And some might argue that my blog post is my own way of expressing contempt for these linguistically sophisticated people’s smug self-satisfaction.

It’s not uncommon for people on the East Coast to express contempt for what they consider the backward ways of the Bible Belt, just as it’s not uncommon for people in Texas or Arizona to speak with contempt of the backward ways of migrants. There is some mutual contempt between Americans and Canadians, between the British and the French, and between many many other ethnic, national, and racial groups. In some cases, this contempt is grounded in legitimate concerns. In other cases, it’s grounded in essentially contestable moral differences. And often it’s just plain old in-group bias.

Ultimately, I think the way to move forward is not to try to definitively vanquish or substantially reduce these attitudes, but rather, to create a strong presumption against the use of coercive methods to enforce such preferences (cf. my post on tolerance and the libertarian case for open borders). That, I think, is a goal that can reasonably be accomplished in the medium term. As I discussed in my post on South-South migration and the “natural state”, the history of migration has combined a fair degree of freedom of movement with openly intolerant and prejudiced attitudes (see also my speculation on why immigration to the US was freer in the 19th century, or John Lee’s post on the similarities between current attitudes to Hispanic immigration and attitudes to past waves of migration). I agree that we should also critique the ugliest manifestations of intolerance and contempt. I’d like to push for a world where people openly argue and debate how certain approaches are better than others, rather than snidely belittling others. But this isn’t a simple switch, since it counters deeply ingrained human instincts. In that sense, I both agree and disagree with the view put forth in this interesting article on Ferguson, immigration, and ‘us vs them’.

I discussed some of the ideas of this post in an Open Borders Action Group post.

Paul Krugman

Paul Krugman and the Immigration Act of 1924

In 2006 Paul Krugman, prominent liberal economist and New York Times columnist, expressed concern that low-skilled immigration could threaten the American welfare state.  Due to this supposed threat and the claim that the wages of some Americans were lowered because of immigration, he supported a reduction in the number of low-skilled immigrants entering the U.S. (See here for this site’s page on Mr. Krugman.)

So it wasn’t surprising when Mr. Krugman recently declared that he didn’t support open borders.  What was surprising was that he justified immigration restrictions that were enacted in the early 1920s. He stated that without those restrictions the New Deal in the United States “wouldn’t have been possible,” in part because “…there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.” The New Deal of the 1930s, as many readers may know, involved the establishment under Franklin D. Roosevelt of government programs which continue to exist today, such as monetary support for the elderly (Social Security) and aid to poor mothers and their children.

The immigration legislation to which Mr. Krugman referred included the Immigration Act of 1921, which established the first numerical restrictions on European immigration.  It was followed by the longer lasting Immigration Act of 1924, which also involved numerical restrictions and a national origins quota system in which visas were apportioned predominately to immigrants coming from northwest Europe. Maldwyn Jones, author of American Immigration, notes that:

it was American policy which brought to an end the century-long mass movement from Europe. The adoption of the quota system… all but slammed the door on the southern and eastern Europeans who had formed the bulk of the arrivals in the prewar (World War I) and immediate postwar periods. The result was that European immigration slumped from over 800,000 in 1921 to less than 150,000 by the end of the decade. (page 279)

The legislation was in many respects the model for our current immigration system, with its numerical limitations on immigration from individual countries, numerical limitations for certain categories of immigrants,  use of preference groups within these categories, consular control over permission to immigrate, and the creation of the Border Patrol. From an open borders perspective, it was a disaster, ending a long period of generally open immigration from Europe.

Whether or not Mr. Krugman is correct or not that the 1920s immigration restrictions helped to provide a political environment conducive to passing the New Deal legislation, there are two reasons why his support for the restrictions are surprising. One is that the legislation was largely racist. The Immigration Act of 1924 was inspired by racist sentiment and, as noted, discriminated against the immigration of people from eastern and southern Europe, who were perceived by some to be racially inferior. As John Higham has written in Strangers in the Land, as the House of Representatives worked towards the 1924 legislation, the champions of the legislation:

now largely ignored the economic arguments they had advanced in behalf of the first quota law three years before. Instead, they talked about preserving a ‘distinct American type,’ about keeping American for Americans, or about saving the Nordic race from being swamped. The Ku Klux Klan, which was organizing a vigorous letter-writing campaign in support of the Johnson bill, probably aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism… (page 321)

The second reason why it is surprising Mr. Krugman would be supportive of the 1924 immigration law is that because it, combined with other restrictionist maneuvering, blocked many of Europe’s Jews from fleeing the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. David Wyman has written in Paper Walls that,

if, in the crucial years from 1938 to 1941, the world had opened its doors to the victims of persecution, the history of Europe’s Jews from 1942 to 1945 would have been significantly different. Instead the barriers held firm and relatively few refugees found asylum. (page xiii)

Mr. Wyman also has noted that although America received more refugees (about 250,000) from Nazism than other countries during the period 1933 to 1945 (p. 209),  “the total response of the United States… fell tragically short of the need.” (preface) According to Mr. Wyman, it was the 1924 law that was the fundamental barrier to the people seeking refuge in the U.S., noting that “the quota limitations formed by far the most significant bulwark against large-scale American rescue of refugees.” (p. 210)

It is difficult to determine the number of would-be refugees who were killed because of U.S. immigration restrictions.  However, the following information from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum site suggests the large numbers who were put at risk from the restrictions:

In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.

The fate of 908 refugees aboard the ship named the St. Louis who were denied refuge in the U.S. in 1939 is more certain, with 254 perishing in the Holocaust.  Mr. Wyman also notes that other refugee ships, either without a place to land or planning to land illegally in Palestine, sank, drowning hundreds. (pp. 38-39)

Mr. Krugman must surely be bothered by the racist nature of the 1924 legislation and must certainly wish that the U.S. had been more welcoming to refugees during the Nazi period. Furthermore he has noted that he is “grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.” Had his grandparents tried to enter America after the 1924 restrictions were in place, they may not have been allowed in and may have perished at the hands of the Nazis.

How does Mr. Krugman square all this with his support for the 1924 immigration legislation? Was the suffering associated with the legislation an acceptable sacrifice in order to ensure that the New Deal legislation could be passed? Mr. Krugman might respond to this question by wishing that the U.S. had adopted a more generous refugee policy during the Nazi period within a system of immigration restriction, but the fact is that the U.S. didn’t.

Of course, even setting aside the history of the American immigration system’s response to the refugees fleeing the Nazis, the suffering associated with immigration restrictions are immense. Co-blogger Nathan Smith challenges Mr. Krugman’s suggestion that the American welfare state is of higher moral value than open borders.  He writes that: 

Krugman wants a social democratic welfare state even at the cost of excluding most of mankind by force. I start from a utilitarian universalist ethics and conclude that its need for immigration exclusion renders the welfare state a moral travesty. 

Nathan argues that a truly moral anti-poverty policy would focus on alleviating the extreme poverty of the Third World rather than the poverty found in the U.S.:  “Domestic redistribution is at best from the very-rich to the relatively-rich.”  He writes that “the best thing America could do for the poor is to open the borders.”

I support both open borders and the welfare state.  Fortunately, perhaps with the use of keyhole solutions, countries may be able to have both. Mr. Krugman should explore this possibility, as well as reconsider his support for the 1924 immigration legislation.

Featured image: Paul Krugman’s press conference following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics, by Prolineserver from Wikimedia Commons.


Frederick Douglass: Migration is, and always has been, a fundamental human right

It is almost impossible to make it through an explanation of the right to migrate without a listener interrupting: “But you can’t let everyone come! You just can’t!” There’s often a litany of plausible-sounding reasons.

Now, I suspect that these plausible-sounding reasons are actually much less defensible and plausible than you might think. But before we get into a deep discussion of the evidence here, the interrupting interlocutor often concludes: “What you say sounds nice in theory, but will destroy us. Your fancy moral theories will sink our ship of state. You are stupidly blinding yourself to the consequences of recognising a right to migrate.”

Yet when I probe into why our objector believes this, I often find he has no evidence for his belief that freedom of migration will destroy his country or the world. All he has to go on is the insistence that it’s a theoretical possibility that recognising the right to migrate will be disastrous. Yes, that’s a possibility — one we’ve thought about a lot.

But you could make such objections against just about every right. We restrict freedom of speech for much less than catastrophic disaster: most countries’ laws ban libel and slander, and many go even farther than that. This doesn’t mean the right to freedom of speech must be exterminated and never recognised — it just means that the right to free speech must be balanced against others’ rights. Such is the case with the right to migrate.

Peculiarly, people often seem allergic to the idea that foreigners have rights at all (never mind that humanity has recognised this ever since the first laws of war were drawn up), let alone the right to migrate. One of the most common objections I hear is that while such a right was feasible to recognise in earlier times, such a right is infeasible in the modern world.
Statue of Liberty(Image source: Christian Science Monitor)
But these objections are not new. They are so old, in fact, that they were anticipated almost 150 years ago. Here is Frederick Douglass, speaking in 1869 against the movement to ban Chinese immigration:

I have said that the Chinese will come, and have given some reasons why we may expect them in very large numbers in no very distant future. Do you ask, if I favor such immigration, I answer I would. Would you have them naturalized, and have them invested with all the rights of American citizenship? I would. Would you allow them to vote? I would. Would you allow them to hold office? I would.

But are there not reasons against all this? Is there not such a law or principle as that of self-preservation? Does not every race owe something to itself? Should it not attend to the dictates of common sense? Should not a superior race protect itself from contact with inferior ones? Are not the white people the owners of this continent? Have they not the right to say, what kind of people shall be allowed to come here and settle? Is there not such a thing as being more generous than wise? In the effort to promote civilization may we not corrupt and destroy what we have? Is it best to take on board more passengers than the ship will carry?

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the negro, the mulatto and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upon the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself.

People often say that the words of the Statue of Liberty no longer apply today, because things are just fundamentally different. No longer should we declare:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Whether stated or unstated, the suggestion is that the people of the 19th century who so eagerly embraced the right to migrate would, today, agree we ought to shut the door and wall out the “wretched refuse” of the world. But reading Douglass’s words, I find this difficult if not impossible to believe.

The same concerns people have about migration today were the ones raised to Douglass in the 1860s. Yet Douglass did not contemplate any reduction or circumscription of the right to migrate. He recognised the theoretical problems that the spectre of migration raises — and he rejected arbitrary prohibitions on human movement as the only solution to these problems.

He did not say they are categorically unfounded, nor did he say they should not be managed. He simply insisted that these theoretical problems are not a good enough reason in of themselves to restrict “essential human rights” — such as the right to migrate. It behooves us to solve these problems with solutions that least-infringe upon fundamental human rights.

People say that times change and that what was once a right might not be valid today. But how then can they answer Douglass’s insistence that the right to migrate is universal and indestructible? How can they explain that restricting migration isn’t really so wrong, when in Douglass’s time it was clear that this constituted an “essential human right”, one that he asserted for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever?

I say that Douglass’s words ring as true today as they did well over a century ago. Migration is a fundamental human right. Like all rights, there may come a time when it must be restricted. But restrictions have to balance one set of rights against another — not to categorically declare that a right simply does not exist, and that we have carte blanche to utterly disregard it. As did Douglass, I assert today the universal and indestructible right to migrate equally for all human beings — now, and forever.

Source for featured image: Wikimedia Commons, original photographer unknown.

Open borders and tolerance

This post builds on a previous post where I was critical of conflating open borders with other migration-related beliefs. If open borders doesn’t rely too heavily on migration-related beliefs, what does it rely on? In other words, why might one have a prior in favor of open borders? By prior here, I mean a strong inclination to accept a position somewhat resembling open borders while being (as of that point in time) ignorant of large chunks of pertinent evidence. I will draw on my personal experience and belief system to answer this. These are purely my personal views, and I strive here to elucidate rather than advocate.

My own belief in open borders does not arise from any particular “pro-migrant” beliefs. Migrants are human beings, just like non-migrants (contra James Donald). There may be some systematic differences due to selection effects (which could go in a pro- or anti- direction), and the nature of these differences is likely to change if migration policy changes significantly. Ultimately, however, these differences aren’t what’s driving, or detracting from, my support for free migration in a meaningful way. So what is? Fundamentally, it’s the “commonsense libertarian” approach pioneered by the likes of Bryan Caplan. But formal libertarian theory can focus too exclusively on government and coercion. So I will step back to describe my broader philosophy.

For want of a better word, that approach is tolerance. The term has many different meanings, so I will try to sketch what I mean by it. I’m not trying to say that my usage is the correct one or that others should conform.

Tolerance as indifference

One can think of tolerance as indifference, or simply not caring. The threshold for not caring may vary. Here are some illustrative possibilites:

  • “I don’t care either way. I don’t know this person and what they’re doing isn’t affecting me (non-negligibly), so I don’t care.”
  • “I don’t care as long as it’s not tangibly harming the people involved.”
  • “I don’t care as long as they’re not harming innocent bystanders.” Such an attitude migh be tolerant of drinking too much but not of drunk driving.

What if I do care? What if a friend is drinking too much and ruining his life? What if somebody is eating unhealthily, or has some habits that I think harm other people? What authority, and what obligation, do I have to interfere? This way of thinking about tolerance doesn’t help address such questions, and insofar as such tolerance is elevated on a pedestal, it goes against a commitment to care for the world and make it a better place. Such tolerance isn’t virtuous. At best, it is tolerable.

Thin libertarian tolerance: a presumption against coercion

At minimum tolerance implies a strong presumption against coercive intervention, even if it is for the other person’s or third parties’ good, and even more so in cases where it’s just about promoting my own interests. Bryan Caplan proposes concerned tolerance in the case that people are doing something that’s not in their own or each other’s interests: inform and educate, but beware of coercion. Even if coercion seems to pass a naive cost-benefit analysis, the complexity of the world should give one pause. This is the “thin libertarian” concept of tolerance, and, at least on paper, one could “deduce” open borders from it, combining with some general beliefs about the prima facie right to migrate. But tolerance as I use the term goes beyond this thin libertarian version, and I think that the additional aspects of it really do add to our understanding of the moral need for open borders. (See here for a backgrounder on thick and thin libertarianism).

We influence each others’ environment (duh!)

Our activities influence one another all the time. Your choice of neighbors affects your quality of life in myriad ways even if you rarely have direct interactions with your neighbors. Recently, I asked the shopkeeper at the grocery store near my residence why he had stopped stocking eggplants (brinjals). He said that people don’t buy the eggplants, so he had to throw them away. My neighbors’ non-preference for eggplants was depriving me of easy access to eggplants. This is just one of thousands of ways that the tastes of one’s neighbors affect one’s quality of life. It’s tempting to call these “externalities” although mechanisms such as rents and housing prices internalize them to quite an extent.

As it happens, my desire for easy access to eggplants is not sufficiently strong for me to be too unhappy about my neighbors’ tastes. But it wouldn’t be intolerant of me to factor this, and many other considerations, in deciding where to live. People do this all the time. It’s not intolerant to try to live in places surrounded by neighbors who share one’s values and can therefore make one’s life more pleasant, as long as one is willing to pay the price. Neither is there anything wrong about choosing a place where one’s life is perhaps not that pleasant, with non-like-minded neighbors, if one wants to cut down costs. (Some people might luck out in finding that the things they value the most can be found at a relatively cheap place). People are looking at their own preferences, understanding how their neighbors alter the landscape for them, and making (partly) informed decisions based on that.

[Sidenote: As Bill Bishop and Charles Murray have pointed out, people residentially segregate based on socio-economic status, education level, and political beliefs quite a bit in the United States, with important social, economic, and political implications, some of which they deplore. But neither of them challenge people’s fundamental freedom to choose where to live, even if they think the consequences are not always pretty.]

Is it okay to coerce people to shape their influences on your environment?

On the thin libertarian conception, it would be intolerant to attempt to coercively restrict the choices of those neighbors. On a somewhat thicker conception, I believe that it’s intolerant to be vociferously critical, or create unpleasant situations, for these neighbors on account of these choices, even though those choices do in the aggregate reduce my quality of life somewhat. While it’s within my libertarian rights to put out pamphlets shaming people for not buying eggplants, I would consider such behavior intolerant (even if it had a chance of succeeding). It would be okay for me to request people to buy eggplants so that they stay in stock — as long as I’m honest that my main motivation is personal rather than doing this for their good.

I don’t particularly love or hate the people I meet on the street, nor do I aspire to such feelings. They are people — like all the people I may not meet. They have preferences of their own, that shape the environment I live in — sometimes to my benefit, sometimes to my detriment. If I am deeply inconvenienced, I could request them to change (while being honest about whether my request is selfishly motivated, and accommodating of the fact that they are not obliged to heed my request) — and pay them if that’s necessitated. And if it gets too intolerable, I can move elsewhere. If I am not inconvenienced enough to do this, I should shrug it off.

Such tolerance is not merely for the benefit of others, but also my own — I can feel more at peace if I combine ” the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” (Bryan Caplan made a similar point here). In other words, tolerance is not just about resisting the use of coercion, but also resisting the impulses that make one want to use coercion — impulses that view others as means to ends or as creatures to be manipulated for one’s benefit. Embracing such tolerance would not merely make people support open borders (or something close), it would also lead them to feel that it’s the right thing. Note that tolerance alone doesn’t imply efforts to actively advocate for open borders — such efforts might require either a specific interest in the subject or a general altruistic character combined with some reasons for believing that open borders advocacy is worthwhile enough.

While the eggplant example might seem laughably trivial compared to the stakes involved with immigration, it’s worth noting that at least some of the complaints about immigration can seem equally trivial. Consider, for instance, that “press 1 for English” is a rallying cry for a number of complaints about immigration. See for instance here and here or just Google it. But then again, trivial inconveniences are not to be scoffed at. But more on the specific issues of language in a separate post. In the meantime, check out Nathan Goodman’s post.

[On a related note, the inconveniences that people impose on each other by living near each other is one of the ingredients in the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual. I don’t disagree with the premise that people affect each other. The premise that I do disagree with is that existing government policies force integration so heavily that we need to resort to immigration restrictions to maintain people’s freedom of association and mimic an anarcho-capitalist society. I admit this isn’t a very satisfactory response, so do read our page linked above, and for a more eloquent elaboration of my point, see Bryan Caplan’s post on association, exclusion, liberty, and the status quo.]

Tolerance of intolerance

The phrase “paradox of tolerance” has been used for the seemingly paradoxical idea that “tolerance” can include tolerance of intolerance. I don’t think it’s that paradoxical in this context. Let me elaborate.

In my view, true tolerance includes tolerance, and even empathy, for people who find open borders deeply unsettling, whether or not I agree with their particular concerns. Example: people who worry about a glut of languages being spoken around them as a result of too much migration, as discussed earlier in the post. Whether or not I share these fears, and whether or not I think that too many languages being spoken around is a good or a bad thing, there is no reason to shame people for holding the view that they find such behavior deeply unsettling. Migration liberalization as forced social engineering to change people’s preferences (for instance, to make them less racist, or more linguistically knowledgeable) is no more laudable than closed borders as forced social engineering to maintain the composition of society. It may sometimes be laudable to change people’s preferences, but such changes should be done through voluntary persuasion in an honest manner (i.e., being honest about my own motives and beliefs). My version of tolerance might strike many as too tolerant of intolerance — for instance, it is a priori critical of allegedly tolerance-increasing coercive measures such as forced desegregation (the prior may be overcome in specific cases via other arguments).

It’s valid to criticize a restrictionist’s embrace of coercion to make their own lives less unpleasant (e.g., restricting migration so that they don’t have to hear foreign languages spoken in the train), and also valid to criticize the restrictionist’s drawing incorrect inferences about objective indicators solely based on subjective experience (particularly when better sources of data are available; I believe such exaggeration has happened historically as well as contemporarily). However, a tolerant person would not extend such criticism to dismissing the restrictionist’s subjective experience of unpleasantness at hearing foreign languages as entirely irrelevant or a sign of moral degeneracy.

To what extent does factoring in people’s subjective concerns about open borders affect the case for open borders?

The next few paragraphs talks specifically of the attitude that somebody (like me) who is actively arguing for open borders should have. I don’t claim that every passive supporter of open borders needs to do what I think should be expected of somebody in my position. In particular, when I talk of moral obligation or responsibility below, I use it in the sense of the ethical imperative of professional excellence (for the self-chosen avocation of open borders advocate) rather than a basic obligation stemming from negative rights (per my three-tiered view, I’m talking about tier 3 rather than tier 1).

I believe that, in the calculus of determining whether open borders are the right thing, I need to account for the subjective experiences of people who find some consequences of migration deeply disturbing. But their subjective feelings enter the equation along with the subjective experiences — and rights — of many other people, including potential migrants and those who wish to invite them. I think that, when all is said and done, caring about people’s subjective experiences should lead one in an open borders-sympathetic direction. People who are unsettled by migration are neither numerically negligible nor morally inconsequential, but they aren’t utility monsters. And I do think that, even though their concerns are worth taking seriously, they should come to the table to discuss keyhole solutions or to provide some sort of reason to believe that the problems really are insurmountable.

That said, it is incumbent upon me to try to work hard to understand the objections and perform a fair and decent analysis of it, suggesting keyhole solutions where feasible and discussing the extent to which they may reasonably be applied. Even if I’m not the one responsible for existing migration restrictions (so the “blame” falls either on the restrictionist preferences of people or on some intrinsic structural reasons that migration poses dangers), I still need to work towards finding a solution (Bryan Caplan made a similar point here). To use a somewhat inappropriate drowning child analogy, the fact that I wasn’t responsible for the child beginning to drown, or the presence of other inactive bystanders, does not absolve me of the responsibility to rescue the child.

PS: Co-blogger Nathan Smith argued that it may be morally virtuous to be intolerant of some things, such as slavery, wife-beating, and mass murder. For activities that are coercive or significantly harm others, I support the use of coercion to prevent them (i.e., prevent something that has a very high probability of leading to significant harm). I also think there could be reasonable grounds for criticism and shaming of such actions, although I’m not convinced that shaming is always necessary. I think that, in general, open dissociation from corrupt or immoral institutions — the open use of exit — accomplishes more than trying to explicitly shame them (cf. exit versus voice). But that might just be semantics. One could consider the use of social pressure to end immoral institutions an example of “intolerance” done right. I believe that many aspects of the closed borders regime today are similarly worthy of intolerance. The fact that closed borders is justified by weak arguments relying on subjective preferences may deserve intolerance. But the preferences themselves don’t deserve intolerance.

PPS: To reiterate: I believe it’s legitimate and often laudable to non-coercively, consensually, and honestly help people “improve” their preferences in the direction of greater tolerance. This is not conceptually different from helping people overcome addictions or procrastination problems or anger management issues. If, however, you’re considering the use of shaming to pressure people into changing their moral views, then I believe (qua thick libertarian) that you need to clear a higher bar. And if you are considering coercion, then (qua thin libertarian) you need to clear an even higher bar.

PPPS: My co-blogger Nathan Smith has written two posts, No Irish Need Apply, and Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal. The posts make the point that it is consistent to support open borders and allow private discrimination against immigrants, and in fact, allowing the latter may make the pursuit of migration liberalization more politically feasible. I am skeptical of the political feasibility point made by Nathan, but I do agree that my tolerance framework points in the direction of Nathan’s broader point.

Thanks to Sebastian Nickel, Nathan Smith, and Paul Crider for helpful comments

The Open Graph image for this post (the one you see if you share it on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter) is from Discover Nikkei.

November 2014 in review

November 2014 has been a busy month for Open Borders: The Case. This post summarizes some of the most exciting developments.

Obama’s deferred action announcement sparks interest in migration

On Thursday, November 20, 2014, United States President Barack Obama announced his plans for deferred action for illegal immigrants. In the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the announcement, interest in migration peaked. One question many people had was that of the constitutionality of migration restrictions. Guest blogger Ilya Somin‘s blog post Immigration and the US Constitution, written back in March 2013, received a huge amount of traffic this month. Initially, the traffic was entirely from Google Search (via search terms such as “what does the constitution say about immigration”). Later, we also got traffic from Somin’s Volokh Conspiracy blog post and from Facebook shares of the post.

Our bloggers offered their own takes on Obama’s announcement. The most detailed review is lawyer and activist David Bennion’s blog post Executive Action, Not Legislative Reform, Is How U.S. Immigration Policy Gets Made Now. Michelangelo Landgrave, himself an unaccompanied child and undocumented migrant, offered Obama some unsolicited advice prior to the announcement, and later praised Obama’s actions as a small step in the right direction.

For more information on Obama’s announcement and responses from people with open borders sympathies, see our backgrounder page on the Obama November 2014 deferred action announcement. If you’re interested in open borders advocates’ responses to immigration-related developments in the US over the last few years, check out this page.

An in-depth analysis of Argentina’s Constitution

The case for open borders is universal, and the value of our site lies in how we connect the dots between the moral case and examples around the world. Given the interest in the United States surrounding the constitutionality of migration restrictions, Vipul Naik mooted the idea of doing a blog post or posts on what other countries’ constitutions have to say on the subject, citing old Open Borders Action Group posts on Argentina and Ecuador.

John Lee promptly wrote a blog post on how Argentina’s constitution had entrenched migration as a human right. This post, being of both topical and long-term interest, generated plenty of buzz. Bryan Caplan blogged about it, and charity evaluator GiveWell said they’ll look into the matter.

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

On our site and in our blog, we’ve covered the issue of “illegal immigration” from numerous angles. See for instance here, here, here, and here. One might think we’ve beaten the topic to death.

But a blog post by John Lee titled What part of “immoral” don’t you understand? breathed new life into this old debate. Lee argued that the question wasn’t what part of illegal you don’t understand. The question, rather, was what part of illegal one could understand, given that the typical native simply acquired citizenship in his current country of residence by birth.

Thanksgiving special

John Lee’s blog post Let them come: treasuring the immigrant legacy of Thanksgiving, published to honor the occasion of Thanksgiving in the United States, has become one of our most liked posts of all time. As of the time of this writing, the post has had 282 Facebook engagements.

Also relevant are Thanksgiving posts from previous years by Nathan Smith and Chris Hendrix.

Reviving old popular blog posts

In light of the increased interest in migration as a result of Obama’s announcement, we promoted some of our older posts. Here are some of the posts for which we got good responses:

An explosion in Facebook likes

The like count for our Facebook page almost doubled in November, from about 1800 to about 3400. The initial growth in likes was sparked by the interest in migration driven by Obama’s announcement, and that alone would have increased the number of likes to about 2000. We also engaged in paid page and post promotions to a number of new audiences, and attribute the rapid increase in like count largely to that. Even excluding likes obtained as a result of paid promotions, however, the growth was pretty impressive.

Other metrics

  • The total pageview count of the website, as measured by WordPress, was 38,743. This excludes pageviews by administrators when logged in. The corresponding, slightly lower, number reported by Google Analytics is 37,863.
  • Our Twitter follower count now stands at 970.
  • Our Facebook discussion group, Open Borders Action Group, crossed 600 members and its current size is 643.

Site revamp

John Lee and Vipul Naik started on a site revamp that will hopefully be completed in the month of December. You might already see some changes such as better social sharing and author bios at the bottom of posts. More this coming month.

Let them come: treasuring the immigrant legacy of Thanksgiving

US President Barack Obama’s announcement of deferred deportation for millions of irregular migrants is a wonderful gift for many American families this Thanksgiving, whatever the greater (de)merits of his executive action. Truly, the biggest regret one might have is that Obama did not go far enough. Or to put it in the way only an Onion headline can, “5 Million Illegal Immigrants To Realize Dreams Of Having Deportation Deferred.”

As I’ve written, no sane person can defend the immoral persecution which most of these immigrants living in the shadows unjustfly face. But if you haven’t considered the issue well enough, you might unfortunately produce such dross as this cartoon that recently ran in the Indianapolis Star:

Indianapolis Star anti-amnesty cartoonIt is truly curious to me that the main reaction of the mainstream media was to label this as racist. The Indianapolis Star actually initially responded to criticism by removing the immigrant’s mustache and republishing an otherwise identical cartoon! Of all the the things wrong with this image, race is the last thing I would single out. The problem isn’t inherently its depiction of race relations; if anything, it’s hard to say without knowledge of the political context what the ethnicity of that immigrant might be. The problem is inherent to this image’s portrayal of how immigrants actually conduct themselves in society.

Now, the basic idea of this cartoon is pretty simple: immigrants need to ask the government for permission to settle in a new country. Without permission, these immigrants are akin to trespassers. Just as it is wrong for me to set foot in your house without your permission, it is wrong for migrants to set foot on the country’s soil without its government’s permission. In short: illegal immigration violates citizens’ “collective property rights“.

There’s a fundamental problem with this analogy, because it ignores the simple reality that irregular immigrants are not trespassers. After all, what exactly is the problem with me sitting down at your Thanksgiving dinner table, uninvited? The problem is that I am there without your permission.

So where are the immigrants sitting themselves down at dinner tables uninvited? What have they done that is the equivalent of inviting themselves over to stay at your house? The reality is that most immigrants, even those who have entered unlawfully, have done no such thing. You cannot say with a straight face that millions of people have literally invaded the homes of Americans.

The average undocumented immigrant paid for his own passage. Transportation providers — some unauthorised coyotes, others actual bus, train, or airline companies — offered these migrants a seat in return for the market rate. No trespassing or theft occurred; the transportation carriers gladly and willingly offered their services because they were compensated by these migrants. You cannot say these migrants robbed Greyhound by daring to buy a bus ticket.

What next? The migrants settled down, and began looking for work. Again, your average migrant isn’t illegally camping out in someone’s house, or sleeping on the sidewalk: your average migrant is renting a room or a home from someone. It is generally agreed that some one-third of undocumented immigrants in the US actually own their own homes! Whose property were they trespassing on when they paid their rent, or paid the market price for their own home? Who did they steal from?

You may think me obtuse: after all, the answer is that these people trespassed on the land collectively owned by all citizens of the country they’re in. But this frankly ignores the reality that the laws of the US, and most countries, recognise no such concept as collective ownership: if the land belongs to you, John Doe, then you get to decide what to do with it, as long as all applicable real estate, zoning, or tenancy laws are followed. The furthest that most democracies go is limiting the sale of land to foreigners, but in such cases, foreigners remain free to rent their own homes from citizen landlords: after all, the homes belong to the individual citizens, not to the state.

Now, am I saying that there is no public interest in managing the flow of migration, no sovereign authority competent to regulate the flow of people across borders? No; I simply hold that the authority of governments to regulate borders flows from the public interest — not “collective property rights”, which don’t exist outside of communist states which refuse to recognise an individual right to private property.

The invocation of “property rights” as an excuse to dispossess people of property they have paid for in this particular instance is particularly ridiculous, because in no other arena of public life in a modern civilised state do we see such logic trotted out. When the government bans you from building a meth lab in your backyard, nobody says the government is justified in doing this because the citizens that collectively own your land haven’t given you permission to do that. The problem with you building a meth lab on your land isn’t that you failed to obtain the necessary permission from the collective that owns it. The problem is that the public has an interest in not having their own homes burned down if your meth lab explodes.

Immigrants who actually enter with the intention to commit crime, to steal, to trespass on private property — these are immigrants the government ought to detain, punish, and perhaps exclude via deportation. There I think I and the cartoonist have no quarrel. But where we differ is that the cartoonist clearly believes those who enter with peaceful intentions, those who pay for the homes they live in and the food they eat with the wages of their own sweat, are somehow also tantamount to criminal trespassers.

It is as though you tore down the treehouse I built in my backyard, using the lame excuse that some people might build meth labs in their backyards; that if I really wanted to build a treehouse I should have waited eighty years in line for the requisite bureaucratic approvals to prove that I’m not building a meth lab; that if I don’t like waiting eight decades to jump through bullshit hoops just to go about my own quiet business, I still have no right to question this because it’s the public’s land, not my own.

When it comes to travel, there is an obvious public interest in detaining criminals, treating contagious disease-carriers, and deterring invading armies. This is equally true inside a nation’s borders as it might be true outside. The health and security of the populace are obvious public interests where governments have a role to play. To the extent that we might impose restrictions on where someone can travel, these controls are justified not by imaginary collective property rights, but by the defence of the nation against actual threats to public safety and order.

I say, if someone wants to go somewhere in peace, and is willing to pay the required fare, it’s simply none of my business where that person goes. As long as he doesn’t trespass on my home, I have no business interfering with the peaceful conduct of that person. And if that person pays market rent for a home, I certainly have no business telling that person he is a trespasser — that he ought to get out of the home he has already paid the market price for.

It is all the more shameful and regretful that this ignorant, dehumanising cartoon had to mark the festival of Thanksgiving — a traditional American holiday which commemorates the cooperation of Pilgrims who immigrated to North America with the native Americans who welcomed them. In reality, of course the picture is much less rosier than the traditional account; the Pilgrims themselves might have had peaceful intentions, but many other European colonists were certainly more invaders than immigrants. And of course there is something to be said for the accuracy of this depiction, from a New Yorker cover marking Thanksgiving a few years back:

New Yorker cover of Pilgrims as illegal immigrants

But all the same, whatever the evils wrought by invading colonists, the people of the United States today owe their heritage to peaceful immigration. Most of their ancestors — poor Germans, Irish, Italians — came not to steal land, but to rent or buy their own homes in peace, and build a better future for their families through hard work. Thanksgiving is a holiday which at least in the popular imagination marks the American legacy of immigration — and yet ironically, sentiments like those of the Indianapolis Star cartoon endorse Soviet- or Maoist-style collectivism, the antithesis of all that the US stands for!

Amidst all those Americans who will mark this Thanksgiving by complaining about immigrants who have done nothing worse than crawl through sewers for the chance to pay market rent and earn a market wage, I hope at least some might remember the words of another President, one George Washington:

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

There was no qualification for who could or should be welcomed, as long as their conduct was decent. Most immigrants conduct themselves no worse than anyone else: they pay the fair price for their homes, and they expect only a fair wage for their labour. There is nothing indecent or improper about that. The janitor in your office and the line cook in your cafeteria are not invading anyone’s home. It disgraces Washington to pretend otherwise — to pretend that paying rent constitutes theft and trespassing.

People say that today is different; that things have changed. That’s not how I see it. People have always used bigotry to justify excluding innocent people from our societies, always ignorantly used prejudice to justify treating common people as though they are criminals. And people struggling to earn the dignity of a better life with honest labour have always been willing to risk it all for their dreams of a better tomorrow. It is as true today, and as true for people of all creeds and colours, as it has ever been:

Liu said he was happy to hear what his children told him one day about American history that they studied at school: “America was actually founded by people like dad who was unhappy with his home country and decided to take a boat to come to America.”

Liu said, “I heard their boat was called the May Flower. Mine was called Golden Venture.”

There may be much to regret in the history of Thanksgiving — in how many European newcomers to the Americas came as invaders, rather than peaceful immigrants. But all the same, the legacy of Thanksgiving is one of freedom of movement, freedom to search for a better life wherever your peaceful ambitions may lead you.

I am not American myself, but I am grateful today that I at least have the unearned privilege of being able to live in peace in the US. I am grateful that America’s legacy of open borders defended moral decency and civilisation from the depravity of dictatorship during World War II; that, as my German colleague Hansjoerg Walther says, American open borders changed the course of world history. I am thankful for the truly American legacy of open borders:

Haudenosaunee protest new border regulations

To all my American friends, happy Thanksgiving.

Undocumented protesters

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

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

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

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

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

The deferred action program has serious flaws.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deportations are likely to continue at a historically high rate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political divisions around immigration will become more entrenched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credit: Steve Pavey, Portland Occupier

Bienvenidos a la Republica Argentina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acuerdo_de_San_NicolásAcuerdo de San Nicolás de los Arroyos, a treaty between different governors signed in 1852 to convene a Constitutional Convention that drafted the constitution of 1853, source La Guia 2000, discovered via Wikipedia
Well, the preamble of the Argentine constitution explicitly rejects citizenism — I’ve added emphasis to make this clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protests against irregular migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Chinese poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South-South migration and the “natural state”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


We still have much to do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What should the Obama administration do?

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

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

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

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

1. Negotiating NAFTA 2.0

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

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

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

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

2. Allowing the Federalization of Immigration Policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My reasons in summary form:

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

A quick review of the Drake equation

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

#4: The relative value of other causes

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

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

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

#5: The value of personal specialization

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

Philosophers, wonks and entrepreneurs

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

Philosophers, specifically moral philosophers and ethicists

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

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

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

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

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

Commenter BK agreed and went further:

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: In the comments of an Open Borders Action Group post by Joel Newman linking to an interview in the New York Times of philosopher Joseph Carens, John Lee excerpts a part of the interview that describes the philosopher perspective:

G.G.: So, why argue for open borders if it is not a feasible policy?

J.C.: Because philosophers should tell the truth as they see it (even when that makes some people mad). And it can be important to gain a critical perspective on existing arrangements, even if we cannot do much to change them at the moment. The feudal system was once deeply entrenched. So was the institution of slavery. For a long time, there was no real hope of changing those social systems. Yet criticism was still appropriate. If we don’t ask fundamental questions about the justice or injustice of our social arrangements, we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.

Wonks and policy catalysts

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social/moral psychologist

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

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

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

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

Some hybrids

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

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

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

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

Addendum: philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs against migration

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

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

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

Introduction to Institutional Economics

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

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

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

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

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

Demand and supply 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Commons License Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement is licensed by Nathan Smith under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.