Angela Merkel and the crying refugee, and the search for a human face of the costs of migration restrictions

A video showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel responding to a young Palestinian refugee has received a lot of attention in the press and in the social media last week. Reem Sahwil, a teenage girl whose family still faces the threat of deportation after four years in Germany, described her situation in some detail and eventually started crying on the air, prompting Ms Merkel to try to comfort her, all the while staying firm in her defense of the policies that have been causing Reem so much grief.

Most of the responses I’ve seen were critical of Angela Merkel, often describing her as cold hearted and her response as clumsy and insulting.

This sort of incident may be a strategic godsend for the cause of free(r) migration.  In the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook, Sam Dumitriu suggests that “More situations like this should be engineered to make the costs of closed borders salient.”

The largely critical response also seems encouraging. As Andy Hallman pointed out in another Facebook thread, it’s not far fetched to imagine how commenters could have instead been “flippant about the little girl’s suffering”.

The great news is that a much more commonly expressed response has been anger at the unjust treatment of this young girl. The not so great news is that a lot, if not most, of the criticism focuses not on the policies, but on morally trivial aspects of Ms Merkel’s interaction with Reem.

What happened

An 88 minute long program was filmed on the 15th of July, which shows Chancellor Merkel talking politics with 29 teenage students of a school in Rostock. At one point the moderator passed the microphone to Reem Sawhil, asking her to tell her story. Reem explained that she is a Palestinian who had moved to Germany from Lebanon four years ago. She has found it easy to assimilate as people have been nice to her at her school and she likes her new home, but she has recently become aware that other young refugees have a much harder time.

Ms Merkel complimented her for her flawless German, and Reem explained that she loves languages and has also greatly enjoyed learning English as well as some Swedish, and that she will take up French next year.

Reem then explained that her family still had not received a residence permit, and that her father remains banned from working in Germany. Probably in anticipation of Reem’s participation in the TV program, her family members had started asking why it is that foreigners aren’t allowed to work as easily as Germans, and Reem had tried and failed to find any answers.

She then explained that her family had recently gone through a rough time, as they had been on the verge of being deported. Reem said she had been feeling very bad and that her teachers and friends had all noticed. Ms Merkel asked what the current situation was, and Reem explained that they had received permission to stay for the time being after some bureaucratic hoop jumping, but were still waiting to hear back from the immigration authorities. She then said how much she misses her family members whom she has not been able to see in four years.

Ms Merkel explained that the policies in place require that the authorities examine whether refugees have a legitimate reason to want political asylum. She said that policy makers have recently been discussing the issue of refugees being found to have an insufficient claim to asylum only after having spent several years in Germany while waiting for the authorities to make a decision. Here she asked Reem whether she had come to Lebanon from Syria, which Reem said was not the case. She then explained that, while Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps were clearly not well off, many other people live in political circumstances that are even worse, especially people in war zones. She repeated that it is a serious problem that refugees in Germany often have to wait for a decision for such a long time, and stated that measures to make this procedure faster are now under way. She added that they would not let all refugees from Lebanon in since they have to prioritise for people who come directly from war zones.

Reem then said she has a great desire to study in university, and she finds it tough watching her friends enjoy their lives and prospects while the uncertainty about her future deprives her of such enjoyment.

Ms Merkel said she understands this, but that she cannot simply grant her wishes. Politics can be tough, she said. And while she happened to be face to face with Reem at that time, and Reem happens to be an extremely likable person, there were thousands upon thousands of other people in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that if “we” told those people they can all come, “we wouldn’t be able to handle it”. The only answer they can offer, she said, is to make sure the procedure does not take so long.  But, she repeated, many would have to go back, too.

The moderator then suggested to Ms Merkel that she remember Reem’s face and hold it in memory when making policy decisions on these issues. He asked her how quickly the authorities’ decision would be reached in the future, and Ms Merkel started telling him that she thinks the vast majority of cases that have been pending for more than two years would be processed within one year from now. I know this is what she went for saying because she stated it later in the program, but here she stopped mid sentence as she noticed Reem was crying.

She then walked up to her and stroked her back, telling her she had done great – suggesting, perhaps, that she took her crying to be from nervousness after having opened up on television. The moderator said he didn’t think it was about how well she’d done but about the toughness of her situation. Ms Merkel said she knew it was a tough situation, and that she nonetheless wanted to stroke her because “we” do not want to force people like Reem into such situations, and because Reem has it hard, but also because Reem had described so well, for very many other people, the sort of situation one can end up in.

What else happened

On the 10th of July (five days prior), a set of new laws had been passed, pursuant to which Reem will very likely be able to stay in Germany. These laws may not protect her parents from deportation, however, and also aim at deporting more refugees more quickly in the future. They also state that refugees can be incarcerated for up to four days prior to deportation.

As outraged responses started pouring through the web, a few articles stating that Reem was speaking up in defense of Ms Merkel appeared. They linked to a brief video in which Reem stated: “She listened to me, and she stated her opinion, and I think that’s fine.”

My comments

I think Ms Merkel has been unfairly accused, by very many commenters, of having been very harsh toward Reem in this encounter. And, in solidarity let’s say, I will begin my comments with some harshness of my own.

Obviously Reem is in a difficult situation, and I think the policies that put her in this situation are severely immoral. She has the right to live in any housing that a landowner agrees to rent or sell to her or her family, and her father has the right to work any job an employer or customer agrees to pay him to do (as does Reem, for that matter). Violating these rights without sufficient justification is wrong.

Yet, if we’re looking for a representative human face for the receiving side of the cruelty of migration restrictions, that face is not Reem’s. Reem is far too well off.

If you think to say this is to belittle the toughness of Reem’s situation, ask yourself whether you may be belittling the hardship of the many millions of people who have it far worse than her.

Hans Koss defended Ms Merkel against many of her recent critics in a similar vein:

The policies might be wrong in different ways, but I think that the idea to completely abolish any prioritization (currently Syria > L[e]banon > Albania) is more wrong; I believe that the capacities should be increased, but as long as the capacities are not unlimited (and that simply won’t happen – and if so, soon after that a party would be elected which drastically reduces it), prioritization is better than no prioritization. I believe that the debate is overemotionalized, which is bad for the refugees; I think it is remarkable how Merkel addresses the topic of prioritization in an honest way after having [made sure] that the girl is currently not in a desperate situation.

Many of the widely circulated criticisms of how Ms Merkel conducted herself strike me as blatantly unfair. E.g. the Daily Mail reports that

Jan Schnorrenberg, manager of the opposition Green party’s youth wing, wrote: ‘Explaining to a young girl on live camera that her fate doesn’t matter to you – just shameful.’

Ms Merkel did no such thing.

The guardian reports that

But she was forced to stop mid-sentence, and muttered “oh Gott”, on seeing that Reem was crying.

Did the author mishear? She did not mutter “oh Gott”.

But a much more important point about many such criticisms is that, even if they were fair, they would be unimportant. Had Ms Merkel actually lost her composure, or been particularly clumsy, or had she actually been cold or condescending toward Reem, even, those things would not be worth a fraction of the outrage so many have invested in these accusations.

Has Ms Merkel done anything wrong? Yes. She defended immoral policies. But note that these policies have been around for many decades. There’s no news here. Note, also, that these policies are overwhelmingly supported among the electorate.  They’re not exactly her doing. And when she says that “we wouldn’t be able to handle” a massive inflow of immigrants, that statement can be quite reasonably defended on the basis that so many natives might respond to this inflow in seriously disruptive ways. (E.g. see reports of arson attacks and shootings here and here.) Spare some blame for those less prestigious agents of representative democracy, too.

When billions of foreigners have been victimised by the restrictionist policies of (far) more tolerable countries for such a long time, why make such a big deal out of Reem? In many cases, the reasons may well involve territorialism: Foreigners enjoy a lot more sympathy with respect to their desire to immigrate once they’ve already settled in the receiving country, even if they did so illegally. That Reem has been living in Germany for four years is sure to win her a lot of support, even though it also makes her such a “lesser victim” of the policies. The fact that she’s clearly bright and academically ambitious should win her further support from the many people whose pro-immigrant sentiments extend only to highly skilled individuals.

John Lee wrote some great comments in an email replying to my request for thoughts for the present post:

One tension I observe in immigration policy is that a lot of people support harsh policies in principle, but when confronted with the human impacts of their actions, they waver and demand an exception for that specific instance of harshness they’ve encountered. This is especially common on the left — in the US, the left’s reaction to the child asylum-seeker influx was basically spineless, since they refused to meaningfully alter US immigration policy, but demanded lots of exceptions for the children. A somewhat similar response materialised from the compassionate right as well (where they didn’t demand policy changes but offered charitable aid for the children).

The upshot of it is that the most “effective” immigration policies are those which hide away the suffering and harshness. Some of the comments I saw about the Merkel video were to the effect of “Well yes obviously now that she’s integrated into German society they have to let her stay. But that’s why the compassionate thing would have been to prevent refugees like her from ever coming to Germany in the first place.”

He attached this cartoon from The Economist:

For all the problems with the many reactions to the video, I think it’s fabulous that many people at least recognise the cruelty of deportation, at least when it’s given a likable human face, at least when that face belongs to someone who’s already put down roots in the receiving country. I hope the video makes a lasting effect in this regard.

Related reading

Note: The featured image of Angela Merkel is from author Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck on WikiMedia Commons and is licensed dually under Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA) and GFDL. You can get more details here.

The Moral Imperative of Open Borders Trumps (Pun Intended) Immigrant Crime Rates

Many in the U.S. are currently focused on the amount of crime committed by immigrants in the country. This is due to remarks made by presidential contender Donald Trump in June and a murder allegedly committed by an undocumented immigrant in San Francisco in July.  Mr. Trump suggested that many Mexican immigrants are criminals. In this post I argue that even if it were true that immigrants would increase crime rates in America, open borders would still be justified.

In response to Mr. Trump’s remarks and the San Francisco murder, both The Washington Post  and The New York Times have noted that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute has surveyed the research on immigration and crime rates and drawn a similar conclusion. The Immigration Policy Center also released a report which states that “the available evidence indicates that immigrants are not only less likely to end up behind bars than the native-born, but that immigrants are also less likely to commit criminal acts to begin with.” (p. 9) In a 2012 post, Vipul  communicated the same message that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans.

Focusing on Mexican and Hispanic immigration, Mr. Nowrasteh notes that although one study showed that Mexican immigrants were committing more property crimes than native-born Americans, another demonstrated that Mexican immigrants “had no effect on violent or property crime rates in major U.S. metropolitan areas.” He also cites a study on Hispanic immigrants in Chicago that found that they were much less prone to committing violent criminal acts than native whites or blacks in the city.

The Immigration Policy Center offers an explanation for why immigrants commit less crime: “This is hardly surprising since immigrants come to the United States to pursue economic and educational opportunities not available in their home countries and to build better lives for themselves and their families. As a result, they have little to gain and much to lose by breaking the law. Unauthorized immigrants in particular have even more reason to not run afoul of the law given the risk of deportation that their lack of legal status entails.” (p. 20)

What about the crime rate of the offspring of immigrants? They do appear to become more prone to crime than their immigrant relatives, which an editor at the Pew Research Center calls the “dark side of assimilation.” An article on reason.com notes that “every year that an immigrant lives in the U.S. is associated with a 1.9 and 0.9 percent increase in nonviolent and violent crime respectively.” In addition, “the behaviors of the children of immigrants over time begin to resemble that of native-borns.”  However, the offspring do not appear to commit more crimes than Americans generally.  (Census data from 2000 indicate that U.S.-born young males of Mexican, Cuban, and three Southeast Asian ethnicities are incarcerated at higher rates than the overall U.S.-born average. Vipul notes, however, that “locking out entire ethnic groups due to the anticipated future crime rates of their descendants based on past data, which aren’t that much higher than native rates anyway, causes substantially more harm than letting them in and dealing with a crime rate that might fall less slowly or rise slightly in the future.”)

But could this picture of relatively low immigrant criminality change under open borders, which would mean a larger flow of immigrants and probably higher proportions from certain countries? Vipul explored this question in his 2012 post and concluded that with open borders “the odds of crime rates going up versus down are about even, and they almost certainly will not explode.” In reaching this conclusion, Vipul noted that the future orientation associated with migrants is generally incompatible with criminality, that the worldwide crime rate is similar to that of the U.S., that much of the immigration to the U.S under restrictive immigration laws already comes from countries with relatively high crime rates (other countries in the Americas), and that India and China, which likely would be the sources of large numbers of immigrants under open borders, have lower crime rates than the U.S.

Some Americans who care only about the well-being of citizens  might call for an end to immigration altogether, let alone open borders, because one citizen death caused by immigrants, in their view, might be too many. If it were possible to stop immigration, that policy would eventually lead to no more murders or other crimes committed by immigrants because there would be no immigrants. (But of course the inevitable reproduction of the citizen population would lead to the creation of more people who would commit crimes, so they would have watch out for these new citizen criminals. They might also have to worry about the migration of citizens within the country who might commit crimes in their new areas of residence.)

More thoughtful American citizenists might look favorably on the impact of immigration on crime under the status quo of immigration restrictions that allow some immigration. Looking at the data, they might think, “The immigration system works pretty well right now in terms of crime. Those immigrants who make it into the U.S. are generally more law abiding than us citizens. They are revitalizing blighted urban areas, which reduces crime, and places with concentrated immigration are especially safe.  (p. 6) If they are really knowledgeable, they might say, as does Mr. Nowrasteh, that perhaps by “contributing to greater economic prosperity through pushing natives up the skills spectrum through complementary task specialization,” immigrants keep some Americans away from crime. They might agree that “It is easy to focus on the horrible tragedies when somebody is murdered by an immigrant but it’s very hard to imagine all of the people who weren’t murdered because of the lower crime rates created by increased immigration.” However, despite Vipul’s arguments that crime rates would most likely not explode under open borders, they wouldn’t want to take that risk. Besides, they would probably have other concerns about immigration’s impact on citizens.

However, from an open-borders perspective, even if crime rates were to increase significantly under an open borders policy, the moral importance of having open borders outweighs such a development. (The manifesto of the group No One Is Illegal similarly suggests that principle should trump the concrete consequences of immigration, whether positive or negative. Since the consequences can change, “statistics are useful to refute distortions and lies, but cannot be the bedrock of our opposition to controls.” ) In a previous post, I noted two strong moral arguments (from Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer) for open borders, both of which would countenance large increases in crime levels under open borders, should they occur. For both arguments, the right to open borders could be overridden only if the flow of people under open borders led to a “breakdown of public order” or a “disastrous” result in the receiving country. A significant increase in the crime rate, unlikely as it would be, would not constitute such a cataclysm.

In sum, the evidence strongly suggests that currently immigrant crime rates are lower than those of native-born Americans. The crime rates of immigrants’ offspring resembles those of Americans but doesn’t appear to be higher. Vipul has convincingly argued that under open borders the crime rate in the U.S. likely wouldn’t change dramatically. Even if it did, an open borders policy would still be morally warranted.

The photograph of Donald Trump featured on this post was taken by Gage Skidmore and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

The claim that open borders inevitably leads to homogeneity is incredibly weak

A common argument against open borders hinges on the assumption that it will increase diversity in our societies, and that the harmful effects of diversity will outweigh the other positive effects of open borders. You can see our blog posts tagged “diversity” for various responses to that. However, there’s an interesting argument that runs in precisely the opposite direction: it claims that open borders will reduce diversity in the long run, and that this homogeneity will be harmful.

For one articulation of this from a somewhat libertarian standpoint, Patri Friedman (the grandson of economist Milton Friedman) recently blogged:

So if you even care about life existing – let alone the infinite diversity possible therein – then (contra Caplan), boundaries (such as national borders) are an absolute necessity. No differences, no energy flow, no (thermodynamic) work, no life. As in the stars, so on the earth: romance flows from polarity; trade from comparative advantage; thermodynamic work from heat differences; evolution from variation; economic competition from competing alternatives. All progress is driven by differences; so to erase differences is (counter-eponymously) to end progress.

The assumption here is that the existence of borders (and presumably, also the tight policing of who may traverse them) is critical to maintaining beneficial diversity. Now, I don’t want to wade right now into the debate over what kinds of diversity are beneficial, and what kinds of diversity aren’t.

I will say that as a general rule, I am skeptical of governments trying to engineer society. Arguments both for and against a policy on the basis that it changes the composition of society don’t persuade me much. If you can’t point to any identifiable harms or gains from the policy beyond “it will change the number of people of a particular ethnicity/religion/other identity in our  society,” then it makes me wonder why you’re proposing or criticising the policy in the first place.

Given the very shady history of governments singling out certain identities to target in their policies, I am generally not a fan of diversity-type arguments for or against a particular policy. I may personally like Indian food a lot, but I am going to be suspicious of any policy to subsidise Indian migration for the sake of “culinary diversity”. Like co-blogger Vipul, I am unimpressed by “it will enhance diversity, and that’s by definition a good thing” kinds of arguments for open borders.

The inverse is similarly problematic: reducing diversity as a policy end in of itself is inherently suspicious. If some people don’t like certain types of restaurants, is that justification for prohibiting those restaurants, or restricting the movement of the cultural groups who would supply or demand that type of food?

However, the kind of argument Patri Friedman is making here strikes me as equally unimpressive, albeit for different reasons. I’m happy to grant the claim that some level of diversity is beneficial for both human society as a whole and particular societies or countries. The kind of argument Friedman seems to be making is that open borders would eventually turn humanity into some kind of amorphous, homogeneous grey blob of uniformity, which is a different way of reducing diversity — and is thus a bad thing.

But this would imply that if we had open borders tomorrow, then on a very visible timescale, we would witness the homogenisation of humanity. That claim strikes me as quite easy to disprove. In literally the second comment on Friedman’s post one Glen Raphael points out:

I don’t think you can use this insight to argue against opening national borders – the argument proves too much. Suppose we grant for the sake of argument the notion that having some sort of border maintains “energy differentials” that are useful to humanity – why would *existing national boundaries* be the best place to put those borders and why would we expect anything like the existing set of restrictions/policies to be the best ones for maintaining those differentials?

To maximize these sort of differentials might we not be be better off with strong border controls around each house? Around each city? Each county? Each state? If not – if you think you have good arguments to the effect that allowing free trade and free movement of people between Santa Clara and San Jose has benefits that outweigh the cost (*including* the cost in terms of reducing “energy differentials”), don’t similar arguments apply to allowing free trade and movement of people between, say, the US and Mexico? If not, why not?

There are open borders today between Alabama and New York. Has this fact eliminated all the differences and inequalities between those states? or even substantially reduced them?

You could, I suppose, retort that these effects would occur on longer timescales — although the US had international open borders for over a century after its founding, and has had domestic open borders for well over two centuries. But all I had to do to be suspicious of this was simply open the newspaper from a few days back.

Recently, The Telegraph reported on a new survey of the genetic heritage of Britons, conducted by Oxford University. The findings:

Archaeologists and geneticists were amazed to find that genetically similar individuals inhabit the same areas they did following the Anglo-Saxon invasion, following the fall of the Roman Empire.

In fact, a map showing tribes of Britain in 600AD is almost identical to a new chart showing genetic variability throughout the UK, suggesting that local communities have stayed put for the past 1415 years.

Many people in Britain claim to feel a strong sense of regional identity and scientists say they the new study proves that the link to birthplace is DNA deep.

The most striking genetic split can be seen between people living in Cornwall and Devon, where the division lies exactly along the county border. It means that people living on either side of the River Tamar, which separates the two counties, have different DNA.

Almost 15 centuries later, borders still discernibly delineate regional and even genetic identities — even though the UK has had internal open borders for almost the same amount of time. Indeed, not only were the borders open; for much of this time, the borders did not even exist!

To take the most obvious example of this in the UK, Wales has been administered as part of England since the 16th century. As far as politics was concerned, the borders of Wales ceased to exist. Only in the late 20th century has Wales begun to assume any separate administrative identity from England itself within the constitutional law of the UK. Surely nobody can argue that a Welsh identity disappeared for four centuries and has only been revived recently with the creation of a Welsh legislative assembly! The Jews didn’t have a state for almost two millenia, and dispersed across international borders at will — and yet their unique identity has survived all the same.

If diverse identities can persist with open borders, or even no borders, for centuries, it seems difficult to argue that fear of homogeneity is a reason to oppose open borders. Open borders clearly has nothing to do with the ultimate homogenisation of society, at least not on any measurable timescale relevant to making law.

If anything, migration often leads to greater diversity. In many cases, when multiple cultures meet, rather than one dominating and utterly subsuming the other, the two combine to form new varieties of culture. To take one personal example, I am Chinese Malaysian — Chinese (and partly Filipino) by ethnicity, Malaysian by nationality. I grew up in a community that observes various Chinese traditions. Yet, many of these traditions are alien to most other Chinese people in the world, because they fall in one or more of the following buckets:

  • A total innovation by Chinese living in Malaysia, unrelated to Malay or Chinese culture
  • An adaptation of local Malay culture
  • An adaptation of Chinese tradition that either was not picked up or actually abandoned by Chinese in China

It is hard for me to believe that my ancestors’ migration to Malaysia had the effect of homogenising Malaysia, China, or the world as a whole, when the differences stare us in the face. The food my community eats, the way we celebrate our traditional festivals, and the little things we do because they’re “traditional” are traditions unknown to Chinese in China, and yet traditions peculiar in Malaysia to just our community. I’m not sure whether the right label for this is homogeneity or diversity, but whatever it is, it makes me doubt any sweeping claims that people make about how migration inevitably homogenises or diversifies human culture.

I am not saying that migration must be good because it leads to cultural diversity, or that we can even empirically say cultural diversity constitutes a clear benefit of migration. However, I think people are too quick to assume migration will have a straightforward diversifying or homogenising effect: it’s a lot more complicated than that. These kinds of arguments against open borders make such sweeping claims, often in the face of how diversity works in real life, that it is hard to take them seriously.

The image featured above this post is of a fish salad called yee sang. It is a culinary tradition widely-practiced among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, yet almost completely unheard of among people in China today. Photo originally uploaded to the Wikimedia Commons and distributed under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

Open Borders Is the Best Way to Help Haiti

Advocates have suggested open borders (here and here) as a way to help Haiti, which has a long history of poverty, environmental disasters, political turmoil, and human rights abuses. Yet after a devastating earthquake in 2010 led to billions of dollars of outside help for Haiti in the form of humanitarian and development aid, as well as debt relief, has Haiti improved significantly? Has massive aid been the solution to Haiti’s problems? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no, and open borders as a solution for much of Haiti’s misery continues to be as important as ever.

Even after the infusion of aid, Haiti has a per capita GDP of $1,800, placing it 209th out of 230 countries, with the 230th being the poorest. The Associated Press  recently described Haiti as a “…deeply poor nation, with an official unemployment rate of about 40 percent and the World Bank says more than 6 million out of roughly 10.4 million inhabitants live under the national poverty line of $2.44 per day.” Statistics from three years ago show that about 23 percent of young children in Haiti were chronically undernourished and 4 percent were acutely malnourished.

Haiti also has been been cited as one of five countries where slavery is most prevalent. Human Rights Watch states that thousands of children from poor families are sent to live with wealthier families in order to provide them with schooling in exchange for domestic work, but often the children do not receive an education and are abused.  Human Rights Watch also notes “long-standing human rights problems” in Haiti, as well as “concerns about the resurgence of political violence.”

Aid from other countries clearly hasn’t and might never transform Haiti. Per capita GDP has increased from $1200 in the years 2009-2012 to $1800 in 2014, but it is difficult to know to what extent this increase is due to foreign aid, remittances (see below), or other factors. The bottom line is that Haiti continues to be very poor, along with suffering from other problems.  Foreign Policy in Focus concludes that “four years and billions of dollars later, conditions do not appear to have improved for Haitians affected by the earthquake; in fact, it can be argued that things are worse.” Similarly,  GlobalPost, referring to American aid for Haiti, states that “the extent to which that money is creating sustainable progress remains unclear even four years after it began.”

While some good has been accomplished in Haiti because of outside help (see here and here and here), problems with its delivery have been identified. U.S. government aid for Haiti has largely gone to American companies and non-profits, and The Guardian notes that “Critics have argued for years that donors’ practice of spending aid money through organisations located in their own countries has hampered efforts to build self-sufficiency abroad, and works to the detriment of local businesses and industries.”  And the impact of nearly $500 million raised by the American Red Cross for Haiti since the earthquake has been underwhelming, according to a recent investigation by National Public Radio and ProPublica. The groups found “… a string of poorly managed projects, questionable spending and dubious claims of success…” associated with the funds. The American Red Cross built a total of six permanent homes in Haiti, even though housing is the area in which “the Red Cross made its biggest promises.” An article on the NBC News site states that “to Jonathan Katz, author of ‘The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,’ the aid story is one of good intentions and bad policy, short-term fixes without a ground-breaking long game, Band-Aids over self-sufficiency.” (See here and here and here for additional criticism of aid efforts.)

On the other hand, emigration is much more promising than foreign aid, both for the Haitians who leave Haiti and for those who stay behind. Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development argues that international migration is “the cheapest and most powerful economic tool” for helping Haitians.  He states that “the large majority of Haitians who have ever escaped poverty have done so by leaving Haiti.”  Citing research by others that was published in 2008, he notes that Haitian immigrants to the U.S. gain a 680% wage increase due to the migration.  He adds that “for those who don’t move, remittances… unlike foreign aid, generally go directly into the pockets of Haitian families. They are spent almost entirely on locally-produced goods and services…”  The CIA World Factbook notes that for Haiti “remittances are the primary source of foreign exchange, equaling one-fifth of GDP and representing more than five times the earnings from exports in 2012.”  Mr. Clemens concludes that “migration has been a principal cause of convergence, to date, between the incomes of Haitians and Americans.”  (He does suggest that the gains to migrants might be diminished under open borders.)

There are more than half a million Haitian immigrants in the U.S.  And many more Haitians want to come. A Gallup poll indicates that, if given the opportunity, about a quarter of Haiti’s adults would move permanently to the U.S.

However, under the status quo of border controls, the ability of Haitians to emigrate to the United States is limited. The U.S. has worked hard to keep many from coming. Since 1981 the U.S. Coast Guard has been interdicting, or intercepting, Haitian migrants traveling by boat to the U.S. Under a 1981 agreement with Haiti, the U.S. returns migrants to Haiti but ostensibly does not repatriate refugees. A study by the former Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First) found that from 1981 to 1990 almost 400 Haitian vessels were interdicted, 21,000 Haitians were returned home, and only six Haitians were allowed into the U.S. for a full asylum hearing, despite a “high incidence of serious human rights violations in Haiti during that period.” (from Stephen Legomsky, The USA and the Caribbean Interdiction Program, 2006) Since 1990, tens of thousands more Haitians have been intercepted and sent home. (See here and here.) It was reported  that as a group of Haitians was forced back to Port-au-Prince in 1995, one of the returnees, handcuffed and carried down the gangplank, moaned, with “tears streaming down his cheeks,” “’I don’t want to come back to a country like this and die in the streets.’” And the interdictions continue, as indicated by statistics for fiscal year 2014.

Even after the earthquake struck Haiti, the New York Times reported that a U.S. Air Force plane flew over Haiti broadcasting a message from the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., who said in the message, meant to dissuade Haitians from fleeing to the U.S. on boats, “’If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. And they will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.’” The Times also reported that the Coast Guard patrolled Haitian waters, ready to intercept anyone trying to escape. Moreover, the U.S. denied many seriously injured people permission to enter the U.S. for treatment. Only 23 were allowed to enter the U.S. for treatment, as well as some orphaned children.

Many have sought a better life in the Dominican Republic, with which Haiti shares the island of Hispanola, but many have experienced hardship there. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians, both those from Haiti and their offspring born in the Dominican Republic, live there. Minority Rights Group International states that Haitians there experience discrimination based on their skin color and culture. In addition, “they earn 60 per cent less than average Dominicans. They often do not have access to proper nutrition or adequate health care due to poor pay, their illegal status and fear of deportation.” Most sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic are Haitian. Conditions for the workers are poor, and workers are sometimes coerced into working. Recently, the Dominican Republic has threatened to deport many Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent. A court ruling in 2013 took away Dominican citizenship from children of Haitian migrants. Similarly, the Bahamas requires noncitizens, including those born in the Bahamas, to have passports, “a rule that human rights groups say unfairly targets people of Haitian descent,” according to the New York Times, and there have been immigration raids in “predominately Haitian shantytowns.” (See also here.) Under open borders, Haitian migrants could avoid these inhospitable destinations, and these countries could not use immigration restrictions as a tool to discriminate against Haitians.

Beyond the tremendous good that could be realized for Haitians through open borders, an open borders policy would help redress the harm U.S. foreign policy has caused the country over two centuries. Haiti, a French colony largely populated by African slaves, won its independence from France in a bloody struggle in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Once independence was achieved, however, the U.S. and European powers were hostile to the new republic. Randall Robinson notes that after independence “the United States, France and western Europe would quickly join together in a program of measures designed to defeat the new black republic’s prospects for success. For the next two hundred years, Haiti would be faced with active hostility from the world’s most powerful community of nations. The new country endured a variety of attacks, some imposed concurrently, others consecutively, including military invasions, economic embargoes, gunboat blockades, reparations demands, trade barriers, diplomatic quarantines, subsidized armed subversions, media volleys of public traducement, and a string of twentieth-century U.S.-armed black dictators, beginning with Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier, who rose to power in 1957…” (p. 18, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007) Mr. Robinson concludes that “the Haitian economy has never recovered from the financial havoc France (and America) wreaked upon it, during and after slavery.” (p. 22) Michael Falco, in a letter to the New York Times, similarly writes that “Haiti spent its early existence handcuffed by crippling reparations to France — a penalty for rejecting the shackles of slavery. At the peak of this debt, Haiti was paying 80 percent of its national budget to foreign creditors. After the debt was ‘paid off,’ a string of brutal dictators — many propped up by the United States — ransacked the country’s coffers. Haiti never had a chance…”

In summary, while foreign aid has achieved some good for the Haitian people, open borders has the potential to enormously help. Haitian immigrants in economically advanced countries could earn much more than they could in Haiti, remittances could benefit those who remain in Haiti, U.S. interdictions of migrants could stop, Haitian migrants could bypass countries that mistreat them, and the world could begin to make up for its historic abuse of Haiti. Of the groups that could benefit most from a world with open borders, the Haitian people are among those at the top of the list.

My reasons for skepticism of linking open borders to legalizing private discrimination

In the world as it stands today, the pro-immigration/pro-immigrant crowd has aligned itself with the anti-discrimination/anti-racist crowd. There is clear common cause in more ways than one:

Many open borders advocates accept or even deploy these arguments, and this helps establish common ground with many mainstream pro-immigration people. However, there is another interesting strain of thought in the open borders movement, stemming from its ideologically libertarian-leaning wing, that affirms the importance of allowing private discrimination. The idea is that freedom of association is of intrinsic value, and forbidding private discrimination interferes with this right. Interestingly, from this perspective, the quest for open borders (specifically framed in terms of the right to migrate and right to invite) and the quest for allowing private discrimination have affinity: both can be justified based on the importance of freedom of association (I discuss this at greater length a little further down in the post, before getting into the implications for open borders).

Now, to be clear, all three positions discussed (open borders, moral opposition to racism and discrimination, and the importance of letting private discrimination be legal) are mutually consistent. Nonetheless, the position that private discrimination should be legal and the view of discimination as morally problematic are connotatively in tension, particularly once we get outside the circle of people with hardcore libertarian beliefs.

An interesting twist to this triad of views was introduced by my co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his blog posts No Irish Need Apply and Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal and later in a post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Nathan argued that allowing private discrimination might be a way to appease people concerned about their ability to avoid (particular types of) immigrants that we’d see more of under open borders. He therefore proposed (open borders + allow private discrimination) as a package deal (in the language of this post of mine, this would qualify as a complementary policy to open borders, though if the legalization of discrimination was restricted to discrimination against immigrants, it would qualify as a keyhole solution in that jargon). In this post, I’ll dissect different arguments of the sort Nathan has articulated and alluded to, and explain my reasons for skepticism of them.

Some background on discrimination

In many contemporary polities, particularly in the United States, opposition to discrimination (particularly along certain dimensions such as race and ethnicity) has attained a moral primacy, at least rhetorically. Philosophically, this has puzzled me. Consider a recent topical category: when incidents of police brutality are reported, there is often significant emphasis on whether the police behavior was discriminatory on the basis of race, often even more so than the question of how justified or excessive the police action was. Racial discrimination was a key theme in discussion of the recent 2015 Texas pool party incident, even though the officer in question had, to begin with, arrested a white girl (this was not part of the viral video, but happened before the video commenced). This led to the weird situation where the officer sought to defend his behavior from charges of racism by pointing out that he had arrested a white girl, even though that arrest too was unjustified.

The emphasis on discrimination can be counterproductive because it can lead to the rejection of Pareto-improving solutions that are discriminatory. In the context of migration, for instance, the expansion of migration quotas or relaxation of migration barriers for people of certain classes or nationalities increases discrimination between potential migrants, even if, overall, it expands human freedom. Reasons of this sort are why those I know who are more hardcore libertarians, as well as more utility-oriented or efficiency-oriented, tend to not give primacy to narratives focused on discrimination. My point here isn’t that hardcore libertarians or utilitarians support discrimination, but rather, that they don’t treat discrimination as a key yardstick by which to judge the morality or desirability of actions.

However, I believe that the focus on discrimination in public discourse is not as irrational or ungrounded as it might appear from a purely philosophical standpoint. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • It feels awful to be discriminated against, and more generally to be in an environment where you’re constantly wondering whether other people’s behavior toward you is influenced by prejudice: Obviously, in cases where the people who might be discriminating against you are people with a huge amount of authority over you (such as police officers, consular officers, or judges) the feeling is terrible. The fear that they are prejudiced against you, whether justified or not, adds insult to any injury they may inflict on you. But even when the other actors involved have little power over you, the fear that their behavior towards you is based on discrimination for reasons you cannot control, can be demoralizing. My co-blogger Nathan has pointed out in his posts the standard economic wisdom that, even if many people discriminate against a particular race or ethnicity, the material harm to members of that race or ethnicity is minimal as long as there are enough people who don’t discriminate. But despite this small material harm, the psychological damage, even if not debilitating, is nothing to be laughed at. If you know that 20% of restaurants will refuse to serve you due to your race, or that 10% of police officers will stop you for absolutely no reason other than your race and subject you to a time-wasting and humiliating strip search, this detracts from your ability to partake of public life with dignity.
  • In addition to the direct effects of discrimination against those parties being discriminated against (as well as others who my incorrectly believe themselves to be the victims of discrimination) there are also ripple effects on economic and social activity. Some of it might get canceled because of the impediments and inefficiencies created by discrimination. A business might choose not to hire the best employee because of discrimination by its customers against the employee’s race/ethnicity. A group of people might decide not to go to a restaurant or cinema hall that they would have enjoyed, because one member of the group would be barred from the place on account of race or ethnicity.
  • Discrimination, insofar as it largely targets people who lack the relevant kind of power (which may be political, economic, or social) means that the people with the power to change policies are often insulated from the consequences. If police officers behave in humiliating ways only when interacting with people who look young and poor, then those who run city governments and police forces, who tend to be older and richer, may never experience the brunt of humiliating policing. Since these individuals don’t get firsthand experience in the implementation of the policies, they have little incentive to change them. A non-discriminatory and egalitarian approach makes sure that those creating and influencing policies eat their own dog food.

The libertarian perspective, that I largely endorse (although this isn’t an issue that I’m passionate enough about to generally argue in favor of) acknowledges these points, but balances them against these considerations (note that while I try to articulate below a libertarianish view, many libertarians don’t subscribe to it, and many non-libertarians do):

  • In the context of coercive state actors, the libertarian perspective seeks to reduce the coercive, discretionary power that lies with these actors in the first place. The less coercive power these actors have, and the less discretionary leeway the actors have, the less scope there is for them to discriminate in invidious ways, while also reducing abuse of these powers at large. In the context of police abuse, reduced police authority to arbitrarily stop and detain people, the legalization of victimless crimes, and an end to Broken Windows policing-like approaches, reduce the scope for those in authority to harass people at large, and also to do so in a discriminatory fashion.
  • In the context of private discriminators, the libertarian position acknowledges that those discriminated against have experiences ranging from unpleasant to traumatizing. However, the libertarian position still gives importance to freedom of association, even when it leads to bad consequences for others, as long as it does not directly violate their rights. Libertarians also point out that forbidding discrimination can have bad effects not only on those engaged in the odious type of discrimination that is the target of the law but in other, more innocuous, forms of discrimination.

James Joyner articulates the second point well:

Paul’s views are identical to those I held when studying Constitutional Law as an undergrad and not all that far removed from my current position. There’s no question in my mind that private individuals have a right to freely associate, that telling owners of private businesses whom they must serve amounts to an unconstitutional taking, and that it’s none of the Federal government’s business, anyway. Further, in the context of 2010 America, I absolutely think that business owners ought to be able to serve whomever they damned well please — whether it’s a bar owner wishing to cater to smokers, a racist wanting to exclude blacks, or a member of a subculture wishing to carve out a place for members of said subculture to freely associate with only their kind out of purely benign purposes.

The problem, circa 1964, was that there really was not right to freely associate in this manner in much of the country. Even once state-mandated segregation was ended, the community put enormous pressure on business owners to maintain the policy. That meant that, say, a hotel owner who wished to rent rooms without regard to color really weren’t free to do so. More importantly, it meant that, say, a black traveling salesman couldn’t easily conduct his business without an in-depth knowledge of which hotels, restaurants, and other establishments catered to blacks. Otherwise, his life would be inordinately frustrating and, quite possibly, dangerous.

In such an environment, the discrimination is institutionalized and directly affecting interstate commerce. It was therefore not unreasonable for the Federal government to step in using their broad powers under the 14th Amendment. I’m still not sure parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially the issue in question here) or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (especially treating individual states differently from others) are strictly Constitutional. But they were necessary and proper in the context of the times.

The problem that libertarians and strict Constitutionalists have, however, is that precedents set under extreme and outrageous conditions are often applied to routine and merely inconvenient ones. (Or, as the old adage goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”) Once someone’s private business is transformed by fiat into a “public accommodation,” there’s precious little limit to what government can do with it. Requiring private individuals to treat black people with a modicum of human dignity is one thing and dictating what kind of oil they can cook their French fries in or how much salt they can put on them is quite another. But, in principle, they’re not much different.

Piyo draws parallels between freedom of association and freedom of speech, noting the irrationality in how people unequivocally defend freedom of speech while treating defense of freedom of association as anathema:

I confess that I’ve always found this controversy rather puzzling. Consider the following two propositions:

1. A citizen should be allowed to promote white supremacy and racial segregation in a personal blog, in a book, in flyers that he hands out on street corners, to his children, or among his neighbors at weekly meetings at his home

2. A citizen should be allowed to refuse service to non-whites at his store

I find it incredibly odd that believing #1 is considered normal, enlightened, and mainstream, while believing #2 is considered crazy at best and mega-, KKK/slave-owning/Django-level racist at worst. In fact, judging from the controversy over Paul’s stance, I think many or most people believe that it is totally impossible to believe #2 without being racist. Don’t get me wrong; I can easily imagine a reasonable set of beliefs that would lead a person to agree with #1 and disagree with #2. However, I can’t imagine how everyone seems to believe the following

3. #1 is obviously true and everyone should believe so, and #2 is obviously false, and anyone who disagrees is either evil or being willfully ignorant.

I can think of two reasons why a person might confidently believe that #2 is false. Unfortunately, neither of these theories explain the widespread belief in #3.

[…]

More reasonable, I think, is to conclude that almost nobody’s attitude toward #1 or #2 is based on any kind of ratiocination. Through a combination of historical accident and the all-powerful status quo bias, endorsing #1 has become a way to express to others that you, too, value freedom, and rejecting #2 has become a way of expressing that you, too, think racism is bad. If you hold these beliefs, then you’re part of our “group”.

For more discussion of the libertarian perspective on discrimination and some pushback to it, see this Cato Unbound discussion of the subject.

UPDATE: In an email, reproduced with permission, Nathan responds to my point about it being awful to be discriminated against:

The place where I had least sympathy with the argument was where you talked about being discriminated against and how horrible it feels. I can see why it would be pretty bad to be in the position of African Americans before the civil rights movement, when widespread discrimination was enforced by a sinister conspiracy of the law with the domestic terrorists of the KKK, and when most of the population discriminated against you so that your opportunities to flourish in life were severely limited by discrimination on every side, and when discrimination did seem to be motivated by hatred. But I can’t see how it would be so bad to suffer from occasional statistical discrimination not motivated by hatred. Suppose a taxi cab driver were to tell me, “Sorry, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t pick up young men in this part of town, because young men commit most of the crime, and I only have to pick up the wrong fare once, and my wife’s a widow.” If I needed the cab that would be inconvenient of course, but I wouldn’t feel profoundly insulted. I’d feel sorry for the guy for being in such a risky job and earnestly hope and pray for his safety. The notion that it’s an intolerable indignity to be discriminated against, but it’s NOT an intolerable indignity to be forced by the government and its anti-discrimination laws to open one’s home or business to people one doesn’t like or approve of, seems utterly insane. If it feels so horrible to be discriminated against today, even when it causes negligible inconvenience, I suspect that’s either because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking discrimination is the root of all evil, or because what certain groups (LGBT especially) really want is to coerce people to APPROVE of them, a common motive among those who have power. Discrimination against LGBT is an expression of disapproval and as such must be suppressed.

Bryan Caplan’s weighing of the relative importance of immigration restrictions and anti-discrimination law

In a blog post titled Association, Exclusion, Liberty, and the Status Quo, Bryan Caplan, who supports both open borders and an end to anti-discrimination laws, compared the importance of the issues:

I don’t deny that laws against exclusion occasionally have important effects. But their main effect in the modern U.S. economy isn’t to reduce exclusion, but to pressure businesses to either overpay or avoid hiring workers who can easily sue for “discrimination.”

Now consider regulations on the freedom of association. Many are marginal, too. Not much would change if you legalized gay marriage or polygamy; they’re just niche markets. But one class of regulations has a massive effect: immigration laws. Indeed, they probably have a bigger effect than all other regulations combined.

It’s simple. Billions of people around the world live on a few dollars a day or less. Under open borders, tens of millions of them would migrate to the U.S. every year. Remember: Even if you’re an illiterate peasant from Bangladesh, credit markets and/or employers would be happy to front the money for airfare.

This immigration flow wouldn’t stabilize until real estate prices massively increased and low-skilled wages drastically declined. The U.S. population could easily increase by 50% in a decade. New cities would blanket the country. The level of output would skyrocket – and its composition would rapidly change, too. Whether you love this vision or hate it, you can’t deny that free association would radically and rapidly reshape the face of America.

I’m as supportive of the right to exclude as anyone. But current restrictions on this right are pretty minor. There are plenty of ways for markets to engineer exclusion, and there’s not much demand for greater stringency. In contrast, restrictions on the right to associate are massive, and there is enormous pent-up demand to migrate. Hundreds of millions of people want to move here, landlords want to rent to them, employers want to hire them – but the law won’t allow it.

Contrary to my conservative friend, then, libertarians aren’t the ones with a blind spot. He is. While restrictions on exclusion are occasionally irksome, they rarely ruin lives. Immigration laws, in contrast, usually condemn their victims to life – and often early death – in the Third World. Libertarians rightly emphasize the freedom to associate, because the status quo’s restrictions on exclusion are minor and mild – and the status quo’s restrictions on association are massive and monstrous.

A closer look at the link between legalizing private discrimination and open borders

Here’s Nathan’s Open Borders Action Group Facebook post (which is the most recent formulation of his view, though his previous blog posts are also worth reading):

Would it be useful to the open borders movement to roll back anti-discrimination laws? Consider the following argument, made to a nativist: “Hey, if YOU don’t like immigrants, fine, you don’t have to do associate with them. But stop interfering with those of us who DO want to associate with them.” This argument needs refining, but I think some form of it could have a lot of force if it weren’t for “public accommodation” laws that force all residents of the US to integrate. As long as so-called “anti-discrimination” laws are in place (misnamed of course since for now discrimination against undocumented immigrants is not only allowed but mandated), this argument doesn’t work very well, since the government might force you to hire immigrants. In effect, the current policy choice is whether discrimination against the foreign-born should be mandatory or illegal, whereas of course, the sensible middle way is to make it voluntary. But to get to it, we’d have to legalize discrimination. Now, I’m hopeful that the attack on religious freedom by the LGBT lobby will backfire and lead to a general revival of tolerance and freedom of association, as the absurdity of having the government force people to bake a cake for a “wedding” they don’t morally approve of, forces us to revisit some deep ethical mistakes we’ve been making for the past generation. If this happens, would it help the open borders cause?

There are several different flavors of the argument, that I’ll list before opining:

  1. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more philosophically defensible than it is now.
  2. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more philosophically defensible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.
  3. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more practically feasible than it is now.
  4. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.

I agree with the view (1): the freedom-based arguments for open borders make more sense in a world where people are freer to not associate with immigrants if they so choose, and the other arguments are largely unaffected. I think the change to the strength of open borders isn’t too huge, largely because of the reasons that Caplan articulated in his post that I quoted above.

I also agree (weakly) with (2): bundling open borders with a broader expansion of the freedom to associate (and exclude) would be more philosophically defensible than merely opening the borders. However, unlike (1), (2) only applies from the perspective of the libertarian case. Those whose reasons for supporting open borders are more egalitarian might well disagree with (2). If you agree with Caplan’s post, however, the effect size either way is relatively small.

This leaves (3) and (4), the questions of practical feasibility. Regarding (3), I believe that there are good arguments on both sides, and I think ultimately it will depend on the details of the societal changes that lead to a relaxation or termination of anti-discrimination laws in the first place. However, I am very skeptical of (4). I don’t think an (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible. I don’t think those keen to see open borders become a reality should attempt to draft such a deal or push for it. I think the main benefit of discussing such a combination, apart from the philosophical clarity it offers, is that if somehow the circumstances changed and such a deal became the main way to proceed with open borders, then our thoughts on the issue would be clearly fleshed out.

I’ll begin by elaborating on (3). Why might anti-discrimination laws, such as those surrounding public accommodations in the United States, be repealed or relaxed? I believe there are three broad categories of reasons:

  1. The moral argument for the freedom to associate and exclude gains widespread acceptance.
  2. Efficiency-based arguments against such laws take force. This could be helped by public outrage or disgust at what is perceived as spurious use of anti-discrimination laws.
  3. People interested in discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or some other criterion push for the changes, and their views become influential among the public or among policymakers.

I think that, if (1) is the prime mover for the change in laws, there is a decent chance that public opinion would have also shifted more in favor of freer migration, and Nathan’s logic might then accentuate the effect. In the case of (2), public opinion may remain largely unchanged on migration, but Nathan’s logic might help tip it slightly more in favor of free migration. However, in the case of (3), I think it’s quite likely that public opinion will be more hostile to immigration than before. Even if Nathan’s logic serves to counter that somewhat, I think the net effect would still be in a significantly restrictionist direction. I think that, given what we know today about public opinion, in the highly unlikely event that anti-discrimination law is repealed, this is more likely to happen because of reason (3) than because of the other two reasons (though I expect the overall chances of such repeal as pretty low, so this is merely an academic observation).

Finally, as for (4), the reason I’m skeptical is that, in the present day, there isn’t really a large coalition (outside of hardcore libertarians and efficiency-oriented folks) who support the repeal of anti-discrimination law out of a love of true freedom, as opposed to a desire to facilitate discrimination per se. And, outside of libertarians, people have trouble separating private action from government-enforced action. So, this bundle wouldn’t really appeal to many people, and in addition, means that open borders advocates might lose the support of the broader, mainstream, pro-immigrant people.

John Lee offers a detailed response to Nathan’s Facebook post that I largely endorse:

While this is an interesting idea, I don’t see how you would be able to build a political coalition around both liberalising migration and repealing anti-discrimination laws. I’m skeptical that xenophobes would tolerate having more immigrants around if they were allowed to discriminate against them; I mean, I’m persuadable that their opposition to open borders might diminish somewhat, but I don’t think it’d go away.

A lot of the costs that people complain about as far as integration goes have to do with things that anti-discrimination law doesn’t really meaningfully impact: pressing 1 for English, overhearing funny languages in public, not being able to ask for directions in a strange neighbourhood where nobody looks like you or can speak your own language, etc. Repealing anti-discrimination laws solves for essentially none of these xenophobic complaints.

(Technically repealing anti-discrimination law might partially solve for the “press 1″ complaint since that’s to some degree a policy caused by public accommodation laws, but in a free market operating in a diverse society, a lot of companies would naturally provide multilingual servicing anyway. Malaysia and Singapore don’t have meaningful anti-discrimination laws but multilingual servicing is omnipresent in the market because of how diverse their societies are.)

As an aside, this idea is not even applicable outside the Western world; to Christopher’s point, I don’t think this is a “reform” that can be bundled into anything in Asia or Africa, perhaps even Latin America, because most non-Western countries don’t have much anti-discrimination laws to speak of. Speaking from my experience, it’s common to see classified ads in Malaysia and Singapore specifying that they won’t accept job candidates or tenants of particular sexes or genders. (Recently some companies have tried to capitalise on public distaste for these kinds of ads by running ads which explicitly state that they don’t discriminate.)

Now to be sure, introduction of new anti-discrimination laws to these non-Western societies would spur blowback, and I would generally advise against trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms with new anti-discrimination laws in these societies. But that’s separate from trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms w/ anti-discrimination legislation repeals in societies that already have these laws.

He later writes:

[T]he reality of mood affiliation makes me skeptical that one could build a coherent political coalition aligned on just these two things without that coalition consisting pretty much entirely of libertarians.

A couple of my comments in the thread are also relevant, and I quote them below:

I don’t think that the repeal of such legislation would make the world more friendly to open borders: your argument for would be balanced by an argument against, namely that the legitimization of discrimination as morally acceptable might make people more forthright about using it as a basis for public policy (given that people generally have trouble keeping private preferences out of the domain of government-enforced public policy).

“But I don’t think there’s any point in pitching an advocacy strategy to such numbskulls. If mankind is as stupid as that, we won’t make any headway. Fortunately, mankind does sometimes exhibit a capacity to think such moderately subtle thoughts as, “Discrimination against the foreign-born should be legal for private individuals but not be mandated by law.””

Most people would be able to understand this idea if they tried hard enough, but people aren’t generally inclined to put in a lot of effort into evaluating political positions. In general, I would expect that a move that legitimizes private discrimination would be seen (by the general public) as a signal that discrimination is more acceptable both in private and in public policy. At the same time, the people you are most trying to appease with such a policy are likely to not stop at private discrimination anyway.

Conclusion

Discrimination is hurtful, both directly when it’s done, and indirectly because of the fear and inefficiency it creates in society. However, freedom of association and exclusion are important values. Libertarian-leaning people (including myself) think that under most circumstances, private discrimination should remain legal. There may be exceptional circumstances where the harm from discrimination is severe enough to infringe on people’s freedom of association and exclusion. Some people sympathetic to the overall libertarian argument have argued that the post-1964 Jim Crow South presented such an exceptional circumstance, but the present day is not similarly exceptional, so legalizing private discrimination in the modern era is okay.

From a libertarian philosophical perspective, that I largely endorse, repealing some anti-discrimination laws make the case for open borders stronger, insofar as open borders will mean dealing more with a wider range of people. However, as a practical matter, I don’t think it makes sense to try to push for a deal packaging open borders with such repeal. If such a deal emerged as the most feasible way to push for more liberal migration, it might be worth supporting.

Related reading

These links are offered in addition to the numerous inline links in the post.

Creative Commons License Angela Merkel and the crying refugee, and the search for a human face of the costs of migration restrictions is licensed by Sebastian Nickel under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.