A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation

My recent post, “How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?” attracted a fair amount of attention, most recently an article in the Washington Examiner with the deliciously intriguing headline “Open Borders Would Produce Dystopia, says Open Borders Advocate.” The headline, which somewhat misrepresents the more balanced article by Michael Barone that appears beneath it, is a crude caricature yet in its way bracingly lucid, for it points to what I think this debate has clarified, namely, that the chief difference between open borders advocates and their critics lies not in what they foresee but in how they assess it. As Niklas Blanchard puts it, “this is purely an emotional dystopia for (wealthy) people of a certain temperament…Smith‘s piece is… maximally grating to the ‘social justice’ crowd” (Blanchard, however, goes on to praise me for rigorous adherence to demand and supply logic in making projections and concludes that he finds my analysis “rather beautiful”– thanks!) but it still features doubling world GDP and ending world poverty and the rest of the good features that open borders advocates want in the world they’re trying to bring about. The disagreement is more about values than facts, more normative than positive. 

I’m very grateful for all the feedback, which was not only abundant, but in many cases, pretty astute! To express my gratitude, I’ll reply to some of it. Probably not many of those who responded to the first “billion immigrants” post will ever read this one, but it seems right to have a response, so that anyone who cares to look, knows that I’m listening. (I already engaged a bit at OBAG.)

One point that was raised privately by my colleagues here at Open Borders is that the migration of a few billion around the world (“a billion immigrants” refers, very roughly, to the projected  immigation to the US alone) might not happen as a steady flow, but rather, as a response to crises, such as civil wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, anthropogenic global warming, etc. Or perhaps, more positively, in response to dramatic economic booms, the emergence of new cultural meccas, or religious quests to establish new Jerusalems, such as brought the Puritans to North America and the Mormons to Utah. The Syrian civil war has produced over 4 million refugees, almost one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population. That’s tragic, but much better than the experience of the Jews on the MS St. Louis,  many of whom died in the Holocaust after an attempt to emigrate from Nazi Germany was thwarted because no one would permit German Jews to immigrate. For some, this may mitigate the implausibility of a billion immigrants coming to the US. I don’t find a billion immigrants prima facie implausible, but this “punctuated equilibrium” version of the scenario seems at least as likely as a steady flow version.

Alex Nowrasteh also pointed out that Americans might respond to a billion-immigrants scenario with more aggressive “Americanization” policies, such as were adopted in the USA around the turn of the last century, about which he wrote an interesting and informative Cato blog post. His take is mildly negative, but I would regard an Americanization campaign led by civil society as quite benign, and even an aggressive, government-subsidized, mildly intolerant Americanization campaign would be very benign compared to current migration restriction policies. However, I don’t know what “Americanization” would mean today, because American culture seems so fractured that I don’t see much to assimilate to. I love listening to bluegrass gospel, which to me represents the very soul of America, yet there is another America where San Francisco liberals would feel at home, and which to me is more hostile and alien, not than Iran perhaps, but certainly more so than many a Christian church in Africa, Russia, or Latin America. I don’t know what Americanization would mean today.

Big Think has a pretty good article about my article, entitled “Thought Experiment: What if the US Had 100% Open Borders?” The summary of my hypothetical is pretty astute, though I might object slightly to this:

What’s most interesting is how Smith conjures a scenario out of which American constitutional democracy becomes so destabilized that it collapses beneath its own weight. We’d be looking at a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable compared to the present.

“Collapse” is the wrong word. What I projected (again, very tentatively: no doubt these disclaimers become tedious, but I want to prevent anyone from investing too much epistemic confidence) is “a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable to the present,” but the path to it would be a kind of swift and mostly peaceful evolution, not any revolutionary collapse. And I’m not sure, in an age of runaway judicial activism, what the phrase “American constitutional democracy” means, anyway. (The phrase “American constitutional democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1900 but not in 1950. The phrase “American democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1950, and to a lesser extent in 1980, but not today.) Which leads to my other objection to the piece:

For many people, that might sound like a reason to scrap a 100 percent open-border policy. Smith is not one of those people. He’s got a bone to scrap with American politics and wouldn’t mind it turning into collateral damage amidst the rush of a brave new society [followed by my comparison of modern constitutional law to the late medieval Catholic theology of indulgences and my call for a kind of Lutheran Reformation to overthrow it.]

I can see how someone who read only that article might get the impression that my main reason for supporting open borders is my indignation at judicial activism. This is a case of being misunderstood because one reaches unanticipated audiences. I was writing for regular readers of Open Borders: The Case, who already know my main reasons for favoring open borders. That post reached a wider audience and so caused confusion. A quick review of my position may help.

My major reasons for supporting open borders may be classified into the deontological and the utilitarian:

Deontological. Human beings have rights, arising from their own natural telos, which we must respect. By “must” I mean something close to an absolute prohibition: I would tend to say that one mustn’t torture an innocent child even to save a great city from a terrorist attack. However, life doesn’t generally present us with such stark test cases. More often, we are tempted to violate human rights to prevent amorphous threats clothed in bombastic rhetoric. Thus, Nazi soldiers were driven to terrible crimes by spurious fears of Malthusian national impoverishment or starvation if Germany didn’t acquire sufficient Lebensraum, and even more spurious fears of a conspiracy of international Jewry against the German race. Astute intellectuals may see through such propaganda, or even refute it, but for the ordinary person, the key is to cling stubbornly to one’s humanity and the dictates of conscience, and refuse to commit crimes, no matter how vividly society makes you believe in the horrors that will come from not committing them, and no matter how propaganda stirs your passions to make you want to commit them. Now, migration restrictions involve doing terrible things to people. US immigration enforcement separates thousands of parents from their children by force ever year. European coast guards are culpable for a mounting toll of migrant deaths at sea, and so on. These things simply must stop.

We are not at liberty, as moral beings, to read through my “billion immigrants” scenario and think, “Hmm… Do we want that? No, we’d rather not.” In order to maintain migration restrictions, people who work for governments that represent us are doing things that must not be done. We are constrained by the imperative of human rights, constrained far more tightly than most in the West have yet been willing to admit to themselves. We are guilty every day that we tolerate the status quo. I won’t say, quite, that human rights imperatives demand open borders. (People have a right to migrate inasmuch as their practical telos requires migration, e.g., if it’s necessary to survival or earning a living, while in other cases there is a liberty to migrate in the sentence that no one else has a right to prevent migration by force. See Principles of a Free Society for details.) Rather, I doubt that any policy short of some kind of open borders simultaneously gives adequate respect for human rights and makes it incentive-compatible to obey the law. My “billion immigrants” scenario isn’t like an item on a restaurant menu, which a patron may choose, or not, according to pure preference. It’s more like a forecast of how the courts are likely to treat a robber if he does his duty by turning himself in to the law. Of course, such a forecast might give a robber self-interested reasons to turn himself in– the jail cell may be warmer than his hideout in the woods, with better food; and if he turns himself in he’ll get a shorter sentence– but these are secondary. I hope readers will find the prospect of a billion immigrants not too unpleasant, and that it will encourage people to do the right thing, but if the prospect is frightening, still we must stop deporting people, and prepare ourselves for the consequences.

Utilitarian (universalist). My other major reason for supporting open borders is that it is the best way to promote the welfare of mankind. This belief is based primarily on economic analysis, and more generally is derived from my expertise in international development. As far as I can tell, it seems to be broadly shared by others with similar expertise who have studied the question. Even a thinker like Paul Collier, an expert in international development and a critic of open borders or greatly-expanded immigration, does not so much dissent from the proposition that open borders is optimal in utilitarian-universalist terms, as reject utilitarian universalism as a mode of ethical analysis.

But how can open borders be optimal from a utilitarian-universalist perspective when my “billion immigrants” scenario is so dystopian? Simple: it isn’t dystopian, except from a certain historically myopic and rather unimaginative American/Western perspective that takes “democracy” as the magic word distinguishing everything good from everything bad, without thinking deeply about what the word means. My “billion immigrants” scenario does not involve widespread deprivation of real human goods like food, art, material comforts, family life, freedom of conscience and worship, health, education, truth, adventure, etc. On the contrary, it would seem to involve greater enjoyment of those things by almost everyone, native-born and foreign-born alike. The most dystopian aspects of the scenario, e.g., “latifundia” paying wages that look like slave labor to Americans, aren’t novel features of an open borders world, but features of our present world, which open borders would simultaneously move and mitigate. In soundbite format: open borders would bring sweatshops to America, but they’d be more humane and pay better wages than the sweatshops in China and Indonesia that would mostly vanish as their workers found better lives abroad. Meanwhile, for many an Indian or African peasant, even a steady job in a sweatshop is the end of the rainbow. (Also see John Lee on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops.)

How do these deontological and utilitarian-universalist meta-ethical* perspectives interact? A crude but helpful model is to think of ethical problems as analogous to the consumer’s problem in economics, with the utilitarian-universalist goal of maximizing the welfare of mankind serving as the “utility function,” while deontology provides the “budget constraint.” Deontology dictates that there must be no violence except in self-defense or retaliation against violence, plus a few other things like no lying, no adultery or (I would add, more controversially) premarital sex, no abandoning one’s spouse or children, no non-payment of one’s debts, and so forth. (Just because deontology dictates that it’s wrong doesn’t mean it should be illegal, e.g., most private lying is wrong but probably shouldn’t be punishable by law.) Within the constraints imposed by deontology, we can consider which courses of action are most conducive to promoting the welfare of mankind, and pursue them. At this point, if I were writing a treatise on ethics, I would segue into virtue ethics, explaining how contributing to the welfare of mankind involves the pursuit of all sorts of excellence; but the pursuit of excellence in turn requires certain traits or habits, such as courage, justice, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, and love, which we call virtues; and how, once acquired, we recognize that these virtues are not only the key to effectiveness in all sorts of situations and to doing any real good in the world, but are more desirable in themselves than any merely material pleasures, or any praises from multitudes. But for the present, it suffices to establish that deontology and utilitarian-universalism both point the way to open borders. The need to respect human rights and the moral law, and the desire to promote the welfare of mankind, are why I support open borders. That it might destabilize the judicial oligarchy that currently misgoverns the US is just a small side-benefit.

Next, I’ll turn for a moment to what stands out as one of the least astute reader responses to the article (whom I’ll leave anonymous, but it’s at Marginal Revolution):

Am I the only person who thinks this sounds really, really bad? Transition from republic to empire? Rich people employing almost-slave laborers? No social safety net? No more ‘one person, one vote’? Lots of gated communities? Destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans?

Sometimes my “billion immigrants” scenario seems to have served as a kind of Rorschach test. In the mass of detail, people saw whatever they were predisposed to see. I didn’t predict a “transition from republic to empire.” Rather, I used Rome’s transition from republic to empire to illustrate how a superficial continuity of a polity could be consistent with substantive transformation. I would expect open borders to lead to substantive transformation of the American polity, combined with superficial continuity, but the substantive transformation isn’t aptly described as “transition from republic to empire.” A more astute reader might have noticed that at the end of the transition, my open borders scenario looks rather like the Roman Republic in its heyday, say around 200 B.C., with a well-armed citizen minority ruling fairly beneficently (for one has to grade historic regimes on a very generous curve) over a large and diverse subject population, who to considerable extent consented to Rome’s/America’s rule.

However, the “transition from republic to empire” misconception is somewhat understandable. What’s baffling is the impression that I predicted “destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans.” On the contrary, I predicted continuous, surging economic growth, an enormous rise in the stock market, major appreciation of home values, lots of business for professional workers, government handouts and subsidies to the native-born, cheap drivers, cheap nannies, cheap domestic servants… basically, a bonanza for native-born Americans, to the point where many of them become a rentier class whose greatest complaint is the ennui of idleness. Admittedly, I also foresaw that some natives would see their wages fall, but the loss would be more than made up for by other income sources. I also suggested that threats of revolt might lead to the conscription of natives into a domestic police force, but while some might find that unpleasant, it’s not a case of falling living standards. It’s one thing to say that I’m wrong about all this, and that the impact of open borders on most native-born Americans would actually be the destruction of native-born Americans’ living standards, perhaps because restricting immigrants’ voting rights would prove politically infeasible, and immigrant voters would degrade institutions and/or redistribute resources to themselves via the ballot box. But this commenter seems to think that predicted the destruction of natives’ living standards. I wonder how often writers get blasted as having said the exact opposite of what they actually said.

I found this comment by Jorgen F. a pithy characterization of me:

He is convinced that only white people in the West can create a decent society. Hence America should create a shortcut for the rest of the world.

You know, America should care more for non-Americans than for Americans. It is so beautiful.

That’s not far wrong, though of course I don’t think the capacity to create a decent society has anything to do with race. I think it has more to do with 2,000 years of cumulative Christianization (in which story, historical episodes like the High Middle Ages when parliaments and universities and the common law appeared, the Renaissance, and the benign early Enlightenment, were chapters). Nor is high economic productivity synonymous with “decent society.” But I do think that Western societies are going to be nicer places to live than most of the rest of the world for a long time, so I’d like to see a lot more people get the chance to live in them. And of course we should care more about non-Americans than Americans, because there are a lot more of them, just as we should care more about non-Russians than Russians, non-Chinese than Chinese, etc. That said, since I propose to tax immigration to compensate natives for lost wages (DRITI), I can actually make a citizenist case for open borders too. I think open borders can be designed to benefit almost all native-born Westerners, without much reducing the benefits to the rest of mankind. But the main reason for opening borders is to respect human rights and end world poverty. When I worked for the World Bank, I was proud that its motto is “Our dream is a world free of poverty,” and in advocating open borders, I’m still being faithful to that vocation.

A comment by E. Harding that:

This is precisely the kind of atomism that anti-libertarians decry.

is directed less at me than at fellow commenter Chuck Martel (who had given reasons why he shouldn’t care about most of his fellow Americans), but E. Harding may also have had me in mind. As I argued in a post some time ago, I’m not ultimately very individualistic in my view of human nature and human happiness. Human flourishing almost always has a communal character, and this insight is necessary to fully appreciate the evil of migration restrictions, which inevitably lead to deportations and the forcible separation of families. “Communitarian” arguments against open borders generally boil down to “we’ll protect our communities from possible disruption by shattering your communities by force.” Open borders would allow families and other communities forcibly kept apart by migration controls to come together.

One of the comments I found most horrifying was by Horhe:

I do not understand how anyone can read [Smith’s article] and some of the other writings online and offline that doubt the wisdom of open borders (I particularly liked “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe” by Christopher Caldwell) and still think that this is a good idea.

If the closed borders crowd are wrong and you do it their way, then nothing is lost and you can open the borders some other time, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities. But if they are right, and the open borders people get their way, then there is no going back to the way things used to be, without a bloody ethnic war. Which, come to think of it, might actually be started by the newcomers, who would be hurrying history along.

Now, I consider myself a Burkean conservative as far as conscience permits; I always advocate due regard for the precautionary principle; and in my vainer moment I sometimes think that Chapter 2 of my book The Verdict of Reason is a defense of tradition worthy of G.K. Chesterton. But there are fundamental principles of right and wrong that are deeper and more sacred than any human traditions, and in the face of which any mere precautionary principle must give way.

When I was a passionate Iraq War advocate some years back, I never forgot that in supporting the war, I was making myself complicit in a lot of killing, including some killing of innocent people. I thought the price was worth it, to abolish one of the two (Saddam Hussein vs. North Korea was a close call) most detestable totalitarian tyrannies on earth, but it was a great moral burden. Migration restrictionists, too, have a duty always to remember the human toll of border controls: the people stuck in poverty; the families forcibly separated. Maybe, even if they contemplated this frequently, some would still conclude that migration restrictions are a tragic necessity. But to say “nothing is lost”… the mind boggles in horror! How is such callousness possible?

I would not have enjoyed explaining to a bereaved Iraqi mother why I had supported the war that had just killed her son. But I could have done it. I would have spoken of the horror of totalitarianism, the transcendent moral importance of living in truth, and the value of setting a precedent that would make future murderous dictators doubt their impunity. I think many an Iraqi mother, after what her country had been through, would have understood me. Poll evidence tends to suggest that, while by 2005, the Iraqis already wanted the US out, most thought the hardships of the war and transition were worth it to be rid of Saddam.

Migration restrictionists should put themselves to the same moral test, taking responsibility for the vast human toll of the policies they advocate. How would you explain to a mother who is being deported from her children, not to see them again for a decade perhaps, or even forever, why her life is being thus shattered, when she never harmed anyone, never did anything to the Americans who are doing this to her, except clean their houses, or pick grapes and oranges for their table? There might be arguments that would mitigate the offense, but to say that “nothing is lost” since we can always stop doing these horrible things “some other time”… can such a detestable blasphemy, at such a moment, be imagined?

My imagination conjures a scene in which Horhe and his ilk are compelled by some Ghost of Christmas Present to watch, invisible and helpless, as some weeping mother is seized and dragged away from her terrified and uncomprehending children. Their humanity awakened, they plead with the Ghost: “Spirit, please, let them stay together!” And then the Ghost, in the appropriate tone of sneering contempt, quotes their own words back to them: “Later, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities, we’ll let families like these stay together. Nothing is lost by waiting.”

The answer to Horhe is: Repent! Find the ugly place in your soul from which such heartless thoughts arise, and kill it!

But sorry for getting so heated. I’m not living up to Bryan Caplan’s praise of Open Borders: The Case as a “calm community of thinkers.”

Thiago Ribeiro’s response to Horhe is also good:

If people who were against vaccines, fertilizers, abolishing slavery, abolishing witch trials, eliminating Communism, emancipating the Jews (…) nothing would be lost. Those things could have been dealt with later… Status quo bias at its more stupid.

Exactly. Any reform in history could be opposed on such pseudo-Burkean grounds. And contra “nothing would be lost,” vast losses are incurred every single day that we fail to open the borders to migration.

I found the last bit of this comment by Christopher Chang gratifying:

Sweden… for all practical purposes [has] already been running this experiment for more than a decade, and there still is supermajority citizen support for continuing the experiment…

Of course, most open borders advocates are systematically dishonest and avoid talking about Sweden even after they’ve known about it for years, because the “experimental results” to date are much worse than their rosy projections. I’ve repeatedly told them that one of the best things they could do for their cause is advise the Swedes to adjust their implementation of open borders to be less self-destructive (support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has skyrocketed from ~2% to ~25%, so the supermajority is unlikely to hold for much longer unless the government changes course), but they’ve been totally uninterested even though they’ve interacted with e.g. Singapore’s government in the past. Instead they continue to pretend their ideas are “untried” and might constitute a “trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk”.

Since revealed preference is far more informative than rhetoric, I’m sadly forced to conclude that they don’t actually care as much about increasing global prosperity as they do about harming ordinary Westerners they don’t like, even though some of them have done genuinely good work in other areas. (With that said, I hasten to note that Nathan Smith, the author of the linked post, is an exception who respects the principle of “consent of the governed” and has an excellent track record of intellectual integrity.)

In return, I can say that Christopher Chang’s comments have often alerted me to interesting immigration policy developments around the world. However, the claim that Sweden practices open borders seems a bit clueless. A recent NPR piece reports that “for decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees.” Virtual. In other words, not an open borders policy, but simply a relatively generous policy. And only “for asylum-seekers and refugees,” which are only a small subset of all would-be immigrants. If you look at the official site about getting work permits in Sweden, it says (a) you need to get a job offer first, so you can’t just go to Sweden and start applying, (b) the job has to have been advertised for 10 days, so Swedes have a head start in applying for it, and (c) “the terms of employment offered are at least on the same level as Swedish collective agreements or customary in the occupation or industry,” thus robbing migrants of what for most would be their biggest competitive advantage: a willingness to work for much lower wages and in worse working conditions than Swedes. Sweden does seem to be fairly generous in its immigration policy, at least relative to other Western countries (a very low bar), but this isn’t open borders, not even close. (I suppose one could argue that the last condition is just immigrants being bound by Swedish labor law, but the point is that Sweden isn’t just making an open global offer for anyone to come to Sweden and making a living as best they can. Setting refugees to one side, it’s hard for most people to get in.)

Jason Bayz makes an interesting remark:

The essay is interesting because, unlike some politically correct libertarians, Smith does not pretend that his open borders experiment would lead to liberal nirvana. He’s quite open about the fact that it would kill things like “equality of opportunity.” Especially interesting is [the] paragraph [about] “gaps… where where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail”… Private law? A more traditional term would be Lynch Law. The Middle East would be an apt comparison for its tribalism, discrimination, importance of religion, and “private” settlement of disputes.

Readers have a right to wonder what my cryptic phrase “anarcho-capitalist natural law” was a placeholder for, and I suppose, to fill in the blank in their own way. Yes, lynching is an example of private law, but so are more benign things like eBay’s customer rating system, or in-between things like the private security companies whose logos appeared on every single house in a South African suburban neighborhood where I once spent the night.

I would also want to push aside the mere knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “lynch mob” and raise the deeper question of what is wrong with lynch mobs. I welcome practical objections to lynch mobs, such as that they don’t respect due process and often punish innocent people, or that they’re not even motivated primarily to prevent real crime but instead want to oppress minority communities. I would challenge the assumption, or resist the assertion, that lynch mobs are evil simply because they’re private, unauthorized by a “sovereign” authority. In US history, it may be the case that private law has been, on average, less just than public law, though that’s unclear, when you recall the injustices perpetrated by the US government against many Indian tribes, in upholding slavery, in the Prohibition era, in deporting peaceful immigrants, etc. But certainly the worst crimes of American lynch mobs don’t hold a candle to the crimes of the sovereign regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, etc. I would suggest that violence should be judged by the same standard of justice, whether it’s done by “private” or “public” actors. The problem with lynch mobs is that they so often act unjustly,  but as their injustices seem to be much less than those perpetrated by bad governments, our horror of them out to be less than our horror of bad governments, in the same proportion.

As for the suggestion that there is an “apt comparison” to be made between an open borders America and the contemporary Middle East, the obvious rebuttal is that the Middle East is mostly Muslim, whereas an open borders America would almost certainly be majority or at least plurality Christian, since Christianity is the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion believers today and an expected 3 billion by mid-century; Christians would probably be more attracted to the US as a migration destination; and many immigrants of non-Christian origins would assimilate to America’s predominant religion. I’ll assume (since it’s rather obvious but would take a lot of space to explain) that most readers understand that Christianity and Islam are profoundly different, and that religion is a major factor determining the differences between Muslim societies and Christian societies, including those in western Europe, where Christian belief and practice have recently waned, but where the nature of the societies is largely defined by the moral and institutional legacy of Christianity. An open-borders America wouldn’t be majority-Muslim, so it wouldn’t resemble the contemporary Middle East; it’s as simple as that.

Commenter Mulp makes a historical objection to my assumption that an open borders America would restricting voting rights for immigrants and thus end majority rule:

“If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. …”

Hey, why not simply discuss US history from 1790 to 1920 when the US had open borders except in California?

It’s true that from 1790 to 1920, the US had open borders and also open voting. But that open borders America never had nearly as large a share of migrants in the population as the economic models predict that a future open-borders America would, and the US government wasn’t an engine of economic redistribution then. I think my scenario is a better forecast of what an open borders future would look like, than an extrapolation from the experience of the US from 1790 to 1920.

Commenter Fonssagrives writes:

If the writer thinks “All men are created equal” is idealistic twaddle, then why do Americans have any moral obligation to let 1 billion foreigners into their country?

This is an interesting objection. It’s symptomatic of the psychic damage that the cult of equality has done to American minds. It invites a longer answer than I’ll make time for at present, but as a placeholder for that longer answer: people are very unequal in their talents and virtues; and treating them unequally is often prudent; but it doesn’t follow they should get unequal weights in a social welfare function.

Jer writes:

Maybe success can only happen (and be spread) if we restrict access to it.

Maybe the world needs a somewhat isolated ‘system experiment’ that can only remain so (and continue along its special type of development), by restricting access, and therefore be a teaching tool through its successes and short-comings.

Maybe ‘moving away’ from your problems is to not solve them at all and certainly does not lead to overcoming them in-situ.

Maybe those who have the ambition to move away were the ones most likely to effect change and improve their origin, with the move likely resulting in the weakening of the source state and increasing world inequality overall. (is it ethical to allow people to emigrate if that depopulation damages the future potential of the source system itself?)

What I like about this argument is that it seems to accept a utilitarian-universalist meta-ethics, and then argues, or at least tries to suggest (“Maybe…”), that migration restrictions (perhaps even ones as draconian as the status quo?) might serve the common good of mankind through the good example that rich countries can set when they segregate themselves from the rest of the world. I find it wildly implausible that migration restrictions anything like as tight as those the West currently has in place are optimal for the welfare of mankind, and even if they were, I’d have human rights objections. Thus, even if preventing “brain drain” from poor countries did aid development there (on balance), I’d still object to forcing, say, Malawian doctors to stay in Malawi, on the same grounds that I’d object to seizing American doctors by force and exiling them to Malawi. I believe in human rights. But if we could establish consensus that utilitarian-universalism (with deontological side-constraints) is the right meta-ethical framework in which to consider the question, that’s a large point gained.

Finally, thanks to John Lee’s OBAG link, I noticed that my “billion immigrants” scenario got linked in a National Review piece by Mark Krikorian entitled “Where There is No Border, the Nations Perish.” Here’s the context:

But the publics of Europe’s various nations aren’t going to tolerate unlimited flows. The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence à la Camp of the Saints. (And “extinguishing” is the right word; just read this piece by an open-borders supporter on how U.S. society would change if 1 billion immigrants moved here.)

Krikorian cites my scenario as evidence (almost, flatteringly if unwarrantedly, as proof) that “the nations perish” under open borders, a phrase amenable to multiple interpretations. It is tendentious because the word “perish” might subliminally suggest some sort of threat of genocide. But if it is interpreted simply as “open borders will bring to a close the episode in world history, which began around the mid-19th century, when the nation-state was the predominant form of political organization,” then I’d tentatively agree. Krikorian disapproves, I approve.

In general, it seems that my “billion immigrants” scenario has made me a useful “reluctant expert” for immigration critics to cite. Maybe that should distress me more than it does. I tend to think the strength of the arguments for open borders is so superior that the more we can get a hearing, even if initially an unfavorable one, the better. Many people don’t even know that being an open borders supporter is a live option. If they’re made aware that one can support open borders, they’ll pay more attention to the arguments for and against. On the plane of intellectual argument, open borders advocates have many rhetorical handicaps, but enjoy the long-term structural advantage of being right.

*My use of the term “meta-ethics” is slightly unconventional. For me, utilitarianism, for example, is a “meta-ethical” perspective.

The image featured at the top of this post is a 1917 painting depicting Armenian refugees at Port Said, Egypt.

Related reading

Refugees and the 2016 US presidential candidates

Last month, I shared with the Open Borders Action Group an interesting Facebook post from Andy Craig, a Libertarian running for Congress in Wisconsin, pointing out the hypocrisy of many US presidential candidates promoting anti-immigrant policies:

Bobby Jindal, who wants to stop so-called anchor babies, was born four months after his parents arrived in the U.S. on temporary student visas.

Donald Trump, who has made actually deporting so-called anchor babies a centerpiece of his campaign, is the son of a woman from Scotland who was naturalized four years before he was born.

Bernie Sanders, who says allowing more immigrants is a Koch brothers plot to reduce wages, is the son of a Polish immigrant who arrived penniless in the United States to escape the Holocaust.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have one and two parents, respectively, who were naturalized after their sons were born. Rick Santorum’s father was naturalized before Rick was born, when his own father brought him here fleeing Mussolini.

A nation of immigrants: where anybody’s child can grow up to run for President and campaign on pulling up the ladder behind them.

(One thing Craig forgot to mention: Trump’s grandfather Friedrich was an unaccompanied child migrant, who was later deported from Germany.)

Now, the hypocrisy these candidates embody is one thing. But something else stood out to me too: none of these candidates’ ancestors were referred to as “refugees,” even though many of them certainly were. For some reason, it’s better to label someone as an “immigrant” rather than “refugee.” But look at these stories:

  • Bernie Sanders’s father fled the Holocaust
  • Ted Cruz’s family fled the Castro regime in Cuba
  • Marco Rubio’s family fled the same Castro regime
  • Rick Santorum’s grandfather fled Italian fascism

Someone who moves across international borders owing to a fear of violence or political persecution is by definition a refugee. By this count, a substantial number of candidates for the US presidency are descendants of refugees!

It sounds strange to put it that way, because we are not used to thinking of refugees in that way. The way we normally think of people labeled as “refugees” is more similar to the thinking I saw in another posting on Facebook:

Refugees can’t be helped, regretfully. You can’t teach them anything, you can’t provide them all with housing, you can’t give them all jobs. Refugees are to remain [a] burden forever, and even their children won’t be able to integrate.

Well of course if you redefine “refugees” as “immigrants” you’ll have a mysterious shortage of refugee success stories. “Immigrant” has a successful ring to it; “refugee” does not. Self-reinforcingly, we think of successful people as “immigrants,” and the less successful ones who didn’t fare so well as “refugees.” We forget that even titans of business like Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel, and George Soros, a self-made billionaire, are literally refugees.

(Of his early life, Grove has said: “By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution,’ the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint…  Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West. I was one of them.” Soros’s biography on his website simply states: “Born in Budapest in 1930, he survived the Nazi occupation during World War II and fled communist-dominated Hungary in 1947 for England”.)

All that said, I don’t think the distinction between refugees and “economic migrants” are as important as they’re made out to be. Whether you’re fleeing persecution, escaping economic deprivation, or simply looking to live in a slightly better neighbourhood, I think the law ought to treat you exactly the same way when you show up at the border. All of these are perfectly valid reasons for someone to move.

To this end, I consider it morally suspect to insist economic migrants be deported but refugees be welcomed. Consider: millions of African Americans moved from the southern US to the north and west during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century. Some fled political persecution and racial discrimination. Others simply went looking for better jobs. But both were and are perfectly valid reasons to move.

(Sidenote: Republican presidential candidate and internationally-renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson was born in Detroit to parents who fled the Jim Crow laws of Tennessee, participating in the Great Migration. If you’d like to count “internally-displaced people” as well, you can add another one to that list of presidential candidates descended from refugees.)

At the same time, I think it’s important, as long as the word “refugee” remains part of the English lexicon, to remember that “refugee” does not connote someone who is “to remain [a] burden forever”. People sometimes presume that refugees are tremendously harder to integrate into society or the economy because of their background. This may be true, but it’s simultaneously clear that whatever problems refugees may face, they don’t stand in the way of a refugee like George Soros becoming one of the 30 richest men in the world, or in the way of refugees’ descendants becoming the face of popular national campaigns against immigration.

Refugees, like any other kind of immigrant, are people. It is not a valid use of government authority to ban people from travelling somewhere simply because of where they were born. If government can prove that certain kinds of travel would have terrible consequences, of course government can prevent that sort of movement. Take infectious diseases for example: travel restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of dangerous diseases have to be blind to nationality if they are to operate effectively. Border officers don’t need to know or care about someone’s nationality to effectively prevent the spread of Ebola because any person, foreign or not, can carry Ebola.

Now while we’re talking about the effects of refugee movements: the Great Migration of people fleeing political oppression and economic deprivation in the American South was incredibly disruptive. In many cities, from New York to Philadelphia to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco, over the span of a few decades, the black population grew 10 to 20 times over. Boston went from being 2% black in 1910 to 22% black in 1980. Adjusting to these inflows was not easy for the affected communities outside of the South. But these adjustment costs were neither disastrous, nor valid reasons to obstruct the legitimate aspirations of the Americans who moved in search of a better life.

That’s why I support open borders for all people — be they refugees fleeing oppression, economic migrants fleeing poverty, or even just middle-class professionals who dream of living in a different city. No country should allow its public institutions — like its border controls — to become the private property of xenophobic bigots. Yet, the modern refugee system has become a figleaf for border policies of bigotry. What basic morality asks of us and our laws is clear: justice demands that all people with legitimate aspirations be free to move across political borders, be they domestic or international.

The photograph in the header of this post is of African American migrant workers from Florida bound for New Jersey in 1940. Courtesy the Library of Congress.

Will we migrate to danger?

Back in August I attended a conference on Market Adaptation to Climate Change hosted by Stanford’s Program on Energy and Sustainable Development (PESD) and the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). The conference, as one might guess from the title, was focused primarily on climate change. However I found one paper in particular of great relevance to open borders.

In their working paper, Geography of Development: Evaluating Migration Restrictions and Coastal Flooding, Desmet et al. arrive at two key conclusions:

  • If migration restrictions remain then, in the long run, economic production will shift from the global north towards what is today considered the developing world (i.e. Africa and Asia). This is driven by the long term benefits of close proximity to other people, namely lowered transaction costs, which promote increases in technology and productivity. Consider the San Francisco Bay Area as an example; part of the reason why the region is so productive is because of the high concentration of high-skilled individuals. A computer engineer is several times more productive in the Bay Area, where he can quickly interact with his peers, than if he were working in a sparsely populated town in South Dakota.


  • If migration restrictions are liberalized then individuals will migrate to the global north in pursuit of higher standards of living, but this will ultimately place more individuals in danger of sea level rise. Current developed regions remain high in productivity, with an increase in productivity in a few of the currently developing regions.


Both findings are at odds to how Open Borders: The Case bloggers usually view the future.

One of the strongest cases for open borders is that it is a humanitarian way to promote productivity. Yet in this simulation the currently developing world catches up and overtakes the current developed world in productivity in the long run.  The case for open borders becomes one then not only of providing a short -term humanitarian way to improve the productivity of those in the developing world, but one to preserve the long term economic dominance of the currently developed world. Support for open borders needn’t be based on altruism – even nativists should support open borders in order to preserve the perceived prestige of their country.

Secondly the paper suggests that open borders would actually lead to more people being placed in danger’s path by allowing migration to the highly productive coastal regions. Silicon Valley, New York, and other world cities tend to be prone to flooding. When we’ve discussed climate change we have usually  taken the stance that open borders will alleviate any possible harms. See Nathan and Joel.

I still think that open borders would help address climate change. I do not disagree with Desmet et al. that open borders would lead to greater migration to coastal regions, but I doubt that human beings would allow themselves to drown. High productivity regions that expected to be in danger of being flooded by sea level rises will likely invest in public works (e.g. sea walls) or build on higher ground. Surely there must be countless people working to prevent the San Francisco Bay Area from sea level rises – if not I have just given readers a free start-up firm idea.

As Joel, an OB co-author, has pointed out, per capita infrastructure costs will also decrease as more migrants settle in coastal regions. Most adaptations to climate change, such as seawalls or large scale cooling centers,  become increasingly feasible as the number of people willing to pay increases.

Humanity has never lived in a static world – we’ve constantly been adapting to changes in culture, technology, and climate. It may come to pass that one day we will meet a challenge that we are unable to overcome, but I am generally optimistic about our future.

This paper, as most papers of its type, is highly speculative and for simplicity omits several variables. Nonetheless it serves as a helpful ‘What if?’ scenario.

How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?

[UPDATE: See the follow-up blog post A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation by Nathan Smith, where he responds to comments on and criticisms of this blog post. You may also be interested in the Open Borders Action Group discussion of this post, where Smith articulates some aspects of his views in more detail, and others offer criticism.]

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “The American Polity Can Endure and Flourish Under Open Borders.” I would not write that post today. The American polity might endure and flourish under open borders, but I wouldn’t claim that confidently. What changed my mind? A greater familiarity with the theoretical models that are the basis for “double world GDP” as a claim about the global economic impact of open borders, especially my own. It turns out that these estimates depend on billions of people migrating internationally under open borders. Previously, my vague and tentative expectations about how much migration would occur under open borders were akin to Gallup poll estimates suggesting that 150 million or so would like to migrate to the USA. Others may disagree, but I was fairly confident at the time that the US polity was robust enough to absorb 150-200 million immigrants (over, say, a couple of decades) and retain its basic political character and structure. I do not think the US polity is robust enough to absorb 1 billion immigrants (even, say, over the course of fifty years) and retain its basic political character and structure.

For more educated guesswork about the number of migrants under open borders, see also our reference article on swamping; Joel Newman’s article “If Open Borders are Instituted Gradually, What Should be the Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?”, which, among other things, details how the threat of swamping gives open borders advocates like Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer pause, as well as Joel Newman’s latest post; and Vipul Naik’s explorations of whether the case for open borders can be combined with radical agnosticism about how many would migrate and whether the number of migrants under open borders would be “too high” or “too low” (e.g., by utilitarian-universalist criteria). In this post, I’ll argue that swamping probably will happen, and that open borders is the right thing to do anyway.

To the question of what kind of polity and society the US would become with a billion immigrants, I have only the vaguest and most speculative notions, but for this post to make sense at all, I’ll have to outline my guesses as best I can. I’m focusing on the US case because I’m most familiar with US institutions and they’re most well-known, but I’d expect other Western countries to have similar experiences. As an aid to intuition, think of the way Roman and British institutions evolved when they came to govern far more people (albeit due to territorial expansion rather than immigration). In both cases, the polity in question survived in the sense that a continuous thread of sovereign authority was maintained. But the character of the polity was transformed.

In the Roman case, the participatory institutions of the Republic gradually broke down. The family farmer, backbone of the old Republic, was crowded out by latifundia, large farms worked by slaves. The Roman populace was largely turned to a mob dependent on public handouts. Finally, the Republic gave way to a permanent dictatorship by the emperors, which, though the loss of the Republic was felt keenly by Rome’s aristocratic intellectuals, was not all bad. Historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, celebrated the reigns of the “five good emperors” Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD) as the happiest time in the history of mankind. The Senate still met, and Romans still called their state the “Republic,” but the real constitution had changed.

The British case is quite different in that the acquisition of a globe-girdling empire “on which the sun never set” didn’t influence the governance of the UK all that much. In four centuries of British empire, from the settlements at Jamestown and the Caribbean sugar islands to the relinquishing of Hong Kong, the British home constitution certainly underwent profound transformations, towards liberalism (the change took place from about 1750 to 1850), democracy (from about 1830 to 1910) and socialism (from the Liberal/Labor victory of 1906 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979), but these had far more to do with the influence of Enlightenment ideas and the Industrial Revolution, than with the empire. The empire, meanwhile, was never governed by the same liberal-democratic principles that prevailed in Britain. It was governed in a manner at once authoritarian and improvisational. Since London was so far away and could rarely understand local circumstances and difficulties, it tended to ratify what the “man on the spot” had done. Often, in effect, public power passed into private hands, as when the East India Company ended up governing India. Often, too, the British Empire was conservative, in the sense that British officialdom tried to co-opt and collaborate with local, traditional institutions. At the same time, a kind of ideology developed, according to which it was the British imperial mission to gradually foster liberal, democratic, representative institutions– not Christianity, interestingly: imperial institutions weren’t particularly friendly to missionary efforts– among the empire’s subject peoples. British political thought provided the templates for both the conservative (Edmund Burke; Winston Churchill) and the liberalizing (Locke; Adam Smith; J.S. Mill) strands in British imperial governance.

I would tentatively envision the US experience under open borders as resembling the British and Roman cases, inasmuch as the protocols and ideals of the US polity, as well as its merely ethnic characteristics, would persist in attenuated form, but governing a much larger population would necessitate improvisational and sometimes authoritarian expedients that would cumulatively transform the polity into something quite different, even as it claimed descent from the historic constitutional polity of the United States as we know it. The illusion of continuity would deceive the subjects of the new polity, native-born and immigrant, to a considerable extent, though on the other hand there would be a good deal of lamentation and triumphalism, and only after several generations would historians be able to look back and assess the bewildering transformation in a sober, balanced way.

Certain American ideals would die of their own increasing impracticality, e.g., “equality of opportunity,” the social safety net, one person, one vote, or non-discrimination in employment. Americans might continue to feel that these ideals were right long after they had ceased to be practiced, as the Romans seemed to feel that Rome ought to be governed by its Senate long after real governance had passed to the emperors. I don’t see how public schools could adapt to a far larger and more diverse student body. I think there would have to be a transition to some sort of vouchers combined with individual and/or community responsibility for education, e.g., the government pressures the Chinese neighborhoods to set up Chinese schools. Jefferson’s cry that “all men are created equal,” which today is sometimes mistaken, almost, for an enforceable policy rule, would retreat until wasn’t even an aspiration, but only a dream. Of course, open borders would actually mitigate global inequality, but American egalitarianism is a sheltered creed that needs the border as blindfold to retain its limited plausibility as an ideal.

If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. This would put an end to majority rule, for a large fraction, likely a majority, of the resident population would lack votes. As it did in the British empire, minority governance would clash with democratic ideas to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, though not, I think, fatally. This could be a benefit, in that defenders of the regime would need to appeal, as Edmund Burke once did, more to the regime’s performance in fostering prosperity and adhering to objective norms of justice, than to crude majoritarian math (which in any case has long since been exposed as logically incoherent). The Republican and Democratic parties would be likely to maintain their duopoly, but their ideologies would go through a continual metamorphosis, not only to appeal to new immigrant voters, but perhaps even more, to adapt to the realigned interests of the natives, who would derive their incomes more from land, shareholding, and government subsidies, and less from wages.

Spontaneous Schelling segregation, even if not enforced by, or even if actively opposed by, the law (but I doubt the law would resist for long), would make neighborhoods and workplaces, and a fortiori churches and community organizations, far more homogeneous than the resident population as a whole. I have advocated legalizing and de-stigmatizing private discrimination against immigrants, but even if it remained illegal, I think private discrimination would be widely practiced, simply because statistical discrimination is efficient, and in the more complex and dynamic economy of an open-borders America those efficiencies would be more worth capturing than ever. Many natives would retreat into gated communities, not so much from fear of crime as simply from love of the familiar. There would be large immigrant neighborhoods dominated by particular ethnicities, where English was rarely spoken, yet English in the US would remain a lingua franca for all the immigrant groups and wouldn’t be threatened as the national language (though German in Germany, Dutch in the Netherlands, etc., might). Overall crime rates might or might not rise, but law enforcement would often be baffled by new and complex challenges. The overworked and puzzled courts would have to improvise and compromise and decline a lot of cases, and would end up leaving a lot of stuff in an emerging domain of private law. I’d expect gaps to emerge where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail, and these might be the most productive, innovative, prosperous places in the new, open-borders America. As in the Dark Ages, the Christian churches would likely be more effective than the government in reaching out to, serving, and cultivating a sense of community and identity in many immigrant populations. As in ancient Rome, native-born Americans would find themselves increasingly unable to govern a larger and more diverse subject population through traditional institutions of self-government– they might often find it expedient, as the British empire did, to let public power slip into private hands– but on the other hand, they could easily vote themselves increasing handouts from a burgeoning treasury.

There would probably be an increasing role for private security companies, both to supply protection to private firms that didn’t trust the police to handle the strange new situation, and as contractors for the government. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a regime claiming descent from the US Constitution to fend off open contestation of its sovereignty. Still, if you remember America’s national reaction to 9/11, it isn’t difficult to imagine that even intermittent, local stirrings of revolt would transform the American psyche enough to make weapons training in schools or even universal conscription into some sort of national police force attractive, in order to empower the citizenry physically to defend its sovereignty against a possible immigrant revolution. The vote and citizenship would likely be bestowed opportunistically on immigrant groups deemed especially loyal or effective, both for national security reasons, and for partisan advantage when Republicans or Democrats found themselves favored by some immigrant group.

The least tentative part of my forecast is that all this would take place amidst a continuous surge of booming economic growth, with fortunes being made galore, but this might take forms that some would find disturbing. We would see some modern latifundia, worked not by slaves this time but by voluntary immigrants, but working for pay rates that would strike native-born Americans as a form of slave labor. Meanwhile, we would likely see modern equivalents of the ancient Roman mob, privileged idlers demanding bread and circuses paid for by taxes collected from non-citizens. Entrepreneurs would thrive with so many new workers and customers. The Dow would rise, and rise, and rise. Landowners would see their assets appreciate rapidly and would face a bewildering variety of opportunities to put them to profitable use. Educators and medical personnel would enjoy an almost limitless demand for their services. Of today’s middle-class Americans, even many who failed to find ultra-productive niches in the new open-borders economy would find domestic servants suddenly affordable. The cruel dilemma now faced by educated women, career vs. children, would be greatly mitigated as live-in nannies would become abundant and cheap. American seniors, too, would flourish as the quantity and quality of eldercare workers rose sharply, and paid drivers became affordable to anyone with a little income over and above their Social Security check. But while two-income professional couples would find their domestic arrangements greatly eased, employment rates among native-born Americans would probably fall significantly, partly because lower wages for unskilled labor would make working too unremunerative to bother with for those without special skills, partly because many Americans would be able to live rather comfortably on dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies. For some, this comfortable rentier lifestyle would rankle, clashing as it does with Americans’ traditional disdain of parasitic aristocracies. People need to feel like they have a function. But some sort of general conscription into a national police force might help here. Americans cognitively or culturally ill-equipped to thrive in the dynamic new open-borders economy would be useful to their fellow citizens, and would justify the increasingly valuable privileges and subsidies to which citizenship entitled them, by serving as a kind of praetorian guard.

In short, I think the most wild-eyed predictions of the open borders optimists will come true, and to spare, but I think a lot of the forebodings of the grimmest open border pessimists will also prove more than justified.

All these forecasts are so tentative that I’m embarrassed to write them down at all, but they are necessary to help readers to understand what I mean when I doubt that the American polity can endure and flourish under open borders. It’s not that I’d expect a complete civilizational collapse, or a revolution. On the contrary, I’d expect superficial continuity. But an open-borders America of a billion people would, in substance, be as different a polity from the polity that the United States of America is today, as the Roman Empire of the 2nd century AD was from the Roman Republic of the 3rd century BC. At the end of this post, I’ll write a bit about whether the end of the American polity as we know it should be regretted or welcomed. But first, would billions really migrate under open borders?

It may seem foolish of me to have so much altered my view of what an open-borders future would look like, in response to a few mere economic models. To be sure, I certainly don’t believe that these models are anything like exact descriptions of an open borders future. The authors, including myself, make all sorts of simplifications, some of them obviously unrealistic, to create a platform from which to launch heroic feats of extrapolation. The wisest course, which Paul Collier for example seems to adopt, may seem to be to dismiss the guesses as unrealistic. But my former guesses had, and any other guesses I could now formulate without reference to the models would have, even less basis. I believe  the economic models of open borders, flawed and fallible as they are, represent the most rational estimates available of how many would migrate under open borders. I’ll try to anticipate and reply to a few objections in order to consolidate this point.

1. What about the Gallup polls? That’s easy. Gallup can’t take diaspora dynamics (also see Bryan Caplan and Paul Collier on this) into account. It can only find out how many people would now like to emigrate. But under open borders, after a little while, many people would be more willing to emigrate because there would be large communities of their fellow nationals abroad, including some of their loved ones.

2. What about Europe? Contemporary Europe stands as an apparent counter-example to claims that open borders would trigger an epic transformation of human geography. The European Union is said to have internal open borders, and though a glance at the relevant European Commission webpage suggests that EU citizens’ rights to live and work elsewhere in the EU are subject to some red tape, it surely comes close. And while this has led to many millions of internal EU migrants, the migrant share is an order of magnitude less than what the global economic models of open borders predict. I think there are several reasons for this. First, GDP per capita doesn’t vary that much within Europe, which not only mitigates the pressure to migrate but may prevent diaspora dynamics from achieving critical mass. Second, EU countries are among the world’s oldest, with most having a median age above 40, whereas young people are more inclined to migrate. Third, far more than any other region of the world, Europe has been carved into national homelands through centuries of cultural genius and military jostling, so that local ties are probably more important there than elsewhere. Fourth, EU “cohesion” policies deliberately subsidize the poorest European regions, mitigating pressure to migrate. Fifth, migration within the EU seems to be accelerating as a result of the economic crisis that began in 2008, so slow migration may turn out to have been a temporary anomaly. Puerto Rico, which has enjoyed open borders with the USA for a century, has experienced so much emigration that most (about 60%) people of Puerto Rican descent live on the US mainland, even though Puerto Rico isn’t all that poor, with a GDP about half that of the USA as a whole. Puerto Rico’s experience, or that of 19th-century Ireland, may be more predictive of an open borders future than contemporary Europe is. In that case, many billions would migrate, and the global economic models of open borders are getting the order of magnitude right.

3. It’s never happened before. Even in the 19th century golden age of open borders, the share of migrants in world population was well below 10 percent. Before and since, it’s been lower. And now we’re predicting a rise in the share of international migrants to around 50 percent of world population! But of course, just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t. The Roman Empire and its fall, the medieval cathedrals, the circumnavigation of the world, and the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened till they happened.

4. People are loyal to their homelands. Another reason for skepticism is that the models apparently leave out of account that people feel affection and love for their homelands, while foreign countries are scary and forbidding. That’s why international migration has always been something “exceptional people” do. But first, the models don’t actually leave this completely out of account. My estimates of global migration under open borders, for example, assume that everyone stays put unless (relative to the status quo) migration offers higher pay for raw labor and/or human capital. No one would emigrate from the USA, since both raw labor and human capital would be attracted to the USA. Yet a recent poll suggests that 1 in 3 Americans would like to emigrate if they could. Few can have a strong economic motive to do so, since the USA is one of the richest countries on Earth, so either weak economic motives suffice (do they want to earn Australia’s minimum wage? to enjoy the Swedish social safety net?) or else cultural preferences (the fun loving culture of Brazil? the ancient dignity of Japan? the beauty and charm of western European cities?) actually motivate them to leave rather than to stay. I agree that people’s attachment to their homelands, along with simple inertia, would probably keep migration down to hundreds of millions in the short run, but in the long run, e.g., over the course of a few decades, I think diaspora dynamics would overwhelm local ties. Also, the globalization of culture (see me and Bryan Caplan) has made migration (especially to the US, the chief source of the globalizing culture) much easier, and will continue to make it easier in future. (Language is one of the more quantifiable elements of this trend. This site estimates that there are almost 1 billion. The British Council expects two billion English speakers by 2020. Of course, you can also immigrate first and learn English later, or immigrate into a diaspora bubble and never learn English.)

5. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn’t epic mass migrations be self-halting, because the desirable properties that make wealthy countries such attractive immigration destinations would be erased by mass migration? Don’t the economic models ignore this? Actually, no. In particular, my model allows for some total factor productivity (TFP) reduction in destination countries. Even if epic mass migrations degraded institutions (or whatever causes TFP) in rich countries, they’d still be attractive to billions.

6. Backlash. Paul Collier, in Exodus, contemptuously dismisses the economic models of open borders, but hardly pretends to give any reason why. To the extent that his implicit reason for dismissing them can be deduced from the book, it’s that he thinks there would be a huge nativist backlash. More recently, Ryan Cooper at The Week argued that “a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy” because “air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes.” But this begs the question. It’s certainly unlikely that open borders will be adopted by any country anytime soon, but the question is what would happen if it were.

My new doubts that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders do not in the least undermine my support for open borders. For one thing, the American polity is too small a thing to have much weight in these scales, when the well-being of so many billions is at stake. But my estimation of the value of the American polity as an institution has also dwindled considerably of late. Daron Acemoglu’s thesis in Why Nations Fail, basically that the prosperity of the West depends mainly on its representative and democratic institutions, has quite a few adherents in contemporary development economics, but I attach little credence to it. I was actually surprised, in the data exercise undergirding my open borders forecasts, by how much of the wealth and poverty of nations seems explicable by human capital, broadly understood, so I’ve downgraded “institutions” (and “total factor productivity”) as explanatory factors in the wealth and poverty of nations. Even to the extent that institutions are important, I think democracy is less important than things like the thousand-year-old British common-law tradition, or norms of religious freedom and free speech, that predate and are quite separable from democracy. I don’t think the US polity, as it was founded in 1789, is or ever was the chief explanation of the enviable economic prosperity that the US has enjoyed throughout its history. But I do attach some value to what that polity was historically.

In particular, I see the US Constitution of 1789 as one of the wisest systems of government ever devised, albeit seriously marred by its tolerance for slavery. There followed almost 80 years of what may be called “Tocqueville’s America,” a time when a Jeffersonian political philosophy was in the ascendant, government was mostly small and local and highly participatory, and the way the Constitution was implemented in practice was reasonably conformable to its intended meaning. Then came the Civil War, which erased slavery, a magnificent achievement, while at the same time replacing the loose social contract among states with a powerful federal government from which there was no right of secession. Nonetheless, for a few more decades, the US still enjoyed a genuinely limited government, wherein elected officials really felt that the Constitution endowed them with limited powers, and they simply had no right to do more than it had authorized them to do. This limited, constitutional government was lost forever in the 1930s, when Roosevelt bullied the Supreme Court into elastic interpretations of the Constitution, especially the commerce clause, that rendered obsolete the enumerated powers strategy for restraining the federal government on which the founders had principally relied. From the 1930s onward, the federal government was still somewhat constrained by the Bill of Rights, but other than that, a kind of absolutist democracy was born, where elected majorities could do anything they liked, very high tax rates produced a substantial economic leveling of the population, and conscription fostered a sense of shared citizenship and made foreign policy much more participatory than it has been before or since. Meanwhile, the most distinctive and important feature of the American polity, religious freedom, traced its origins back before the 1789 Constitution to the original pious motives of the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and the English-speaking peoples of North America maintained an almost unblemished record of respect for religious freedom through all the other changes that took place, until the past few years.

Starting with the school prayer decisions of the 1960s, this absolutist democracy was in its turn eviscerated by a creeping secularist coup d’etat emanating from the courts, which claimed a warrant from the Constitution. The courts were certainly mistaken in thinking the Constitution warranted a comprehensive secularization of American governance, but they seem to have been sincere. Later, as the rising imperial judiciary also became a key patron of the Sexual Revolution, the courts’ reasoning became so disgracefully inept that the possibility that the courts sincerely think they are doing anything other than arbitrarily legislating from the bench is hard to take seriously. Roe v. Wade was a brazen attack on democracy, and while it’s hard to say when the Rubicon was definitely crossed, in the wake of the Obergefell decree, I agree with Justice Scalia that “my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” A country whose Constitution can suddenly, poof!, take on a new meaning that no one can seriously doubt would have amazed and disgusted its authors, and thereby override many democratically-passed laws and rob the people of the ability to legislate according to the majority will on an absolutely crucial social question, is not aptly described as a democracy. It might be best described as a judicial oligarchy in which elected elements play the chief administrative and a subordinate legislative role.

I’m not so fond of democracy that my loyalty to a regime would depend very greatly on its democratic character, but I am very, very fond of telling the truth, and I can have no respect for, and no loyalty to, judges who, in decreeing gay marriage, pretend that they’re interpreting the Constitution. Modern constitutional law is a lot like the Catholic Church’s theology of indulgences in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It makes very little sense, and every critical thinker more or less feels that it’s a disgraceful travesty, but people are afraid to challenge it as aggressively as reason demands, because it underpins the order of society. Reams and libraries are dedicated to rationalizing it, precisely because it’s rationally indefensible, yet is a crucial currency of power. And yes, I’d like to see modern constitutional law immolated in a kind of Lutheran Reformation, and would gladly pay a high price in chaos to see the dragon slain. Thanks to my low opinion of the US constitutional regime as it currently exists is one reason, I can contemplate with very little distress the immigration of a billion or so people from all over the world, unschooled in the peculiar mythology of early 21st-century American democracy and its ever-more-irrational cult of equality.

It would be interesting to hear the reactions to the billion-immigrant scenario, of people with a more favorable view of the legitimacy and beneficence of the present US regime.

Editor’s note: You might be interested in reading Nathan Smith’s follow-up blog post to this piece, A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation, where he fleshes out some of the arguments outlined in this blog post, and responds to some comments and criticisms of it.

Related reading

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Creative Commons License A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation is licensed by Nathan Smith under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.