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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.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

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One thought on “The claim that open borders inevitably leads to homogeneity is incredibly weak”

  1. I must admit, the claim that open borders would make the world too homogeneous is clever. In one respect at least, I think it has considerable force: language. Already, English seems to be on an inexorable rise to world dominance. Open borders would accelerate that, by giving more people both the opportunity and the incentive to learn English. Is that good or bad? On the one hand, different languages are kind of cool. On the other hand, language is fundamentally an instrument of communication, and we can communicate better if we all speak the same language.

    In other respects, the contemporary USA has a vast amount of diversity, e.g. of religions, hobbies, lifestyles. Diversity in an open borders world would be far greater. But I can see someone saying that, while the USA has a lot of diversity, it’s not enough to satisfy the human spirit, and we need foreign countries too. But to the extent that the USA is more homogeneous than we’d like, that’s as much because of government policies that enforce homogeneity, e.g. public schools, anti-discrimination, federal laws, as because of open internal borders. If the world opened its borders but didn’t establish a world government, I think the diversity would largely remain, and in some respects would even increase, since people could self-select into places that suited them and thereby reinforce their distinctive character. And what diversity there was, we’d be better able to enjoy, since we could move about more.

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