Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1
September 20, 2012 11 Comments
Post by Vipul Naik (see all posts by Vipul Naik)
If you take a look at the pro-open borders people, pro-open borders reading list, or the pro-immigration and migration information web resources on this website, you’ll notice that libertarians are overrepresented compared to their share in the general population. Part of it stems from my own biases while collating material for the website (see, for instance, my avoidance of folk Marxist arguments) but part of it reflects the fact that, compared to other political philosophies, libertarianism is more likely to foster clear-cut and radical support for open borders, as outlined on the libertarian case for open borders page. Of course, there are many objections to the libertarian case as well, of which some, such as the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, have been raised by libertarian thinkers. I personally don’t find these arguments convincing, but it’s not the goal of this blog post to rebut these arguments (you can learn more by following the links). Rather, my goal is to consider the question:
For a libertarian who is broadly convinced by the case for open borders, primarily from the libertarian perspective (but also based on other aspects of the case), how important should support or advocacy for open borders be, relative to other libertarian causes?
This is an important question, because libertarians, who generally tend to be economically literate, understand that time, money, and energy for libertarian advocacy are scarce. Allocating these scarce resources wisely is important if libertarians wish to make a practical impact. [For this discussion, I am dodging Patri Friedman's critique of libertarian folk activism. That critique raises important questions, but it's a topic for another day.]
I aim to consider three aspects to this issue in three separate blog posts. In the current blog post, I consider the extent to which libertarians do advocate for open borders, relative to many other libertarian causes (my conclusion: not much). In the next blog post [UPDATE: now available], I will consider how much energy I think libertarians should devote to open borders (my conclusion: probably more than they currently do). In my third blog post, I will consider the reasons behind what I perceive as the under-supply of open borders advocacy from libertarians.
The bloggers and writers in the pro-open borders people list are some of the most prolific writers on the subject of open borders. It would be reasonable to assume that the proportion of their writing efforts that they devote to open borders is an upper bound on the proportion devoted by libertarian bloggers and writers in general.
Let’s begin by looking at Bryan Caplan. I took a look at Caplan’s most recent posts. Of his posts so far in September (about 25 of them so far) none is about immigration. In August (about 30 posts), there doesn’t seem to be any post devoted to immigration issues or open borders either (though a post about pacifism references open borders). In fact, the most recent blog post of Caplan that I can find that is devoted to open borders or immigration issues is this post on Vietnam’s 300 days of immigration, posted July 3. Admittedly, Caplan has written so extensively about immigration in the past that he has probably run out of new things to say in recent times. So, a better idea might be obtained by looking at the proportion of posts that Caplan has written about immigration in his lifetime. My guesstimate, based on the list of Caplan’s open borders writings, is that about 150 blog posts by Caplan are about immigration (the list includes about 40 Caplan blog posts, but there are many others that are more tangentially related to immigration that don’t make it to the list), plus may be another 150 that mention immigration as a side note. Caplan’s been blogging for seven years, and posts about 25-35 times a month, so a guesstimate lower bound for his total number of blog posts is about 2000. With these generous guesstimates, about 8% of Caplan’s blog posts are about immigration, and another 8% tangentially reference immigration issues and open borders. I suspect the actual percentages are somewhat lower since these guesstimates have been made generously.
Now, Caplan has gone on record calling immigration the “most important issue of our time” (here and here). So it would be reasonable to assume that most other pro-open borders bloggers and writers devote an even lower proportion of their writings to immigration. This, roughly, seems to be the case, with a few exceptions: Nathan Smith‘s blogging on the Open Borders website (though not his earlier writings) and Alex Nowrasteh‘s writings. Alex is a full-time immigration policy analyst, so it’s natural he devotes most of his energies to the topic — that’s part of his job description. So, in a sense, even the exceptions prove the rule that not too many libertarians devote a significant fraction of their energies to writing about immigration and open borders. I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope ballpark calculations for the other writers on the list, but I may have made some mistakes on the specifics. Nonetheless, I think my broader point is correct — open borders advocacy simply doesn’t rank too high, even for its most passionate advocates.
What if we look at the proportion of effort devoted to discussing immigration spent by libertarian writers who are not focused on immigration advocacy? The proportions are even lower. For instance, Students for Liberty, a mostly US-focused organization (though with some international activities and outreach efforts) that serves as an umbrella group for college campus student libertarian groups, has a blog with about 1300-1500 blog posts. Of these, there are four blog posts with the immigration tag. Two of these four posts simply include a link or video embed of an immigration-related topic, plus other stuff not directly related to immigration. Thus, there seems to be a grand total of only two blog posts devoted to immigration (this one about Obama’s de facto DREAM Act and this one about how freedom to travel can enhance support for libertarian ideals). Note: It’s possible that some blog posts about immigration were not given the immigration tag, but the additional posts obtained by searching for immigration using the website’s search field are only very tangentially related to immigration.
In addition to the quantity of libertarian writing on open borders and immigration, another measure of importance might be the extent of novel insight and thinking that has gone into developing and refining the case for open borders. Yet another criterion might be the extent of response in terms of comments and challenges offered by readers to posts about open borders. In this respect, again, I think the evidence points to a fairly low priority accorded to open borders by libertarians, since libertarian writing about open borders rehashes the same basic talking points and addresses elementary, rather than sophisticated, objections. For instance, LearnLiberty recently shared on Facebook their excellent video on Top Three Myths About Immigration, addressing some of the most elementary arguments against immigration (the video is embedded on the US-specific suppresion of wages of natives page).
There are exceptions, notably Caplan, but to some extent also David Henderson , Donald Boudreaux, Walter Block, and others, who have tried to address other challenges posed by restrictionists and develop novel ways of strengthening the case for open borders. And, if you browse around the Open Borders website, you’ll find links to a number of arguments made in support of open borders from a wide variety of libertarian perspectives. And I’m grateful for all the effort that they’ve put in — if they hadn’t, it would be very difficult to construct meaningful rebuttals to myriad restrictionist objections. But open borders advocacy literature seems to fall way short of addressing many facets of restrictionist arguments, including many of their cultural, racialist, and IQ-based arguments.
In two sequel blog posts, I will consider respectively the questions of how much effort libertarians should devote to open borders advocacy, and the reasons for the alleged shortfall of libertarian open borders advocacy.
UPDATE: Bryan Caplan responds with the blog post Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders.
UPDATE 2: Part 2 of the series is now available.