Rawlsian Locational Choice (a highly abstract open borders metric)

I’ve been thinking more about how the openness of the world’s borders might be quantified (see here for the beginning of this topic). In that post, I suggested several criteria– right to invite, welcoming to sojourners, family values, social integration, refuge, opportunity, and civil rights– which might be evaluated separately, and then compiled into a single “index” value that purports to measure the openness of a country’s borders. The categories listed are not readily measurable, of course. Is a country “welcoming to sojourners?” Well, what kind of sojourners? What if Country A welcomes most aspiring sojourners, because mostly high-skilled sojourners happen to be interested in coming to it, while Country B rejects most aspiring sojourners because the only people who want to come are low-skill, angry young men from a country which is historically an enemy? Does it make a difference if Country B would be delighted to accept the kind of sojourners that go to Country A? Questions of this kind can be asked about all of the items in the list.

In general, there is an important distinction between rules and results. There are huge differences in demand for immigration to different countries. Generally, the United States and the Anglosphere, and probably to a slightly lesser extent Western Europe, are attractive destinations for migrants, while there are probably few who aspire to migrate to the world’s many impoverished and/or unfree countries. Simply to calculate the foreign-born share of the population would thus be a very mistaken way to measure and compare the openness of borders, because the countries with the highest foreign-born population shares are often the hardest to get into. Foreign-born share of population is a measure of results. An openness index should in principle measure rules. But rules are not inherently quantitative. Suppose a country only lets in people with a college education or more. That’s a rule. There’s no number there.

The following is an attempt to think clearly about how the openness of borders might be measured. It isn’t a practical program of data collection, and how to implement a data collection program that would achieve it, even approximately, is a further problem of some difficulty. It’s more like what economists call a “model.”

Suppose you are unborn. You don’t know where you’ll be born. You might be born in a middle-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, or a shantytown in Bangladesh, or the latest scion of the British royal family, or in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Of course, this is the famous Rawlsian “original position,” but where I’m going with it is a bit different. My question isn’t “how would you design the world?”– though that’s certainly an interesting question which, I think, must have a pro-open borders answer. What I want to ask, though, is different. Suppose you know enough about the world that you know where you’d like to live– America, Switzerland, China, Mozambique, Italy, whatever. The question is: What are your odds that you can get your wish?

Of course, you might get lucky and be born exactly where you want. If you want to live in China, your odds are OK, about 1/6. But for most places, the odds are next to nil. So in general, the extent to which an aspiring resident of Country X can expect to get his wish depends on certain policies of Country X which we can call “the openness of Country X’s borders.” If you’re not born there, you’d have to try to go there as an immigrant. What are your odds of getting in?

Suppose we know the admission probabilities to Country X by type of migrant. That is, given that a migrant has characteristics x1, x2, x3, … etc., what are the chances that a visa application by that migrant would be approved? Perhaps we could add to that the odds that an attempt to enter the country illegally and later get legal residency would be successful. What migrant characteristics would affect the visa decision? Place of birth, age, sex, education, occupation, contacts, financial resources, intended purpose of trip, skills, language abilities, suspected ties to terror, criminality, and invitations or references probably cover the possible influences. Of course,  most of those aren’t merely functions of birth. If, for example, Country X admits all immigrants with primary education but none without, and if everyone in the world has adequate opportunities to attain primary education, though some fail to do so, then the “Rawlsian locational choice” index would be 100%, even though Country X probably doesn’t deserve credit for fully open borders. (It would be 100% because the aspiring immigrant to Country X could just make sure to complete primary school.) Somehow you would have to extrapolate backwards from the observable migrant characteristics whose correlations with visa decisions could be studied, to the “endowment” variables that represent the opportunity set available to different people.

To calculate the probability of getting a visa given a migrant’s characteristics, you would have to look at the rules by which Country X makes visa decisions, or if there’s a good deal of discretion, you’d want to see how this discretion is applied in practice. You might be able to calculate this if you had a large sample of applicants, some information about the characteristics of each applicant, and knew what decision was made. Thus, you might find “44% of young male high-school educated Koreans admitted; 63% of middle-aged female PhD-educated Filipinas admitted; … etc.” Even if you got a lot of such data, it would probably be hard to calculate probabilities for all combinations of characteristics.

Age poses a special problem. Suppose I want to live in Country X, and I can get in, but only through savings first and then lots of education and then a lengthy application process with queues so that I finally arrive when I’m 60. Should Country X get credit for that? I would say not, but if so, where’s the cutoff? 35 seems reasonable, since that means I can spend half my life in my country of choice, after spending half my life trying to get there. But that means the Rawlsian locational choice indicator would stress immigration possibilities for the young.

The Rawlsian locational choice measure, though imperfect for various reasons, seems to me the single best quantitative indicator of the openness of a country’s borders. I assume it could never be calculated precisely. It would put a fairly large weight on low-skill migration and migration from developing countries. EU countries would get some credit, e.g., 8%, for the EU’s internal open borders. It would probably be appropriate to give educated immigrants a bit more weight than their share of the population, on the ground that higher education could serve as a kind of extended visa application. I would want to see Rawlsian locational choice supplemented with other measures. In particular, I would want to include efficiency measures: can you get a visa in one day, or does it take ten years and $30,000 of lawyers’ fees?  Also, I would want measures that give special weight to those for whom migration constitutes an especially urgent aspect of their human flourishing, namely, refugees and those seeking family reunification.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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