The border as blindfold

For the record, I thought it might be worth jotting down what I think is really the reason people reject open borders. Maybe it would be better to say the deepest, most fundamental, most difficult-to-negotiate-with reason people reject open borders. I don’t mean for the restrictionist commenters here or at EconLog: they’re unrepresentative. I mean the reason for the typical person in a typical rich democratic country, the person who hasn’t specially thought about the issue a whole lot. And this is only a hunch. Not only is my evidence merely anecdotal, but it involves a lot of interpretation on top of those anecdotes.

The welfare state / fiscal burden argument against open borders, as well as the political externalities argument, are, as I see it, easily defeasible via keyhole solutions. I think the arguments themselves haven’t occurred to a lot of ordinary people, but the answers to them are simply (a) don’t make immigrants automatically eligible for welfare, and (b) don’t automatically give immigrants the vote. Problem solved. Of course, that’s not all there is to be said. It is possible to argue that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. I don’t think it is possible to be justifiably confident that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. At any rate, the difficulty of persuasion does not seem to lie there. Some restrictionists don’t make these arguments, or after making them at first abandon them when they hear the answers to them, yet still resist open borders.

Why? Partly it’s just a natural conservatism of the mind which doesn’t accept novelties, no matter how strong the case may seem to be at the moment. I think this can be wise. Confronted with an articulate advocate of an eccentric view, one may feel oneself bested in the argument but still have good reason to refuse to be persuaded. One hasn’t had time to collect all one’s arguments and/or articulate all one’s intuitions in favor of the mainstream view. One hasn’t had time to consult all the other people who agree with the mainstream view and figure out why they hold it. One may raise one’s estimate of the plausibility of the view, and put it as it were on probation, but reserve judgment until one has had time to absorb a broader range of evidence. “Some clever and earnest people think this,” one might think, “and on the surface they seem to make a strong case. They’re probably wrong because everyone disagrees with them, and most people with such atypical views are wrong. Still, I’ll be on the lookout now for what good arguments there really are for the prevailing view. They might have passed me by before without my noticing. Now I’ll notice them if I hear them. And if they don’t seem to come along, I’ll gradually raise my subjective probability that these eccentrics have really hit on the truth.” That’s how I hope Open Borders: The Case might be influencing some readers. It’s also sort of my response, as of now, to BK’s advocacy of an IQ and the Wealth of Nations-type thesis (see here for more of my take on that).

Anyway– now I’m finally getting to the point– the most stubborn reason I run into, which often seems to be at the bottom of all the others, is that the border protects people from seeing the poverty that it shuts out. As I put it in Principles of a Free Society:

So what an argument like Paul Krugman’s [that once they’re here, we have to take care of them] is that America’s moral obligation to “assure health care and a decent income” for a person is completely non-existent when that person is located outside America’s borders, then magically appears when a person crosses the Rio Grande.

The only guess I can offer as to why anyone would hold this belief is that people want to avoid, not actual guilt, but feelings of guilt that result when one has to see poverty close up. Migration controls serve as a blindfold, enabling Americans to ignore most of the poverty, deprivation, and vulnerability that exist in the world by keeping it physically at a distance. In the past, people lived without this blindfold. The wealthy lived amidst poverty, sometimes engaging in generous charity to the poor, sometimes learning, perhaps callously, to ignore them.

Citizens of a modern welfare state, by contrast, feel that the state should coerce people to give to the poor so as to remove from the streets the kind of visible poverty that would make them feel obliged to give, allowing them to feel conscientious and affluent at once. The price of this moral complacency is paid by would-be immigrants who are not allowed to come to America to better their condition by honest labor, lest their poverty trouble the consciences of affluent Americans. (Principles of a Free Society, p. 148)

Sometimes, people seem to think that immigration creates the poverty because people come here and are poor. Sometimes this is an argument of unguarded moments. Surprised by the failure of one or two favorite arguments, an until-recently-complacent restrictionist says, “But I don’t want to see people starving on the streets!”– even if they recognize that the people would be worse off elsewhere. Sometimes people seem to sense the weakness of the border-as-blindfold argument, and I get the feeling they’re casting about for other arguments, but that not wanting to see a lot of poverty on the streets of American cities is part of what is motivating them. In other cases, people are unapologetic. (I’ve argued this issue with a lot of people over the years.)

For example, one version of the argument I heard is that open borders would reduce private charity by inducing donor fatigue. That is, currently private charity plays an important role in helping the poor, but under open borders, people would see a lot more poverty and become callous, feeling the cause was hopeless, so private charity would fall in absolute terms. To this I would say (a) I doubt it: I think more visible poverty would evoke more private charity, though the average poor native might see less of it; and (b) even if private charity completely disappeared, that would be dwarfed by the benefits, according to the modal estimates, of open borders. But it was interesting to hear a conscientious defense of a position prima facie so embarrassing.

As I have noted elsewhere, using the border as a blindfold is analogous to the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable, who crossed to the other side of the road to avoid helping the wounded man. It is a self-interested rationale for closed borders, but self-interested in an odd way, since it presupposes that people feel empathy for their fellow human beings, but also that that empathy is situation-specific and instinctive rather than rational, and that the rational aspect of a person can avoid situations in which his instinct for pity will be awakened to his disadvantage. Maybe some of these people would, as Jesus told the rich young ruler in vain (Mark 10:21), sell all they had and give to the poor, if the world’s poor appeared on their doorstep, and they want the government to protect them from their own generous impulses by keeping the poor out of sight.

Again, all this is just vague guesswork about the thought processes of the typical restrictionist, derived from impressions in a variety of debates with many different kinds of people. I could be wrong, but anyway I think the phrase “the border as blindfold” is worth introducing to the conversation.

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

36 thoughts on “The border as blindfold”

  1. ““But I don’t want to see people starving on the streets!”– even if they recognize that the people would be worse off elsewhere.”

    People want a positive self-image, to signal various kinds of benevolence to themselves and others. They don’t want to be witnessed seeing and not responding to plausible pleas for help. People aren’t really utilitarians, but they don’t want to appear callous, which is why they are often pissed off at utilitarian appeals: the appeals are effectively a form of aggression (justifiable from a utilitarian viewpoint, but not from the perspective of the people imposed upon) against them.

    See this paper for some interesting empirical evidence (note the bit at the end about in-state versus out-of-state charities, too):

    We design a door-to-door fund-raiser in which some households are informed about the exact time of solicitation with a flyer on their doorknobs. Thus, they can seek or avoid the fund-raiser. We find that the flyer reduces the share of households opening the door by 9% to 25% and, if the flyer allows checking a Do Not Disturb box, reduces giving by 28% to 42%. The latter decrease is concentrated among donations smaller than $10. These findings suggest that social pressure is an important determinant of door-to-door giving. Combining data from this and a complementary field experiment, we structurally estimate the model. The estimated social pressure cost of saying no to a solicitor is $3.80 for an in-state charity and $1.40 for an out-of-state charity. Our welfare calculations suggest that our door-to-door fund-raising campaigns on average lower the utility of the potential donors.

    1. Another study:

      “We conduct an experiment to demonstrate the importance of sorting in the context of social preferences. When individuals are constrained to play a dictator game, 74% of the subjects share. But when subjects are allowed to avoid the situation altogether, less than one third share. This reversal of proportions illustrates that the influence of sorting limits the generalizability of experimental findings that do not allow sorting. Moreover, institutions designed to entice pro-social behavior may induce adverse selection. We find that increased payoffs prevent foremost those subjects from opting out who share the least initially. Thus the impact of social preferences remains much lower than in a mandatory dictator game, even if sharing is subsidized by higher payoffs…”

  2. “That is, currently private charity plays an important role in helping the poor, but under open borders, people would see a lot more poverty and become callous, feeling the cause was hopeless, so private charity would fall in absolute terms.”

    There does seem to be a fall in charitable giving per person in more diverse communities, although if there is a big income increase for the migrants their increased income for giving might or might not make up for reduced giving by natives:

    “Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:

    Less likelihood of working on a community project.
    Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.”

    If people are motivated to help the new migrants charitably once they are nearby, a stronger version of the argument might focus on substitution from better to worse charities:

    Charities vary enormously in effectiveness at increasing human welfare. Charities targeting poor countries like malaria nets can save lives for a few thousand dollars, and charity targeting science and improved institutions can generate enormous compounding benefits via growth effects. However, the mass of locally-focused charities is far less efficient. Increasing local poverty diverts charitable dollars to inefficient local causes on the principle of “charity starts at home,” and this diversion is very costly. An example might be that while Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are primarily focusing on extremely cost-effective health interventions for the foreign poor and global public goods, comparably wealthy Carlos Slim is focusing on projects in (high) middle-income Mexico.

    However, I agree that Singapore-style guest worker programs, assuming they could be kept as such, would be more cost-effective (and indeed profitable!) than the vaccination and antimalarial work the Gates Foundation does (and vaccination could be included in entry requirements for the workers). A decline in public goods like wikipedia and privately funded scientific research would be more worrying, but the scale of the effect looks small relative to the other potential positive or negative impacts of giga-migration.

    1. “Charity begins at home” has upsides and downsides. Upside: local causes may evoke more generosity from people, and people are also better able to supervise the charities they contribute to. Downside: given the way the world is presently organized, with most of the poor segregated from most of the rich, locally-targeted charity doesn’t come close to reaching the neediest.

      In a world with open borders, it would no longer be true, or much less so, that “diversion [of] charitable dollars to inefficient local causes on the principle of ‘charity starts at home’… is very costly.” First, a lot of people who are poor by global standards would be located in rich countries, so that the local church charity might be able to go down the street and help, maybe not people in the bottom 10% of the global income distribution, but perhaps in the bottom 50%.” Second, since a lot of people would come as migrants and then go back home with some savings and acquired skills, it would be far easier to channel charitable funds abroad via people who are both trusted and known and members of local communities abroad. One of the reasons I support open borders so strongly is that I think it would make private charity so much more effective and well-targeted.

  3. “They’re probably wrong because everyone disagrees with them, and most people with such atypical views are wrong… It’s also sort of my response, as of now, to BK’s advocacy of an IQ and the Wealth of Nations-type thesis (see here for more of my take on that).”

    On “everyone disagrees,” as far as I can tell, my model of immigration, IQ, and differences between migrant groups, is almost identical to that of Lee Kuan Yew, and the basis for Singapore’s immigration policies:

    As you have said, Singapore seems to be the most successful society on Earth. On policy it systematically takes the pragmatic/efficient solution, even when this challenges naive popular views, or would be politically incorrect in the West. Bryan Caplan thinks, as I do, that where Singapore’s government differs from other countries, Singapore is almost always right:

    Normally, the only exceptions he can muster hinge on wishing that LKY would accept his libertarian ideology rather than utilitarian pragmatism, e.g. on drugs:

    Now, Bryan also has strong libertarian commitment to open borders aside from the consequences. And in such cases he has said he wants to go with the libertarian policy unless its costs exceed benefits by a factor of 10 (so that even severe, by normal standards, hits to aggregate welfare, like a 50% drop in global GDP, wouldn’t be enough to overcome the threshold if a sizable number of immigrants would benefit). And he happens to disagree with LKY on the effects of citizenship/permanent residency/integration for low-skill and low-IQ migrants, with LKY mainly allowing them in as temporary guest workers for mutually profitable employment for fear of negative effects if they were integrated into the polity. Given the different biases/incentives and LKY’s demonstrated success with Singapore, who should be trusted more on this issue?

    I recently pointed out that psychometricians and psychologists familiar with IQ (most of whom are on the left, and are often very distressed by the findings on group differences) in their professional work back up LKY on these issues:,_the_Media_and_Public_Policy_(book)#Synopsis

    Nobel Laureates and codiscoverers of the DNA double helix Watson and Crick were in agreement on group differences and their national impacts, as was transistor inventor and Nobel Physics Laureate William Shockley; private papers and statements suggest that they had many closeted counterparts of like mind and great stature who were less willing to face social opprobrium than Watson, or especially Shockley:

    The structure of taboos, social penalties, guilt-by-association, and so forth warping both science (by publication bias, scuttled studies, etc), and its communication to elites and the public is well-documented.

    So I don’t think I have been putting forward analysis that “almost everyone disagrees with” (mostly I have been providing links to public neutral data sets and resources). And if we take “disagrees with” to mean “has assimilated the relevant scientific literatures, and disagrees with” I think the truth is far from “almost everyone (with said knowledge)”: and even most academics are very badly informed on old, rock-solid empirical results in these areas, let alone findings from the last 10-20 years. There is much potential for “enlightened preferences” approaches in this area:

  4. This is a good explanation of why people support certain social policies (many of which boil down to “too many poor people in my field of vision, make that not happen”). I think it only plays a secondary or indirect role in restrictionist thinking though, i.e. via the fiscal burden concern. The restrictionist sees the reality that neither the ‘blindfold’ instinct nor (therefore) the indiscriminate welfare state are going away anytime soon, hence he opposes unrestricted immigration on, among other things, fiscal burden grounds.

    It’s not that he wants to put on a ‘blindfold’ w/r to the poverty of the people thereby excluded, because of course he doesn’t think his government was constituted in order to rectify those peoples’ poverty in the first place. Only people burdened with guilt about such poverty have a psychological need for such a ‘blindfold’. Generally speaking, those people are on the left, i.e. are also the ones advocating more open borders.

    P.S. Your ‘keyhole solution’ link is a revelation, because the way I read it, these ‘keyhole solutions’ you advocate (?) are all methods of *controlling one’s border* (and/or conditioning more-open borders on certain specific changes in social policy), which to my mind is not ‘open borders’ at all. I mean, the converse of open borders is not ‘closed’ borders, but not-open borders, i.e. borders with some nonzero controls to them. It genuinely sounds like I could phrase my ‘restrictionism’ views in the form of a collection of ‘keyhole solutions’, in which case…I have no dispute with this site after all? But, let me know if I’ve misinterpreted.

    1. Sonic Charmer, we generally support some keyhole solutions to mitigate possible or potential problems against open borders, though we may draw the line differently.

      The main way we probably differ from you is that our keyhole solutions try to keep to a minimum people who are blanket-rejected from entering the country. Instead of blanket rejections, we advocate taxes, tariffs, etc. There are probably some classes of people — criminals and high-likelihood terrorists — for whom blanket rejection is more suited. See e.g. here.

      The other likely difference: we’d probably support open borders even if the keyhole solution we proposed weren’t enacted. I introduced a typology in this post. On most issues, we adopt the (1) > (2) > (3) or (2) > (1) > (3) position in that jargon. I suspect you would adopt a (2) > (3) > (1) position wrt your keyhole solutions, i.e., you would consider the infeasibility of such a keyhole solution a deal-breaker.

      1. Instead of blanket rejections, we advocate taxes, tariffs, etc.

        Understood, but what’s interesting is that in other contexts, most right-thinking people attempt to emphasize that taxes/tariffs/etc. can have ~almost the same effect as blanket rejections. For example, poll taxes or literacy tests; nobody concerned about ensuring the universal right to vote is ever comforted by the fact that those aren’t blanket solutions and are ‘merely’ keyhole solutions. And, I’ve always thought they have a point. Why doesn’t the same apply here? Isn’t a realistic ‘keyhole solution’, of the type that would appease someone like me, more or less equivalent to some kind of border control?

        On most issues, we adopt the (1) > (2) > (3) or (2) > (1) > (3) position in that jargon. I suspect you would adopt a (2) > (3) > (1) position wrt your keyhole solutions, i.e., you would consider the infeasibility of such a keyhole solution a deal-breaker.

        Agreed on my vote going for 2 > 3 > 1. WIth the nit-picky caveat that I still don’t think ‘open borders with a keyhole solution’ is accurately described as open borders in the first place. A keyhole solution, the way you’re using it, renders the borders not completely ‘open’, and so all that remains to discuss is where to draw the boundary re: how to control the borders. And all I’m really arguing for is that there *should be* such a control.

        1. You make two interesting points. I’ll address the point about tariffs and taxes first. You might want to check out the immigration tariffs page for some background, but I’ll just concentrate on your core point. The argument I make here is very simplistic, but it is meant more for illustrative purposes than to be the final word.

          A tariff or tax is distortionary for a particular transaction (creating a deadweight loss) iff the magnitude of the tariff or tax is greater than the social surplus generated by the transaction. In plainspeak, an immigration tariff would lead to a particular immigration action not occurring if the value of the tariff exceeds the (perceived, subjective) gain to the migrant from migrating. This is admittedly a very simply picture.

          Now, the kinds of immigration tariffs we recommend are those whose value is less than what we think most migrants gain from migrating. We think that potential migrants would gain a lot from migrating in the absence of a tariff. So, the actual number of migrants who would be de facto denied the opportunity to migrate via an immigration tariff would, in our estimation, be small.

          The main goal of these tariffs is not to discourage migration, but rather, to redistribute the gains from migration towards the subset of natives who might suffer losses in terms of reduced wages (for instance, by funding a tax cut for low-income natives — anything more targeted might introduce its own problems of distortion). The key here is that, since we believe that migrants gain more than natives lose, it is possible to set an immigration tariff value at some intermediate point between the loss to natives and gain to migrants, so as to convert a potential Pareto improvement.

          Despite this, any tariff would discourage some marginal migration. But this would be the least valuable migration. In other words, tariffs and taxes do better than a bureaucratic pick and choose system, just as congestion taxes do a better job than governments deciding who can drive on what days.

          One could still oppose an immigration tariff on grounds of fairness, just as some taxes can be opposed on grounds of fairness, even where their distortionary effect is minimal. In fact, I suspect that some of us are of the (1) > (2) > (3) school of thought wrt immigration tariffs — we believe that open borders without a tariff would be the best option, and view open borders with a tariff as a compromise needed to broaden our support base. John makes this kind of point here. We’re nodding to expediency and to practical realities here.

          I believe your comparison with poll taxes was purely for illustrative purposes and you’re not hinging too much on the analogy, but just in case it wasn’t, here’s my reply to that (please ignore if this isn’t important to you). The main reason why poll taxes discourage voting is that, frankly, most people know that their vote doesn’t matter much, and don’t gain from the act of voting, so even a very small poll tax can discourage people from voting. Is that a problem? Depends on what your model of democracy is. If you believe that the (private benefits + positive political externalities) of the marginal voter dissuaded from voting by the poll tax exceed the poll tax, then you would consider this a problem. A key necessity here is that the political externalities of these marginal voters is positive. I don’t think this is the case, for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, so I don’t see the case against poll taxes as a slam dunk case. I think that there could be strong arguments for and against poll taxes. The same basically goes for literacy tests of voters. Like driving, voting generates possible positive and negative externalities — literacy tests therefore seem prima facie justifiable. There are of course many objections to them as well, but the case against literacy tests is far from overwhelming.

          1. Re: tariffs as Pareto improvement

            I understand in theory. But ultimately if you charge any meaningful ‘tariff’ I would think this substantially weakens the argument that immigration Really Helps Poor People From Elsewhere. Yes those people if they immigrated would gain by X, but as of now those people by definition basically can’t pay your tariff for anything more than about $0, so what really happens? Either they don’t come at all (in which case where’s the gain?), or perhaps (even worse) a black-market of indentured servitude springs up, i.e. brokers pay the tariff and then expect something in return (if movies/TV are any indication, this is already what happens). Or perhaps you’ll set up a perfect/clever ‘microfinance’ program to do it? Or a government tracking program to garnish their wages. Etc. Logistically problematic, if nothing else.

            It’s also worth pointing out that whether I’m swayed by this story depends on the extent to which I believe the Pareto gains from the tariff *really would* be effectively distributed toward the subset of harmed natives (as if these could be somehow demarcated and identified, which I doubt). You won’t be surprised to learn of my low confidence in the government’s ability or likelihood to do this.

            Overall I think I’m trying to suss out whether I’m being sold the following bill of goods –

            YOU: Your objections to open borders are invalid, because all those problems you bring up could be addressed by the following keyhole solutions.

            ME: These keyhole solutions, would they have substantially the same effect as the restrictions I already want?

            YOU: Probably not. That wouldn’t be their goal, just Pareto improvement.

            ME: Um, ok. But you’d at least condition open borders on the effective implementation of these keyhole solutions?

            YOU: Well, no. I’d implement open borders regardless.

            Isn’t this more or less what you’re telling me? If so, the whole ‘keyhole solution’ concept is a red herring.

            1. Not quite a red herring. As pointed out earlier, we are mostly a mix of (1) > (2) > (3) and (2) > (1) > (3) on the issue. Both these types would support open borders with or without the keyhole solution, but the (2) > (1) > (3) types among us would prefer the keyhole solution, albeit not considering it necessary for open borders.

              But even the (1) > (2) > (3) types among us would very likely be willing to commit to the keyhole solutions as an important step forward. There is a credibility/stability issue — would we later advocate to get rid of the keyhole solution if we are just voicing support for it as a compromise? That’s a hard question, so we would need to come up with a commitment strategy to show that even though we personally would prefer not having the keyhole solution, we’d be willing to commit long term to the keyhole solution as part of a realistic promise toward more open borders. The problem, of course, is that a few of us on this blog making this kind of commitment does not equal open borders advocates in general making this commitment. The stability/credibility problem is a big one.

              But I think that, even among open borders advocates, (2) > (1) > (3) (support open borders overall, but prefer them with the keyhole solution) are a sufficiently large majority that the mind-changing of (1) > (2) > (3) advocates would not really matter.

              The big problem seems to be not the (1) > (2) > (3) advocates like us, but the immigrant rights activists whose general position seems to be (1) > (3) > (2) or (3) > (1) > (2) — they consider the specific keyhole solution as immoral or beyond the pale, that they would prefer the status quo to keyhole solutions. It’s the combined presence of these anti-keyhole people and people who consider keyhole solutions a deal-breaker that makes the status quo an attractive position to gridlock on.

          2. “The main goal of these tariffs is not to discourage migration, but rather, to redistribute the gains from migration towards the subset of natives who might suffer losses in terms of reduced wages.

            Despite this, any tariff would discourage some marginal migration. But this would be the least valuable migration. In other words, tariffs and taxes do better than a bureaucratic pick and choose system, just as congestion taxes do a better job than governments deciding who can drive on what days. ”

            SonicCharmer, what you are talking about is a Pigovian tax:


              1. But as with other issues, if people disagree greatly about the magnitude of externalities, they will disagree about the efficient tax.

                1. It cuts in many different sorts of ways, if you keep in mind that the tax amount can be anywhere between the amount needed to compensate the subset of natives and the gain to migrants.

                  Optimistic open borders advocates tend to be optimistic about the gains to migrants, which means they would probably be willing to go with a higher migration tax from that perspective than people who think the gains to migrants are small. On the other hand, they also think that the negative externalities to natives are small, so the minimum “Pigovian” tax that needs to be levied would be low. So, overall, open borders advocates would be okay with a wide range of possibilities for the tariff, between their high estimate of the gain to migrants and their low estimate of the losses to natives.

                  Restrictionists who think the gains to migrants are small would be happy to go with a high tariff because of their belief that few migrants would be willing to pay that tariff.

                  This has a whiff of arbitrage and betting markets whereby differences in perceptions about the future is key to achieving a compromise that satisfies two sides with opposite sets of desires, but I’d need to think more clearly about this.

                  1. ” It must be confessed, however, that we seldom know enough to decide in what fields and to what extent the State, on account of them could usefully interfere with individual freedom of choice. Moreover, even though economist were able to provide a perfect blueprint for beneficial State action, politicians are not philosopher kings and a blueprint might quickly yield place on their desks to the propaganda of competing pressure groups. “Fancy” finance, like a fancy franchise, whatever its theoretical attractions, has, at all events in a democracy, dim practical prospects.” –Pigou

    2. Also, although this is perhaps quite tangential to your main point, I don’t think that in the US concern about helping the poor is limited to the “left” as commonly identified. Arthur Brooks’ book Who Really Cares uses various kinds of survey data to conclude that in the US, conservatives donate more to charity, and are more “charitable” in a broad sense, than liberals. The main source of the effect seems to be religiosity: religious people donate more both to religious and non-religious charities than their non-religious counterparts (here “non-religious” doesn’t necessarily mean atheists). After controlling for religiosity, the conservative-liberal gap isn’t all that high, though Brooks finds it to still be the case that conservatives donate more than liberals. But there are some concerns about Brooks’ claims, and I definitely wouldn’t plant my flag on his claims about political orientation. Specifically, the objection is that Brooks groups together liberals and moderates and the low apparent generosity of liberals is mostly because of their being grouped together with moderates — if you look at liberals alone, they are somewhat more generous than conservatives, but not a lot more. Brooks’ claims about religiosity and some of his other claims are on fairly strong footing.

      I don’t have offhand data here, but my guess would be that after controlling for the dollar amount of donations, conservatives would be more likely to donate more locally than liberals. This means that the private charity aspect of the “border as blindfold” argument would probably resonate a little more with conservatives than liberals. Probably, liberals in the US would be more moved by some of the other aspects of this argument.

      1. ‘Concern about helping the poor’ as such isn’t limited to the left, no. It is the notion that the *government should be the main vehicle for doing so* that one more or less identifies with the left. So this is why many leftist-favored social policies have the character of something designed to have government act to alleviate their guilt about the poor, and/or blindfold solutions (i.e. not wanting to see the poor).

        Someone on the right may tend to care equally about the poor, including poor in other countries, but the expression of that instinct more often takes the form of – as you say – private-charity donations. In the meantime, they tend not to want (or, to want less) *their government* to focus on the issue as such either way. Make sense?

        1. What you said seems right (at least, agrees with what I said). My point was that the “private charity” half of the argument that Nathan says people offer against immigration (namely, that immigrants would overburden local charities) is just as likely to come from people on the right as it is from the left in the US. I think Nathan talks to people on both sides of the spectrum, and my guess is that he’s culling these objections from people across the spectrum. But Nathan could best clarify this himself.

          1. Ah. I would’ve thought restrictionists were more concerned about the government fiscal-burden than about overburdening charity. (That’s certainly the case for me.) But, I do understand the point. Thx

          2. I’ve certainly discussed immigration with people on both right and left. Yes, it’s probably more on the left that I hear concerns about erosion of government social safety nets. The person who most strongly worried about dilution of private charity was definitely coming from the right.

    3. This is an important point. Sometimes when I say that I favor “open borders” people think I’m a wild-eyed radical, but then when we go into a bit more detail and I mention that I favor immigration tariffs and redistribution of the tax proceeds to natives, so as to hold natives harmless (at least in a rough and general way: you won’t prevent every single native from suffering harm), they find it to be reasonable, but don’t think “open borders” is the right word for it.

      I think “open borders” is the right word for the keyhole solution in *Principles of a Free Society,* and that while I would argue that the approach is moderately conservative in an absolute sense, relative to the ultra-restrictionist consensus that has progressively hijacked America and most other rich countries since World War I, there was more truth in people’s first impression that I’m a wild-eyed radical. See Bryan Caplan’s latest point for some of the intuition here: Basically, the borders are at present very nearly closed: MOST people who want to come are just completely shut out. Under my proposed policy, ALMOST NOBODY who wants to come would be completely shut out. The only ones who would be shut out would be a lot of people from countries with terrorist propensities– in places like Pakistan, access to visas might be restricted and used as leverage in unraveling terror networks and pressuring the government– and people with contagious diseases or criminal records.

      Whether I would characterize an immigration tariff scheme as “open borders” depends on the structure of the tariffs. If visas are auctioned off with up-front fees, as Gary Becker has proposed (, then a lot of people would simply not be able to afford them and would be shut out altogether. My scheme, by contrast, would make visas available for only the cost of preimbursing a voluntary deportation– destitute immigrants would then have the right to be sent home at their own preimbursed expense– and would then collect the immigration tariff from wages earned in the US. Students, tourists, investors, and retirees would never have to pay immigration tariffs at all. To that extent, the design of the policy is a concession to labor protectionism as a major motive for today’s immigration restrictions. I would not characterize Becker’s proposal as “open borders,” but I would characterize my proposal that way.

      By the way, I love your phrase: “too many poor people in my field of vision, make that not happen.”

      1. Re people regarding “open borders” as radical, nobody these days bats an eye at the term “free trade”. Nobody (except perhaps the most hard-core leftist) regards free trade as an all-out attack on the sovereign rights of governments to determine their own international trade policies.

  5. Sonic Charmer, you’ve raised the “border control” point a bit, so let me try to explain where my thinking differs from yours. I suspect that the other bloggers here would largely agree with me, going by what Nathan wrote in his book Principles of a Free Society and in his blog post the citizenist case for open borders, and what John wrote in his blog post what do open borders advocates really want? but the views expressed here are of course my own.

    I will make an analogy, but, to be clear, the analogy is only for illustrative purposes rather than to actually prove what I’m saying. Think of police officers. Police officers have the authority to pull you over if you’re driving, and to stop and (in some cases) frisk you. However, the authority of these officers does not derive from the idea that they own you or own the city or locality where they operate. Rather, this authority is derived from the responsibility that they have been given to secure law and order in the region.

    Further, though different people differ on the margin about just how much justification a police officer needs to pull you over, there are general concepts of “probable cause” and “reasonable suspicion” for any such exercise of authority. It would strike us as wrong for a police officer to simply pull people over because he/she didn’t like the color of their car, or just to fulfill monthly “stop and frisk” quotas. It would also be considered wrong if a politician instructed police officers to harass and pull over his political opponents, or if a local business owner asked a police officer to stop and frisk people who work at the competing nearby WalMart to dissuade people from taking up jobs at WalMart. Whatever your views about police authority at the margin, it’s likely that these cases would fall outside.

    My thinking about the role of the state in stopping and turning people back at the border is similar — a law and order type justification is necessary. The authority that the state has to turn people back needs to be justified in the same way as a police officer’s stopping you, searching you etc. need to be justified.

    Although this analogy is not wholly appropriate, I think it comes closer to describing our intuitions than arguments from collective property rights under which the state would have the moral authority to arbitrarily deny people entry without any need to show probable cause or provide any justification.

    Reading you, I’m not really sure where you stand on this. From your comments, you do seem to think that the collective property rights formulation is not totally appropriate, yet you probably think that the state can have a bigger role in denying people entry than police officers can in arbitrarily pulling and detaining people. I’d be curious to hear what you think of the analogy, or whether there is an intermediate analogy that you think is better suited to describing your intuitions.

    1. I think it’s a fine analogy and I’m all for a ‘law and order type justification’ in principle. The caveat of course is that (IMHO) there’s no reason to think that the border-control analogy of ‘probable cause’ would be anything like that which applies to everyday police work. They are two different situations.

      Indeed, such a concept doesn’t even apply uniformly (or at least, in exactly the same way) in police work itself. Think of riots or emergency situations, roadblocks, curfews, big stadium crowds, etc. I don’t know how to phrase it legally, but it’s clear there can be certain circumstances in which ‘you need probable cause to do that!’ doesn’t constrain police officers in exactly the same way that it does in normal circumstances.

      Perhaps a border with lots of people wishing entry is kind of like that.

      In other words, while I’d sign on to a border-control analogue ‘probable cause’, to my mind it wouldn’t really preclude very much. It wouldn’t preclude “no one from country X can come in”, for example.

      At the same time, I want to maintain that (something like) (a weak version of) collective property rights is in fact what is being enforced at the border and I wouldn’t concede that no such concept applies there. (Or in police work, for that matter!) This is something the Econlog bloggers can’t stand but if one just accepts the possibility of multiple levels/notions of ‘property rights’ (some stronger/some weaker) it presents no real problem.


  6. What size US population are we aiming for in all of this? 1 billion? 2 billion?

    What is the population goal of open borders?

    I mean, we know it will increase if we take all comers. So, at what number, rate or whatever, does an open borders guy become a restrictionist?

    Obviously open borders advocates don’t think there are enough people here. So, what do you think is an optimal number?

    Modern medicine and the green revolution kicked off this massive population growth. Educated populations have reduced their birthrates, but the rest are growing fast and coming fast. So, the gamble is whether they will assimilate and have lower birthrates after moving here or continue to grow.

    On the other hand, if the better educated come here, there is a sort of brain drain in their home countries. How does that help those countries?

Leave a Reply