The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders

We’ve done a fair number of posts on the distinction between moderate and radical open borders. This post explores an important angle that we haven’t yet explored, and should be of particular interest to people who come from the outside view as truth-seekers.

Here are some facts:

  • There is a small collection of explicit advocates of open borders, including Open Borders bloggers, as well as some of the people in our pro-open borders people list, plus many of the people who’ve liked us on Facebook. While their (our) views aren’t identical, there is general agreement that there should be a strong presumption in favor of free movement around the world.
  • The pro-open borders view is a minority view, even within the “enlightened” public (i.e., even among people who have a reasonably accurate general picture of economics, politics, and some basic facts about migration).
  • That said, the enlightened public does exhibit attitudes more favorable to freer migration than the public at large. This may be due to a mix of a more cosmopolitan (as opposed to citizenist or territorialist) outlook, and a more positive estimate of the impact of migration on natives. For more, see our pages on economist consensus, legal and political scholarly consensus, and smart and more informed opinion.
  • It is quite rare to see reasoned critiques from supporters of moderate open borders of the more radical open borders position. Therefore, it is difficult both to know the extent to which moderate open borders supporters have rationally considered and then rejected radical open borders, and to know their reasons for doing so.

Why does this matter? In general, in the absence of further information, it makes sense to defer to the majority view within the enlightened public. So if you had never given thought to the issue of migration, it might be most reasonable to conclude that moderate steps in the direction of open borders are optimal. But how do you decide whether radical steps are better or worse?

Here, the dearth of explicit critiques of radical approaches from moderates creates a problem. If there was good evidence that moderates had carefully considered and rejected radical approaches, then, even without examining the details, we could have a reasonable prior in favor of the moderate view. If, on the other hand, there is little evidence of moderates carefully considering and rejecting radical approaches, our confidence in favoring moderate approaches instead of radical ones would be lower, and an inside-view examination of the issues may be necessary.

From the weak inside view, the lack of critiques is even more puzzling, because many of the arguments advanced by moderates in favor of open borders easily extend to radical open borders, and moderates’ typical formulations of the arguments rarely provide criteria for just what level of openness would void their arguments. As co-blogger John Lee wrote:

Already, I can hear the thousands of moderate reformers protest: that’s wholly unfeasible! That’s simply too crazy! But why is that? You can’t cite studies showing “Immigrants add $X to our economy” or “Immigrants pay $X million more in taxes than they get in benefits” or “Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here” without addressing the inescapable conclusion: if immigration is so good, what’s wrong with having more of it?

Now, to be sure, I’ve slightly oversimplified the social science here for the sake of argument. But none of the caveats to the conclusions I’ve cited above can at all come close to explaining the immense reluctance moderate reformers seem to have about reaching the inevitable conclusion of the research here. Using the very premises I outlined above that we agree on, it seems that open borders is the only defensible, reality-based policy.

You might protest that most of the evidence pointing to neutral or positive effects from immigration is based on existing levels of immigration. Open borders is sufficiently radical that it might just be “out of sample” for any of the empirical studies we have about migration’s effects so far. I would say that although not strictly empirical, we do have some pretty good evidence from the pre-closed borders era of the 20th century that open borders pose no existential threat to humanity or the nation; for an example, see my take on what open borders history suggests will happen to Latin-American migrants in the modern US. Either way, if we’re being truly honest about the social science, then the right skeptical position is: “We have every reason to believe open borders is the right thing to do. We must move towards it, monitoring the evidence as it comes in for proof to the contrary.”

To be clear, moderates haven’t been completely silent in their critiques of open borders. Consider, for instance, economist Tyler Cowen. He has written a fair number of short posts critical of extreme open borders and its advocacy. But he is an exception among moderates, and, as I noted earlier, open borders advocates’ own description of potential weaknesses in their case seems to be more thorough than Cowen’s criticisms. Other open borders moderates, such as Scott Sumner and Matt Yglesias, have argued against radical open borders mainly based on principled arguments in favor of moderation, but have generally appeared favorably inclined to the idea of open borders as an end goal that is desirable in at least some sense (Sumner here and Yglesias here). There are other occasional criticisms of open borders from moderate standpoints, that we have sometimes responded to in blog posts (such as Gene Callahan’s Immigration, Yes- and No post that Nathan responded to here), but criticism of open borders is still a lot rarer than ignoring it.

An interesting observation: how explicit engagement with open borders tends to move people in a more pro-open borders direction

If you took the view that the case for open borders is correct but largely ignored by people because they don’t give it sufficient consideration, you would expect that the more people tried to engage critically with the case for open borders, the further they would move in the direction of supporting open borders. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear out the latter (namely, that people move in a pro-open borders direction when attempting to critique open borders), and therefore provides some support for the former (namely that the case for open borders is correct but somewhat ignored). I noticed some evidence of this when discussing John Cochrane’s seeming shift towards an open embrace of open borders in my review of the inaugural issue of Peregrine. Separately, co-blogger Nathan noted in a recent post:

[Reading Callahan’s argument against open borders] confirms my casual impression from years of debating immigration, namely, that in arguing against you, restrictionists tend to position themselves a lot further in the right (i.e., pro-immigration) direction than it seems likely they would have gone without your provocation. If we could establish consensus about “the moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear,” that would be major progress. It’s not a very well-defined criterion, and restrictionists would doubtless seek to define the “we can bear” clause in very limiting ways. Open borders advocates would explain why it’s unreasonable to call a large population of resident non-voters, or a significant drop in the wages of unskilled natives, “unbearable.”

Summary of reasons

So what are the main reasons why moderates rarely engage with radical open borders, to either praise it or critique it? In an Open Borders Action Group post on Facebook, I considered a few possible reasons, and others added to my list. I include the full list of reasons below, then discuss them in more detail. I choose a somewhat different ordering from that used in the OBAG post, in order to be more logically consistent.

Reasons #1-#3 in the list represent some form of ignorance or irrationality on the part of moderates that leads them to fail to consider open borders. Reasons #4-#6 indicate laziness or sloppiness on the part of moderates in terms of their decision to not engage. Of the reasons proposed, the most substantive reasons, and the ones that should cause us to give moderates’s views most weight, are reasons #7 and #8.

  1. Ignorance (was #1 in OBAG list): They haven’t thought about it, don’t understand how far the world is from open borders, and/or haven’t encountered people who explicitly advocate for open borders.
  2. Reflexive moderation (was #7 in OBAG list): They package deal the word extremism with the general idea of “negative” or “wrong”. So, if you propose open borders their first reaction is that, “we can’t be so extreme.” (Suggestion from Bryan Hayek, who points to “Extremism and the Art of Smearing” by Ayn Rand).
  3. Failure of language (Sapir-Whorf-like hypothesis): They commonly associate “open borders” with even more extreme versions thereof (no borders, abolition of the nation-state) or with particular empirical consequences (border lawlessness). Moderates who might support specific moves that radically liberalize migration (perhaps not complete open borders, but sufficiently broad keyhole solutions that come close enough for all practical purposes) don’t have a vocabulary with which to think about and express such ideas.
  4. Silence motivated by indifference (was #4 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders but don’t care about it because open borders advocates are politically inconsequential. (Language altered somewhat from a suggestion by David E. Shellenberger).
  5. Nothing to say (was #5 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but don’t have any compelling arguments, so stay silent. (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  6. Morally embarrassing arguments (was #6 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but their objections sound terrible (at least in some social circles) when stated baldly, like “I’d rather one poor American get $1 than 10 far poorer foreigners get $1 each.” (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  7. Strategic silence despite agreement, motivated by infeasibility and potential for backfiring on moderate reform (was #2 in original list): They agree to quite an extent with the case for open borders, but consider it politically infeasible at present, therefore they keep mum about it to avoid sabotaging the chances for moderate reform.
  8. Strategic silence despite disagreement, motivated by avoiding giving ammunition to restrictionists (was #3 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but believe that if they openly critique it, the criticisms would be used by their restrictionist opponents against the case for moderate immigration reform.

The reasons offered here are not mutually exclusive, but they do have different implications for how much weight a truth-seeker coming from the outside view should attach to the case for open borders.

Reason #1: Ignorance (was #1 in OBAG list)

There are three dimensions to ignorance that are relevant to us (some other aspects related to ignorance are discussed under reasons #2 and #3):

  • Ignorance of the idea of open borders.
  • Ignorance of how far the world is from open borders.
  • Ignorance of the fact that there are a fair number of (reasonably “respectable”) people who have embraced open borders.

My guess is that at present, most supporters of moderate migration liberalization are simply unaware of the case for open borders. They may have heard the term “open borders” but mostly as a smear term for mainstream immigration reform used by its opponents. Vivek Wadhwa, who was Bryan Caplan’s debate partner in the Intelligence Squared Jobs debate, seems to have started off primarily in ignorance of the case for open borders, and later turned against it.

Even though ignorance provides the best proximal explanation of the lack of critiques of radical open borders, it is not satisfying as a deeper explanation. After all, it’s not that hard to learn about the radical case for open borders. All you have to do is search on Google for open borders and find our site. Or search for open borders on Amazon and find books on the subject. Or search on Google Scholar. Even if the term “open borders” has eluded you, there are many other ways to discover open borders-related arguments. To the extent that ignorance is the issue, it probably indicates a form of motivated stopping that suggests that people already have a sufficiently negative view of open borders that they believe it’s not worth investigating.

One common form of ignorance is scope insensitivity; many people haven’t thought about the magnitude of potential gains from open borders, or pondered just how far the world is from open borders. Thus, moderates may think that moderate migration changes would be effectively similar to open borders anyway, so why risk upending the system for minimal change? Or they may see open borders as a very risky high-downside proposal without appreciating the huge upside.

Finally, people may be ignorant about the number of relatively respectable people who have come out in support of open borders or positions close to it. This may partly be because many people who in principle support something quite similar to open borders do not like to use the term (Michael Clemens being an example). Thus, it may be hard for somebody who has vaguely heard about open borders and about the claims behind it to take it seriously enough to actually learn about it.

Reason #2: Reflexive moderation (was #7 in OBAG list)

As Ayn Rand noted and critiqued in her essay “Extremism” or the Art of Smearing, people have a general prior against extreme changes. Part of this reflects Burkean conservatism and general caution and/or the precautionary principle. But people also gravitate towards favoring moderation not just in terms of actual policy proposals, but even in terms of end goals or ideals to hold. Given the current status of the Overton window, open borders is at an extreme, even though there are arguments to cast it as a moderate, intermediate position (see for instance here and here). Until the Overton window has shifted, those attracted to reflexive moderation will instinctively recoil from and dismiss open borders as something unworthy of consideration.

Co-blogger Nathan made a related point in his recent response to Gene Callahan. Nathan wrote:

I, too, consider myself a moderate supporter of open borders, inasmuch as I advocate taxing rather than restricting migration, and using the proceeds of migration taxes to protect the living standards of natives. So we’re both “moderates” if you gerrymander the spectrum in the right way, and of course, this is all rather silly. The problem with being compulsively “moderate” is that you make yourself a slave to whatever the distribution of opinion happens to be at any given time. A moderate in the 1840s might have said that slaves should be treated humanely, but that abolitionism was an “extreme view” and an “expression of vice.” A moderate in mid-1930s Germany might have said that the Jewish world-conspiracy isn’t as bad as extreme anti-Semites suggest, and to contain it, it’s sufficient to restrict Jews’ participation in national life and encourage them to emigrate. The extreme position today may be moderate in twenty years, and vice versa, as public opinion shifts. If you care about truth, you have to be less of a slave to fashion than the compulsive moderate, by definition, has to be. (Thomas Paine had an interesting take: “moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice.” Ayn Rand’s attack on compulsive moderates is also wise.)

Note that reflexive moderation is a good complementary explanation to ignorance, because it explains the motivated stopping needed to sustain a state of ignorance.

Reason #3: Failure of language (Sapir-Whorf-like hypothesis)

The idea was suggested to me in an email by John Lee. However, my description of it may differ from John’s. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is a hypothesis in linguistics that asserts that the choice of language available affects the kinds of things that people can think about.

In the current mainstream debate on migration, some of the most evocative terms that could be used to describe open borders, including “open borders” itself as well as the “right to migrate“, have become associated with fairly extreme versions thereof. For instance, many people conflate open borders with no borders, world government, or global anarcho-capitalism. Some people conflate open borders with particular claimed empirical consequences (that may not actually be all that likely, and may in fact be more problematic under the status quo) such as border lawlessness and armed invasion. Similarly, the idea of “right to migrate” is an eloquent framing of one of the central arguments of open borders advocates, but to many people, “right” is viewed as a non-negotiable absolute rather than a presumptive right, so if they can come up with one theoretical exception, they think they have found a fatal flaw in the case for open borders.

There may be many people who would be willing to sign on, at least in principle, to keyhole solution proposal such as the Red Card Solution in the US: guest worker visas for anybody who has a job in the US, without either offering or precluding a path to citizenship. Philosophically, this differs considerably from open borders, but from a practical perspective, a successful implementation of proposals of this sort around the world would probably move the world at least halfway towards open borders (and probably more over the longer run, depending on how liberally the rules were interpreted). But many supporters of these proposals might be hesitant to think of themselves as “open borders” supporters. Part of this may be driven by confusion about how far the world is from open borders (discussed as part of reason #1), part of it may be reflexive moderation (reason #2), and part of it may be the particular negative connotations of terms like open borders (reason #3, currently being discussed). Nathan’s post on the poverty of language/concepts in the migration debate, that I linked in reason #1, is also relevant here.

Reason #4: Silence motivated by indifference (was #4 in OBAG list)

Given limited time and energy, people who voice public opinions tend to concentrate on addressing other positions that they consider either prominent or strong. People who support moderate migration liberalization may see no particular reason to address open borders advocacy, since open borders advocacy is a relatively fringe movement. Moderates do disagree, but they see no reason to either think about or talk about their reasons for disagreement. This closely related to #1 and #5.

Reason #5: Nothing to say (was #5 in OBAG list)

This closely relates to #4, and could well co-exist with it: moderates disagree with the case for open borders (or at least, they think they do) but they have no compelling argument against it. So they just ignore it rather than attempt to address it.

Reason #6: Morally embarrassing arguments (was #6 in OBAG list)

Moderates have adopted a number of arguments to favor partial discrimination in favor of fellow nationals. To some extent, they embrace ideas of citizenism and territorialism, even as some of them deplore hardcore restrictionists for holding on to more extreme versions of those philosophies. At the same time, they find it morally embarrassing to admit to holding these views. By explicitly noting, and critiquing, the citizenism and territorialism that underpins the modern migration regime, open borders advocates make it harder to evade the issue. Moderates who wish to avoid the matter can do so better by simply not addressing the arguments of open borders advocates.

Interestingly, there do exist moderates, including people who are quite active in advocating and campaigning for refugee rights, who have no qualms about publicly embracing citizenistic and territorialistic justifications for migration restrictions, even if they don’t do so frequently. At the Intelligence Squared Jobs debate, Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute and an active advocate of refugee rights, justified migration restrictions on the grounds that governments are obliged to discriminate on behalf of citizens (for analysis of Newlan’d arguments, see John Lee’s blog post here). Similarly, refugee rights champion Sonia Nazario has endorsed the legitimacy of deportation of merely economic as opposed to political refugees.

Reason #7: Strategic silence, despite agreement, motivated by (beliefs about) infeasibility

According to this story, supporters of moderate migration liberalization do agree with (a large part of) the case for open borders. So why don’t they come out in agreement more often? First, they don’t believe that radical open borders are feasible in the short term anyway. Fair enough. But they also believe (implicitly or explicitly) that voicing open support of radical arguments for open borders can endanger movements for moderate migration liberalization. And perhaps ultimately endanger the realization of open borders. This distinctly Straussian argument underlies part of Tyler Cowen’s critique of open borders. Tyler Cowen, one of the few moderates to explicitly critique open borders, has verbalized what many others may tacitly think:

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.

(Cowen may not himself fall under this category, because he also raises object-level arguments against the desirability of open borders).

#8: Strategic silence motivated by the desire to avoid giving ammunition to restrictionists

This partly overlaps with the other explanations, but has its own distinct flavor. Here, the silent moderate disagrees with the argument for more extreme open borders. However, the moderate is concerned that any counter-argument he or she circulates publicly will be co-opted by people who seek to oppose even moderate migration liberalization. This differs a bit from #7 in that silence in #7 is motivated by concerns about the feasibility of convincing the public, whereas the silence in #8 is motivated by genuine disagreement with the case for open borders. In #7, they agree with open borders advocates but choose to stay silent, whereas in #8, they disagree with the case for open borders but choose to stay silent.


Of the reasons listed here, #1-#6 would suggest that truth-seekers should not give much weight to moderates’ lack of embrace of open borders. Only #7 and #8 are worth considering carefully. Of these, #2 is mainly about feasibility while #3 is mainly about desirability. If your focus is on desirability (particularly relevant if you are interested in the matter from a purely theoretical perspective, and/or if you are concerned about long-run changes), then #3 is the main potential reason to consider.

My personal impression is that #1-#6 probably explain the silence of most moderates. #7 and #8 are relatively rare in numerical terms. At the same time, the silence of sophisticated, informed moderates may largely be explained by #7 and #8. However, I could very well be mistaken. The best way to find out is to try to encourage moderates to think through the issues and share their views on the subject. Those to whom #7 and #8 apply may be hesitant to share their views publicly, so their thoughts may need to be extracted confidentially.

Another possible beneficial effect of encouraging moderates to explain how and why they object to open borders is that many of them may move in a more pro-open borders direction after trying to articulate their disagreement, as discussed earlier in this post.

The photograph featured above this post is of a plaque at the Italy-Slovenia border, near Botazzo. In English, it reads: “Open Border, 2000. For peace, for civil cohabitation, for cooperation, and for mutual understanding. Since 1981.” Photograph taken by “Eleassar,” and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.