The Native Americans and Open Borders

Greetings and salutations Open Borders bloggers!  I’d like to thank Vipul for inviting me to participate on this blog, and with luck I can bring some interesting points to this discussion. I want to begin by talking about Native Americans. This is something of an elaboration on a point I brought up on econlog, the original comment you can find here (there is a lot in that comment but the part I’m elaborating on is conveniently labeled).

We can find on the Internet a number of images of Native Americans that satirize the position of closed borders advocates. Clever closed borders advocates embrace the analogy and note that the alien invasion by European immigrants was not all that beneficial to Native Americans. Thus, the downfall of Native Americans becomes an example of the potential problems of open borders. This is at first glance a convincing point. European immigration did lead to the downfall of pre-existing Native American societies. But in reality it is not the concept of immigration this historical example condemns. Two key factors were distinct about this immigration which were responsible for what might even be called genocide (there can be some dispute about this, but that’s not the argument I’m interested in having today). These are disease and invasion.

Disease is the first, and largest, problem arising from contact with Europe. Estimates have some variation, but books like 1491 by Charles Mann suggest that diseases could have killed in excess of 95% of the Native American population. This is devastation that often occurred simply on first contact, not when immigration began. Furthermore, the chances of such an apocalypse today are remote at best. Beyond the advances in modern medicine and quarantine techniques, the globalization of the modern world means that any disease that could now arise and kill that many people would not likely selectively hit certain groups sparing others. European diseases had the effect they did because Native Americans had been isolated for centuries. Now disease is already shared constantly across continents. There are no “privileged” groups with greater immunity.

However, that point may be readily accepted, but that does not fully explain the tragedy of Native Americans. If Europeans had restricted relations to simply trading then this may have allowed Native Americans time to adjust and recover from the (mostly) accidental genocide they faced. But the problem was not the immigration of Europeans to North America but the invasions they undertook. The difference between the two is simple. Immigration occurs when a group of people peacefully move to a new area. Invasion constitutes the use of force to conquer a region. The early Spanish colonies almost entirely were made up of invasions, as were many English and French colonies. However, there are compelling examples of simple immigration which did not cause the problems of invasion. Colonies such as early Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and the French Acadians moved into areas peacefully and interacting with Native Americans in mutually beneficial ways. These colonies were typically among the freest in terms of individual rights, and particularly in the Acadian case, created prosperous societies intermingled with one another. That superior European military technology alongside the weakness from disease losses made Native Americans easy to conquer is not the fault of immigration.

So does the Native American example teach us anything about the advisability of open borders? In the broad sense, not much. Most interactions between Native Americans and Europeans were of invasion, which inherently does not respect the border crossing policies of the invaded nation. This is clearly not applicable to the modern Western world whose military advantage over the countries sending migrants cannot be seriously doubted. But there were some instances of simple immigration which offer a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. There were immigrants from often extremely repressive societies mixing with natives in societies with (generally in North America, if not Central or South) more respect for individual liberties, creating prosperous, peaceful, and free communities.

The upshot of this? Given that invasion is a separate issue from political externalities, the political externalities problem has failed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg not only in 19th century America, but as far back as European immigration to Native American areas. Is this a definitive argument for open borders? No, but it seems to me that when individual liberty is on trial, liberty should be considered innocent until proven guilty. And in contrast to those who use the example of Native Americans to warn against increased immigration, most of the evidence is invalid and that which is valid tends to the opposite conclusion.

Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

21 thoughts on “The Native Americans and Open Borders”

  1. “Given that invasion is a separate issue from political externalities, the political externalities problem has failed to kill the goose that laid the golden egg not only in 19th century America, but as far back as European immigration to Native American areas.”

    In general countries with higher European vs Amerindian demographic share have higher GDP, scientific advance, and human development indices. Why would anyone suspect that swamping immigration from higher-performing source countries would “kill the golden goose” of economic productivity in poor destinations?

    It would be best to give examples of mass migration by groups that tend to perform worse economically than the existing population, migration sufficient to create a majority of the new folk, where the goose is not killed. My understanding is that this has never been allowed before, so it hasn’t had a chance to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, only to prevent the goose from being born.

    I would be eager to hear otherwise though.

    1. BK, I think Chris was, in this blog post, specifically trying to address certain restrictionists who make the very specific argument that European immigration was bad for Native Americans, hence this makes the case for closed borders. I don’t think the blog post was intended to perform the task you lay out.

      Probably, Chris and other Open Borders bloggers will be blogging more about various other types of immigration and their effects on natives.

    2. Hey BK,

      As Vipul says my focus was on those who argue the example of Native Americans as an example of why immigration is harmful. However, I would also say that there is a sense in which European immigrants were at that time from politically/culturally “poorer” areas to a more politically/culturally “rich” area. Now let me say I’m going with a narrow definition of political/culture “poverty” and “wealth” (which is why I keep using the scare quotes). By “poor” I’m talking about countries and cultures which tended to suppress individual rights, I’m not attempting to compare Native American and European musical traditions. Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries certainly fit this bill as persecution for non-standard beliefs was the norm, private property often disrespected, and political philosophy began arguing for kingly “divine right” (aka the breaking down of medieval limitations on the centralization of state power). France and even to some extent England both exhibited these traits during the period of colonization of the new world. In contrast, Native Americans tended towards toleration of different beliefs, more respect for private property, and less blind devotion to central authority. So in the sense of political/cultural externalities, yes it was a movement from less developed to more developed respect for the rights of individuals and no that did not tend to decrease that respect in the more pro-individual culture.

      It seems to me that the divide between views towards individual rights between sending and receiving countries is more important to the political externalities argument than the divide in wealth (the latter only being important because it tends to correlate with the cultural divide).

    1. Dear Old Whig,

      Thanks for stopping by. Since I don’t see the relevance of this comment to the post, I am guessing your comment is addressed more to the site at large.

      I (and probably the other bloggers here as well) am quite familiar with Sanandaji’s writings. We even have a page on Sanandaji here: linking to various of Sanandaji’s writings that are referenced on the website. However, I hadn’t seen this latest piece by Sanandaji prior to your link. I’ve taken a look at it now. It might be the subject of a future Open Borders blog post.

      Thanks once again, and I appreciate your taking the time to comment on this website.

      1. “However, I hadn’t seen this latest piece by Sanandaji prior to your link. ”

        Those employment ratio numbers are worse than I would have expected, although not much worse than those seen in many African countries. Given high crime rates and expensive countermeasures, among other externalities it’s hard to imagine that Somali immigration is a net economic plus in Sweden, or likely even in the U.S.

        “Since I don’t see the relevance of this comment to the post, I am guessing your comment is addressed more to the site at large.”

        This site needs open threads. In that vein, I would like to see discussion of Putnam’s work showing that increased ethnic diversity leads to reduced social trust and civic engagement. The only time I have seen it mentioned here is in the context of reducing the size of the welfare state, but there is also a big literature connecting trust (or trustworthiness, as Garrett Jones would say) and economic outcomes and institutional quality. I would like to see discussion of that element.

        1. BK, Putnam’s work has been mentioned at this page: listed in the “harms to immigrant-receiving countries” list — and I also brought it up in a comment here:

          I haven’t yet had time to go through the details of his writing. I do plan to discuss it eventually, but there’s loads of stuff I have in my to-do list right now. As of now, I don’t see this as a deal-breaker for me, though it may be for others.

          Also, I like your idea of an open thread. I’ll talk with the other bloggers about this. But please do check for site content using the search function before coming to the conclusion that it hasn’t been mentioned anywhere on the site.

          1. “As of now, I don’t see this as a deal-breaker for me, though it may be for others”

            This kind of comment is not very informative, because of the multiple channels for effects of migration. If I have a pile of a dozen weights and want to know if they collectively weigh over 100 kg, it isn’t very helpful to note about each weight “well, this one is under 100 kg.” Some alternatives:

            “This is/isn’t one of the top 5/10/50 counterarguments/costs”
            “I’d guess this makes up at least n% of the costs”
            “I’d guess this effect claws back no more than n% of the benefits of open borders”

          2. BK, let me be more precise. I think that, in and of itself, social capital decline is a non-issue. Its only relevance may be in the other downstream effects it has (e.g., on crime, economic activity, happiness levels). So in a sense, my critique of double-counting for IQ applies to social capital decline as well: — I would argue against using social capital decline as an *additional* reason to oppose immigration. Its main value from this perspective would be if it serves as a predictor or leading indicator of those other things (the caveats and possible counterpoints I propose to my own double-counting argument for IQ also apply to social capital decline).

            For some people, however, social capital decline is something to worry about per se, over and above any effects on other things. High social capital is, to some people, intrinsically worthwhile. Although this is not my view, I will look at this in more detail from that perspective.

      2. Also, it’s noteworthy that Putnam delayed publishing on the negative effects of diversity for many years because he didn’t like what he had found. He did eventually publish, but that story (along with the experience of the psychometricians and others with studies bearing on these topics) suggests that we should expect strong publication bias in the literature on effects of migration, diversity, and ethnic composition, in favor of exaggerating the benefits and diminishing the costs.

        1. You may be right about this, but keep in mind how the bias runs: most of the people in academia are welfare-statists, so they treat the hostility to the welfare state that results from lower trust as a cost — you and I might view that more neutrally or as a benefit. So the bias, insofar as it hides the trust decline due to diversity, hides both costs and benefits of that trust decline.

          Personally, I couldn’t care less about diversity one way or another, and I think the trust decline argument is overstated (which would undercut the AGS-based argument against political externalities too, and I’m not trying to have it both ways). I haven’t given this a lot of thought, but my off-the-cuff reacton: the fact that I couldn’t care less about the people in my geographic neighborhood doesn’t seem to me a big issue. If I find my true community in the Open Borders site or some other online community rather than the people I live next to, I don’t care that Putnam has a problem with that.

    2. Hey Old Whig,

      As Vipul says this isn’t exactly directly related to this topic, but I do think it’s a point worth addressing in later posts. For now, suffice it to say that I don’t think his use of poverty statistics is particularly useful when describing whether Somalis are finding “success”, his complaints may be related to issues other than immigration (to which keyhole solutions may be a superior alternative), and I’m unconvinced of his claim that those outside of a nation should not be counted as part of “society.” But a more detailed look at the problems would have to come later (from one of us anyways).

  2. Chris, regarding the point you make about disease, I would add that the bigger danger is from tourism and short business trips, not from long-term migration. In the US, there are about 20X as many short-term business/tourist visits as the number of migrants (legal and illegal), as David Friedman documents here:

    So a restrictionist who takes the disease argument seriously should wish to close down the borders not just to migrants, but to short-term business/tourist visas. I doubt even restrictionists would be willing to bite that isolationism bullet.

    1. I’d say it can get even worse than that! Traditionally disease has traveled along trade routes meaning that you might have to abandon free trade as well. Furthermore, even allowing your own citizens to leave for tourism or business would be problematic as they might catch diseases. At minimum you might have to quarantine them and any plane/ship crews they traveled with whenever they come home due to the threat of diseases with long incubation periods. Disease doesn’t respect any citizenism distinctions.

    2. Yup, the disease argument is quite weak, which I think is why it doesn’t seem to come up a lot in the restrictionist arguments I’ve seen. This may not fit the tone of the Disease page, since it comes from the irreverent humour site but this account of one Australian’s immigration to the US points out the silliness of immigration policy as a solution to disease transmission:

      “You can never be too careful when it comes to disease, right? Well, the thing is, at the time I embarked on my medical check, I had already spent three months in America on a “tourist” visit, meaning that I didn’t need to apply for a visa or do anything other than show up in LAX with a passport.

      “During those three months, I’d had ample opportunity to breathe the air, cough on people with my foreign, disease-infested lungs, and share used needles with schoolchildren while bleeding openly into the water supply. Had I wanted to, I could have disappeared inside the borders and stayed on as an illegal, inflicting my unvaccinated self on the country for all time.

      “Despite this, America was only interested in protecting her citizens from my foreign germs when I actually applied for a visa to immigrate legally. In other words, the socioeconomic class that can actually afford the time and money to pay for the legal immigration process, the ones who are most likely to be healthy, vaccinated and non-consumptive, are the ones whose health and germs America worries most about. Doesn’t that make you feel safer?”

      1. Testing for uncommon harmful STDs, especially HIV, makes sense. Danger scales with time present in a country, and close association with natives, and marginal HIV infections are more costly in rich countries.

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