Folk Marxist arguments for open borders

While creating the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to include a wide range of perspectives for the moral caselibertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and various hybrid versions. I’ve also tried to search for a wide range of practical arguments in support of open borders. But there’s one category of arguments that I’ve avoided, and I’ll try to explain the reasons behind that in this blog post.

The arguments fall broadly under the category of folk Marxism, a term introduced by Arnold Kling in the essay Folk Beliefs Have Consequences. Roughly, folk Marxist theories are theories that see events and actions in the context of a struggle between oppressor classes and oppressed classes. Folk Marxist arguments for open borders see developing countries and migrant workers as the oppressed classes. Business interests in the developed world and racist/nationalist type folks in the developed countries are variously seen as oppressors. It’s argued that the actions of the oppressors cause violence and poverty in the lands of the oppressed, forcing them to migrate to the lands of the oppressors (developed countries) and work there. On this view, mass immigration is not something to celebrate, but rather, an unfortunate consequence of exploitative policies. Turning away the immigrants, or dehumanizing their status (for instance, by labeling them as illegal and denying them rights and privileges accorded to citizens) is a further wrong against them. Welcoming immigrants is the least that can be done, while the root causes of mass migration are fixed. I present below a passage from the beginning of the final chapter (Myth 21) of They Take Our Jobs: And 20 Other Myths About Immigration (Amazon ebook) by Aviva Chomsky (Wikipedia page).

Today’s immigration is structured by contemporary relationships among countries and regions, and by their history of economic inequality. Unequal economic relationships should be changed — not because they lead to migration, but because they lead to human suffering and an unsustainable world. High levels of migration are a symptom of a global economic system that privileges the few at the expense of the many. It could be called capitalism, it could be called neoliberalism, it could be called globalization, it could be called neocolonialism. As long as it keeps resources unequally distributed in the world, you’re going to have people escaping the regions that are deliberately kept poor and violent and seeking freedom in the places where the world’s resources have been concentrated: in the countries that have controlled, and been the beneficiaries of, the global economic system since 1492.

So, why is this line of argument not included in the Open Borders website? The reason is three-fold. First, I personally don’t think that this line of reasoning is correct or plausible in general as a reason to support open borders. This is not to deny that exploitation does not occur, but rather, to claim that the occurrence of exploitation is not a suitable generic rationale for open borders.

Second, and more importantly, it is in tension and contradiction with the other pro-open borders arguments presented. While it’s good to present multifaceted case for open borders, it is bad to present an internally contradictory case.

Third, even if the folk Marxist arguments were correct, I don’t think they add much weight to the pro-open borders position. Yes, folk Marxists often do make correct and convincing arguments favoring open borders. However, these are typically the arguments that can also be made, and have been made, from a non-folk Marxist perspective. The value added by the folk Marxist perspective seems to me to be zero or negative. For instance, folk Marxists often seem to side with restrictionists when they accept mass migration as a problem but shift blame from the migrants to capitalists and other oppressors. This is not exactly a position that bolsters confidence in open borders.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

Did Border Closure Cause the Productivity Slowdown?

By “the productivity slowdown,” economists have generally meant the slowdown in GDP per capita growth rates that occurred after 1973 (e.g., see here). Note that the word “slowdown” is a bit misleading: it doesn’t mean that we’re getting poorer, just that we’re not getting richer as fast. Still, it’s an unwelcome change, and calls for an explanation. There was then a productivity acceleration in the 1990s, but not a return to the “halcyon days” of the 1950s and 1960s.That productivity slowdown can’t have been caused by closed borders, because the borders were already closed in the 1950s and 1960s.

However, Alexander Field’s A Great Leap Forward: 1930s Depression and US Economic Growth casts a different light on things. Field’s most surprising finding is that the 1930s actually experienced the highest rates of productivity growth in the 20th century. Manufacturing, whose productivity rose at its highest-ever pace in the 1920s, slowed down a bit in the 1930s, but fast productivity growth spread to other sectors. The fast productivity growth of the 1950s and 1960s was actually a decline relative to the 1930s, and the post-1973 productivity slowdown a further decline.

I am not always convinced by Field’s analysis. He often seems insufficiently suspicious of aggregate numbers that have to be calculated on the basis of market prices which change over time and can’t easily be adjusted for quality changes. Still, Field altered my view of 20th-century economic history, and my tentative best guess would now be to defer to him. Let me now tentatively and speculatively extend his analysis a bit. The post-1973 productivity slowdown that attracted so much attention was something of an accident, in the sense that the oil price spike and macroeconomic conditions created a kind of “joint” in the path of GDP, but the lasting productivity slowdown had to do with long-run trends and not really with anything that happened in 1973 per se. In the “halcyon days” of the 1950s and 1960s, two non-technological factors masked an ongoing slowdown in the pace of technological innovation. First, demographically, the US population was quite young, and it’s characteristic of young people to learn and become more productive at a faster rate than their elders. Second, competent monetary policy and much reduced political uncertainty relative to the 1930s contributed to investment and capital formation, enabling the macroeconomy to exploit much more fully the space of technological possibilities that had already been opened up by the innovative 1920s and 1930s. Productivity growth slowed down in the 1970s because the exploitation of the technological backlog from the Depression and war years, as well as the demographic boost from the youthful post-WWII population, had played themselves out. Continue reading “Did Border Closure Cause the Productivity Slowdown?” »

The Old Testament on Immigration: Follow-Up

My post The Old Testament on Immigration was discussed at Reddit. Briefly. Here’s the initial comment:

This is filled with inaccuracies about OT law. One example:

“In walking through the grainfields (which were certainly not their own since Jesus was a traveling preacher), and picking heads of grain while they passed, Jesus and the apostles were doing what was allowed by the Law.”

The act of gathering on the Sabbath is explicitly forbidden in the OT. Numbers 15:32-26

OK, I admit the wording was an error here, and I’ve put an update in the original post to reflect that. What I meant, and I think it’s quite clear from the next sentence, is that what Jesus and the apostles were doing was allowed by the Law, except for the fact that they were doing it on the Sabbath. Of course, this particular “inaccuracy,” if that is what it is, has no bearing on the topic of the post. That people were allowed, under the old Law, not only to walk through one another’s grain fields, but even to pluck heads or pick fruit by hand while doing so, is a striking contrast with modern property law, and is relevant to immigration since it relates to issues about physical movement through land, and suggests (as do many other verses) that nothing comparable to modern immigration restrictions was or would have been countenanced by the Law of Moses. Sabbath regulations are quite a separate question.

I am tempted to say that if a reader who claims to have found “multiple inaccuracies” can offer nothing less trivial than this, he (or she) is bluffing, and I’m even more convinced of the argument of the post than I was before. But no, I shouldn’t go there. I’m not an expert in the Law of Moses, which I’ve found off-putting for much of my life. I’ve read the New Testament much more than the Old, despite its being so much shorter. My Old Testament post was based on some Google searching and reading chapter by chapter, here and there. I haven’t read the entire Mosaic Law from beginning to end, let alone studied it closely. So I could certainly be wrong, and would be grateful to anyone who can explain why. I would be glad to hear of the “multiple inaccuracies,” and to see if they would force me to modify my position, probably not on open borders per se, but on the Mosaic Law’s attitude to open borders. Certainly I have been given no reason to do so yet.

Someone else read the post and wrote to me about it privately. I hope he won’t mind my quoting his letter (if so, I’ll remove it, and I’ll leave him anonymous for now but will be glad to put his name if he wishes it):

[Removed, on second thought, for lack of permission from the person who wrote this to me.]

My reply:

Very interesting, thank you. I don’t know Hebrew and it’s possible that there’s just no way for me to get the exact shades of meaning, but I have read much of the Pentateuch in English translation (not all, I’m sorry to say, perhaps not even half, but a good deal). Could you point to any texts that make this clear? I did kind of get the sense of what you mention… that is, that resident foreigners were subject to the Law to the extent that they were like observant Jews… but there were some texts that seem to point the other way, for example:

Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to the foreigner residing in any of your towns, and they may eat it, or you may sell it to any other foreigner. But you are a people holy to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 14:21)

In this case, it seems clear that “the foreigner residing in any of your towns” are allowed to eat what observant Jews are not—which would make them, it seems, not the same as observant Jews. Or is this a different word for “foreigner” here, in the Hebrew? In that case, perhaps there are two statuses, say resident convert foreigner versus resident foreigner who just lives there because he lives there, and why not, and anyone by what right would you kick him out? I would also ask whether the term convert is anachronistic—or at least, whether what the word “convert” means to me, as a Christian, would be anachronistic as applied to Old Testament Judaism. The Jews of Old Testament times had a definite marker of who was “in” and who was “out”—circumcision—but by its nature that can only apply to females, so it’s not clear what it would mean in the story of Ruth. Anyway, very interesting, you’ve provoked me to take a closer look sometime.

Of course, the larger point is that this correspondent’s version of what the Mosaic Law claims doesn’t really undermine the case for open borders at all. Suppose the US were to implement a policy saying that anyone can come to the US, as long as they agree to abide by US laws and participate in national festivals like fireworks on the 4th of July. Surely that would qualify as advocating open borders! It seems to me, then, that ancient Israel did allow foreigners simply to enter without impediment, and they were not even completely bound by the rules of Israel, but there may have been some scope to convert to Judaism, a process akin to naturalization (though here I’m less sure). All the verses about “resident aliens” do seem to cross-apply directly to a modern case for open borders. Indeed, I don’t see how I can escape the conclusion that the Old Testament advocates an even stronger form of open borders than I do. And of course I only covered a small part of the Old Testament. Here’s another perhaps relevant passage:

2: 1 This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

2In the last days

the mountain  of the Lord’s temple will be established     as the highest of the mountains;it will be exalted  above the hills,     and all nations will stream to it.

3 Many peoples  will come and say,

“Come, let us go   up to the mountain   of the Lord,     to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways,     so that we may walk in his paths.” The law   will go out from Zion,     the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4 He will judge  between the nations     and will settle disputes  for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares     and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,     nor will they train for war anymore.

5 Come, descendants of Jacob,     let us walk in the light  of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:1-5)

So the prophet Isaiah envisions a future in which “all nations will stream to” the mountain of the Lord, which seems to mean Jerusalem; many peoples are exhorting one another to go there, in order to walk in the ways of the Lord. Admittedly, this is a prophecy for a vaguely envisioned and distant future, but that doesn’t seem to help all that much. Isaiah clearly regards this as desirable. What would Isaiah’s attitude be towards a policy that, when the nations resolved to come to Israel and learn its ways, set up passport controls that prevented them from coming? Can there be any doubt that he would regard such a policy as intolerable?

Open borders and world government

One of the concerns that some (not many) restrictionists occasionally express regarding open borders is that by weakening national boundaries, open borders put us on a slippery slope toward world government. See here and here for instance. While this concern seems mistaken to me, I think it highlights a few important things.

There are two ways of getting rid of vast disparities in the price of a good across different parts of a region. One is to fix a single, uniform price across the entire region and enforce this through regulatory fiat. If, indeed, this is possible. The other is to reduce, as far as possible, the barriers that prevent the good from being transported between the different parts of the region, and then rely on the market’s law of one price to cause the prices to converge. While the law of one price doesn’t work perfectly, it does lead to some convergence in prices and reduction of the vast disparities. Its main advantage over regulatory price-fixing is that it’s better at yielding a correct, efficiency-enhancing choice of price point, and avoid the problems of surplus or shortfalls inherent in regulatory price-fixing.

You can probably see where I am going with this. There are vast disparities in the price of otherwise identical labor across the world (see place premium). These price differences are due to the differing legal and regulatory frameworks, infrastructures, and cultures across the world. One way of trying to fix the problem is to try to fix the issues with different legal and regulatory systems one by one. The most elegant (for some) way of achieving this is world government: have a single government on top that enforces a legal and regulatory framework and promises a certain infrastructure across the world. Another way of trying to fix the problem is to massively reduce the restrictions and barriers placed on migration. While neither will lead to complete elimination of the place premium, the latter approach, when tried, has led to labor market convergence.

The main advantage of freedom of motion rather than the imposition of a uniform standard is that laws and regulatory frameworks cannot be determined by fiat. Like prices, laws need to be discovered through an exploratory process where some things are tried, then altered based on feedback, or borrowed from elsewhere, then adapted. A single world government would mean a single point of failure. The effect of bad laws would be hard to see because there is no control group to check against.

So now, getting to the question of whether open borders will lead to world government. This is very similar to the question of whether unfettered free markets lead to monopolies. I think the answer to the second question is, generally speaking, no, and by analogy, the answer to the first question should also be no. It’s obviously possible to construct arguments that there are various efficiencies of scale with government that make it a “natural monopoly” but it isn’t clear that these arguments carry more weight than the arguments that cut in the other direction — namely that governments that deal with smaller populations tend to be more responsive to the needs of the populations and the populations themselves tend to participate in government to a greater degree and with higher rationality (because they have a higher probability of influencing the outcome).

That being said, there may be a role for various international agencies and advisory bodies to help govern and coordinate international labor flows. In his article Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Best Policy (which he blogs about here), Nathan Smith proposes the creation of a World Migration Organization which would play a role analogous to the World Trade Organization.

More on IQ and immigration: Collins, ParaPundit, LGDL

A while back, I blogged about Lynn and Vanhanen’s book Intelligence in a blog post titled intelligence, international development, and immigration. L&V’s earlier books have been important references in many restrictionist arguments based on the alleged IQ deficit of immigrants, so critiquing L&V’s work is crucial to the immigration debate. My basic thesis was that whereas IQ might be quite important in explaining the creation of technology, sustaining and benefiting from technology is less sensitive to IQ, and low IQ people can benefit from new, improved technologies quite well. I asked Garett Jones, a researcher on the nexus of IQ and economics, to comment on my blog post, and I subsequently published another blog post including his response and my further thoughts.

Since then, I’ve discovered some other writings on the web that touch on this issue. I’ll mention them briefly.

  • Immigration externalities, a blog post by Jason Collins where he lays out the key points of contention between competing hypotheses: the intermediating role of institutions, and the debate about whether it is the high IQ fraction or the low IQ fraction that is more predictive. I recall that some of Heiner Rindemann’s results suggest that the high IQ fraction may be more predictive, but I don’t think anything definitive can be said yet.
  • Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists Wrong On Open Borders, a blog post by Randall Parker (for ParaPundit) that offers a number of standard arguments against immigration, including the welfare objection, cheap labor leading to a technological slowdown, crime, and political externalities. The post also links to many other standard restrictionist IQ-based arguments, so it’s worth a read.
  • Smart Fraction Theory II by La Griffe Du Lion, which posits an explanation for how national IQ differences lead to differences in the trajectories of nations.