South Africa in the open borders debate

The experience of post-apartheid South Africa is often used by supporters and opponents  of open borders as evidence for their respective positions. Those in favor of  open borders argue that the lifting of restrictions barring the free movement of black people improved the welfare of both whites and blacks. Restrictionists, on the other hand, argue that the welfare of whites and blacks has declined significantly since apartheid. For instance, the experience of South Africa after apartheid is used by both sides in the comments section to this post by Bryan Caplan  that, in part, questions the importance of the political externalities argument against open borders. I intend to do two things in this post: (1) clarify what the consensus position is regarding the welfare of blacks and whites in post-apartheid South Africa and (2) draw out the implications of South Africa’s experience for the open borders discussion.

I. Post-apartheid welfare

So what has been happening to the welfare of blacks and whites since apartheid officially ended in 1994? To answer this question, I review trends in incomes, poverty, inequality, unemployment and crime since 1994.


From an aggregate point of view, the South African economy performed relatively well from 1994 to just before the financial crisis . For instance, the rate of growth in real GDP per capita was positive and significantly so for each year from 1994 to 2008 with the exception of 1998 (scroll to page 9 of this UN report). Leibbrandt and Levinsohn work out that real GDP per capita grew by 25% over this period, which coincidentally was the average growth rate for sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, over the same time period (I computed the latter statistic by using the World Bank’s databank tool available for free here – remember to use ‘constant prices’ rather than ‘current prices’ to calculate real, inflation-adjusted growth). For comparison, real GDP per capita declined by 15% over the period 1980 to 1994 (my own calculations using data from the World Bank’s databank tool that I link to above). Since GDP per capita might be too aggregated a measure (especially for a country like South Africa with distinct racial groups), Leibbrandt and Levinsohn, in the same paper, look at trends in actual incomes as reported by South African households and find that mean household incomes grew by 15% over the period*. In terms of racial breakdowns, the white population’s incomes grew the most at 28%, followed by blacks at 26%. Coloreds and asians saw their incomes grow by 8% and 5% respectively**. No such detailed study is available for household incomes before 1994 but the consensus is that the 1980s to early 1990s were dismal times economically. One might say that the 1980s are an unfair time period to compare South Africa’s later economic performance with because of the economic sanctions in place at the time. A detailed economic analysis, however,  pointed to other structural factors, in addition to the sanctions, as being behind the economic malaise of the 80s and very early 90s.

Poverty and inequality

The consensus position is that poverty has declined across all racial groups since 1994. Leibbrandt, Wegner and Finn writing in 2011 have this to say [emphasis mine]:

The headcount ratio for two poverty lines is shown to have fallen over time, which is in line with a substantial literature (For example, Bhorat and van der Westhuizen (2009), van der Berg et al (2008)). As shown by Leibbrandt, Woolard, McEwen, Koep (2010) and Leibbrandt, Woolard, Finn, and Argent (2010) this decline in poverty is more pronounced if measures of poverty (such as the poverty gap ratio) that are sensitive to the depth of poverty are used. There is some contention over the timing of the poverty declines. For example, Hoogeveen and Özler (2006) seem to indicate an improvement in poverty levels only after 2000. However, there is no disagreement about the long‐run trend. In addition, as illustrated by Bhorat et al (2006) and Bhorat et al (2009) there is no such contention with regard to changes in non money‐metric well‐being. In all analyses, access to services, formal dwellings and private assets are shown to improve in the period from 1996 to 2001 and then on through to 2008.

Inequality on the other hand seems to have increased over all. The widely used Gini coefficient grew from 0.67 in 1993 to 0.70 in 2008 making the country one of the most unequal in the world. However, it does seem that within-racial group inequality has been driving the overall increase. In other words, inequality between racial groups (between, say, whites and blacks) is less a factor in explaining overall inequality than inequality within racial groups. As is the case in most countries, South Africa’s high inequality seems to be explained by educational differentials.


The consensus position is that the unemployment rate has been increasing since 1994. In 1995, the unemployment rate stood at about 15% whereas it currently stands at about 25%. A widely read study pointed to structural rigidities linked to poor labor market policies as being behind the persistence in unemployment post 1994.  In the absence of such rigidities, the authors contend that the labor market would have adjusted to absorb some proportion of  the large and unprecedented increase in labor supply that followed the fall of apartheid. Others, however, believe that unemployment had been trending upwards well before 1994 and the post 1994 labor policies adopted by the new African National Congress (ANC)-led government might have exacerbated the situation.


The one sore spot of post-apartheid South Africa seems to be the perceived increase in crime, especially violent crime. Crime began trending upwards as early as the 1980s with the trend line probably becoming steeper somewhere in the early to mid 1990s. Homicide rates which were as high as 65 per 100,000 population in 1995 reduced to half that figure by 2009. On the other hand, the rate of aggravated robberies increased significantly in the post-apartheid period. The Institute for Security Studies (ISS)data shows that the rate of aggravated robberies increased from about 150 per 100,000 population in 1997 to just under 300 per 100,000 population in 2004 (an almost 100% increase!) although the rate of such robberies has recently began declining. The same data also show that the incidences of rape, car jacking and murder have been declining post 1994. It is quite likely that the story around aggravated robberies has been responsible for the high crime narrative in South Africa.


II. Implications for the open borders discussion

Reading the above set of facts, one gets the sense that life in post-apartheid South Africa has not been entirely good but neither has it been the horror story that some have made it out to be. Can one then draw some implications for open borders from South Africa’s experience during the transition from apartheid to democracy (to all intents and purposes an “open borders event”)?

a) Political Externalities

With the dissolution of apartheid institutions beginning in 1990, black africans were free to live and work anywhere in the new republic. Blacks were also conferred full citizenship rights implying that they could participate in the country’s democratic process. The fact that blacks were in the majority during the transition to democracy in 1994 probably meant that the median voter was black. Parties hoping for success at the polls had to appeal to the policy preferences of the median voter who likely preferred interventionist policies to right the wrongs of the past. This is probably one of the factors behind the ANC’s victory in 1994 and the statist policies that they later on put in place. Prima facie, it seems that political externalities might have been a factor in post-apartheid South Africa. Had the new “immigrants” been denied voting rights, then perhaps the country’s economic policies might have been less intrusive. If this line of thinking is correct, then an optimal approach to open borders might be to deny, at least at the outset, voting rights to new immigrants. On the other hand, the South African case is quite different to what is most likely to happen under global open borders. For one thing, the mass “South Africanisation” that followed the dismantling of apartheid was devoid of the “selection factor” that is likely to be important under a regime of open borders. Immigrants are likely to identify with the attributes of the destination polity (why go there in the first place?) thus making political externalities a matter of less concern.

b) Crime and other undesirable outcomes

It is quite clear that the rate of crime in the immediate aftermath of apartheid was historically high by South African standards (though important to point out that crime began rising in the 1980s). Since the crime trend line became steeper in the early to mid 1990s, it becomes tempting to conclude that the “new comers” brought the crime along with them. If this conclusion is true, then the implication is not that the new comers should not have come in the first place but that background checks were never performed on the new comers to isolate those who had a criminal record and/or were likely to perform crimes in the future. (Note that it was probably impossible to perform such checks in South Africa’s unique case without upsetting an already delicate situation). It is not clear, for instance, why the US or any other country that opens up its borders cannot perform such checks. Perhaps a policy of sudden open borders (such as happened in South Africa with an incoming population many multiples that of the home population) might place strains on the verification process. In which case a policy of gradual open borders with some learning happening along the way  might be more optimal if the concerns around crime and other undesirable elements are important.


South Africa’s experience transitioning to democracy after apartheid holds some valuable lessons for the open borders discussion. I think using South Africa to completely write-off open borders is not the right lesson to draw from this story.



* The discrepancy is probably explained by the fact that GDP per capita is  sensitive to outliers (a possibility given South Africa’s high income inequality) whereas the household income data is in natural logarithms to avoid the problem of outliers.

** South Africa is officially divided into four racial groups: blacks, whites, coloreds (people of mixed-race) and asians.



Moral Intuition, Open Borders, and the Euvoluntary Principle

This is a guest post by Sam Wilson, who writes for the Euvoluntary Exchange blog. His immigration posts can be found here. Sam Wilson also wrote a guest post for EconLog containing an empirical analysis of the political externalities of immigration to the United States.

I’d like to first thank Vipul Naik for offering me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts here. I am a proponent of free migration for all and I agree that border restrictions are among the most severe barriers to
prosperity facing humanity. Freedom of movement is both a matter of basic human dignity and a necessary check on the bloodlust of tyrants. Open borders advocates support the primary cornerstone of liberty: self-determination. I am proud to count myself among their number.

At the blog I regularly write for, Euvoluntary Exchange, we spill quite a bit of digital ink investigating the intersection of everyday morality and market exchange. Needless to say, this can cover a lot of ground. Morality suffuses the whole of humanity, and the exchange relation elevates our species from scattered clusters of extended family bands to complex societies where stranger can live alongside stranger in peace and prosperity. The overarching puzzle for a euvoluntaryist like me is to identify instances where moral intuition leads ordinary people into supporting policies that undermine or thwart others’ natural propensity to truck, barter, and exchange. Deontological concerns conflict with consequential outcomes, and part of the euvoluntary project is to catalog and describe these conflicts in the hopes that we can help people to see how a quotidian morality can be antithetical to the human endeavor of peaceful cooperation.  Here are some of my previous thoughts on how euvoluntary exchange relates to the issues of immigration.

Keyhole solutions are the topic for today. Naik described three options:

  1. Open borders without keyhole solution A.
  2. Open borders with keyhole solution A.
  3. Closed borders and/or status quo.

From these three primary positions, we can map six sets of rank-ordered preferences:

  1. (1)>(2)>(3)     open borders → keyhole → status quo
  2. (1)>(3)>(2)     open borders → status quo → keyhole
  3. (2)>(1)>(3)     keyhole → open borders → status quo
  4. (2)>(3)>(1)     keyhole → status quo → open borders
  5. (3)>(1)>(2)     status quo → open borders → keyhole
  6. (3)>(2)>(1)     status quo → keyhole → open borders

Naik provided an excellent descriptive analysis of each of these rank orderings, including examples where examples were to be found. I’d like to extend this a bit to plumb the moral intuitions underpinning (4)-(9).

Effective advocacy must be predicated on mutual understanding. What moral principles do open borders advocates share with the median voter? How are open border policies consistent with these moral principles? How can we prompt people to closely examine their positions in light of commonly-held moral principles? How shall we coordinate a consistent message?

Let’s start by parsing anti-foreigner bias. Documentarian Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) has a show called 30 Days where regular folks do something unpleasant for a month to see if they change their mind at the end of the treatment. Episode 201, “Immigration” put a gentleman who was a strong (9) in a household of undocumented workers. By the time he was done, he was either a weak (9) or maybe a (7). Why the change of heart? Judging by his comments, I think it was a confluence of at least two factors: (A) legislative bias and (B) construal-level error. Legislative bias economizes on scarce attention: elected representatives are the presumptive experts in policy formation, so if a “law” is on the books, it (presumptively, of course) represents careful deliberation and is quasi-panglossian. Furthermore, the experiences of foreigners are processed in far mode, highly abstract, liberated from concerns of detail. It’s fairly easy to see how this confluence of cognitive shortcuts can contribute to support for the status quo. Note that this result is robust even in the absence of aesthetic objections to immigration. You don’t have to be a nationalist to trust your politicians and to glaze over the challenges of living in poverty.

I suspect that aesthetic objections define the boundary between short- and long-term coalition possibilities. Convincing (5)s or (8)s of accepting keyhole solutions as a morally acceptable improvement seems straightforward: the immense inequality imposed by strict immigration restrictions swamps the inequality that would arise from red card solutions and the regulatory apparatus needed to administer keyhole solutions will likely be less onerous than attempting to patrol expansive geographical borders. These are folks for whom the barriers to changing immigration policy are technical matters: how will the welfare state accommodate an influx of newcomers? How will the political and bureaucratic process manage the administration of the keyhole solution? I am inclined to dismiss the ethical objections grounded in claims of potential exploitation because of reasons examined in great detail at my home blog: any potential exploitation introduced by a keyhole solution will enter immigrants’ decision calculus; those that still elect to come do so with the understanding that life after migration beats their alternatives at home. Nobody is being tricked here. If they choose to come, it’s because it beats the alternative. Forcing someone to accept a relatively worse alternative to satisfy a sense of moral smugness is immoral.

But how should an open borders advocate negotiate with both the keyhole-averse and the keyhole-first people? (7)s and (5)s appear to have mutually exclusive moralities: one is so against paying for social services for immigrants they’re willing to consign peaceful people to lives of poverty, the other so adamantly against re-crafting second class citizenry that they’re willing to do the same. Deontology triumphs over consequences yet again. I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to this dilemma. At home, we in the euvoluntary crew make our bones by showcasing the monstrous consequences of interventions and hope that our arguments are sufficiently convincing. For grown adults with myelated frontal cortices, I worry that it isn’t, but I don’t know for sure what else to do. Suggestions are welcome.

A related, minor point concerns disingenuousness. (8)s and (9)s may claim to be (6)s or (7)s in the abstract, but if it looks like the status quo is actually under threat, they may revert to near-mode objections to immigration. This is a perpetual challenge to anyone attempting to overcome atavistic biases. There’s some literature on truth-revealing institutions, but these are typically used to solve local, small-scale public-goods provision problems. Raising exit costs ex ante will do little but ensure a coalition never forms in the first place, particularly since the narrowly self-interested people (the immigrants themselves) are expressly disenfranchised. Dishonesty is an existential risk. Account for it. Lame advice? Perhaps. I’m not sure what else to say though.

Some objections to immigration are taste-based. Aesthetic arguments are generally more immune to reasoned debate. You can’t just tell George Bush about the health benefits of broccoli and expect him to overcome his atavistic childhood revulsion. No, he just hates broccoli and he won’t eat it, and that’s that. Even the most brilliant elocutionist is going to have a hard time changing an individual’s values. It might be possible to form a coalition with folks naturally amenable to welcoming immigrants, but the enduring challenge is to build a larger constituency over the long run. Think of this as a plank in the larger platform of the liberty movement. The heavy lifting is to convince people that plebeian dignity is a worthwhile goal, that self-determination is the birthright of all people. If we can figure out how to do this, concerns about faction alignment will be trivial.

As for specific advice on how to swell the ranks of folks who appreciate the dignity of the fourth estate? I’m no marketing expert, but consistency, professionalism, and integrity have served me well in the past. Many people seem to be averse to monstrous outcomes, so a touch of consequentialist reasoning probably isn’t out of order. Discerning and redirecting deontological objections is probably important too. I find it encouraging that blatant racism has become unpopular in the US; if the same can be done with nationalism, that might be a step towards a more universal equality of opportunity. I welcome ideas about how to do this. More importantly, we should be diligent about how we raise our children. Part of the Socialist Party’s Fabian strategy was (is?) to pre-empt public education. Guiding the mind of the future median voter may be a matter of hoisting the yoke of state-approved education. Like all good economists, we know to set marginal cost to expected marginal benefit. It seems to me that we’ll be able to get more bang for our buck by sharing classical liberal values with folks who aren’t already set in their ways.

Introducing Grieve Chelwa

We’re happy to announce that Grieve Chelwa will be joining Open Borders as an occasional blogger. Grieve Chelwa is currently a PhD student in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Grieve has worked and lived in 5 African countries, in four of those as an immigrant. He is originally from Zambia.

Grieve believes strongly in the ability of open borders to transform lives just as his eventual immigration to South Africa transformed his. Grieve’s posts for Open Borders will focus on writing about immigration from a non-US perspective.

Citizenism and open borders

This is a guest post by Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Huemer’s webpage is here. His paper Is There A Right To Immigrate? has been referenced at many places on the Open Borders site, particularly on the starving Marvin page. Huemer’s most recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, argues against political authority and for the proposition that anarcho-capitalism is a superior and feasible alternative to the status quo of nation-states. It received a rave review from fellow anarcho-capitalist and open borders advocate Bryan Caplan.


Vipul Naik invited me to contribute a post, and he suggested (among other possible topics) addressing the citizenist argument against open borders. As most readers probably know, this argument claims that the state is justified in closing its borders to foreigners because the state has special duties to promote the interests of its own current citizens, duties that it does not owe toward anyone who is not presently a citizen.

This citizenist argument has three main problems. First, it’s unclear why we should think the government has these special duties. Second, even if the government has special duties to its citizens, the citizenist argument requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Third, even if we ignore the previous two problems, the citizenist argument doesn’t work because one’s having special duties toward certain people does not make it permissible to violate the rights of other people.

I. Does the State Have a Duty to Benefit Citizens?

To begin with, then, why do citizenists believe that the government has special duties to its current citizens? Some just assert this without argument (see, e.g., Steve Sailer). Others appeal to the social contract theory (see, e.g., Sonic Charmer): maybe the social contract requires the government to serve the interests of its own citizens.

Sonic Charmer also pointed out the most obvious problem with this argument (though it doesn’t stop Sonic from embracing the argument anyway):

[A]ll Smart People think the ‘social contract’ is nonsense and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone with a brain believing in it. The whole idea that the basis and legitimacy of a government comes from anything resembling a ‘social contract’ is totally out of favor, and indeed is considered to have been long ago fully and definitively discredited by (whoever … some professor I think).

I could not have said it better. I know of no living person who works on political authority and thinks that we actually have a valid social contract. And I say that after having just written a book on political authority that contains 359 references.

Very briefly, contracts, in any other context, satisfy at least the following four principles: (i) all parties to a contract must have a reasonable way of opting out (without being forced to give up things of great value that belong to them), (ii) explicit, up front statements of non-agreement should generally be recognized as a way of not accepting a contract, (iii) an action cannot be interpreted as signaling agreement, if the terms of the contract would have been imposed on the agent regardless of whether they performed that action or not, and (iv) contracts generally require both parties to undertake enforceable obligations to each other, and if one party repudiates or simply fails to uphold its obligations under the contract, the other party is no longer bound to hold up their end either. The “social contract” violates all of these principles, and blatantly so. This is discussed at length in my recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, chapter 2. This is why I say that the “social contract” bears no resemblance to real contracts, as understood in any other context. If you took someone to court for an alleged “breach of contract”, no court in the world would recognize a claim of contractual obligation if you had nothing better than the sort of arguments that social contract theorists have relied upon.

But let’s say you don’t care what those annoying egghead intellectuals say. They’re always trying to convince us of ridiculous things, like that the Earth is round and that we came from monkeys. There’s a social contract, arguments to the contrary be damned! Okay, but what does the contract require? Here are two views: Continue reading Citizenism and open borders


A bemused Facebook post from Jose Antonio Vargas:


I’ve been thinking numbers since I read about the White House’s immigration plan.

So 8 years? Why not 10? Why not 7? Why not 5?

I grew up with the DREAM Act, when the age limit (per House and Senate versions) were 21, then 25, then 29, then 30, then 35, back to 30.


This should make people uneasy. These numbers have huge effects on people’s lives, yet they’re basically picked out of thin air. How can we avoid this kind of arbitrariness? By going back to first principles, and figuring out what, after all, justice demands.