Open borders and the impending apocalypse

A common approach rebutting open borders is to argue that the costs of liberal immigration policies outweigh the benefits to humanity. I’ve never actually seen this belief explicitly expressed in a universalist manner — the argument is usually focused on how immigration will destroy the wealthy economies and liberal societies of the world. But I think this argument is a serious one, and I give it serious credit.

This does not always seem to be the case; one may sometimes feel that open borders advocates are a tad glib in dismissing concerns that open borders might “kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” To be blunt, this is because there is no empirical evidence supporting this claim.ChineseExclusionActHandbill[1]

If we look at the past, the same concerns people have today about Latin American, African, Arab, or South Asian immigrants used to be directed at East Asian, Southern European, and Eastern European immigrants. The same people today who vocally embrace “high-IQ” or “high-skilled” immigration of Jews, Europeans, and East Asians, would find that these very same groups of people used to be the “low-IQ” and “low-skilled” immigrants who were not so long ago literally treated as vermin in their countries. Fears that the unintelligent, criminal, brute Catholic Irishman or Italian, or the conniving and unintelligent Jew, might ruin civilisation turned out to be unfounded.

If current levels of immigration were a harbinger of impending doom, it would be quite easy to prove this. It’s fairly easy to point to anecdotes — but surely laying one’s finger on the data would be easy too. You’d show skyrocketing rates of crime, environmental collapse, or economic depression and clearly link them to immigration in some fashion. Yet no credible academic study I’m aware of has been able to do this. Restrictionist memes blame immigrants for the impending collapse of civilisation in Western Europe or California, yet the actual academic backing for these views is hard to find.

It’s surely not because academics are afraid of voicing politically incorrect views. A vast conspiracy of intellectuals to open the borders and silence such a devastating finding would be quite difficult to keep secret. And yes, one can find credible empiricists skeptical of immigration. Yet the most famous academics whose works actually credibly show negative impacts from immigration — George Borjas and Robert Putnam — both do nothing but disappoint.

Borjas finds that immigration to the US slightly reduces the incomes of the poorest American citizens — something that could easily be addressed through keyhole solutions which redistribute some of the gains from migration to poor natives. Putnam finds that social diversity reduces a theoretical measure of “social capital“, but even his credible result has been challenging for other researchers to replicate. If this is the worst we have to fear from immigration, I say bring it on.

The truth is, we don’t know very well what a world with open borders would look like. We know it would double world GDP — studies of the effects of  greater immigration on world GDP are remarkably consistent in predicting a massive boost to world income, regardless of their theoretical specifications or empirical approach. But given that far too few academics are seriously studying the impacts of immigration in an empirical fashion, we don’t have enough data to say with certainty that much of what we currently know to be true about immigration would still hold true in a world with massively looser immigration policies than today’s. We couldn’t guarantee that immigration would continue to be more or less neutral with respect to native incomes, and have a neutral to positive impact on crime.

But the precautionary principle only militates against immediate open borders. There is nothing stopping us from experimenting with a little more immigration. As the world’s population grows, as humanity grows richer, it makes absolutely no sense that our visa policies are held hostage by the immigration quotas of decades ago.

Open borders advocates actually aren’t asking for much. We simply believe in making the presumption that all who seek to move may do so — a presumption that can be overriden by a clear and pressing need, such as, say, the actual risk that your civilisation might collapse if you don’t shoot the next prospective immigrant in the face. As philosopher Phillip Cole puts it:

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality.

I and I think other open borders advocates take concerns about global catastrophe quite seriously. Given that we typically come from universalist and sometimes even nationalist or citizenist moral starting points, we have every reason to be concerned that open borders might mean the end of the world as we know it, in a horrible way. But search the evidence, and you find no actual reason to be concerned about current immigration levels, and every reason to believe that open borders would immensely benefit us all. Even if you don’t find the evidence sufficiently compelling to tear down the border checkpoints right this moment, it’s compelling enough to demand more thorough research and compelling enough to demand experimentation with ever more liberal immigration policies.

How arbitrary red tape changed someone’s life

On Quora, someone has asked how getting a green card changed people’s lives. There is one response explaining how getting an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) changed his (or her) life:

This is more about how the EAD and AC-21 changed my life.

I moved to the US on an L1-B work visa to work for a major tech firm. I got lowballed on the pay and didn’t realize that till I got here. I couldn’t switch jobs on an L1-B because it is tied to the company you work for unlike an H1-B that can be transferred. The H1-B quotas were filling up within a few days of being open back then. The company filed for my GC in the EB-3 category for which the wait times were estimated at around 15 years (EB-3 NOT rest of world). The company was in constant threat of going out of business or getting bought out. Layoffs happened every few months. I decided to go back to school to get a Masters degree. After getting acceptance letters I learnt that I wasn’t eligible for a student visa because I had applied for the green card. To get a student visa I had to prove no intent to immigrate but I had proven the opposite by filing for the green card.

In July 2007, for some reason all the priority dates became current for a brief instant. This allowed me to get an EAD. With the EAD and using the AC-21 rule I switched jobs to a similar role at another company. For the new job I had been able to negotiate the type of work and the salary. I knew that I didn’t want to go to another company and remain in the EB-3  queue for 15 years. So I had waited till I had 5 years of work experience before switching jobs. The new company filed for my GC, this time in the EB-2 category. I got my GC 2 years later. Freedom.

I think the biggest advantage of the GC is the peace of mind it gives you. You can work in any role without having to worry about being forced to leave the country if things don’t work out.

The absurdity of immigration rules is something I keep pounding on because for most of us, the government is at worst an annoyance. It’s a pain to pay taxes, waste of time to go to the DMV, and torture to face a tax audit. But for most of us, we don’t live in mortal fear of government tearing apart our family, kicking us out of our home, or sacking us from our job because of a simple mistake. It’s only immigrants, and those who wish to immigrate, that put up with this.

Absurdity? Let me count the ways:

  1. L1B visas bring professional, skilled workers to the US, but force them to work for only one company
  2. To call converting this to an H1B “difficult” would be an understatement
  3. In any case, H1B quotas were literally filled within days of the government opening room to apply
  4. Applying for a green card meant a wait time of 15 years
  5. Converting the L1B to a student visa was impossible because applying for a green card makes you ineligible
  6. For reasons totally unknown (possibly a government mistake), this person was suddenly able to convert their L1B to an H1B, get a new job, and get a green card

The author speaks of the “peace of mind” having a green card gives you. My aunt has been a US citizen for going on 2 decades, and today she still speaks of the fear of having her green card taken away before she became a citizen. No citizen would let their government psychologically and emotionally scar them the way we let governments abuse immigrants.

Arbitrary government decisions literally make or break people’s lives, and to what end? How do any of the absurdities laid out above make life better for the typical US citizen? How are these benefits to citizens in any sense proportional to the harm they do to the thousands of people already in the US seeking to migrate legally, or to the millions more who would love to just get into the US?

Any large bureaucracy has collateral damage. I work for a large bank, I know this from experience. But if we held immigration regimes of the world to half the bar the US government holds its banks to (and the US is not known for its strict financial regulatory regime), we would find that few, if any, immigrant bureaucracies pass. As a banker, I would be ashamed to show the above process to a regulator and tell them that is how my company treats our customers’ loans or savings. Why should immigration bureaucrats and legislators get a free pass for playing Kafkaeseque games with people’s jobs and families?

The government form depicted at the top of this post is a fictitious Czech form, created by Petr Novák and available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: Intro

As Vipul Naik has recently commented on, I am going to be starting a new series of posts here on  Open Borders. The goal of this series will be to examine how border restrictions have changed and what arguments were used to justify the new rules. Border restrictions of various sorts do have long histories, but why does a more open system tend to close up or a closed system become more open? How do the arguments made in the past compare to modern immigration arguments? Did those arguments hold up given the information available at the time? Do they hold up better or worse knowing what we know now? And in cases where dire predictions for or against immigration restrictions were made, how well did those predictions hold up?

This discussion can help move discussion away from a status quo bias. All else being equal, people tend to prefer the status quo to a change. This is very often a good thing. Indeed, the precautionary principle would indicate that the burden of proof should lie with new policies that they are not harmful. As an example, if you don’t know whether doing exploding a bomb will blow up the planet, but you think it might, then the safe action to take would be avoid blowing up that bomb. However, this principle holds less weight when the reason a status quo is in place to begin with is because of faulty reasoning and that status quo causes great harm itself. We have lots of examples on this site of how current policy creates lots of harm for the world be preventing what we could otherwise achieve or maintaining a status quo that isn’t working for hundreds of millions, but were there good reasons to put the restrictions in place to begin with? Did periods of greater immigration cause serious problems avoided by restriction? And have immigration systems been set up well given the concerns which motivated their creation? Here’s where historical examination and this series of posts in particular come in. I’ll be looking at the arguments used at the time and try to determine which made sense, which were over blown, and which were complete rubbish. Historically, all sides in immigration discussions have made mistakes, screwed up predictions, or even stated outright lies. Such is the nature of politics. But has one side or the other tended to be closer to the truth? If so, shouldn’t we be more suspicious of arguments from the opposite corner? If not, then at least we gain perspective that arguments for and against immigration have been equally bad and that the current status quo (whether one thinks too many or too few immigrants are allowed in) was established with shaky reasoning.

In any event, I hope to cover topics I already know some about such as the closing of the US border, Roman and early feudal restrictions, the end of passportless borders in Europe during World War 1, the partial re-opening of the US border starting in 1965, and the establishment of the open border Schnegen Area in Europe. If any of you readers have suggestions for other examples for me to look into please leave them in the comments and I’ll see what I can dig up! The first real post in this series will deal with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and when that goes up I’ll give a link in this post as well. Given that this kind of project takes quite a bit of time and that I am trying to keep sources mostly limited to data available online and in English (an unfortunate restriction but one that helps keep the conversation accessible to as many readers as possible), I’m always open to sources you all find! For the upcoming post the major sources I intend to use can all be found under the primary and secondary source sections of this page. So if there’s a decent source (whether primary or secondary…I figure my need for tertiary sources is probably met in most cases by Wikipedia), let me know in the comments.

Bleg: research on the effects of open borders beyond the labor market

The double world GDP literature cited in Clemens’ paper (and also John Kennan’s paper) provides estimates of how free global labor mobility would affect world GDP, mainly through their effects on the labor market (though other channels of effect are also considered in these papers, albeit perhaps not as much as they should be). But I don’t know of any literature about the effect that open borders might have on crime (something I speculated about here), global IQ (something I asked Bryan Caplan to bleg), and global politics (whether through political externalities in the receiving countries or a changed political landscape in the immigrant-sending countries). Speculation about the effects on the dating and mating markets and the genetic composition of future generations might also be quite valuable (see for instance Erik’s comment).

If a serious case is to be made for open borders, and if serious efforts are to be made to move towards open borders with appropriately designed keyhole solutions, it is essential to understand, envisage and prepare for a range of scenarios regarding these questions.

So, I’m blegging for the answers to two questions:

  1. If you’re aware of any literature that considers counterfactual scenarios of radically more open borders, whether locally (for specific country pairs) or globally, but that goes beyond simply measuring the effects on the labor market, please pass it on in the comments.
  2. Assuming that I am correct about the paucity of such research, though, why is there so little research on these topics, even compared to economics research on the effects of open borders? Two hypotheses have been suggested to me:
    • Nathan Smith’s view: Various frameworks in economics, such as rationality, allow for the consideration of radical counterfactual scenarios in a manner that is not necessarily realistic but still bears some semblance of objectivity and offers some type of ballpark. No similar widely-agreed-upon first-pass framework exists in other disciplines.
    • Bryan Caplan’s view: Economics manages to attract a few people who are genuinely curious and adventurous and willing to consider radical alternative scenarios and perform a serious analysis of these scenarios. Other disciplines may not attract such people.

    Any alternative hypotheses would also be welcome.