A case for open borders that is radically agnostic about migrant count

In a previous post, I considered the considerable divergence, even among open borders advocates, about the raw count and selectivity of migrants under open borders. I argued that it is important to get more clarity on these questions, including understanding the source of disagreement and how different views regarding these can affect the other estimates (including economic growth estimates) related to open borders.

In this post, I attempt to sketch several arguments that could form building blocks of a case for open borders that is radically agnostic about how many people would move.

The right to migrate argument

This argument states, simply, that people have a right to migrate. Denial of this right is immoral. How many people would end up choosing to exercise that right is not of direct relevance. Migration restrictions are immoral because they prevent a large number of people who are in a position where they may wish to exercise the right from doing so. The human capabilities case for open borders is somewhat similar.

The lower bound argument

This argument states that even the lowest possible estimate of how many people would actually move under open borders (perhaps such estimates can be obtained by looking at the number of people who have moved under relatively modest migration liberalization regimes) is high enough to make open borders worthwhile. Whether we are talking of 10 million people over a decade or 200 million people over 2-3 years, open borders would have huge impact.

The “it anyway won’t happen immediately” argument

This argument views open borders as a goal we should set our sights on as we gradually work towards it. Thus, determining the numbers of people who’d migrate under complete open borders is at best an illuminative theoretical exercise and at worst a distraction from the more important goal of seeking marginal change that is far better understood. Some proponents of this argument many view open borders advocacy as a means for shifting the Overton window in a manner that makes immigration liberalization appear to be a more “moderate” position.

The “market forces will prevent swamping” argument

One of the concerns that critics of open borders have is that under open borders, countries (mostly rich countries) that are attractive targets for immigrants will get swamped with large numbers of migrants. This is part of the motivation behind the desire to estimate how many would move under open borders. Some open borders advocates believe that market forces, loosely defined, will take care of this concern. If too many immigrants are moving into the area, rents and other prices will rise and wages will fall to the level that it is no longer attractive to move to the destination. Other non-pecuniary negative feedback loops may also counter the swamping threat. Many people use phrases like “migration flows tend to be self-regulating” to describe this perceived phenomenon.

The “however much it takes to attain labor market convergence” argument

This argument states that migration will continue until there is (upward) labor market convergence between the sending and receiving countries. Convergence may not be complete, but may stop when the place premium between the two countries is a factor of 1.5 or less (i.e., there is only a ~50% wage gain from migrating). The point here is that we don’t know for sure how many people would need to move in order for this convergence to occur, because of countervailing factors: governments may begin instituting economic reforms once people start leaving en masse, emigrants may return to the country to set up new factories and business connected with other countries, etc. Or, this may not happen. Uncertainty about how things play out result in considerable agnosticism about the number of people who move, but relatively more certainty about the nature and desirability of the eventual outcome for humanity.

How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Editorial note, added December 26, 2014: Welcome, Hacker News readers! This website is devoted to discussing the case for open borders, including the moral arguments for it and the practical question of how to get there. To address concerns surrounding migration liberalization, we suggest keyhole soutions and slippery slopes to it. For more about the site, you might want to read our site FAQ. Another post that you might find particularly relevant is Nathan Smith’s post on Mark Zuckerberg and FWD.us.

One puzzling thing I notice about debating immigration is how certain people often are that strictly restricting immigration is the right policy. Almost any person, when prompted, can articulate almost immediately a tonne of reasons why restricting immigration makes sense:

  • National governments have carte blanche to exclude any foreigner from their territory as matter of moral right
  • Open borders would let terrorists into our country
  • Open borders would let foreigners steal jobs from our people
  • Open borders would allow a foreign people to invade and steal our country from us
  • Permitting immigration imposes foreign cultures on our people
  • Immigrants will abuse our welfare system
  • Immigrants will undermine our institutions and replace them with their inferior ones
  • Liberalising immigration won’t really help poor foreigners anyway
  • Too many immigrants will swamp our territory or society to the point that it cannot function any longer
  • Letting in low-IQ/-skilled immigrants harms our economy or polity

But for some reason, the same people eager to expound on the litany of catastrophic harms that would no doubt ensue under open borders are rarely able to cite any sort of academic literature that backs them up. Their best retort, in terms of academic prestige, is George Borjas’s work on immigration’s impact on American wages, and maybe Robert Putnam’s work suggesting that diversity reduces some theoretical measure of “social capital”. You can’t find any empirical estimates that seriously support the above hypotheses — at least not to the degree that has people so certain the only right immigration policy is building a better and higher prison wall.

Now, if you turn the above propositions around, on all of them, we are either certain that open borders is immensely beneficial, or we’re just unsure. We know for a fact that liberalising immigration immensely helps the poorest human beings alive. Hardly any serious restrictionist disputes this; the only ones I’ve encountered who do are basing their certainty on foundations of sand: the most memorable example was a person who suggested that estimates of the place premium are wrong, because when you adjust for purchasing power parity, people in poor countries have better living standards than people in the US — such an economically-illiterate claim that it doesn’t even merit a rebuttal here. Most restrictionists are happy to concede that immigrants are made better off — they just believe that the act of immigrating makes natives dramatically worse off.

But the propositions to do with crime and “job theft” are our runners up for certainty: in the empirical literature, it’s difficult to find any serious social scientist who believes immigration increases crime rates, especially in a significant manner. And among economists, Borjas alone sticks out like a sore thumb for producing estimates showing dramatic depression of native wages (“dramatic” being a short-run reduction of a few percentage points). If there are any serious peer-reviewed, published analyses showing immigration leads to a significant spike in crime, or any landmark studies besides Borjas’s contradicting the economic consensus, I’d love to see them, because they seem to have slipped the minds of the restrictionists I’ve met so far.

Still, for virtually all the other propositions above, the evidence is either limited, decidedly mixed, or both. The long-run institutional, political, and societal effects of immigration have not been thoroughly studied in an empirical manner. But assuming we place the most weight on these outcomes (and ignore the other findings on the economics and crime of immigration), this means we ought to be cautiously uncertain about what the right immigration policy is. It means that even if we favour restrictionist policies, we do so with great uncertainty.

Yet the spectre of open borders seems to produce a stout certainty on the part of many people, who even if they aren’t dedicated restrictionists, seem quite convinced that the status quo or something close to it is certainly the right and best policy, given what we know now. There is strong certainty that a more liberal immigration policy of any kind would be a horrible idea. Yet engaging with these pro-status quo or even pro-closed borders assertions, one finds them disappointingly devoid of empirical backing.

The best ace the restrictionists have in their back pocket is the nuanced argument that reducing the proportion of high-IQ people in an economy below a certain percentage, or raising the proportion of low-IQ people in an economy above a certain percentage, would lead to a slowdown in innovation or corrosion of successful institutions. But even this claim is problematic, since it is difficult to tell how far IQ and economic growth and innovation are causally linked. And if having low-IQ immigrants is so devastating, this effect should surely be easy to demonstrate through meaningful measures of harm: slower economic growth rates, fewer number of patents filed per capita, higher crime rate. If we can’t observe these harms at existing levels of immigration — and, it bears repeating, the overwhelming majority of the empirical literature cannot find any such meaningful harms — then right now we are simply worrying about IQ for the sake of worrying about IQ.

If this whole post seems wishy-washy, since I’m essentially conceding that we are uncertain about the effect of open borders on quite a few dimensions, you’re partly right. But it’s more accurate to say that we are just as equally quite uncertain about the impact of closed borders, and to the extent we know anything with certainty, it’s how devastating they are. We can’t even rule out that closed borders are incredibly harmful to us on a number of dimensions (a straightforward reading of the empirical literature suggests that if you want to cut crime rates, you should subsidise immigration). Worse still, given the consistency of the literature regarding the impact of closed borders on the world economy and global poverty, we are absolutely certain that closed borders keep millions of people in poverty of the worst kind. We know that on average, the effect of closed borders halves the world economy.

Even if you think that the status quo of closed borders is right, it is worrying how uncertain we are about this conclusion. In many cases, the issues at hand simply haven’t been studied enough, and we know virtually nothing (we certainly don’t know enough to support most common restrictionist assertions about immigration). We do know the incredible destruction that closed borders wreaks on the world economy and the people of the world, to the tune of halving world GDP and keeping millions in poverty. We ought to have our top men and women working on figuring out whether we can crack the borders open at all. The fact that we don’t means we are simply irrationally certain that closed borders is the right answer. And that irrationality strikes me as best summed up in this 1881 cartoon, depicting Irish immigrants to the US — men and women bringing terrorism, crime, and corrupt institutions to American shores, people whose only contribution was adding themselves to the welfare rolls:

Editorial note: If you’re interested in discussing the many issues related to open borders, check out the Open Borders Action Group on Facebbook.

Is corruption on the part of consular officials good or bad?

John Lee’s post on US visa policy is, for me, a reminder of how important it is for people to have rights. Rights can sound like an abstruse or arbitrary notion. “Natural rights” sounds like a ghost from the 18th century suddenly walking the earth again. “Human rights” sounds like newfangled UN-speak. But when a person is denied a visa for refusing to laugh at a consular officer’s joke, one feels a certain indignation, a certain repugnance, as if an injury has been done to something rather ineffable but very important. It is not proportional, not fitting, unjust. It is somehow intolerable. The ineffable something that has been injured is human dignity, or in other words, human rights. Rights are the only antidote to arbitrariness and discretion.

Anyway, one of the odd side-effects of an improperly discretionary regime that doesn’t give due respect to human rights, is that corruption can suddenly seem like rather a good thing. Which of the following is more offensive?

1. A visa applicant is rejected for not laughing at a consular official’s joke.

2. A visa applicant is rejected for refusing to pay a $5,000 bribe.

My intuition actually sort of tilts towards (1) being more offensive. I’m very tentative on this point. But at least in case (2), the applicant knows the process. He has more of a sense of being the author of his own life story, of having a say, of knowing the criteria, of being able to plan.

Of course, if I put on my “economist” hat, a very simple analysis suggests itself. If a visa applicant spends his time kissing up to a consular official by researching him and learning what, e.g., laughing at his jokes, puts him in a good mood, resources have been wasted. Perhaps the consular official likes being flattered, but probably he doesn’t value it much, and surely less than the effort to do it is worth. By contrast, if the applicant pays the consular official a $5,000 bribe, both parties clearly benefit. The consular official is $5,000 richer, and the visa applicant apparently values the visa more than his $5,000, or he wouldn’t have paid. Of course, the US public, of which the consular official is supposed to act as a representative, might be deemed to suffer by the decision. But whatever the US public’s stake in immigration may be, it can hardly be claimed that the willingness of visa applicants to laugh at consular officials’ jokes has anything to do with the interests of the US public. So if the consular official is given such discretion that he is entitled to accept or reject visa applicants based on whether they laugh at his jokes or not, then he can’t be injuring the US public by exercising the discretion that has been allotted to him in a fashion that enriches him personally. Efficiency is therefore served by consular corruption.

Now, what this leaves out is truth. I presume that consular officials who reject applicants based on an applicant’s not laughing at their jokes are not deemed to have done anything dishonest or illegal, but that consular officials are explicitly forbidden to take bribes. How does that consideration weigh against the greater efficiency of consular corruption?

One goal of my DRITI proposal is to remove such dilemmas by removing consular discretion. Only when the state seeks to discern and protect individual rights can true rule of law exist.

Did Open Borders Change the Course of World History?

Allow me to make the following counterfactual: Suppose all immigration of Germans to America had been blocked from the start. Restrictionists would have had lots of arguments on their side: Germany was a hotbed of various collectivist ideologies that were inimical to American liberty: rabid Nationalism, Antisemitism, Communism, and National Socialism. IQ of German Americans is at best average. German immigrants only slowly assimilated and kept speaking German. And then alien habits like minors can drink beer. Etc.

Now let’s go back to 1940.

The US had a population of 132 million, Germany including Austria, Greater Germany, had a population of 79 million. So the US had a population 67% larger than that of Greater Germany.

Today about 17% of Americans claim German ancestry. Since there was only low immigration of Germans after World War II compared to other groups, the fraction should have been even higher in 1940. Assuming a quarter of US population in 1940 was of German descent, US population in the counterfactual would go down by 33 million to 99 million. Add the 33 million to the German population and you get 112 million. So now Greater Germany is 12% more populous than the US. The effect would have been like another major power of 66 million had entered the war on the side of the Axis.

And it gets worse: Forget about General Eisenhower, and get used to Generalfeldmarschall Eisenhauer. Same for Chester Nimitz for the Navy (now: Generaladmiral Nimitz) and Carl Andrew Spaatz for the Air Force (now: Generalfeldmarschall Karl Andreas Spatz). And more as a footnote: also no William Patrick Hitler receiving a Purple Heart for his service in the US Navy.

I will not expand on the counterfactual and make a claim that the Axis powers would have won the war. But then I am not sure I could argue the opposite. In a world of completely closed borders for citizens of Germany, Italy, and Japan, you would have to repatriate also millions of German emigrants and their descendents from the British Empire and another big chunk of the US population for Italian Americans.

How well did restrictionist predictions stand up in the real world? Letting a fifth column onto your soil could have disastrous consequences. Plenty of danger for the US, right?

Not really. Incidents of treason and disloyality were few and far between. The “Christmas Declaration by men and women of German ancestry” was more representative, signed among others by Babe Ruth:

“[W]e Americans of German descent raise our voices in denunciation of the Hitler policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe and against the barbarities committed by the Nazis against all other innocent peoples under their sway. These horrors … are, in particular, a challenge to those who, like ourselves are descendants of the Germany that once stood in the foremost ranks of civilization. … [We] utterly repudiate every thought and deed of Hitler and his Nazis … [and urge Germany] to overthrow a regime which is in the infamy of German history.

Moral: You can look on immigrants as people who perhaps keep some allegiance to their old country and its culture. If that culture is thorougly collectivist as it was in Germany in 1940, that does not look good. Assimilation may be slow and incomplete.

However, that is looking on things only from the limited perspective of one country. If you look on them at a global scale, the effect is different. Even incomplete assimilation means having more people who are less committed to their previous views, and even some (and in the case of German Americans many) who are completely out of reach for collectivism. Open borders undermines collectivism.

So if you are concerned about liberty in the world long-term, you would want to have as many people as possible who are not stuck in collectivist societies and can be indoctrinated by totalitarian governments, and as many as possible who are exposed to liberty and have a chance to change their minds in an open society.

Good luck for the world that liberty went along with open borders for a long time.

The photograph of then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers on the eve of D-Day, 1944 featured in the header is available at the Library of Congress.

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