Open borders and liberal interventionism

The Syria crisis was an expose of US war-weariness, weakness of will, and indecision, as Timothy Garton Ash, among many others, recently observed. The contrast between the US in 2003, when a large majority of the American public favored the liberation of Iraq, and the US in 2013, when…

Every one of the countless members of Congress I’ve seen interviewed on cable television news has acknowledged this, be they Republican or Democrat, for or against striking Syria. Only “three or four” of at least a thousand constituents he’s talked to favour military action, reports Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and Obama supporter. Senator Rand (son of Ron) Paul, a rising star of the Republican party, says his phone calls are “100 to 1” against war.

… is remarkable, particularly considering that the administration’s proposed action in Syria, though vague, appeared to be much more limited, and motivated as an immediate reaction to a chemical-weapons atrocity. Of course, one can’t necessarily read the difference in public opinion as a barometer of where Americans stand on the “isolationism” vs. interventionism spectrum. I supported the Iraq war in 2003, though I foresaw it would lead to a bloody mess, because even anarchy is better than totalitarianism, and I have never repented of it. The closest I came to regretting it was in 2006, but I wasn’t that close, and after the success of the “surge” I became stronger in my retrospective agreement with myself. But I was skeptical of Syria intervention because the administration didn’t seem to have a plan that made strategic sense, let alone a will to follow through with it. Still, for the moment it looks like the eclipse of liberal interventionism:

Last but not least, there are still a few liberal, humanitarian interventionists, of the old 1990s genre, shaped by the experiences of Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Obama has appointed as his ambassador to the UN an almost totemic representative of that persuasion, Samantha Power, the author of a 2002 book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Well, Syria is a problem from hell, all right. These liberal humanitarian interventionists are not the predominant voice in an administration characterised by cautious, security-first pragmatism, but they’re still there.

Ash suggests that this episode of US “isolationism” (my libertarian-pacifist friends would object that it’s not really isolationism because it’s consistent with support for free trade, hence the scare quotes) may be more lasting than previous episodes:

“Isolationism” is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

Maybe, though in the relatively “isolationist” 1970s we were worried about relative economic decline, too. Still, it’s plausible. The US share of the global economy has been in decline ever since World War II, but especially in the past decade, and there must be some limit to how far the US can decline in relative economic power while still playing a leadership role in the world. The subtitle of Ash’s article is “The nation is sick and tired of foreign wars, and may never play its role of global anchor again. We may live to regret it.” Ash is British, and not everyone would regard US leadership in the world as benign. But many would.

Now, here’s what must always be remembered in such discussions. Relative US economic decline, and the decline in military pre-eminence and global influence that is linked to it, is a choice. The US could easily restore its economic weight in the world by opening its borders to tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants. They want to come. Many are more or less pre-assimilated, English-speaking and familiar with American culture and liberal democracy. By letting them in, the US could have burgeoning cities, growing GDP, rising tax revenue, and more military recruits. The US could also diversify its array of global contacts still further, and exert remote influence via return migration and letters home. If the intelligence services were at all enterprising they could find useful information among resident expatriates from around the world. And accepting immigrants would, by itself, win goodwill around the world. That would put the US in a better position, in future, to stop tyrants like Assad.

If we’re still worried about the freedom and safety of Syrians, open borders could accomplish a lot of that directly, simply by giving Syrians somewhere to go. For the more adventurously inclined, open borders could contribute to freedom in Syria and elsewhere in another way. Before and during the liberation of Iraq in 2003, many anti-war types dodged being called pro-Saddam by saying that they were all in favor of Saddam being overthrown, but they wanted it to be done by Iraqis. I think I recall at least one libertarian adding that he’d be OK with a private war of libertarian against Saddam– think of idealistic volunteers forming a private army to overthrow the tyrant– but that he had a problem with the US government doing it, because the US government has a mandate only to protect US citizens, and even if liberation does benefit Iraqis, it is not entitled to use Americans’ tax dollars that way. Under open borders, Syrian rebels could come to the US and tour the country asking for donations to rid themselves of the tyrant.

Liberal interventionists are willing to sacrifice their own resources for the lives and liberties of foreigners. Good for them. But they really ought, then, to favor open borders, which will allow foreigners to save their own lives and liberties, whether merely by escaping, or perhaps by seeking support for their causes abroad, not through governments, but through the voluntary generosity of well-wishers of liberty.

Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1

Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World is probably the best book on migration from the restrictionist side that currently exists. Though, that is not saying much. It is pretty strong on the economics, and while I find Collier’s ethical attitudes weird, repugnant, and indefensible, they serve as a useful window on the way a lot of people think. Exodus is a refreshing contrast to books like Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. The arguments in Hanson’s book are too thoroughly flawed to be answered. You’d have to rip them to shreds, almost sentence by sentence, to avoid leaving the impression that anything in them is valid. Any reader who would be a worthy interlocutor in a learned conversation would have seen through books like these. My advice to writers like Hanson is to read Collier’s book and spend a couple of weeks contemplating its intellectual merits, and then ask themselves seriously whether they can emulate them sufficiently that their future writings will be net positive contributions to public debate. If Collier sets the standard that future restrictionist writings will be expected to live up to, the quality of public discourse about immigration will be vastly improved.

Interestingly, Exodus is responding in part to open borders as a political cause, even if it’s a cause that his implicit interlocutors don’t usually embrace explicitly. Whereas others will speak loosely of “the open borders lobby” as an epithet to characterize mainstream people who, in fact, want a lot of immigration restriction, Collier is a development economist who has some idea what real open borders would mean, and knows that there is a case for it. He seems to know about the double world GDP literature. So far, the debate has been conducted within the restrictionist end of the spectrum, with advocates of more migration sometimes mistaking themselves for open borders advocates because they’re naïve about how radical open borders really is. Collier thinks about migration in the context of the global struggle against poverty. He doesn’t pretend the rest of the world isn’t there. He doesn’t adopt a principle of moral indifference to the rest of mankind. That’s a big improvement over previous restrictionist literature.

At present, then, Exodus is the argument to beat on the question of open borders. For that reason, I thought it deserved, not just a book review, but a thoroughgoing engagement with the argument. That said, Collier gave me very little reason to change my mind about supporting open borders, though he might have convinced me to shift my position on a few aspects of the question in subtle ways. There are two main reasons that Collier is unconvincing. First, he has the wrong ethics: he knows about “utilitarian universalism” but is constantly engaged in inadequately motivated attempts to substitute manifestly inferior ethical ideas. Second, his policy imagination is very deficient. My greatest regret is that Collier doesn’t engage with DRITI. Again and again, I found myself saying, “Yes, that’s a problem, but DRITI solves it.”

Chapter 1 sets the stage for Collier’s book with a lot of reflections on the peculiar character of the public debate about immigration. For example, he writes that… Continue reading Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1

Don’t Confuse Immigration “Style” with “Substance”

This post was originally published at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with the author’s permission.

Some are making a lot of hay over Senator Rubio’s (R-FL) supposed flip-flop on immigration reform whereby he now supports a House strategy of piece-meal bills as opposed to one large comprehensive package that he helped push through the Senate. Rubio has even stated that he opposed going to conference with his Senate immigration reform bill and any individual bill passed by the House.

Rubio’s statement is not a flip-flop—it is a public acceptance of the way immigration reform will work in the House and not a repudiation of immigration reform. For a long time the word “comprehensive” has been a dirty word among Republicans and this is just a loud public statement by a pro-reform Senator—arguably the leader of immigration reform this year—moving against that word and the strategy it represents. Piece meal bills were going to be the strategy in the House—as has been known for months. There is no surprise here.    

But his change is purely strategic, and not very substantive. As a spokesman for Senator Rubio stated:

The point is that at this time, the only approach that has a realistic chance of success is to focus on those aspects of reform on which there is consensus through a series of individual bills … Otherwise, this latest effort to make progress on immigration will meet the same fate as previous efforts: failure.

The positive interpretation is that Rubio so wants some kind of reform to happen that he’s willing scuttle the unpopular parts of his own bill— behavior that reform proponents should see as the lesser of two evils. The negative and unrealistic hope on the part of immigration restrictionists is that they have somehow convinced a pro-reform Republican to give up. They haven’t. The anti-reform side is winning due to luck—Syria, shutdown, calendar problems, etc.—not convincing arguments or political acumen.   

There is too much attachment to, and discussion of, the legislative style of reforming immigration and not enough attention paid to the policy substance. The legislative style of immigration reform is irrelevant. It does not matter if immigration reform is in one bill or a hundred bills—so long as the policy outcome is an improvement and it becomes law constitutionally. What does matter is the substance of how legal immigration will be reformed and how unauthorized immigrants will be legalized. 

Many opponents of immigration reform harp on how long the Senate Gang of 8 immigration reform bill was, comparing it to the disastrous Affordable Care Act (ACA). But the ACA was bad policy and would have remained bad if it was chopped up into several separate bills. The substance of immigration reform is better policy and will remain so regardless of the particular legislative style of its passage.    

Possible questions for the IGM: looking for comments

I’ve written in the past about how there seems to be very little research on the effects of open borders beyond the labor market (though the effects of migration at the margin have been extensively studied). But even purely with respect to the economics, there’s a gap.

When it comes to what economists think about the effects of free migration, we know roughly two facts:

  • There is a strong economist consensus in favor of freer migration on the margin.
  • For the small subset of economists who have studied open borders, the average view seems to be that open borders would double world GDP. But there’s considerable uncertainty in the models, and the estimates range from 50-150% of current world GDP.

At least a priori, then, we could argue that the economist consensus points to open borders. But there may well be some selection bias in terms of the subset of economists who study the global effects of open borders. It would be interesting to know what economists as a whole, not pre-selected for having researched open borders, have to say about the effects of open borders. Also, given that the research tends to focus on immigration policies as they actually exist (which favor high-skilled workers to some extent) it’s somewhat less clear whether the economist consensus in favor of low-skilled migration is uniform.

The IGM Forum is one place where economists could be polled on their views. Bryan Caplan blogged about their results on high-skilled immigration. But open borders would mean open borders for people at all skill levels, and a huge part of the gain from doubling world GDP comes from the movement of people with low current skill levels.

In light of these considerations, Carl Shulman has recommended sending the following questions for inclusion in the IGM:

  1. effect of low-skill migrants on citizens (US-specific)
  2. effect of low-skill migrants on GDP, short-run (US-specific)
  3. effect of low-skill migrants on GDP, long-run (US-specific)
  4. effect of open borders on world poverty/GDP: (a) Would open borders eliminate most poverty? (b) Are the double world GDP estimates right?
  5. (This question was not suggested by Carl, but by John Lee): Importance of one’s country of birth in determining one’s income (this relates to the idea of the place premium).

Would these questions be good ones for the IGM? Which of the questions are more important? What variations would you recommend, and why? Suggestions for elaboration and improvement welcome.

Ideas on alternate places to post questions to ask economists, or other people with potentially relevant subject matter expertise, would also be much appreciated.

Weekly link roundup 18

Here’s our weekly installment of links from around the web (see here for all link roundups). As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.