Weekly link roundup 20

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

Vivek Wadhwa, and the moral contradictions of mainstream liberal views on immigration

Last week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Let anyone take a job anywhere”, with Open Borders guest blogger Bryan Caplan and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa speaking for the motion, facing conservative intellectual Ron Unz and migration policy wonk Kathleen Newland in opposition. I’ve already given my take on the debate: Bryan fought the good fight, but Unz and Newland threw up too many blatant inaccuracies and moral contradictions for any single debater to feasibly bat down in the time allotted. I said then that I thought Wadhwa was an ineffective advocate, primarily because he seemed like a moderate open borders supporter who hadn’t thought through things very well. I take that back: Wadhwa was not an effective speaker for the motion, primarily because he is a moderate open borders opponent who hasn’t thought through things very well at all.

I was originally thrown off by Wadhwa’s seeming endorsement of low-skilled migration during the debate: “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.” Sure, Wadhwa endorsed Ron Unz’s proposal for a high minimum wage, even though Unz’s proposal is explicitly intended to bar most immigrants from coming — but paying lip service to the minimum wage is par for the course for any mainstream left liberal. What changed my mind was Wadhwa sending Bryan a harshly-worded missive which accused Bryan of failing the motion because Bryan used “silly analogies”, and failed to demonstrate how the US welfare system would provide for foreigners who come to the US. Wadhwa made it clear: “I do not advocate open borders.”

Bryan republished Wadwha’s missive on EconLog, at his request, and Wadhwa waded into the EconLog comments to defend his views. I give Wadhwa a lot of credit for this. Not many public intellectuals venture into blog comments, let alone get as deeply engaged as he did. However, I found Wadhwa’s elaboration even more disappointing than the seemingly-unwarranted missive he sent Bryan. Wadhwa first stated that he was upset with Bryan because Bryan made the focus of the debate turn on open borders, instead of “jobs”. What exactly Wadhwa intended to debate about “jobs” remains quite unclear to me, but his lack of clarity here explains in hindsight his unfocused opening statement at the debate. In response to his opening statement, Kathleen Newland chided Wadhwa that the motion was “let anyone take a job anywhere”, and not “let anyone take an anywhere job”.

I asked Vivek why exactly he opposes open borders. He’s made it clear that he wants to ban immigrants from coming to the US if they are going to work minimum wage jobs. But what is his alternative then? As I’ve written before, the primary alternative for immigrants and prospective immigrants if they are banned from coming is sweatshop or slave labour, at wages on the order of a few dollars a day, in workplaces where they run the risk of dying daily. If they can find a job here paying $8/hour (the approximate US minimum wage), I say bully for them. The remittances they send home to other poor foreigners already dwarf the foreign aid packages our governments send by 3 to 1. What humanitarian case is there for destroying the global flow of remittances and forcing hundreds of millions to live lives of sweatshop slavery?

When I posed these questions to Wadhwa, he responded:

Why do you assume that the best way of helping poor workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is to bring them here to the US? Trust me, these people don’t want to leave their families and friends, culture, heritage, and homes to be here. They would rather stay where they are and make a living minimum wage.

It’s a neat story. But I have a hard time squaring this with the fact that immigrants routinely pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the developing world, running the risk of death in the desert or on the high seas. If they are so happy at home, why are they doing these things? And why is it more humane for us to interdict them with gunboats, for the sake of banning them from earning the “inhumane” wage of $8/hour? Is that really the most humane thing we can do? What is inhumane about allowing these people to buy their own plane ticket, pay the government a visa fee or surtax, and come here to work for wages higher than they would ever dream of earning at home?

Mind you, it’s our guns and border fences that force Bangladeshis to choose between backbreaking farm work and murderous sweatshop hours. If you’re going to tell me this is more humane than allowing those Bangladeshis to seek minimum wage work outside Bangladesh, you’d better be prepared to defend it. Even if you think allowing these people a choice won’t actually result in much migration, simply the fact that these workers now have an opportunity to exit will force their employers to pay better wages and improve working conditions. Making some handwavy arguments about brain drain won’t cut it, considering the paucity of evidence of any tangible harms to the developing world from “brain drain”. The burden of proof here is high: you’re asserting that it’s basic humanitarian policy to point a loaded gun at an unarmed human being and force him to turn around, because the alternative of allowing him to go on his merry way in search of a better job is simply too inhumane to tolerate.

Wadhwa at this point departed the comments, but closed on a gracious note, with words of praise for Bryan (albeit, words I find hard to square with his missive, which claimed Bryan’s arguments failed to convince a single person). He also acknowledged that they were likely mismatched partners as a result of a misunderstanding about the motion’s wording. The discussion continued, though, with EconLog commenters trying to make sense of Wadhwa’s position.

It seems quite clear to me now that Wadhwa and Kathleen Newland from the debate are actually kindred spirits. Both believe that it’s inappropriate to permit immigrants entry unless the government guarantees them a social safety net of some kind — and that because it is impossible to extend a single country’s social safety net to every single human being, there must be strict border controls of some kind. Both favour relatively liberal immigration policies, but policies still very far from open borders: they essentially want the status quo, with slightly fewer restrictions.

Wadhwa and Newland seem to be adopting a territorialist view of some kind, whereby a government owes greater obligations to people within its territory, citizens or non-citizens, than it does to people outside its territory. This is why both favour legalising the US’s population of undocumented immigrants and why both believe it’s fatal for open borders to point out that a single government’s welfare system cannot guarantee equal benefits to every single person on earth. There seems to be “local inequality aversion” at play: Wadhwa and Newland feel uncomfortable about admitting more poor people to the US (Wadha calls this “importing poverty”) unless the government can guarantee these poor people socioeconomic uplift.

But moderate territorialism is actually quite compatible with open borders, just like moderate citizenism. During the IQ2 debate, Bryan’s retort to “but they’ll burden our welfare system” was to essentially say: “we can ban them from enrolling in welfare”. This is going to strike most people as too harsh. But more than that, it’s also not really necessary for most developed countries.

The extreme territorialist thinking that pervades mainstream discussions of immigration concludes that the moment we admit a foreigner to our territory, we assume strong moral obligations, especially socioeconomic ones, towards that person. One obligation might be, say, to ensure that every person in our territory is guaranteed a job at a good wage — perhaps one much higher than $8/hour. Now, I’m happy to admit that sure, we assume moral obligations of some kind. (Providing non-citizens the equal protection of our labour laws would be a good start!) But I reject the extreme territorialist view that our obligations to all people in our territory, citizen or not, are identical.

Open borders skeptics say it’s inhumane to allow people to starve in our streets. But we don’t need to see starvation in our streets under open borders: we can simply subsidise the return ticket home for poor foreigners who lose their jobs. Let’s say you reject that as too inhumane. But we don’t need to break the bank still; we don’t need to furnish foreigners with all the same guarantees we make to citizens. We can offer them a basic social safety net: access to some form of healthcare, perhaps unemployment insurance, etc. All these can be guaranteed at levels lower than what we guarantee natives, but levels that still prevent people from dying in our streets.

To put this concretely, government can restrict an immigrant’s access to the state’s retirement funds while still giving the immigrant basic healthcare coverage. Something similar is already the case in the US and most developed countries today. Few, if any, countries give foreigners equal access to their state benefits as they do to citizens — but similarly, few totally deny foreigners access to any benefits. Yet when economists look at the most generous welfare states, even Sweden’s, they find no evidence of the supposed looming fiscal disaster that immigration is supposed to cause. It is perfectly possible to say, as a moderate territorialist-cum-citizenist, that you support open borders with a limited welfare state for non-citizens. Feasibility is not an issue; this is the exact course our governments are already charting capably (though one could argue they could cut foreigners’ access to welfare more). Economists agree that with a limited welfare state, immigrants are not a fiscal burden.

This is not a hamhanded attempt to dismiss the implications of open borders for the welfare state. This is the ultimate implication of the moderate citizenist and moderate territorialist views that most people hold. If the state has to choose who to spend its limited resources on, there is a prima facie case for prioritising citizens. Newland breezily dismissed the claim that immigration restrictions are unjust discrimination against foreigners at IQ2 by saying: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favour.”

I completely disagree: if anything, governments are obliged to enforce labour and contract laws equally, without regard for national origin! What I am happy to say is that governments are obliged to discriminate in citizens’ favour when it comes to the social safety net. It seems absurd to me to take the stand Wadhwa and Newland have staked out: that it is just and moral to discriminate against foreigners in labour law, but completely unethical to discriminate against foreigners in the social safety net.

But this absurdity may yet be reconcilable, if you stretch territorialism and citizenism to their extremes. The flipside of territorialism and citizenism is that if someone is not currently in our territory, and not a fellow citizen, then they aren’t our problem. Sure, some bricklayer might be dying of cholera in Haiti right now — but that’s not my problem. I don’t live in Haiti, and he doesn’t live in my country. It’d be my problem if I lived in Haiti and elected the Haitian government — or if he lived in my country, subject to the administration of the government I elect. But otherwise, that Haitian’s poverty isn’t my problem, and he should bugger off.

As a result, the perverse conclusions that Wadhwa and Newland seem to endorse — that it is better to prevent the entry of an immigrant if we can’t afford to give him the same healthcare subsidies as a citizen — can actually make eminent sense. It’s not inhumane to use your guns and tanks to keep a poor person trapped in Haiti. You’re just preventing the Haitian government from “exporting poverty”. You’re preventing them from dumping their problems of poverty and squalor into your government’s lap. It’s not your problem; it’s Haiti’s problem!

But this completely denies the agency of individual migrants. No government forces these people to leave Haiti, or wherever they came from. The Haitian government can barely keep the lights turned on! They certainly don’t have the capacity to subsidise emigration or to brainwash their citizens into leaving, or to force their own people at gunpoint into boats headed for the US. And even if they did, so what? That is exactly what Cuba and Vietnam did to their own people, and the free world welcomed these people with open arms. In fact, that is what the US still does today for Cubans — allowing the Castro regime to dump the people it doesn’t want in the US’s lap.

That you have to jump through so many intellectual hoops to morally justify forcing people at gunpoint to turn away from your shores, on the basis that it’s inappropriate for them to work for the wage of $8/hour, suggests something is wrong with your thinking. These people spend thousands of dollars and risk their own lives in deserts or on the high seas to get those $8/hour jobs. That indicates strongly that what they’re fleeing is even more of a bum deal than minimum wage — perhaps, say, a sweatshop, or worse. How can anyone conclude that it is more humane to force these people at gunpoint to go back to a life — and quite possibly death — toiling away for cents an hour in a sweatshop somewhere, than it is to permit them to come in peace in search of minimum wage $8/hour jobs?

When our taxpayer-hired guns force unarmed civilians seeking work to turn back and go home, we make their poverty our problem as well. When they were suffering in Haiti, or Bangladesh, or wherever they came from, their troubles were of no consequence to us. We did not put them in the plight they faced, nor did we hinder them from uplifting themselves. But when they sought work from an employer willing to pay them a wage multiples of what they might ever hope to earn at home, we put our guns in the way. If we’re going to stop them from solving their own problem, we’d better damn well have a better solution to offer them. Nobody asked us to interfere with their job search; we took it upon ourselves to do this. It’s our duty to figure out what to do with these people now.

Now, Wadhwa and Newland believe quite strongly that a high minimum wage and greater foreign aid (or some other mechanism of “exporting prosperity”, as Wadhwa puts it) is the more humane thing to do. Wadhwa seems to think enforcing a “living minimum wage” in the developing world would slow immigration to a trickle. Supposedly this is the liberal solution to the conundrum of immigration; this is the fulfillment of the developed world’s responsibilities to the developing world citizens whom it has arbitrarily banned from its labour markets.

But are a high minimum wage, high levels of foreign aid, and government-enforced social justice in the developing world realistic options? How would we ever find the money to spend on the vast amounts of foreign aid that would be necessary to “level” the world economically, as Newland put it at the debate? How would the governments of the developing world build the capacity to enforce just labour laws — to say nothing of the capacity needed to enforce a high minimum wage? The answer is clear: Newland herself said at the IQ2 debate that there is no apparent way we can accomplish such “leveling”. So what’s the next least inhumane alternative?

Economist and mainstream liberal Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay justifying the toleration of sweatshops as the least inhumane thing we can do for the world’s poor. I excerpted Krugman for my piece on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops. His logic holds true as ever — but it really applies to immigration, not sweatshops:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. (emphasis added)

I hope Wadhwa and Newland, and all the liberals who share their views, will do their moral duty, and think things through.

The photograph of Vivek Wadhwa used in the header of this post was taken by John P. Harvey and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Open Borders Logo Contest winner announcement

It is our pleasure to announce the winner of the Open Borders Logo Contest. The goal of the contest was to produce a simple, but aesthetically pleasing, symbol that would represent the Open Borders movement. We received many excellent entries. On behalf of the contest sponsors, Bryan Caplan, Vipul Naik, and myself, I declare that the image made by Niklas Blanchard the winner. While a number of entries were well done, we thought that Niklas’ entry was simple and would be easy to depict by hand, on a whiteboard or chalkboard, or in posters and billboards.


The image was originally posted on Facebook here.

As the winner, Niklas has released the image under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License on his blog. The original release statement is here. That means that he allows you to use the logo in your own work (t-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, etc) as long you agree to the terms of this license.

We are also looking for information about the source, author, and license of the freedom birds image that appeared here, and is shown below:


On Niklas’ blog (linked above) he has created a T-shirt design that combine his logo with this image:


If you have any leads about the author and license of this image, please let us know, so that we can make appropriate arrangements to use the image on Open Borders T-shirts.

Autism Can’t Explain Away Open Borders Arguments

One of the strangest arguments anti-immigration advocates make is that immigration proponents have Asperger’s Syndrome.  What exactly is the substance (if there is any at all) of this criticism?

A brief background in Asperger’s syndrome may be helpful before continuing.  It is a mental condition characterized by difficulties in verbal and social communication, as well as a tendency to be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.  People diagnosed with it often have difficulty perceiving the feelings of others. However, people with Asperger’s generally have otherwise normal intelligence.  In fact, they are often unusually good at abstract reasoning, ordering and organizing knowledge, and focusing their attention on a single subject of interest without distraction.  Asperger’s is often considered a type of autism, but there is some debate on this topic.

Steve Sailer’s brief blog post “Libertarianism is Applied Autism,” is one of the earliest examples of this argument.  The main point he makes in this post is that libertarian economists do not realize that other people can sometimes behave violently.  He argues that a good reason for one to embrace citizenism is that citizens will assist one another in fighting against the violent people in the world.

Taken in this context, Sailer’s criticism is yet another iteration of the common “economist blind spot” attack.  He is essentially arguing that people engage in a form of non-market interaction (violence),  that anti-free-market solutions such as immigration restriction and citizenism are needed to deal with this fact, and that immigration advocates are blind to this fact.  The only difference is that this time he is claiming that the cause of this blindness is the cognitive impairments caused by autism rather than the simplifying assumptions that economists make in their work.

Other restrictionists have since made autism-related comments, but these do not really add anything new to Sailer’s original argument.  They retain the essential claim that open-borders advocates suffer from a cognitive dysfunction that prevents them from understanding certain restrictionist arguments.

This criticism is problematic in numerous ways.  The most obvious one is that many open borders advocates do engage with the “non-economicobjections restrictionists make and devote time, effort, and research to addressing them.  For instance, Bryan Caplan addresses the claims that immigrants generate political externalities and the claim that they contribute to crime. Nathan Smith addresses the “war” objection here and the “social capital decline” objection in great detail.  John Lee also addresses many of these objections and finds them wanting in the face of the incredible good that open borders could do.  And these are just a few examples.  Open borders advocates do understand these particular objections, and do make serious attempts to address them.

Furthermore, while it is true that open borders advocates do focus on the economic side of things, this is partly because it is simply the best researched topic.  Economists have done serious analyses of open borders and how it might affect the economy, but criminologists and sociologists have not done the same level of thorough research in regards to its effects on crime and society.  Open borders advocates have made serious efforts to research these “non-economic objections,” and what results on these topics they have found have been limited.

Another problem with this criticism is that it is not clear that the common-sense, intuitive view of human behavior that a neurotypical person would have is more correct than economic research.  The entire reason that economic research (and science in general, for that matter) is even done is that the human race’s common-sense view of how the world works is sometimes wrong.

There is a very large amount of psychological literature focused on phenomena such as the “fundamental attribution error” and “ultimate attribution error.”  These phenomena encompass the human tendency to incorrectly assume that a person or group’s innate disposition is the cause of their behavior, rather than external factors.  If human beings are biased towards attributing human behavior to innate dispositions, rather than external factors, an economic model the focuses on external incentives may well be more accurate than a common-sense model that disregards them.  A cynical reading of tendency of certain restrictionists to focus attention on innate factors like IQ is that they are attempting to find a way to salvage the fundamental attribution error.

Another problem with using the intuitive view when addressing immigration is scope neglect.  The human mind did not evolve to process the extremely large numbers of people that immigration policy deals with.  For this reason it seems likely that addressing immigration policy with an abstract, scientific approach, is more fruitful than using our more intuitive systems for understanding other humans.  Consider in particular the restrictionist tendency to focus on dramatic, frightening scenarios like crime, social pathology, and ethnic violence; and compare it to the open-borders advocate’s focus on economic deprivations. Also note that restrictionists sometimes seem to think that all they need to do is establish that these things could happen at all, rather than do a cost-benefit analysis of how likely they are to happen.  This is strongly reminiscent of the human tendency to focus on dangers that make for scary stories (i.e. murders, shark attacks) instead of dangers that are common and likely to happen (i.e. car crashes, heart disease).

A final objection to the “Asperger’s argument” can be found by considering what exactly it means to say that people with Asperger’s often “lack empathy.”  The term empathy has two common meanings.  It can mean the ability to perceive and notice other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 1).  And it can mean caring about other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 2).  To put it another way, Empathy 1 is about noticing the existence of other’s feelings, Empathy 2 is about caring about others’ feelings.  The “lack of empathy” in “Asperger’s syndrome” is Empathy 1, people with Asperger’s have trouble noticing if someone is happy or upset, but if they do manage to notice they display normal human levels of sympathy.

Many restrictionists, however (especially those of the “citizenist” bent), seem to be lacking in Empathy 2.  They tend to see potential immigrants in terms of IQ statistics, standard deviations and collections of “social pathologies,” rather than as people.  They lack much in the way of concern for the harm that immigration restriction inflicts upon others, particularly non-citizens.  If Libertarianism is applied Autism then Citizenism is applied Antisocial Personality Disorder. If one is to go about associating a political position with a mental disorder, it would probably be wise to check to make sure one’s own philosophy can’t be easily associated with an even worse disorder.

In light of this, it does not seem like the “Asperger’s argument” is a particularly valid criticism of open borders advocates.  Open borders advocates understand and engage with the criticisms that restrictionists claim “autism” makes them overlook.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the cognitive functions that Asperger’s and other forms of autism impair are necessary to understand the issues surrounding immigration policy.  Finally, the project of associating political positions with mental disorders is probably not a wise undertaking in the first place.

What I would like from Tyler Cowen

Economist Tyler Cowen’s recent post was ostensibly about the labor market effects of immigration and emigration from OECD countries, but the latter half was devoted to a critique of open borders. Cowen:

And no I do not favor open borders even though I do favor a big increase in immigration into the United States, both high- and low-skilled. The simplest argument against open borders is the political one. Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get. Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice. The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way. I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring. Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs. (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

The post seems to have generated a lot of buzz in the blogosphere (see here, here, here, here, and here for starters).

First off, although open borders advocates naturally concentrated on the latter half, it’s possible that Cowen actually intended to focus on the earlier half. The confusion about what Cowen intended to highlight is described in this comment by DJ10210:

Tyler’s strategy is interesting here. What’s the proper Straussian reading of this post? (A) Post is intended to be a critique of open borders proponents (e.g. Caplan), but opens with pro-immigration sentiment to signal that he is friendly to the cause he’s critiquing. (B) Post is intended to be a critique of immigration restrictionist, but closes with anti-open borders sentiments to signal that he understands that although he’s pro-immigration he’s not an extremist about it. (C) Both (A) and (B).

I lean toward (A) being the intended message.

I’m a great admirer of Cowen’s quality of thinking about empirical issues. In fact, right now, I’m reading his book, Average is Over, and I’m really liking it (I don’t have enough prior object-level intuition to have a strong view on the accuracy of Cowen’s predictions, but I find it plausible and well-argued). I felt that the post didn’t live up to the standard. So my first reaction to the post was to write something in between a criticism and a point-by-point response. However, after thinking it over, I see that there are a number of reasons why that would be misguided.

  • Cowen write about five posts a day, in addition to his teaching, research, administrative duties, and books. His high quantity of reasonably thoughtful output is one reason why he attracts so many readers. But this also means that many individual passages in his blog posts are not subject to the same careful scrutiny and analysis that some other bloggers (such as Bryan Caplan, or, I’d like to think, the Open Borders bloggers) give their own posts. So even though I feel that Cowen wrote these passages somewhat hastily, it’s part of the package one gets with Cowen, and nothing to complain about.
  • Cowen is in general skewed toward projecting an image of practicality and moderation, and that is part of what makes him influential as a blogger. This again is the package that his readers and those who choose to benefit from his wisdom sign on to.

With these in mind, I want to take a few minutes to note some possible messages people may take away from Cowen’s post, and why I believe these would be wrong. There is a subtext many people might be reading in Cowen’s text that open borders advocates are anti-empirical and careless and avoid obvious questions that anybody who thinks for a few minutes would come across. While I wouldn’t make generalizations about open borders advocates, I think that this site does not fit the stereotype. We have listed a wide variety of objections from both a restrictionist and a pro-immigration perspective, and attempted to address many of them — perhaps not to many people’s satisfaction, but I think it’d be fair to say that we haven’t ignored the issues. I think the menu options offer a reasonable summary (though doubtless the menu could be improved for better navigation, something that a co-blogger of mine will be working on). We have also discussed — more extensively than Cowen himself appears to have — the objections that Cowen raises in his post. If we haven’t covered a topic in sufficient depth, it is generally because (a) the existing literature and state of knowledge isn’t good enough, or (b) we simply haven’t gotten around it. We are very interested in the empirics of open borders — in understanding what might happen under borders that are open to various degrees. Let’s look at some of Cowen’s most remarkable claims.

Cowen writes:

Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get. Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?

A reader of this passage might believe that advocates of open borders are squarely disconnected from the empirical question of how many people would move under open borders, and that advocates of open borders seem to focus solely on open borders to large countries like the US. Neither assertion is true. Our world map for blog coverage shows how we cover migration-related issues around the world, including cases as diverse as Lebanon and Germany. Nor have we overlooked the significance of some countries being larger or having lower population densities than others. I made some very similar points about the dangers of extrapolating from existing data or historical experience in my blog post back in February 2013 titled open borders is a radical proposal. But for what it’s worth, the value of Cowen’s small country examples is unclear. For one, there does exist a large free movement zone — the Schengen Area, of which Switzerland is a part — and while there has been significant migration (enough to boost the case for the value of free movement) it has hardly been of cataclysmic or existentially threatening proportions. Or at least, that’s the way I interpret it. Does Cowen see things differently?

Cowen has much greater insight into the working of the world than I do, and possibly more than many of the other bloggers on this site. It’s possible that he has sound reasons for his intuition pertaining to Switzerland or Iceland or one of the other countries. It would be nice if he could elaborate more on these reasons.

Cowen also writes:

Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.

How many would move under open borders? Cowen thinks the number is 500 million or a billion (and his language of “plunking” suggests that they’d all move more or less simultaneously and perhaps not even based on a conscious voluntary decision — but I’ll take that to be artistic license).

Now, I really like the fact that Cowen is providing a concrete estimate. It’s an important question, to be sure, because swamping is a major concern that moderate pro-immigrationers raise when faced with the prospect of open borders. And while there are many approaches (gradually increasing quotas, gradually lowering tariff rates to zero, gradually expanding a free movement zone, etc.) an answer to the abstract question “how many would move under complete open borders?” can be a useful analytical exercise in bounding the problem.

And it’s a question we have looked at repeatedly. We collected a number of links to polling data on migration — the best available data on the stated preferences of potential migrants (for what it’s worth, there are about 135 million people who want to move to the US if given the chance, and about 600-700 million people who want to move to a different country from where they currently are). I raised the “how many would move” question last July, and my co-blogger Chris followed up by asking a more specific question about open borders between Haiti and the US. These are the types of specific, concrete questions where somebody like Cowen can offer specific insight based on his deep understanding of the world — and elaborate on why he thinks open borders may be going too far. Offering the number is a great start. What I’d like from Cowen is an elaboration of how he’s getting at that number, what sort of timeframe he is talking about for the 500 million to 1 billion people, and how he thinks it might be a problem.

Cowen also talks about how open borders may be politically infeasible. We’ve asked this kind of question as well. For instance, this May, I blegged about whether open borders between the US and Canada might pass a referendum. And feasibility is certainly an important consideration when evaluating keyhole solutions.

Finally, the question of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs is an important one to us, and my co-blogger Nathan Smith views it as one of the potentially best arguments against open borders. Nathan wrote a three-part series (here, here, and here) attempting to defend open borders against this line of criticism. It’s one of the arguments we take more seriously on this website. Cowen probably has much to contribute to the discussion again, and I personally would really like to know more about what he sees as the biggest dangers to global innovation and technological progress that arise from moving in the direction of open borders, and how these might be mitigated.

Cowen has a cryptic parenthetical remark:

(The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

The “of course that is unlikely” statement is puzzling. Of course, open borders is unlikely for the foreseeable future — whether for one country alone or for many countries together. The relevant question is not so much whether either is likely in absolute terms. The relevant question is about the relative likelihood of the US unilaterally opening its borders versus a number of countries opening borders together. I think history shows that the latter is more likely to happen — countries may form free migration zones, then gradually move to open borders for all. But I’m willing to stand corrected, since I don’t have strong knowledge here.

Perhaps Cowen’s concern is that open borders advocacy itself increases the relative likelihood of unilateral open borders relative to multilateral or universal open borders. I think that’s not the case at all. At least on the Open Borders site, we devote a fair amount of time to the immigration policy of countries around the world, including co-blogger John Lee talking about Malaysia. Does Cowen believe that the United States is uniquely susceptible to a few open borders ideologues promoting global open borders suddenly changing the minds of the powers-that-be? If so, that doesn’t square with what I believe, or what I think he believes, about the US political system. If the data on who favors open borders are any guide, the US is hardly in “danger” of any rapid shift towards open borders. The one rich country that may be in such “danger” is Sweden (also the first country to open its borders to Syrian refugees) but even Sweden has a fair degree of pushback against open borders. Note that, if anything, moderate pro-immigration advocacy tends to be much more rooted in country-specific rhetoric (such as “America is a nation of immigrants”) than the advocacy or discussion of open borders you’ll find on this site, and among other self-proclaimed advocates of open borders. (As a related aside, you might want to check our Carl Shulman’s post titled Open borders in (at least) one (developed) country on his personal blog, arguing that it might be better to attempt open borders in a single country with a relatively smaller population and then expand it to the world).

What I would like from Tyler Cowen is that, when he next discusses open borders, he gives the subject some of the same thought and attention that makes him such a great read on other subjects, and more importantly, that he share his reasoning (thereby avoiding the illusion of transparency and double illusion of transparency traps). Maybe there is a legitimate basis for his figure of 500 million to 1 billion. Perhaps Cowen has some interesting historical understanding that illuminates problems with open borders that we’ve overlooked. But we can only learn from his insight if he shares it.

A plausible response to the above is that it’s sufficient to rely on intuition here, because obviously what Cowen is saying is true. But it would be an inadequate response, given that Cowen himself is pushing back against the restrictionist intuitions expressed in his comment threads about immigrants stealing jobs from natives and turning their destination countries into economic basket cases. Intuition is a starting point, but to communicate and arrive at truths starting from one’s intuitions, it would be helpful to flesh out the rationales more explicitly.