The open borders wing of the open borders movement; or, Against keyhole regimes

As the name implies, aims to discuss the ins and outs and the pros and cons of open borders, honestly and with an open mind, while also advocating open borders, or at least policy movement in the direction of open borders. But the hardworking and underpaid writers themselves come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so that in some cases “movement toward open borders” is the rare, narrow sliver of convergence. We don’t agree on everything. With this in mind, I’m taking the opportunity in this post to push back against the “keyhole solutions” mentioned so often on the site. These come in many flavors but can be summarized as follows: for a criticism or fear of open borders, X, one can often posit a keyhole solution, K(X), which mitigates or removes the (perceived) problem of X while still retaining freedom of movement across national borders. A common example is, for the contention that immigrants will drain the host nation’s welfare resources, a keyhole solution would be to allow migration but legally bar immigrants from collecting welfare benefits.

At the outset I want to acknowledge that the keyhole policies proposed usually move in the direction of open borders as advertised and so, if I were forced to vote on such policies, I would usually vote yea. But keyhole policies often have serious philosophical and rhetorical drawbacks, potentially significant enough to call into question whether they really would move us in the direction of open borders. In addition, I want to argue that keyhole regimes do not represent optimal policy in the broad sense of “optimal”.

One rhetorical problem of keyhole solutions is they can generate confusion as to what it is advocates of open borders are really advocating. This became apparent in the friendly skirmish between Tyler Cowen and us earlier this year. Nathan Smith responded to a surprise broadside from Cowen with a post heavy on the benefits of taxing immigration and denying immigrants entitlements that are standard for natives.

Cowen is smart enough to figure all this out for himself. The communication failure occurs because we mean different thing by “open borders.” I mean simply that immigrants will be allowed to enter the country physically, and allowed to work. Not that they will reside there on equal terms with citizens, subject to the same tax rules for example. Certainly not that they will have access to the vote, which is a separate issue, or to welfare benefits, which I would strongly object to. Perhaps he would favor the DRITI approach to open borders, I don’t know. It seems as if taxing immigration, and keyhole solutions generally, are not on Cowen’s radar screen.

Cowen retorted that the post was a surrender, that what Nathan considers open borders is not really open borders. I can’t blame Cowen for his assessment. In this post I’m defending honest-to-goodness open borders.

Another rhetorical issue is that too much enthusiasm poured into the case for keyhole regimes could backfire, especially when it’s a keyhole cocktail on the menu. “Let’s tax immigration and redistribute the proceeds to unskilled natives so they don’t lose out! Let’s deny immigrants the right to vote so they don’t destroy our institutions! Let’s deny immigrants public services such as welfare and unemployment insurance and public schools so they don’t drain the public coffer! Let’s deport immigrants for misdemeanors so our cities are not overrun with crime!” There is a keyhole solution for every fevered imagining of the paranoid nativist. But, just possibly, it might be a bad idea to market open borders to this group. Molly the Moderate might look at the laundry list of “problems” that a proffered keyhole proposal purports to solve and come away thinking “Gee, if immigrants really come with all those problems, wouldn’t it be more straightforward just to restrict immigration like we’re already doing?”

Rhetoric aside, keyhole policies clearly have a real dark side. Nathan highlighted this in his recent post The Dark Side of DRITI (DRITI–“Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It”–being a keyhole regime of Nathan’s devising that includes a surtax for immigrants and a ban on their use of social safety net options that are available to citizens).

Regressive transfers from poor immigrants to better-off natives. DRITI immigrants wouldn’t be earning much, yet a substantial share of their small earnings would be taken away in taxes. The proceeds would be used to pay transfers to natives. It would probably be very common for two people to work side-by-side, one a DRITI immigrant the other a native, doing the same job and earning the same wage, yet the native would enjoy a much higher standard of living than the immigrant, because the native would be receive transfers from the government, while the DRITI immigrant would be paying extra taxes to the government. Quite affluent people, too, would receive transfers financed by taxes on poor DRITI workers.

Taxation without representation. DRITI immigrants would be paying a lot of taxes, yet they wouldn’t have the right to vote. In fact, in the numerical example above, we would end up with a situation where 1/3 of the adult resident population of the US couldn’t vote. Is that a violation of democratic principles? (Not really. Democracy is about consent of the governed, and DRITI immigrants would have explicitly consented. But that’s a subtle point, and people would doubtless feel unease at the abrogation of the “one person, one vote” principle.)

The DRITI scheme would indeed be Pareto-improving in that it would improve or leave unchanged the lots of every native and every immigrant. But Nathan also describes this as both the sophisticated case for open borders and the best immigration policy yet proposed. This assumes that “Pareto-optimal” is the same as socially optimal or ethically optimal. DRITI is morally problematic for precisely the reasons he highlights. Charging immigrants special taxes just because they are immigrants is discriminatory, violating the principle of equality before the law. It also ignores the common sense principle that, where possible, you should tax bads instead of goods. Immigration is not a bad.

Some fairly odious policies can be Pareto-improving. Consider a slavery regime where a new law is passed that would allow a slave to purchase her freedom from her owner under a legislated, generously above-market price at which the owner would be compelled to sell. Slaves would be better off with the new capability to purchase their freedom and slave owners would be better off every time they sold a slave into freedom. The policy would make everyone better off, even though morality requires censure and punishment for slave owners and a great deal of compensation and apology for former slaves.

This is an extreme case, but it differs mainly in magnitude rather than qualitative difference from a system of closed borders where some people are coerced by violence and threats of violence to live where they are told by those who wield political power over them. Where there is great injustice, there is ample room for Pareto improvement. Keyhole policies are often offered to compensate losers from a proposal, but in the case of opening borders, the “losers” are merely losing unfair advantages accruing to the unjust status quo of closed borders. In his essay, the Case for Open Immigration (found in this volume, ungated here), Chandran Kukathas discusses closed borders in terms of the rents they provide to native workers.

While it is true that the burdens and benefits of immigration do not fall evenly or equitably on all members of a host society, open borders are defensible nonetheless for a number of reasons. First, it has to be asked why it must be assumed that locals are entitled to the benefits they enjoy as people who have immediate access to particular markets. As residents or citizens, these people enjoy the rents they secure by virtue of an arrangement that excludes others from entering a particular market. Such arrangements are commonplace in every society, and indeed in the world as whole. Often those who find a resource to exploit, or a demand which they are particularly able to fulfill, are unable to resist the temptation to ensure that they enjoy the gains to be had in exploiting that resource or fulfilling that demand by preventing others from doing the same. Yet it is unclear that there is any principle that can justify granting to some persons privileged access to such rents. To be sure, many of the most egregious examples of rent-seeking (and rent-protecting) behavior are to be found in the activities of capitalist firms and industries. But this does not make such activity defensible, since it serves simply to protect the well-off from having to share the wealth into which they have tapped with those who would like to secure a little of that same wealth for themselves.

Open borders diluted by surtaxes and fines levied to further swaddle citizens of rich countries in protectionism are better than closed borders, but they do not constitute optimal policy. Advocates of open borders should acknowledge that keyhole policies are essentially bribes offered to political gatekeepers. Keyhole policies are tunable along a continuum, so without acknowledging that keyhole policies are compromises of principle, it’s possible to slip from reasonable keyhole solutions to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Consider Nathan’s taxation-without-representation example above. DRITI admirably includes a pathway to citizenship, which would extend voting rights to citizens in a reasonable amount of time. I find a few years waiting period for citizenship unobjectionable, as temporary migrants have little at stake politically. But the keyhole condition could be extended. David Henderson has proposed a twenty year waiting period before immigrants can become citizens and vote. Long before twenty years are up, an immigrant will have established deep roots in his community, perhaps with children in school, ties to a church or other community organization, deep knowledge of the local culture and customs, as well as an understanding of the political issues of the day, many of which will pertain to him. Restricting an immigrant from voting for this long is too high a price to pay for misguided fears that immigrants will vote the “wrong way”. (Incidentally, I have never seen a restrictionist concerned about deleterious immigrant voting suggest that we focus instead on increasing the voter turnout among citizens, a goal which seems more consistent with the democratic values they presumably aim to protect from immigrants.)

But voting is not the only way of affecting politics, and arguably it’s one of the least important. By keyhole logic, a more effective “solution” to destructive political influence by immigrants would be to bar them from political speech and participation in political advocacy groups or groups known to lobby politicians. A keyhole policy curtailing migrants’ civil liberties this drastically would put core freedoms on the political table, undermining the values of the very system restrictionists claim to want to protect. Perhaps a government database system similar to E-Verify could be devised to ensure that only full citizens could join political advocacy organizations, which would of course need to be registered.

In a thought-provoking post, John Roccia considered the possibility that immigrants should swallow their pride and debase themselves if it makes them more palatable as immigrants to the intended host country.

Blaming a woman for getting raped, a black man for getting wrongfully arrested, or a foreigner for not being allowed to immigrate and you’re seen as uncompassionate at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. But isn’t that just the sin of pride all over again? What if there really was something that the woman could have done to avoid her fate, the black man to avoid the arrest, and the foreigner to make immigration easier? Is it wrong to theorize about what the victim might do differently, if the end result is fewer rapes, fewer wrongful arrests, and more immigration?

I’ll avoid the specifics on the other example topics, but what if there was something that foreigners could do to make allowing them to immigrate more politically viable? Even if it was something humiliating or demeaning, something that would infuriate anyone with even an ounce of pride? Just as a hypothetical: Imagine that there was a small town in a third-world country where almost everyone wanted to emigrate to America. And imagine that as part of their campaign for acceptance, they turned their whole town into a mock-suburbia; they wore American-style clothes, ate American-style food, baked apple pie and played baseball, spoke English exclusively and maybe even learned to fake a Midwestern drawl. Imagine that they renamed their streets after American presidents, got rid of all of their religious materials (except Christian, of course), said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and even wore makeup to disguise their skin tone.

John calls this victim blaming and spares no expense in assuring readers he finds the idea appalling. The danger of this line of thinking is that it implicitly reinforces the idea that foreigners have no right to immigrate, that their presence is a privilege granted at the whim of natives. I know that’s not the intention of the post. The intention is to illustrate that the gains from immigration for the immigrants are potentially so huge that it is worth it to try to satisfy the unsavory demands of natives, who effectively do control the ability of foreigners to immigrate. As a thought experiment in how far one is willing to take consequentialism, the point is taken. But as advice for the way forward, I believe it misses the mark. Immigrants themselves do have a role to play in changing migration policy, but that role involves exercising their rights by civil disobedience, not meekly prostrating themselves before the natives who loathe them.

A related point is that an extensive keyhole regime, where certain rights and entitlements due other individuals are withheld or acknowledged only contingently, creates conditions of exploitation. Following Matt Zwolinski, I define exploitation as “taking advantage of another person in a way that is unfair or degrading,” usually involving “a person in a position of power interacting with a person in a position of vulnerability, and using that power differential to benefit himself at the expense of his victim.” I would add that exploitation is made possible when the victim has only a very limited number of options.

If an immigrant’s legal right to live in a host country is limited by the keyhole condition that he must be vouched for by an employer and must maintain continuous employment, then the employer wields greater power over the immigrant than over native workers. Likewise, an immigrant is ripe for exploitation if his admittance or continued legal right to reside in the host country depends on the discretion of consular officers, although in the US at least this situation seems to result in arbitrary visa denials rather than extraction of bribes or the like. In a keyhole regime like DRITI that includes heavy tariffs or surtaxes, an immigrant is not just in danger of exploitation: the immigrant is in fact exploited. The host state takes advantage of the immigrant in a way that is unfair compared to the treatment of natives; the host state can do this given its position of extraordinary power over the immigrant, who is made vulnerable by his extremely limited options of either continuing to live in a poor country with few realistic opportunities for advancing attractive life goals or else migrating somewhere there are higher wages and better quality of life, albeit under the caprices of a state with few incentives to treat him with human decency. It is still exploitation even though the immigrant is made better off. Zwolinski again (with his own italics),

Classical liberals can and should, however, take pain to distinguish between two forms of exploitation: exploitation that is mutually beneficial, and exploitation that is harmful. Both involve someone taking unfair advantage of another. But in one case, both parties come away from the transaction better off than they would have been without it. In the other, the exploiting party comes away with more, the exploited with less.

An exchange can be mutually beneficial and yet unfair or degrading. If you are drowning in a lake, and I row by on the only canoe in sight, it is morally wrong of me to make my rescue of you contingent upon your signing over the deed to your house. Granted, you would be better off taking my deal than passing it up. But it’s wrong for me to offer it nevertheless. I should – and I suspect most of you would – perform the rescue for free.

The closed borders of the world represent the lake in which the global poor are left to drown. Keyhole policies are the exploitative conditions offered for rescue. Of course, the analogy as is doesn’t quite fit, because migrants are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. Immigration restrictions instead are the violent obstruction of the migrants’ self-rescue. So it doesn’t matter that immigrants stand to gain from keyhole policies; the policies are still exploitative, and therefore still immoral.

This ethical evaluation stands apart from the utilitarian question of whether “open” borders plus keyhole policies are better than closed borders (they probably are for all but the most sadistic keyhole policies). The point is rather to caution against believing that keyhole border regimes are in some way socially optimal. Real open borders, where an individual, regardless of where she happened to be born, can choose where in the world she wants to live, is the only moral border regime. Keyhole policies are at best ethical compromises. Compromises, even ethical compromises, are often necessary in political matters, but we should mince no words in naming them what they are.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

Weekly link roundup 24

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

The pope rails against “an economy of exclusion” (and I tentatively like it)

Many free market economists have taken umbrage at the pope’s seeming attack on free market economics. My perspective is quite different. Perhaps I have an advantage here, being both a free-market economist (at least, so I’d describe myself) and an Orthodox Christian, which is kind of close to being a Catholic. (Belief-wise, I’m probably a lot closer to being an orthodox Catholic than the typical nominal Catholic is.) Scott Sumner says that “it’s actually difficult to make sense of the Pope’s statement.” I’d put it differently: it’s difficult to map the Pope’s statement into concrete policy positions, since it is in a language of theology and moral exhortation and appropriately avoids being mappable into partisan politics. I’ll focus on the section entitled “No to an economy of exclusion,” page 45.

Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

We should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of… inequality?” That’s crazy! Inequality arises inevitably from people’s free use of their persons and property rights, as well as the accidents of nature, and could only be eliminated with some kind of Bolshevik leveling, inevitably bloody, and destructive of incentives to be productive.

Ah, but the pope didn’t say that. He said we should say “‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.” Logically, an economy of inequality but not exclusion might be acceptable. So maybe that’s all right then… but what exactly is an “economy of exclusion?”

One answer suggests itself: closed borders!

Did the pope really mean by “saying ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion,” that we must open the world’s borders?

A little background here. I agree with Rodney Stark that the influence of the Catholic Church was basically the only reason that slavery disappeared in medieval Europe. But it took them centuries to do it, even after Christianity had become the dominant religion. When slavery emerged again in modern times, the popes fiercely denounced it at first. Alas, their power had been greatly diminished by the modern absolutist monarchies of France and Spain, and they were essentially powerless to prevent the emergence of modern chattel slavery. Instead, the Catholic Church limited itself to amelioriating the condition of slaves, which tended to have it better under Catholic jurisdictions than, for example, under English rule in the Caribbean. Yet the Catholic countries were laggards in actually abolishing slavery. On slavery, the Catholic Church has always been sort of on the right side, often when no one else was, and ultimately rather effectually, yet they also accommodated the powers that be for centuries, in a fashion that seems downright cowardly. But I think cowardice is the wrong diagnosis. The Catholic Church believes it has care of immortal souls, so to provoke schism over mere temporal political and economic issues would be a tactical error of inestimable consequences. Better to move very slowly, but change society to its foundations and ultimately with general consent, than to compromise and form coalitions of convenience to win transient political victories.

So while Pope Francis isn’t demanding open borders tomorrow, I think there’s reason to hope it’s not accidental that he’s sowing a catchphrase so splendidly suited to serve as a platform for attacks on the migration-restrictionist state.

By the way, a word on “Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving?” The “clean your plate” fallacy is one of economists’ pet peeves. Suppose you were cooking dinner and you made a little too much salad. You can stick in the fridge, but you’ve got plans for the next few nights, you won’t use it, and there’s no space. You’re about to throw it away, when your conscience jabs you about people starving in Ethiopia. What should you do? Throw it away. Ethiopia is neither here nor there. If you could teleport the leftovers to starving people in Ethiopia, that would be great, but you can’t. Should you have cooked less? Not necessarily: it’s hard to predict your appetite. In general, it’s hard to plan food use so precisely that you never waste anything, and most of us have better things to do with scarce brain power. If you live in the US, there’s probably no one nearby you can give your excess food to.

When I lived in Malawi, though, it was different. In Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, hunger was never very far away, and it was easy to give away extra food. Now, under open borders, a lot of hungry people would be happy to come to the US even to live as outright beggars. There would be people to give away your extra food to, who would be happy to get it. To the extent that it seems wrong for food to be thrown away while people are starving, open borders is by far the most plausible way to address that problem.

When the pope says that “masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape,” I cannot but think of the millions of refugees, and the billions of destitute people around the world, who are prevented from bettering their lives by immigration restrictions. Of course, the pope doesn’t say it’s a consequence of migration restrictions; he says it’s a consequence of “everything com[ing] under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless.” If that’s a reference to the pure operation of free markets, it’s wildly unfair; in a free market, by definition, the powerful can’t “feed upon” the powerless without their consent, i.e., without mutual benefit. But competition is not limited to markets; it also takes place in politics; and as a description of the political-economic constitution of contemporary global capitalism, the pope’s statement is more astute. Rich countries shut poor people out by force, often imprisoning them in dictatorships or totalitarian regimes, then [via their corporations] hire them at extremely low wages in sweatshops. Meanwhile, political competition in democracies often leads to violence and exclusion against undocumented immigrants, as politicians pander for nativist votes.

Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.

That’s good description of populations marginalized by closed borders, isn’t it?

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Now this is a bit of a straw-man attack, but it doesn’t annoy me nearly as much from the pope as when Obama talks similarly, since when Obama talks this way, he’s being unfair to his Republican opponents, but the pope has no Republican opponents to be unfair to. If no one holds the views the pope attacks, so much the better; but some people, and some lines of thought, probably do tend that way, hence the warning. As Ryan Avent has noted, the “inevitably” makes the statement true. It is possible for strong economic growth to co-exist with exclusion and poverty, as in the days of Jim Crow laws… or, to cite a much larger and more example, today’s global apartheid regime of closed borders. Economic growth certainly can trickle down to the broad masses; it even tends to; but politics can prevent it from doing so; and that is very much the case today. That is why the pope is right to say that the opinion “that economic growth, encouraged by the free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world… has never been confirmed by the facts.” As far as I can recall, every period of dramatic economic growth in history has been marred by forcible exclusion of some people from the fruits of prosperity, not merely in the sense that the property rights of the prosperous are protected (which is fine), but in the sense that violence is used to bar people from avenues of advancement through deploying their labor where it is most productive, and enjoying its fruits. Thus, the great age of Victorian progress unfolded alongside first slavery, then continuing racism, and the oppressive policies of some (not all) imperialists. Thus, the 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in living standards in the prosperous West, even as migration restrictions trapped the majority of mankind in Third World poverty.

Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

This is a very good description of the moral numbness, the complacency and cowardice, of rich-world citizens who support immigration restrictions, even as they vaguely understand (as I think many do) that this exacerbates (and may even be the main cause of) world poverty. The pope continues:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules… The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

Scott Sumner remarks here that “the first sentence seems a bit odd, given that global inequality has been declining in recent years.  So let’s assume that the Pope is thinking about the fact that inequality within countries has been rising (and put aside the question of why the Pope would take a nationalist perspective and not a global perspective.)” But it does not seem unduly charitable to suppose that the pope is taking a longer view, and while there has been a bit of welcome convergence in the past decade or so, the past couple of centuries have seen “divergence, big-time” between rich and poor countries. To call this “the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation” misses the mark a bit, from my perspective. It is, rather, the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the nation-state, especially its power to exclude. But that’s related, since capitalist nations today usually define “the market,” or “the economy,” in national terms. The “new tyranny” of border restrictions is indeed “invisible and often virtual… unilaterally impos[ing] its own laws and rules.” Now and then it becomes hideously visible, in the form of ICE agents separating families; but mostly it operates by vague threats and paperwork requirements. So maybe I want to redirect the pope’s ire a bit, but its spirit, its vehemence, and much of its substance, are entirely appropriate.

The claim that “they [who? the happy few? a minority?] reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control” will stick in libertarians’ craw. Libertarians do not like linking “the state” to “the common good.” Yet except a few anarcho-capitalists, no one really denies that there should be a state serving the common good. Indeed, the phrase “vigilance for the common good” is, to my mind, decidedly wholesome. The pope stands in an instructive contrast to Paul Krugman, who, in his advocacy of statism, doesn’t really pretend that he wants the state to serve the common good. He is very eager for the state to hurt people he hates, such as Republicans and the rich, in order to seize resources with which to help other people, such as Democratic constituencies, whom he doesn’t particularly seem to like but from whom he gets a self-righteous pleasure from condescendingly bestowing benefits on them. To call, as the pope does, for the state to be “vigilant for the common good,” taken at face value, seems to preclude redistribution, which serves only the private good of select classes of people, and redirect the state’s actions towards the maintenance of law and order and the provision of public goods, which benefit everyone. That is very wholesome and proper.

But– here is the crucial question– what is the common good? The common good of a nation? Or the common good of the human race? Coming from the pope, doesn’t it have to mean the latter? And this brings us back to the condemnation of an economy of exclusion. For when a state excludes poor immigrants, it may benefit its own citizens (or some of them), but it almost certainly doesn’t benefit mankind. Granted, the pope seems to be defending the right of states to “exercise [some] form of control,” but that’s aimed at the financial sector. What I find welcome is that his reasons for endorsing state control would seem to greatly disfavor control of migration.

The pope’s call for a renewed emphasis on ethics is also very appropriate:

Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics – a non-ideological ethics – would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

It’s true, I think, that the discipline of economics, and the practice of finance, tend to keep ethics at arm’s length. In different ways, Marxists, Rawlsians, and neoclassical economists tend to replace fundamental notions of right and wrong with a mere calculus of interests. One of the things I like about Bryan Caplan is the way he forces ethical issues to the fore. We need more of that. A greater stress on ethics can’t fail to be favorable to the cause of open borders, since being able to win the moral high ground in any debate is one of open borders advocates’ greatest assets. The Chrysostom quote will not please those who (like Bryan) regard giving to the poor as “supererogatory;” clearly the Catholic view here is ultimately a bit different from the way free-market economists habitually regard property rights. But, let’s suppose that we do have an obligation to help the poor. Whose poor? Those of rich countries? Or the global poor? Surely the latter, since they are much poorer. How should we help them, then? Many ways, but surely the first and foremost is to stop excluding them by force from our homelands, which does them more harm than any aid we could give would do them good.

The pope predicts, a little vaguely yet at the same time vividly, that global inequality will lead to violence. At times he almost seems to endorse it, but no, he actually doesn’t: “Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. It serves only to offer false hopes to those clamouring for heightened security, even though nowadays we know that weapons and violence, rather than providing solutions, create new and more serious conflicts.” It is an interesting question whether global inequality will lead to violence. I must say that if some international movement based in the developing world eventually waged war against the rich countries to force them to open their borders to migration, it would be one of the more respectable casus belli in history. There’s little to no evidence of such developments now, but 19th-century economic inequality in Europe looked pretty stable at one point, but led in bloody revolution.

I have to think more about the pope’s remarks, but in general they seem a wisely aimed and much-needed provocation. Global capitalism today is indeed very unjust, mainly because borders are closed to migration, but there are other problems, too. It’s great to see the pope hurling down the gauntlet against the “economy of exclusion.” I don’t fully understand where he’s coming from, but much of his language is very promising. The world certainly needs “freedom from all forms of enslavement” and “a more humane social order.”

Ireland as a counter-example to the “ghost nations” hypothetical

These thoughts began in my mind as a comment on Paul Crider’s post “Ghost nations and the end of emigration,” but I decided they merited a separate post. Crider is responding to the suggestion in Paul Collier’s Exodus that open borders might lead to the complete emptying out of some nations. Collier makes the rather strange suggestion that nations have “existence value” and that it is “not satisfactory” if all the citizens of a nation become prosperous through emigration. Drawing out the ramifications of this suggestion, Crider explains that:

The assessment that the emigration solution to poverty is not satisfactory is just another way of saying that some level of persisting poverty is a price worth paying to keep a nation together and whole. I have granted that preserving culture is indeed valuable, so this is true enough. Stated again more vividly: some level of poverty is justified in order to prevent a language from disappearing from the face of the earth, in order to keep old and cherished customs alive, to preserve literature and music and dances and traditional festivals and even popular knowledge of a nation’s history. The question becomes how much poverty for how long? And who decides? The evaluation of the price of keeping a nation on life-support is ultimately subjective, with culture being more or less important to different individuals. For some, the ability to easily keep traditions alive will be worth foregoing lucrative opportunities in strange and scary lands. For others, being able to feed their families more easily will outweigh sentimental considerations of tradition. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that some individuals may not even particularly like the societies they were born in, and shedding the confines of their conservative native cultures is an act of self-actualization and liberation (imagine being a gay atheist in, say, Uganda). It certainly isn’t clear that the assessments of political leaders academics in either the rich world or the poor world should outrank the personal decisions of migrants and their families, whose lives are most impacted by emigration.

Yes. I find the notion that value should be imputed to nations over and above the, so to speak, services that they provide to their members (cultural, personal identity, community, norms and mores, etc.) very questionable. But I would also ask: Are there any historical examples of open borders leading to the complete disappearance of a nation? Remember, far from being a pure thought experiment, open borders would be (approximately) a return to the status quo ante, to the pre-1914 order when passport controls were rare and migrants could go most places with little interference by the state. Did open borders in the Gilded Age lead to “ghost nations?” Did any nations completely disappear? A certain answer would require more historical exploration and perhaps a bit more definition (what’s a nation, anyway?) but I’m pretty confident the answer is “no.”

And the closest thing to an exception, Ireland, vividly displays how wildly misguided the concern about “ghost nations” is.

Ireland in the age of open borders didn’t completely empty out, but it did see a substantial drop in its population as a result of emigration. After rising steadily in the early 19th century (see here), Ireland’s population dropped by an estimated 1.6 million or so during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, and then continued to fall thereafter as emigration persisted (which may be a good example of the diaspora dynamics that Collier explains so well). Today, the population of Ireland is a mere 3 million, yet according to Wikipedia, “an estimated 80 million people worldwide claimed some Irish descent; which includes more than 36 million Americans who claim Irish as their primary ethnicity.” Wow! The figures suggest that of the natural increase in the Irish population that would have occurred since the early 19th century, the vast majority of it has been channeled abroad through emigration.

So what about the existence value of Ireland? Has the whole world been impoverished by the Irish emigration and the consequent disappearance of the Irish nation? Have we lost a valuable culture, been deprived of its stories and literature, its songs and dances, its peculiar virtues and its lovable foibles, its turns of phrase, its historical memories, its myths and legends? Did open borders enrich the Irish at the cost of depriving the world of Ireland?

How can I make the “NO!” sufficiently resounding? What really happened is the exact opposite. Emigration immortalized and universalized Ireland. Many an American of no Irish descent at all, such as myself, feels St. Patrick’s Day as keenly as July the 4th, and knows “Danny Boy” or “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” as well as Yankee Doodle. Thanks to its own peculiar genius no doubt, but also thanks in a large degree to emigration, Ireland has a cultural influence out of all proportion to Ireland’s share of world population. These things are hard to measure, but Irish cultural influence is probably out of proportion even to the share of the world’s population with Irish extraction. Not only did Irish people take their culture with them, but (a) they communicated it to non-Irish people they met elsewhere, spreading a taste for things Irish, and (b) they enriched Irish culture back home. Pick up a book of Irish songs, and you’ll find some like this:

Deep in Canadian woods we’ve met
From one bright island flown
Great is the land we tread, but yet
Our hearts are with our own
And ere we leave this shanty small
While fades the autumn day
We’ll toast old Ireland! dear old Ireland!
Ireland, boys, hurray!

Many of the songs about Ireland written in emigration describe a sentimentalized Ireland that contrasts with the grim reality of the country as potently described in Frank McCourt’s brilliant autobiographical novel Angela’s Ashes. Which is the truth? Is Ireland “a little bit of heaven,” (I’m not certain it’s written in emigration but I think so) or the nightmare of grinding poverty that Frank McCourt was so eager to get away from? Doubtless, there is truth in both portraits of the country. It seems to me that emigrant nostalgia sometimes reveals things about a place that the natives are too immersed in it to notice. Or natives simply lack a basis for comparison. What to them is merely normal, to emigrants begins to seem wonderful. Certain crossings of barriers in my own life– leaving the Mormon Church, for example, or moving from DC to California– have this character: much is forgotten, but some things (the sensible stability of Mormon family values; the high educational background of the DC population) are seen more clearly from a distance.

It’s not just Ireland. Robert Wiebe’s book Who We Are: A History of Popular Nationalism emphasizes the role of emigration in catalyzing the formation of European cultural identities. The “existence value” of nations which Collier recognizes was felt most keenly by emigrants from those nations, and organizations formed by emigrants on the territory of the United States were crucial in encouraging Norwegians, Czechs, Irish, etc., to imaginatively embrace and appreciate these national identities back in their homelands. Collier, in an effort to make readers feel the “existence value” of Mali, tells us it is “the ancient culture that produced Timbuktu.” Who knows that? Probably more people know how the Irish saved civilization because the Irish diaspora likes to educate the world in the glories of its national past. If there were a Malian diaspora of tens of millions, the history of Timbuktu would be much more widely known.

I very much doubt that open borders would lead to any “ghost nations.” Yes, there are ghost towns, but that’s different: a town has negligible land, and its economic productivity arises entirely from the fragile advantages of concentration, so when people begin to move away, the trend may accelerate. But because nations have land, at some point, emigration would cause the marginal products of labor and capital to rise, giving a residual population a reason to stay that is lacking in the case of a declining town. Moreover, nations have more comprehensive cultures and identities than towns do. That’s another reason to stay, and for emigrants to take an interest in their homeland, to send home remittances, maybe to return with capital and skills.

I doubt that the typical small nation, in a world of open borders, would fare, in the long run, as well as Ireland did. I think cultures do differ in objective value, and the love of Ireland that emigrants feel generations later, and that they have influenced many non-Irish to feel, reflects some real, peculiar merits in Ireland that probably not every nation possesses. But I think the historical experience of Irish emigration is a much better predictor of how small, poor nations would fare under open borders, than abstract economic models suggesting the emptying out of countries. One of the benefits I look forward to from open borders is the role that emigrants will play in re-imagining many different national heritages, distilling the best aspects of them, and giving them to the world.