In the third issue of Wielding Power, the winning essay in response to the question “Should Nations Restrict Immigration?” is written by me. Open Bordersreaders, an intelligent lot as far as I can tell, might consider submitting to future competitions. The editor, Ryan K. Johnson, who blogs here, is an astute reader and critic, open-minded, and a lover of good arguments, who skillfully outlines the arguments of contributors in the margins. Interestingly, all three winners favored open borders! But Ryan Johnson himself doesn’t.
In a blog post introducing the issue and inviting further debate, Johnson offered me this challenge:
Nathan- I’m curious what you think about the risk of political instability or nativist backlash from open borders. Why do you think those aren’t serious concerns?
I wouldn’t say they “aren’t serious concerns,” I’d say that these arguments against open borders are overwhelmed by the case in favor. But it’s worth explaining why I give them limited weight.
“Nativist backlash” might mean different things, ranging from scattered grumbling to ferocious ethnic violence. Grumbling is of minor importance. People grumble about high gas prices and the inconvenience of complying with the tax code, but those are minor problems. Violence, of course, would be a dire concern, but first, I doubt it would come to that, and second, it’s ethically undesirable to reward violence-prone natives by giving them what they want.
My other response to the “nativist backlash” concern is that, as I explain in the article itself, I advocate taxing migration, and using the proceeds to compensate natives, and I think this would be quite effective in defusing nativist backlash. To the complaint, “They’re taking our jobs,” would come the answer, “Yes, but we’re getting checks in the mail from the IRS, financed by their taxes. Some of us may be earning less, but just about everybody’s living standards are higher.” I don’t think that would completely eliminate nativist backlash. Some would just hate to see the streets cluttered by impoverished foreigners. Maybe some would feel that a certain dignity associated with self-reliance had been lost, and that they’d prefer a lower living standard from one’s own wages to a higher living standard financed by foreigners via the government. On the other hand, one would hope that there would be at least some public understanding of the absolutely enormous power of open borders to raise global income and alleviate world poverty, and some pride in being part of that. All in all, if you could get over the huge hurdle of passing open borders (with migration taxes) in the first place, I doubt there would be all that much backlash afterwards.
Political stability is related to nativist backlash, but in some respects a distinct concern. Even if natives were wholly welcoming, on principle, or because they liked getting immigration-financed checks from the government, immigration might lead to political instability because immigrants would make public opinion more fragmented and multipolar, or because they were more prone to extremism, or tolerant of corruption. And since immigrants to a country like the US would be, on average, much poorer than natives at first, they might have an incentive to vote for distribution.
Except that they wouldn’t have the vote for a while. I advocate a rather long-drawn-out path to citizenship, involving mandatory savings which must be accumulated and then forfeited in return for becoming an American. Immigrants under this visa would have an attractive alternative to staying in America: return home, with a good deal of money to start a new life. Those who don’t especially like America, those unwilling or unable to learn the language and assimilate, and those whose economic prospects in America are poor, would probably find it in their best interest to sojourn in America for a few years, then return home to a life of comparative affluence on the money they were forced to save in the US. Those who chose to stay would likely have an economic profile closer to that of natives. How they would vote, I can only speculate; but I doubt they would deviate from natives in a radical or destabilizing way.
Of course, immigrants could destabilize the American polity through street activism or violence. Violence, I consider unlikely. Even if immigrants under open borders numbered well over 100 million, as Gallup has suggested they might (and I agree), they would still be outnumbered by natives, and more importantly, any immigrant group, e.g. based on ethnicity or nationality, would be vastly outnumbered by natives plus other immigrants, who would likely side with natives against violent activism. Fundamentally, immigrants would have agreed to come into the US under certain policies, and while not all of them would continue to accept the legitimacy of those policies, I think most would. People’s promises do generally mean something to them. But if systematic, political violence from immigrants were a clear and present danger, that would be a ground for restricting immigration by the groups most inclined to foment it. As for street activism, that wouldn’t matter much as long as natives are unpersuaded by their protest slogans. If crowds of immigrants march through the streets demanding equal taxes and voting rights, natives can just shrug and say, “Whatever. When you came, you agreed yourself to pay extra taxes and not have the right to vote. You’re a lot better off than you were in Bangladesh. Get over it.”
In his response to my essay in the issue itself, Johnson writes:
Is there no value in the group and its culture?
The short answer here is “Of course there is… but what does that have to do with anything?” I have a network of friends, family, and acquaintances that I value so much, that without them, life would lose much, perhaps most, of its meaning and value. But to suggest that that’s a reason to exclude immigrants is prima facie a complete nonsequitur. How do the immigrants impair my enjoyment of this network of friends at all, let alone significantly? Would they somehow clog the channels of communication, so that I couldn’t send my friends text messages or e-mails? Would they create so much traffic on the roads that I couldn’t visit my friends?
Yet it may the case– here, see Robert Putnam’s work on social capital and immigration— that immigration dilutes the population of people who are enough “like me” to have valuable interactions. Maybe there’s a lot of value in just being able to walk down the street and start socializing with the first person you meet, having enough in common with them to make this feasible and worthwhile. Let in lots of immigrants, and you have to start picking and choosing who to interact with, if you want to avoid the labor of constantly trying to bridge large cultural gaps. Maybe.
But my experience suggests otherwise. There just don’t seem to be many occasions where significant, valuable actions occur that aren’t filtered by some social setting. Thus, I make friends among colleagues, that is, among people selected for profession and institutional affiliation to resemble me. I make friends at my church, that is, I make friends with people self-selected for a highly specific set of beliefs and values. I have friends from grad school, that is, from a selective educational institution which we both attended. Etc.
I have a feeling that fifty years ago, the US was less fissiparous and fragmented, and that a kind of grass-roots solidarity with the neighbors was more of a reality than it is today. We may have paid a high price for that in conformism and the suppression of creativity and authenticity, and a kind of cultural liberation has taken place which has been at once exhilarating and alienating. That may be the reason for my impression that mere neighborhoods are no longer an important kind of community, and the kinds of community that do matter are immune to geographical dispersion. Whether immigration restrictions would be justifiable if neighborhood solidarity were a more important form of community is a large too large a question for me to deal with just now. (But I think not.)
Meanwhile, never forget that immigration restrictions separate groups as well as binding them together (if they actually do the latter at all). Many people are separated from loved ones by borders.