Making the moral case for open borders: Crooked Timber’s symposium on the work of Joseph Carens

Bryan Caplan, the economist who originally inspired the founding of this website (and who is quoted in our masthead to this day), is a tireless advocate for both the economic and moral case for open borders. Today, however, he ought to take second billing to ethicist Joseph Carens, who has been building the moral case for open borders since the 1980s. The Crooked Timber blog is running a symposium on Carens’s new bookThe Ethics of Immigration. I highly encourage you to read the symposium contributions, which prod Carens’s case for its weak points.

In case you missed it when the book first came out (what, you mean you don’t pay attention to the latest and greatest developments in the ethics of border policy?), Dylan Matthews did a fantastic interview with Carens in the Washington Post which I cannot recommend highly enough. Carens summarises the thrust of his book, which he divides into two portions:

  1. First, he argues that even if you grant states utter carte blanche over who they can exclude via border policy, it follows from well-established principles of law and liberal democracy that states are still morally required to allow certain foreigners who may immigrate illegally to stay, once they have sufficiently integrated;
  2. Then, he argues that actually, you should not grant states carte blanche discretion in how they determine who to exclude, any more than you should allow a handful of feudal lords to determine the future of millions of serfs.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, so do read the interview (and Carens’s book, if you have the time). I’ve also previously written about that first portion of Carens’s argument on this blog. At the time I write this, Crooked Timber has so far published four takes on Carens’s ideas, by four different authors:

  1. Chris Bertram, criticising Carens’s assumption that his view of the “democratic consensus” about membership in liberal societies is widely-held
  2. Ryan Pevnick, arguing that Carens bites off more than he can chew when he posits that states should offer amnesty to unauthorised migrants who have sufficiently integrated into their societies (I’ve written about Carens’s argument here before)
  3. Brian Weatherson, questioning the validity of Carens’s analogy between movement across international borders versus movement across subnational borders (Carens is not alone in using this; see also “Save Fairfax” and “Texas to Americans: Stay in America“)
  4. Kenan Malik, on the risks of further entrenching the notions that the status quo is “realistic,” or that open borders are utopian

Bertram’s promised in the inaugural post of the symposium that Carens will make an appearance at the end to respond to his critics. I’m looking forward to seeing what other responses they have lined up.

Ultimately, I believe the case for open borders rests much more than just on the pecuniary returns from liberating the families and workers of the world to go and be where they truly want to be. Even if the pecuniary returns to open borders were mildly negative, that would not constitute an open-and-shut case for junking the idea. On the contrary, I think the ethical case for scrutinising how our states exclude people on account of a condition of their birth is extremely resilient to different sets of economic tradeoffs.

That is not to say that I believe we ought to be insensitive or blind to the economic effects of immigration. I simply think that our societies need to weigh on our consciences as well how our immigration controls immiserate and exclude billions of people without any basis beyond the condition of their birth. Both the economic and moral case for open borders matter; I think philosopher Jason Brennan sums them both up nicely when he says:

If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It should not surprise us that the economic disaster of closed borders might have ethical ramifications. Few government decisions, short of actually going to war, have the power to literally make or break the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions of people. In his book Let Their People Come, economist Lant Pritchett (another pioneer of the open borders movement) gives one illustration of the impact which border exclusions can have:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year.However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Now, to be sure, even under open borders we would likely not see full equality of child mortality rates across nations. But to the extent our border controls prohibit Indians from seeking access to more efficient healthcare delivery systems and more qualified doctors, we have contributed to the problem of “missing Indians” — innocent lives snuffed out on account of these babies “choosing” the wrong country to be born in. To bring it home, Pritchett actually goes on to cite Carens’s ethical analysis immediately after this discussion to reinforce his point.

(Pritchett’s book is a tour de force of the case for open borders, and as much as I like Carens, if you choose to read only one book after this, I don’t think you have much of an excuse for failing to read Pritchett: his book is available for free online. )

The nature of how our societies exclude billions of people carries huge ramifications, both economic and ethical. Even though we might disagree with the analysis here, it is critical that we understand just what these ramifications are. When our states literally hold the lives of people in their hands, as they often do when it comes to migration, we have an imperative to strictly scrutinise what our governments do in our name.

This is why Carens’s work matters: somebody has to ask hard ethical questions about government policies which, in arguably quite a literal sense, are a matter of life or death for hundreds of millions. I hope to see many more symposiums like this one. More than that, I hope to see these ideas penetrate the popular consciousness.

Some years ago, novelist Orson Scott Card authored a few brilliant, non-academic elucidations of ideas clearly embedded in Carens’s and Pritchett’s work. In fact, for an illustration of what Carens talks about when it comes to exclusion and arbitrariness, it is hard to outdo Card’s depiction of what would happen if the US were to deport all its unlawful immigrants. The ultimate point of the academy is to mine our brightest minds for the best ideas, and to have those ideas make a difference in our society: I hope to see more of Carens’s ideas (and also those of his reviewers in this symposium) seeping into the mainstream’s consciousness, just as they seem to have in the case of Card’s.

I started this post with a mention of economist Bryan Caplan, whose activism served as inspiration for this site. Perhaps it is fitting to close with Bryan’s words on just why this academic work is so important:

If research energy were proportional to the inefficiency of the status quo, virtually every economist would study immigration.  And if outrage were proportional to harm, virtually every protest on earth would be in favor of open borders.

Weekly OBAG roundup 14 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations

Events and meta

  • Post by Vipul Naik, May 23, 2014, linking to a Cato event on George Borjas’ forthcoming book Immigration Ecnomics. The event will be held on June 11, 2014, 12:00 PM, at the Hayek Auditorium of the Cato Institute in Washington D.C. 4 likes, 3 comments.

Weekly OBAG roundup 13 2014

This is part of a series of weekly posts with the most interesting content from the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Do join the group to weigh in on existing discussions or start your own (you might want to read this post before joining).

Thought-provoking general questions or general observations

Discussions of specific historical and current situations


We Need More San Franciscos

Post by Michelangelo Landgrave (occasional blogger for the site, joined February 2014). See:

This post is a response to Nathan Smith’s recent post Make More Singapores! where he makes a call for the creation of more city-states like Singapore. I have two small quibbles with Smith. Firstly, I believe that we need start-up cities as well as charter cities. Secondly, I disagree with Smith when he remarks that current international relations make it unlikely that we will see the birth of new city-states.

I have discussed start-up cities previously here, but allow me to refresh readers on the topic nonetheless. City-states are some of the earliest forms of political organizations, but the concept of charter cities is much younger and can be attributed as Stanford Economist Paul Romer’s thought child. Under Romer’s charter city arrangement a host government would cede administration of a region of their land to a 3rd party. The 3rd party would administer the region under its laws this would hopefully allow for 1st world institutions to be imported abroad. One major concern about Romer’s charter city proposal would be that it could quickly become a form of colonization under a new label.

An alternative proposal to Romer’s charter city has been the start-up city. I previously described the start-up city as being different in that it remains under the administration of the host government. By avoiding using a 3rd party as an administrator a start-up city avoids the potential for neo-colonialism. As I have written previously, those nations with a significant emigrant population living in the global north have a comparative advantage in forming start up cities since they can draw on the expertise of their emigrant population. In retrospect this description undersells the start-up city concept, as a start-up city does not content itself with trying to emulate the existing institutions of 3rd parties, but also seeks to create entirely new forms of institutions.

The world needs both charter and start-up cities. The former have a comparative advantage in importing institutions that have proven useful and the latter may have the comparative advantage in experimenting with new institutions to see if improvements can be made. Most city-states today exist somewhere in between ‘charter’ and ‘start up’ city.

I propose viewing city-states as being defined by two key characteristics:

(1) The level of sovereignty they have.
(2) Whether their goal is to emulate pre-existing institutions or to experiment with new institutions altogether.


Most cities fluctuate between these categories over time. Singapore began its life as a sovereign charter city content with following British institutions, but has continually moved towards acting as a start-up city willing to experiment with everything from DRITI-esque immigration policies to managed lanes.

Hong Kong meanwhile is a former non-sovereign charter city under British administration that became a constituent charter city after the transfer of its sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China. PRC China’s ‘one country, two systems’ policy has effectively created a federal system that allows Hong Kong to act as a constituent member of a larger Chinese federation. Of relevance to us in the open borders movement, Hong Kong does not currently seem willing to act as a start-up city when it comes to its immigration policies despite it otherwise sharing many characteristics with Singapore. Both Singapore and Hong Kong are populated mainly by ethnic Chinese who lived under British administration for most of the modern era and today boast some of the most market friendly regimes in the world. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have control over their migration policies, but of the two Singapore has thus far been more welcoming of migrants.

Hong Kong’s reluctance towards open borders seems to stem chiefly from a fear that Beijing would encourage mainland Chinese to move to Hong Kong in an effort to undermine Hong Kong’s political autonomy. Taiwan shares a similar fear that opening its borders with mainland China would also endanger its own autonomy. The best keyhole solution in both cases would be to allow open borders, but not open citizenship.

An example of a non-sovereign start-up city is the greater San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco is a region in California that enjoys both a high concentration of migrants and powerful corporations. As I touched upon in the beginning of this post, I disagree with Smith that the current international system makes it unlikely for new city-states to form as I believe that San Francisco is already a city-state and is poised to gain further autonomy in the near future.

In terms of immigration policy several cities in the greater San Francisco area have adopted ID programs that provide documentation for all of their residents, regardless of their immigration status. San Francisco was instrumental in the passage of the California TRUST Act, which limits the amount of cooperation between local governments and federal authorities in the enforcement of immigration policy. Most of the major corporations based in San Francisco in turn are leading the current immigration reform movement in the United States. It is clear as such that San Francisco has radically different views on what immigration policy should be and this difference in political opinion translates over to other public policies as well.

It is granted that due to the experimental nature of start up cities they will create bad institutions as well as good institutions. San Francisco has developed better institutions than the rest of the United States with dealing with its migrant population, but has also produced bad institutions in such areas as transit or housing. This is okay and is not an argument against start up cities. Failure is an essential part of the creative destruction process.

In the past few months San Francisco has been attempting to gain greater political autonomy in the form of the ‘Six Californias’ ballot proposition. If passed by Californian voters the proposition would split the current state of California into six new states, with much of San Francisco forming the state of Silicon Valley. The proposal is being carried out by businessman Tim Draper and being sold as being for the benefit of all Californians, but it is clear that it chiefly an attempt for greater autonomy for San Francisco. It is doubtful that the Six Californias initiative will pass this year, but I would not be surprised to see San Francisco to gain greater political autonomy in my lifetime.

Many of the great city-states of history achieved sovereign status by attaining sufficient military might to fend off their neighbors, and on this point I agree with Smith that the current international system discourages secession from the major powers. Then again, has secession ever been easy when one neighbors a major power?
A city-state however needs not full sovereignty; it can exist as a constituent member of a larger federation. The Italian city-states were fully sovereign, but at the same time many city-states existed in federation with the Holy Roman Empire. The United Arab Emirates and the Swiss Confederation are both modern day city-state federations. Several cities in modern PRC China enjoy a high degree of autonomy in economic and legal affairs as ‘sub-provincial divisions’.

A necessary condition for city-statehood is for it to house an economically affluent population that has substantial political differences with the rest of the current nation. San Francisco meets this condition and as such I don’t believe it wrong to classify it a city-state. It may not have the military prowess to attain full sovereign status, but I could see it becoming a constituent city-state within the United States.

Such a city-state would be extremely beneficial to the open borders movement. San Francisco already has favorable policies towards its large migrant population. If it gained the ability to set its own immigration policy it would surely move towards even more open borders. Regardless of their exact nature, city-states are of immense importance to the open borders movement for two reasons;

(1) They bring better institutions to those who are unable to migrate and,
(2) They provide laboratories in which to create better institutions than ones currently known to us.

All in all I agree with Smith that we need more Singapores, but qualify it by adding that we also need more San Franciscos.

How (Open Borders Can Help) to Win Cold War II

It took two World Wars to defeat German imperialism. Now it looks like it will take two Cold Wars to defeat Russian imperialism. Unless the West chooses not to. If the West declines to resist Russian expansionism, or dilly-dallies too long, expect a crescendo of chaos. The world order subsists on a fine web of international law norms, foreign policy doctrines, tacit and explicit guarantees and threats, precedents and balances of power. That’s why “isolationism” is at bottom just a naïve failure to recognize that people respond to incentives. In the 1930s, aggression was contagious. Italian, German, Japanese, and eventually Soviet aggression encouraged and accelerated one another because they were all testing and eroding the same system of international law. If Putin’s conquest of Crimea is allowed to stand, it will not be the last.

But in a confrontation with Russia, does the West actually have the moral high ground? The democratic governments of the West are really rather wicked institutions. The deportation of millions by the US regime over the last 20 years is a crime considerably less than slavery, but on the order of Jim Crow segregation, and worse than the WWII internment of the Japanese. US fiscal policy preys ruthlessly on the young, sucking away their earnings to finance retirement programs that will be bankrupt long before they retire. Religious freedom, for the sake of which America was founded, is under unprecedented attack. Putin’s claim that Russia is standing for Christian values over against a decadent West is not wholly spurious: his regime has banned abortion advertising, and abortion has been plummeting, and Russians are surely less afraid than Americans that their churches will be harassed or closed down by the LGBT lobby. Russia is decent on immigration, too. It has the largest foreign-born population in the world after the United States, and accepts many immigrants from places like Central Asia who could hardly hope to get into the West.

As for Crimea, what exactly is wrong with Russia’s annexation? That it violated “sovereign” borders? But so did the US-led campaigns in Kosovo and Iraq. While the West obviously had far stronger humanitarian reasons to intervene in Kosovo and Iraq than Russia did in Crimea, the strength of a humanitarian case for intervention is a fuzzy variable. And while the Crimean referendum was obviously a farce, it’s surely true that many, and likely true that most, Crimeans prefer to join Russia. “Consent of the governed” as a political principle seems to imply a right of secession. Of course, that’s not a principle international law recognizes, and it would lead to chaos if it did. But democracies need noble causes to be willing to fight, and insisting on the integrity of the historically accidental borders of Ukraine against the will of the Crimean people hardly qualifies.

The trick, then, is to wage Cold War II in ways that will both be effective, and will make the West’s cause more just. Here, open borders can help. The ideas below are selective applications of the open borders ideology, which would be of great practical value in defeating Putin. I recently discussed them with a foreign policy specialist who knows a lot about Russia. Such ideas had never occurred to her before– they’re not the sort of things Washington talks about– but she agreed they’d be effective, albeit they’re politically infeasible. Well, perhaps. But sometimes geopolitical struggles can move the Overton window very far and very fast. Here’s hoping.

1. Insist on freedom of movement within Ukraine, including Crimea.

Never mind who rules Crimea. Insist that all Ukrainian citizens should have free access to it. Russia has hitherto been pretty accessible for Ukrainians, so Russia might concede this, but to the extent that there’s any interference with Ukrainians’ freedom of movement “within their own country,” make that a cause celebre. This will help to prevent the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea from congealing. International non-recognition of Crimea will keep getting talked about. There will be no normalcy for Crimea until it is under Ukrainian rule.

2. Insist that Russians traveling to Crimea need Ukrainian visas, but make them available easily.

On a related point: let Ukraine offer Russians visas to visit Crimea, but insist that they need them. When ordinary Russians want to travel to Europe, ask them whether they have been in Crimea since April 2014. If so, charge a fine, which will be forwarded to the Ukrainian government as compensation for trespassing on their territory without permission. (I consider it legitimate for a properly constituted and internationally recognized government to demand that foreigners visiting their territory have visas, provided that the visas are freely available and can only be denied on very limited grounds related to public health or safety.)

3. Let Russians visit Ukraine and the West freely to live and work; but tax them to compensate Ukraine; and require them to take civics classes, so as to bring them up to the standard of decent, civilized conduct which their homeland lacks.

This is a variation of the DRITI policy. Let Russians come to the West to work. But impose a special tax, and use the proceeds of the tax to finance Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. Say: “Yes, Russians, you can live and work in the West. We even exhort you to do so, so as to avoid supporting Putin by paying taxes to him and listening to his propaganda. But you have to show penitence for your homeland’s aggression by paying taxes to help its victims fight back against it.”

Also, set up classes in the West, and require Russians to attend them occasionally– don’t make it too burdensome, once per three months is enough– to instruct them in the values that peaceful, civilized, democratic nations live by. Some will scoff at them, no doubt, but I think they could be fairly effective. And the fact that the courses would be mildly humiliating is useful. It would make it clear to Russians that their country’s behavior puts them a step below citizens of other nations on the moral scale.

4. Welcome young Russian men of conscription age to enter the West, and even bribe them.

Russian conscription is rife with human rights abuses, with draftees sometimes being treated little better than slaves. So there is a human rights case for treating all young Russian men of conscription age as refugees. But there is also a ruthless realpolitik logic to welcoming young Russian men to the West: it directly depletes Russia’s military resources. I would go further than just letting them in, without the usual taxes and civics classes. I would pay them to come, e.g., $1,000/month. If we end up hosting, say, 3 million young Russian men, that’s $30 billion a year. A small price to pay to defuse the greatest military threat the West faces today. And it would drive Putin crazy.

5. Make this offer to China: if China joins in sanctions against Russia, the West will demand that Taiwan gradually open up to immigration from the Chinese mainland; but if China ever recognizes Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the West will immediately recognize Taiwan’s independence.

The contribution of open borders ideology here is that, while China’s claim to territorial sovereignty over Taiwan seems hard to justify, open borders principles would support recognizing the right of Chinese from the mainland to travel to or settle in Taiwan. And that might certainly be a step towards the reintegration of Taiwan with China, so China would welcome it.

I could write a lot more about how the West should deal with Russia (but just this one: turnabout is fair play, so the West should say that by violating the territorial integrity of its neighbors, Russia has forfeited its own, and declare that Chechnya and Kaliningrad can expect the West’s support for their independence whenever they want to seek it). But I think the strategic use of key open borders tenets would be very effective, far more so than anything the West is doing now, maybe more effective than anything else the West could do. The beauty of it is that while these policies would be extremely damaging to the Russian state, they would on balance be beneficial to the Russian people. And for that reason, they would make it much harder for Putin to promote Russian solidarity against the West. They would also make it more difficult for Putin to claim the moral high ground. Russians are obsessed with moral equivalence and claiming that whatever their government is doing, the West does it, too. So you might really see Russia competing with the West to use open borders as a geopolitical weapon, e.g., trying to deplete Western military resources by welcoming Western young men to Russia. That would be good for freedom of migration, but it would also show that Russians are far more willing to “vote with their feet” in favor of the West, than vice versa.