Santa Claus Is An Illegal Alien

Ladies, gentlemen, and elves. I am here before you today in favor of prosecuting the individual known as Santa Claus for immigration crimes against our sovereign nation.

Every year on the eve of December 24th Santa Claus enters our nation for temporary employment. He enters without a valid visa or even entering through a designated port of entry. The defendant and his supporters do not contest any of these claims.

Supporters of Santa Claus note that his migration is brief and non permanent. This is not however sufficient to waive prosecution of his case. A substantial number of other illegal aliens enter our nation for a brief time in order to work, save, and return home. It is unclear why, if these aliens are not pardoned, this individual should receive special treatment.

Australian citizens protesting Santa Claus’ annual invasion of their sovereign nation. “Stop the sleds” indeed.

Santa Claus’ crimes are especially heinous when one considers the vast number of goods he transports into our nation without proper documentation or paying tariffs. Santa Claus hires large numbers of foreigners year round to produce toys and other goods. He pays these foreigners well below the prevailing wage in our nation and does not extend to them basic labor rights. Through unfair competition practices Santa Claus has put countless of our nation’s firms and their employees out of business.  Every toy received from Santa Claus is a toy not bought from a native mom and pop store. Santa Claus is not merely an illegal alien, but a smuggler and a slave driver as well.

Some of you might have concerns about prosecuting Santa Claus as he is considered a religious figure in some circles. Our nation is not an unreasonable one and several visas exist for religious workers to enter lawfully. That Santa Claus has not bothered to apply for such a visa shows that he does not respect our nation’s sovereignty to control our borders. Furthermore our nation’s government, secular in nature, cannot afford to provide special exemption to individuals based on religion alone. To do so would be recognizing some religions over others and encourage social strife.

Others may object to prosecuting to Santa Claus on the basis of the limited resources that our nation has to prosecute immigration violators. Here I concede that our resources are limited and we must on occasion elect to prosecute with cost efficiency in mind. This is not however the situation with Santa Claus. Every year our defense establishment tracks his movement from the North Pole across the globe.  This has been done for over six decades. It is difficult for me to believe that we do not have the resources to capture Santa Claus and bring him into justice for his flagrant violation of our laws.

Ladies, gentlemen and elves it brings me no pleasure to make the case for prosecuting Santa Claus. The man gave me several toys throughout my childhood. My heart wishes that Santa Claus could be forgiven, but the law is the law.  I wish there were an alternative, truly I do, but there is not.

You Are No Longer Strangers and Foreigners

Christmas is a wonderful blend of earthly merry-making and theological mystery. Much of its symbolism– the red and green Christmas colors, holly, Christmas trees, mistletoe, wreaths– has no obvious connection to the mystery of the Incarnation, of God, the immeasurable Power that sustains the stars, becoming not only human, but a tiny, helpless baby, nursing at the breast of a human mother. Much that has taken on a Christmas meaning, e.g., songs like “Jingle Bells” or “Winter Wonderland,” merely celebrate winter.

On the other hand, many traditional Christmas carols sublimely express the most arcane points of Christian theology. In “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” we learn that “Christ,” who is “by highest heav’n adored” and “the everlasting Lord” has “late in time”– think of the long and violent history of mankind, aching with dreams and disillusionments– “come [as the] offspring of a Virgin’s womb.” Then the very heart of the Christian mystery: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity / Pleased as man with man to dwell.” God became man. Why? “Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth / Born to give them second birth.” By being perfect man, Christ redeemed human nature, and made us able– if we accept the gift– to return to the presence of God, which our inmost hearts have always desired. “Light and life to all He brings / Risen with healing in His wings.” I suppose few that sing this Christmas carol take notice of its theological depths. Yet even as a child, I felt that “real” Christmas carols like Hark the Herald Angels Sing expressed the essence of Christmas, while the fun of “Jingle Bells” was a mere guest under its solemn roof.

When the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men!” (Luke 2:14) they foreshadowed the global spread of Christianity. Gospel means “good news,” the good news that the angels sang to the shepherds that night, and that still rings through the world every Christmas day, news of triumph and mercy and reconciliation to gladden every heart. One of the bearers of that news was St. Paul, and I thought it appropriate to this holy day to quote the words with which he reminded early Christian believers in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor of the gift that had been given them:

Ephesians 2

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Now, statements that Christ’s “purpose was to create… one new humanity out of two,” to “put to death… hostility” and to make all people “no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household,” could be taken out of context and treated as direct endorsements of open borders. But critics might object that St. Paul is not here endorsing any particular political order, but the citizenship he is speaking of is citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, which, as Jesus told Pilate, “is not of this world” (John 18:36). And that’s true enough.

But now, for comparison, recall that Jesus began His ministry (Luke 4:18) by reading in the synagogue the Old Testament prophecy, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then He told the crowd, “”The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” Yet though the phrases “the captives will be released” and “the oppressed will be set free,” might seem to call for an immediate abolition of slavery, Jesus in His earthly ministry did not address the institution of slavery at all, and the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul even seemed to endorse it. The apostles wrote a good deal about liberty, but they meant was freedom from inner demons, from sin and man’s fallen nature; in legal and political liberty, they seemed to have little interest. Nonetheless, in due course, under the impulse of the spirit of Jesus Christ, slavery was abolished throughout the world. The higher, spiritual meaning of “setting the captives free” was that man should be free from bondage to sin; but that man should be free from bondage to human masters, though less important, was also intended and eventually achieved.

Doesn’t the same apply to open borders? Surely it’s clear that even if, when St. Paul told the Gentiles they were “no longer strangers and foreigners” but “fellow citizens with God’s people,” he primarily had a spiritual meaning in mind, that strangers and foreigners to the Christian faith should be welcomed in as fellow citizens, it’s nonetheless entirely appropriate, desirable, and even perhaps necessary that when Christians create transient earthly polities for the sake of secular expediency, they ought to welcome strangers and foreigners in and make them fellow citizens? Can anyone whose spirit accepts and rejoices in St. Paul’s words really doubt that a world of open borders would do more honor to them, and be more faithful to the intentions that they express, than a world in which most of mankind is physically shut out from dwelling among us by the accident of their place of birth?

And if we who were once strangers and foreigners desire to be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven as fellow citizens, ought we not to show to our less fortunate fellow men the far lesser mercy of admitting them to our own more happily-situated countries? Do we really deserve to be welcomed into God’s kingdom if we ferociously exclude the stranger and the foreigner from our own little polities?

Why the Open Borders Movement Should (Mostly) Avoid Emulating the Gay Marriage Movement

Recently I wrote a long post on the history of the abolition of slavery, arguing along the way that the abolitionists set a great example for the open borders movement to follow. I promised then to “explain in a follow-up post why I don’t think open borders can expect to get much benefit from riding the coattails of, or emulating, the gay marriage movement.” I do so here. To keep the scope limited, I focus on the US case.

Currently, the gay marriage movement stands out as the paradigm case of a successful social movement, so it is sometimes suggested as a model to emulate. There is some overlap between the two causes, e.g., Andrew Sullivan gave a friendly link to Dylan Matthews’ Vox article about open borders. Jose Antonio Vargas, a leading civil disobedient and immigrant civil rights activist, whom I praised in my article “A Face for the Faceless,”  is also gay and sees gay marriage as a major moral cause of our times, along with immigration reform. (Vargas does not seem to support open borders, but as a champion of civil disobedience, I consider him crucial in moving immigration reform forward.)

I. Inclusiveness, Tolerance, “Why Not?” and Cheap Ways to Gain the Moral High Ground

First, a few superficial similarities between the open borders and same-sex marriage movements.

People vary in their degree of attachment to the status quo, and it is among those least attached to the status quo, whom we might call the “why not?” people, that open borders and same-sex marriage both tend to make their first and easiest converts. “Why not?” isn’t really a good reason to open the borders or recognize same-sex marriage, of course. But some people seem to presume that if they can’t immediately think of an answer to “why not?” there’s probably a good reason to stick with the status quo, while others presume that there isn’t. I’ve seen those who give way to “why not?” embrace same-sex marriage and open borders with similar ease.

Open borders and same-sex marriage can both be associated with values like “inclusiveness” and “tolerance.” An “inclusive” person will gladly include same-sex couples in the institution of marriage, and gladly include foreign-born persons in the American nation. Would “inclusive values” also implied letting women be Catholic priests, mediocre students study at Harvard, and untrained amateurs work in the dental profession? Such questions expose the ultimate vacuousness of “inclusiveness” as a value. Again, a “tolerant” person might gladly tolerate same-sex couples getting married and foreign-born persons living in the USA, but would he or she also tolerate rape, murder, hate speech… or even people talking loudly in a classical music concert? For that matter, would tolerant people tolerate Christian pastors preaching from Romans, chapter 1 (in which homosexuality is condemned as unnatural, shameful, and a divine punishment for idolatry)? Vipul has reflected more deeply and sympathetically on tolerance than I’ll attempt to do; but as I see it, tolerance and inclusivity are too wishy-washy to do any real work in ethical argument or constitutional design. Still, there are such things as more or less tolerant attitudes or temperaments, and in my experience, inclusive, tolerant people tend to be the first to embrace open borders and same-sex marriage.

Another secret of the gay marriage movement’s success is that supporting gay marriage is a very cheap way for people to feel good about themselves. To work in soup kitchens or serve in the military are costly ways to enhance one’s own moral self-esteem and appear good in the eyes of others; but to say “I’m for gay marriage” is very easy and cheap. It’s equally cheap and easy to say “I’m for open borders.”

In general, this kind of “cheap talk” is a crucial driver in the history of virtue. Plenty of people are willing to praise virtue who don’t bother to practice it. And since people like praise, widespread praise for virtue motivates others to practice it. Eventually, one hopes, and it often happens, that people will come to practice virtue for the love of virtue rather than for the love of praise. And it is when virtue remains steadfast in the face of the world’s murderous hatred, as in the cases of Socrates and Jesus, that virtue shines most brightly, and does the most good. But people don’t usually learn to love being virtuous until they’ve practiced it for a while for other reasons. The mere threats of power do the initial work, causing children to stop hitting each other and stealing cookies and telling lies. Later, praise becomes the main motivator, and people behave bravely or prudently or justly in order to win the praise of their fellow men. Without punishment and praise doing much of the early work, it is doubtful whether anyone would achieve much virtue. British abolitionists made their cause one to be proud of long before the British made major financial sacrifices to buy out the slaveholders and abolish slavery. American abolitionists, too, raised people’s moral outrage against slavery for decades before their moral fervor reached a point where over 300,000 Union soldiers died liberating the black slaves of the South. If the open borders movement can make “I’m for open borders” widely recognized as a badge of moral honor, that will be a major point gained.

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits— but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Finally, I think generous motives are a commonality of the open borders and same-sex marriage movements. The main reason non-LGBT individuals advocate same-sex marriage seems to be a desire to benefit LGBT individuals. The main motive for advocating open borders seems to be charity towards the world’s poor. But there are generous motives on the other side as well: among social conservatives, who want to protect the institution of marriage for the benefit of children; among Christian pastors who want to save homosexuals from sin and Hell; among nativists who want to protect the wages of their fellow citizens from foreign competition; and among moderates like Tyler Cowen who favor more immigration but think open borders is too risky.

II. Open Borders Advocates Have Much Stronger Arguments

Second, in my view at least, the open borders movement is vastly superior to the gay marriage movement in the quality of the arguments it has at their disposal. The following two slogans…

1. “Gay people are not demanding special treatment, just the same freedoms that everyone else takes for granted: to love whom they please and to marry whom they love.” From the conclusion of The Economist‘s “The gay divide.”

2. Open borders is “the efficient, egalitarian, libertarian, utilitarian way to double world GDP.” From Bryan Caplan, adopted as the motto of this site.

… may serve as an illustration.

“Love whom you please and marry whom you love” is, prima facie, a blatant falsehood. We love many people, including our children, our friends, and our favorite writers, living and dead, as well as our pets, our countries, and the beauty of nature. Setting aside loves of non-persons, much of the love we have towards other people is not suitable for being embodied in marriage. We love our children, but cannot marry them. We love our friends, but it has been well-understood until recently– what the official position on this is in our new topsy-turvy world is supposed to be, I have no idea– that most friends are not proper candidates for marriage. One marries only one other person (at a time); one hopefully loves many other people. A married man may quite innocently love another man’s wife, as a friend, a formative influence on his thought, or a sister in Christ; but he can’t marry her. We don’t “love whom we please, and marry whom we love,” for love takes many forms and most of its forms can’t properly be expressed in marriage. If we try, gallantly, to save slogan (1) only by reading into the word “love” the meaning “love in a manner suitable for expression in marriage,” we only render the slogan wholly question-begging. For whether or not homosexual love is suitable for expression in marriage is just what the whole dispute is about.

Slogan (2) is as hard-hitting and cogent as slogan (1) is silly and evasive. Each of the four words “efficient,” “egalitarian,” “libertarian,” and “utilitarian” is the gateway to volumes of argument. The slogan captures the meta-ethical* robustness of open borders. Whatever your premises may be, says the slogan, they compel you to favor open borders. Is freedom your top value? Open borders vastly expands the freedom of human beings to meet their needs and pursue their dreams. Is utility what you care about most? Open borders is efficient and doubles world GDP. Are you an egalitarian, specially concerned to help the least well-off? Open borders will specially benefit the least fortunate members of the human race, those with the ill-luck to be born under corrupt dictatorships and totalitarian tyrannies and/or in the world’s poorest countries. Of course, all these claims can be contested– the claim that open borders would (roughly) double world GDP is highly contestable, though I tentatively believe it— but slogan (2) declares the terms of a bold and honorable debate.

Other than the uncritical prejudice that “nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment,” I can never discern their meta-ethics of same-sex marriage advocates. From what meta-ethical standpoint, for example, would they respond to the following argument?

Same-sex marriage shouldn’t be recognized because it will get many homosexual and bisexual men and women stuck in relationships they’ll want out of, and they should be free to leave without the stigma and complications of divorce. Yes, straight marriage has the same downside, but it has a larger upside: children. Not in every case, but in general. And that makes it worth it. But gays will be better off without the institutional pressure to commit. That’s not “paternalistic,” by the way, unless you think that it’s “paternalism” to allow no-fault divorce and thus deprive people of the right robustly to bind themselves in marriage, and for that matter, that it’s “paternalism” to abolish slavery and thereby prevent people from selling themselves into it. Civilized societies do not recognize unlimited rights of self-binding, and since the chance of children (among other things) makes the stakes for straight couples different from those for same-sex couples, to recognize different degrees of self-binding is appropriate. Strong self-binding in same-sex couples is still less desirable because sexual orientation seems to be fluid: there’s a good chance that a gay or (especially) lesbian spouse will not even self-identify as gay or lesbian in ten or twenty years. [UPDATE: See here and here for more on sexual fluidity.] Moreover, gays and lesbians generally do not conform to the norms of permanence and exclusivity that define (heterosexual) marriage. And there’s no reason either to expect or to desire that they should. Permanent, monogamous marriage is desirable for reasons arising from the special complementarities and jealousies of male and female, long understood by human tradition and more recently elucidated by evolutionary psychology. Those reasons do not cross-apply to same-sex couples. If “marriage” is made available to gay and lesbian couples, it will be behaviorally different. We would do wrong to try to force it to be behaviorally the same, to force same-sex couples into heteronormative molds. But if we don’t, it’s inconvenient to use the word “marriage,” which until now had a quite definite meaning, to describe LGBT arrangements that tend to be quite behaviorally dissimilar both from straight marriage and from each other. And it might be worse than inconvenient, if the “marriage” label facilitates the spillover of LGBT practices and norms into straight people’s behavior. Leading advocates of same-sex marriage have suggested that “married” gay men are likely to be “monogamish” rather than monogamous. That’s fine for them, since there’s no reason either to desire or to expect that same-sex couples should be permanent or exclusive, but would be disastrous for straight couples, who need all the willpower and cultural reinforcement they can get to fight temptation and maintain the sexual exclusivity that is crucial for the happiness and stability of their marriages.

I could imagine utilitarian and natural rights counter-arguments to this, but I think gay marriage advocates would be reluctant to use them, because any commitment to an explicit meta-ethical position levels the playing field too much. You can’t very well call an opponent of same-sex marriage a “bigot,” or allege a “bare desire to harm,” if the question turns on a delicate balance of utilitarian arguments pro and contra. Or, if your ethics are based on natural rights, you might with difficulty be able to maintain the position that the natural rights of man include a hitherto-undiscovered right to marry a person of one’s own sex, but you can hardly deny that there is any “rational basis” for resisting a claim about human nature that most of historic mankind, including all the great thinkers of the past until five minutes ago, would have dismissed as absurd. Since gay marriage victories have mostly been won through the courts, it damages the cause to permit opponents to discharge the absurdly easy burden of showing that they have some sort of arguments for their position, and aren’t just acting from spite towards homosexuals. If they do that, they raise the question: Why don’t we settle this through the democratic process, instead of having courts throw out democratically-passed laws by reinterpreting constitutional clauses in ways that would have amazed their authors? Same-sex marriage advocates prefer to avoid these deep waters, and stick to what works best for them, namely, the shallow semantics of “equal rights,” which enjoys enormous popularity even though the notion does not stand up to moderate critical examination. If they can bandy the phrase “marriage equality” about enough, while alleging “discrimination,” and creating an aura of inevitability by citing rising public support and telling opponents they’re on “the wrong side of history” (though the trend towards rising support seems to have paused, perhaps plateaued), without ever getting bogged down in a straightforward philosophical argument about what marriage is, they can come off looking like the muddle-headed good guys in a fight with pedantic puritans, and win by a kind of attrition, as the exhausted and intimidated public shrugs and decides to drift with the times.

Now, open borders advocates could follow this example, basing their case on “equal rights,” and insisting that “equal rights” be extended to all human beings. I’ve written before about how equality of opportunity, if seriously pursued, points to open borders more urgently than to any other single policy. I regard this more as a reductio ad absurdum of equality of opportunity, than as a positive argument for open borders. Open borders is a wise, feasible, and beneficent reform, while equality of opportunity is an ideal both unattainable and undesirable, a nihilistic delusion, the pursuit of which, if sufficiently aggressive, would require an ever more invasive leveling government, and impoverish mankind by erasing much wholesome, pleasant, and productive diversity. But since “equal rights” is a widely accepted ideal, open borders advocates could, in principle, take advantage of this error by pushing our agenda under the fashionable slogan.

I think it’s a bad idea. First, people won’t be as easily duped by the empty semantics of equal rights on a really important question like migration, as they are on a question like same-sex marriage which many think won’t really affect them. Second, though the successes of the same-sex marriage movement have certainly reduced my faith in the power of reason to influence public opinion, I still think good arguments are ultimately a valuable asset to any cause, and bad arguments are a liability. I think the same-sex marriage movement would use better arguments for their cause, if such arguments were available. They are available for open borders.

I can’t resist one last illustration of the unfathomably bad quality of some arguments made by the same-sex marriage movement, as an example of what not to do. Apologies for a couple of interruptions [in brackets], but I got so impatient with the disinformation that I couldn’t wait till the end of the blockquote to correct it. Will Saletan writes in Slate:

The first thing to understand is that homosexuality isn’t a sin. It can’t be, because it isn’t a choice. It’s not like promiscuity or premarital sex or cheating on your spouse. It’s just the way some people are born. [Note that this is myth: identical twin studies prove that homosexuality is not genetically determined.] If you’re not sure about this, talk to people who are gay. They’ll tell you that they didn’t choose to be gay, just as you didn’t choose to be straight [which is probably true but does not imply that people are born homosexual]. Their lives would be a lot easier if they could switch. Many of them have tried. They’ve learned the hard way that they can’t change their sexual orientation any more than you can change yours.

This beggars belief. Saletan seems incapable of understanding the very, very simple distinction between homosexual attraction, which is presumably largely involuntary and is not a sin, as Christian churches have always understood, and homosexual conduct, which is what Christianity and most other faiths and cultures condemn as a sin. Is he really so stupid as not to be able understand that distinction? Or is he just obfuscating in order to confuse his audience? I have no idea, and I suppose I don’t really care, but it’s very depressing. How is one to deal with people who make such terrible arguments? If I were debating someone for whom I had moderate intellectual respect, I would swiftly punish such lapses with open scorn, which is sometimes an indispensable tool of argument, a way of raising the intellectual level of discussion by getting the simplest errors out of the way quickly, a way to signal to one’s opponent to be more careful, more responsible, more rigorous. Certainly, if I were ever so foolish as to make such an argument, I would want my opponent to teach me a lesson by ripping me to shreds with the utmost contempt, so that I might never commit such a blunder again. But one can’t use open scorn all the time without the debate getting unedifying. Which makes it difficult to talk to advocates of same-sex marriage.

There is a delight simply in reasoning well, in arguing honestly, in being ruled by logic and evidence and seeing where it takes you. May the open borders movement continue to be infused with this delight. May we strive to be admired even by our opponents for our fairness to all arguments, our open-minded acceptance of all manner of logic and evidence, the clarity and rigor of our thinking. Our task is not to put the reasoning mind to sleep, or bludgeon it into silence, but to awaken it.

III. Christianity

A notable difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that whereas Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of the same-sex marriage movement, institutional and pious Christianity already has pro-immigration leanings, and may develop into an open borders ally.

The movement to abolish slavery was an overwhelmingly Christian achievement. By contrast, Christianity is the main impediment to the complete success of same-sex marriage. True, some churches have endorsed it, but that’s a quick route to decline and schism. As a rule, it’s the strict churches that remain strong, while churches that prefer fashion to faith lose their credibility and  unravel. Religion is the most-cited reason in polls for opposing same-sex marriage. Some pastors are now refusing to perform any civil marriages at all, basically on the ground that same-sex marriage has rendered civil marriage a travesty which should not get church legitimation. Indeed, given the firm opposition of Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants, it’s not clear what same-sex marriage advocates think their endgame is. The church has been around for two thousand years and it’s not going to disappear. It doesn’t change its mind about such things. The persecution of bakers, photographers, and others whose consciences forbid them to assist with gay “weddings,” may foreshadow the answer to this question.

The Christian position on open borders is different. I’ve written about “the coming Catholic movement for freedom of migration” and about how the Old Testament law provides a template for an open-borders society.  My co-blogger John Lee, impressed by the Bible’s teachings on immigration, asked “Why don’t Christians care more about open borders?” but the analogy with slavery would counsel patience. Christian societies tolerated slavery for generations, but in due course it was Christians who spearheaded abolition. We may hope the same pattern will hold for open borders. Already, Christian churches are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Religious piety is a predictor of favorable attitudes to immigration, and most Christians support immigration reforms that would let undocumented immigrants stay. Advocacy of immigration reform by Catholic bishops and the pope has been strong and persistent, attracting angry attacks from nativists. Evangelicals have been less favorable, but a description by Michael Gerson of how evangelicals are split on immigration is somewhat encouraging:

In the immigration reform debate, evangelicals have become a political prize claimed by restrictionists and reformers alike. Both sides have a case to make.

Of the major American religious groups, white evangelicals are the most skeptical about immigration. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, more than 60 percent believe that the growing number of immigrants “threatens traditional American customs and values” and more than half view immigrants as an economic burden rather than contributors.

At the same time, many evangelical leaders and institutions — including the National Association of Evangelicals and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention — are high-profile advocates for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented workers…

[There is] an interesting distinction between cultural issues among white evangelicals. Those who attend worship services more frequently are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage — tending toward the traditionally conservative position. But immigration provides a contrast. Those who attend worship services more frequently are less likely to see newcomers as a threat to American values. They tend toward the less typically conservative view.

I’m sorry to say that it’s possible to read the public opinion data differently data, and I wish that my fellow Christians were more unanimously Christian in their views on immigration. My confidence here doubtless reflects my own Christian faith, which is strengthened by but also colors my view of the long history of Christianity driving progress towards social justice, though often much too feebly and haltingly. In part, though, hope simply has nowhere else to turn. Open borders is a very remote goal, whose base of support, though possibly growing, remains minuscule. Without the Christian churches coming on side eventually, it’s hard to imagine what strategy could lead to success. The abolition of slavery was a consequence, not simply of Christianity, but more specifically of Christian revivalism, of an upsurge in Christian piety. I suppose my hopes rest on some new Great Awakening sweeping the Christian churches, strengthening them, strengthening the pious within them relative to the complacent and lukewarm, and further Christianizing the churches through deeper reflection on the moral imperatives latent in the Gospel message. It has happened before.

There are even some respects in which open borders arguments are favored by the Christian reaction that the same-sex marriage movement is provoking. Civil disobedience to the same-sex marriage movement by Elaine Huguenin, Jack Phillips, and Melissa Klein should make Christian conservatives more sympathetic to civil disobedience by Jose Antonio Vargas or Fabian Morales. There’s a tension between demanding a stronger, more invasive government to deport undocumented immigrants, and trying to stop a strong, invasive government from imposing a top-down revolution in social values by suppressing the traditional view of marriage. A leading slogan in the struggle against gay adoption is that “every child has a right to a mother and a father.” The pope is on board.  Research indicates that children do better with their mother and father, which in any case should be obvious from sociobiology, since it’s in the interest of each sex’s selfish genes to have whatever parenting strengths the other sex typically lacks, and not to waste resources on parenting strengths the other sex has in abundance. Now, if every child has a right to a father and mother, it would seem to be a violation of this right when deportation separates families. Again, as opponents of same-sex marriage movement have appealed to natural law, a new interest has been kindled in the important but difficult and long neglected idea that law should have a basis in moral reality and can’t be regarded simply as an arbitrary social convention. Natural law reasoning favors open borders, since laws restricting migration are clearly mere social conventions rather than moral fundamentals. That if same-sex “marriages,” though recognized by the state, can’t really be marriages, because they have no basis in natural law, then “illegal” immigrants can’t really be illegal because they haven’t violated natural law, is hardly an obvious deduction. But both ideas grow out of natural law thinking, and the more people reflect on and commit themselves to the first claim, the readier they will be to understand the second. My 2010 book Principles of a Free Society was an argument for open borders from natural law premises.

IV. Open Borders, Same-Sex Marriage, and Constitutional Democracy

Finally, there are basic tactical differences between how the same-sex marriage movement has achieved success, and how the open borders movement might do so. Both movements have a problematic relationship to constitutional democracy, but not in the same way.

Although polls now show majority support for same-sex marriage, relatively few of the victories of the same-sex marriage movement have been at the ballot box. Not until 2012 did two states, Maryland and Maine, approve same-sex marriage at the ballot box. By contrast, 30 states have passed state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is now legal in most of the USA, but this is a result of judicial decisions, not referenda or even the acts of elected officials. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more pushback from same-sex marriage advocates against same-sex marriage being imposed by the courts. Now that it seems to enjoy majority support, same-sex marriage could presumably get democratic legitimation, being passed through referenda. Courts that overturn same-sex marriage bans have to do so by interpreting constitutional clauses in ways that their original authors, as well as many generations of jurists until quite recently, would have disagreed with, and indeed, would have found amazing and ridiculous. Such “legislating from the bench” is a logically absurd and anti-democratic practice, but it has worked, for now. Should the open borders movement follow suit, and look for success through the courts?

Ilya Somin has offered, here at Open Borders: The Case, an originalist argument that the Constitution doesn’t authorize Congress to restrict immigration. I would be delighted if this logic were to persuade the Supreme Court. Am I being inconsistent and opportunistic here, deploring judicial review when it goes against a side I’m on, and asking for it when it would help a side I’m on? No. I don’t object to judicial review when it represents a good-faith effort to realize the intentions of the authors of the laws. It seems plausible that the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend to endow the new federal government with power to restrict immigration, as distinct from the power to confer citizenship; or at least that if some might have desired to endow it with such power, they didn’t put anything in the Constitution which they regarded as comprising a grant of that power; and that if they were informed that future judges would discover they had not granted that power to Congress, they would either have nodded with approval, or at most, found the judgment an unfortunate but understandable reading of their words. By contrast, if the authors of the 14th Amendment had been given a time machine and seen President Obama claiming that the 14th Amendment requires nationwide same-sex marriage, they would have not only have clarified their language to exclude this interpretation in the clearest possible way, but would probably have added a few clauses to call down God’s curse on any lying scoundrel of a judge who might someday perpetrate any such absurdity. So while the pro same-sex marriage decisions are anti-democratic and illegitimate, a pro-open borders decision would be right and proper.

But I don’t expect it to happen. Originalism has been defeated and defeated for decades as the Supreme Court has systematically eviscerated the enumerated powers doctrine and persistently expanded federal power, using the flimsiest of reasoning. In effect, the Court has overturned the limited government principles established in the Constitution and replaced it with omnicompetent government restrained only by positive limits such as those stated in the Bill of Rights. To apply originalist reasoning such as Somin’s on a consistent basis would require the Court to overturn half the legislation passed in the 20th century, radically rewriting the social contract. That would be a lot less undemocratic than it might sound, since the voters could, after all, re-establish everything the Court overturned through constitutional amendments; but it’s still hard to imagine the Republic tolerating such an unexpected overhaul. And while the new equilibrium that would emerge after this sort of originalist revolution might be more libertarian than the status quo, I’d be very surprised if the voters didn’t pass some sort of constitutional amendment restoring the government’s right to restrict migration. So I doubt open borders could be established through an originalist revolution in the courts, and anyway I don’t there’s any chance that an originalist revolution will occur.

Much more promising is the executive branch. David Bennion has argued in this space that “executive action, not legislative reform, is how US immigration policy gets made now.” I’m an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s executive semi-amnesty, on the substance, and I also think, tentatively, that presidential nullification is probably a good constitutional innovation. It’s one more check on the abuse of power. It might also weaken the rule of law, if lots of presidentially nullified laws remain on the books ready to be re-activated by a friendly president. What I would really like is a combination of presidential nullification with a robust doctrine of desuetude. Then, if presidents left the laws unenforced for a few years, they would cease to be laws, making a nice way to roll back the large excess of laws that the country is burdened with.

Presidential nullification is far less undemocratic than non-originalist judicial review, since presidents are democratically elected. Still, I won’t stress the democratic credentials of the open borders movement vis-a-vis those of the same-sex marriage movement, because I’m far more of a believer in freedom and justice than in democracy, and I care far less about whether the people or a hereditary monarch is “sovereign,” than about how robust are the limits on the sovereign power, and how conformable to the natural law are its statutes and conduct. There are serious difficulties in defining democracy, which the open borders issue forces into the open. For example, I have little doubt that US open borders would be established very swiftly if foreigners could vote in US elections;  does that make open borders a highly democratic policy, or is it irrelevant? I have sometimes argued that “immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law,” since democracy is a good thing because the people who have to live under the laws get to have a say in making them; and the set of people (citizens) who have a say in making immigration laws is the exact inverse of the set of people (non-citizens) who are subject to them. Doubtless my usage here deviates a bit from the mainstream; but I don’t think the mainstream has any clear or consensus notion of what democracy is, or why it is good.

Even my objection to non-originalist judicial review is not that it’s democratic but that it’s dishonest. Judges of the “living Constitution” type pretend to interpret the law when they’re really imposing their own policy preferences arbitrarily, so I condemn them as frauds. I much prefer someone like Tsar Nicholas II, who didn’t pretend a commitment to democratic norms. I would like liberal judges better if they said openly: “American voters often do things we think are bad, so we’re selectively overturning democracy in the interests of what is good and right.” Then I’d hope our new judicial overlords proved to be more just and beneficent than the democratic regime they supplanted. But liberal judges’ pseudo-democratic posturing denies me the option of respecting them.


* I use the word “meta-ethics” in a slightly different sense than philosophers do. For me, utilitarianism is a meta-ethical position; virtue ethics is a meta-ethical position; natural rights is a meta-ethical position; Kantian deontology is a meta-ethical position. Such meta-ethical views relate to the meaning and source of morality generally, as distinct from ethical views, such as whether it’s right to divorce a silly and spendthrift husband, or to spare someone’s feelings by telling a lie.

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.”

Migration: putting the individual at the center

One of the core arguments for free movement of people is the economic logic of the free movement of labor. But of course people are more than just labor, and migrants make the journey for a variety of reasons. If it isn’t for economic gain (or welfare benefits maximization, in the cynic’s version of the narrow economic motive), then the migrant must be fleeing oppression, if the typical migration discussants are to be believed. The role open borders could play in offering sanctuary for the oppressed is important, of course. But this too, is not the full story.

The stories of students studying in foreign universities are also familiar, and I suppose could be construed as human capital development and thus economic in nature. But of course, not all (or even most?) students seek higher learning only for its economic benefits. Perhaps their parents expect it of them; or it is what their peers are doing; or they have the scholar’s instinct to learn; or they hope to find love and value the kinds of people who attend university; or they are enchanted by the sheer romantic adventure of it all. Or perhaps education is a convenient vehicle for the intended aim of moving far away from the student’s home.

People cross frontiers because of family, evoking sympathy from moderates and cynicism about anchor babies and phony marriages from immigration skeptics. But people move to get away from family as well. The bonds of family and village can stifle and suffocate, and sometimes the only way to escape the kind of life and values you see around you is to physically leave. And perhaps the easiest way to get far enough away to find the right mix of desired opportunities and personal contacts and values is to leave your country of origin.

Incidentally, distaste for the culture of Oklahoma played no small role in my own eventual migration (within the US) to California. It’s worth noting in my case that economic calculation played no role whatsoever in this decision; instead, it was educational opportunities (graduate school in chemistry) and the desire to live in a more cosmopolitan locale, far away from the “Bible Belt” of my rearing.

There are still other reasons to move. Someone might be interested in moving to another country simply because of a fascination with the culture there. Consider a young Westerner who has studied Japan through much of her childhood. Perhaps she is of Japanese descent and wishes to learn and experience more of a culture that is mostly alien but for an easily overlooked familial connection. Or she wishes to study one of the Japanese schools of Buddhism and must do so in Japan. Or perhaps our young Westerner has no connection to Japan at all. She just got hooked on manga by a random twist of fate and the love of the language and udon and the rest came along later.

This last gets at something entirely missed by models built only on economistic concepts like wage gaps and place premia: glamour. As goofy as it usually becomes on close inspection, some foreign lands just seem to have a magical allure. Consider the mythologies surrounding New York City or Hollywood or Paris. These cities are romanticized out of all proportion to reality in movies, in popular literature, and in the dreams people share with one another. Or to those non-urbanists in the audience, take the American western frontier, the “wild west”. These examples are colored by my own American experience, of course. I don’t know much about the mythologies surrounding life on the rich side of Europe’s guarded borders, except for my vague, leftish fantasies about maybe some day moving to a land free of cowboy conservatism. And I know nothing of the sparkling, rapidly modernizing cities of India and China and the hopes and dreams they represent for nearby hinterlanders. And as an irreligious mongrel, I will likely never appreciate the importance attached to holy lands and ancestral homes. Perhaps glamour is just killer marketing, but even if it is just marketing, it hardly matters. We feel the effects.

Or sometimes the effect is not felt. John Lee’s recent exposition of the all-things-considered quite open borders of Argentina is an illuminating example of what gets people moving and what doesn’t. Given the freedom to immigrate that Argentina respects, the country’s history of immigration, and the high wages of the Argentine labor market compared to much of the world, one would expect to see floods of migrants to the country. But wage gaps aren’t everything. Maybe no one knows about Argentina’s mostly open borders, or maybe the country gets bad press for its unenviable macroeconomic management, or maybe the aspiring migrants of the world have not had time to adjust their hopes and dreams to include this new possibility.

Then there is the romance of the expatriate, who chooses to dwell within a new country, for work or school or whatever. The expatriate is not a permanent immigrant, however long she might stay in her host country. She has no intention of assimilating, and perhaps even relishes the identity of being a stranger in a strange land. Among a certain set of expats, which country they live in doesn’t even matter that much, as long as it’s somewhere different from their birth country. Some will teach their native language, or join a multinational volunteer program, or find work–any work–in order just to stay abroad. And some will hop from country to country as opportunities present themselves, staying one step ahead of the little things in life that tie one down. Work, school, teaching, etc., are for these rootless cosmopolitans just means to the purpose of migration.

And there is no good reason to think that the desire to migrate for the sheer hell of it is something limited to rich kids from OECD countries, other than what might uncharitably be called neocolonialist assumptions about the people of “developing” nations. Laura Agustin, in a work filled with interviews of migrants exercising agency, describes this “metanarrative” in which

leisure is considered an aspect of western modernity that facilitates tourism, which is characterized by the absence of work, while migration is undertaken by less modern people impelled by identifiable causes to leave home. The tourism and pleasure seeking of people from ‘developing’ societies rarely figures, as though migration and tourism (and working and tourism) were mutually exclusive. […]

Armed conflict and loss of farms may push people away from home, while labour shortage and favourable immigration policy may pull them elsewhere: the basic concept is unarguable, but it also envisions migrants as acted upon, leaving little room for desire, aspiration, anxiety or other states of the soul. In contrast, first-world travellers are imagined to be modern individuals searching for ways to realise themselves.

We all, rich and poor alike, experience push and pull factors of economic forces and, in very bad cases, geopolitical forces. But we all also access any of a variety of personal reasons like those I described above to exercise agency, both in how we react to external forces and how we formulate and execute our life plans in circumstances we find ourselves in. Ignoring the centrality of the individual agent in decisions to migrate in an attempt to understand migration in terms of impersonal forces robs migrants of the dignity of their lived experiences.

Nevertheless, there are important differences between the well-off citizens of rich nations and the least fortunate among us: with the education, personal connections, and financial and institutional resources common in the rich world, we the lucky ones can form our aspirations with a greater awareness of alternative possibilities. An illiterate subsistence farmer, to take an extreme example, has not seen enough of the world to know what he is missing. A woman growing up in a society that fails to respect the rights of women and forsakes their education and development may never learn that women can lead other kinds of lives.

Migration is a valid choice for the plethora of reasons described above, but it’s worth noting that it is the option to move that is of value rather than movement itself. After all, movement isn’t always voluntary. The individual’s desire is frequently to remain wherever it is she calls home, and this desire can be thwarted by violent upheavals, forced migrations, and human trafficking. Also, the capability to move may be valued even if it is never exercised. I may fervently wish to move to that shining city on a far-flung hill and plan my life accordingly, even if life in its intricate twists and turns ultimately presents me with something completely different to settle my yearning feet. The planning itself and the decision to change my mind will have been the products of my own agency, no one else’s, and there is something worthwhile in that. Finally, I may value the freedom of movement so that someone else might exercise it. Perhaps I will stay rooted, but my son will chase dreams taking him far, far away.

It’s important also to make room for contingency in life and in the decisions we make. I met my spouse on a blind date arranged by a casual friend who, one fateful evening, instant-messaged my wife-to-be by accident. Stupid luck can radically change our lives. Random events affect migrants as well–the chance meeting that provides a crucial contact abroad, or falling in love while on a work assignment or studying in another country, or hearing about an employment opportunity while on a religious pilgrimage. These chance scenarios present a person with good reasons to make migration decisions that aren’t captured well by economic push-pull models, nor by the tear-jerking stories of violent political crises or persecution (compelling though they are).

I should point out that I don’t mean to impugn simplified economic models categorically. I only mean to caution their use. They usefully model what the world would look like if people acted only according to their economic self-interest, which is indeed a powerful force. But economic self-interest is but one of a range of motives, a plethora of which may act on an individual all at once. Homo economicus, like homo refugeeus, is a cartoon that doesn’t reflect the rich diversity and texture of human agency.

The point I’ve alluded to thus far but will now make explicit is that the right to migrate–or more precisely, the capability to choose where one lives–has both instrumental as well as intrinsic value. The focus of most economic accounts of migration is its instrumental value, that is, the role of migration in facilitating other, more traditionally understood economic projects like finding higher wages and developing human capital. But as I hope I’ve illustrated above, migration for many people can be seen as valuable in and of itself. One migrates to work, but might also work to migrate. I have tried to flesh out an agent-centered view of migration, where the decisions made by individuals to move or not to move, and where to move and how, are understood as belonging to the individuals involved, whether those decisions are heavily constrained by external forces or not. The versatile instrumentality, the intrinsic value, and the dignity inherent in the choice to move or stay make the freedom of movement a strong candidate for fundamental human right, the abrogation of which requires powerful and particular justification.

Consider an analogy with the freedom of speech, which is considered fundamental at least in the democracies of the developed world. One could list all of the reasons why people value the ability to express themselves. Free speech creates a marketplace of ideas, allowing unpopular but meritorious ideas to gain a foothold and with time possibly come to dominate. The benefits redound to us all in the forms of technology, philosophy, religion, education, sexuality, etc. Free speech allows art and literature to flourish in a way that state-controlled arts and letters cannot hope to match. Art, literature, and the entertainment forms of modern media also bring people together, strengthening the existing bonds of human relationships and communities, and engendering new relationships and communities. Volumes have been written on these instrumental advantages of free expression. But self-expression is also a valuable experience all on its own, in terms of pure amusement, organization, catharsis, and spiritual fulfillment. The limits to freedom of expression we accept as reasonable (Crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater) do not damage the principle involved. We still presume freedom of expression is valuable unless very strong arguments are brought to bear in particular cases. The capability to express oneself is, quite simply, the kind of thing a person has reason to value.

International migration is an entirely natural phenomenon that should evoke no more suspicion than moving over to the next town. People have a palate of reasons for migrating that reflects the diversity of their individual histories, relationships, dreams, and even whimsical fantasies. These are reasons that even the most rooted among us can understand with a bit of imagination. The multiplicity of reasons to migrate is wide-ranging enough that it makes sense to consider it a fundamental human capability–the kind of capacity a person has reason to value without needing to appeal to other ends. And migrants themselves are just folks, from all races and classes, from all creeds, from all genders and sexualities, from all parts of the world.

With all of this in mind, it becomes obvious that the violent enforcement of border controls around the world is both hopeless and hopelessly misguided. It is hopeless because movement is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. As such, like the urges to speak one’s mind to be heard, to make friends and to love lovers, to labor and to enjoy the fruits thereof, the urge to move will find a way by cussed grit and ingenuity. Fences and gunboats will extinguish some dreams and rack up body counts but, short of truly totalitarian crackdowns, they will not halt the flows of humanity. But the control of the border does warp the experience of migrants, creating or worsening conditions of fear, exploitation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination. And the project to control the border is misguided because it ignores the basic, human element at play: individuals making decisions about their own lives for their own reasons. People move. They always will. Embrace them.

This post was inspired by Hein de Haas’s paper, “Migration Theory: Quo Vadis?”, which formulates a model of migration in the capabilities framework. This framework is implicit in the post.

Krugman and Cowen on immigration; or, rallying the economic profession around open borders

Co-blogger Joel Newman recently authored a fine post calling out Paul Krugman on his seeming endorsement of unjust immigration laws. Joel notes that Krugman eagerly endorsed excessively restrictive immigration laws introduced in the US in 1924, without even mentioning or criticising their basis in primarily racist and empirically-unfounded bigotry. Krugman essentially endorsed closing the borders because, in his own words,

The New Deal made America a vastly better place, yet it probably wouldn’t have been possible without the immigration restrictions that went into effect after World War I. For one thing, absent those restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.

Furthermore, open immigration meant that many of America’s worst-paid workers weren’t citizens and couldn’t vote. Once immigration restrictions were in place, and immigrants already here gained citizenship, this disenfranchised class at the bottom shrank rapidly, helping to create the political conditions for a stronger social safety net. And, yes, low-skill immigration probably has some depressing effect on wages, although the available evidence suggests that the effect is quite small.

The chief problem with this argument is Krugman’s implicit assumption that it would have been impossible — whether for fairness or politically practicable reasons — to design a welfare system that excludes non-citizens. Limitations on benefits access for non-citizens are what we call keyhole solutions, policies aimed at solving a particular problem by targeting it in a keyhole fashion — using a swatter instead of a nuclear bomb to kill a fly.

We know Krugman’s assumption of unworkability is unjustified because  many welfare systems, including that of the US, already exclude immigrants from most benefits. Don’t take it from me; take it from the federal government. If you need a one-sentence summary, here it is:

With some exceptions, “Qualified Aliens” entering the country after August 22, 1996, are denied “Federal means-tested public benefits” for their first five years in the U.S. as qualified aliens.

“Qualified Aliens” basically refers to what we colloquially might call “legal immigrants”. Unauthorised immigrants never qualify for federal benefits unless and until they become legal immigrants and pass the five-year waiting period.

What of universal, non-means-tested benefits, like Social Security, which is often seen the crowning jewel of the New Deal? Or of Medicare, the crowning jewel of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” follow-up to the New Deal? Well, anyone half-familiar with the economics of these laws knows the answer: citizen or not, virtually nobody can qualify to receive benefits from either of these programmes without working for at least 10 years (see this report from the conservative Heritage Foundation for more). You would never see a flood of immigrants bringing their aged and infirm to cash in on American universal social benefits, because unless these aged and infirm worked for a decade, they would never qualify.

Are these limitations on immigrant welfare access immoral, or politically infeasible? That doesn’t seem to be the case to me. Obviously they are politically feasible; if anything, it would have been quite politically impossible to enact some of these programmes without such restrictions! And although every government decision is fraught with moral trade-offs, it seems more immoral to deny anyone, native or foreign, the right to go where they please in peace than it would be to allow them liberty of work and travel at the expense of higher bars for them to access state funds for the indigent. I tend to think Krugman would agree; to my knowledge he has never criticised bars on immigrant access to welfare as fundamentally unjust — while he has routinely deplored in the past efforts to deprive foreigners of jobs and opportunities that they can and want to seize.

Krugman is certainly a terribly smart economist, so I believe he understands all these issues I raise, possibly much better than I do. That’s why his wording is so careful. He says that “absent [immigration] restrictions, there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.” (emphasis added) He never says these claims would have been justified or valid, but he also never calls them out as clearly unjustified and invalid either, even though such assertions clearly would have been completely baseless by design in the very New Deal that the US got!

It is quite uncharacteristic of Krugman to essentially surrender to bigotry and ignorance in a policy debate. He is basically saying: “A bunch of stupid bigots would have made some false claims about a good policy if we didn’t forcefully exclude immigrants from our shores, so it’s a good thing we catered to these bigots’ unfounded prejudices.” The Krugman I’ve been reading for almost a decade would never have said anything close to this — except, alas, on immigration.

I don’t think Krugman needs to be persuaded of the economic feasibility of keyhole solutions like benefit access limitations. After all, he links to this fantastic review of the economic literature on immigration, which finds that thanks in no small part to the limitations on welfare access which virtually every country has enacted, the average immigrant to the developed world is a fiscal breakeven. Immigrants don’t tax social welfare systems anywhere as much as the typical non-economist might expect, because social welfare systems are perfectly capable of serving citizens while limiting immigrants’ access.

It is very unlike Krugman to notice such a gaping economic fallacy, and refrain from exploiting or belittling it. The only explanation I can see of the issue is that, like most centre-left moderates on immigration, he has fallen prey to a series of mistakes leading him to underrate the importance of the issue. I can only hope that Krugman eventually listens to reason — that he listens to himself.

Just look at Paul Krugman discussing the topic of domestic migration — now here is the Krugman I know, lambasting unfounded economic thinking. Within the US, domestic migrants have mostly moved to “Sunbelt” states like Texas. Their politicians boast of business-friendly policies and low taxes. But, Krugman astutely points out, these policies don’t seem to be showing up in the productivity or wage figures.

From wage data, it seems that migrants to Sunbelt states are actually leaving more productive climes for new homes in a less productive region! Krugman argues the data has to lead us to conclusion that the main reason they move is because they actually take home more money, despite earning less. The cause of this?

Because living there is cheaper, basically because of housing. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, rents (including the equivalent rent involved in buying a house) in metropolitan New York are about 60 percent higher than in Houston, 70 percent higher than in Atlanta.

In other words, what the facts really suggest is that Americans are being pushed out of the Northeast (and, more recently, California) by high housing costs rather than pulled out by superior economic performance in the Sunbelt.

And this, in turn, means that the growth of the Sunbelt isn’t the kind of success story conservatives would have us believe. Yes, Americans are moving to places like Texas, but, in a fundamental sense, they’re moving the wrong way, leaving local economies where their productivity is high for destinations where it’s lower. And the way to make the country richer is to encourage them to move back.

Migration is an extremely important issue because it is the primary way that our societies make better use of scarce human talent. A mind is a terrible thing to waste — so it would be particularly sad if the innovator behind the next Facebook or Tesla was forced to live in the boondocks because he or she just couldn’t live where all the other innovators are, because of laws designed to exclude people like him or her from the places where those innovators live.

But the same logic applies to less-skilled workers too: if we need more housing and services for smart people who want to live in cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, then we also need more construction workers and bus drivers and baristas and barbers. You can’t have a city that’s purely populated by high-skilled workers; it would be inefficient if every barista in town had a PhD. So it would be just as much of a shame if baristas with just a high school education couldn’t live in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.

Again, I don’t need to explain any of this to Krugman. He clearly gets it. But he strangely ignores the importance of this productivity problem when it comes to international immigration. All he needs to do is listen to himself, and apply the identical productivity insights to movement across international borders.

The wage gaps Krugman talks about are, as he says, a measure of inefficiency and impoverishment: that people are forced to work in less productive jobs, earning lower wages, ultimately impoverishes everyone. People’s talents, whatever they may be, are not being put to their fullest use. But the immigration restrictions Krugman supports have exactly the same effect as the strict land use laws he laments.

And although the effects are conceptually the same, the magnitudes are not. The wage gaps Krugman discusses are on the order of 10 to 20%. But the wage gaps created by restrictions on movement across international borders are on the order of 100 to 1400%! These wage gaps are immense, and they have never existed in regions with unified labour markets, where workers are legally allowed to move across borders and work.

See the seminal economic paper by Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett, and Claudio Montenegro for more — but trust me, the effects are huge. No matter what assumptions or methods they use, economists studying the issue virtually always conclude that the inefficiencies resulting from our laws restricting the movement of workers between countries are on the order of 50 to 150% of world GDP: trillions of dollars. Simply put, they dwarf the problems Krugman complains about when it comes to the inefficiences created by policies that drive people to migrate from Massachusetts to Texas.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely agree with Krugman that strict land use laws, which aim to prevent the “wrong” types of people from being able to live in certain areas, are inefficient and reprehensible. I applaud him all the more for drawing attention to them. Unconscionably strict land use policies are deeply-entrenched in American law; so deep that Krugman’s fellow pro-immigration economist and New York Times columnist, libertarian Tyler Cowen, has declared he cannot support open borders because it would not be politically feasible to let so many poor people live in rich countries — because the only way to truly allow poor people to come would be to repeal and overcome the strict land use regime prevailing in much of America.

The parallels actually are quite striking; both Krugman and Cowen neglect to think of, or at least discuss, how keyhole solution-type policies could ameliorate the political costs of immigration that they worry about. After all, as Krugman himself has observed, immigrants gain immensely from being able to put their labour to more productive uses, in more productive regions.

They would be willing to pay a lot for the ability to live and work legally in a country like the US; that’s why they shell out thousands in fees to smugglers when the law, unjustly and inefficiently, bans them from coming legally. It would be far fairer and efficient to let immigrants compensate their new neighbours for the costs (even if these might be purely psychic costs incurred by those with anti-immigration prejudices) of living near immigrants. Both Krugman and Cowen know this — and even if it doesn’t fully comport with their sense of propriety, it is surely fairer to give immigrants some choice in the question of how to appease these bigots with political power, rather than to just ban most immigrants from coming altogether.

Both co-blogger economist Nathan Smith and myself have politely criticised Cowen before for his odd and inconsistent thinking about immigration, so I suppose it’s only fair that we hold Krugman to the same bar. And I can think of no better articulation of that bar than Cowen’s own, in one of his New York Times columns:

Often, economists spend their energies squabbling with one another, but arguably the more important contrast is between our broadly liberal economic worldview and the various alternatives — common around the globe — that postulate natural hierarchies of religion, ethnicity, caste and gender, often enforced by law and strict custom…

One enormous issue is international migration. A distressingly large portion of the debate in many countries analyzes the effects of higher immigration on domestic citizens alone and seeks to restrict immigration to protect a national culture or existing economic interests. The obvious but too-often-underemphasized reality is that immigration is a significant gain for most people who move to a new country.

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, quantified these gains in a 2011 paper, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” He found that unrestricted immigration could create tens of trillions of dollars in economic value, as captured by the migrants themselves in the form of higher wages in their new countries and by those who hire the migrants or consume the products of their labor. For a profession concerned with precision, it is remarkable how infrequently we economists talk about those rather large numbers.

Truly open borders might prove unworkable, especially in countries with welfare states, and kill the goose laying the proverbial golden eggs; in this regard Mr. Clemens’s analysis may require some modification. Still, we should be obsessing over how many of those trillions can actually be realized.

In any case, there is an overriding moral issue. Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn’t dream of producing a study that counted “men only” or “whites only,” at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data.

So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration? The nation-state is a good practical institution, but it does not provide the final moral delineation of which people count and which do not. So commentators on trade and immigration should stress the cosmopolitan perspective, knowing that the practical imperatives of the nation-state will not be underrepresented in the ensuing debate.

Economists have never let bigotry or prejudice get in the way of just and fair economic policies. That’s why Krugman worries so much about cost of living forcing engineers and construction workers to live in Dallas instead of New York: because the arbitrary exclusion of strict housing laws prevents these people from earning the wages they command in a fair market. It’s a problem of both social justice and economic efficiency. That people worry about new neighbours, or tall buildings, is not a good enough reason to arbitrarily exclude these people from living in places where they are willing to pay the market rent to earn their market wage.

After all, such excuses have often been cited in the past to exclude women, Jews, or blacks from the labour and housing markets by the force of law. That’s why, as Cowen observed earlier in his piece, economists were among the loudest and most consistent critics of slavery; the field’s derogatory nickname, “the dismal science“, originates from slavery advocates mocking economists’ at-the-time “absurd” view that blacks be given choice and agency in their work!

This long tradition of fighting for social justice and human prosperity should compel both Krugman and Cowen to seriously weigh the costs our immigration laws impose on the poor of the world, and the drag they impose on the productivity of the human race. Indeed, it should weigh on all economists. The consensus of the profession is that the current immigration regime is inefficient, and that most of the excuses given for maintaining it are unfounded.

Yet when they write about immigration, Krugman and Cowen often tiptoe about this consensus, and seemingly shrink from confronting the poorly-grounded rationales typically proffered in defence of immigration restrictions. It would be a shame for them to shrink from this, when their intellectual ancestors boldly placed themselves on the front lines fighting for social change, knowing that no less than fairness for broad swathes of humanity and prosperity for all humans stood at stake.

And should you doubt that both equity and efficiency are at stake here, I’ll defer to public policy student Daniel Kay Hertz’s words on the matter. He writes of zoning and land use laws, but with one or two modifications, his is just as eloquent a summation of the problem with modern immigration laws:

…the idea [is] that no one has a “right” to live in elite urban centers like San Francisco, and so affordable housing in those places isn’t actually a social justice issue…

But either way, applying this argument in favor of restrictive zoning is pretty ludicrous. After all, the reason that so many people can’t afford San Francisco isn’t because of the impartial workings of the market; it’s because the government is artificially inflating prices. If the government decided to impose supply restrictions on, say, milk, causing prices to go up to $20 a gallon, and people asked the government to stop doing that, it wouldn’t really make any sense to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, not everyone has the right to drink milk.”

Or, more pointedly, it’s as if you lost a race because someone was holding onto your ankles the entire time, and when you complained they responded, “Well, somebody had to lose.” Yes, of course. But the game was rigged.

Moreover, this kind of argument assumes – without saying so – that residents of wealthy neighborhoods do have another kind of right: the right to expect that their neighborhoods will stay the same forever. They don’t. Nor do they have the right to dictate where or how other people live. There’s surely some legitimate interest in incrementalism, to prevent the perceived chaos of massive and ubiquitous projects in a previously low-rise, quiet area. But that suggests that government should allow steady, even growth, not quash it altogether.

…What about, they say, the huge depopulated areas in Detroit, the South Side of Chicago, Philadelphia, the rest of the Rust Belt, and so on? What’s wrong with pushing people to live in those places?

There is a hint of sense in this – building more houses when we have these houses over there, sitting empty, isn’t ideal – but I don’t think it takes an awful lot of poking before it falls apart. If your plan to bring back economically devastated areas is to force lots of poor people to live there by denying them the option of living somewhere with, say, safe streets and decent schools, then…I’m not really sure what to say. That seems self-evidently like a disaster, both from a practical perspective – exactly what sort of renaissance do we expect to happen if we encourage lots of lower-income people to congregate in places that are already resource-starved, without an escape hatch? Has that ever worked out? – and from a moral one. Not to mention the legal one: remember, again, that the reason these areas are so expensive is because of government interfering in the market. The status quo isn’t neutrality; it’s a massive redistribution program to the wealthy from everyone else.

Zoning and land use laws are a serious problem, whether you look at them from the point of view of equity, or efficiency. But for all the reasons Hertz lays out, so are immigration laws. And the problems at stake with unjust, inefficient immigration laws are far bigger: literally, trillions of dollars bigger.

I first encountered Krugman as a young student in high school. One of my favourite pieces, to this day, is Krugman’s stirring defence of sweatshops. There is nothing noble in paying poor people a pittance for their labour, of course. But as Krugman pointed out, how can it be more noble to forcefully deny poor people even the choice  to be paid this pittance? How can it be right to deny people the chance to earn a wage of any kind, and to force them to live lives of subsistence farming, living literally hand-to-mouth, simply because we feel we have the moral authority to do so?

When he penned pieces like those, Krugman had no qualms calling out uncritical opponents of sweatshops on their bigotry:

The real complaint against developing countries is not that their exports are based on low wages and sweatshops. The complaint is that they export at all. And so the supposed friends of poor workers abroad are no friends at all. If they got their way the result … would not just be no sweatshop–it would be no job.

That’s the Krugman I fell in love with; that’s the Krugman who changed my life, convincing me to major in economics. We need that Krugman again more than ever, to speak out against the injustice and idiocy of immigration restrictions. Let me quote Krugman then to Krugman now:

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 [immigration], 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…

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.

Amen, Mr. Krugman. The hopes of millions remain at stake when it comes to immigration laws that unjustly ban them from earning the market wage they could command by moving. Laws that create wage gaps on the order of thousands of percentage points, and productivity losses on the order of trillions of dollars are unconscionable. The fates of billions of poor people hang in the balance. Thinking things through, and speaking economic truth to power, is not just good intellectual practice; it remains our moral duty.

I am grateful to Carl Shulman of the Open Borders Action Group for his comments and suggestions that were incorporated into this piece.