Against conflating open borders with other migration-related beliefs

For a lot of people, both “pro-migration” and “anti-migration” people, questions about how open the borders should be are almost synonymous with their answers to questions such as:

  • Do you believe that immigration (or its correlates, such as diversity of various sorts, or a larger population) is good for your country?
  • Do you believe that having more people, or people of diverse (races/religions/ethnicities) is consonant with the values of your country?
  • Do you identify with the idea of having more people, having immigrants, and/or having people of diverse (races/religions/ethnicities)?
  • Do you think immigrants are really awesome people?

The reason for the perceived equivalence in most people’s minds is, I think, that people:

  • fundamentally concede the state’s authority to have carte blanche control of migration,
  • view moral obligation to migrants per se as having minimal relevance, so that the decision of how to answer these questions is driven more by one’s belief about the benefits to current citizens and/or one’s general mood affiliation with the sort of people one wants to be physically close to, and
  • link the question of the morality of migration restrictions in a strong way with how much they like migrants or consider them exemplars of virtue.

I think that it’s somewhat unfortunate that people conceptually conflate these questions. Just to clarify:

  • It’s not unexpected or unfortunate that people’s views about the effects of migration correlate with their views on open borders — clearly, if you’re a hardcore consequentialist, then effects are all that matter, but even if you mix deontology and consequentialism, consequences have some relevance.
  • It’s also not unexpected that many open borders advocates have resoundingly positive views about how nice immigrants are, or how much they enjoy interacting with immigrants, or how good immigration is for their native economies. Both the objectively measurable and the subjective aspects of these may well be true. I’m not being critical of people for holding these views while simultaneously supporting open borders.
  • It’s more unfortunate that the focus seems to be on hinging the case for open borders on a framing that views migrants, or potential migrants, as a tool to enrich oneself, or provide one with diversity value, and setting unusually high standards of belief about the awesomeness of migrants (which may well be satisfied in some circumstances, but would not be robust to significant liberalization of migration).

When I say that both pro-migration and anti-migration people seem to make this mistake, I’m not trying to make a half-hearted attempt to be evenhanded — I think that in some ways, pro-migration people might be more susceptible to these problems in how they articulate their case. Part of this is seen in pro-migration forces congratulating themselves on being less bigoted and more tolerant of diversity than their anti-migration counterparts. But a bigger aspect might be the extent to which they tend to valorize migrants as uniquely awesome and courageous people in a manner that suggests that such beliefs are central to the arguments for free migration. “The immigrant works 16 hours a day to send money to his family, and you don’t want to let him in!” This can certainly be a valid counterpoint to the claim that migrants are lazy, but ultimately the point worth stressing is that lazy people have the right to freedom of association as well.

Apart from people debating the merits of migration, many social scientists seem to reinforce this conflation in their analyses of attitudes to migration. This type of conflation isn’t unique to migration — for instance, beliefs about the abilities or moral character of people of different races, and beliefs about how helpful it is to have people of different races around, are often treated as proxies for attitudes to treatment of people based on race, with all of them being grouped under the comprehensive header of racial attitudes.

I’m not the first to make this point. Responding to commenter Brian, Bryan Caplan had written this:

For many other important libertarian issues, appeals to self-interest are factually correct but, to use Brian’s word, “unworthy.”  Immigration is such an issue.  Yes, doubling GDP by opening world borders will enrich most people in the First World.  But these economic benefits for First Worlders are not the main reason why I advocate open borders.  The main reason I advocate open borders is that immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice against people from Third World countries.  Once someone retreats to, “Yes, immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice, but doing the right thing would be very costly,” I’m happy to delve into the social science with them.  Until then, they’re just missing the point.

Similarly, when writing about Mark Zuckerberg at the time of launch of, co-blogger Nathan Smith had written:

Immigrants who are sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy can also gain by coming here, and we can gain by hiring them, renting them accommodations, selling goods to them, maybe even marrying them (e.g., if we have no other marital options, or if in addition to being sort of dumb and/or a bit lazy, they’re beautiful and nice). Meritocracy has its place, but is there really a good reason for the mere right to reside in the US to be allocated in a meritocratic fashion? And even if you want to discriminate in favor of the “smart and hardworking,” how?

Yet I think the point can sometimes be forgotten.

What do other think of the extent to which such conflation occurs? In particular, I’m curious to hear people’s views on questions such as:

  • Do you think such conflation is more common among pro-migration or anti-migration people? My impression is that it’s about equally common on both sides.
  • How do you think moderate pro-migration forces and radical open borders advocates compare with respect to such conflation? My impression is that moderate pro-migration forces engage in it more, because they do not fully embrace the moral presumption in favor of free migration, so see migration policy as more closely tied to beliefs about the virtue of migrants or how much they think natives can benefit.
  • Do you think the conflation is epistemically unsound? How unsound is it? Just a minor matter, or as serious as I’m making it out to be?
  • Do you think such conflation has strategic benefits when appealing to a large audience, and is that one reason why many people engage in it? I think that when appealing to larger audiences (that tend to take a more citizenistic perspective), we’re tempted to conflate the issues, and this might lead to corrupting (in my judgmental view) our own thinking on the subject as well.

PS: The Frameworks Institute has put out some memos on immigration where they claim that talking about the goodness of particular migrants actually makes listeners more resistant to migration liberalization, because once they start thinking about the moral character of migrants, they are also reminded of the bad ones, and the bad stuff is more salient in their decision-making process than the good stuff. The Frameworks Institute calls this the “Bill Cosby effect.” What they suggest is emphasizing moral arguments as well as general “the economy will grow”-type arguments. I blogged about the memos a while back.

7 thoughts on “Against conflating open borders with other migration-related beliefs”

  1. Vipul,

    Why are you against this? Sure, I can understand why you think that human rights is a more important reason to be for open borders, but why should we not use other arguments, whatever works?

    What I find specially attractive about open borders is that it shows that the theoretical matters that divide egalitarians, utilitarians, and libertarians are not relevant in practice to find the most important issue. All people that adhere to basically any universal ethical system should agree with that, and any argument for that should be valid.

    As a utilitarian myself, I must say that saying that it doubles world GDP had a huge impact, and I believe it is probably one of the most effective arguments one can present.

    So, returning to the original point, I can see why this is not what matters personally to you, but why not use the argument, if it is true?

    1. I agree that the huge (though debatable re: magnitude) economic gains of open borders are a powerful argument for open borders (or something in that direction). My point was more about making the case for open borders contingent on how good migrants are for “us” or how virtuous they are.

      Moreover, my concern was not just with people making the argument, but evaluating others’ commitment to open borders by their level of agreement with such beliefs. For instance, if somebody isn’t personally fond of diversity, this shouldn’t be treated as a reason to think the person must logically be anti-open borders. I might dislike diversity at a personal level but think that open borders are morally required, despite the increase in diversity being personally unpleasant for me.

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