All posts by John Lee

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.

Interview with Stephan Faris: Homelands, and abolishing global apartheid

Last week, we published an excerpt from journalist Stephan Faris’s thought-provoking book, Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration. A cheap, USD3 buy on Amazon, it is worth reading — if only for the compelling way he argues that modern border regimes constitute apartheid. A taste from the excerpt we carried:

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

Now, we bring you an exclusive interview with Stephan himself.

In Homelands, you reach a radical conclusion — that modern border controls are essentially unjust and illegitimate. You outline a thought-provoking case, but I’m especially interested in the experiences and insights that motivated you to reach this conclusion in the first place. What is the intellectual journey, so to speak, that led to this conclusion?

The idea came to me slowly, when I was a reporter writing mostly for Time Magazine out Africa. Across the continent, I kept having the same conversation, brief and to-the-point with people I hardly knew at all. A motorcycle taxi driver in Lagos would drop me off and then ask “How do I get to your country?” A young man at an Internet cafe in Kenya would do the same. And again, from a hotel clerk in Zimbabwe. “How do I get to your country?”

I can’t remember what I’d say to them. But the real answer was embarrassing. Put bluntly, it was: “You probably can’t. You’re young and African. The chances that you’ll be let in are vanishingly small.” That’s what got me thinking about the problem in those terms.

My experience has been that people anchor heavily to the status quo on immigration, making it difficult to even begin explaining to people that most immigration laws are unjust and unfair. Before you can begin, you have to overcome the sense that if we abolish border controls, then everything will collapse. Did you encounter this yourself in the process of outlining your ideas, and are you satisfied with the way you handle this sort of response in the book? Looking back, would you change anything about your argument?

The book is driven by an analogy between the status quo on immigration and the policies of South Africa’s apartheid regime. That in itself puts forward a couple of arguments that I find compelling. First of all is the moral case. If the immigration policies resembles apartheid, we have to grapple with that if we want to maintain the status quo. Secondly, apartheid eventually came to an end, and the result has hardly been as disastrous as many predicted.

How in general has the response been to your book, now that it’s been out for several months? Was it better or worse than you expected, and are you planning any follow-ups? What most surprised you about the response?

As a writer it’s always difficult to get a feel for how readers respond to your work. My feeling, however, is that the emotional argument has resonated with a lot of people, but the conclusion remains hard to accept. As you point out, the idea is fairly far beyond the bounds of what most people are willing to consider.

You are not the first person to describe immigration restrictions as a form of apartheid, but I think your most original contribution to the conversation has been a clear articulation of how apartheid was modeled on immigration restrictions and why the analogy between the two is so apt. How did you come across this connection in the intentions of apartheid’s architects? Are there other historical or modern parallels that you considered drawing?

I don’t remember exactly how I came across it or came up with it. I wrote a brief piece on the subject in 2005 or 2006. However, I’m not the first person who came up with it. I later came across a fantastic chapter in a book by the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson, in which he made a similar comparison. In Homelands I make a reference to Lesotho, as a tiny country with which potential Bantustans could be compared. That’s an analogy I learned about from Ferguson.

In some sense, the analogy between apartheid and immigration restrictions is obvious: both are mechanisms by which a particular social group seeks to preserve its purity via coercively excluding other people. However I imagine this analogy doesn’t work for many, because they consider racial discrimination illegitimate, while discrimination on the basis of nationality is legitimate. How would you address this?

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is it about nationality that makes it legitimately grounds for discrimination. Nationality, like race, is not something people choose or are responsible for.

To allay concerns about the effects of liberal border laws, you discuss how the economic nightmare predicted by naysayers on the eve of apartheid’s abolition never came to fruition. But economic arguments don’t necessarily carry the day in a conversation about nationality and political institutions. How would you respond to concerns about the political and social effects of open immigration?

Those concerns are real, but as with apartheid, you have to weigh them against the injustices and distortions resulting from the status quo. I think we’ll find that the discomforts resulting from open immigration will pale when compared with the suffering that is alleviated by allowing people to move where to places where they can better themselves.

I imagine most people of liberal politics are somewhat sympathetic to liberal immigration laws. Why do you think there is such resistance, even among those with such sympathies, to the idea of truly open borders, or at least open immigration regimes, with visas available to most? What barriers do you see to convincing a typical liberal person that most immigration restrictions are unjustifiable?

I’m not sure that views on immigration laws fall neatly along the traditional lines between left and right. Concerns about the impact of open immigration on workers’ rights is certainly widespread among many on the left. Again, however, I’d argue one needs to extend our circle of concern beyond our co-nationals, and then it becomes pretty clear that lightening restrictions on immigration is broadly beneficial.

I think it is particularly fitting that this interview with Stephan follows on our inaugural blog post from migration scholar Katy Long, where she observed that we cannot blindly cite national borders as reason enough to wall out those not fortunate enough to be born in our home countries:

Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Harvard and former World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, another notable who labels our border regimes tantamount to apartheid, has a poignant way of illustrating Stephan’s and Katys point in his seminal book, Let Their People Come:

The analogy between apartheid and restrictions on labor mobility is almost exact. People are not allowed to live and work where they please. Rather, some are only allowed to live in places where earning opportunities are scarce. Workers often have to travel long distances and often live far from their families to obtain work. The restrictions about who can work where are based on conditions of birth, not on any notion of individual effort or merit. The current international system of restrictions on labor mobility enforces gaps in living standards across people that are large or larger than any in apartheid South Africa. It is even true that labor restrictions in nearly every case explicitly work to disadvantage people of “color” against those of European descent.

The obvious response is that with apartheid people of the same nation-state were treated differently while the apartheid of international barriers to mobility is is treating people of different nation-states differently. People subject to the same laws should be treated the same based on conditions of birth. The fact that people are, by whimsy of birth, allocated to different nation-states and hence treated differently has no moral traction. In nearly all modern theories of justice and ethical systems, most conditions of birth—one’s sex, race, and ethnicity—are excluded as morally legitimate reasons for differences in wellbeing, and yet discrimination on the basis of nationality is allowed.

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

The Bantustans that Stephan draws our attention to still exist, even if few of us had anything to do with their creation, as Pritchett’s book points out with a compelling thought experiment:

There are 10 million people in the Sahelian country of Niger; if there were globally free labor mobility and only 1 million lived in Niger now, how many people would move there? Though some people might say that this creates a case for more aid or freer trade, it is hard to believe that if people moved out of Kansas because farming was no longer an attractive opportunity, then the best that can be done for the people of Niger or Chad is that they get slightly more assistance and slightly better prices for the items they grow.

Most of us remain blind, willfully or otherwise, to the suffering and waste of human potential that our countries’ immigration laws engender. All credit to scholars like Stephan, Katy, and Lant Pritchett, who can never be thanked enough for their tireless work aimed at exposing the regime of global apartheid for what it is.

HomelandsBuy Stephan Faris’s Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration on Amazon

The Huddled MassesBuy Katy Long’s The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality on Amazon

Let%20Their%20People%20Come[1]Download free or buy the paperback of Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock On Global Labor Mobility from the Center for Global Development

The image featured at the top of this post is of a mother with her child crawling under the South African fence bordering Zimbabwe, taken by Themba Hadebe for the Associated Press in 2010 and published in The Guardian.

Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

A rose by any other name: open borders, freedom of movement, and the right to migrate

In our welcome blog post, we state:

This website is dedicated to making the case for open borders. The term “open borders” is used to describe a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances.

Many of our leading influencers and those associated with the open borders movement in some fashion spurn the label “open borders”, however. A good example is economist Michael Clemens. Clemens’s chief contributions to open borders are his work summarising the economic literature suggesting free migration would double world GDP and his analysis of the place premium showing the vast wage discrimination effects of the borders status quo. Clemens’s “double world GDP” is literally our website’s motto, yet in an interview with economist Russ Roberts, he states:

People often ask me if I am in favor of open borders. And I take an agnostic approach to that question. That’s kind of a strange term but by it I mean that I think the question is ill-posed. I don’t understand what people are asking when they ask it.

Do they mean anyone from everyone in the world should be able to freely move to every other spot on the world? Well, I don’t have that right right now. I don’t know of anybody who has ever had that right, actually. I can’t walk into your house. I can’t walk into a military base. I can’t go sit on the street–police would remove me after a while. My movements are tightly regulated. Property markets are regulating where I can pitch a tent and live.

If open borders means absolutely free movements then we certainly don’t have that in this country. If open borders means anybody can come get immediate access to any public service no matter whether or not they’ve paid into the system, that’s not something that I enjoy either. I don’t get to take Social Security money out unless I put money in. That’s also true for immigrants, by the way–you can’t get any money out of Social Security until you have paid into it for at least 40 quarters, that is a minimum of a decade of work or more. If open borders means absolutely free movement of people without any sort of tracking of who they are or any sort of concern for free riding in public services or any concern for trespassing on private property, then, no.

Open borders doesn’t exist in any space that I’ve ever seen. I don’t really want it to exist. Before we talk about open borders, I need to know what that means. Usually people mean something like a great relaxation to the policy barriers that people face right now.

Clemens quite clearly wants a “great relaxation” of barriers to human movement, which is how he ultimately winds up defining what people mean by “open borders”, yet he spends almost hundreds of words denouncing the label.

Take too philosopher Kieran Oberman, who supports the concept of a human right to migrate:

Commitment to these already recognized human rights thus requires commitment to the further human right to immigrate, for without this further right the underlying interests are not sufficiently protected.

Does this mean immigration restrictions are always unjust? On the view of human rights adopted here, human rights are not absolute. Restrictions might be justified in extreme circumstances in which immigration threatens severe social costs that cannot otherwise be prevented. Outside these circumstances, however, immigration restrictions are unjust. The idea of a human right to immigrate is not then a demand for open borders.

Rather it is a demand that basic liberties (to move, associate, speak, worship, work and marry) be awarded the same level of protection when people seek to exercise them across borders as when people seek to exercise them within borders. Immigration restrictions deserve no special exemption from the purview of human freedom rights.

Oberman too rejects the label of “open borders”, but he clearly believes that there is a human right to cross international borders that can only be restricted in the most extreme of circumstances. In other words, he accepts the presumptive right to migrate which we at Open Borders: The Case consider the clarion call of open borders, but rejects open borders!

On the flipside, consider philosopher Phillip Cole, who endorses a set of views virtually identical to Oberman’s in his defence of open borders:

…the right to cross borders is embodied in international law, but only in one direction. Everyone has the right to leave any state including their own. This is a right that can only be over-ridden by states in extreme circumstances, some kind of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation. What we have is an asymmetry between immigration and emigration, where states have to meet highly stringent tests to justify any degree of control over emigration, but aren’t required to justify their control over immigration at all.

In effect all I’m proposing is that immigration should be brought under the same international legal framework as emigration. Immigration controls would become the exception rather than the rule, and would need to meet stringent tests in terms of evidence of national catastrophe that threatens the life of the nation, and so would be subject to international standards of fairness and legality. This is far from a picture of borderless, lawless anarchy.

Cole describes his argument as making the case for open borders from the basic principles of human rights — just as Oberman does! The two endorse the same logic, and yet one embraces the label of open borders, and the other rejects it.

Rather than affirm or reject any one of these views (partial as I am to Cole’s views, I would also endorse almost everything I have seen from Clemens and Oberman when it comes to immigration), I would say this points to the nascent nature of the open borders movement. Although suspicion and hostility to the stranger in our land has almost always been a feature of human nature, it is not until recently that anyone has felt compelled to defend the right to migrate; strong outbursts of nationalism in the late 19th century compelled civil rights activists such as Frederick Douglass to speak out for open borders. But even in that climate, German legislators took it for granted that borders were to be crossed at will in peace (their only debate was over whether governments could arbitrarily deport migrants), and Argentina had no problem entrenching the rights of immigrants into its constitution.

The development of borders that are closed by default — the closed borders regime, I like to call it — is a historically recent feature. Because closed borders are so young, the movement to overturn them is even younger. It should not be terribly surprising then that different opponents of the borders status quo have different ways of describing their views, even if all have the same end in mind.

Beyond that, there are pragmatic reasons why we might want to avoid the label of open borders. A good one, exemplified in Clemens’s wariness of “open borders”, is the usage of this term by closed borders regime advocates as an instance of what blogger Scott Alexander calls the Worst Argument in the World:

I declare the Worst Argument In The World to be this: “If we can apply an emotionally charged word to something, we must judge it exactly the same as a typical instance of that emotionally charged word.”

Immigration restrictionists frequently tar moderate immigration liberalisations with the label of “open borders” — never mind that giving a few million people a reprieve from deportation is nowhere close to literally tearing down border checkpoints or striking thousands of immigration laws off the statute books. The reason they do this, as Clemens alludes to, is that many people, intentionally or otherwise, conflate free peaceful movement across borders with something far more extreme or obviously undesirable such as:

  • the abolition of the nation-state
  • the abolition of national defence
  • free rein for criminals or infectious diseases to travel without inspection
  • abolition of any individual right to exclude others from one’s private property as one sees fit

“Open borders” is meant to be pejorative; it is meant to be a dogwhistle, striking an emotional chord with people who consider it an emotional article of faith that sovereignty can never co-exist with open borders (never mind that nation-states existed for centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia without closing their borders). If restrictionists get away with taunting moderates for supporting slightly-less restrictive policies because they amount to “open borders”, imagine the opprobrium and the closed minds we may encounter if we publicly proclaim our support for open borders! So I perfectly understand Clemens’s eagerness to demur here, and state he supports freer human mobility across international borders in lieu of saying he supports open borders.

But what happens if we try Oberman’s preferred formulation? What if we just say we are for a right to migrate? Does this clear up the confusion, since one cannot accuse us directly of wanting to undermine the peace and security of modern societies? Does this preemptively address the unfounded concern that we are out to abolish the right of private property owners to exclude foreigners from their own living rooms and dining tables? It would seem not; on more than one occasion (here and here), I’ve encountered people who allege the right to migrate infringes individuals’ right to keep strangers out of their own homes.

To be honest, it does not bother me much either way whether we call it open borders, the right to migrate, human mobility, freedom of movement, or just the right to be left alone in peace. Whatever you call it, like all those I have cited, I believe in a world where any person who wants to go somewhere for pleasure, family, work, or study, and is willing to pay the fare it will take to get him or her there, will be able to do so in peace. And I believe a major precondition for getting there is to abolish most of the immigration laws in place today.

As I wrote during the Ebola crisis of 2014, immigration laws aimed at quarantining and treating infectious diseases do not bother me. I am no more distressed about immigration laws that prevent terrorists from entering than I am about trade controls that prevent international trade in weapons of mass destruction. But beyond these, I believe most immigration laws are spurious, unnecessary, and aimed purely at excluding people who have done nothing wrong except being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line.

How do we operationalise open borders? How do we enact the right to migrate into law, and guarantee freedom of movement to all people? The nation-state is not going away any time soon, and so the answer lies in getting our nation-states to change their laws. I am on-board with the liberal premise that the ultimate purpose of government is to protect individuals’ liberty to go about their own lives in peace — and so as sympathetic as I might be to the utopic vision of having no borders at all, I believe we should at least hold our own governments accountable for protecting the liberties of all who seek protection and peace within our borders.

Clemens notes that he tries to refocus the discussion not on the semantics of “open borders”, but rather on what operationally we seek to achieve. I think we in the movement, wonks like Clemens aside, often shy away from articulating a specific policy we would like to see. Part of this is because the legal and policy analysis necessary to enact open borders has rarely been done, and would vary significantly from country to country. Our goal is simply to place freedom of movement on the political agenda in the first place — to force citizens to reckon with the malicious wrongdoings of our own governments in persecuting people who have done nothing wrong.

But a further part of this is also because, just as our goal has many labels, it also has many possible routes — we’ve discussed these paths to open borders plenty in the past and intend to keep doing so. And I do think one appeal of the “freedom of movement” or “right to migrate” labels is that they are somewhat more agnostic about which of the options we have are the best or the appropriate route(s) to take.

Open borders tends to imply, just as it says on the box, borders that are open. This would suggest borders with no checkpoints (perhaps just a sign such as “You are now entering Germany”), or borders with checkpoints where very few are stopped — i.e., guards are posted, but they do not stop anyone unless the person appears suspicious, similar to how guards are often posted in airports or train stations, but they do not stop anyone unless that person fits a suspicious profile.

German-Austria border

You are now entering Germany; the Germany-Austria border. Original photographer unknown; image downloaded from The Lobby.

Meanwhile, freedom of movement and the right to migrate carry fewer explicit connotations about how our societies would in practice respect and protect these liberties. Of course, we could always abolish or minimise border controls, as literal open borders would suggest. But we could also simply offer visas to anyone who applies for them (subject to standard exclusions for people bearing diseases, weapons, or criminal intent of course). We could maintain checkpoints and inspect every traveller while still waving 98% of them through, as was actually done on the famous US checkpoint of Ellis Island in the era of open borders. Or we could even technically maintain more controls on immigration, while blatantly waiving most of these controls, as Argentina does.

But this potential semantic-implementation distinction does not bother me much either. After all, these days virtually every domestic traveller getting on an aeroplane at a regular port of travel is subject to a screening and document inspection of some kind. Beyond the most absolute of pedants, and a handful of laudable liberty-of-travel advocates, I think most of us would agree that this does not mean we lack internal open borders. The internal borders of our countries are porous to virtually all of us except those on government watchlists; our borders are internally open.

At the end of it all, I am less concerned about what kinds of checkpoints we have, or what screenings we may subject travellers to (as worthy a set of issues these might be) than I am about ensuring as many people travelling in peace are able to do so free from government agents standing in their way, preventing them from moving in peace with all the coercive force of the state. To my mind, it is a waste of taxpayer money, a danger to peace and safety, and worst of all abusive and discriminatory for law enforcement officials to be treating people seeking to visit friends and family or work for a fair wage as though they are dangerous criminals. It does nobody any good for our governments to consider peaceful, orderly movement a threat to the fundamental order of society.

It is this dangerous and unjust treatment of migration as a crime that I want to end. And I do not much care what we call our goal, or how we reach it. What I want is a world where my government, and every government, dispenses justice to every person seeking it from them. Where every government respects the right of individuals to go about their own lives and arrange their own affairs in peace, no matter their nationality or circumstance of birth.

A world with open borders; a world with freedom of movement; a world with the right to migrate. It matters not what we call it, but to all of us, it should matter very much that we achieve it. For as two German legislators rising in favour of abolishing deportation once said:

Liebknecht: A right that does not exist for all is no right.

Lasker: …it is a barbarity to make a distinction between foreigners and the indigenous in the right to hospitable residence. Not only every German, but every human being has the right to not be chased away like a dog.

The image featured at the top of this post is of graffiti in the city of Cardiff, the United Kingdom. Photo by David Mordey; original graffiti artist unknown.

Literally refusing to rescue drowning people: your taxpayer funds at work, putting immigrants to death

Open borders advocates on occasion borrow philosopher Peter Singer’s metaphor of the drowning child:

Imagine you come across a small child who has fallen into a pond and is in danger of drowning. You know that you can easily and safely rescue him, but you are wearing an expensive pair of shoes that will be ruined if you do. We all think it would be seriously wrong to walk on past the pond, leaving the child to drown, because you don’t want to have to buy a new pair of shoes – in fact, most people think that would be monstrous. You can’t compare a child’s life with a pair of shoes!

The analogy is somewhat obvious: many of the people prevented from moving by our immigration laws are fleeing a disaster of some kind that puts their life in serious danger. Those who want to prevent them from moving cannot use the excuse that it might be economically costly to us if we allow them to flee; otherwise, we are literally saying we value an expensive pair of shoes over the life of another human being.

However, open borders advocates are quick to caution that inasmuch as this is a thought trigger, this is not a true reflection of the state of things. Migration is actually rather different: most migrants seeking to move don’t require us to even lift a finger, let alone ruin an expensive pair of shoes. Many of the migrants we exclude, even the weary refugees, are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. They can afford to pay for their journey to a land safe from political persecution, economic disaster, cholera, or whatever plague ails their native country; they can afford to rescue themselves. All our governments need to do is get out of their way, and allow them to pay for their own fare. The very reason that so many pay expensive fees to smugglers is because our own laws banned them from buying a regular ticket at the market fare in the first place!

Distancing the analogy even further, many migrants are not in any sort of life-threatening bind: they are capable individuals simply seeking to author their own life stories. That many prospective migrants simply want to and are fully capable of authoring their own better life makes it all the more galling that we regularly characterise the migrant as some sort of criminal burdensome leech. The “but my expensive shoes!” sort of excuse doesn’t even hold water when there’s nobody drowning — not when it’s just somebody trying to marry their spouse, pursue an education, or see the city lights, and is perfectly able to do this without troubling any of us in the least.

This is why I rarely refer to Singer’s analogy; it isn’t a very good portrayal of the true situation. If you want a better analogy, the situation is more like a well-dressed person trying to go somewhere, and us standing in the road complaining that if we let him go somewhere, he’ll step on our expensive shoes, and that’s why we need to build a giant electrified fence to keep him from ever coming anywhere near us. Our complaints are unfounded, and the gentleman requires nothing more from us than to move on and go about our own business.

But in another sense, immigration restrictions are far worse than refusing to rescue a drowning child. Most migrants may not face any life-threatening danger — but there are still millions forced to live in countries where they could be tortured or killed, and millions more forced to live in countries where there are no jobs for them outside the sweatshop. When our laws ban these people from moving to a society that won’t literally kill them, we are not just refusing to help a drowning person; this amounts to actively drowning the victim.

In these cases, the drowning person is perfectly capable of swimming to safety; they can buy their own ticket on a plane. The only thing keeping them from saving themselves is our own laws that ban them from doing this. We have prevented the drowning person from swimming to safety; we have become complicit in the death, if not murder, of a human being. When we ban people from fleeing death and suffering, we are complicit in the consequent dangers that befall them.[1]

African migrants banned from buying a regular ferry ticket await rescue on their disabled, overcrowded vessel in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: AFP/CNN.

Mind you, it is already the case that our laws give no reasonable avenue for bona fide refugees to safely travel in search of safety on aeroplanes or boats like the rest of us. Many people stay in their home countries resigned to lives of poverty or persecution because they have no legal avenue to leave for a society that allows them to flourish. But it only gets worse.

Those who do strike up the gumption to leave are punished even more harshly and actively in our name, at our own expense. Our own law enforcement agencies treat penniless unarmed people as though they are an invading army. And so our governments wind up literally killing people — not merely in silence by banning them from pursuing safety, but vocally and actively, by putting them to death.

Take the case of Australia. It is no secret that Australia pursues “pushbacks” or “towbacks” of migrants seeking asylum; there is video evidence showing it, and eyewitness testimony confirming it. The Australian procedure appears to be:

  1. Send the Navy or Coast Guard to intercept migrant boats;
  2. Transfer migrants from their potentially unseaworthy boats to lifeboats (literally, lifeboats manufactured for use only in dire circumstances when one has to abandon ship)
  3. Tow these lifeboats to Indonesian waters;
  4. Cut these lifeboats adrift; they’re now Indonesia’s problem.

This entire procedure is both legally and morally suspect. Migrants generally set sail in rickety and unsafe boats because they are banned by immigration law from purchasing passage on safer, legal vessels. Then, when they do get close to the country they want to settle in peace — a country not riven by war or sweatshop slavery — they are captured, placed on a slightly less unsafe boat, and cut adrift on the open sea. The Australian government surely gives them some provisions and a presumably slightly better vessel, but the fact remains: the government is setting these people at sea, in reckless disregard of their human lives. To quote one media account,

Indonesian sources have told the ABC those on board came from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

The youngest aboard was 18 months old.

They also said the asylum seekers were fed and medically treated by Australian authorities, but claimed to have run out of food 48 hours before landing in Java.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says it is concerning that children were on board the lifeboat.

“I’m very concerned that there are reports that there were children as young as 18 months old, toddlers on board this boat,” she said.

“It is never safe to turn back a boat, push a boat back to the high seas with children that young on board.”

But hey, nobody’s died yet from these pushbacks, so maybe it’s ok to leave babies as young as 18 months afloat on a tiny vessel, days away from any shore, and have them fend for themselves — right? This is surely extremely morally dubious. And as it turns out, legally dubious too, if Ben Saul, Professor of International Law at the University of Sydney is to be believed:

Australia cannot turn back boats if it would expose a person to return to persecution contrary to the [UN] refugee convention. That includes sending people back to countries which do not offer effective refugee protection. Those can include transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia where there is no refugee protection status given to people who are there to claim refugee status.

The second consideration is under the law of the sea. It is not legal to turn back a boat which is unseaworthy and on which the lives of passengers are in danger or at risk.

[Towbacks] would ultimately require the safety of the vessel to be ensured, so Australia presumably would then need to tow it right back to an Indonesian port. It couldn’t just then leave the boat stranded without a motor on the edge of the Indonesian territorial sea, for example.

Australia’s brazen disregard for ethics and the law is hardly unusual. In 2012, the European Court of Human Rights sanctioned Italy for performing near-identical pushbacks. The only substantive difference? Rather than putting migrants into new lifeboats, Italy transported migrants on its own boats back to Libya, where the Gaddafi regime promptly imprisoned many of them. Some of the people who were pushed back were even later granted asylum by the Italian government, a tacit acknowledgement that their initial towback was wrong.

Consider the above interview with some of the migrants immorally and unlawfully sent back to Libya. Does it morally matter whether these people were put in harms way by setting them afloat on a tiny vessel at sea, by returning them to a tyrant’s jail, or by settling them literally in the Sahara Desert? Whether you die of thirst, exposure, or tyrannical murder, whatever the case may be, if you were sent to your death by the Italian government, was your death not effected at the hands of the Italian taxpayer?

This 2012 decision did not seem to affect the Greek government, which has reportedly sent masked commandos to effect near-identical pushbacks of migrants fleeing the mass murder of Bashar Assad and the Islamic State in Syria. And yes, Greece has drowned some of these poor people. About a year ago, the Greek coast guard was towing a refugee boat (survivors allege they were being taken to Turkey, while Greece claims it was towing them to a Greek island) when rough seas, poor handling, or a combination of the two caused the boat to sink, sending many — including children — to death by drowning.

Now, one could take a sympathetic view to the governments of rich countries. They are somewhere in between a rock and a hard place: people will complain no matter what they do. If they allow migrants in, people will circulate false claims of lavish government treatment for these poor people — while at the same time complaining that these people are also cluttering up the streets begging, and also stealing their jobs. If they don’t allow migrants in, they get some bad press, but it’s not their own citizens drowning in the sea or being tortured in some mass murderer’s jail, so nobody capable of holding them accountable will actually bother to do so. So these governments might as well get some blood on their hands; it’s easier than the alternative.

And facetious as I might sound, I do see some room to sympathise with the people effecting these pushbacks. It’s ultimately the citizenry and the institutions that are responsible for political outcomes, and so this political drowning of immigrants is not wholly the fault of, say, the Australian, Italian, or Greek governments. It is the fault of bigotry and the fault of institutions that allow bigotry to fester — that allow us to say our expensive shoes are worth more than human life.

The challenges governments face in handling the problems of migrants, especially the most destitute, are very real. Take for example one report of the Thai government pushing back Burmese Rohingya migrants (though from the description, it sounds like these are actually true deportations, as these migrants have already landed):

The 259 will be put back on boats and sent back to Myanmar, said Police Colonel Sanya Prakobphol, head of Kapoe district police.

“They are Muslims from Myanmar … They are illegal migrants,” Sanya told Reuters by telephone.

“If they come in then we must push them back … once they have crossed the sea border into Myanmar then that’s considered pushing them back. What they do next is their problem.”

Sanya hardly sounds like a sympathetic character. Much like Australia, he intends to set people adrift at sea — and in presumably worse conditions than an Australian lifeboat. But he is really between a rock and a hard place:

Sanya said the 259 people were currently being held at a community hall and that his team were “looking after them like relatives” but that they would soon be put back on boats.

“Who will feed them? I’m struggling day to day to feed them,” said Sanya.

If he were a rich country official, one might be tempted to play him the world’s saddest song on the world’s smallest violin. But he is a developing country official with hardly any resources to effect an orderly resettlement of refugees. He can perhaps feed them for a while, but he cannot help them find homes or jobs. In his shoes, it’s hard to say we could do much different than deport these poor people back to persecution and suffering in Burma.

But this is only a problem because we continue to tolerate the bigotry that views deportation as an solution to poverty, and the bigotry that denies migrants the agency to run their own lives. The Rohingya fled for a reason: they would rather run the risk of starving in a hostile land than continuing to suffer in their own country. Pushbacks and deportations do not cleanse our hands of guilt.

If the Rohingya come to misfortune in our own countries because of their own failings, that is one thing. But if we send them back to the very suffering they toiled so hard to flee, we are directly complicit in all that may befall them — which, in the case of the Rohingya, often turns out to be slavery, summary execution, torture, or rape.

Who will feed them? Ideally, they should feed themselves. But irrespective of how they are fed, the answer to this question of feeding is not “Send them away to be enslaved, murdered, tortured, or raped.”

One would hope that the more “civilised” governments of the Western world would have a more elegant solution to this than Sanya’s “Send them back to the country that’s killing them, then it’s not my problem.” But unfortunately, besides elaborate commando gear and expensive lifeboats, there seems to be little that separates the rich world from poor in the matter of drowning migrants. Whichever the government may be, its callousness is galling.

People often take it to be a strawman when I say that defenders of the border status quo are in essence apologising for persecution and murder. But when governments are putting unarmed civilians adrift at sea, and don’t seem to care whether they live or die as a result, it surely behooves us to ask what on earth these people did wrong to merit such punishment, such endangerment. And when on occasion, someone does pose this question, as one British journalist did, we find the “protectors” of our borders proffering the following:

The British government’s position is that the rescues should stop, because they only encourage more migrants to attempt the crossing. All of the people I interviewed for this story made their first journey to Europe in a smuggler boat across the Mediterranean. Our government believes that, had any of them drowned, it would have been a useful deterrent to others.

We are drowning people for the crime of fleeing destitution and persecution. We are drowning people for seeking to preserve their own lives. We are drowning people to send a warning to anyone else who might dream of a life in a society where they can be free to pursue their ambitions and realise their potential. We are literally drowning innocent children.

I don’t claim to have all the answers for how we should implement immigration law, how we should deal with refugees, or how we should police our borders. But I do know that there is no satisfying rationale for why our governments drown people — metaphorically in the home countries they might want to leave, or literally in the seas surrounding our countries where they dream of being free from oppression and murder.

It is no strawman nor exaggeration to say that our closed borders kill people. Our border politics have led to our governments suggesting it would be quite literally better to let people drown.  And yet one of the most grating aspects of the status quo is that nobody even feels compelled to articulate a justification for so many parts of it that seem obviously wrong — like the fact that ostensibly civilised societies are condoning the drowning of innocent people.

Nobody feels pressured to justify the way we specifically treat immigrants. There are plenty of philosophical arguments for the state’s authority to “control” its borders, but none that specifically explain why throwing people into prison camps or literally refusing to rescue drowning people is a morally acceptable or required method of doing so.

The drowning children are real, and yet we don’t have to do anything to rescue them; they can swim just fine on their own. All we have to do is allow them to save themselves. Yet we would rather use our own ships and our own taxes to prevent them from saving themselves, and watch them drown. Why do we do that? How can we justify it? Maybe you can tell me.

The image featured at the top of this post is an Australian government advertisement warning prospective immigrants and refugees that they are not welcome in Australia.

Related reading

You might be interested in all our blog posts tagged refugees.

Here are a few posts in particular that might interest you. Some of these are also linked inline from 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.