All posts by Michael Carey

Zen and the Art of Opening Borders

One of the biggest challenges in trying to present the case for open borders to those who don’t agree is choosing the right mix of logic, evidence, and appeal to emotion. When people talk about the moral case for open borders, it often seems that what they are referring to is moral logic. That is, they are discussing the logical consequences of certain moral propositions.

In my experience, people are usually not convinced by logic. While they might tend to agree with a statement like “we should not discriminate based on arbitrary factors over which people have no control”, if you extend that principle to conclude that they should afford non-citizens the exact same treatment as citizens they will feel trapped by the logic and seek to find a way out. The logic didn’t address all of their concerns, so it feels like a trick.

However, I do think logic plays a major role in understanding how people feel, and in trying to frame arguments in a way that will make sense to them. With that in mind, here is my candidate for an argument in favor of open borders that attempts to balance these concerns:

Proposition 1: As Americans (or citizens of another wealthy western nation) we benefit from a valuable cultural and institutional heritage.

Proposition 2: We have a duty both to protect this heritage and to share it with as many people as we can.

Proposition 3: One of the most best ways to share our heritage with others is to allow them to live and work within our national borders.

This line of argument explicitly acknowledges the importance national identity. Most Americans identify as Americans, and they think that means something special. I agree.

It also acknowledges that we have a duty to protect our heritage. This means that we need to take seriously the question of whether allowing too many immigrants into the country will undermine what makes the country special. It is okay to admit that at some point, enough unrestricted immigration can have negative consequences. I personally think that the optimal level is probably an order of magnitude or so higher than what we currently have, but trying to protect our national culture and institutions is a legitimate concern.

Finally, the argument puts open borders in a category of other useful things that we can do to share our heritage that a lot of other people agree with, such as providing support for emerging democracies and encouraging forms of economic integration that allow people from poor countries to participate in our economy without moving here. (I am a big fan of the web based work sourcing site Odesk. Look it up if you haven’t heard of it.)

What this argument does not do is try to gain a lot of ground by reasoning about whether we have a right to close our borders, or whether closing them should be considered refusing to help or actively doing harm.  These are interesting philosophical questions, but I don’t think they are effective for making public arguments.

The three propositions are quite general, and there are many details to be specified. For example, what exactly is it about our heritage that is so valuable? In some cases we can measure the impact of institutional differences. For example, there is evidence that countries with a legal system that developed based on English common law experience faster economic growth. Other aspects of our culture are not so easily quantified. How valuable is the widespread expectation that the government will not censor the media?

Another important question is once we accept that we need to protect our national heritage what is the best way to do it? Does it require limiting the number of immigrants to a certain quota? If every citizen were instantly replaced by someone from a different cultural background, our heritage would probably be lost. But this is not really how immigration works. When large numbers of immigrants enter the country it takes time before they begin to occupy the most culturally influential positions in society. That is, our judges, journalists, teachers, congressmen, and artists would be largely the same until the new groups began to assimilate

So I personally don’t think  a quota would be necessary if we implemented some of the keyhole solutions discussed here. A student of mine whose family entered the country illegally from Mexico claims that a good coyote can cost up to $25,000 per head these days (Although the average cost is probably much lower). Charging each immigrant a one time fee of $10,000-$20,000 would spare them the risks associated with crossing illegally and mitigate any strain strain they place on the education and welfare systems. It would also create a more flexible constraint on the number of immigrants that enter the country.

These propositions are not meant to specify a certain policy , but rather as a rhetorical framework for discussing the issues. They are meant as a way to put the arguments for open borders in language that makes more sense to people outside the open borders community. I would be very interested to know whether other advocates of open borders find them acceptable.