All posts by Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don't Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders. See also: Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders All blog posts by Nathan Smith

From Printing to the Nation-State, from the Internet to Neo-Medieval Globalism

The below article is soon to be published in the 2015 issue of the Pacific Journal, making it my second peer-reviewed journal article, posted in full with permission. It’s a piece of speculative futurology, like my “Billion Immigrants” post last summer. It has nothing explicitly to do with immigration, but it has everything to do with the nation-state, and therefore deals with a major concern of critics of open borders. “Where there is no border, the nations perish,” summarizes their fears. I show how the nation-state is not a permanent feature of human political organization, but a recent development, and following Benedict Anderson, I impute its rise to the printing press. If that’s the case, it stands to reason that the obsolescence of printed text in the face of the rising internet foreshadows another great reordering, first of the human conversation, next of the imagined communities that people see themselves as part of, and finally of the geopolitical order. To the emerging world order that I dimly forecast, I give the strange but interesting label, “neo-medieval globalism.”

Among the many past posts of mine that are relevant, I’ll highlight two here. First, I wrote a post called “In defense of the nation-state” in March 2013. To nationalists, that post will seem like damning the nation-state with faint praise, yet I do argue, quite sincerely, that nation-states had substantial merit for a considerable historical period, and even today. Second, my post “Immigration, Identity, Nationality, Citizenship, and Democracy,”  written in June 2013, reflects on the relationship between identity, nationality, and citizenship, and suggests that the challenge posed by immigrants to people’s habitual identification of nationality with citizenship as undergirding democracy, is the main underlying source of mainstream resistance to the case for open borders. 

The “neo-medieval globalism” scenario forecast in the article below suggests a vague answer to fears about the fate of the nation-state under open borders. Open borders probably would accelerate the fading of the nation-state, but that may be fated to occur anyway. In its place, there need not be chaos; instead, we may look forward to a more decentralized and voluntarist world order, in which NGOs, the purpose-driven voluntary sector, and multilateral institutions like the UN, World Bank, and IMF, and many more existing today or to be established in future, will increase in importance at the expense of national democracies, which will go into a gradual yet terminal decline, as the European monarchies did in the centuries following the invention of the printing press.  It’s a challenging world to contemplate, but there is good reason to think it would be a better world in which to be a human being, and a much better world in which to be an open borders advocate.

From Printing to Nation-States, from Internet to Neo-Medieval Globalism

Abstract: The printing press reshaped the conversation of mankind along national lines, then reshaped the imagined communities in which people lived, making a world of nation-states seem natural, so that people struggled for it and eventually largely achieved it. Today’s world order, based on the nation-state, is a legacy of the age of print. But the internet is now reorganizing the conversation of mankind again, and giving rise to new forms of imagined community. As in the High Middle Ages, an educated elite bound together by the dominant means of communication and a shared lingua franca — Latin then, English today — and ideology — Catholicism then, liberalism today — is beginning to see itself as better represented by transnational institutions like the UN, EU, World Bank, IMF, and WTO than by national governments. These trends foreshadow an era of “neo-medieval globalism,” where beliefs matter more than nationalities and global purpose-driven voluntary organizations gradually rival and eclipse national governments.

The thesis tentatively advanced here is that the internet is reshaping the human conversation and the structure of people’s imagined communities, making them at once more nichefied and more global, but at any rate, less national. In important ways, it is reversing the reshaping of the human conversation once wrought by the advent of printing. Prior to the advent of printing, people lived in many imagined communities, from local ones like villages and guilds to quasi-universal ones like Christendom, with none of these levels enjoying a clear primacy. Printing led to the rise of nationalism, as printers targeted local mass markets, text and literacy reached first the middle classes and then the masses, and reading publics developed national consciousness. Nations displaced or subordinated other forms of community, and nationality displaced or subordinated other forms of identity. The tendency of print to foster nationalism arose from the economic properties of printing as a medium of communication. The high fixed costs and low marginal costs of printing make it suitable for profit-driven production of large numbers of identical books for mass consumer markets, and these reading publics coalesced into nations.

Today, the internet makes far more text available to far more readers, yet in some respects the new economics of texts resembles the age of the medieval manuscript. Transactions costs for payment are high, since few will bother with an online credit-card payment to read an online article. This gives an advantage to institutional, purpose-driven, pro bono text producers, who are willing to supply online content to readers for free, over profit-driven text producers who prioritize what the consumer is willing to pay for. Profit-driven online publishing exists, of course, but its influence on how the human conversation develops is less preponderant today, and was less preponderant in the Middle Ages, than it was in the age of print. Meanwhile, relatively low distribution and storage costs give writers an incentive to use a lingua franca—Latin in medieval times, English today—so as to reach international audiences and posterity. The internet makes text production more diffuse, blurs the distinction between writing and reading, and enables people to find niches where others share their interests and opinions, while rendering them more independent, socially and intellectually, of their immediate neighbors.

Politically, the dawn of the internet age was marked by the flaring up of an international protest movement ostensibly opposed to globalization. As such, it proved remarkably transient. After erupting in Seattle in 1999 and climaxing in Genoa in 2002, it faded out swiftly, so that the IMF, World Bank, and WTO are now able to meet without physical resistance. Ironically, the “anti-globalization” movement may prove to have been the harbinger of a type of globalist politics that will prevail in the age of the internet. As the internet, and social media, knit together a globalized civil society, national imagined communities will gradually be eclipsed by new forms of community that are more voluntarily chosen, overlapping and interpenetrating one another, such as the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that have become increasingly influential in development and advocacy. Globalization will continue, deepen, and gain legitimacy, and political contestation will occur within its framework. Institutions like the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, and others that may be established, which have at least a tenuous claim to represent the whole human race, and which have a certain authority as champions and expositors of a universal (neo)liberal creed, will enjoy increased power and influence. A diffuse voluntary sector will sometimes cooperate and sometimes resist. The older political structures of the nation-state will experience growing internal dissension and face new challenges to their prerogatives.

As the internet and social media shape first the human conversation, then the imagined communities in which people live, we can look forward to a productive tension between “sovereign” nation-states and a globalized civil society, for which the High Middle Ages, a time of tension between the universal Catholic Church and an array of secular kings, may serve as an illuminating analogy. If printing gave rise to the nation-state, the internet may be leading us into an age of neo-medieval globalism.

  1. A Brief History of Communication

Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is set in the waning years of the Middle Ages. At one point, a character in the novel sees a printed book and utters the cryptic prophecy: “The book will kill the edifice.” His colleagues think he is mad, but Hugo explicates his character’s thought in a long, strange digression that turns into a sweeping and insightful history of communication. The first thesis is that the printing press catalyzed the Reformation, or as Hugo more eloquently puts it:

In the first place, [“The book will kill the edifice”] was a priestly thought. It was the affright of the priest in the presence of a new agent, the printing press. It was the terror and dazzled amazement of the men of the sanctuary, in the presence of the luminous press of Gutenberg. It was the pulpit and the manuscript taking the alarm at the printed word: something similar to the stupor of a sparrow which should behold the angel Legion unfold his six million wings. It was the cry of the prophet who already hears emancipated humanity roaring and swarming; who beholds in the future, intelligence sapping faith, opinion dethroning belief, the world shaking off Rome. It was the prognostication of the philosopher who sees human thought, volatilized by the press, evaporating from the theocratic recipient. It was the terror of the soldier who examines the brazen battering ram, and says:–“The tower will crumble.” It signified that one power was about to succeed another power. It meant, “The press will kill the church.”…

By now, it is almost conventional wisdom that the printing press catalyzed the Reformation. A century before Luther, Jan Hus defied the Catholic Church, and for some years after Hus was put to death, a Hussite rebellion smoldered in Bohemia, but it did not spread or endure. But the Lutherans, with the printing press to spread their message, were far more successful. Hugo’s thesis about the printing press is now widely accepted (e.g., see Cole (1984)). But Hugo has a second, more ambitious thesis.

[But also] it was a presentiment that human thought… was about to change its mode of expression; that the dominant idea of each generation would no longer be written with the same matter, and in the same manner; that the book of stone, so solid and so durable, was about to make way for the book of paper, more solid and still more durable. In this connection the archdeacon’s vague formula had a second sense. It meant, “Printing will kill architecture.”

In fact, from the origin of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era, inclusive, architecture is the great book of humanity, the principal expression of man in his different stages of development, either as a force or as an intelligence.

When the memory of the first races felt itself overloaded, when the mass of reminiscences of the human race became so heavy and so confused that speech naked and flying, ran the risk of losing them on the way, men transcribed them on the soil in a manner which was at once the most visible, most durable, and most natural. They sealed each tradition beneath a monument… Not only the form of edifices, but the sites selected for them, revealed the thought which they represented, according as the symbol to be expressed was graceful or grave. Greece crowned her mountains with a temple harmonious to the eye; India disembowelled hers, to chisel therein those monstrous subterranean pagodas, borne up by gigantic rows of granite elephants… During the first six thousand years of the world, from the most immemorial pagoda of Hindustan, to the cathedral of Cologne, architecture was the great handwriting of the human race. And this is so true, that not only every religious symbol, but every human thought, has its page and its monument in that immense book…

Among other things, this passage is a forceful reminder of the importance of non-written communication to the shaping of the pre-modern mind. Literacy has usually been the preserve of a minority, whereas everyone can feel awe at the sight of a pyramid or a cathedral. The visual arts— paintings, stained glass windows, sculptures, and so on—and music always existed alongside text, and were sometimes more important. In the Middle Ages, icons, statues, stained-glass windows, and magnificent churches educated the illiterate medieval peasantry in the Catholic faith. The abbot Suger of St.-Denis (1081-1151), strangely enough from a modern perspective, invented Gothic architecture as a way of expressing the Neoplatonist philosophy as conveyed by (the supposed) Dionysius the Areopagite. Architectural styles supply periodizations of history, e.g., the Romanesque and the Gothic, and to a lesser extent the Renaissance and the Baroque. The last two periods, which were as much artistic (the Renaissance) and musical (the Baroque) as architectural, came after the print revolution, but before mass literacy had taken hold. But the Enlightenment (which overlapped the Baroque) and Romanticism are defined by their great books. Today, architecture has become largely utilitarian, and famous buildings are usually old. In the heyday of print, books were the prime shapers of the popular consciousness.

A shrewd scholar in 1900 might have had a similar premonition to that of Victor Hugo’s archdeacon, foreseeing that radio and TV would kill the book. For decades, much of the population in much of the world has spent much of its free time watching TV, and the telephone made spoken communication possible over long distances. If the great serialized novels of the 19th century, such as Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, have a counterpart today, it is not any novel but a TV show like 24 or The Simpsons. The 1960s are defined by their music, and to a lesser extent by certain great films, far than by any books written at that time. Since then, however, popular music has lost its prophetic force. There are no modern analogues of Bob Dylan. If there is a medium in which the “dominant idea of each generation” is expressed today, it may be the website. The internet, in contrast with radio and TV, began as a text technology, but as connection speeds have gotten faster, it has become a major conduit for photos, videos, and music. Today’s cultural history is probably best periodized by the advent of great websites: we live in the Age of Facebook.

While non-written communication has been important for the masses, text has always been the dominant vehicle for the accumulation and preservation of knowledge. In the history of text itself there have been a few technological transitions. First, the scroll gave way to the book, at about the time when paganism gave way to Christianity. The book has the advantage of “random access,” i.e., you can open it anywhere. Second, papyrus scrolls gave way to parchment and then to paper. Third, somewhere along the way, a largely silent transition from reading aloud to reading silently took place. Fourth and hitherto most important is the advent of printing. But the rise of the Internet is probably as important as the rise of printing.

The internet has spawned several new forms of textual communication, including email, blogs, tweets, Facebook feeds, wikis, and discussion forums. The physical book, after a nearly 2,000-year ascendancy as the chief home of knowledge, has been swiftly reduced to obsolescence. The internet and Kindle’s e-library contain far more information than the ancient Library of Alexandria ever did, and makes it readily available, all the time, to any person with a smartphone, which means almost everyone in the developed democracies of the West, and rapidly growing numbers of people in developing countries as well. The quantity of text is perhaps less important than its searchability. After all, it has been two or three centuries at least since there has been more text than anyone can read, but this abundance does a person little good if they can’t find the text that answers their question. A Google search has become the preeminent way of fetching information.

There has been a great democratization in the production of text, too. Today, anyone can write a blog and publish his or her thoughts to the world, for free. Of course, finding readers is not as easy, and there is an online elite, arising from the mysterious, spontaneous distribution of eyeballs among web pages, of which some are almost completely unread while a few attract millions of viewers every day. But many blogs have risen to fame from obscurity without much help from the traditional gatekeepers of the publishing world. Business writers with a knack for statistics have also noted a phenomenon called the “long tail,” meaning that in the statistical distribution of, say, blog readership, or product sales, the market share of the biggest players is often outnumbered by the combined market share of numerous smaller players. The internet has given the human conversation a more decentralized and nichefied structure.

2. The Economics of Text

As Victor Hugo understood, the historical impact of new text technologies is largely a function of economics. Underlying the metaphorical “marketplace of ideas” is a literal marketplace of manuscripts, or printed books, or websites. Authors must make a living somehow, and prices and logistics affect who reads what, and thereby which minds are changed, and how. So to forecast the impact of new media, we first need some insight about the cost characteristics of different text technologies.

Economic activities typically have inputs and outputs, and various cost concepts are used to characterize the relationships between them. For example, printing a book (simplifying somewhat) requires a printing press—capital—and a lot of time to set up the mold for the pages—labor. These are called fixed costs, because they do not depend on the size of the print run. In addition, each copy of a book printed requires further labor, as well as paper and ink. These are called marginal costs, because they accumulate at the margin. If fixed costs are substantial and marginal costs are relatively constant, then average costs, the sum of all fixed and marginal costs divided by the quantity produced, are falling as the size of the print run increases. Falling average costs are also called economies of scale. Once production is complete, there are further costs of distributing books, storing books until they are sold or otherwise used, and conducting transactions with book buyers.

Costs depend on technology, and Table 1 gives a rough, schematic description of the cost structures in the production and distribution of text in the medieval (manuscript) and modern (print) epochs, as well as in the age of the internet. In the Middle Ages, the marginal cost, in labor, of producing a book was very high, since books had to be copied by hand. Most other costs were low by comparison. Text production tended to be dominated by institutions, especially the Church, or to depend on aristocratic patrons.

Table 1: How the economics of text technologies structures the human conversation

Medieval manuscripts Printing Internet
Produc-tion costs:
Fixed (capital) Modest: ink, parchment High: you must own a printing press Low: computer, internet connection
Fixed (labor) N/A High: you must mold each page Modest: formatting for the web
Marginal Very high: books must be copied by hand Low: after setup costs, mass production is cheap Negligible: once posted, all can read
Distri-bution and storage Relatively low, so texts are disseminated widely and kept available Relatively high, so most texts are distributed locally, then go out of print Negligible: everything anyone writes is permanently available everywhere
Transac-tions costs for reader payment Relatively high, so institutions usually pay Relatively low, so readers’ willingness to pay drives publishing Relatively high, so sponsors and advertisers pay, or text is produced pro bono
Price of texts High Low Free
Quantity of texts Limited Plentiful, but a limited selection available to most readers Almost inconceivably vast and diverse
Market struc-ture Dominated by the Church Publishers with large print runs Decentralized and nichefied: most reading occurs in the “long tail” of the distribution
Interac-tivity Some: “glossators” write notes in margins None: books are fungible, readers are passive receptacles Easy and abundant: comment sections, blogs, chat rooms, social media

Printing made it possible to make and sell books at low prices, but only with large print runs. High fixed costs discouraged niche or custom publishing. Distribution and storage were no more expensive than before, but they were much more relatively expensive, because production costs were so low. So distribution networks limited the geographic reach of many books, and older books often went out of print. While printing vastly increased the number of books made, and high-quality reading material became available to the masses, the selection was still limited by the high fixed costs of launching a print run, as well as by problems of distribution. Moreover, the role of some medieval copyists as “glossators” who wrote in the margins of texts, or between the lines, to explain unfamiliar words and reconcile apparent contradictions, disappeared. All copies of a book were identical, and readers of a book became passive receptacles of what publishers sold them.

The medieval “glossator” has an interesting counterpart in the modern blogger, who publishes excerpts of other texts, adding commentaries that integrate them into a coherent worldview. Some of today’s leading public intellectuals, such as Tyler Cowen, Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, Scott Sumner, and Matthew Yglesias, rose to prominence through the blogosphere, while others, such as Paul Krugman, became famous through traditional scholarly channels, but then took to blogging for the sake of the freedom and influence it provides. Some blogs, such as the Brothers Judd ( primarily link to and quote other texts, adding only a few words of their own commentary to each post. This raises the question of why readers read the blog, instead of the sources, which are usually just a click away. A major reason seems to be that the reader is familiar with the blogger, knows and trusts his or her perspective, and prefers either to read texts filtered for consistency with a worldview they accept, or else to be armed by their favored blogger with refutations of any texts they may disagree with. Bloggers, like glossators, satisfy a demand for coherence and consistency in a world made confusing by the chaotic diversity of voices. Readers of blogs can also add their own comments, but even the blogosphere seems to have declined in recent years, eclipsed by the “micro-blogs” of Facebook and Twitter.

The comparative interactivity of both the internet age, with its teeming comments sections, and the Middle Ages, with its glossators writing in the margins of the books they were copying, stand in striking contrast with the age of print, when consumers were passive receptacles, reading identical, mass-manufactured copies of exactly the same text. Yet in another way, consumers had more power in the age of print than they do today, and the subtle reason for this relates to transactions costs in the book market.

A book maker incurs costs. The readers enjoy benefits. In principle, the readers should be willing to pay for the benefits. If readers’ willingness to pay is greater than the book maker’s cost, the book should be made. If not, not. Supply and demand should, in principle, motivate text producers to produce the text that people want to read. In the age of print, this was more or less true. Profit-driven publishing was the norm. This was possible because bookselling was the main transmission mechanism for text, and it is straightforward for a bookseller to collect a payment. So what got printed depended on what the consumer wanted to buy. In the words of Adam Smith, “the consumer is king.” Readers could not talk back, but they enjoyed consumer sovereignty.

By contrast, in the Middle Ages, books were too expensive to be often purchased by individuals for their own pleasure, and institutions, such as churches and monasteries, which could share books among many individuals, and keep them down the generations, played a larger role in book markets. What books got made therefore depended more on ecclesiastical or aristocratic patronage than on consumer demand. Surprisingly, this feature of the medieval book market has reappeared in the modern internet. It is hard to get people to pay to use websites. Few people today have such a low value of time that an article worth reading is not worth paying 10 to 20 cents for, but pulling out a credit card to pay (a) wastes a valuable minute of time, and (b) involves a security risk, since internet users are wisely wary about entering their credit card information into unfamiliar websites. So internet users tend to insist on free content. The clumsy solution to the problem is advertising, and annoyed readers end up closing pop-ups or scrolling away from sponsored content, but perhaps occasionally seeing something they want, and justifying the advertising dollars that finance the sites they are reading. But the internet age gives an advantage to websites that are produced on a pro bono or volunteer basis, or which have institutional sponsorship, so that they can keep their content available for free.

Another parallel between medieval manuscripts and the internet is that both favor a lingua franca over vernaculars. Early estimates of the global market share of English in internet content put it at 80%. That proportion has certainly fallen as internet use has spread worldwide, and Pimienta, Prado, and Blaco (2009) estimate English content at 45% today, while guessing that the true figure is under 40%, which is still far ahead of other languages, and enormously disproportionate to the 5.4% of humanity whose native language is English. English is the new Latin, the great textual language, the language of an international intelligentsia, the medium of the best argument and information.

But why? Because today, as in the Middle Ages, the relative cost of distribution and storage of texts is low compared to the cost of producing them, so it is easy to reach mass audiences, if only you are writing in a widely understood language. Most medieval writers—Dante, who wrote in the Florentine dialect of Italian, and the troubadours, who wrote in Old Provencal, were exceptions— preferred Latin, because vernaculars were local and ephemeral; and vernaculars were local and ephemeral because medieval writers preferred Latin. A paucity of books reduced the opportunity and the incentive to become literate in vernacular languages if one did not have the resources to learn Latin, and without books and schools to fix vocabularies and grammars in place, the vernaculars varied from town to town and generation to generation. Latin gave access to an international, albeit an elite-only, audience, and ensured that works could be read by posterity. But printing made it less important to be read internationally or by posterity, for printed books could make a quick profit from, and have a rapid impact on, large local audiences. The profit motive drove a shift from Latin into the vernaculars, and the proliferation of literature in the vernaculars homogenized and elevated them into the great modern European languages. For a long time, Latin was still better known internationally than national languages like English or French, and some authors wrote in Latin for elite audiences– Isaac Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica in 1687 in Latin, for example– but such long-distance circulation of books was expensive, and the profit motive tended to push text producers towards English, French, and German.

Today, when anything published online is automatically available to the whole world, text producers face the opposite pressures. They can reach the whole world, but only if they write in English. The vast supply of English online content increases the means and opportunity to learn the web’s dominant language. An intriguing possibility suggests itself, that non-English languages might be reduced to a status like that of the medieval vernaculars, abandoned by the intelligentsia and thereby deprived of sophisticated vocabulary and formal, prescriptive grammar, and sometimes degenerating into slang, while at other times being colonized by English loan-words.  

Perhaps most importantly, the age of print cut off what is sometimes called “the long tail,” (Anderson, 2006A). The “long tail” of a statistical distribution is the many small entities that together may be much larger than the largest entities. Thus, if a printer publishers 100 books, and rejects 10,000, the rejected 10,000 may well have sold more copies, and created more reader satisfaction, than the printer’s 100 top picks, had they been published. But high fixed costs mean the printer cannot print a few copies of 10,000 different books. The result is a “few-to-many” distribution structure. But the 10,000 books can easily be published in cyberspace. The result is a wider selection and happier readers, but also endless diffusion, diversity, and decentralization. Social media accelerate this trend. Facebook epitomizes “mass customization” and makes everyone a published writer. It is an apt symbol of the contrast between the age of print and the age of the internet. The internet has given rise to a “many-to-many” structure for the distribution of text. And that may have major geopolitical ramifications, if Anderson (2006B) is right that the rise of the nation-state was a side-effect of “print capitalism.”

3. Imagined Communities

In the contemporary world, everyone is still thought to have a nationality almost as everyone has a gender. We have even forgotten that this is odd. Part of the confusion arises because race and native language really are almost as fundamental as gender. But neither race nor native language is synonymous with nationality. To 19th-century nationalists fighting to reunite Germany or liberate Ireland, the idea that a benighted past was giving way to a more rational future, in which one people had one government, came naturally. But in a longer historical perspective, the naturalness of desiderata like Irish independence or German unity for certain generations is just what needs explaining. After all, medieval Europeans rarely found the cause of national independence and/or unity worth fighting for, or even intelligible, while in the early 21st century, many contemporary Europeans are embarrassed by their former nationalism and desire to submerge hard-won national independence in an “ever closer union” of Europe.

Nationality today is the political fact of membership in a particular state. If, as Aristotle claimed, “man is a political animal,” might nationality, as membership of a state, be almost as necessary and fundamental to human identity as gender, race, and language? No. History reveals that the identification of nationality with membership of a state, and the partitioning of the population and territory of the whole globe into nation-states, are quite recent developments. As recently as World War I, most of the world consisted of multinational empires, migration was largely unrestricted, and class and race were as important to human identity as nationality or citizenship, which in turn would rarely be identified with each other. That said, the transition to a world of nation-states was already well underway. Most of the world’s leading powers in 1914, were organized as nation-states, with Britain and France priding themselves in national histories going back to the Middle Ages, while Germans and Italians had sought national unification in the 19th century, and some form of this desideratum had been achieved through the power politics of older dynastic states. Dynastic multinational empires were widely perceived as backward and archaic. When Wilson, after WWI, sought to rebuild a shattered world on the basis of “national self-determination,” he would help to catalyze decades of chaotic, revolutionary transformation, first in eastern Europe, then in the post-colonial Third World, but if Anderson (2006B) is right that nationalism arose from print capitalism, Wilson may only have been accelerating a long-term trend.

Nationalism was linked with democracy, as it would later turn out to be with socialism, despite the ideological internationalism of Marx and other socialist theoreticians. The phrase rule of the people, which can equally have a democratic meaning (the people vs. kings and aristocrats), a nationalist meaning (the people vs. other peoples), or a socialist meaning (the people vs. the rich and the capitalists) neatly elucidates the inherent links between the three. The association of nationalism with the political “right” and of socialism with the political “left” is misleading. The widespread advent of democracy in late-19th century Europe led to the decline of international capitalism, as it was curtailed by larger governments that were at once more national and more socialist, regardless of whether they called themselves communist, fascist, or democratic. Autarkic isolationism has a perennial appeal for the nationalist mind, but it leads to economic inefficiency and geopolitical instability, as the world painfully learned in the Great Depression and World War II. However, the post-war West was able, for a while, to use military alliances and limited economic integration to achieve peace and prosperity within relatively closed national communities. Meanwhile, the new nationalisms that had been emerging under colonial rule, began to attain independence. By the 1980s, the Wilsonian idea of a world of nation-states seemed largely realized.

Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities (Anderson, 2006B) offered the most influential explanation of the continual popular drive for national self-determination in the modern world. He explains how modern nationalism arose from “print capitalism.” Anderson’s title calls nations “imagined” communities, but he does not mean they are imaginary. People who think they are a nation, are one, really. The way people imagine the world matters to them, so it matters to history. That said, Anderson is pointing out that various more “real” or “objective” definitions of nationality which might be suggested, fail to generalize. Language does not work. It can explain the unity of Czechs and Italians, but not why Switzerland is one nation, or why the English-speaking nations—the USA, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada—are six. Race does not work, since the USA and India are racial rainbows, while a dozen distinct northern European nations exhibit no discernible racial differences. History does not work, since long union didn’t make the Irish feel English, while centuries of city-state independence did not prevent 19th-century Italians from feeling a shared nationality. Religion does not work, since the USA is religiously diverse, while Spain, Italy, Ireland and so forth do not comprise a single Catholic nation. Sovereignty does not work, for subject nations aspire to gain separate sovereignty, while pieces of divided nations aspire to lose it. The search for some deeper essence of nationality fails, leaving us with the conclusion that people who think they are a nation, are.

But people’s need for imagined community long predates modern nationalism. The lives of people in the Middle Ages were embedded in a wide variety of imagined communities, including guilds, monasteries and religious orders, universities, feudal hierarchies, dynastic kingdoms, and overarching all, the Catholic Church. Anderson stresses that nationalist writings are full of love for their countries, and that people in the 20th century proved themselves ready “not so much to kill as to die” for their countries, more than for any other cause. But in the Middle Ages, men loved, and fought and died for, Christendom and the Church– especially in the Crusades– or for their kings and feudal lords. Personal and local ties were probably more important in medieval times than they became in the modern age of urban industrialization, but what we might call “international” loyalties, to the Roman Catholic Church or the Holy Roman Empire, were also more important. The very word “international,” however, betrays our modern bias to emphasize the national unit. The word “catholic”– meaning universal– better expresses medieval sensibilities, which saw the community of Christendom as at least as real and organic as any nascent national political units that might exist under its aegis.

So if the idea that nations are “imagined communities” is accepted, it remains to explain why, in modern times, national imagined communities eclipsed other kinds of imagined communities. Anderson explains this novelty by looking to the rise of reading publics as the nursery of nationhood. Profit-driven publishers learned to connect with their readers, and thereby connected their readers with one another. Newspapers created, among their readerships, a sense of the immediacy and urgency of events, as well as of the permanence of the community itself, of which the readers were a part. They created a sense of a collectivity moving through time but remaining itself. Novels were written, in an unprecedentedly intimate style, to an implicit audience, an audience that shared certain assumptions and circumstances, that knew certain place-names and had certain customs, in short, to a nation. While a common language is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for shared nationality, the literary transition to the vernacular was obviously important. Erasmus (1466-1536), the cosmopolitan intellectual who still wrote in Latin, was succeeded by Luther (1483-1546), who translated the Bible into German, and Shakespeare (1564-1616), who laid the foundations of an English national literature. But the crucial element was not language per se, but the way printed literatures shaped the human conversation. As modern literatures eclipsed classical and medieval texts, the circulation of these literatures helped define the boundaries of a community, eclipsing both more local and feudal loyalties, and more abstract and universal ones. Language barriers and political frontiers impeded the circulation of text, but more fundamentally, the economics of printing oriented writers to local and immediate mass markets. It discouraged writing for the ages, since, as Jonathan Swift (1712) complained, the national languages were still changing, and might not be intelligible to future generations. Text reached downwards into classes it had never before touched, and began to soften class distinctions, but it ceased to reach across national, political, and linguistic boundaries, or backward and forward in time, as easily as it had once done.

Today, the primacy of national imagined communities may be giving way to a more stratified, complex, voluntarist web of overlapping and interpenetrating imagined communities, more like that of the Middle Ages. Recent books like Coming Apart (Murray, 2012), Our Kids (Putnam, 2015) and Bowling Alone (Putnam, 1995), and The Big Sort (Bishop, 2009), among many others, highlight the increasing stratification and self-segregation of American society, and the decline of a sense of national community. At the same time, social networking sites enable people to revive and strengthen social ties and meet new people, without regard to national boundaries. A recent study of the global social network that is Facebook (Ugander et al., 2011) found that 84 percent of links between “friends” are within the same country. While this implies that social networks are still mainly intra-national, it almost certainly represents an internationalization of social networks relative to, say, the 1950s and 1960s. Epidemiologists estimate that between 70 percent and 95 percent of a population needs to be immune to a contagious disease before it acquires “herd immunity.” It seems likely that, in the heyday of print capitalism and nation-states, nations had a sort of “herd immunity” to foreign ideas, whereby an open-minded few who might have listened to them, would simply never have heard them, whereas today, with foreign media sources only a click away and 16 percent of people’s Facebook friends living abroad, they have lost it. Ideas move easily across political frontiers, and public opinion is less national in character.

Table 2 summarizes the argument so far, as it relates to the impact of text technology on the structure of the human conversation, how people’s imagined communities were or are likely to be shaped by it, and what forms of geopolitical organization these imagined communities were or are likely to aspire to.

Table 2: How text technology shapes imagined communities and politics

Text technology Structure of the human conversation Imagined communities Geopolitical organization
Manuscript A lingua franca (Latin) united a literate, orthodox, largely clerical elite across space and time. Most other communication is oral and local. The Catholic Church was the overarching community; plus religious orders, guilds, the knightly class, and personal feudal ties. Secular power was organized in complex, shifting feudal and dynastic matrices, while the Church and its religious orders enjoyed substantial freedom and privileges.
Printing National, transient in scope, and “the consumer is king” in the marketplace of ideas yet can’t talk back, moderate centralization because of the fixed costs of a printing press. Loyalties gradually become concentrated in notionally homogeneous nation-states. Dynasts come to seem archaic, and fascist, communist, and democratic nation-states based on egalitarian citizenship take over.
Internet A lingua franca (English) increasingly ties together a global educated class, and the profit motive recedes as institutional and volunteer voices predominate. At once globalized and nichefied. People can bond easily with like-minded people worldwide, but need not know their neighbors. Global governance institutions and NGOs gain influence, while national democracy becomes increasingly problematic.


If the printing press was the ultimate cause of modern nationalism, the transition was remarkably slow. Almost four centuries passed between Gutenberg’s printing press and the political consolidation of the German and Italian nations. Ideas of sovereignty are stubborn features of the mental landscape, and like the Roman empire, it was the fate of the dynastic principle to be destroyed, then revived, and then to linger on as a dream and a fiction long after it had ceased to be a fact. First in England, then in France, revolutionaries executed a king, only to see a restoration, followed by another, more moderate revolution that set up another, more moderate king. England’s kings had almost ceased ruling by the mid-18th century, yet the British crown was never more popular than when it sat on the head of the largely powerless Queen Victoria. The principle that the people ought to rule seemed obvious to Locke in 1689, and to many others in the generations that followed, but the difficulty of implementing it played into the hands of the old dynasts again and again, most notably in 1848. Hobbes and Burke, fearing revolution, strained to supply new justifications for the old monarchical order. Yet in hindsight, we can hardly regard the fall of the dynasts and the advent of national democracy throughout Europe as historical accidents. An aspiration that had persisted for centuries could hardly have remained indefinitely unfulfilled.

But the aspiration to national democracy was not an inevitable and permanent feature of human nature. It was, instead, a product of history, and more specifically, a consequence of how the human conversation was organized by the printing press. Today, the human conversation is being reorganized again by the internet. It stands to reason (a) that in due course, the imagined communities in which people situate themselves can be expected to adapt to the new opportunities for communication, and (b) that what shape these new communities will take, and how they will shape the political organization of a future humanity, must be as difficult to conceive now, as a world of democratic nation-states would be in 1550. Yet it may be helpful to use the High Middle Ages as “a distant mirror,” to borrow the title of Tuchman (1979) as a potent description of how historical analogies help us understand the world. The parallel is suggested, first of all, by the resemblances between the medieval manuscripts and modern websites, with their low costs of distribution and storage relative to production, and their high transactions costs for payment, favoring international distribution of texts, linguae francae, the dominance of institutional, volunteer, and pro bono over for-profit text production, and the simultaneous globalization and nichefication of the human conversation. Other resemblances follow from these.  

The hypothesis that we are fated, in some respects, to relive the Middle Ages, is not a pessimistic hypothesis, even if it is partly inspired by the Islamic terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The Renaissance and the Enlightenment had a bias against the Middle Ages, and it lingers on in the negative connotations which words like “medieval” and “feudal” usually carry. Yet beginning in the Romantic era, there has also been a tradition of admiring the Middle Ages. The works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are set in quasi-medieval worlds, and countless quasi-medieval imaginary worlds are generated by the flourishing fantasy-fiction industry for the benefit of readers and gamers. The pro-medieval tradition of the Romantics, Lewis and Tolkien, is wiser than the anti-medieval bias of the Renaissance humanists and the Enlightenment philosophes. For all the brilliance of classical Greece and Rome, they never really had human rights, limited government, or freedom of conscience; their religions were immoral and intellectually irresponsible to the point of absurdity; their philosophies were mixed up with magic and superstition; their economies were founded on slave labor; and the golden ages of Greek and Roman freedom were stained with incessant warfare. In the High Middle Ages, philosophy and the arts flourished, universities appeared, legal traditions capable of protecting human rights were emerging, slavery was mitigated to serfdom and even serfdom then began to give way to general freedom, parliamentary government was born, and science and technology began to accelerate. To say that we entering an age of “neo-medieval globalism” is to forecast a sweeping betterment of the human condition, marred by some religious violence.

Key parallels between the present and the Middle Ages are sketched in Table 3.

Table 3: How the internet age resembles the Middle Ages

Feature of today’s world Medieval analogy Explanation
English Latin Lingua franca of the educated elite
The international community The Church The largest imagined community with which most people identify, containing all others
Economics Theology Reigning intellectual discipline that supplies a standard of right and a conception of the good life for humans
Liberalism Catholicism A broad ideology, generally accepted by leaders and populaces, dissent from which is feared and condemned
International human rights law Canon law Legal norms pretending to universality, whose development guides and constrains the positive law of particular states
“Nation-building” Medieval kingship emerges with Church sponsorship Where states are weak, state formation is catalyzed and supported by outside civilizing forces
Govt. power is limited by human rights, representative institutions, international law Govt. power is limited by natural law, feudalism, canon law and the Church Opposition to overly strong states is supported and legitimized by outside civilizing forces
The UN The papacy Conceived of as center of civilization and touchstone of legitimacy, though often ineffectual
NGOs and development agencies Monastic orders Purpose-driven, transnational voluntary organizations working in various ways for the prescribed standard of right

A low cost of distribution and storage of text, relative to its production, made it easy for the human conversation to cross frontiers, and people learned the lingua franca of the times to participate in it. This helped the medievals to feel themselves to be part of a universal Church, whose Latin liturgy was the same from Sicily to Scandinavia. Similarly, people today feel a stake in “the international community,” to which they are tied by webs of communication, especially if they happen to know English, as more and more people do. The shape of the human conversation helps explain the ascendancy of (broadly defined) liberalism, which, having conquered the minds and consciences of the West, fairly easily extends these conquests into lands that communicate intensively with the West, listen to its deliberations from the margins, and find themselves challenged by its values and principles. The shape of the human conversation may even explain why economics, like theology in medieval times, is so influential today. Economics, built on basic needs and observed choices as analyzed using deductive logic, is a form of reasoning largely independent of cultural assumptions, so it travels well. Medieval theology had a similar universality in the Catholic West.

Shared principles—liberalism—and modes of thinking—economics—allow for a high degree of solidarity and mutual understanding among upstanding members of the international community. The flip side of this is that illiberal opinions and regimes face anathematization, rather like heretics in early medieval times. Vladimir Putin is the latest national leader to defy the liberal world order. It will be interesting to see if his end resembles that of those who preceded him in the role, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic. Openly racist speech in the USA provokes fierce ostracism. Illiberal political parties in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, are treated as pariahs by mainstream parties. The range of tolerated opinion includes free-market economics and democratic socialism, libertinism and moderate social conservatism, Christianity and atheism and all long-standing religious traditions, but not racial hatred, advocacy of terrorism, or sympathy with Nazi and fascist regimes.  

The international community, like the medieval Church, encourages state formation in places where states are absent, and seeks to strengthen states that are too weak to maintain order and administer justice, through foreign aid and policy advice. As medieval churchmen once crowned kings, served as royal councillors, and raised armies from episcopal lands for the king’s service, so weak states today can expect help from the IMF, World Bank, diverse development agencies, and NGOs and private philanthropy. States, after all, are needed to protect human rights against private violence. But stronger states can expect resistance from the same agencies if they violate human rights. Sanctions, the non-violent but often potent weapon of the international community against wrongdoers when it is not prepared to use force, resemble the interdict, the cessation of ecclesiastical services ordered by the medieval papacy, which it used to exert pressure on various regimes, without going to war. Liberals today, like the medievals, believe that government should be limited, though the mechanisms are different. Medieval kings were limited by the feudal social contract, the immunities of the Church, and notionally by natural law. Modern national leaders are limited by representative institutions, international law, and the obligation to respect human rights. The UN lies at the heart of the liberal world order, as the papacy once lay at the heart of the medieval Catholic West, and even if, as of 2015, the UN bore a greater resemblance to the impotent papacy of the 10th century than to the muscular papacy of the 13th, its widespread recognition as a touchstone of legitimacy is a mostly untapped resource that may one day be used to accelerate the transition to liberal globalism.

At present, this sort of neo-medieval globalism is still only a tentative scaffolding around the firm, if eroding, structures of national sovereignty. But trends over the past couple of decades point to the empowerment of globalist organizations, official and voluntary, a trend probably accelerated by the internationalization of social networks. If the internet is going to transform the world order as the printing press once did, we should not expect it to do so quickly. First, the conversation of mankind will be restructured. That is happening today. Over time, the structure of the imagined communities that people feel they belong to will change to become more like the structure of the human conversation itself. But nation-state sovereignty will remain a fixture of people’s minds long after the rationales for it have lost their persuasiveness. People will fall back on it again and again as an expedient, when dreams of a more just and rational order elude implementation. Yet those new dreams are already being born, and are beginning to be actors in history. Some of them were born in the crucible of the anti-globalization movement.

4. The Rise and Fall of Anti-Globalization

A great irony of recent history, is that the movement which probably most typifies and foreshadows the dawning age of globalist politics, rallied under the slogan of “anti-globalization.” Rising to international prominence through huge, angry protests against leading institutions associated with global capitalism, such as the World Bank, IMF, and WTO, it appeared to be a growing force, a permanent challenger to the international economic power, as the international revolutionary socialist movement was in the 19th century. Some apologists for global capitalism, such as Harold James (2002), wrote with the urgency of men with their backs against the wall. But the movement dwindled as rapidly and unexpectedly as it had begun, and even the financial crisis that began in 2008 did not revive it. It was not suppressed. Rather, ideological evolutions made it unfashionable.

The largest anti-globalization protests, involving tens or hundreds of thousands, occurred in November 1999 in Seattle, against the WTO; in April 2000, in Washington, against the IMF and World Bank; and in July 2001, in Genoa, Italy, against the G-8. Most protesters were non-violent, but not all; meetings were canceled; police retaliated with pepper spray, tear gas, and stun grenades. One motive for scheduling the WTO meetings in November 2001, which launched a new round of trade talks, in Doha, Qatar, seems to have been that Doha was far away from the Western democracies where most protesters came from, and was moreover an authoritarian kingdom with few scruples about suppressing protests. The West seemed unsure of being able to guarantee the physical safety, in its own cities, of official summits associated with global capitalism, and had to outsource the WTO summit to a petro-state on the Persian Gulf.

Then something changed. The Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank in September 2002 attracted protests, but far smaller than those in Seattle and Genoa. One or two thousand protesters showed up, of which hundreds were temporarily arrested. Since then, the IMF, World Bank, WTO, G-8, and other multilateral organizations and clubs have been able to meet with only token protests. Why? Why, first of all, did so many people take to the streets to protest against globalization in the first place? Given that they did, why did they stop? If the anti-globalization cause could mobilize hundreds of thousands in protest in 2001, why not in 2006, or 2011?

Protesters’ stated motives were bewilderingly varied. Some were protesting on behalf of the environment, trying to protect nature from the depredations of global corporations. Some were protesting against the outsourcing of jobs from developed nations to developing countries where wages and working conditions were poor. Some were protesting the loss of democratic national sovereignty to opaque technocratic global institutions. The key catalyst of the Seattle protests, however, seems to have been the founding of the WTO in 1995, with new powers to interfere in the policies of developed Western democracies. In 1997, the WTO ruled against EU (European Union) restrictions on imports of beef from cattle treated with hormones. In 1999, the WTO ruled against the EU’s policy of favoring banana imports from certain ex-colonial countries. This pattern of interference threatened US domestic groups such as environmentalists and trade unions who were accustomed to using domestic policies to regulate working conditions and protect the environment. They were troubled to see a global institution, operating outside the ordinary channels of democratic accountability, imposing laissez-faire rules. Environmentalists and labor unions were the key constituencies of the Seattle protests.

One of the slogans in Seattle was “No Globalization without Representation,” and this slogan probably comes closest to expressing what the movement was about, what gave its disparate members their transient unity. But it also highlights the ambivalence that was present in it from the beginning. If one protests against “globalization without representation,” there are, logically, two ways to address the grievance: (a) no globalization, and (b) globalization with representation. Which did the protesters want?

Inasmuch as they were protesting that increasing power was being wielded by institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, which had only tenuous constitutional links to any democratic process and were effectively insulated from any kind of electoral pressures, the protestors had a point. It was anomalous, in an age when democracy reigned without a rival on the ideological plane, even if far fewer regimes were really democratic than claimed to be, that major institutions of global governance wielded power without democratic accountability. But what was to be done about it? It was not clear how the IMF, World Bank, and WTO, much less the impersonal market forces of global finance or global supply chain management, could be made more democratically accountable. The anti-globalization movement was becoming a magnet for a political left orphaned by the fall of the Soviet Union and the discrediting of Marxist communism. It did not want less governance of markets, or a purer form of laissez-faire capitalism. What did it want?

The economist Dani Rodrik, at Harvard University, was the most respectable critic of globalization. In books like Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (Rodrik, 1998) and The Globalization Paradox (Rodrik, 2011), Rodrik stresses the importance of various roles that the government plays in the economy, from antitrust to consumer safety to labor rights to environmental protection to social insurance, and the value of having these roles played by large, democratically accountable governments. A globalizing economy without robust global governance, Rodrik argued and still argues today, would be too volatile, and deficient in public goods and social insurance. Rodrik doubted that robust governance of a globalized economy would be possible for reasons that can perhaps be best expressed in Benedict Andersen’s language. People’s imagined communities were still national, so to organize some sort of democratic world polity was not a feasible project. To oversimplify, Rodrik truncated the slogan “no globalization without representation” to “no globalization.” More accurately, he wanted to see globalization curtailed, and more power be wielded by the representative institutions that were already in place, namely, democratic national governments.

Yet Rodrik was never quite a thought-leader for the anti-globalization movement, probably because there was never widespread sympathy within the movement for Rodrik’s brand of nationalism. Most activists did not want to truncate the Seattle slogan, but preferred to foster vague dreams of a globalization with representation, a globalization that would somehow give the global proletariat more of a voice. Some of the Seattle protesters, to be sure, were old-style protectionists, resenting the threat to US sovereignty posed by the WTO. Yet as the movement expanded, it soon claimed to speak for the oppressed masses of the developing world, and to make this claim credible, they needed exotic allies. As the left took over the movement, they imbued it with their traditional internationalism. That made the “anti-globalization” label awkward, and some participants adopted the label “alter-globalization” as an alternative, signalling that they wanted global cooperation, but not on “neoliberal” lines. An economist like Rodrik, calling for a return to the Bretton Woods system of the immediate post-Cold War decades, when trade and capital flows were more tightly controlled and national governments had more freedom to pursue national development plans, was not the ideologist the movement needed.

All manner of grievances against global capitalism were brought under the umbrella of the anti-globalization movement. In part, the anti-globalization movement was a generous reaction to global inequality, which seemed to be at a historic peak. Global inequality was not new, but the West’s triumphalism in the wake of its victory in the Cold War made it more galling. The title of Francis Fukuyama’s bestseller, The End of History and the Last Man, (Fukuyama, 2006) captured the mood of the West, even if it was widely dismissed as hyperbole. By that title, Fukuyama meant that history in the sense of ideological struggle was over, and liberal democratic capitalism was established as a universal pattern for human societies, even if some societies had not yet caught up with the end of history. Such eulogies to the neoliberal world order made the need for a critique more urgent. How could a world of liberal, democratic, capitalist nation-states be accepted as “the end of history” when so many people worldwide were so desperately poor?

To this, the neoliberal answer was that as societies remodeled themselves on neoliberal lines, they would gradually “converge” to the freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the West. They would accumulate physical and human capital, adopt cutting-edge technology, and see labor productivity increase. The IMF, the World Bank, and the foreign aid agencies of the Western democracies, would help them to adopt sound fiscal and monetary policies and improve public services and the rule of law. The WTO would pressure them to get rid of harmful protectionist rules that catered to local vested interests, while securing them access to the large, lucrative consumer markets of the West. Yet in the late 1990s, the facts seemed to contradict this optimistic story. The 1980s had been a “lost decade” for Africa and Latin America. Economic growth had been slow in South Asia for decades. And even the one region that had seemed to be converging to Western living standards, East Asia, suffered a devastating financial crisis in 1997-98, which then spread to Russia and Brazil. The writings of wandering polymath journalist Robert Kaplan, such as The Ends of the Earth (1996), vividly documented extreme global inequality in a way that would hardly have been possible before the openness of the 1990s gave writers like Kaplan increased freedom to travel. Western Europe was rich, but suffered from high unemployment and slow growth. The USA was thriving, but for the rest of the world, global capitalism looked like a bad deal. It did not follow, however, that its critics had a viable alternative to offer.

The diversity of the anti-globalization movement was its strength and its weakness. It gave it an appearance of power and popular support, and at the same time made ideological coherence elusive. Some intellectuals sympathetic to the movement wrote books at the time that seemed like efforts to express articulate a unifying ideology for the diverse and chaotic anti-globalization movement. Thus, Naomi Klein’s book No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, (Klein, 1999) published shortly after the battle in Seattle, represented multinational corporations as simultaneous oppressors of First World consumers, compelled by fashion trends to overpay for cool brands, and of Third World workers, paid starvation wages for toiling in sweatshops. But this story made little sense economically, since sweatshop jobs must make Third World workers better off than the alternatives or they wouldn’t take them, and outsourcing jobs to poor countries lowered the prices of manufactured goods for Western consumers, rather than raising them. Other anti-globalization tracts for the times, such as William Greider’s One World, Ready or Not (Greider, 1998) were similarly fraught with fallacies.

Had the anti-globalization movement endured, it might have found its Karl Marx in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, and its Das Kapital in their 2000 book Empire (Hardt and Negri, 2009). Hardt and Negri make a determined effort to discern the constitution of the world order, which they call the “Empire,” since the distant mirror they use to see the contemporary world by is the ancient Roman empire. This metaphor overstates the political unity of the contemporary world, which is why the High Middle Ages, when the universal Church had great moral and political influence but kings and feudal lords held most of the political power, supplies a better historical analogy. But there is nonetheless a certain lucidity in Hardt and Negri’s vision of “Empire” as a system at once of juridical power and of capitalist exploitation, of which the UN and international law, humanitarian interventions, and transnational corporations are equally expressions. It is productive not only of vast wealth, but also of notions of justice and right, tendentiously designed to serve the interests of capital.

Like Karl Marx, the supreme opponent of capitalism, who however insisted that capitalism was to be preferred to the feudal past because it brought socialist liberation closer, so Hardt and Negri refuse to entertain nostalgia for the nation-state. Instead, they see in the rising global Empire a new stage on which the internationalist ambitions of the left can be played out. In spite of the wealth, power, and apparent strength of the Empire, they see corruption, decadence, and decline as inherent in it from the inception. They look beyond that decline and fall to a vaguely described epoch in which “the multitude”—the laboring proletarian mass of global mankind—will attain new modes of freedom and self-government, rather as Christianity brought a new kind of freedom to the declining Roman Empire. They end with a eulogy to the “militant,” a kind of revolutionary community organizer who, they prophesy, will rise up and overthrow global capitalism. What will replace it is not clear, but it is certainly not the national democratic capitalism advocated by Rodrik. It seems, rather, to be some sort of “globalization with representation.”

But the crescendo of protest from Seattle to Genoa was followed by a swift and sudden fade-out. Why? The 9/11 provoked a reaction of patriotic solidarity which briefly made revolutionary protest distasteful. Then the war in Iraq provided a new focal point for the ire of the political left. Meanwhile, there was a strong intellectual counter-attack by advocates of globalization. Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization (Bhagwati, 2004) and Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works (Wolf, 2004) among many others, made an erudite and often passionate case, based on economic theory and history, that the anti-globalization movement’s means were the worst possible way to achieve its ostensible end of helping the world’s poor. Globalization had lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in East Asia, and it would do the same elsewhere, if only it were fully embraced and given time. More importantly, the facts began to support this optimistic story. By the mid-2000s, the world economy was booming, and world poverty was being alleviated as never before. East Asia’s financial crisis proved transient, and strong growth resumed. China’s booming growth not only spread decent living standards to more of its own people, but buoyed global commodity prices, helping countries in resource-exporting regions like Latin America and Africa to flourish, as well. Before 2008, growth was robust in every developing region of the world, and no one seems to have blamed the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath on globalization.

If capitalist prosperity and the Bush administration explained the decline of the anti-globalization movement, it should have revived with Bush’s exit from office, and especially, with the 2008 financial crisis. And in fact, there was an outbreak of protest in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Anti-austerity protests in Europe helped to ignite the Occupy Wall Street movement, which broke out in Zuccotti Park in New York City on November 15, 2011, with the slogan “We are the 99%.” Naomi Klein (2011) called Occupy Wall Street “the most important thing in the world now,” while Hardt and Negri (2011) hailed “the fight for ‘real democracy’ at the heart of Occupy Wall Street.’” But the Occupy movement did not target the IMF, World Bank, or WTO, but banks and rich people. Many of the same people and organizations that agitated against global capitalism in 1999-2002 are still agitating against it, but their target now is just capitalism, not globalization.

If the anti-globalization cause has become unfashionable, globalization and the institutions that represent it have gained, as it were by forfeit, a certain legitimacy. They enjoy a habitual deference from the media, and strikingly, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the IMF, was the leading Socialist candidate for French president before he was discredited by a sex scandal in 2011. More important is the globalization of civil society of which the anti-globalization movement was both a symptom and a catalyst. A vast proliferation of “non-governmental organizations,” or NGOs, now engage in operational development work as well as advocacy, are often recognized as “stakeholders” by the World Bank and other development agencies. Watkins et al. (2012) summarize a scholarly literature that views NGOs as “an alternative form of social organization… more altruistic, more cooperative, and less hierarchical than governments and for-profit organizations” which “by their very presence… assert an imagined shared citizenship in an emerging global polity.” They represent a makeshift solution to the problem of “globalization without representation,” more voluntarist and decentralized than formal democracy. As Hardt and Negri (2000) observed at one point, they are to the contemporary world order what the monastic orders were for the civilization of the High Middle Ages. NGOs and development agencies, like medieval monastic orders, each have their own style, structure, and goals, but these are generally consistent with liberal principles and desiderata, e.g., Doctors without Borders promotes health, and Reporters without Borders, press freedom. They are not the paid pawns of global capitalism, but are usually run with donor funds and the time donations of underpaid staff, and motivated by spontaneous sympathy with liberal ideals.

5. Conclusions

 At the time of writing (October 2015), the democratic politics of the contemporary West exhibit a certain aura of crisis and dysfunctionality. Far-right parties in Europe and populist candidates in the United States mock the political establishment and cast doubt over whether the center can hold. Europe has at least the excuse of economic crisis, but the United States is experiencing political turmoil (e.g., Donald Trump leads the polls for the Republican presidential nomination) despite a relatively healthy economy. If the thesis advanced here has any truth in it, the deep cause of this dysfunctionality may be the reorganization of the human community by the internet, making the democratic nation-state less well-adapted to serve human needs. The legitimacy that is bleeding away from nation-states is flowing to global governance institutions and NGOs which, though not democratically accountable by any regular mechanism, yet have weak claims to represent the human community as a whole, which national governments lack altogether.

If nation-states do find themselves ever more penetrated and constrained by NGOs, international human rights law, trade treaties, and so forth, human liberty will probably be well served. Democracy is far from a guarantee against the abuse of power, and representation is separable from majoritarian math. Often, unelected NGOs stand bravely for universal principles, while legislators are captured by vested interests, or pander to voter ignorance. Neo-medieval globalism can supply new checks and balances on national governments, and open up new spaces and chances for human beings to flourish. Some of the vague but alluring visions formed in the excitement of the anti-globalization movement may, after a fashion, be realized.

In today’s world order, no one is really tasked with representing the common interests of mankind. This is a gap the anti-globalization movement briefly tried to fill. The “invisible hand” of the market may direct the profit-seeking efforts of corporations in the service of the common good to some extent. But as Rodrik stresses, the market must operate in a framework of institutions which it cannot provide for itself, and in any case there are well-understood “market failures.” So global capitalism without global governance is problematic. The tension between globalization and democracy should not be resolved at the expense of globalization, however, since globalization is a mighty force for good. Nor does a democratic world polity seem either likely to emerge, or desirable. We should look instead for a humane global civil society to emerge in a more decentralized and voluntarist way, based partly in social media, and to engage in a sustained, benign contest for the moral high ground with the old sovereign nation-states, in a quest for some form of globalization with representation.



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A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation

My recent post, “How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?” attracted a fair amount of attention, most recently an article in the Washington Examiner with the deliciously intriguing headline “Open Borders Would Produce Dystopia, says Open Borders Advocate.” The headline, which somewhat misrepresents the more balanced article by Michael Barone that appears beneath it, is a crude caricature yet in its way bracingly lucid, for it points to what I think this debate has clarified, namely, that the chief difference between open borders advocates and their critics lies not in what they foresee but in how they assess it. As Niklas Blanchard puts it, “this is purely an emotional dystopia for (wealthy) people of a certain temperament…Smith‘s piece is… maximally grating to the ‘social justice’ crowd” (Blanchard, however, goes on to praise me for rigorous adherence to demand and supply logic in making projections and concludes that he finds my analysis “rather beautiful”– thanks!) but it still features doubling world GDP and ending world poverty and the rest of the good features that open borders advocates want in the world they’re trying to bring about. The disagreement is more about values than facts, more normative than positive. 

I’m very grateful for all the feedback, which was not only abundant, but in many cases, pretty astute! To express my gratitude, I’ll reply to some of it. Probably not many of those who responded to the first “billion immigrants” post will ever read this one, but it seems right to have a response, so that anyone who cares to look, knows that I’m listening. (I already engaged a bit at OBAG.)

One point that was raised privately by my colleagues here at Open Borders is that the migration of a few billion around the world (“a billion immigrants” refers, very roughly, to the projected  immigation to the US alone) might not happen as a steady flow, but rather, as a response to crises, such as civil wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, anthropogenic global warming, etc. Or perhaps, more positively, in response to dramatic economic booms, the emergence of new cultural meccas, or religious quests to establish new Jerusalems, such as brought the Puritans to North America and the Mormons to Utah. The Syrian civil war has produced over 4 million refugees, almost one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population. That’s tragic, but much better than the experience of the Jews on the MS St. Louis,  many of whom died in the Holocaust after an attempt to emigrate from Nazi Germany was thwarted because no one would permit German Jews to immigrate. For some, this may mitigate the implausibility of a billion immigrants coming to the US. I don’t find a billion immigrants prima facie implausible, but this “punctuated equilibrium” version of the scenario seems at least as likely as a steady flow version.

Alex Nowrasteh also pointed out that Americans might respond to a billion-immigrants scenario with more aggressive “Americanization” policies, such as were adopted in the USA around the turn of the last century, about which he wrote an interesting and informative Cato blog post. His take is mildly negative, but I would regard an Americanization campaign led by civil society as quite benign, and even an aggressive, government-subsidized, mildly intolerant Americanization campaign would be very benign compared to current migration restriction policies. However, I don’t know what “Americanization” would mean today, because American culture seems so fractured that I don’t see much to assimilate to. I love listening to bluegrass gospel, which to me represents the very soul of America, yet there is another America where San Francisco liberals would feel at home, and which to me is more hostile and alien, not than Iran perhaps, but certainly more so than many a Christian church in Africa, Russia, or Latin America. I don’t know what Americanization would mean today.

Big Think has a pretty good article about my article, entitled “Thought Experiment: What if the US Had 100% Open Borders?” The summary of my hypothetical is pretty astute, though I might object slightly to this:

What’s most interesting is how Smith conjures a scenario out of which American constitutional democracy becomes so destabilized that it collapses beneath its own weight. We’d be looking at a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable compared to the present.

“Collapse” is the wrong word. What I projected (again, very tentatively: no doubt these disclaimers become tedious, but I want to prevent anyone from investing too much epistemic confidence) is “a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable to the present,” but the path to it would be a kind of swift and mostly peaceful evolution, not any revolutionary collapse. And I’m not sure, in an age of runaway judicial activism, what the phrase “American constitutional democracy” means, anyway. (The phrase “American constitutional democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1900 but not in 1950. The phrase “American democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1950, and to a lesser extent in 1980, but not today.) Which leads to my other objection to the piece:

For many people, that might sound like a reason to scrap a 100 percent open-border policy. Smith is not one of those people. He’s got a bone to scrap with American politics and wouldn’t mind it turning into collateral damage amidst the rush of a brave new society [followed by my comparison of modern constitutional law to the late medieval Catholic theology of indulgences and my call for a kind of Lutheran Reformation to overthrow it.]

I can see how someone who read only that article might get the impression that my main reason for supporting open borders is my indignation at judicial activism. This is a case of being misunderstood because one reaches unanticipated audiences. I was writing for regular readers of Open Borders: The Case, who already know my main reasons for favoring open borders. That post reached a wider audience and so caused confusion. A quick review of my position may help.

My major reasons for supporting open borders may be classified into the deontological and the utilitarian:

Deontological. Human beings have rights, arising from their own natural telos, which we must respect. By “must” I mean something close to an absolute prohibition: I would tend to say that one mustn’t torture an innocent child even to save a great city from a terrorist attack. However, life doesn’t generally present us with such stark test cases. More often, we are tempted to violate human rights to prevent amorphous threats clothed in bombastic rhetoric. Thus, Nazi soldiers were driven to terrible crimes by spurious fears of Malthusian national impoverishment or starvation if Germany didn’t acquire sufficient Lebensraum, and even more spurious fears of a conspiracy of international Jewry against the German race. Astute intellectuals may see through such propaganda, or even refute it, but for the ordinary person, the key is to cling stubbornly to one’s humanity and the dictates of conscience, and refuse to commit crimes, no matter how vividly society makes you believe in the horrors that will come from not committing them, and no matter how propaganda stirs your passions to make you want to commit them. Now, migration restrictions involve doing terrible things to people. US immigration enforcement separates thousands of parents from their children by force ever year. European coast guards are culpable for a mounting toll of migrant deaths at sea, and so on. These things simply must stop.

We are not at liberty, as moral beings, to read through my “billion immigrants” scenario and think, “Hmm… Do we want that? No, we’d rather not.” In order to maintain migration restrictions, people who work for governments that represent us are doing things that must not be done. We are constrained by the imperative of human rights, constrained far more tightly than most in the West have yet been willing to admit to themselves. We are guilty every day that we tolerate the status quo. I won’t say, quite, that human rights imperatives demand open borders. (People have a right to migrate inasmuch as their practical telos requires migration, e.g., if it’s necessary to survival or earning a living, while in other cases there is a liberty to migrate in the sentence that no one else has a right to prevent migration by force. See Principles of a Free Society for details.) Rather, I doubt that any policy short of some kind of open borders simultaneously gives adequate respect for human rights and makes it incentive-compatible to obey the law. My “billion immigrants” scenario isn’t like an item on a restaurant menu, which a patron may choose, or not, according to pure preference. It’s more like a forecast of how the courts are likely to treat a robber if he does his duty by turning himself in to the law. Of course, such a forecast might give a robber self-interested reasons to turn himself in– the jail cell may be warmer than his hideout in the woods, with better food; and if he turns himself in he’ll get a shorter sentence– but these are secondary. I hope readers will find the prospect of a billion immigrants not too unpleasant, and that it will encourage people to do the right thing, but if the prospect is frightening, still we must stop deporting people, and prepare ourselves for the consequences.

Utilitarian (universalist). My other major reason for supporting open borders is that it is the best way to promote the welfare of mankind. This belief is based primarily on economic analysis, and more generally is derived from my expertise in international development. As far as I can tell, it seems to be broadly shared by others with similar expertise who have studied the question. Even a thinker like Paul Collier, an expert in international development and a critic of open borders or greatly-expanded immigration, does not so much dissent from the proposition that open borders is optimal in utilitarian-universalist terms, as reject utilitarian universalism as a mode of ethical analysis.

But how can open borders be optimal from a utilitarian-universalist perspective when my “billion immigrants” scenario is so dystopian? Simple: it isn’t dystopian, except from a certain historically myopic and rather unimaginative American/Western perspective that takes “democracy” as the magic word distinguishing everything good from everything bad, without thinking deeply about what the word means. My “billion immigrants” scenario does not involve widespread deprivation of real human goods like food, art, material comforts, family life, freedom of conscience and worship, health, education, truth, adventure, etc. On the contrary, it would seem to involve greater enjoyment of those things by almost everyone, native-born and foreign-born alike. The most dystopian aspects of the scenario, e.g., “latifundia” paying wages that look like slave labor to Americans, aren’t novel features of an open borders world, but features of our present world, which open borders would simultaneously move and mitigate. In soundbite format: open borders would bring sweatshops to America, but they’d be more humane and pay better wages than the sweatshops in China and Indonesia that would mostly vanish as their workers found better lives abroad. Meanwhile, for many an Indian or African peasant, even a steady job in a sweatshop is the end of the rainbow. (Also see John Lee on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops.)

How do these deontological and utilitarian-universalist meta-ethical* perspectives interact? A crude but helpful model is to think of ethical problems as analogous to the consumer’s problem in economics, with the utilitarian-universalist goal of maximizing the welfare of mankind serving as the “utility function,” while deontology provides the “budget constraint.” Deontology dictates that there must be no violence except in self-defense or retaliation against violence, plus a few other things like no lying, no adultery or (I would add, more controversially) premarital sex, no abandoning one’s spouse or children, no non-payment of one’s debts, and so forth. (Just because deontology dictates that it’s wrong doesn’t mean it should be illegal, e.g., most private lying is wrong but probably shouldn’t be punishable by law.) Within the constraints imposed by deontology, we can consider which courses of action are most conducive to promoting the welfare of mankind, and pursue them. At this point, if I were writing a treatise on ethics, I would segue into virtue ethics, explaining how contributing to the welfare of mankind involves the pursuit of all sorts of excellence; but the pursuit of excellence in turn requires certain traits or habits, such as courage, justice, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, and love, which we call virtues; and how, once acquired, we recognize that these virtues are not only the key to effectiveness in all sorts of situations and to doing any real good in the world, but are more desirable in themselves than any merely material pleasures, or any praises from multitudes. But for the present, it suffices to establish that deontology and utilitarian-universalism both point the way to open borders. The need to respect human rights and the moral law, and the desire to promote the welfare of mankind, are why I support open borders. That it might destabilize the judicial oligarchy that currently misgoverns the US is just a small side-benefit.

Next, I’ll turn for a moment to what stands out as one of the least astute reader responses to the article (whom I’ll leave anonymous, but it’s at Marginal Revolution):

Am I the only person who thinks this sounds really, really bad? Transition from republic to empire? Rich people employing almost-slave laborers? No social safety net? No more ‘one person, one vote’? Lots of gated communities? Destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans?

Sometimes my “billion immigrants” scenario seems to have served as a kind of Rorschach test. In the mass of detail, people saw whatever they were predisposed to see. I didn’t predict a “transition from republic to empire.” Rather, I used Rome’s transition from republic to empire to illustrate how a superficial continuity of a polity could be consistent with substantive transformation. I would expect open borders to lead to substantive transformation of the American polity, combined with superficial continuity, but the substantive transformation isn’t aptly described as “transition from republic to empire.” A more astute reader might have noticed that at the end of the transition, my open borders scenario looks rather like the Roman Republic in its heyday, say around 200 B.C., with a well-armed citizen minority ruling fairly beneficently (for one has to grade historic regimes on a very generous curve) over a large and diverse subject population, who to considerable extent consented to Rome’s/America’s rule.

However, according to a post on BMW Aktie kaufen, the “transition from republic to empire” misconception is somewhat understandable. What’s baffling is the impression that I predicted “destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans.” On the contrary, I predicted continuous, surging economic growth, an enormous rise in the stock market, major appreciation of home values, lots of business for professional workers, government handouts and subsidies to the native-born, cheap drivers, cheap nannies, cheap domestic servants… basically, a bonanza for native-born Americans, to the point where many of them become a rentier class whose greatest complaint is the ennui of idleness. Admittedly, I also foresaw that some natives would see their wages fall, but the loss would be more than made up for by other income sources. I also suggested that threats of revolt might lead to the conscription of natives into a domestic police force, but while some might find that unpleasant, it’s not a case of falling living standards. It’s one thing to say that I’m wrong about all this, and that the impact of open borders on most native-born Americans would actually be the destruction of native-born Americans’ living standards, perhaps because restricting immigrants’ voting rights would prove politically infeasible, and immigrant voters would degrade institutions and/or redistribute resources to themselves via the ballot box. But this commenter seems to think that predicted the destruction of natives’ living standards. I wonder how often writers get blasted as having said the exact opposite of what they actually said.

I found this comment by Jorgen F. a pithy characterization of me:

He is convinced that only white people in the West can create a decent society. Hence America should create a shortcut for the rest of the world.

You know, America should care more for non-Americans than for Americans. It is so beautiful.

That’s not far wrong, though of course I don’t think the capacity to create a decent society has anything to do with race. I think it has more to do with 2,000 years of cumulative Christianization (in which story, historical episodes like the High Middle Ages when parliaments and universities and the common law appeared, the Renaissance, and the benign early Enlightenment, were chapters). Nor is high economic productivity synonymous with “decent society.” But I do think that Western societies are going to be nicer places to live than most of the rest of the world for a long time, so I’d like to see a lot more people get the chance to live in them. And of course we should care more about non-Americans than Americans, because there are a lot more of them, just as we should care more about non-Russians than Russians, non-Chinese than Chinese, etc. That said, since I propose to tax immigration to compensate natives for lost wages (DRITI), I can actually make a citizenist case for open borders too. I think open borders can be designed to benefit almost all native-born Westerners, without much reducing the benefits to the rest of mankind. But the main reason for opening borders is to respect human rights and end world poverty. When I worked for the World Bank, I was proud that its motto is “Our dream is a world free of poverty,” and in advocating open borders, I’m still being faithful to that vocation.

A comment by E. Harding that:

This is precisely the kind of atomism that anti-libertarians decry.

is directed less at me than at fellow commenter Chuck Martel (who had given reasons why he shouldn’t care about most of his fellow Americans), but E. Harding may also have had me in mind. As I argued in a post some time ago, I’m not ultimately very individualistic in my view of human nature and human happiness. Human flourishing almost always has a communal character, and this insight is necessary to fully appreciate the evil of migration restrictions, which inevitably lead to deportations and the forcible separation of families. “Communitarian” arguments against open borders generally boil down to “we’ll protect our communities from possible disruption by shattering your communities by force.” Open borders would allow families and other communities forcibly kept apart by migration controls to come together.

One of the comments I found most horrifying was by Horhe:

I do not understand how anyone can read [Smith’s article] and some of the other writings online and offline that doubt the wisdom of open borders (I particularly liked “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe” by Christopher Caldwell) and still think that this is a good idea.

If the closed borders crowd are wrong and you do it their way, then nothing is lost and you can open the borders some other time, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities. But if they are right, and the open borders people get their way, then there is no going back to the way things used to be, without a bloody ethnic war. Which, come to think of it, might actually be started by the newcomers, who would be hurrying history along.

Now, I consider myself a Burkean conservative as far as conscience permits; I always advocate due regard for the precautionary principle; and in my vainer moment I sometimes think that Chapter 2 of my book The Verdict of Reason is a defense of tradition worthy of G.K. Chesterton. But there are fundamental principles of right and wrong that are deeper and more sacred than any human traditions, and in the face of which any mere precautionary principle must give way.

When I was a passionate Iraq War advocate some years back, I never forgot that in supporting the war, I was making myself complicit in a lot of killing, including some killing of innocent people. I thought the price was worth it, to abolish one of the two (Saddam Hussein vs. North Korea was a close call) most detestable totalitarian tyrannies on earth, but it was a great moral burden. Migration restrictionists, too, have a duty always to remember the human toll of border controls: the people stuck in poverty; the families forcibly separated. Maybe, even if they contemplated this frequently, some would still conclude that migration restrictions are a tragic necessity. But to say “nothing is lost”… the mind boggles in horror! How is such callousness possible?

I would not have enjoyed explaining to a bereaved Iraqi mother why I had supported the war that had just killed her son. But I could have done it. I would have spoken of the horror of totalitarianism, the transcendent moral importance of living in truth, and the value of setting a precedent that would make future murderous dictators doubt their impunity. I think many an Iraqi mother, after what her country had been through, would have understood me. Poll evidence tends to suggest that, while by 2005, the Iraqis already wanted the US out, most thought the hardships of the war and transition were worth it to be rid of Saddam.

Migration restrictionists should put themselves to the same moral test, taking responsibility for the vast human toll of the policies they advocate. How would you explain to a mother who is being deported from her children, not to see them again for a decade perhaps, or even forever, why her life is being thus shattered, when she never harmed anyone, never did anything to the Americans who are doing this to her, except clean their houses, or pick grapes and oranges for their table? There might be arguments that would mitigate the offense, but to say that “nothing is lost” since we can always stop doing these horrible things “some other time”… can such a detestable blasphemy, at such a moment, be imagined?

My imagination conjures a scene in which Horhe and his ilk are compelled by some Ghost of Christmas Present to watch, invisible and helpless, as some weeping mother is seized and dragged away from her terrified and uncomprehending children. Their humanity awakened, they plead with the Ghost: “Spirit, please, let them stay together!” And then the Ghost, in the appropriate tone of sneering contempt, quotes their own words back to them: “Later, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities, we’ll let families like these stay together. Nothing is lost by waiting.”

The answer to Horhe is: Repent! Find the ugly place in your soul from which such heartless thoughts arise, and kill it!

But sorry for getting so heated. I’m not living up to Bryan Caplan’s praise of Open Borders: The Case as a “calm community of thinkers.”

Thiago Ribeiro’s response to Horhe is also good:

If people who were against vaccines, fertilizers, abolishing slavery, abolishing witch trials, eliminating Communism, emancipating the Jews (…) nothing would be lost. Those things could have been dealt with later… Status quo bias at its more stupid.

Exactly. Any reform in history could be opposed on such pseudo-Burkean grounds. And contra “nothing would be lost,” vast losses are incurred every single day that we fail to open the borders to migration.

I found the last bit of this comment by Christopher Chang gratifying:

Sweden… for all practical purposes [has] already been running this experiment for more than a decade, and there still is supermajority citizen support for continuing the experiment…

Of course, most open borders advocates are systematically dishonest and avoid talking about Sweden even after they’ve known about it for years, because the “experimental results” to date are much worse than their rosy projections. I’ve repeatedly told them that one of the best things they could do for their cause is advise the Swedes to adjust their implementation of open borders to be less self-destructive (support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has skyrocketed from ~2% to ~25%, so the supermajority is unlikely to hold for much longer unless the government changes course), but they’ve been totally uninterested even though they’ve interacted with e.g. Singapore’s government in the past. Instead they continue to pretend their ideas are “untried” and might constitute a “trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk”.

Since revealed preference is far more informative than rhetoric, I’m sadly forced to conclude that they don’t actually care as much about increasing global prosperity as they do about harming ordinary Westerners they don’t like, even though some of them have done genuinely good work in other areas. (With that said, I hasten to note that Nathan Smith, the author of the linked post, is an exception who respects the principle of “consent of the governed” and has an excellent track record of intellectual integrity.)

In return, I can say that Christopher Chang’s comments have often alerted me to interesting immigration policy developments around the world. However, the claim that Sweden practices open borders seems a bit clueless. A recent NPR piece reports that “for decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees.” Virtual. In other words, not an open borders policy, but simply a relatively generous policy. And only “for asylum-seekers and refugees,” which are only a small subset of all would-be immigrants. If you look at the official site about getting work permits in Sweden, it says (a) you need to get a job offer first, so you can’t just go to Sweden and start applying, (b) the job has to have been advertised for 10 days, so Swedes have a head start in applying for it, and (c) “the terms of employment offered are at least on the same level as Swedish collective agreements or customary in the occupation or industry,” thus robbing migrants of what for most would be their biggest competitive advantage: a willingness to work for much lower wages and in worse working conditions than Swedes. Sweden does seem to be fairly generous in its immigration policy, at least relative to other Western countries (a very low bar), but this isn’t open borders, not even close. (I suppose one could argue that the last condition is just immigrants being bound by Swedish labor law, but the point is that Sweden isn’t just making an open global offer for anyone to come to Sweden and making a living as best they can. Setting refugees to one side, it’s hard for most people to get in.)

Jason Bayz makes an interesting remark:

The essay is interesting because, unlike some politically correct libertarians, Smith does not pretend that his open borders experiment would lead to liberal nirvana. He’s quite open about the fact that it would kill things like “equality of opportunity.” Especially interesting is [the] paragraph [about] “gaps… where where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail”… Private law? A more traditional term would be Lynch Law. The Middle East would be an apt comparison for its tribalism, discrimination, importance of religion, and “private” settlement of disputes.

Readers have a right to wonder what my cryptic phrase “anarcho-capitalist natural law” was a placeholder for, and I suppose, to fill in the blank in their own way. Yes, lynching is an example of private law, but so are more benign things like eBay’s customer rating system, or in-between things like the private security companies whose logos appeared on every single house in a South African suburban neighborhood where I once spent the night.

I would also want to push aside the mere knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “lynch mob” and raise the deeper question of what is wrong with lynch mobs. I welcome practical objections to lynch mobs, such as that they don’t respect due process and often punish innocent people, or that they’re not even motivated primarily to prevent real crime but instead want to oppress minority communities. I would challenge the assumption, or resist the assertion, that lynch mobs are evil simply because they’re private, unauthorized by a “sovereign” authority. In US history, it may be the case that private law has been, on average, less just than public law, though that’s unclear, when you recall the injustices perpetrated by the US government against many Indian tribes, in upholding slavery, in the Prohibition era, in deporting peaceful immigrants, etc. But certainly the worst crimes of American lynch mobs don’t hold a candle to the crimes of the sovereign regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, etc. I would suggest that violence should be judged by the same standard of justice, whether it’s done by “private” or “public” actors. The problem with lynch mobs is that they so often act unjustly,  but as their injustices seem to be much less than those perpetrated by bad governments, our horror of them out to be less than our horror of bad governments, in the same proportion.

As for the suggestion that there is an “apt comparison” to be made between an open borders America and the contemporary Middle East, the obvious rebuttal is that the Middle East is mostly Muslim, whereas an open borders America would almost certainly be majority or at least plurality Christian, since Christianity is the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion believers today and an expected 3 billion by mid-century; Christians would probably be more attracted to the US as a migration destination; and many immigrants of non-Christian origins would assimilate to America’s predominant religion. I’ll assume (since it’s rather obvious but would take a lot of space to explain) that most readers understand that Christianity and Islam are profoundly different, and that religion is a major factor determining the differences between Muslim societies and Christian societies, including those in western Europe, where Christian belief and practice have recently waned, but where the nature of the societies is largely defined by the moral and institutional legacy of Christianity. An open-borders America wouldn’t be majority-Muslim, so it wouldn’t resemble the contemporary Middle East; it’s as simple as that.

Commenter Mulp makes a historical objection to my assumption that an open borders America would restricting voting rights for immigrants and thus end majority rule:

“If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. …”

Hey, why not simply discuss US history from 1790 to 1920 when the US had open borders except in California?

It’s true that from 1790 to 1920, the US had open borders and also open voting. But that open borders America never had nearly as large a share of migrants in the population as the economic models predict that a future open-borders America would, and the US government wasn’t an engine of economic redistribution then. I think my scenario is a better forecast of what an open borders future would look like, than an extrapolation from the experience of the US from 1790 to 1920.

Commenter Fonssagrives writes:

If the writer thinks “All men are created equal” is idealistic twaddle, then why do Americans have any moral obligation to let 1 billion foreigners into their country?

This is an interesting objection. It’s symptomatic of the psychic damage that the cult of equality has done to American minds. It invites a longer answer than I’ll make time for at present, but as a placeholder for that longer answer: people are very unequal in their talents and virtues; and treating them unequally is often prudent; but it doesn’t follow they should get unequal weights in a social welfare function.

Jer writes:

Maybe success can only happen (and be spread) if we restrict access to it.

Maybe the world needs a somewhat isolated ‘system experiment’ that can only remain so (and continue along its special type of development), by restricting access, and therefore be a teaching tool through its successes and short-comings.

Maybe ‘moving away’ from your problems is to not solve them at all and certainly does not lead to overcoming them in-situ.

Maybe those who have the ambition to move away were the ones most likely to effect change and improve their origin, with the move likely resulting in the weakening of the source state and increasing world inequality overall. (is it ethical to allow people to emigrate if that depopulation damages the future potential of the source system itself?)

What I like about this argument is that it seems to accept a utilitarian-universalist meta-ethics, and then argues, or at least tries to suggest (“Maybe…”), that migration restrictions (perhaps even ones as draconian as the status quo?) might serve the common good of mankind through the good example that rich countries can set when they segregate themselves from the rest of the world. I find it wildly implausible that migration restrictions anything like as tight as those the West currently has in place are optimal for the welfare of mankind, and even if they were, I’d have human rights objections. Thus, even if preventing “brain drain” from poor countries did aid development there (on balance), I’d still object to forcing, say, Malawian doctors to stay in Malawi, on the same grounds that I’d object to seizing American doctors by force and exiling them to Malawi. I believe in human rights. But if we could establish consensus that utilitarian-universalism (with deontological side-constraints) is the right meta-ethical framework in which to consider the question, that’s a large point gained.

Finally, thanks to John Lee’s OBAG link, I noticed that my “billion immigrants” scenario got linked in a National Review piece by Mark Krikorian entitled “Where There is No Border, the Nations Perish.” Here’s the context:

But the publics of Europe’s various nations aren’t going to tolerate unlimited flows. The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence à la Camp of the Saints. (And “extinguishing” is the right word; just read this piece by an open-borders supporter on how U.S. society would change if 1 billion immigrants moved here.)

Krikorian cites my scenario as evidence (almost, flatteringly if unwarrantedly, as proof) that “the nations perish” under open borders, a phrase amenable to multiple interpretations. It is tendentious because the word “perish” might subliminally suggest some sort of threat of genocide. But if it is interpreted simply as “open borders will bring to a close the episode in world history, which began around the mid-19th century, when the nation-state was the predominant form of political organization,” then I’d tentatively agree. Krikorian disapproves, I approve.

In general, it seems that my “billion immigrants” scenario has made me a useful “reluctant expert” for immigration critics to cite. Maybe that should distress me more than it does. I tend to think the strength of the arguments for open borders is so superior that the more we can get a hearing, even if initially an unfavorable one, the better. Many people don’t even know that being an open borders supporter is a live option. If they’re made aware that one can support open borders, they’ll pay more attention to the arguments for and against. On the plane of intellectual argument, open borders advocates have many rhetorical handicaps, but enjoy the long-term structural advantage of being right.

*My use of the term “meta-ethics” is slightly unconventional. For me, utilitarianism, for example, is a “meta-ethical” perspective.

The image featured at the top of this post is a 1917 painting depicting Armenian refugees at Port Said, Egypt.

Related reading

How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?

[UPDATE: See the follow-up blog post A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation by Nathan Smith, where he responds to comments on and criticisms of this blog post. You may also be interested in the Open Borders Action Group discussion of this post, where Smith articulates some aspects of his views in more detail, and others offer criticism.]

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “The American Polity Can Endure and Flourish Under Open Borders.” I would not write that post today. The American polity might endure and flourish under open borders, but I wouldn’t claim that confidently. What changed my mind? A greater familiarity with the theoretical models that are the basis for “double world GDP” as a claim about the global economic impact of open borders, especially my own. It turns out that these estimates depend on billions of people migrating internationally under open borders. Previously, my vague and tentative expectations about how much migration would occur under open borders were akin to Gallup poll estimates suggesting that 150 million or so would like to migrate to the USA. Others may disagree, but I was fairly confident at the time that the US polity was robust enough to absorb 150-200 million immigrants (over, say, a couple of decades) and retain its basic political character and structure. I do not think the US polity is robust enough to absorb 1 billion immigrants (even, say, over the course of fifty years) and retain its basic political character and structure.

For more educated guesswork about the number of migrants under open borders, see also our reference article on swamping; Joel Newman’s article “If Open Borders are Instituted Gradually, What Should be the Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?”, which, among other things, details how the threat of swamping gives open borders advocates like Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer pause, as well as Joel Newman’s latest post; and Vipul Naik’s explorations of whether the case for open borders can be combined with radical agnosticism about how many would migrate and whether the number of migrants under open borders would be “too high” or “too low” (e.g., by utilitarian-universalist criteria). In this post, I’ll argue that swamping probably will happen, and that open borders is the right thing to do anyway.

To the question of what kind of polity and society the US would become with a billion immigrants, I have only the vaguest and most speculative notions, but for this post to make sense at all, I’ll have to outline my guesses as best I can. I’m focusing on the US case because I’m most familiar with US institutions and they’re most well-known, but I’d expect other Western countries to have similar experiences. As an aid to intuition, think of the way Roman and British institutions evolved when they came to govern far more people (albeit due to territorial expansion rather than immigration). In both cases, the polity in question survived in the sense that a continuous thread of sovereign authority was maintained. But the character of the polity was transformed.

In the Roman case, the participatory institutions of the Republic gradually broke down. The family farmer, backbone of the old Republic, was crowded out by latifundia, large farms worked by slaves. The Roman populace was largely turned to a mob dependent on public handouts. Finally, the Republic gave way to a permanent dictatorship by the emperors, which, though the loss of the Republic was felt keenly by Rome’s aristocratic intellectuals, was not all bad. Historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, celebrated the reigns of the “five good emperors” Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD) as the happiest time in the history of mankind. The Senate still met, and Romans still called their state the “Republic,” but the real constitution had changed.

The British case is quite different in that the acquisition of a globe-girdling empire “on which the sun never set” didn’t influence the governance of the UK all that much. In four centuries of British empire, from the settlements at Jamestown and the Caribbean sugar islands to the relinquishing of Hong Kong, the British home constitution certainly underwent profound transformations, towards liberalism (the change took place from about 1750 to 1850), democracy (from about 1830 to 1910) and socialism (from the Liberal/Labor victory of 1906 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979), but these had far more to do with the influence of Enlightenment ideas and the Industrial Revolution, than with the empire. The empire, meanwhile, was never governed by the same liberal-democratic principles that prevailed in Britain. It was governed in a manner at once authoritarian and improvisational. Since London was so far away and could rarely understand local circumstances and difficulties, it tended to ratify what the “man on the spot” had done. Often, in effect, public power passed into private hands, as when the East India Company ended up governing India. Often, too, the British Empire was conservative, in the sense that British officialdom tried to co-opt and collaborate with local, traditional institutions. At the same time, a kind of ideology developed, according to which it was the British imperial mission to gradually foster liberal, democratic, representative institutions– not Christianity, interestingly: imperial institutions weren’t particularly friendly to missionary efforts– among the empire’s subject peoples. British political thought provided the templates for both the conservative (Edmund Burke; Winston Churchill) and the liberalizing (Locke; Adam Smith; J.S. Mill) strands in British imperial governance.

I would tentatively envision the US experience under open borders as resembling the British and Roman cases, inasmuch as the protocols and ideals of the US polity, as well as its merely ethnic characteristics, would persist in attenuated form, but governing a much larger population would necessitate improvisational and sometimes authoritarian expedients that would cumulatively transform the polity into something quite different, even as it claimed descent from the historic constitutional polity of the United States as we know it. The illusion of continuity would deceive the subjects of the new polity, native-born and immigrant, to a considerable extent, though on the other hand there would be a good deal of lamentation and triumphalism, and only after several generations would historians be able to look back and assess the bewildering transformation in a sober, balanced way.

Certain American ideals would die of their own increasing impracticality, e.g., “equality of opportunity,” the social safety net, one person, one vote, or non-discrimination in employment. Americans might continue to feel that these ideals were right long after they had ceased to be practiced, as the Romans seemed to feel that Rome ought to be governed by its Senate long after real governance had passed to the emperors. I don’t see how public schools could adapt to a far larger and more diverse student body. I think there would have to be a transition to some sort of vouchers combined with individual and/or community responsibility for education, e.g., the government pressures the Chinese neighborhoods to set up Chinese schools. Jefferson’s cry that “all men are created equal,” which today is sometimes mistaken, almost, for an enforceable policy rule, would retreat until wasn’t even an aspiration, but only a dream. Of course, open borders would actually mitigate global inequality, but American egalitarianism is a sheltered creed that needs the border as blindfold to retain its limited plausibility as an ideal.

If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. This would put an end to majority rule, for a large fraction, likely a majority, of the resident population would lack votes. As it did in the British empire, minority governance would clash with democratic ideas to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, though not, I think, fatally. This could be a benefit, in that defenders of the regime would need to appeal, as Edmund Burke once did, more to the regime’s performance in fostering prosperity and adhering to objective norms of justice, than to crude majoritarian math (which in any case has long since been exposed as logically incoherent). The Republican and Democratic parties would be likely to maintain their duopoly, but their ideologies would go through a continual metamorphosis, not only to appeal to new immigrant voters, but perhaps even more, to adapt to the realigned interests of the natives, who would derive their incomes more from land, shareholding, and government subsidies, and less from wages.

Spontaneous Schelling segregation, even if not enforced by, or even if actively opposed by, the law (but I doubt the law would resist for long), would make neighborhoods and workplaces, and a fortiori churches and community organizations, far more homogeneous than the resident population as a whole. I have advocated legalizing and de-stigmatizing private discrimination against immigrants, but even if it remained illegal, I think private discrimination would be widely practiced, simply because statistical discrimination is efficient, and in the more complex and dynamic economy of an open-borders America those efficiencies would be more worth capturing than ever. Many natives would retreat into gated communities, not so much from fear of crime as simply from love of the familiar. There would be large immigrant neighborhoods dominated by particular ethnicities, where English was rarely spoken, yet English in the US would remain a lingua franca for all the immigrant groups and wouldn’t be threatened as the national language (though German in Germany, Dutch in the Netherlands, etc., might). Overall crime rates might or might not rise, but law enforcement would often be baffled by new and complex challenges. The overworked and puzzled courts would have to improvise and compromise and decline a lot of cases, and would end up leaving a lot of stuff in an emerging domain of private law. I’d expect gaps to emerge where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail, and these might be the most productive, innovative, prosperous places in the new, open-borders America. As in the Dark Ages, the Christian churches would likely be more effective than the government in reaching out to, serving, and cultivating a sense of community and identity in many immigrant populations. As in ancient Rome, native-born Americans would find themselves increasingly unable to govern a larger and more diverse subject population through traditional institutions of self-government– they might often find it expedient, as the British empire did, to let public power slip into private hands– but on the other hand, they could easily vote themselves increasing handouts from a burgeoning treasury.

There would probably be an increasing role for private security companies, both to supply protection to private firms that didn’t trust the police to handle the strange new situation, and as contractors for the government. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a regime claiming descent from the US Constitution to fend off open contestation of its sovereignty. Still, if you remember America’s national reaction to 9/11, it isn’t difficult to imagine that even intermittent, local stirrings of revolt would transform the American psyche enough to make weapons training in schools or even universal conscription into some sort of national police force attractive, in order to empower the citizenry physically to defend its sovereignty against a possible immigrant revolution. The vote and citizenship would likely be bestowed opportunistically on immigrant groups deemed especially loyal or effective, both for national security reasons, and for partisan advantage when Republicans or Democrats found themselves favored by some immigrant group.

The least tentative part of my forecast is that all this would take place amidst a continuous surge of booming economic growth, with fortunes being made galore, but this might take forms that some would find disturbing. We would see some modern latifundia, worked not by slaves this time but by voluntary immigrants, but working for pay rates that would strike native-born Americans as a form of slave labor. Meanwhile, we would likely see modern equivalents of the ancient Roman mob, privileged idlers demanding bread and circuses paid for by taxes collected from non-citizens. Entrepreneurs would thrive with so many new workers and customers. The Dow would rise, and rise, and rise. Landowners would see their assets appreciate rapidly and would face a bewildering variety of opportunities to put them to profitable use. Educators and medical personnel would enjoy an almost limitless demand for their services. Of today’s middle-class Americans, even many who failed to find ultra-productive niches in the new open-borders economy would find domestic servants suddenly affordable. The cruel dilemma now faced by educated women, career vs. children, would be greatly mitigated as live-in nannies would become abundant and cheap. American seniors, too, would flourish as the quantity and quality of eldercare workers rose sharply, and paid drivers became affordable to anyone with a little income over and above their Social Security check. But while two-income professional couples would find their domestic arrangements greatly eased, employment rates among native-born Americans would probably fall significantly, partly because lower wages for unskilled labor would make working too unremunerative to bother with for those without special skills, partly because many Americans would be able to live rather comfortably on dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies. For some, this comfortable rentier lifestyle would rankle, clashing as it does with Americans’ traditional disdain of parasitic aristocracies. People need to feel like they have a function. But some sort of general conscription into a national police force might help here. Americans cognitively or culturally ill-equipped to thrive in the dynamic new open-borders economy would be useful to their fellow citizens, and would justify the increasingly valuable privileges and subsidies to which citizenship entitled them, by serving as a kind of praetorian guard.

In short, I think the most wild-eyed predictions of the open borders optimists will come true, and to spare, but I think a lot of the forebodings of the grimmest open border pessimists will also prove more than justified.

All these forecasts are so tentative that I’m embarrassed to write them down at all, but they are necessary to help readers to understand what I mean when I doubt that the American polity can endure and flourish under open borders. It’s not that I’d expect a complete civilizational collapse, or a revolution. On the contrary, I’d expect superficial continuity. But an open-borders America of a billion people would, in substance, be as different a polity from the polity that the United States of America is today, as the Roman Empire of the 2nd century AD was from the Roman Republic of the 3rd century BC. At the end of this post, I’ll write a bit about whether the end of the American polity as we know it should be regretted or welcomed. But first, would billions really migrate under open borders?

It may seem foolish of me to have so much altered my view of what an open-borders future would look like, in response to a few mere economic models. To be sure, I certainly don’t believe that these models are anything like exact descriptions of an open borders future. The authors, including myself, make all sorts of simplifications, some of them obviously unrealistic, to create a platform from which to launch heroic feats of extrapolation. The wisest course, which Paul Collier for example seems to adopt, may seem to be to dismiss the guesses as unrealistic. But my former guesses had, and any other guesses I could now formulate without reference to the models would have, even less basis. I believe  the economic models of open borders, flawed and fallible as they are, represent the most rational estimates available of how many would migrate under open borders. I’ll try to anticipate and reply to a few objections in order to consolidate this point.

1. What about the Gallup polls? That’s easy. Gallup can’t take diaspora dynamics (also see Bryan Caplan and Paul Collier on this) into account. It can only find out how many people would now like to emigrate. But under open borders, after a little while, many people would be more willing to emigrate because there would be large communities of their fellow nationals abroad, including some of their loved ones.

2. What about Europe? Contemporary Europe stands as an apparent counter-example to claims that open borders would trigger an epic transformation of human geography. The European Union is said to have internal open borders, and though a glance at the relevant European Commission webpage suggests that EU citizens’ rights to live and work elsewhere in the EU are subject to some red tape, it surely comes close. And while this has led to many millions of internal EU migrants, the migrant share is an order of magnitude less than what the global economic models of open borders predict. I think there are several reasons for this. First, GDP per capita doesn’t vary that much within Europe, which not only mitigates the pressure to migrate but may prevent diaspora dynamics from achieving critical mass. Second, EU countries are among the world’s oldest, with most having a median age above 40, whereas young people are more inclined to migrate. Third, far more than any other region of the world, Europe has been carved into national homelands through centuries of cultural genius and military jostling, so that local ties are probably more important there than elsewhere. Fourth, EU “cohesion” policies deliberately subsidize the poorest European regions, mitigating pressure to migrate. Fifth, migration within the EU seems to be accelerating as a result of the economic crisis that began in 2008, so slow migration may turn out to have been a temporary anomaly. Puerto Rico, which has enjoyed open borders with the USA for a century, has experienced so much emigration that most (about 60%) people of Puerto Rican descent live on the US mainland, even though Puerto Rico isn’t all that poor, with a GDP about half that of the USA as a whole. Puerto Rico’s experience, or that of 19th-century Ireland, may be more predictive of an open borders future than contemporary Europe is. In that case, many billions would migrate, and the global economic models of open borders are getting the order of magnitude right.

3. It’s never happened before. Even in the 19th century golden age of open borders, the share of migrants in world population was well below 10 percent. Before and since, it’s been lower. And now we’re predicting a rise in the share of international migrants to around 50 percent of world population! But of course, just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t. The Roman Empire and its fall, the medieval cathedrals, the circumnavigation of the world, and the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened till they happened.

4. People are loyal to their homelands. Another reason for skepticism is that the models apparently leave out of account that people feel affection and love for their homelands, while foreign countries are scary and forbidding. That’s why international migration has always been something “exceptional people” do. But first, the models don’t actually leave this completely out of account. My estimates of global migration under open borders, for example, assume that everyone stays put unless (relative to the status quo) migration offers higher pay for raw labor and/or human capital. No one would emigrate from the USA, since both raw labor and human capital would be attracted to the USA. Yet a recent poll suggests that 1 in 3 Americans would like to emigrate if they could. Few can have a strong economic motive to do so, since the USA is one of the richest countries on Earth, so either weak economic motives suffice (do they want to earn Australia’s minimum wage? to enjoy the Swedish social safety net?) or else cultural preferences (the fun loving culture of Brazil? the ancient dignity of Japan? the beauty and charm of western European cities?) actually motivate them to leave rather than to stay. I agree that people’s attachment to their homelands, along with simple inertia, would probably keep migration down to hundreds of millions in the short run, but in the long run, e.g., over the course of a few decades, I think diaspora dynamics would overwhelm local ties. Also, the globalization of culture (see me and Bryan Caplan) has made migration (especially to the US, the chief source of the globalizing culture) much easier, and will continue to make it easier in future. (Language is one of the more quantifiable elements of this trend. This site estimates that there are almost 1 billion. The British Council expects two billion English speakers by 2020. Of course, you can also immigrate first and learn English later, or immigrate into a diaspora bubble and never learn English.)

5. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn’t epic mass migrations be self-halting, because the desirable properties that make wealthy countries such attractive immigration destinations would be erased by mass migration? Don’t the economic models ignore this? Actually, no. In particular, my model allows for some total factor productivity (TFP) reduction in destination countries. Even if epic mass migrations degraded institutions (or whatever causes TFP) in rich countries, they’d still be attractive to billions.

6. Backlash. Paul Collier, in Exodus, contemptuously dismisses the economic models of open borders, but hardly pretends to give any reason why. To the extent that his implicit reason for dismissing them can be deduced from the book, it’s that he thinks there would be a huge nativist backlash. More recently, Ryan Cooper at The Week argued that “a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy” because “air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes.” But this begs the question. It’s certainly unlikely that open borders will be adopted by any country anytime soon, but the question is what would happen if it were.

My new doubts that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders do not in the least undermine my support for open borders. For one thing, the American polity is too small a thing to have much weight in these scales, when the well-being of so many billions is at stake. But my estimation of the value of the American polity as an institution has also dwindled considerably of late. Daron Acemoglu’s thesis in Why Nations Fail, basically that the prosperity of the West depends mainly on its representative and democratic institutions, has quite a few adherents in contemporary development economics, but I attach little credence to it. I was actually surprised, in the data exercise undergirding my open borders forecasts, by how much of the wealth and poverty of nations seems explicable by human capital, broadly understood, so I’ve downgraded “institutions” (and “total factor productivity”) as explanatory factors in the wealth and poverty of nations. Even to the extent that institutions are important, I think democracy is less important than things like the thousand-year-old British common-law tradition, or norms of religious freedom and free speech, that predate and are quite separable from democracy. I don’t think the US polity, as it was founded in 1789, is or ever was the chief explanation of the enviable economic prosperity that the US has enjoyed throughout its history. But I do attach some value to what that polity was historically.

In particular, I see the US Constitution of 1789 as one of the wisest systems of government ever devised, albeit seriously marred by its tolerance for slavery. There followed almost 80 years of what may be called “Tocqueville’s America,” a time when a Jeffersonian political philosophy was in the ascendant, government was mostly small and local and highly participatory, and the way the Constitution was implemented in practice was reasonably conformable to its intended meaning. Then came the Civil War, which erased slavery, a magnificent achievement, while at the same time replacing the loose social contract among states with a powerful federal government from which there was no right of secession. Nonetheless, for a few more decades, the US still enjoyed a genuinely limited government, wherein elected officials really felt that the Constitution endowed them with limited powers, and they simply had no right to do more than it had authorized them to do. This limited, constitutional government was lost forever in the 1930s, when Roosevelt bullied the Supreme Court into elastic interpretations of the Constitution, especially the commerce clause, that rendered obsolete the enumerated powers strategy for restraining the federal government on which the founders had principally relied. From the 1930s onward, the federal government was still somewhat constrained by the Bill of Rights, but other than that, a kind of absolutist democracy was born, where elected majorities could do anything they liked, very high tax rates produced a substantial economic leveling of the population, and conscription fostered a sense of shared citizenship and made foreign policy much more participatory than it has been before or since. Meanwhile, the most distinctive and important feature of the American polity, religious freedom, traced its origins back before the 1789 Constitution to the original pious motives of the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and the English-speaking peoples of North America maintained an almost unblemished record of respect for religious freedom through all the other changes that took place, until the past few years.

Starting with the school prayer decisions of the 1960s, this absolutist democracy was in its turn eviscerated by a creeping secularist coup d’etat emanating from the courts, which claimed a warrant from the Constitution. The courts were certainly mistaken in thinking the Constitution warranted a comprehensive secularization of American governance, but they seem to have been sincere. Later, as the rising imperial judiciary also became a key patron of the Sexual Revolution, the courts’ reasoning became so disgracefully inept that the possibility that the courts sincerely think they are doing anything other than arbitrarily legislating from the bench is hard to take seriously. Roe v. Wade was a brazen attack on democracy, and while it’s hard to say when the Rubicon was definitely crossed, in the wake of the Obergefell decree, I agree with Justice Scalia that “my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” A country whose Constitution can suddenly, poof!, take on a new meaning that no one can seriously doubt would have amazed and disgusted its authors, and thereby override many democratically-passed laws and rob the people of the ability to legislate according to the majority will on an absolutely crucial social question, is not aptly described as a democracy. It might be best described as a judicial oligarchy in which elected elements play the chief administrative and a subordinate legislative role.

I’m not so fond of democracy that my loyalty to a regime would depend very greatly on its democratic character, but I am very, very fond of telling the truth, and I can have no respect for, and no loyalty to, judges who, in decreeing gay marriage, pretend that they’re interpreting the Constitution. Modern constitutional law is a lot like the Catholic Church’s theology of indulgences in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It makes very little sense, and every critical thinker more or less feels that it’s a disgraceful travesty, but people are afraid to challenge it as aggressively as reason demands, because it underpins the order of society. Reams and libraries are dedicated to rationalizing it, precisely because it’s rationally indefensible, yet is a crucial currency of power. And yes, I’d like to see modern constitutional law immolated in a kind of Lutheran Reformation, and would gladly pay a high price in chaos to see the dragon slain. Thanks to my low opinion of the US constitutional regime as it currently exists is one reason, I can contemplate with very little distress the immigration of a billion or so people from all over the world, unschooled in the peculiar mythology of early 21st-century American democracy and its ever-more-irrational cult of equality.

It would be interesting to hear the reactions to the billion-immigrant scenario, of people with a more favorable view of the legitimacy and beneficence of the present US regime.

Editor’s note: You might be interested in reading Nathan Smith’s follow-up blog post to this piece, A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation, where he fleshes out some of the arguments outlined in this blog post, and responds to some comments and criticisms of it.

Related reading

In addition to the numerous inline links in the article, the following links are relevant. You are also strongly encouraged to check out our double world GDP page.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

Free Havens for Refugees (mostly by Pieter Cleppe)

Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of the think tank Open Europe, has written a piece advocating something akin to my idea of passport-free charter cities. (Also see my thoughts on charter city constitutions here and here,  my post about the abortive charter city experiment in Honduras, and my post “Make More Singapores!”) Cleppe advocates “free havens” in response to the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean. The rest of this post is by Cleppe (see the original piece here, it is reprinted with his permission), except a few comments of mine at the end:

Free havens as a solution to the refugee crisis

The latest tragedies in the Mediterranean once again highlight that migration is without any doubt one of the challenging issues of our time. Few dispute that it would be a bad idea to close borders completely. On the other hand, few support opening borders completely, recognising the obvious downsides to this.

The debate mostly focuses on the type and number of immigrants allowed into wealthier societies. There is very little debate about what to do with those wanting to leave their country when even the most generous quotas would have been filled.

Since 2011, 3 million people have already fled Syria, and 6.5 million are internally displaced. The EU hasn’t accepted more than 200.000 of them, while it faces ever increasing numbers of refugees, from Syria and other places, attempting to enter illegally. Even if Western countries drastically increased their willingness to welcome refugees, this would in no way serve demand. Nearly everyone agrees refugees should have the right to flee war-torn countries, but politically, there is no willingness to welcome everyone, whether one agrees with that or not.

The solution proposed below is a humble attempt to launch this debate and provide a more sustainable solution than the ones offered in the past.

One way to deal with this challenge has been to ignore it and to let people sort it out themselves. The result has been that the most vulnerable were delivered to human traffickers, at best reaching the Western world as an illegal immigrant, at worst finding the Mediterranean Sea as their graveyard.

A better solution has been to provide shelter for them in refugee camps. This clearly is an honourable attempt to minimise suffering. There are currently estimated to be up to 50 million refugees. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees offers them protection and life-saving supplies at refugee camps in more than 125 countries. Often, these camps aren’t temporary and sometimes conditions are horrendous. Often, refugees are also banned from becoming economically active. Thailand, for example, banned Burmese refugees living on the Thai-Burmese border from leaving their camps in 2014.

One of the 120.000 Burmese refugees in Thailand describes how living in such a camp, with its travel and work restrictions, while being forced to be nearly completely dependent on outside help for food, shelter, protection and other basic needs, have adverse psychological and social effects on the refugees:

“Living in the camp is similar to living in prison because I can’t go outside or make my own decision. I can commute only in the camp. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire. If we go outside of the camp, Thai police will arrest us. In the long run, it affects not only my physical but also my mental health.” (Christine, 22, refugee, who spoke with Burma Link in Mae La refugee camp in May 2014)

Lebanon’s 470,000 Palestinian refugees, of whom over 50 percent live in 12 refugee camps who’re controlled by competing Palestinian armed groups, face restrictions to practice about 30 different professions. Whatever solutions one has for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, surely condemning generations of Palestinian refugees to this fate can’t be one of them.

A preferable solution could be to create “Free havens”: a refugee zone but then one with stable rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time.

This has been tried, but only very occasionally, although with extraordinary success. Most prominently in the last century, it was applied in Hong Kong, effectively a refugee zone, governed by the British rule of law, welcoming millions of Chinese wanting to fled war, totalitarian rule and turmoil in mainland China. Refugee camps at best offer refugees safety, but Hong Kong offered those Chinese refugees something which even the best refugee camps can’t offer: the opportunity to develop yourself.

Refugees, broadly defined as people fleeing from both war and economy misery, aren’t asking for a lot. They want a better life. Not necessarily a whole of a lot better. Only slightly better, if nothing else is possible. Refugees don’t only want shelter. They want to be able to develop themselves. Why would they need to wait before their country returns to the better or before wealthier countries decide they’re willing to welcome them?

A tiny percentage of land in the world is urbanized, perhaps around three percent. Would it really be so impossible to identify a place where no-one lives and welcome anyone willing to go there? Would it really be impossible to identify a place where really no-one would be bothered? If a city the size of Las Vegas can be successfully developed in the middle of a desert, there shouldn’t even be any requirements in terms of average temperature or access to the sea, although a climate like California would clearly be preferred.

It’s highly likely that such a place would be part of the territory of a State. But why would this State not allow “Free havens” to be hosted? Perhaps in some remote part of it, not to bother any of its citizens with any possible burden, especially if it would be financially compensated for it, for example by charity organisations wanting to offer refugees a better perspective or by companies investing in these Free havens, which could attract a lot of skilled individuals?

Why would companies not be interested to invest in these Free havens, just as they invest in the poorest parts of the world already, which often would not offer the same standards of justice and safety that such a Free haven would offer, given that these Free havens could be administrated by officials from countries with a certain level of rule of law?

Why would such a Free haven offer standards of justice and safety that are sufficiently high to make such a project succeed, so people would actually voluntarily want to go there, and companies would actually want to invest, thereby freeing up the resources needed to compensate the host State to actually allow such a Free haven to exist on its territory?

The answer is simple: For this project to be a success, it needs to become more safe than the most unsafe place in the world and its investment climate should beat the most horrible place on earth to do business, to attract those fellow human beings who actually have to survive there at the moment. Surely that shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Would it really be so hard to do better than North Korea, Syria or Congo?

This project, which could be driven by the private sector, states, supranational organisations or various actors working together, doesn’t exclude everything that’s already happening: opening borders for trade, trying to develop poor countries, attempting to pacify violent conflicts, providing emergency aid to the most needed, allow more migrants to enter wealthy countries or develop refugee camps when no other option is there. This project simply offers a solution for immigrants who are not or insufficiently helped by what is already been done: the vast majority of them. If it is so simple, why not just take action?

So what is this again?

Let’s create “Free havens”: refugee zones but then with rule of law, protection and opportunities for economic investment, where refugees can actually build up a life and aren’t condemned to wasting their precious time

Which countries would allow such zones on their territory?

That’s a challenge the EU is currently facing, at least if it continue with its idea to establish immigrant-processing centres outside the EU. These offshore centres may be based in key transit countries such as Niger, Egypt, Turkey or Lebanon. France, Germany and Malta would reportedly be keen on the idea. When seeking refuge there, asylum seekers would get the chance to indicate in which EU country they’d like to apply for asylum, and at one point there may even be a system of forced “burden sharing”, which is however unlikely, given that national politicians in the EU rightly think such sensitive policies should be decided at the national level.

To convince them, Niger, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon or maybe even Morrocco would logically need to be compensated for hosting such centres. Given the huge amount of funds available in national and European aid budgets, reaching a compromise shouldn’t be impossible.

The only element the EU Commission would need to change in its current plan, is to combine its welcoming of refugees offshore with a rule of law – mission. The EU has some experience with “rule of law”-missions. Part of its EULEX-mission in Kosovo was to administer justice in the most delicate sectors over there. It must be said that there have been major problems with the implementation, but at least Kosovo has known some kind of stability. Either way, the main difference between Free havens and the mission in Kosovo would be that anyone moving to such a Free haven would do so voluntarily.

Has something like this ever been tried?

As I made clear earlier: yes, indeed. Hong Kong effectively served as such a Free haven to Chinese refugees. It probably also served to convince mainland-China to choose the path of international trade.

Why would companies want to invest there?

Fair question. The likes of Ikea or Coca Cola would certainly need to consider this carefully, but a safe investment zone governed by officials from countries with a relatively high level of rule of law surely should be able to compete with countries where a revolution or social unrest is always only around the corner?

How much would this cost?

The Belgian police and justice system costs around 3 billion euro per year, to serve 11 million people. With 10 billion per year, which is not even 10 percent of the EU’s 130 billion euro budget, 20 million refugees could already be welcomed, as 7 billion euro would be reserved for basic infrastructure. Also co-financing from investors could be attracted. Even if only 1 million out of 50 million refugees could be welcomed at first, it would be a massive step forward.

Anyone dealing with the EU budget knows massive spending improvements could be made. More than 270 billion euros are still being sent to agricultural landowners, including the Queen of England, between 2014 and 2010. Given how the EU’s agricultural policies have been hurting developing countries for decades, it wouldn’t be such a bad target to find funds.

Is it politically feasible?

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair once proposed off-shore asylum centres, the European Commission is keen them, several member states are open to something like this. The whole idea really comes down to accepting two realities: one reality is that many people currently want to flee their country. Another reality is that a large majority of the European population, rightly or wrongly, is only willing to accept a tiny part of all the refugees in the world. So welcoming them in a safe place somewhere else is not more than obvious solution.

What if it goes wrong?

Amnesty International has criticized the European Commission’s suggestion to externalize refugee policy, warning that there may be “human rights violations” in many countries outside of the EU. Fair point, but this is being addressed when EU countries themselves would run these zones. What if EU countries would still mismanage the whole thing, and these Free havens wouldn’t be so nice at all? Even in that case, given that every refugee would obviously only go there voluntarily, people would only come if the welcoming zone would be nicer than refugee camps or the places from which they are fleeing. Surely, it can’t be hard to beat these standards?

Won’t it lead to a brain drain?

In the event that these Free havens turn out to be a massive success and start attracting not only desperate refugees but also people that are already relatively well off, we would indeed face this discussion. I won’t go into detail here, but there are also upsides to intelligent people moving to work in wealthier countries, given the fact that they can send more money back home to help their families than if they had stayed.

Isn’t this “apartheid”?

When you accept that migration should be limited, you accept a certain form of “apartheid” already. To support unlimited migration is a fair position to hold, but has very little support. Why then not try to improve the fate of those who’re not welcome in wealthier countries?

Pieter Cleppe

There’s no explicit open borders advocacy here. (Open borders is a “fair position to hold, but has very little support.”) But if a global archipelago of passport-free charter cities were established, the right to emigrate would be effectively realized, even if the more general right to migrate were not. I’m all for it. And this is a good example of how human rights can be the thin end of the wedge for open borders, as religious freedom was once the thin end of the wedge, first for freedom of speech, expression, and conscience, then for democracy. If we take seriously the responsibility of the international community not to drown desperate people or trap them in places where their lives are in danger, we will be on a path that, if followed devoutly enough, leads quite far in the direction of open borders. It would be, among other things a fitting Western repentance for the blood of the Jews of the MS St. Louis.

Related reading

In addition to the links included by Smith in the leading para, the following might be of interest to readers:

Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I recently finished a (fairly advanced) draft of “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” posted to SSRN here. Here’s the abstract:

Open borders, in the sense of the abolition of policies restricting migration, would cause billions of people to migrate, and result in almost a doubling of world GDP. Based on a model that stresses human capital as a determinant of the wealth and poverty of nations, but which also has a spatial element and allows total factor productivity to differ across cities, two openborders scenarios are constructed. In the first, “pure market clearing” scenario, world GDP rises 91% as 82% of the world’s population migrates, mostly to the West, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 26% of the US level. In the second scenario, with several adjustments made to favor greater realism at the expense of some arbitrariness, world GDP rises 85% as 58% of the world’s population migrates, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 31% of the US level.

For more on this paper, see my guest post at Market Monetarist last fall; and my three-part series on “Open borders and the economic frontier” (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

While I plan to do another round of revisions (a sorely needed Acknowledgments section is high on the priority list), I want to bring out some of the main themes of the paper, through blog posts at Open Borders: The Case. One of these is that while the claim that open borders would dramatically raise world GDP (“double world GDP” is the usual, sometimes criticized as over-optimistic but in my view apt, slogan) is robust to many changes in assumptions, it cannot withstand the “hive mind” hypothesis about the determination of GDP.

In technical jargon, the “hive mind” hypothesis is that TFP (total factory productivity) depends on human capital externalities. In non-technical language, the hive mind hypothesis is that people’s productivity and earnings depend, not so much on their own intelligence or skill, as on that of people around them.

(In the academic literature, Jones (2011), “The Hive Mind Across Asia,” seems to be the most prominent paper using the phrase “hive mind” in this sense, but Lucas (1988) is a seminal paper for the idea that human capital externalities are an important determinant of TFP, on which a large literature builds. John Lee comments here on how Docquier, Machado, and Sekkat (2014), the chief outlier among papers estimating the global economic impact of open borders, uses a form of the hive mind hypothesis to arrive at its conclusion that open borders would only raise world GDP by 4%.)

The principal motivation for the hive mind hypothesis is to explain the fact that highly skilled workers do not tend to earn more where skills are scarce. If anything, they earn more where they are abundant. A well-designed study by Michael Clemens uses the randomness of US visa allocations to show clearly that Indian software programmers earn far more in the US than in India, for reasons that seem to indicate higher productivity, since they’re working for the same companies, and the companies would have no reason to sponsor their visas if they didn’t anticipate a productivity increase sufficient to justify the higher salary. Against this, my own experience in Malawi taught me that what Amy Chua (2004) calls “market-dominant minorities” can achieve, in the poorest countries on earth, living standards much superior to those of middle-class Westerners in some respects (land, servants, to some extent leisure) while inferior in others (access to shopping, internet) in such a way that, overall, they might be rated as similar; and Chua (2004) gives very extensive evidence that this is true not just in Malawi but all over the world. My rough assessment is that while Indian software programmers might be far more productive in the US, the living standard earned by human capital is similar all over the world. (More precisely, the additional living standard that a worker with human capital equivalent to that of an average American will enjoy, over and above whatever a local unskilled worker would earn varies by less than an order of magnitude across countries.) Still, even if skills don’t earn less where they are scarce, they ought in theory to earn more, and that they don’t is a mystery demanding explanation.

Normally, a factor of production is most valuable where it is scarcest. Thus, water is intensely valued in California but less so on the rainy East Coast. Land is very expensive in Manhattan, where it is scarce (relative to population), but much less so in Montana, where there’s plenty of it. We should ordinarily expect the same thing with respect to brains, skills, human capital. They should be expensive where they are scarce, cheap where they are abundant. In fact, human capital seems to earn as much or more where it is abundant. To resort to technical language again (sometimes it clarifies) there is a correlation between average human capital and total factor productivity (TFP); and the hive mind hypothesis is essentially that this is causal, with the direction of causation running from average human capital to TFP. There may be a variety of reasons, e.g., smart people vote more like economists (so that democracy => good policy works only as well as the voters are smart), or smart people are better at cooperating, or maybe smart people need stimulation from other smart people to exercise and improve their intelligence. That’s the hive mind hypothesis in a nutshell. If you want more, ParaPundit’s post “Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists Wrong on Open Borders” has a good explanation (though without the term “hive mind”) with further links. Even better are the extensive contributions by anonymous commenter BK at the “Open borders and the economic frontier” posts linked above, and also here and here. Chaper 2 of Collier’s Exodus, which I review here, has what might be called an institutional spin on the hive mind hypothesis.

If the hive hypothesis is true (if average human capital is causally linked to TFP), what does it imply for open borders?

First, if the hive mind hypothesis is true, the impact of open borders on world GDP would probably be far less favorable than most of the existing estimates suggest. In one of the two model extensions that make TFP a function of human capital externalities, I find that world GDP falls by nearly one-quarter under open borders. One critique of open borders is that it would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The hive mind hypothesis is probably the form of “killing the goose” argument that has the best support in the literature at the moment.

Second, even in my most pessimistic hive mind scenario, unskilled workers worldwide end up with living standards 15% of the current US level, an order of magnitude above current levels. This is a counter-intuitive result, because in essence, what it shows is that the seemingly most pessimistic open borders scenario, killing the goose, and the seemingly most optimistic open borders scenario, the end of poverty, are actually not inconsistent! Even if the institutional harms/negative externalities/various downsides of open borders were severe enough that world GDP, far from doubling, actually fell substantially, yet billions of the world’s most destitute people would still see their incomes multiplied five-fold, ten-fold, or more, because they could live under institutions that, while much degraded relative to the pre-open borders rich world, were still a good deal better than those they suffer under today; and also because they would benefit from greatly increased opportunities for productive complementarity with skilled workers, which the status quo precludes. Is it worth reducing world GDP by one-quarter to raise the wages of the bottom billion ten-fold? Probably so, if it came to that.

Third– and this is why ParaPundit misses the mark– whatever the normative implications of the hive mind hypothesis may be with respect to immigration, they certainly do not suggest that the status quo is anything like optimal. If one’s goal is to maximize world GDP, the only advantage of the status quo, relative to open borders, is that it involves some human capital stratification, allowing today’s rich countries to be productive “hive minds” of high human capital people. But the migration status quo is a very suboptimal human capital stratification system. First, there should be open borders for smart people– no reason to shut them out– and the admission of people with high IQs and advanced degrees to rich countries could be far more automatic and transparent. We could create schemes to bribe low-IQ, less-educated citizens of rich countries to emigrate and surrender their citizenship, since such emigration should raise average human capital, and TFP, in the source country. We could establish charter cities for low-IQ people to emigrate to, and a bit of ongoing foreign aid might be a fiscal price well worth paying to have them out of the way. Meanwhile, we could establish gated communities for smart people, graduating them into increasing levels of self-government, until eventually they attain full independence as (not philosopher-kings but) philosopher-republics.

Critics of open borders from a hive mind angle, like ParaPundit, can be called on to explain why they don’t advocate a global program of maximal human capital stratification, since that’s what their arguments would really point to.

I’m skeptical of the hive mind hypothesis, and I don’t think open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; I think it would double world GDP. But I don’t rule the hive mind hypothesis out either, and it’s one of the most respectable reasons to dissent from claims that open borders would raise world GDP dramatically.

More related reading

  • Grappling with the Goose by Paul Crider, Open Borders: The Case, February 17, 2014.
  • How migration liberalization might eliminate most absolute poverty by Carl Shulman, May 27, 2014, making a very similar point. Here is the summary:

    While some estimates that open borders would double gross world product implicitly project the migration of most of the developed country labor force, a much smaller quantity of migration might cut global poverty rates by half or better. The additional income to the poorest required to bring them above extreme poverty lines is in the hundreds of billions of dollars per annum, while doubling world product would approach a hundred trillion dollars of additional annual output. Legal barriers to migration, and blocked desire to migrate, are most extreme for the poorest countries, suggesting extra migrants from those sources. While migrants may receive more income gains than are needed to escape absolute poverty remittances to family, trade, and investment may help to distribute the gains more widely. Overall, the case that migration liberalization for less skilled workers could eliminate most absolute poverty is significantly more robust than the most extreme estimates of global output gains.

  • Intelligence, international development, and immigration by Vipul Naik, Open Borders: The Case, August 19, 2012. See also the follow-up Garett Jones responds to my intelligence post.