All posts by Paul Crider

Migration: putting the individual at the center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The virtues of borders

Much of the philosophical discussion of open borders focuses on the rights of the parties involved. Is there a presumptive right to freedom of movement? Does the state have a presumptive right to restrict, via freedom of association or some other avenue? Rights, in either direction, probably attract the most attention because each side would like to head the other off at the pass and avoid the murkiness of empirical facts and conflicting values. If some right is established, it will foreclose a lot of argumentation.

But perhaps it’s useful to remember there’s still a discussion to be had whichever way the rights question is decided. And just because one might believe a nation has a right to restrict entrance, it hardly follows that exercising that right is the best option, either ethically or economically. Christopher Heath Wellman, author of one of the most well-regarded essays defending the right of a nation to restrict immigration, himself actually favored more liberal immigration rules.

[I] doubt that any one-size-fits-all immigration policy exists, and I, qua philosopher, have no special qualification to comment on the empirical information that would be relevant to fashioning the best policy for any given state. However, if anything, I am personally inclined toward more open borders. My parents were born and raised in different countries, so I would not even be here to write this article if people were not free to cross political borders. What is more, my family and I have profited enormously from having lived and worked in several different countries, so it should come as no surprise that I believe that, just as few individuals flourish in personal isolation, open borders are typically (and within limits) best for political communities and their constituents. Still, just as one might defend the right to divorce without believing that many couples should in fact separate, I defend a legitimate state’s right to control its borders without suggesting that strict limits on immigration would necessarily maximize the interests of either the state’s constituents or humanity as a whole.

With this post I’d like to suggest we ponder what a virtuous approach to migration policy would be, setting aside the important question of rights. This approach risks immediately running aground. Does it even make sense to talk about “virtuous policy”? Can virtue only be discussed in terms of individual behavior? Maybe. But I suspect questions of virtue come up in policy considerations whether it’s appropriate or not. Consider Adam Gurri’s recent thoughts on courage and security.

Everyone, as either a driver or a pedestrian, or both, has had a moment where things could have gone a little differently and ended in severe injury or death. It does not take a great deal of experience with the roads of most metropolitan areas to have such moments. Yet we do not hide in our homes, we do not give up on driving. After feeling the risks acutely, we go on with our lives as before.

We certainly do not demand that the state step in and enact a set of intrusive, byzantine measures to make us feel safer. We simply find the courage in ourselves and continue with our lives.

Whether it’s airport security or mass surveillance, we have sacrificed a great deal of not only liberty, but dignity, for uncertain and unquantifiable gain. The citizens of this country need to find the courage to take that liberty and that dignity back. This does not seem too much to ask of a people who find such courage every single day, when they step into a car.

Ben Franklin famously wrote, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The motivation for this pronouncement of desert is that such a people want for courage. Can we make similar observations about borders?

The empirical cases for and against open borders often implicitly rely on prudential reasoning, as does much economic argumentation. Prudence is here conceived as no-nonsense self-interest. So advocates of open borders point to the massive economic gains to be had by liberalizing migration while restrictionists point to those who might lose out, whether they are unskilled natives in the host country or those rural poor left behind in the sending country.

Solidarity (an instance of faith or loyalty) matters here. The restrictionist may be unimpressed with the prudential calculations of the mobilitarian who downplays the importance of communal solidarity. The unskilled poor natives of the host country may not be as poor as those in the Global South, but they are our poor, and it’s our obligation to look after them. The restrictionist concerned about the poorest of the poor, left behind in remote villages, likewise condemns the relatively well-off emigrants who fail to uphold their obligations of solidarity to their poorer fellow nationals. (I’m leaving to the side for now any discussion of the empirical reality of these concerns.)

The mobilitarian might respond that solidarity is well and good but it is grossly disproportionate to the scale of justice at issue. It is unjust that the citizens of rich countries are privileged by right of birth to enjoy successful institutions that they played no part in creating. Injustice is visited upon the poor of the world when they are forcefully imprisoned in their countries for no other reason than that they were born there.

As to the question of whether emigrants fail in some solidaritous duty to their poorer fellow nationals, one might respond that the individual should have some choice in choosing her identities, where her duties of solidarity lie, and further that this is a matter better left to the emigrant and her co-nationals, rather than outsiders. Certainly chaining an individual to her country of birth for any reason seems to diminish her autonomy, and thus disrespects her dignity.

Speaking of successful institutions, the restrictionist has another appeal to prudence: the institutions of the rich world must be protected, and exposing these institutions to foreigners with very different cultures is simply too risky. This is the familiar Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs critique, which I have considered previously. Like Gurri’s approach to terrorism, the mobilitarian can counter this fear of institutional degradation with an appeal to courage. Are the institutions of the rich world really so fragile that they will fall apart if we open them to the world’s huddled masses, yearning, as they do, to breathe free? One can’t know for certain, but ours is a world of uncertainty, and it’s against precisely this reality of uncertain danger that we gird ourselves with courage.

One can sense between the lines an exhortation to courage in the great Frederick Douglass’s criticism of anti-Chinese sentiment among his compatriots (my emphasis):

The apprehension that we shall be swamped or swallowed up by Mongolian civilization; that the Caucasian race may not be able to hold their own against that vast incoming population, does not seem entitled to much respect. Though they come as the waves come, we shall be stronger if we receive them as friends and give them a reason for loving our country and our institutions. They will find here a deeply rooted, indigenous, growing civilization, augmented by an ever increasing stream of immigration from Europe; and possession is nine points of the law in this case, as well as in others. They will come as strangers, we are at home. They will come to us, not we to them. They will come in their weakness, we shall meet them in our strength. They will come as individuals, we will meet them in multitudes, and with all the advantages of organization. Chinese children are in American schools in San Francisco, none of our children are in Chinese schools, and probably never will be, though in some things they might well teach us valuable lessons.

The question of whether borders should be closed or open would likely not inspire such controversy if it weren’t for the desperate conditions of much of the world. Those favoring open borders often do so out of compassion and, indeed, love for humanity. Such a bleeding heart appeal might risk a kind of macho scoffing retort from those adhering to a politics of toughness. But surely love and compassion play some role in our policy making, lest social welfare programs could never get off the ground. It’s helpful to remember, as always, that opening borders does not impose charitable obligations on anyone, but instead removes barriers standing in the way of migrants bettering their own lots.

Virtues must be balanced against one another. So courage without prudence and temperance is just machismo or foolhardiness. Compassion without prudence is a recipe for exploitation. And justice without temperance and love might give us a Tarantino revenge fantasy. From a virtue perspective, closed borders is all solidarity and jealous prudence, unbalanced by any sense of universal justice or compassion for the stranger; it lacks courage, and maybe even faith in supposedly hallowed institutions. The open borders position is better balanced atop multiple virtues, exhibiting justice and compassion in spades, plus a little faith and courage for good measure, and–if the economists are to be believed–ample prudence in the form of trillion dollar bills waiting to be picked up off the sidewalk. Regardless of whether it is obligated to do so or not, a nation that opens its borders does the virtuous thing, the right thing. And the citizens of such a nation would have reason to take pride in that.

End note: While I found no excuse to reference it in the post, I have only begun to think seriously about virtue ethics since I started reading the Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, by Deirdre McCloskey. I have drawn from it here.

The Open Borders Morality Play

Last week Rumplestatskin, at the Australian outfit Macrobusiness, criticized Alex Tabarrok’s moral appeal for open borders as a “morality play of the 1%”. He quotes Tabarrok’s (open borders boilerplate) rhetorical question “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?” But he adds his own spin:

How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in towns and suburbs where their financial and geographic constraints prevent them from making a living?

That open borders within countries does not automatically eliminate poverty reminds us be skeptical of claims that opening borders between them will reduce poverty automatically.

This is an interesting point, but there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, what do we mean by “poor”? Poverty in the rich world is a very different beast from poverty in the poor world. The poorest five percent in America still make $3 – 4000 per year, putting them in the 60th percentile of global income. (Milanovic 2012, see figure below) This doesn’t mean that rich world poverty isn’t a problem. But even if migration opportunities only help people in, say, the 50th global income percentile and above, that means helping people we would normally think of as poor without qualification if only they already lived in the rich world. So, yes, opening borders will pretty much automatically reduce poverty, even if it doesn’t eliminate poverty.


This point can be turned around the other way. Would we be richer if we had less mobility in the rich world? As Lant Pritchett has discussed, mobility allows people to escape the traps of ghost towns and dying industries. Would we even ponder restricting the out-migration of West Virginians to the rest of the US or Tasmanians to the rest of Australia as a strategy to improve the lives of the poorest in those regions? In the dying towns and sleepy suburbs of the rich world, it is also the poorest who will have the greatest difficulty taking advantage of their freedom to move away. But no one suggests imprisoning less disadvantaged people in their dying towns to be fair to the most disadvantaged.

Open borders is merely the logical outcome of any type of ‘natural rights’ moral reasoning. People should have the opportunity to flourish irrespective of the patch of Earth they were born.[sic] Yet the idea boils down to being the policy you support when you want to help the world’s poor but don’t support actually giving them money.

This seems a bit ad hominem to me. Open borders is merely a libertarian idea, pushed by rich folks and their shills who want to reap the status benefits of advocating a policy that would allegedly benefit the poor without having to actually fork over any cash. I’ve wondered before why it is so commonly thought that a policy of open borders must be at odds with a policy of global redistribution of wealth. I see no reason why an earnest leftist couldn’t support allowing everyone in the world freedom of movement and at the same time support redistribution from the rich to the global poor. There’s no inconsistency, and no readily apparent reason why the two policies would conflict.

In many ways open borders is the type of policy you support to display street cred in the company of the economically rational, particularly when discussions turn to inequality and, god forbid, redistribution. Making the poor richer is as simple as giving them money and therefore access to resources, whether they are fellow citizens of your country, or your planet.

Well, this certainly sounds simple. Simply handing cash to the poor is a good idea, and we should all do a good deal more of it. (On this note I can’t resist observing–anecdotally–that many of the people I know in the open borders movement are also very interested in “effective altruism“, including direct cash disbursements). The reasons why global poverty is not actually this simple illuminate why, despite what I said above about compatibility, I personally think tax-based redistribution is a bad idea. It’s perfectly consistent to hold this view along with a preference for free movement, but it’s a view I don’t actually endorse.

There is a strong case to be made that simply handing cash to the wretched of the earth is one of the best ways to get the most bang out of your altruistic buck. It allows the poor to make one-time life-improving investments (a metal roof, a bicycle, etc) that can ease the immediate pangs of poverty. But it isn’t at all clear that this can be scaled up without the cash becoming yet another resource to be diverted to and exploited by the same local kleptocratic elites that already impoverish poor societies. I am presuming of course that Rumplestatskin envisions ramping up aid going through official channels.

Control of the aid spigot can also become a source of conflict, just like oil fields and diamond mines. And like oil and diamonds, foreign aid can potentially inflict a resource curse on an imbalanced economy. This isn’t to say that foreign aid is always bad. The evidence to my knowledge suggests that foreign aid contributes weakly to economic growth and can improve non-economic outcomes. But it is neither simple nor without danger. These considerations should give even the committed redistributionist pause.

Finally, there is the coercive nature of global redistribution. Such redistribution involves levying taxes on individuals in rich countries in order to transfer funds to people they have never met and know very little about, through murky and what are likely to be perceived as illegitimate channels, with little guarantee that the funds won’t be compromised by the problems above. Of course, all taxation involves coercion with no guarantees of efficiency. But these are the qualities that make tax rates and redistributive policies so contentious even within domestic politics. The justification requirements only increase with international transfers. These aren’t necessarily insurmountable hurdles. The severity of global poverty is significant enough to override most aversions to higher taxes–including my own–but only if the rich world taxpayers can be sure those taxes will do some good.

Contrast this with liberalizing immigration to the rich world, which removes coercion from current policy. One can argue about economic effects on the poorest individuals in both the sending and receiving countries, and one can make vague arguments about changing national character. But for the individuals directly affected, open borders reduces coercion and expands opportunities.

Grappling with the Goose

The suggestion that open borders would (or could) “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is in my view one of the strongest arguments against open borders. The argument is that at some level or pace of immigration, open borders could alter a population’s characteristics in so that the very institutions that make the rich world rich could be changed, to everyone’s detriment. An appealing aspect of the Goose argument is that it doesn’t implicitly discount the rights and welfare of foreigners to the absurd degree that most other arguments for restricting immigration do. Indeed if immigration somehow destabilizes the prosperity-generating institutions of the rich world, then the global poor would suffer the loss of aid and technology transfer. The Goose argument has been discussed on this site previously, but mostly in the form of concern about the IQs of immigrants. I find this form of the argument unpersuasive, largely because the universal history of early humanity was one of low IQs and grinding poverty. Differential IQs are unable to explain the sudden onset of both rising economic growth and rising IQs. But you can read more about the IQ Goose from my cobloggers here (including the references therein).

In my view the strongest form of the Goose argument is that the valuable institutions of successful countries rely on certain cultural characteristics that immigrant populations may lack. The cultural traits in question could include general social trust level, religiosity, individualism versus collectivism, the importance of the family in society, beliefs about social mobility and poverty, and so on. Importantly, culture in this context does not refer to specific overall belief systems or ways of life. In other words, in this post I won’t discuss concerns about, e.g., Roman Catholicism, except insofar as such identifiable belief systems are predictive of the more abstract traits mentioned above, like religiosity and family importance.

This doesn’t have to be moralized (and indeed it shouldn’t be): the cultural characteristics of immigrants could be rationally adapted to the institutions of their home countries. An example of this is the oft-cited lower levels of trust exhibited by individuals within some African societies. Low-trust cultural norms among immigrants in developed countries may be mal-adapted, but those norms were optimally adapted to centuries of slave-trading, where there was a constant threat of abduction for enslavement by one’s fellows.

So the concern about mismatched cultural traits is legitimate. Establishing this leaves the question how to proceed with the argument next. The language of “killing the goose that lays the golden eggs” suggests a strong argument, stressing dire, possibly irreversible consequences of permitting an excessive number of culturally mismatched immigrants. But one could also pose a weaker form of the argument, suggesting that, ceteris paribus, permitting too many immigrants from problem cultures will lead to a gradual deterioration of institutions. Appropriate responses differ significantly between the two Geese. I will argue that a realistic treatment of the facts is more consistent with the Weak Goose over the Strong Goose. I’ll begin with the strong version.

If it could be shown with a high degree of confidence that allowing in immigrants from other cultures would indeed destroy the institutions responsible for economic growth, the rule of law, and other desirable characteristics of the rich world, then the argument would succeed in justifying the control of such immigration. There would remain the powerful libertarian and humanitarian cases for free migration, so even the Strong Goose would succeed only in establishing the need to restrict immigration to such limits as are consistent with preserving particular valued institutions. And the argument doesn’t apply at all to immigrants culturally compatible with rich world institutions.

Unfortunately for the Strong Gooser, good evidence for institutional-destruction-by-immigrant-culture doesn’t seem to be in the offing. I found Alberto Alesina’s recent review of the literature on culture and institutions relevant (and fascinating in its own right). First, it should be noted that the literature confirms cultural persistence among immigrants.

By isolating the importance of institutions, the evidence coming from the study of second-generation immigrants implicitly shows that some cultural traits travel with individuals when they move to a society with different institutions and values. Therefore cultural values are persistent, and moving to a place with different institutions does not change them immediately, certainly not within the timeframe of two generations. This finding does not contradict the possibility that the “melting pot” could work; the empirical question is, at what speed do cultural values converge?

The problem is that causality runs in both directions: institutions also affect culture.  Thus there are observable differences in beliefs and preferences between the former West and East Germany, despite cultural uniformity before separation. The market, as an institution, can change culture by shaping incentives and changing what values parents might wish to foster in their children to ensure their success. Longer term, institutional structures from several generations ago correlate to the cultural characteristics we see today. Specifically, the inclusive and democratic polities of yesteryear tend to have greater levels of general trust and universal morality today.

Institutions and culture affect one another, and can  lead to multiple equilibria. Alesina provides the example of the way family importance (culture) and labor regulation (institution) influence one another. “An inherited culture of strong family ties leads to a preference for labor-market rigidities, but the latter in turn makes it optimal to teach and adopt strong family ties.” A weak-family/laissez-faire labor market equilibrium is the other possibility.

Culture and institutions are both subject to shocks. Growing up during a military conflict or during an economic recession results in observable cultural shifts (the former leading to greater in-group egalitarianism and the latter leading to more left-wing political attitudes).  Shocks can come from technological change. There is some evidence that the plethora of new occupations requiring hard work and skill engendered by the Industrial Revolution caused parents to instill middle class values in their children. Shocks can also be purely cultural, as with the feminist and civil rights movements.

Institutions can adapt and transform without shattering. The USA, for example, had open borders for a large stretch of its history, including its earliest years, when its institutions didn’t have the advantage of years of establishment. While institutions changed in that time (a lot has happened in America’s 200+ year history), they still were capable of supporting economic growth and rising living standards. Likewise, there are a variety of societies with different cultural values that are more or less successful.

The point of the above is merely to show that there is no simple, certain, monocausal path from sub-optimal culture to institutional destruction. Culture is just one of many variables determining the fate of societies. Strong Goosers demand that liberal immigration advocates prove that institutions will survive a massive influx due to open borders, but this burden of proof is inappropriately high. The effects of cultural influence are far too vague to support such a deal-breaking requirement. In any case, what would constitute proof?

The Strong Goose resembles the precautionary principle, which posits that some catastrophes are so severe that they must be prevented even at great social cost, and even before the magnitude and probability of the danger is properly understood. When viewed this way, it succumbs to the shortcomings of the precautionary principle. It is exaggerated by the cognitive bias that leads people to suffer (and dread) losses more than they appreciate gains. It’s also double-edged. The same fixation on a vaguely conceived, low-probability catastrophic outcome can be mirrored by vaguely conceived, low-probability positive outcomes. By expanding economic opportunities for individuals everywhere and enabling diaspora dynamics to fuel institutional reform in the poor world, open borders could plausibly end world poverty within two generations. The constant presence of viable exit options to safe and prosperous places already populated by diasporas could plausibly end major conflict in the world; people will leave instead of fight. Not opening borders and thereby ensuring the unnecessary persistence of poverty and conflict could be just as disastrous as the Strong Goose eventuality.

Any deleterious effects of cultural mismatch on institutions are likely to occur over generations. (Incidentally this is another reason why the cultural Goose is more compelling than the IQ Goose–IQs in the second generation will increase with better resources and education, fewer childhood diseases, and more stimulating environments, whereas cultural differences may persist). This is more in line with the Weak Goose, an argument which accepts that the malign effect of some immigrant cultures on institutions is one variable among many. The Weak Goose loses the urgency of the Strong Goose, but it’s far more valuable for its realism.

The best argument that Weak Goosers can make against open borders is that opening wide the gates all at once is unnecessarily risky. Societies with problematic cultural traits could be identified and immigration from those groups could be constrained so that their numbers never exceed some fraction of the native population. The irony with this approach is that individualism, one of the cherished cultural traits of the rich world, would be compromised. Aspiring immigrants would be categorized by their society of birth, regardless of their personal beliefs, histories, and merits. This could be addressed by using some other factor as a proxy for culture, such as a skills-based point system, as is currently done in Canada, or IQ requirements. While this would certainly be better than closed borders, the downsides would be the perpetuation of social class discrimination and the denial of those unskilled workers who could benefit most from immigration. The use of such proxies could also raise uncomfortable questions about how society values its native-born members who fail to live up to the standard.

Restricting immigration has social costs of its own. People will inevitably try to enter the rich world as long as it continues to offer opportunities. Keeping out immigrants who don’t have permission requires abandoning valued institutions like due process and equality before the law, as my co-blogger John Lee has discussed at length. It likely also requires changing the employment institutions to keep out unwelcome immigrants,  which could have deleterious effects on “middle class values” like hard work. In America, a more earnest effort to restrict immigration has turned ordinary law enforcement officers into immigration agents, effectively empowered to demand papers from anyone they suspect of being an immigrant, which often means ethnic profiling. This kind of policy can poison trust in communities with minorities. Deportations rip individuals out of their communities and sometimes even away from their families. This is inconsistent with fostering general trust in society.

One of the cultural traits of the rich world that is considered valuable for sustaining strong institutions and economic growth is “generalized morality”, to be contrasted with “limited morality”. The latter describes morality that applies to family or clan members or otherwise close associates while the former extends moral consideration to strangers. A market order of anonymous buyers and sellers requires this kind of morality, lest transaction costs blow up due to fears of defection. (Just think how easy it would be to shoplift if your scruples didn’t forbid it). Here is another tension with the valued cultural trait and its straightforward application to migration. The bodies of strangers strewn across the American southwest and lost at sea, shipwrecked in the Mediterranean illustrate the paradox of restricting immigration to preserve stranger-regarding morality.

Restricting immigration by appeal to the Weak Goose–warning that too much cultural influence from some societies could gradually weaken institutions–clearly involves some bullet-biting. But perhaps there are more helpful outlets for the Weak Gooser’s laudable caution. A diverse stock of immigrants from multiple source countries would reap the benefits of open borders while reducing the risk of cultural mismatch. Multilateral migration agreements in the style of trade agreements would likewise diffuse risk among several countries. Inclusive policies could more efficiently acculturate immigrants to the values and institutions of successful host societies. Natives of rich countries should also be discouraged from discriminating against immigrants, as such discrimination exacerbates social distrust.

Good institutions don’t necessarily stick around forever. Someone who has never considered the role of culture in the evolution and sustenance of institutions should revise their valuation of rapid border opening marginally downward, and favor somewhat more a selective and/or gradual approach. But the Goose argument isn’t decisive. In the end it must be appraised in the context of improving living standards, diminishing violence, and advancing democratic and market institutions all over the world. In other words, successful institutions do not seem to be on the retreat currently. Culture can and does change, and migration is one way for successful cultures and institutions to spread. It would be a shame if progress in the world were stymied out of exaggerated fears that the world’s best institutions are more fragile than they really are.


Weekly links roundup 05 2014

Here’s our weekly installment of links from around the web (see here for all link roundups). As usual, linking does not imply endorsement.