All posts by Paul Crider

A Critique of Wellman’s ‘Immigration and Freedom of Association’

Christopher Heath Wellman’s article in the journal Ethics, Immigration and Freedom of Association, (pdf) is generally well-regarded, even among advocates of open borders. Jason Brennan and Bas van der Vassen have both expressed plans to pen their own responses to it. In the essay, Wellman attempts to demonstrate a presumptive right of legitimate states to limit immigration on the basis of freedom of association, and then argues that neither egalitarian nor libertarian arguments can overcome this presumptive right to close borders.* I argue here that Wellman fails to establish this presumptive right, and that freedom of association suggests instead a presumptive right of individuals to migrate across national borders.

Wellman correctly points out that the freedom of association includes the freedom to not associate with certain others–the right to exclude–and this freedom exists for both individuals and groups. His workhorse analogies are marriage and private clubs. A person may unobjectionably reject suitors for marriage and a married couple is not required to open their marriage to outsiders. A private association is permitted to restrict its membership. The simple extension of this idea is that, likewise, a nation may restrict its membership by prohibiting immigration. Wellman illustrates the strength of the presumption that a group can exclude members by pointing to the examples of the Boy Scouts, who have been under fire for excluding gays and atheists from leadership roles, and the Augusta National Golf Club, which has similarly suffered scrutiny  for excluding women. Wellman correctly points out that even in these controversial cases, the burden of argument lies with those who seek to abridge the group’s freedom to determine its membership.

Marriage doesn’t work as a load-bearing analogy for other forms of association. A marriage requires and sustains unanimity both for its formation and for any subsequent membership changes. Unanimous decisions to associate are not distinguishable from individual decisions to associate in any interesting way. And neither private groups nor nations typically enjoy unanimity, so I won’t discuss the marriage analogy further.

The first objection Wellman anticipates is that states are different in morally important ways from other groups in that, for instance, “political states do not owe their membership to the autonomous choices of their constituents.” Instead of addressing this point on theoretical grounds, he deploys an interesting reductio ad absurdum.

[Here] I would like merely to highlight some of the unpalatable implications that follow from denying a country’s right to freedom of association. In particular, consider the moral dynamics of regional associations like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) or the European Union (EU). If legitimate states did not enjoy a right to freedom of association—a right which entitles them to decline invitations to associate with others—then they would not be in a position to either accept or reject the terms of these regional associations. Think of Canada’s choice to join NAFTA, or Slovenia’s decision to enter the EU, for instance. No one believes that it would be permissible to force Canada into NAFTA or to coerce Slovenia to join the EU. (Of course, nor may Canada or Slovenia unilaterally insert themselves into these associations!) And the reason it is wrong to forcibly include these countries is because Canada’s and Slovenia’s rights to self-determination entitle them to associate (or not) with other countries as they see fit. Put plainly, if one denies that legitimate states like Canada and Slovenia have a right to freedom of association, one could not explain why they would be righteously aggrieved at being forced into these mergers.

It’s true that states are generally given ample room to negotiate these sorts of interstate associations, but consider what these arrangements really mean for the people involved. An association agreement is just a package of policies, usually including reductions of trade barriers, regulatory harmonization, easier immigration, and sometimes the establishment of limited, shared governance bodies. These are the policies that impact the lives of citizens. The ‘association’ is arguably just a symbolic bow to tie it all together, no more meaningful than when two municipalities half  a world away adopt one another as ‘sister cities’. Whether these policies are justified or not is a series of distinct questions, and they should be treated as such.

From the impacted citizen’s perspective, it makes little sense to speak of “forcing” a state to enter such a regional association. That would just mean some foreign government implementing new policies–which still need justification individually–instead of her own government. This may or may not be acceptable, but the question is more capably handled by democratic theory rather than a ponderous interpretation of the freedom of association. Incidentally, because immigration laws impact potential migrants so forcefully, there is a good case to be made that they should be included in that democratic decision.

Note also that regional association agreements between nations in most cases expand freedom of association at the individual level, so there’s no conflict caused by the state exercising its freedom of association in this way.  This would be like the Augusta National Golf Club deciding to merge with a women’s golf club, thus admitting women into the new club and eliminating the source of conflict. Wellman acknowledges the distinction between expanding and limiting association, but maintains his argument by providing the example of an essentially uncontested secession of one nation from another, namely Norway’s 1905 secession from Sweden.

In this case, more than 99 percent of the Norwegians voted in favor of political divorce and Sweden as a country did not resist the separation. Whatever one thinks about the justifiability of statebreaking, this seems like a paradigmatic case of permissible secession. If each individual’s right to freedom of association trumps the state’s right to self-determination in those cases in which the group as a whole seeks to disassociate from others, however, then Norway’s secession was unjustified; it was impermissible because every last Norwegian (if not also each Swede) had the right unilaterally to veto the political divorce and the plebiscite in favor of separation did not garner unanimous consent. Again, I presume without argument that this position is implausible. And if an individual’s claim to freedom of association does not trump her state’s right in the case of secession, there seems good reason to believe that an individual’s right would be equally impotent in the realm of immigration.

There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, Wellman tilts at a straw man when he speaks of one individual’s right to freedom of association trumping the state’s right to self-determination. The question isn’t “Does each individual’s right to association have equal weight to a state’s handling of international affairs?” The closure of a nation’s borders violates every individual’s freedom of association en masse, impacting every individual on both sides of the border. A more germane question is “How does the general freedom of association for individuals compare in terms of moral weight to a state’s freedom of association in international affairs?”

The second problem is that the example of secession still does not grapple with the distinct issues involved in a political secession. My quick reading of the 1905 split between Norway and Sweden suggests Norway was already effectively self-governed, complete with its own political and legal institutions, when it broke from Sweden. I am not aware of how migration between the two nations evolved at the time, but this information is critical for understanding the full moral dynamics of the divorce.

Consider the hypothetical case of Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom. Most likely free movement across the border and individual freedom of association more generally would remain unimpeded and the political division would be benign. But suppose instead that one of the countries closed the border, severing presently existing and potential relationships between British and Scottish citizens. Regardless of how any plebiscite decided, I submit that the two scenarios would clearly not be equally just or permissible. The moral issues involved are not adequately characterized by the Scottish (or British) state’s freedom of association. It appears in this case that the severing of associations caused by closing the border would surpass any value gained from the state’s exercise of its freedom of association (or divorce). This is what closed borders around the world do now as a matter of course. This Scottish example shows that there is a morally significant difference between cases where state freedom of association and individual freedom of association converge and where they diverge. In the case of divergence state freedom of association does not obviously carry more moral weight than individual freedom of association, suggesting the former should not be treated as presumptive.

Wellman raises the stakes of the regional association example by suggesting that the forcible annexation of one nation by another cannot sensibly be condemned without appealing to a state’s freedom of association.

Imagine, for instance, that a series of plebiscites revealed both that an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted to merge with Canada and that an equally high proportion of Canadians preferred to maintain their independence. Would it be permissible for the United States to forcibly annex Canada? I assume without argument that, even if the United States could execute this unilateral merger without disrupting the peace or violating the individual rights of any Canadians, this hostile takeover would be impermissible.

Again, an annexation of a population into another state, complete with its already established institutions, is best understood not in terms of freedom of association, but in alternative frameworks, like democratic theory, which could more meaningfully grapple with the loss of democratic representation accompanying sudden, momentous policy shifts. Moreover, the assumption that such an annexation could be accomplished without the threat of violence is simply implausible. In the case of violence or the threat of violence, it becomes clear that the unilateral merger is impermissible for many reasons, including basic humanitarian concern.

It’s worth stepping back now to consider some basic questions. In the examples above I have appealed to a conflict between the state’s and the individual’s right to association, implying the moral concerns are different between states and other groups, which I have conceded do have a presumptive right to exclude. But there is conflict when a non-state group excludes individuals. When an individual’s right to association is violated, she may be forced to interact with someone against her will. When that right is compromised for a group, an individual within the group will often still be able to avoid direct interaction with ‘interlopers’, and may only suffer indirect interactions with them (seeing them at meetings or hearing about their activities within the group). Simultaneously, some individuals within the group–not to mention erstwhile outsiders–enjoy an expanded freedom of association. It must be remembered that dissenting gay- and atheist-friendly Boy Scouts, and non-sexist Augusta National golfers, would prefer their respective groups did not exercise the right to exclude.

Still, Wellman is correct to point out that “if no one doubts that golf clubs have a presumptive right to exclude others, then there seems no reason to suspect that a group of citizens cannot also have the right to freedom of association …” Why then do I balk at allowing the same group freedom to prevail at the national level? Wellman’s argument pivots on the analogy of states to garden variety private clubs. This analogy fails because of the scope and nonvoluntary nature of states.

The scope of an individual’s belonging to a nation is vast. All of an individuals actions occur within the context of her nation.  Every exercise of liberty and every association an individual has occurs within that nation and under the guidelines set out by the state. And an individual is born into a nation, having no choice among alternatives. Any option to join an alternative nation is severely limited (indeed the justice of this fact is the subject of dispute). In contrast, an individual is typically free to choose what private organizations to join, and those organizations each serve distinct and limited purposes.

Suppose Billy the Boy Scout would enjoy scouting with Ahmed the gay atheist, and Ahmed likewise would like to join the Boy Scouts. The exclusive policy of the Boy Scouts clearly exacts a toll on these individuals. But at least Billy and Ahmed are free to interact with each other outside the Boy Scouts. They may be colleagues, or one may employ the other, or they may live together, join the same hobbyist clubs, or they may simply be friends who enjoy one another’s company. The dynamics of national membership are radically different. If Billy’s nation excludes Ahmed then our starstruck protagonists are precluded from interacting in a wide range of capacities, including those above. This is a severe curtailment of the individual freedom of association in favor of group freedom of association. This severe loss of freedom  does not obtain in the case of private groups because of the many alternative possibilities remaining for individual association. This drastic difference in outcomes between private group exclusion and state exclusion calls into question any presumptions based on the analogy between the two.

There are other miscellaneous problems with the analogy of nations to private groups. Many private groups, for instance, have rules providing for the expulsion of members, an authority not readily granted to liberal states vis-à-vis citizens. Meanwhile, membership of most private associations is not hereditary or granted at birth, as is citizenship. On that point, the state’s right to association seems equally applicable to restricting births among the native population as it is to restricting immigration, another unsavory implication. These issues may have satisfactory answers. Perhaps Wellman would argue that reproductive freedom is so important that it simply defeats the presumptive right of states to exclude that he has outlined. But these considerations suggest the analogy of nations to private groups is not straightforward.

Wellman acknowledges that a state’s right to exclude immigrants directly limits its subjects’ freedom to invite and interact with foreigners. He addresses this while discussing whether immigration restrictions violate the property rights of citizens, but I think the pertinent problems arise even if we just stick to freedom of association and forego a discussion of property rights. Wellman appeals to the argument from political externalities that people have good reason to care about–and control–their nation’s immigration policy.

And if there is nothing mysterious about people caring about who are (or could become) members of their golf clubs, there is certainly nothing irrational about people being heavily invested in their country’s immigration policy. Again, to note the lack of intimacy among compatriots is to miss an important part of the story. It is no good to tell citizens that they need not personally (let alone intimately) associate with any fellow citizens they happen to dislike because fellow citizens nonetheless remain political associates; the country’s course will be charted by the members of this civic association. The point is that people rightly care very deeply about their countries, and, as a consequence, they rightly care about those policies which will effect how these political communities evolve. And since a country’s immigration policy affects who will share in controlling the country’s future, it is a matter of considerable importance.

I won’t get bogged down in the nuances of political externalities here (start here if you’re curious), since my goal is limited to disabling Wellman’s establishment of a presumptive right of states to exclude immigrants. Above I hinted at a distinction between direct and indirect associations among individuals. Direct associations are those such as friendship, work or employment relationships, religious or community fellowship, teacher/pupil relationships, etc. Roughly, one might think of these sorts of associations as those in which two individuals know each other’s names. Indirect associations include the other folks in line at the checkout line, passers-by on the street, fellow commuters, and indeed, one’s civic associates. The existence and actions of these others do impact an individual, and vice versa, as is readily felt during rush hour traffic, say, or when one’s political values are affirmed or rejected on election day. But on an individual basis, these indirect associations have far less impact than direct associations. Perhaps they have important aggregate effects, but such effects would need to be very significant and very frightening to justify interfering with intuitively valuable direct relationships. Just as importantly, any such effects must be demonstrated. They are not the stuff of presumption.

To summarize, Wellman seeks to establish a presumptive right of states to exclude immigrants by making the analogy of states to private associations, which do enjoy a presumptive right to exclude. But exclusion by states severely limits individual freedom in a way that private exclusion does not; options still remain for individual association when private groups exclude. Wellman’s provocative examples of states exercising the freedom of association seem harmless only because they also expand individual freedom of association. I have attempted to show that there is an unavoidable conflict between a state’s right to exclude and a general right of association among individuals, and that this individual right has greater moral significance than the alleged right of states to exclude. If this is true, then, contra Wellman, individual freedom of association actually suggests a presumptive right to migrate across national boundaries. Even if I have failed to make this stronger claim, I believe these considerations still show that Wellman’s arguments fail to establish a presumptive right of states to exclude. In this case, the state’s and the individual’s freedom of association simply annihilate one another, and the ethics of migration must be settled by other arguments.

*Wellman stipulates “legitimate” states throughout his essay, but never defines the term (other than providing Canada and Slovenia as examples); I’ll leave off this modifier. I am uncomfortable with the language of states having rights. Throughout this piece, when I say “state’s right” I mean the “collective right of the citizens of a nation, as expressed or enforced by their democratically elected governments,” the legitimacy of which I’m also assuming here.

The open borders wing of the open borders movement; or, Against keyhole regimes

As the name implies, aims to discuss the ins and outs and the pros and cons of open borders, honestly and with an open mind, while also advocating open borders, or at least policy movement in the direction of open borders. But the hardworking and underpaid writers themselves come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so that in some cases “movement toward open borders” is the rare, narrow sliver of convergence. We don’t agree on everything. With this in mind, I’m taking the opportunity in this post to push back against the “keyhole solutions” mentioned so often on the site. These come in many flavors but can be summarized as follows: for a criticism or fear of open borders, X, one can often posit a keyhole solution, K(X), which mitigates or removes the (perceived) problem of X while still retaining freedom of movement across national borders. A common example is, for the contention that immigrants will drain the host nation’s welfare resources, a keyhole solution would be to allow migration but legally bar immigrants from collecting welfare benefits.

At the outset I want to acknowledge that the keyhole policies proposed usually move in the direction of open borders as advertised and so, if I were forced to vote on such policies, I would usually vote yea. But keyhole policies often have serious philosophical and rhetorical drawbacks, potentially significant enough to call into question whether they really would move us in the direction of open borders. In addition, I want to argue that keyhole regimes do not represent optimal policy in the broad sense of “optimal”.

One rhetorical problem of keyhole solutions is they can generate confusion as to what it is advocates of open borders are really advocating. This became apparent in the friendly skirmish between Tyler Cowen and us earlier this year. Nathan Smith responded to a surprise broadside from Cowen with a post heavy on the benefits of taxing immigration and denying immigrants entitlements that are standard for natives.

Cowen is smart enough to figure all this out for himself. The communication failure occurs because we mean different thing by “open borders.” I mean simply that immigrants will be allowed to enter the country physically, and allowed to work. Not that they will reside there on equal terms with citizens, subject to the same tax rules for example. Certainly not that they will have access to the vote, which is a separate issue, or to welfare benefits, which I would strongly object to. Perhaps he would favor the DRITI approach to open borders, I don’t know. It seems as if taxing immigration, and keyhole solutions generally, are not on Cowen’s radar screen.

Cowen retorted that the post was a surrender, that what Nathan considers open borders is not really open borders. I can’t blame Cowen for his assessment. In this post I’m defending honest-to-goodness open borders.

Another rhetorical issue is that too much enthusiasm poured into the case for keyhole regimes could backfire, especially when it’s a keyhole cocktail on the menu. “Let’s tax immigration and redistribute the proceeds to unskilled natives so they don’t lose out! Let’s deny immigrants the right to vote so they don’t destroy our institutions! Let’s deny immigrants public services such as welfare and unemployment insurance and public schools so they don’t drain the public coffer! Let’s deport immigrants for misdemeanors so our cities are not overrun with crime!” There is a keyhole solution for every fevered imagining of the paranoid nativist. But, just possibly, it might be a bad idea to market open borders to this group. Molly the Moderate might look at the laundry list of “problems” that a proffered keyhole proposal purports to solve and come away thinking “Gee, if immigrants really come with all those problems, wouldn’t it be more straightforward just to restrict immigration like we’re already doing?”

Rhetoric aside, keyhole policies clearly have a real dark side. Nathan highlighted this in his recent post The Dark Side of DRITI (DRITI–“Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It”–being a keyhole regime of Nathan’s devising that includes a surtax for immigrants and a ban on their use of social safety net options that are available to citizens).

Regressive transfers from poor immigrants to better-off natives. DRITI immigrants wouldn’t be earning much, yet a substantial share of their small earnings would be taken away in taxes. The proceeds would be used to pay transfers to natives. It would probably be very common for two people to work side-by-side, one a DRITI immigrant the other a native, doing the same job and earning the same wage, yet the native would enjoy a much higher standard of living than the immigrant, because the native would be receive transfers from the government, while the DRITI immigrant would be paying extra taxes to the government. Quite affluent people, too, would receive transfers financed by taxes on poor DRITI workers.

Taxation without representation. DRITI immigrants would be paying a lot of taxes, yet they wouldn’t have the right to vote. In fact, in the numerical example above, we would end up with a situation where 1/3 of the adult resident population of the US couldn’t vote. Is that a violation of democratic principles? (Not really. Democracy is about consent of the governed, and DRITI immigrants would have explicitly consented. But that’s a subtle point, and people would doubtless feel unease at the abrogation of the “one person, one vote” principle.)

The DRITI scheme would indeed be Pareto-improving in that it would improve or leave unchanged the lots of every native and every immigrant. But Nathan also describes this as both the sophisticated case for open borders and the best immigration policy yet proposed. This assumes that “Pareto-optimal” is the same as socially optimal or ethically optimal. DRITI is morally problematic for precisely the reasons he highlights. Charging immigrants special taxes just because they are immigrants is discriminatory, violating the principle of equality before the law. It also ignores the common sense principle that, where possible, you should tax bads instead of goods. Immigration is not a bad.

Some fairly odious policies can be Pareto-improving. Consider a slavery regime where a new law is passed that would allow a slave to purchase her freedom from her owner under a legislated, generously above-market price at which the owner would be compelled to sell. Slaves would be better off with the new capability to purchase their freedom and slave owners would be better off every time they sold a slave into freedom. The policy would make everyone better off, even though morality requires censure and punishment for slave owners and a great deal of compensation and apology for former slaves.

This is an extreme case, but it differs mainly in magnitude rather than qualitative difference from a system of closed borders where some people are coerced by violence and threats of violence to live where they are told by those who wield political power over them. Where there is great injustice, there is ample room for Pareto improvement. Keyhole policies are often offered to compensate losers from a proposal, but in the case of opening borders, the “losers” are merely losing unfair advantages accruing to the unjust status quo of closed borders. In his essay, the Case for Open Immigration (found in this volume, ungated here), Chandran Kukathas discusses closed borders in terms of the rents they provide to native workers.

While it is true that the burdens and benefits of immigration do not fall evenly or equitably on all members of a host society, open borders are defensible nonetheless for a number of reasons. First, it has to be asked why it must be assumed that locals are entitled to the benefits they enjoy as people who have immediate access to particular markets. As residents or citizens, these people enjoy the rents they secure by virtue of an arrangement that excludes others from entering a particular market. Such arrangements are commonplace in every society, and indeed in the world as whole. Often those who find a resource to exploit, or a demand which they are particularly able to fulfill, are unable to resist the temptation to ensure that they enjoy the gains to be had in exploiting that resource or fulfilling that demand by preventing others from doing the same. Yet it is unclear that there is any principle that can justify granting to some persons privileged access to such rents. To be sure, many of the most egregious examples of rent-seeking (and rent-protecting) behavior are to be found in the activities of capitalist firms and industries. But this does not make such activity defensible, since it serves simply to protect the well-off from having to share the wealth into which they have tapped with those who would like to secure a little of that same wealth for themselves.

Open borders diluted by surtaxes and fines levied to further swaddle citizens of rich countries in protectionism are better than closed borders, but they do not constitute optimal policy. Advocates of open borders should acknowledge that keyhole policies are essentially bribes offered to political gatekeepers. Keyhole policies are tunable along a continuum, so without acknowledging that keyhole policies are compromises of principle, it’s possible to slip from reasonable keyhole solutions to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Consider Nathan’s taxation-without-representation example above. DRITI admirably includes a pathway to citizenship, which would extend voting rights to citizens in a reasonable amount of time. I find a few years waiting period for citizenship unobjectionable, as temporary migrants have little at stake politically. But the keyhole condition could be extended. David Henderson has proposed a twenty year waiting period before immigrants can become citizens and vote. Long before twenty years are up, an immigrant will have established deep roots in his community, perhaps with children in school, ties to a church or other community organization, deep knowledge of the local culture and customs, as well as an understanding of the political issues of the day, many of which will pertain to him. Restricting an immigrant from voting for this long is too high a price to pay for misguided fears that immigrants will vote the “wrong way”. (Incidentally, I have never seen a restrictionist concerned about deleterious immigrant voting suggest that we focus instead on increasing the voter turnout among citizens, a goal which seems more consistent with the democratic values they presumably aim to protect from immigrants.)

But voting is not the only way of affecting politics, and arguably it’s one of the least important. By keyhole logic, a more effective “solution” to destructive political influence by immigrants would be to bar them from political speech and participation in political advocacy groups or groups known to lobby politicians. A keyhole policy curtailing migrants’ civil liberties this drastically would put core freedoms on the political table, undermining the values of the very system restrictionists claim to want to protect. Perhaps a government database system similar to E-Verify could be devised to ensure that only full citizens could join political advocacy organizations, which would of course need to be registered.

In a thought-provoking post, John Roccia considered the possibility that immigrants should swallow their pride and debase themselves if it makes them more palatable as immigrants to the intended host country.

Blaming a woman for getting raped, a black man for getting wrongfully arrested, or a foreigner for not being allowed to immigrate and you’re seen as uncompassionate at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. But isn’t that just the sin of pride all over again? What if there really was something that the woman could have done to avoid her fate, the black man to avoid the arrest, and the foreigner to make immigration easier? Is it wrong to theorize about what the victim might do differently, if the end result is fewer rapes, fewer wrongful arrests, and more immigration?

I’ll avoid the specifics on the other example topics, but what if there was something that foreigners could do to make allowing them to immigrate more politically viable? Even if it was something humiliating or demeaning, something that would infuriate anyone with even an ounce of pride? Just as a hypothetical: Imagine that there was a small town in a third-world country where almost everyone wanted to emigrate to America. And imagine that as part of their campaign for acceptance, they turned their whole town into a mock-suburbia; they wore American-style clothes, ate American-style food, baked apple pie and played baseball, spoke English exclusively and maybe even learned to fake a Midwestern drawl. Imagine that they renamed their streets after American presidents, got rid of all of their religious materials (except Christian, of course), said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and even wore makeup to disguise their skin tone.

John calls this victim blaming and spares no expense in assuring readers he finds the idea appalling. The danger of this line of thinking is that it implicitly reinforces the idea that foreigners have no right to immigrate, that their presence is a privilege granted at the whim of natives. I know that’s not the intention of the post. The intention is to illustrate that the gains from immigration for the immigrants are potentially so huge that it is worth it to try to satisfy the unsavory demands of natives, who effectively do control the ability of foreigners to immigrate. As a thought experiment in how far one is willing to take consequentialism, the point is taken. But as advice for the way forward, I believe it misses the mark. Immigrants themselves do have a role to play in changing migration policy, but that role involves exercising their rights by civil disobedience, not meekly prostrating themselves before the natives who loathe them.

A related point is that an extensive keyhole regime, where certain rights and entitlements due other individuals are withheld or acknowledged only contingently, creates conditions of exploitation. Following Matt Zwolinski, I define exploitation as “taking advantage of another person in a way that is unfair or degrading,” usually involving “a person in a position of power interacting with a person in a position of vulnerability, and using that power differential to benefit himself at the expense of his victim.” I would add that exploitation is made possible when the victim has only a very limited number of options.

If an immigrant’s legal right to live in a host country is limited by the keyhole condition that he must be vouched for by an employer and must maintain continuous employment, then the employer wields greater power over the immigrant than over native workers. Likewise, an immigrant is ripe for exploitation if his admittance or continued legal right to reside in the host country depends on the discretion of consular officers, although in the US at least this situation seems to result in arbitrary visa denials rather than extraction of bribes or the like. In a keyhole regime like DRITI that includes heavy tariffs or surtaxes, an immigrant is not just in danger of exploitation: the immigrant is in fact exploited. The host state takes advantage of the immigrant in a way that is unfair compared to the treatment of natives; the host state can do this given its position of extraordinary power over the immigrant, who is made vulnerable by his extremely limited options of either continuing to live in a poor country with few realistic opportunities for advancing attractive life goals or else migrating somewhere there are higher wages and better quality of life, albeit under the caprices of a state with few incentives to treat him with human decency. It is still exploitation even though the immigrant is made better off. Zwolinski again (with his own italics),

Classical liberals can and should, however, take pain to distinguish between two forms of exploitation: exploitation that is mutually beneficial, and exploitation that is harmful. Both involve someone taking unfair advantage of another. But in one case, both parties come away from the transaction better off than they would have been without it. In the other, the exploiting party comes away with more, the exploited with less.

An exchange can be mutually beneficial and yet unfair or degrading. If you are drowning in a lake, and I row by on the only canoe in sight, it is morally wrong of me to make my rescue of you contingent upon your signing over the deed to your house. Granted, you would be better off taking my deal than passing it up. But it’s wrong for me to offer it nevertheless. I should – and I suspect most of you would – perform the rescue for free.

The closed borders of the world represent the lake in which the global poor are left to drown. Keyhole policies are the exploitative conditions offered for rescue. Of course, the analogy as is doesn’t quite fit, because migrants are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. Immigration restrictions instead are the violent obstruction of the migrants’ self-rescue. So it doesn’t matter that immigrants stand to gain from keyhole policies; the policies are still exploitative, and therefore still immoral.

This ethical evaluation stands apart from the utilitarian question of whether “open” borders plus keyhole policies are better than closed borders (they probably are for all but the most sadistic keyhole policies). The point is rather to caution against believing that keyhole border regimes are in some way socially optimal. Real open borders, where an individual, regardless of where she happened to be born, can choose where in the world she wants to live, is the only moral border regime. Keyhole policies are at best ethical compromises. Compromises, even ethical compromises, are often necessary in political matters, but we should mince no words in naming them what they are.

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.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

Ghost nations and the end of emigration

One of the more interesting studies that Paul Collier discussed in his new book was this one by Frederic Docquier et al, which applies a general equilibrium analysis to the impact of outward skill flow (“brain drain”) on different regions. While the skill outflow is typically viewed as directly detrimental to a poor nation that needs all the skills it can find, it also has several indirect mechanisms that are beneficial to economic growth. These include stimulating education and skill development (people want to emulate the successful emigrants), decreasing the transaction costs of cross-border investments, facilitating the diffusion of technology, and of course, financial remittances, among other effects. In folksier language, many of these indirect effects of emigration amount to plugging the country into the global network. One of the results of this study was that small nations that have already experienced significant emigration of skilled workers fare the worst in the short-to-medium term from yet more skill outflow.

Collier uses this result, along with his model of non-equilibrium diaspora effects I described in my last post, to portray small, poor countries as the worst losers of increasing global migration. Indeed, he expresses the worry that poor, small nations will empty out entirely, and the world as a whole stands to lose from this. In a world of open borders, it seems plausible that this could indeed happen. There is a ready analogy with ghost towns, which exist even in advanced economies. In his excellent book, Let Their People Come (or see this page on this site), economist Lant Pritchett discusses how various shocks or other natural economic phenomena can—if people are able to move—result in ghost towns. An example would be a mining town built up during a gold rush.

[First], people do not want to be there; then gold is discovered, and many people want to be there; and then, when the gold is mined out, people want to leave. The existence of “ghost towns” even in prospering countries—places that were once booming and attracting migration that subsequently declined and even disappeared—suggest that there is variability to optimal populations.

Especially with small populations where the labor supply is experiencing economic pull from other places offering higher wages, open borders could evaporate entire peoples away from their original homelands. This has the makings of an interesting argument against open borders, but it isn’t clear to me how much force it has. The first thing to consider is that, as a national population is split up into many different nations throughout the world, there would be significant pressure on individuals to assimilate, for all the usual reasons. Let’s call our hypothetical small and poor nation Elbonia (from the Dilbert universe). Despite Collier’s fears, the historical tendency is for the descendants of immigrants to eventually blend into the rest of the population. If roughly all Elbonians leave Elbonia so that Elbonia can no longer meaningfully be said to exist, then this blending into host populations means there’s a high probability the Elbonian culture will wither and die over a few generations. A potential cost of open borders then is the death of some cultures.

The tragedy of this should be given its due. One of the most poignant arguments I’ve heard for preserving the ability of a people to restrict immigration came from David Miller in his essay Immigration: The Case for Limits (found in this volume), where he discusses the possible impacts of immigration on language. His essay is about immigration and host societies, but similar arguments should obtain for emigration and sending (or evaporating) societies, possibly with even greater force.

Consider the example of language. In many states today the national language is under pressure from the spread of international languages, especially English. People have an incentive to learn and use one of the international languages for economic and other purposes, and so there is a danger that the national language will wither away over the course of two or three generations. If this were to happen, one of the community’s most important distinguishing characteristics would have disappeared, its literature would become inaccessible except in translation, and so forth.

A people dispersing into many different nations and eventually assimilating will likely lose their language. The only literature that will survive will be whatever pieces already warranted translation into more international languages. This is a loss not only to that people but to the whole world as well. Miller goes on to discuss other aspects of culture that would be at risk if significant immigration were allowed (or emigration, in our case).

There is an internal relationship between a nation’s culture and its physical shape–its public and religious buildings, the pattern of the landscape, and so forth. People feel at home in a place in part because they can see that their surroundings bear the imprint of past generations whose values were recognizably their own. This doesn’t rule out cultural change, but again it gives a reason for wanting to stay in control of the process–for teaching children to value their cultural heritage and to regard themselves as having a responsibility to preserve the parts of it that are worth preserving, for example. The “any public culture will do” position ignores this internal connection between the cultural and physical features of the community.

Here the case is even sharper for an emigrating society than for a host society. After all, a host society accepting immigrants will at least retain its historical architecture and its landmarks while its legal and cultural institutions retain the survival advantage of inertia. Something clearly is lost when a culture disappears, or at least this seems to be the popular intuition (which I endorse). We think of a genocide as somehow even more evil than “mere” murder of a large number of disconnected people. The probes of anthropologists among indigenous peoples are as delicate as they are for a reason, even though it’s at least arguable that imposing modernity upon hunter-gatherer tribes could do those people some utilitarian good. We recognize there is something sad about the fact that past civilizations like the Mayans or the Romans are no longer with us, though of course it isn’t as if the Mayans and Romans were all killed. Those civilizations merely evolved with their decline or were absorbed into other civilizations. I suspect we feel nostalgic for the past in part because we see in the past aspects of our culture that are no longer with us.

Collier makes this argument against emigration explicitly in his book, tipping his hat to environmental economists for introducing the concept of “existence value”, whereby we gain value from something existing, even if we never see or interact with it.

[While] you may never see a panda, your life is enhanced by the knowledge that it exists somewhere on the planet. We do not want species to become extinct. Societies also have existence value, arguably far more so than species and not just for their members but for others. American Jews value the continued existence of Israel, even though they may never go there. Similarly, millions around the world value Mali, the ancient society that produced Timbuktu. Neither Israel nor Mali must be preserved in aspic: they are living societies. But Mali should develop, not empty. It is not a satisfactory solution to Malian poverty if its people should all become prosperous elsewhere.

Here again I agree that societies have existence value. But there are other considerations as well. It’s clear in the passage above that preserving a nation for the sake of preserving its culture for world heritage is fundamentally an aesthetic endeavour. Aesthetics can of course be very important, but it is strange to deploy the very coercive measures involved with migration control in order to achieve an aesthetic goal. No one would consider it acceptable to forbid artists from working in other (more highly remunerative) industries on the justification that artists, for their own good and ours, should really focus on making art. It matters significantly that an emptying nation and the resulting disappearance of its culture does not involve anyone actively destroying culture. Voluntary emigration is very different from the Taliban blasting ancient Buddha statues to rubble.

Preserving culture for world heritage imposes an unfair and extremely heavy burden on those individuals who choose to leave their societies of origin. The existence value of Elbonian culture is an example of a beneficial externality of Elbonians merely living their lives as Elbonians. The potential migrants are paying the price of preserving their culture for outsiders, and immigration restrictions amount to forcing those migrants to subsidize the rest of the world by maintaining their culture. The fact that it runs against the migrants’ revealed preferences for opting out of their culture suggests this subsidy is bloody expensive. It’s a bitter irony that the high toll exacted from would-be migrants in the form of stifled opportunities will likely not even succeed. Culture will just go on changing anyway.

“It is not a satisfactory solution to Malian poverty if its people should all become prosperous elsewhere” seems an absurd statement at first glance. After all, if Malians really are becoming prosperous, then there is no more Malian poverty and therefore no problem. Of course the implicit comparison is not prosperity-through-emigration versus the present underdeveloped condition of Mali, but instead prosperity-through-emigration versus prosperity-through-national-development. But a Malian can increase his living standards in a matter of months by emigrating. Even under the rosiest imaginings of development economists, an individual Malian would need to wait for decades for his nation to offer him opportunities to achieve prosperity comparable to employment opportunities in the developed world.

The assessment that the emigration solution to poverty is not satisfactory is just another way of saying that some level of persisting poverty is a price worth paying to keep a nation together and whole. I have granted that preserving culture is indeed valuable, so this is true enough. Stated again more vividly: some level of poverty is justified in order to prevent a language from disappearing from the face of the earth, in order to keep old and cherished customs alive, to preserve literature and music and dances and traditional festivals and even popular knowledge of a nation’s history. The question becomes how much poverty for how long? And who decides? The evaluation of the price of keeping a nation on life-support is ultimately subjective, with culture being more or less important to different individuals. For some, the ability to easily keep traditions alive will be worth foregoing lucrative opportunities in strange and scary lands. For others, being able to feed their families more easily will outweigh sentimental considerations of tradition. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that some individuals may not even particularly like the societies they were born in, and shedding the confines of their conservative native cultures is an act of self-actualization and liberation (imagine being a gay atheist in, say, Uganda). It certainly isn’t clear that the assessments of political leaders academics in either the rich world or the poor world should outrank the personal decisions of migrants and their families, whose lives are most impacted by emigration.

But continuing poverty is not the only price being paid to keep the nation together. The cost that often goes unmentioned is the coercion required to prevent people from moving. Even Collier recognizes that a national government cannot ethically restrict emigration of its own people. But if other nations close their borders to migrants for the purpose of preserving the emigrants’ culture, then the unethical restriction on migration has merely been outsourced. From the perspective of the aspiring migrant, it doesn’t matter in the slightest who is behind the guns preventing her from crossing a border. The restriction of freedom is a cost in and of itself.

Loss of indigenous culture is in some cases potentially a real cost of open borders. This should be recognized. But acknowledging this cost leaves one still very far from balancing the high human costs accruing to curtailing the free movement of people.

Paul Collier’s Exodus and the risks of migrant diasporas

Paul Collier, a professor of economics at Oxford University and author of The Bottom Billion, among other recent popular works, believes that, unless checked by unbiased, data-driven policies in the rich world, immigration from the global South to the global North will accelerate to point where both the rich and the poor worlds are harmed by it. In his new book, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World, Collier describes a model of how large and persistent diasporas can fuel immigration, namely by lowering the natural barriers to migration (a diaspora is a little more like home). Moreover, his model predicts that, absent migration controls, there is no natural equilibrium point; i.e., immigration will continue to add to the diaspora community and the growing diaspora will catalyze more and more immigration.

Given his model, one of Collier’s concerns is that immigration from poor countries will involve “settling” diasporas of immigrants who have anti-social norms and low levels of trust. Indeed low trust and bad norms go a long way in explaining why those countries are poor in the first place, and by settling in the rich world without assimilating, the poor will keep their anti-social norms and risk spreading them to the host population as well.

Throughout reading Exodus, it seemed as if Collier had forgotten what he wrote in the Bottom Billion. In that book, he identified several “traps” that hindered substantial social and economic progress in the poorest countries. The poorest countries usually suffer from a cocktail of these traps. But it isn’t until near the end of the book that he mentions these causes of persistent poverty.

The underlying difference in incomes between rich and poor societies is due to differences in their social models. If Mali had a similar social model to France and maintained it for several decades, it would have a similar level of income. The persistence of differences in income is not inherent to differences in geography. Of course, differences in geography matter: Mali is landlocked and it is dry, both of which make prosperity more difficult. But both have been made more of a handicap than they need to be. Being landlocked is greatly compounded by the fact that Mali’s neighbors also have dysfunctional social models: the war currently raging in Mali is a direct spillover of the collapse of Mali’s neighbor Libya. Being dry is made more difficult by heavy reliance upon agriculture: Dubai is even drier, but it has diversified into a prosperous service economy where the lack of rainfall is of no consequence.

This is not to say that the problems Collier highlights in his newest book aren’t real. I reckon they are, and he provides a useful discussion of some research on trust levels of different societies, citing, for example, a study showing differences between countries of the strategies adopted in cooperative games. But it seems, given his own previous contributions to the understanding of global poverty, that social models are but one facet of the problem. It also seems difficult to tease apart cause and effect in the relationship of trust and the structure of institutions. It is plausible that a large influx of unassimilated low-trust immigrants could impair the smooth functioning of institutions requiring social trust. But it also seems appropriate (or at least strategic) that low-trust norms would arise in environments that lack strong institutions of markets and private property.

Related to the problem of low-trust immigrants is the effect that greater diversity may have on trust in the host society. Collier offers several anecdotes about how the social norms of immigrants from poor countries can lower trust among all parties in society. The anecdotes are typically news stories where immigrants have committed crimes and, instead of condemning the criminals, the immigrant community and its advocates among the indigenous protect the criminals. In such cases, he characterizes the advocates as “supervillains” who damage societal cohesion more than even the anti-social criminals themselves. In the cooperation games I mentioned above, prevalence of defending bad behavior (punishing the agents who themselves punish uncooperative behavior) makes cooperative strategies unstable. Collier frets that punishment of antisocial behavior among immigrants will be viewed as discrimination, and condemnation of behavior misconstrued as discrimination is dangerous to social cohesion.

For all the pages he spends on these dire warnings, he scarcely acknowledges at all that honest-to-goodness discrimination actually exists. The flip side of bleeding heart indigenous liberals and clan-first immigrants defending co-ethnic criminals is indigenous authorities implementing policies that discriminate against minorities. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, in defending “Stop-and-Frisk” policies disproportionately directed at black and Hispanic males and promoting police spying on Muslim communities, is a supervillain every bit as threatening to social trust as any of Collier’s defenders of bad immigrants.

It was interesting to read such a negative view of the functioning of migrant diasporas, having just read (and written about) Robert Guest’s book.  In Collier’s view, a migrant diaspora is something that will quickly grow out of control and possibly begin to etch away at the norms and attitudes that keep society cooperative. In other words, diasporas can hinder the formation of social bonds within society. Guest, by contrast, tries to illustrate that far-flung diasporas can facilitate the formation of social bonds between societies. I am ultimately unconvinced by Collier’s depiction of diasporas as entities to be feared, largely because the incentives to fit in with the host society are extremely powerful, examples abound of host societies coping perfectly well with large diasporas (especially in America), and most importantly, I view immigrants as just regular folks trying to get by. But even supposing Collier is right that large diasporas can hurt intrasocietal bond formation, I would be inclined to view Guest’s intersocietal bond formation story as the more important of the two. I suspect the world faces a greater deficit of international goodwill than it does of intranational goodwill.

Collier’s actual policy proposals do not favor restricting immigration altogether, but aim to reduce the flow of immigrants by dispersing and absorbing diasporas.

A fit-for-purpose migration policy therefore adopts a range of strategies designed to increase the absorption of diasporas. The government cracks down hard on racism and discrimination on the part of the indigenous population. It adopts Canadian-style policies of requiring geographic dispersion of migrants. It adopts America-in-the-1970s-style policies of integrating schools, imposing a ceiling on the percentage of pupils from diasporas. It requires migrants to learn the indigenous language and provides the resources that make this feasible. It also promotes the symbols and ceremonies of common citizenship.

One can clearly see that Collier isn’t a hardcore restrictionist. He even suggests legalizing immigrants as guest workers, partly as a way to reduce the costs of having large numbers of immigrants living in the shadows. Some of the policies proposed here are rather coercive, and limit the very freedoms of movement and association that form the core of my open borders position, yet they are similar in spirit to some of the keyhole policies discussed elsewhere on this site.  And fundamentally, Collier does not want to end immigration, but only to slow–by technocratic means–the acceleration of immigration he foresees. It is perhaps a sobering assessment of the state of world migration policy that, if Collier’s favored policies were implemented globally, it would represent an improvement on the status quo.

The economics of diasporas

In Borderless Economics: Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges, and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism, Robert Guest trots out a lot of the usual arguments for reducing barriers to migration, breezily surveying the evidence of the economic benefits to the host nations and especially to the immigrants themselves. Guest does a thorough job of this and his casual style with liberal dashes of his gentle British humor makes this book one of the best out there for the lay reader who wants an introduction to the subject.

Where Guest really contributes is describing the ways migration enhances the processes of globalization. Obviously the movement of people between nations is itself a fundamental aspect of globalization. But migration also facilitates the movement of goods and ideas across borders (the other facets of globalization). It does this by creating channels of increased trust and local knowledge across borders.

Guest focuses quite a bit of attention on China, noting that with ~60 million Chinese abroad the Chinese diaspora is one of the biggest. The emerging importance of China on the world economic stage is a well-chewed over topic. But doing business in and with China is not necessarily a simple matter.

The overseas Chinese serve as a bridge for foreigners who wish to do business in China. They understand the local business culture. They know whom to trust. In a country where the rule of law is, to put it mildly, uncertain, that knowledge can be the difference between success and failure. Studies show that American firms that employ lots of Chinese Americans find it much easier to set up operations in China without the crutch of a joint venture with a local firm.

This fits with what we know about trade patterns between countries. The stronger the cultural ties between two nations, the more they trade with each other. Pankaj Ghemawat, of IESE Business School in Spain, calculates that two otherwise identical countries will trade with each other 42 percent more if they share a common language and 188 percent more if they have a common colonial past.

Trust is a key ingredient to all economic exchange because trading with others involves uncertainty that your trading partner will follow through with their part of the bargain. Diasporas in other nations allow you to interact with people you have a common history and cultural understanding with, reducing the trust barrier. Guest provides an example of a Nigerian factory owner, Dr. Obidigbo, who purchases capital equipment from firms in China.

Dr. Obidigbo travels to China from time to time, but he does not speak the language and he cannot fly halfway round the world every time he wants to buy a new soap machine. So he relies on the Nigerian diaspora to connect him to Chinese suppliers. When he wants to inspect a product he has seen on the Internet, to make sure that it is exactly what he wants, he asks a Nigerian agent in China to go look at it. He has met several such people at trade fairs in China. They are all from Dr. Obidigbo’s tribe, the Ibos.

Advocates of open borders are often accused–sometimes fairly–of being rootless cosmopolitans, idealists who fail to recognize the reality of the strong ties people have to their nations, ethnic groups, and coreligionists. Guest readily acknowledges these strong ties; indeed the ability of these social bonds to survive separation by distance and borders is the very heart of his analysis. Migration skeptics will likely appreciate this nod toward ethnic bonds, but the flip side of this is incomplete–or perhaps merely retarded–assimilation. One flavor of arguments against permitting large numbers of (especially unskilled or lower class) immigrants suggests they do not assimilate to the culture of the host society quickly enough, or possibly at all. The idea is that if host countries must accept immigrants, then those immigrants should do their best to adopt the host culture, rather than keeping one foot in their old home and one foot in their new home. There is possibly a tension then between the desire for immigrants to assimilate and the desire to maximize the economic rewards of immigrants who straddle borders. This tension applies to migration enthusiasts as well, who may be tempted to dismiss too quickly concerns about immigrant assimilation: one must tread carefully when arguing on the one hand that immigrants all eventually assimilate and on the other hand that the greatest economic benefits they lend to their new home involves their maintaining contacts with their old homes.

Migration is not all about economics, of course. Migrants bring ideas with them across borders and, keeping in touch with their homelands as Guest describes, they send new ideas back.

History provides many examples of returnees swaying politics. Vladimir Lenin plotted the Russian revolution while exiled in Munich, London and Geneva. Many of the leaders of South Africa’s antiapartheid struggle agitated from safe havens in Britain or Zambia. One of them, Thabo Mbeki, later became president. Between the cold war years of 1958 and 1988, some 50,000 Soviet citizens visited America through cultural exchange programs. Nearly all were members of the cultural, scientific or intellectual elite. Upon returning, they brought with them ideas and attitudes that helped to pave the way for glasnost–and ultimately, the collapse of the Soviet Union. Migrants are “agents of democratic diffusion,” as Clarisa Perez-Armendariz, of the University of Texas, who has written a study on the subject, puts it.
As Guest illustrates with his examples, some ideas are good and some ideas are bad (at least, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Russia would have fared better had the emigrant V. I. Lenin severed ties with his erstwhile home). This is an example of migration being double-edged, and migration skeptics could leap on this, pointing to the danger of immigrant ideas. There is such danger, and Guest even includes a chapter on bad ideas that thrive on the tribal networking he describes, including religious extremism and crime rings. But Guest’s primary point is that migration, via diaspora networks, facilitates the flow of all commerce and information, good and bad. He argues throughout the other chapters of his book that the good of this greater flow vastly outweighs the bad. I concur, though the reasons for my optimism are too many and varied to delve into for this post. Basically, I think humanity is the ultimate resource, and the logic of human interaction leads us to favor cooperation over conflict.