All posts by Sebastian Nickel

Sebastian Nickel is a software developer and researcher in the field of Machine Learning, an offshoot of Artificial Intelligence. He holds a degree in mathematics, computer science, and physics from the Open University, as well as a degree in psychology from the Université Paris 8. He is a citizen to both Germany and Switzerland, was born and raised in Luxembourg, and currently lives in Berlin.

Update on the Open Philanthropy Project’s Work on Migration Liberalisation

[A draft of this post was reviewed by Alexander Berger, Program Officer for US Policy at the Open Philanthropy Project, and a number of changes were made to it based on his comments and corrections.]

UPDATE: The Open Philanthropy Project now has a page linking to their grants, conversations and other material related to immigration policy. Most of the Open Phil material on that page as of the time of publication of this post is discussed in this post.

As I start drafting this, it’s been exactly one year since my overview of the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on migration liberalisation was published on this blog. It’s time for an update, and the developments over the last year deserve a post of their own.

Lightning-speed recap: The Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil) is a joint venture of the charity evaluator GiveWell and the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures. Good Ventures is in charge of donating Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz’s wealth of several billion dollars over the lifetime of Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, and its operations are overseen by Tuna. In contrast with GiveWell’s focus on identifying charities that can provide clear evidence of outstanding effectiveness, Open Phil investigates and funds work on charitable causes for which effectiveness is not as easily measured. Among the handful of focus areas chosen for their estimated positive potential, migration liberalisation has been given a prominent role from the beginning, and it has been and continues to be ranked among the most important causes involving US policy change.

My previous roundup described four grants that were awarded for specific projects aimed at furthering this cause. Extensive updates on three of those projects have since been published on Open Phil’s website, and two entirely new migration-related projects have been awarded grants. That’s six projects in total, which I will cover in this order:

  • Center for Global Development: Policy research and advocacy work
  • U.S. Association for International Migration, International Organization for Migration, and Protect the People: Increasing the availability of H-2 working visas for Haitian lower-skill workers
  • ImmigrationWorks: Advocacy work focusing on lower-skill migration to the US

The last grant described in last year’s roundup is neither about international migration nor about policy, and is more closely associated with GiveWell than with Open Phil:

  • Evidence Action: Empirical research on the scalability of seasonal migration subsidies, with hopes of creating a new Top Charity

And the two newcomers:

  • Niskanen Center: Research on immigration policy
  • New York University: A comparatively small grant to help fund a randomised controlled trial on the “comprehensive returns” of guest worker migration

Continue reading “Update on the Open Philanthropy Project’s Work on Migration Liberalisation” »

Angela Merkel and the crying refugee, and the search for a human face of the costs of migration restrictions

A video showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel responding to a young Palestinian refugee has received a lot of attention in the press and in the social media last week. Reem Sahwil, a teenage girl whose family still faces the threat of deportation after four years in Germany, described her situation in some detail and eventually started crying on the air, prompting Ms Merkel to try to comfort her, all the while staying firm in her defense of the policies that have been causing Reem so much grief.

Most of the responses I’ve seen were critical of Angela Merkel, often describing her as cold hearted and her response as clumsy and insulting.

This sort of incident may be a strategic godsend for the cause of free(r) migration.  In the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook, Sam Dumitriu suggests that “More situations like this should be engineered to make the costs of closed borders salient.”

The largely critical response also seems encouraging. As Andy Hallman pointed out in another Facebook thread, it’s not far fetched to imagine how commenters could have instead been “flippant about the little girl’s suffering”.

The great news is that a much more commonly expressed response has been anger at the unjust treatment of this young girl. The not so great news is that a lot, if not most, of the criticism focuses not on the policies, but on morally trivial aspects of Ms Merkel’s interaction with Reem.

What happened

An 88 minute long program was filmed on the 15th of July, which shows Chancellor Merkel talking politics with 29 teenage students of a school in Rostock. At one point the moderator passed the microphone to Reem Sawhil, asking her to tell her story. Reem explained that she is a Palestinian who had moved to Germany from Lebanon four years ago. She has found it easy to assimilate as people have been nice to her at her school and she likes her new home, but she has recently become aware that other young refugees have a much harder time.

Ms Merkel complimented her for her flawless German, and Reem explained that she loves languages and has also greatly enjoyed learning English as well as some Swedish, and that she will take up French next year.

Reem then explained that her family still had not received a residence permit, and that her father remains banned from working in Germany. Probably in anticipation of Reem’s participation in the TV program, her family members had started asking why it is that foreigners aren’t allowed to work as easily as Germans, and Reem had tried and failed to find any answers.

She then explained that her family had recently gone through a rough time, as they had been on the verge of being deported. Reem said she had been feeling very bad and that her teachers and friends had all noticed. Ms Merkel asked what the current situation was, and Reem explained that they had received permission to stay for the time being after some bureaucratic hoop jumping, but were still waiting to hear back from the immigration authorities. She then said how much she misses her family members whom she has not been able to see in four years.

Ms Merkel explained that the policies in place require that the authorities examine whether refugees have a legitimate reason to want political asylum. She said that policy makers have recently been discussing the issue of refugees being found to have an insufficient claim to asylum only after having spent several years in Germany while waiting for the authorities to make a decision. Here she asked Reem whether she had come to Lebanon from Syria, which Reem said was not the case. She then explained that, while Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps were clearly not well off, many other people live in political circumstances that are even worse, especially people in war zones. She repeated that it is a serious problem that refugees in Germany often have to wait for a decision for such a long time, and stated that measures to make this procedure faster are now under way. She added that they would not let all refugees from Lebanon in since they have to prioritise for people who come directly from war zones.

Reem then said she has a great desire to study in university, and she finds it tough watching her friends enjoy their lives and prospects while the uncertainty about her future deprives her of such enjoyment.

Ms Merkel said she understands this, but that she cannot simply grant her wishes. Politics can be tough, she said. And while she happened to be face to face with Reem at that time, and Reem happens to be an extremely likable person, there were thousands upon thousands of other people in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that if “we” told those people they can all come, “we wouldn’t be able to handle it”. The only answer they can offer, she said, is to make sure the procedure does not take so long.  But, she repeated, many would have to go back, too.

The moderator then suggested to Ms Merkel that she remember Reem’s face and hold it in memory when making policy decisions on these issues. He asked her how quickly the authorities’ decision would be reached in the future, and Ms Merkel started telling him that she thinks the vast majority of cases that have been pending for more than two years would be processed within one year from now. I know this is what she went for saying because she stated it later in the program, but here she stopped mid sentence as she noticed Reem was crying.

She then walked up to her and stroked her back, telling her she had done great – suggesting, perhaps, that she took her crying to be from nervousness after having opened up on television. The moderator said he didn’t think it was about how well she’d done but about the toughness of her situation. Ms Merkel said she knew it was a tough situation, and that she nonetheless wanted to stroke her because “we” do not want to force people like Reem into such situations, and because Reem has it hard, but also because Reem had described so well, for very many other people, the sort of situation one can end up in.

What else happened

On the 10th of July (five days prior), a set of new laws had been passed, pursuant to which Reem will very likely be able to stay in Germany. These laws may not protect her parents from deportation, however, and also aim at deporting more refugees more quickly in the future. They also state that refugees can be incarcerated for up to four days prior to deportation.

As outraged responses started pouring through the web, a few articles stating that Reem was speaking up in defense of Ms Merkel appeared. They linked to a brief video in which Reem stated: “She listened to me, and she stated her opinion, and I think that’s fine.”

My comments

I think Ms Merkel has been unfairly accused, by very many commenters, of having been very harsh toward Reem in this encounter. And, in solidarity let’s say, I will begin my comments with some harshness of my own.

Obviously Reem is in a difficult situation, and I think the policies that put her in this situation are severely immoral. She has the right to live in any housing that a landowner agrees to rent or sell to her or her family, and her father has the right to work any job an employer or customer agrees to pay him to do (as does Reem, for that matter). Violating these rights without sufficient justification is wrong.

Yet, if we’re looking for a representative human face for the receiving side of the cruelty of migration restrictions, that face is not Reem’s. Reem is far too well off.

If you think to say this is to belittle the toughness of Reem’s situation, ask yourself whether you may be belittling the hardship of the many millions of people who have it far worse than her.

Hans Koss defended Ms Merkel against many of her recent critics in a similar vein:

The policies might be wrong in different ways, but I think that the idea to completely abolish any prioritization (currently Syria > L[e]banon > Albania) is more wrong; I believe that the capacities should be increased, but as long as the capacities are not unlimited (and that simply won’t happen – and if so, soon after that a party would be elected which drastically reduces it), prioritization is better than no prioritization. I believe that the debate is overemotionalized, which is bad for the refugees; I think it is remarkable how Merkel addresses the topic of prioritization in an honest way after having [made sure] that the girl is currently not in a desperate situation.

Many of the widely circulated criticisms of how Ms Merkel conducted herself strike me as blatantly unfair. E.g. the Daily Mail reports that

Jan Schnorrenberg, manager of the opposition Green party’s youth wing, wrote: ‘Explaining to a young girl on live camera that her fate doesn’t matter to you – just shameful.’

Ms Merkel did no such thing.

The guardian reports that

But she was forced to stop mid-sentence, and muttered “oh Gott”, on seeing that Reem was crying.

Did the author mishear? She did not mutter “oh Gott”.

But a much more important point about many such criticisms is that, even if they were fair, they would be unimportant. Had Ms Merkel actually lost her composure, or been particularly clumsy, or had she actually been cold or condescending toward Reem, even, those things would not be worth a fraction of the outrage so many have invested in these accusations.

Has Ms Merkel done anything wrong? Yes. She defended immoral policies. But note that these policies have been around for many decades. There’s no news here. Note, also, that these policies are overwhelmingly supported among the electorate.  They’re not exactly her doing. And when she says that “we wouldn’t be able to handle” a massive inflow of immigrants, that statement can be quite reasonably defended on the basis that so many natives might respond to this inflow in seriously disruptive ways. (E.g. see reports of arson attacks and shootings here and here.) Spare some blame for those less prestigious agents of representative democracy, too.

When billions of foreigners have been victimised by the restrictionist policies of (far) more tolerable countries for such a long time, why make such a big deal out of Reem? In many cases, the reasons may well involve territorialism: Foreigners enjoy a lot more sympathy with respect to their desire to immigrate once they’ve already settled in the receiving country, even if they did so illegally. That Reem has been living in Germany for four years is sure to win her a lot of support, even though it also makes her such a “lesser victim” of the policies. The fact that she’s clearly bright and academically ambitious should win her further support from the many people whose pro-immigrant sentiments extend only to highly skilled individuals.

John Lee wrote some great comments in an email replying to my request for thoughts for the present post:

One tension I observe in immigration policy is that a lot of people support harsh policies in principle, but when confronted with the human impacts of their actions, they waver and demand an exception for that specific instance of harshness they’ve encountered. This is especially common on the left — in the US, the left’s reaction to the child asylum-seeker influx was basically spineless, since they refused to meaningfully alter US immigration policy, but demanded lots of exceptions for the children. A somewhat similar response materialised from the compassionate right as well (where they didn’t demand policy changes but offered charitable aid for the children).

The upshot of it is that the most “effective” immigration policies are those which hide away the suffering and harshness. Some of the comments I saw about the Merkel video were to the effect of “Well yes obviously now that she’s integrated into German society they have to let her stay. But that’s why the compassionate thing would have been to prevent refugees like her from ever coming to Germany in the first place.”

He attached this cartoon from The Economist:

For all the problems with the many reactions to the video, I think it’s fabulous that many people at least recognise the cruelty of deportation, at least when it’s given a likable human face, at least when that face belongs to someone who’s already put down roots in the receiving country. I hope the video makes a lasting effect in this regard.

Related reading

Note: The featured image of Angela Merkel is from author Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck on WikiMedia Commons and is licensed dually under Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA) and GFDL. You can get more details here.

Overview of the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on migration liberalisation

[A draft of this post was reviewed by Alexander Berger, Program Officer for US Policy at GiveWell, and a number of changes were made to it based on his comments and corrections.]

Charity evaluator GiveWell seeks to identify underfunded charities that can provide clear evidence of positive impact. Making their list of top charities therefore requires that one do good in sufficiently uncomplicated ways, ideally through a straightforward chain of cause and effect. Open borders activism does not fit this description. However, in early 2013, GiveWell (GW) broadened their focus to include less tractable causes through the Open Philanthropy Project, a joint project of GW and the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures (GV). Among a few dozen general causes including criminal justice reform and geoengineering research, “international labor mobility” was put on the agenda no later than in May 2013. This post will give an overview of the work the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP) has done in investigating and funding migration related efforts in the last two years.

A shallow overview of “labor mobility” was posted on GW’s homepage in May 2013. The page credits two specific sources with raising GW and GV researchers’ interest in this cause: Michael Clemens’s article “Economics and Emigration” (the origin of the “double world GDP” estimate), and the conversation that GW and GV staff held with Lant Pritchett in June 2012.

The Open Philanthropy Project’s assessment of free migration as a philanthropic cause

Since the inception of the OPP, the researchers’ stated position has been that labour mobility holds potential for very large gains, mainly in the form of large wage increases for workers who migrate from low-income-countries to high-income-countries. This is in line with Michael Clemens’s argumentation, although the OPP’s position is more guarded in its assessment of the magnitude of the gains, stating little confidence in the output of the relevant models. (Note that Open Borders bloggers have also argued for a lower estimate than Clemens’s.) A back-of-the envelope calculation provided on the GW website nonetheless states that it may be appropriate to consider the “importance” of labor mobility to be in the low trillions of $/year, based on the assumption of 10% as much migration as expected under full liberalisation in the models used by Michael Clemens. Efforts to facilitate legal migration through information sharing and coordination are estimated to hold potential corresponding to hundreds of millions of additional $/year, and the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill is estimated to represent a plausible US policy path that would carry benefits in the low hundreds of billions of $/year for future migrants (these gains would be realised in 2033 had the bill passed in 2013).

Characteristically concerned with room for more funding, the OPP’s assessment considers the extent to which the cause is already crowded by other philanthropic organisations. Policy work concerned with the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the US and with high-skilled labour for US businesses is seen as very crowded. Crucially, however, the OPP’s globalist humanitarian perspective sets it apart from the vast majority of active philanthropists working on US immigration policy, whose focus seems strongly influenced by citizenism and territorialism: The OPP’s focus is primarily on the interest of the immigrants, not on the interests of US employers in search of labour. And their priority lies with low-skilled immigrants, who have the most to gain from labour mobility. And here, the cause is everything but crowded.

The shallow assessment of labour mobility from May 2013 raises the possibility of important downsides of migration liberalisation as requiring research, and takes no position on this side of the issue. A post published in July 2014 states (citing a conversation with Michael Clemens and announcing a forthcoming writeup of the evidence)

our current understanding is that best evidence suggests that both lower- and higher-skill immigration are net beneficial for current residents, though they have somewhat different distributional effects.

On the 3rd of September 2014, Holden Karnofsky posted a draft writeup on the likely impact of increased immigration on current US residents’ wages, which the OPP had commissioned David Roodman to write, stating

We haven’t yet fully vetted this writeup (something we are planning to do), but we believe it gives a thorough and convincing picture of the literature, and provides some reason to believe that immigration is unlikely to result in substantially lower wages (particularly over the long run) for current residents.

(See also Open Borders’ reference page on the potential suppression of wages of natives.)

As for how highly they have prioritised this cause compared with the other philanthropic causes on their list:

An update on the Open Philanthropy Project posted on the GW blog on 26 September 2013 described “deep investigations” of 7 philanthropic causes as a crucial next step, involving proactive grantmaking. Labour mobility is on top of the list.

A much later post from 29 May 2014 on “Potential U.S. policy focus areas” groups labour mobility together with “macroeconomic policy” under the heading “Ambitious longshots: outstanding importance”, and places “deep investigation” of these two causes on top of the agenda, as investigation into the more time-sensitive “criminal justice reform” was being paused at that point in time.

A new Open Philanthropy Project update on US Policy related causes was posted on 10 March 2015. It states:

Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

A spreadsheet linked to from last week’s OPP update explicitly gives “labor mobility” the highest importance out of all OPP causes. (See the  “Importance” column.) Unfortunately, this importance is not reflected by a corresponding number of funding opportunities.

Taking action

Since many of the causes taken on in the Open Philanthropy Project call for policy changes, GW’s and GV’s researchers have investigated expected costs and benefits of policy reform strategies. Vipul has written an Open Borders post about the conversation they’ve held on the topic with Steve Teles, and they have also held two conversations with Mark Schmitt. A series of  blog posts from October and November 2013 outline some general conclusions on policy oriented philanthropy.

As previously mentioned, the “deep investigation” of the causes was to involve proactive grantmaking. A blog post from May 2014 describes how GW’s and GV’s researchers came to adopt this approach:

from observing the behavior of potential grantees and other funders, we came to believe that a funder must be highly prepared (and likely) to make grants in an area in order to find giving opportunities in that area. Many people will only make the relevant referrals, propose relevant ideas, etc. once they are convinced of a philanthropist’s serious interest in providing funding.

The term “Earning to give” is often used in the Effective Altruism community, and I imagine the parallel terminology here is intentional:

“Giving to learn” can mean multiple things. It can mean (a) funding research in order to gain specific knowledge; it can also mean (b) funding a project in order to learn from following the project’s progress. The dynamic laid out in the above bullet points represents perhaps the most counterintuitive meaning: “giving to learn” can mean (c) offering funding in order to learn from the process of finding grantees.

[Update: Alexander Berger tells me the parallelism is not intentional.]

Three grants and one potential top charity

 The Center for Global Development (CGD) was awarded a grant for $1,184,720 over 3 years in March 2014.

This is the nonprofit think tank that employs Michael Clemens. As mentioned above, his publications were important in bringing the issue of labour mobility to GW and GV researchers’ attention.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Michael Clemens had advocated for making Haiti eligible for access to the H-2 temporary work visa program, as an outstandingly effective form of disaster relief. GW and GV researchers estimate that his efforts contributed significantly to the U.S. government’s decision to accept this proposal.

The grant will fund further research by Michael Clemens on “both marginal and more ambitious” changes to migration policy and its possible role in disaster relief. CGD will further use the grant money to launch a Working Group on Designing and Evaluating Bilateral Low-Skill Labor Mobility Agreements between high and low income countries. A Working Group on Creating a Migration-for Development Unit within the US Government will possibly also be launched.

While GW and GV are unsure of the marginal contribution the grant money will make to the CGD’s productivity in this area, they note that Michael Clemens’s work had very few sources of funding.

Follow-up is a crucial part of the  Open Philanthropy Project’s process. The writeup states that they “expect to have a conversation with Dr. Clemens every 3-6 months for the duration of the grant to learn about the status of his research and advocacy efforts, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.”

Notes on a conversation with Michael Clemens held on 21 January 2015 were published last week. Highlights:

Recently, most of Dr. Clemens’ time has been dedicated to three working groups and one study group:

  • A working group on a bilateral labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on creating a migration and development bureau within the U.S. government. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on implementing global skill partnerships. This project is currently stalled, and it is unlikely that CGD will become involved in any global skill partnerships within the next year.

  • The Beyond the Fence study group, focused on the indirect effects of the drug war in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. This group’s work has been fairly light so far.

Some details on the first of those working groups:

The exact output that the working group will produce is itself a subject of discussion. It may decide to produce a document outlining particular features that a practical agreement would require and suggesting research needed. This could build upon current bilateral, interministerial cooperation happening between the U.S. and Mexico.


A primary goal of this group is to design a better system for pairing migrant workers with employers than the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Employers perceive the H-2A program as an obstacle. The U.S. Department of Labor could potentially create a pilot of a program that is instead a useful service for employers, similar to New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer Work Policy or the work of CITA Independent Agricultural Workers Center.

The second half of the conversation notes provides a lot of detail on Michael Clemens’s numerous migration related research projects. The last section of the document states:

Dr. Clemens does not have a good metric for determining the influence of his work. His papers are frequently included in course syllabi, and two of his papers in particular, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” and “The Place Premium,” seem to receive significant attention.

The U.S. Association for International Migration and the International Organization for Migration were awarded a grant for $1,490,500 over approximately 14 months in July 2014, for a jointly submitted proposal that will involve three further organisations. Among these is the Center for Global Development, which will conduct an evaluation of the program to assess its impact.

The grant will fund a pilot program to familiarise U.S. employers with Haitian lower skill workers, and ensure the legitimate uptake of available temporary H-2 working visas.

Potential upsides of the project include the continuation of the program after the pilot study, and policy changes in response to the results of the evaluation.

A December update reports that the first phase of this program has gone satisfactorily (one of the initial criteria for disbursing a second tranche of funding was waived, as it was recognised in hindsight as unrealistic), and announces the launch of its second phase.

The same document on the conversation with Michael Clemens on 21 January 2015 as cited above also includes two paragraphs giving further updates on this program:

Sarah Williamson (Protect the People) and her team have not yet finalized the employers who will participate in IOM’s program to bring Haitian workers into the U.S. via the H-2A program. IOM plans to take leaders of Haitian agricultural associations on a “study tour” of American farms, with the hope that farmers will put in orders for Haitian workers after meeting these leaders in person.

CGD is preparing to run a survey to measure the effects of the program. (…)

ImmigrationWorks was awarded a grant for $285,000 in July 2014.

Quotes from the writeup to ponder:

We were not able to find any advocacy organizations dedicated to making the case that more lower-skill workers should be allowed to migrate on humanitarian grounds, and experts generally told us that they felt that there was not a major constituency for such a message. The only groups we were able to find advocating for more lower-skill migrants represent business in some capacity, and they are relatively small or do not focus primarily on lower-skill immigrants (…)

Said groups numbered 3, counting ImmigrationWorks. Further:

our understanding is that ImmigrationWorks is the only one for which lower-skill immigration is the top priority, and that it is much smaller than the others.

ImmigrationWorks’ stated mission is to organise small employers of lower-skill immigrants, and mobilise them to advocate in Washington D.C. and across the U.S.

Their stated principles involve: bringing annual legal intake of foreign workers in line with “the country’s labor needs”, ensuring better enforcement of immigration laws, finding “a way to deal realistically with” existing illegal immigrants (which can be neither amnesty nor deportation, as those are both deemed “unacceptable”), and making sure that immigration policy is handled at the federal level.

The writeup acknowledges a (low) risk that ImmigrationWorks will use the grant to move policy in a direction that GW and GV would consider actively harmful.

Beyond closing the organisations projected funding gap for 2014, the proposed uses for the grant are:

  • Advocacy for immigration reform (…) that includes an ample less-skilled worker visa program, by mobilizing business to advocate to “business-minded Democrats and pro-immigration Republicans.”

  • Public opinion research (…) to try to determine which messages work to persuade people of the need for lower-skill immigrant workers

  • Building consensus around policy (…) with the business community

Conversations with IW founder Tamar Jacoby are expected “every 2-3 months over the course of the year-long grant.” No update has yet been published (which does not mean that no conversations were held, as notes are published only for a minority of conversations).

Migration within national borders

Domestic migration may not be of obvious concern to bloggers devoted to Open Borders, insofar as the obstacles faced by the migrants do not include any political borders. But the work on seasonal migration within low income countries that GW and GV researchers have been following and funding is quite relevant to Open Borders advocacy as well.

Bryan, Chowdhury, and Mobarak have run randomised controlled trials in  Rangpur, “a region of rural Bangladesh that persistently suffers from pre-harvest famines.” The trials were conducted over three years and involved 100 villages. This research finds that providing subsidies for seasonal migration can effectively increase migration and household consumption.

Evidence Action, the organisation that manages the GW Top Charity Deworm the World Initiative, is currently funding a 4,000 household study in northern Bangladesh “to explore further the potential of scaling up a migration subsidy program”.  The OPP has made a $250,000 grant to support this work in March 2014, with the stated aim of supporting the creation of future Top Charities.

A more specific goal of this research is to empirically investigate a number of questions on unintended consequences of migration – some of which are frequently discussed here on Open Borders:

  • Does sending many unskilled laborers to a single city change wages?

  • Does migration influence housing prices at destination cities?

  • What kinds of housing opportunities are migrants finding?

  • Does migration affect food prices in villages of origin?

  • Does migration change gender dynamics (e.g., what changes occur when women are left at home to manage home finances when men migrate)?

  • Are there are any unintended consequences for households who do not send a migrant?

Provided that the results of this research are encouraging with respect to scalability, Evidence Action intend to significantly scale up their seasonal migration support program. We can hope to see a funding proposal later this year.


I am very impressed with the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on labour mobility. It is exciting to read about the specific action undertaken, and I can imagine their sheer demonstration of initiative having considerable power to shift people’s thinking on migration.

The researchers’ careful evaluation both of the importance of the cause of migration liberalisation, and of the amount of effort currently invested in the cause, seem to me to strongly confirm the views generally held on these issues by Open Borders bloggers. To recap some relevant highlights:

  • The OPP come out prioritising the cause of free migration very highly. If other causes are currently prioritised more highly, the stated reason for this is always that they are able to identify more funding opportunities in these other domains. Thus, when it comes to launching additional efforts to further a cause, increasing freedom of migration between low-income and high-income countries seems to be a plausible candidate for “most high impact cause to take on”.
  • The OPP have found no political advocacy group in the U.S. that promotes immigration of low-skilled workers on humanitarian grounds.
  • The OPP have found only three political advocacy groups in the U.S. that promote immigration of low-skilled workers at all, and they all do so with the aim of “advancing the interests of U.S. businesses”.
  • In contrast, there is plenty of philanthropic engagement in immigration-related causes that are consistent with extreme citizenism (bringing in more high-skilled labour to advance U.S. economic interests) and territorialism (defending rights of existing immigrants, but not the right to immigrate).

Related reading

Some related reading from Open Borders: The Case and others:

Burkean arguments for institutional inertia

In my last post, I blegged about the strongest arguments for the moral relevance of countries, i.e. for the idea that a person’s country of origin or citizenship is relevant in answering evaluative questions, such as whether a person has a right to accept a job or rent property somewhere.

As I predicted in my bleg, some commenters have diagnosed me with outrageous naïveté for asking such a question. Another thing I could have predicted is that some people would find my explicit use of the term “morality” jarring. In my experience, a very interesting thing often happens in ethical discussions: People who routinely make strong evaluative statements, say, about the morality of military interventions or of different kinds of healthcare policies, suddenly convert to radical moral scepticism when a moral proposition is raised the merit of which they do not wish to consider. It seems to me that the state of common discourse is astonishingly lenient toward such double standards, which could be termed selective radical moral scepticism. I am well aware that the field of meta-ethics is direly lacking in any kind of consensus, but I am sure that most moral philosophers would at least agree that we should be consistent in whether or not we are radical moral sceptics.

Some of the reactions I got to the post, in the comment thread and elsewhere, motivate me to formulate the following distinction: the moral relevance of countries is distinct from the moral relevance of the fact that most people treat countries as morally relevant. This can appear nit-picky in some contexts. If you present an argument along the lines that the world is currently at equilibrium in a state where certain borders are near-universally recognised, and that disrespecting those borders could lead to large-scale violence, it seems reasonable to then say that “countries are therefore morally relevant”. To then counter this statement with the above distinction may seem like mere semantics. To appreciate that the distinction is worth making even here, simply consider the perfect intelligibility of this claim: “Prudence requires that we respect existing immigration laws because most people wrongly consider countries morally relevant”. Regardless of whether this statement is true, I hope it makes it clear that the prevalence of the belief in the moral relevance of countries can be morally relevant without countries being themselves morally relevant, and that pointing out the prevalence of moral belief X should not end the conversation on whether X is true. The ambition of Open Borders: The Case is to change people’s minds about some very widely held beliefs, including moral beliefs.

Personally, I think that by far the strongest answer  to my bleg was given by Bryan Pick. I do not know to what extent Bryan agrees with the argument he proposed (I understand he is on the side of open borders), as he was answering my bleg about strong arguments for a certain position and not necessarily expressing his own views. That being said:

Bryan explicitly referenced Edmund Burke at the beginning of his comment, and the type of argument he presented is what I’m referring to, in the title, as a Burkean argument for institutional inertia, or even, beyond that, a Burkean argument for the moral authority of institutions. Similarly to Leslie Orgel‘s Second Rule, “Evolution is cleverer than you are”, this Burkean type of argument could be summarised by the slogan “Institutions are cleverer than you are”. The idea is that institutions are time-tested, complex products of intricate evolutionary processes involving widely distributed information very different from what any individual person’s mind is suited to grasp or design. This perspective gives support to the attitude I alluded to above, according to which anyone who demands explicit intellectual arguments for established social norms must be disparagingly naïve – not in that they have missed any obvious arguments, but in that they think human argumentative powers more wise than time-tested institutions. The distinction between intellectual attitudes that rely more on the authority of institutions and those that rely more on explicit argumentation is also at the heart of Thomas Sowell‘s distinction between the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision of human nature, which he has argued is the key defining factor of the political divide between Left and Right. Adherents to the Constrained Vision need only point to the disasters brought about by social engineering to put their emphasis on humility in the face of long-standing traditions on a sound footing. (See also, however, this essay by Bryan Caplan, which is critical of Sowell’s distinction and emphasises, in particular, that many ideologies meant to be imposed from the top down, such as fascism, are not a product of rational deliberation.)

Bryan [Pick] completes his proposed argument:

Now, whether this significance extends to “such questions as where one may rent property and work” depends on an extra step. Perhaps an aspect of strategic dominance is that the local population and government are suited to each other, because of hard-won stabilization in communities via a common language, norms, etc., and outsiders can cause a sort of friction. It’s easy to take for granted how much shared conventions and etiquette (like hand signals or line queuing) make life smoother and less confrontational. [Go read the rest in his comment.]

This is good stuff, and it meshes very nicely with what I have in mind for my future post about countries and equilibrium states that I mentioned in my last post.

I think this Burkean line of argument is important. I completely agree with the proposition that it would be naïve and reckless to dismiss existing institutions simply because we cannot formulate any rationale for them that might nonetheless exist. But it is also important to note that, just as easily as the exclusive reliance on intellectual arguments in designing ways of structuring society from the top down can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to the disastrous outcomes of socialist experiments (be they Marxist or fascist or otherwise), the exclusive reliance on the authority of institutions can be reduced ad absurdum by pointing to any of the institutions that existed over long periods of time in the past that are now widely recognised as having been viciously immoral: think slavery, witch hunts, torture, border wars…

Similarly to the point I made above about flip-flopping between moral realism and radical moral scepticism, I would also caution the reader to take to heart a criticism Vipul has made of Thomas Sowell in an insightful answer on Quora: It is tempting to alternate between reliance on the authority of institutions and reliance on intellectual arguments, depending on which happens to better serve your position, and Sowell himself may have proven not to be immune from this. I do not expect much disagreement from proponents of either of the two Visions when I say that the authority of institutions and intellectual argumentation are both important. Steven Pinker‘s writings on the psychology of politics, beginning in The Blank Slate, have also drawn on Thomas Sowell’s distinction between the two Visions, and he has made a strong case in The Better Angels of Our Nature for the importance of what he refers to as the Civilizing Process (which relies on institutional constraints) and Enlightenment Humanism (which relies on reason), two historical processes that are seemingly at odds with each other but that he argues need not be alternatives.

Delving a bit deeper now, I want to pick up the distinction I briefly mentioned above, between “Burkean arguments for institutional intertia” and “Burkean arguments for the moral authority of institutions”. This is, again, related to another distinction I have made above, between the argument that it is dangerous to offset existing equilibria, and the argument that the existing equilibrium is morally just. It is perfectly consistent to argue that it would be imprudent (and therefore morally irresponsible) to disrespect or abandon existing institutions while also maintaining that the institutions in question are immoral (see this post by Vipul for a discussion of the difference between philosophical and political anarchism, for instance). After all, changing institutions in a directed way involves serious coordination problems. Such change is more likely to be safe and successful if it happens through a more organic process, which involves changing many individual people’s minds (again, precisely what we are trying to do here at Open Borders).

In their weaker form, Burkean arguments do not say anything more than that. However, as Bryan also mentioned in his comment, the argument can be taken further: The evolutionary processes that shape our institutions may not just provide us with stable social organisations within which to live and prosper, but  might also be a source of moral knowledge.

To what extent this is the case is, it seems to me, a big question that our evolved psychology renders difficult to consider rationally. Status quo bias is generally considered a cognitive fallacy, even though the evolutionary rationale of this bias seems fairly clear. People with conservative sensibilities may be inclined to think of institutions as defining what is morally right, however this would seem to lead to a species of moral relativism, which I think quickly runs into insurmountable problems (this shan’t be the place for me to discuss this further).

All this raises the question of what is the right “mix” of intellectual argumentation and deference to the wisdom of institutions. It seems to me that those two things have qualitatively different roles to play: the former provides arguments directly, whereas the latter provides evidence that there is some kind of rationale for certain ways of organising society. Note that the structure of Bryan’s comment is to first make the general Burkean argument for assuming that institutions are the way they are for important reasons, even if those reasons elude us; he then proceeds to the intellectual exercise of  unpacking this initially elusive rationale, through a mixture of speculation and of historical argumentation to test his speculations against empirical evidence. In so doing, he ends up sketching out a candidate for a consequentialist moral argument for certain kinds of migration restrictions. I think the argument he proposes requires more empirical work to be made compelling, but it is a very serious start.

Moreover, this general structure of “Burkean reasoning” provides us with something of a research agenda, aimed at uncovering the rationale behind long-standing institutions.  It seems to me that it is only in so doing that we can discover whether this rationale has anything to teach us about morality (remember the distinction between the prudential presumption against offsetting an equilibrium and the moral justness of the equilibrium). Regarding the question of migration, it seems highly relevant to note that the institution of countries goes back a much longer way than migration restrictions as they exist today. Chris’ planned series “How Did We Get Here?” on the historical origins of immigration restrictions thus fits rather beautifully with this proposed research agenda, and it could lead to the uncovering of profound moral truths as well as to the demystification of evolutionary gridlocks or by-products.

Moral Relevance of Countries Bleg

The generally accepted idea that the institutions of countries and citizenship have considerable moral relevance has always struck me as bizarre. To me, it seems obvious, on the face of it, that where a person was born, or who a person’s parents are, are arbitrary matters (that said person has no influence over) and therefore cannot be relevant to such evaluative questions as whether that person has a right to rent property or accept a job in location X. (See John Lee’s post on Phillip Cole’s moral argument for open borders, which also relies on this point.) Likewise, where we have come to conventionally draw borders on maps seems to me a matter of historical circumstances that virtually nobody alive today has any responsibility in and that therefore can have little moral relevance in evaluating people’s actions. (While I think some compelling consequentialist arguments can be made along the lines that disrespecting existing borders might dangerously offset an equilibrium, I do not think this kind of argument can take you all that far. More on this in an upcoming post.)

Perhaps most people can at least relate to my prima facie attitude described in the previous paragraph, but I am clearly in a small minority in persisting in such a view in the face of common political discourse. Almost everybody treats the moral relevance of countries and citizenship as a given (often in the form of citizenism).

This renders discussions of the morality of migration restrictions difficult and unpromising for people with views similar to mine, as it seems that those who disagree with me reason from entirely different starting points and have very different ideas about who holds the burden of proof, compared to my views. Consider the last paragraph from a response by Sonic Charmer (aka The Crimson Reach) to Michael Huemer’s guest post on Open Borders:

Let’s just note that in this ridiculous construction, not allowing someone to permanently relocate to the United States has been equated with abusing them to one’s heart’s content. Is this a real argument? I don’t think so. Even if the intended point here were stated in a more sober and less straw-manny way, the problem is that there is simply no Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The United States Of America. Such a thing is, if anything, even more problematic and mythical than the concept of a literal ‘social contract’. But if the professor nevertheless thinks there is such a Universal Human Right, where did it come from? Why didn’t he include his actual argument for its existence in that (already very long) piece?

The idea, as I understand it, is that the onus is on Michael Huemer to establish the existence of a Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US. (Thomas Sowell expresses apparently the same view here.) This task seems hopeless, as the idea of a “Universal Human Right To Immigrate To The US” seems ridiculous. I agree that it seems ridiculous, but not because I do not think that people are generally within their (moral) rights to move to the US. I also think it would seem ridiculous to posit a Universal Human Right To Ride A Bicycle On A Tuesday, even though people generally are well within their rights to do so. We simply do not normally talk of moral rights to actions with specific, morally irrelevant features.  (Compare this point with the 9th amendment to the US Constitution; HT: Vipul.) Given that I see no good reason for considering countries morally relevant in such matters, I contend that all that is needed is a right to rent property and to accept a job, and that the burden of proof is on restrictionists to establish that the geographical location of the property or of the work environment nullifies this right.

When I say that I see no good reasons to overrule the prima facie moral irrelevance of countries I described above, I suspect that many people will diagnose me with outrageous naiveté and ignorance of strong arguments that “everybody knows” (even if they may not be able to properly articulate those arguments themselves, but then they might defer this task to figures of “obvious authority”). But while this puts me under some social pressure to pretend otherwise, the truth is that no arguments I have heard for the moral relevance of countries have seemed compelling, let alone sufficient to me.

If I were to attempt an Ideological Turing Test (i.e. to argue the position that countries are morally relevant as best I can), I might try a social contract angle, a “fragile political equilibrium” angle, a “collective property” angle, a social capital angle, a “brain drain” angle, a “differences in national IQ and personality factors averages” angle, or a “cultural differences” angle, and perhaps I would not fare much worse than many people who really hold that position – but I would find myself very unconvincing, especially because it seems to me that most of these arguments are compelling only if we’re already assuming that countries are morally relevant. (This is particularly true of the welfare state objection to open borders, as the moral relevance of countries seems essential to justifying a national welfare state as opposed to non-nation-bound welfare programs.)

Since it seems necessary to me to take such a “back to basics” approach, given the persistent disagreement about what the morally relevant starting points are, I hereby issue a bleg: What are the strongest arguments (both in objective terms and in terms of their appeal to the masses) for the moral relevance of countries – particularly concerning such questions as where one may rent property and work? (Not excluding arguments pertaining to one of the “angles” I’ve listed above – I do not claim to have conclusively laid the viability of any of these general lines of argument to rest.)

Afterthought: Although this is isn’t what I primarily have in mind, Vipul’s previous bleg about universalist defenses of citizenism might provide an interesting way of approaching this question, too.