Benefits and harms to migrants: a meta-response

I just published a blog post titled gains from migration: GDP versus surplus where I make arguments similar to those in the blog post by Michael Clemens titled Do the Gains from International Migration “Go to the Immigrants”? But in true Caplanian fashion, I think it may be better to step back a bit and offer a meta-counterargument to people who use “all the gains from migration are captured by the migrants” as sufficient grounds to dismiss the huge benefits from open borders. And while I’m at it, I want to consider its mirror image argument, which is also offered by many restrictionists (though I haven’t yet seen a restrictionist offer both arguments simultaneously).

  • Benefits go “only” to the migrants: The claim here is that the benefits of open borders are huge, but they go “only” or “largely” to the migrants. Once we subtract off the benefits to the migrants, the benefits to the rest of humanity are miniscule, zero, or negative. So, open borders aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
  • Open borders hurt the very people they’re intended to help: This argument has a few respectable versions, such as the killing the goose that lays the golden eggs formulation and the cheap labor leading to a technological slowdown argument. But, there are a lot of other versions of the argument, and the version I want to address here builds upon the analogy between immigration restrictions and apartheid in South Africa. The claim is that the end of apartheid spelled disaster for South African whites and blacks. If immigration restrictions are like apartheid, then open borders might lead to the very same problems globally that we currently see in South Africa. Typical for this line of reasoning is this comment by egd on Bryan Caplan’s blog post:

    Do you seriously believe that open borders would lead to such an outcome for you?

    No, but that’s not the right question, is it?

    Even in South Africa, treatment of whites after apartheid is far better than treatment of blacks under apartheid.

    Has ending apartheid made whites better off?

    Has ending apartheid made blacks better off?

    The answer to both of these questions is pretty clearly “no”: more poverty, more income inequality (to the extent it’s bad), reduced life expectancy, and other problems have developed in South Africa.

    The root cause isn’t desegregation, the root cause is political externalities associated with desegregation. Political externalities matter.

    James A. Donald, in a further comment on the same blog post, writes:

    It is glaringly obvious that not only are whites far worse off with the end of Apartheid in South Africa, blacks also are worse off.

    The flood of illegals from neighboring black countries has ended with the end of apartheid, and in many cases reversed. Blacks are voting with their feet that black South Africa is no good, after previously voting with their feet that white South Africa was good.

    Electricity has become intermittent, water is dangerous, and the higher stories of tall buildings have become uninhabitable

    Black incomes have fallen dramatically following the end of apartheid

    When the superior rule the inferior, it is not only better for the superior, it also better for the inferior.

    Even if blacks had the same income, that would be no substitute for the lack of clean water, lack of reliable electricity, and lack of law and order.

    And that is what America will become in due course with current levels of immigration of inferior people.

Now, I don’t know a lot about South Africa post-apartheid. My understanding is that South Africa was no free market utopia prior to apartheid — apartheid itself being a big blow to free markets — and that it continued along a socialist path after apartheid, albeit without descending into it too badly. Most indicators got only somewhat better in the immediate aftermath of apartheid, and some got worse, but since 2000, the trend seems to have been steadily upward. John Lee has a couple of comments on the issue here and here which seem like reasonable responses to the concerns raised. I’d also add that apartheid is a restriction on the freedoms not only of blacks but also of the whites who are forbidden from associating with them or hiring them in a wide range of circumstances. Steven Landsburg made a similar point with respect to Jim Crow laws (quoted here):

Jim Crow prevented blacks from dealing with whites, and it also prevented whites from dealing with blacks. Who would want to argue that being denied the right to trade with white people is a form of oppression, but being denied the right to trade with black people is no big deal?

But I digress. What I want to do in this post is address at a philosophical level both the concerns — benefits go “only” to the migrants, and the migrants themselves are hurt by migration. The key point here is that open borders are not the same as forced migration. It’s true that under open borders, many people (about 7-10% of the world population) would try to migrate. But most open borders advocates are not actively desirous of trying to make people migrate. Open borders are about freedom to move, not about making people move.

So, what does it mean that “most of the benefits go only to the migrants?” First, as the polling data clearly show, even if this were true, the “only” migrants could still be a pretty large section of the world population. For perspective, 10% of the world population is about twice the number of people currently residing in the United States, and about 2/3 of the number of people on Facebook. Second, and more importantly, if everybody is free to move, then the fact that only a small (in fractional terms, not in absolute terms) proportion of the world population avails of the opportunity is not an issue. Complaining that the benefits go only to the migrants is like saying that the benefits of Wikipedia go only to its readers, or that the benefits of marriage go only to the people getting married. Even if these statements were true (which they’re not), the fact that everybody is free to migrate makes this concern a bit superfluous.

I can predict the retort from restrictionists in the First World: “Since I’m already in the First World and enjoy a comfortable standard of living, there’s no way I could double or triple my standard of living just by moving to another country. So, I get left out of the huge benefits of open borders.” I’m tempted to reply #firstworldproblems to this, but I’ll instead point out that various keyhole solutions such as immigration tariffs could be used to convert migration into a win-win solution (see also Nathan’s blog post Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Optimal Policy).

Now, coming to the claim that immigration harms the migrants. Again, the key point is that if people are free to migrate, then the negative feedback of the initial waves of migration will lead to people losing the enthusiasm to migrate more. In a sense, if in fact migrants actually experience clear-cut harms from migration, then restrictionists have much less to fear from open borders than if migrants benefit and impose harms to others. In this sense, immigration restrictions differ from ending laws within a given jurisdiction — it’s hard to exit jurisdictions when things get bad, but since immigration is about more people coming in, it’s easy to believe that when immigration is harming the immigrants themselves, new immigration will cease or slow down to a trickle.

I think it’s conceivable that certain patterns of migration would be subject to these negative feedback loops as migrants discover that their destination countries aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I don’t quite know if that would make restrictionists in the target country of migration proud — what kind of endorsement is that anyway? But I digress. The whole point of freedom of migration is to let these feedback loops operate naturally rather than forcibly restricting migration.

Related material on this site: benefits to migrants, global apartheid, immigration restrictions as Jim Crow.

2 thoughts on “Benefits and harms to migrants: a meta-response”

  1. “The key point here is that open borders are not the same as forced migration. It’s true that under open borders, many people (about 7-10% of the world population) would try to migrate. But most open borders advocates are not actively desirous of trying to make people migrate. Open borders are about freedom to move, not about making people move.”

    Great point, we’ve clearly been thinking on similar lines since this is something I raise in this post ( ) just after yours!

  2. Pingback: EconLog

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