Borders and Inequality

This is a guest post. Please see the author bio, editorial note, and related reading at the bottom for more context.

Inequality is big news. From Piketty’s bestseller to Oxfam’s reminder to Davos’ economic elites that by 2016, the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of us combined, we are newly concerned with the threat growing inequality poses to global stability. And in seeking to meet what US president Barack Obama has called ‘the defining challenge of our time’, many politicians have claimed that mass immigration is contributing to inequality and poverty at home: that the movement of people leads to lower wages, higher unemployment and greater dependency upon social security and the welfare state among displaced citizens.

Understood in these national terms, if inequality is the problem, the solution would seem to involve less migration and stronger borders. Yet for champions of global justice, the opposite is true. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrollment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Framed like this, migration is no longer contributing to the problem of inequality. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the solution.

So who’s right? Is inequality really a zero-sum game, in which global justice comes at the expense of national equity? Do we have to choose between addressing inequality between citizenships, and inequality between citizens? And if this is the case, what are the implications for the Open Borders movement?

Of course in strict utilitarian terms, if more migration maximizes total benefit at a global level, national effects are secondary. But when it comes to politics, global justice arguments can’t simply trump national ones because – at an almost instinctive level – the vast majority of people would claim that nations – communities – are important, and effects of migration at a local level can’t simply be discounted.

It’s therefore important to recognize that the evidence for many claims made about the injurious effects of immigration upon locals is dubious. In the case of the UK, for instance – where anti-immigration rhetoric has proved popular in recent elections – economic data suggests that the effects of immigration on the labour market are minimal, and that immigrants make an unambiguous net fiscal contribution to the UK treasury, paying in much more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Yet even if the idea that immigration is bad for equality at home doesn’t hold up to close empirical scrutiny, we still need to ask why it continues to hold such sway when it comes to public opinion and political action.

So why do nations matter? Part of it undoubtedly is about culture and belonging. We are none of us ‘unencumbered individuals’, and national cultures play a role in shaping our identities. Yet in practice, national identity is often a chameleon: ask a San Franciscan and an Alabaman what it means to be an American, and the chances are you’d get very different answers. This means ‘national culture’, in and of itself, isn’t a justification for why we need nation-states – let alone why we should restrict migration.

Instead, arguably the most persuasive progressive case for national borders rests upon something more tangible: the promise of equality of opportunity that is a fundamental component of citizenship. In a modern state, that promise is usually articulated through the funding of a whole set of national institutions designed to close this gap – social security, healthcare, education. This is the nation-state not – in David Goodhart’s words – as a ‘mystical attachment’, but the institutional arrangement that can consistently deliver the democratic, welfare and psychological outcomes that ‘most people, when given a choice, seem to want’. Many in favour of tightly restricting migration argue that it’s these institutions that really make national citizenship meaningful. They also insist that such institutions can only function if borders be drawn somewhere, in order to turn a universal but vague commitment to equality of opportunity in principle into a limited but tangible effort to create more equality in practice.

Of course, in practice, equality of opportunity is still a fiction at a national level too. Outcome and opportunity cannot be so easily separated. In 2007, the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth. In the UK, the wealthiest 1% is 215 times wealthier than the poorest 10% of Britons. But for advocates of tighter border controls, this is just further evidence that we should make good on national promises first, before turning to think about the greater challenges we face in tackling global inequality.

And at first glance, this seems reasonable: pragmatism legitimized by the bonds of community. After all, nearly all of us ultimately care more about our family members’ wellbeing than that of our acquaintances, especially when it comes to action rather than sentiment. Arguably, favouring locals over migrants is just an extension of this – a recognition that being part of a national community cements closer ties, so a fellow-citizen’s wellbeing matters more to us than that of a stranger. Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, and we have a justification for a bordered world, carefully tied to the measuring of fiscal contribution and social cohesion.

Yet we should also see the limits of this argument. Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Inequality, then, is largely determined at birth and tied to geography. This means there’s still a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore. Norway, for instance, offers much more to all its citizens than Afghanistan can. The West’s citizens cannot possibly claim that the relative riches that derive from our citizenship are fair: they are above all a fortunate accident of birth. When it comes to justifying borders as a means of preserving some equality within – protection for the poorest citizens ­– this needs to be balanced against the risk that such borders aren’t about protection as much as they are about maintaining privilege.

So what does this mean when it comes to thinking about borders and inequality? First, it suggests that ‘protection, not privilege’ is a good maxim around which to build a ‘fair’ migration policy. Our fellow citizens should be protected from harm, the basic promises of the social contract met. However, providing this is done, international migrants should not be locked out. For at that point our interest in maintaining what are essentially inherited privileges – that 50% lifetime birthplace bonus – begins to look pretty selfish. At some point, borders are no longer self-preservation: they’re greed.

Principle, of course, is one thing: practice is another. This line of reasoning has at least two important political implications. First, if borders are to be defended as a protection against inequality, the justification rests first on demonstrating tangible progress in promoting equality between citizens, and then on showing such measures are being helped by restricting immigration. The evidence strongly suggests that states are currently unable to show either of these conditions holding true. In fact, immigration plays a crucial role in underpinning the current institutions and fiscal commitments that are intended to bridge the equality gaps between citizens too.

Second, if more migration is to be justified on the grounds that it helps to reduce global inequality, efforts to relax border controls and open up freedom of movement cannot focus only on the movement of elites: the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. This is directly counter to current policy trends. Increasing numbers of states are selling citizenship to the highest bidder: but in an age of elite hypermobility, fences are also being built to ensure the poor are kept in place.

There is thus a powerful case to be made that when it comes to inequality, the real fight isn’t between migrants and citizens: it’s between the elites and the ordinary. And if equality of opportunity is the end, then greater freedom of movement is one means by which such a goal can be achieved. This means that most immediately, there’s a need to counter the efforts being made to reduce immigration by many states, and to articulate the reasons why efforts at immigration reform in others should not focus only on securing visas for the wealthy, the highly educated, and corporate employees. And in the long-term, perhaps considering an alternative mantra – not “Open Borders”, but “Equal Borders” – might help to underline that if what we’re ultimately interested in is equality, greater freedom of movement is an important means of getting there – for migrants and citizens alike.

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.

Author Bio

Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University  and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Since completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, she has held faculty positions at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights and Repatriation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Katy is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Katy has also worked extensively with policy-makers including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, she is engaged in furthering public understanding and engagement on migration issues, speaking and writing for a number of media outlets including the BBC World Service, ITV Tonight, The Conversation and openDemocracy. Follow Katy on Twitter at @mobilitymuse.

Related Open Borders: The Case links

The author of the post brought a different perspective to the issue than that typically espoused in Open Borders: The Case content and blog posts. To minimize disruption to the flow, we didn’t include links to related content from the site in the main post. However, the site does explore some questions related to the content. A brief list of related site content is below. There might be response blog posts by Open Borders: The Case bloggers responding to the author’s points. These links were curated by Open Borders: The Case editors and are not the author’s responsibility.

Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

7 thoughts on “Borders and Inequality”

  1. First, let me say that I appreciate this article and partially agree with your conclusion. However, I do feel that it doesn’t go deep enough and I don’t really agree with many of your premises.

    1.) That income inequality is topical does not mean that it is “important.” The inequality “debate” is one of the most distorted, meaningless memes of recent memory — one which, if anything, reveals more about the sociopathic desires of those seeking new levels of property confiscation and redistribution. That Piketty’s shoddy work continues to hold its status as the new progressive bible despite being debunked over and over is proof that people are merely seeking to justify their pre-existing desires to cut down a particular demographic.

    I’m still not sure why I should be concerned that Christina Aguilera (net worth: 130 million) can’t afford the same kind of yacht as Warren Buffet (net worth: 73 billion), but by all progressive accounts, this is an absolute tragedy requiring immediate “social justice.” Conflating unequal incomes with either poor living standards or inequality under the law does a real disservice to the “debate.”

    2.) “National culture” only exists to the extent that *national governments* actively manufacture and promote it. Nations “matter” because governments do everything they can to convince us they do, largely through everyone’s favorite “public good” (I’ll let you guess what that might be). “Real” culture is not centrally planned — it does not rely on experts or ministries or borders, but emerges through the market-like exchanges and interactions of hundreds or millions of people acting of their own accord.

    3.) The truth is that statists (progressives and conservatives) believe one’s positive “right” to other peoples money trumps one’s negative right to move about the globe unmolested. It’s important to focus on this, as the statist view is an inherently violent proposition that has become so normalized so as to evade even the slightest notice.

    4.) Regarding your comment that “the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth” I have a very simple proposition for you: There is no such thing as “owning the national wealth.” No matter how many times these statistics are phrased that way, it will still be a fiction.

    5.) What you say about national identity fostering a sense of community is probably true, but that makes the whole concept no less abhorrent or delusional. When one hears about a plane crash or some sort of tragedy abroad and is eager to know how many “fellow citizens” were involved, this is all part of the astonishing delusion of state-sponsored collectivism. As a 30 year old from the US, I likely have far more in common with a latte drinking trend-chasing hipster in Japan or Ethiopia than I do with someone living on a farm in Wisconsin. And as an individual human being, I should normally have empathy for the suffering of others, regardless of their place of birth or legal status in a country. To actually instill the belief in people that I should identify more strongly with a fellow citizen is nothing short of institutional brainwashing.

    1. Peter you wrote what I was in the process of formulating, but said it better than I. The points you countered and raised are the issues I try to address regularly both in writing and in forums and on radio. My perspective is that the basis for Open Borders needs to be the freedom to travel and the right of people already within a country to have guests, students, buyers and sellers from where ever and whom ever one chooses…anything that is peaceful. Freedom of exchange is far more critical to growing wealth than trying to micromanage who gets the bigger slice of of an imagined solitary pie.

    2. Very interesting and astute, Peter, but I don’t quite buy your complete dismissal of inequality as a “meaningless” concern. I found Piketty’s book extremely irritating, because the lens of values through which he views the data is idiotic: he is obsessed with inequality to a degree that is philosophically indefensible, and he seems to be too stupid even to realize that any defense is needed. He seems, not merely to hold, but to assume as an axiom, that incomes ought to be fairly equal and that this is so important that we should be extremely troubled by growing inequality even if it’s accompanied by rising living standards even for the poorest. But his data is mostly sound, and certainly the trends he identifies are real, and are of some interest, even if it would take a much more thoughtful person than Piketty to draw conclusions from it that have any value.

  2. I like this article, it’s well written and persuasive. However, I think it overreaches in one respect. When you argue that immigration doesn’t increase inequality in the West, your evidence is based on current levels of immigration. Currently, immigration is managed so as to be held down to levels far lower than would occur under open borders. Moreover, governments deliberately manage immigration in ways that make its impact favorable to the labor income of the median voter, admitting mainly high skill (e.g., PhD, programmer) and low skill (agricultural worker) immigrants, whose skills are complementary with those of a typical native. So it’s not valid to extrapolate from the impact of present immigration to the impact of open borders.

    I think that if open borders were implemented without an accompanying tax and transfer scheme, such as DRITI, they would dramatically increase inequality. So there actually is a pretty stark contradiction between the goals of mitigating national inequality and global inequality: open borders would be extremely powerful for mitigating global inequality, but would make national inequality worse. DRITI could help here by mitigating the increase of inequality among natives/citizens, but inequality among RESIDENTS would still get a lot worse. So what kind of inequality matters: among residents, citizens, or humanity as a whole? I say humanity, full stop, almost to the exclusion of the other two.

    Like Peter, I think you concede too much to the nation state. Certainly “nation” isn’t the same thing as “community.” The nation isn’t really a community in most cases, and things that really are, e.g. churches, often span frontiers.

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