Citizenism and open borders

This is a guest post by Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Huemer’s webpage is here. His paper Is There A Right To Immigrate? has been referenced at many places on the Open Borders site, particularly on the starving Marvin page. Huemer’s most recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, argues against political authority and for the proposition that anarcho-capitalism is a superior and feasible alternative to the status quo of nation-states. It received a rave review from fellow anarcho-capitalist and open borders advocate Bryan Caplan.


Vipul Naik invited me to contribute a post, and he suggested (among other possible topics) addressing the citizenist argument against open borders. As most readers probably know, this argument claims that the state is justified in closing its borders to foreigners because the state has special duties to promote the interests of its own current citizens, duties that it does not owe toward anyone who is not presently a citizen.

This citizenist argument has three main problems. First, it’s unclear why we should think the government has these special duties. Second, even if the government has special duties to its citizens, the citizenist argument requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Third, even if we ignore the previous two problems, the citizenist argument doesn’t work because one’s having special duties toward certain people does not make it permissible to violate the rights of other people.

I. Does the State Have a Duty to Benefit Citizens?

To begin with, then, why do citizenists believe that the government has special duties to its current citizens? Some just assert this without argument (see, e.g., Steve Sailer). Others appeal to the social contract theory (see, e.g., Sonic Charmer): maybe the social contract requires the government to serve the interests of its own citizens.

Sonic Charmer also pointed out the most obvious problem with this argument (though it doesn’t stop Sonic from embracing the argument anyway):

[A]ll Smart People think the ‘social contract’ is nonsense and couldn’t possibly imagine anyone with a brain believing in it. The whole idea that the basis and legitimacy of a government comes from anything resembling a ‘social contract’ is totally out of favor, and indeed is considered to have been long ago fully and definitively discredited by (whoever … some professor I think).

I could not have said it better. I know of no living person who works on political authority and thinks that we actually have a valid social contract. And I say that after having just written a book on political authority that contains 359 references.

Very briefly, contracts, in any other context, satisfy at least the following four principles: (i) all parties to a contract must have a reasonable way of opting out (without being forced to give up things of great value that belong to them), (ii) explicit, up front statements of non-agreement should generally be recognized as a way of not accepting a contract, (iii) an action cannot be interpreted as signaling agreement, if the terms of the contract would have been imposed on the agent regardless of whether they performed that action or not, and (iv) contracts generally require both parties to undertake enforceable obligations to each other, and if one party repudiates or simply fails to uphold its obligations under the contract, the other party is no longer bound to hold up their end either. The “social contract” violates all of these principles, and blatantly so. This is discussed at length in my recent book, The Problem of Political Authority, chapter 2. This is why I say that the “social contract” bears no resemblance to real contracts, as understood in any other context. If you took someone to court for an alleged “breach of contract”, no court in the world would recognize a claim of contractual obligation if you had nothing better than the sort of arguments that social contract theorists have relied upon.

But let’s say you don’t care what those annoying egghead intellectuals say. They’re always trying to convince us of ridiculous things, like that the Earth is round and that we came from monkeys. There’s a social contract, arguments to the contrary be damned! Okay, but what does the contract require? Here are two views:

  1. The contract requires the government to promote our interests, in general, in any manner it can think of. Now, even when the social contract theory was popular, I don’t think anyone held this view of it. Usually, when you make a contract with someone, you contract for some reasonably specific service, not a completely general “promotion of your interests.” Citizenists like to compare the government’s duties to fiduciary duties, for example, the duty that a lawyer might owe to a client. But while a lawyer is required to serve his client’s interests, he is required to do this only in certain ways, within a certain domain – roughly, speaking, the legal domain. Your lawyer isn’t supposed to make sure you eat right, or smooth things over with your girlfriend, or get you a promotion at your workplace. Similarly, the social contract theorists, back when the theory was taken seriously, thought that we hired the government to provide a relatively specific service – protection from rights-violators. And there is a good reason for thus restricting the government’s mandate: to authorize the government to “promote society’s interests in any manner” is a prescription for totalitarianism. There is essentially nothing that the government wouldn’t claim to be covered by that mandate (whatever they do, they always claim that they’re serving society’s interests).
  2. Thus, we return to what the social contract theorists actually thought: the contract requires the government to protect the rights of individuals against both domestic aggressors (criminals) and foreign aggressors (invaders). In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that it was “to secure these rights” (namely, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) that “governments are instituted among men.” How could this lead to the conclusion that the social contract requires the government to restrict immigration? Steve Sailer writes:

    [O]ur politicians have a moral obligation to the current citizens and their descendents to preserve the scarcity value of their right to live in America. […] Uncontrolled immigration, […] by driving up the supply of labor and the demand for housing is importing Latin American levels of inequality into immigrant-inundated states such as California.

    But the mandate to protect our rights says nothing about the government being required to try to keep your wages high. It doesn’t say that the government has to make sure you get a job. It doesn’t say the government has to keep real estate prices low, or try to preserve the kind of culture that you like. Nor do the majority of immigration proponents think that those things are the government’s job in general.

I can’t catalog all the reasons that someone might offer for immigration restriction, but let’s just say that the most commonly offered reasons obviously fall flat, even if you accept a social contract theory, on the most common traditional understanding of the terms of the social contract. It would be the burden of the citizenist to explain how the social contract authorizes immigration restriction – a burden they have thus far not discharged.

II. Does Immigration Restriction Benefit Citizens?

But okay, let’s say you’re not convinced by that. You still think the government has to promote our interests in general, without restriction. The second problem with the citizenist argument is that it requires arbitrarily privileging some citizens over others. Because of course, some citizens (probably the majority) would benefit from increased immigration, while only some would suffer. Some employers want to hire immigrant labor. Some current citizens have family or friends in foreign countries and would like their family and friends to join them here. These are serious, rational interests. Furthermore, of course, consumers benefit from lower prices as a result of businesses’ ability to hire inexpensive immigrant labor. There are a few occupations – those into which immigrants are disproportionately likely to enter – where wages are slightly depressed as a result of immigration. If you are in one of those occupations, you are worse off because of immigration. But no one else is adversely affected, and almost everyone else in the country is made at least slightly better off.

I am not an economist, so I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing why that is true. Instead, I will rest with these remarks:

  1. The vast majority of economists agree that immigration helps the economy overall. For more, see the economist consensus page on the site, Caplan’s discussion in The Myth of the Rational Voter (58-9), and Julian Simon’s discussion in The Economic Consequences of Immigration (357-61).
  2. If you think that the community of economists is wrong about some question of economics, and especially if you think this while being ignorant of their reasons, then almost certainly you’re the one who is wrong.

But now you might say, “Okay, immigration benefits most citizens, and it helps the economy overall, but it’s harmful to some very poor people, and the poor take priority over the rest of society.” Now, I think this view is wrong. I think there are no good arguments for the claim that the poor should take precedence over the rest of society. (For what I think of Rawls’ arguments on this subject, see again my book, The Problem of Political Authority, this time chapter 3.) But let’s say that you still think the poor have to take precedence. Okay. But since immigration is overall beneficial to current citizens – with even larger net benefits if you include the benefits enjoyed by the immigrants themselves – that means that a wealth-redistribution should be possible such that everyone, including the very poor, winds up better off. In other words: the government should be able to just slightly increase taxes on everyone else (including the new immigrants), give the money to the poor, low-skilled workers, and everyone will be better off. There’s no need to keep the immigrants out. For more, see Nathanael Smith’s blog post and DRITI proposal.

III. Can Special Duties Override Other People’s Rights?

Okay, let’s say you haven’t bought any of my arguments so far. Somehow, you still think citizenism gives us a reason to restrict immigration. Let’s say I grant you everything I’ve disputed so far: There is a social contract. And it tells the government to promote our interests in general. The egghead economists are all wrong, and immigration somehow harms the economy overall.

This still doesn’t justify restricting immigration. Why not? Because having special duties to A does not cancel your ordinary duties to B. Let’s say you have special duties to your daughter. You have to provide for her needs in a way that you don’t have to provide for a stranger’s needs. This doesn’t mean that, when you have children, somehow your obligations to everyone else (or everyone to whom you don’t have some special relationship) are canceled. You can’t now abuse strangers to your heart’s content, just because they’re not your daughter. For example: if your daughter is cold, you should buy a jacket for her, before buying one for your neighbor’s daughter. But you may not steal a jacket from your neighbor’s daughter to give it to your own daughter.

Similarly, the state’s special duties to promote its own citizens’ interests, even if we believe there are such duties, do not negate the rights of non-citizens, nor do they mean that the state may abuse foreigners to its heart’s content as long as doing so serves the interests of citizens. For example, the government can not justly make war on another society to capture slaves and give them to its own citizens, even if the current citizens want slaves and would benefit from having them.

Now the chief argument for open borders, at least in my own work on the subject, is that immigration restrictions violate the rights of potential immigrants. Here is a simple statement of the argument:

  1. Individuals have a prima facie right to be free from harmful coercion.
    Comment: Roughly speaking, you can’t use force to impose harms on someone else, without having a good reason. If you do, you’re violating that person’s rights. This seems to me to be about the least controversial rights claim that one could make (and pretty close to the least controversial moral claim in general).
  2. Immigration restrictions are harmful and coercive to potential immigrants.
    Comment: Immigration restrictions are not merely polite requests (“we would prefer that you not migrate here”), nor are they mere passive refusals to assist someone. The government specifically hires armed guards to forcibly exclude people from the territory, to forcibly remove people from the territory, and to punish people who assist illegal immigrants.
  3. Therefore, prima facie, immigration restrictions violate the rights of potential immigrants.

I go on from there to explain why the traditional arguments for restriction fail to override the right to be free from harmful coercion. I won’t go into that here. For now, the important point is this: the citizenist view provides no response to my argument against immigration restrictions. The claim that the government has special duties to its citizens does nothing to counter either of the above premises, and it does nothing to explain why the government would be justified in violating the rights of non-citizens, just to secure small benefits for citizens.

We can extend the analogy of the parent-daughter relation a little farther: let’s say that your daughter is planning a trip to the local marketplace to buy some bread. You also know that Starving Marvin is about to go to the same marketplace to buy some bread. Marvin is much poorer and much hungrier than your daughter. Nevertheless, you decide that, because you have special duties to your daughter, it would be a good idea to forcibly stop Marvin from traveling to the marketplace, to prevent him from slightly bidding up the price of bread.

This action would clearly be wrong, notwithstanding your special duties to your daughter. Again, the reason is simply that those special duties do not take away the rights of everyone who isn’t your daughter.


To sum up, here is why the citizenist argument for immigration restriction fails:

  • The social contract theory is wrong, so it can’t ground citizenism.
  • Even if the social contract theory were true, the state wouldn’t have a general duty to benefit citizens, but only a specific duty to protect citizens from rights violations. This would not include restricting immigration.
  • Immigration restrictions are harmful to most citizens, and harmful to the economy overall.
  • Even if we give priority to the few citizens who are harmed by immigration, we could still make everyone better off without restricting immigration.
  • Immigration restriction is a rights-violation, and special duties to some person or group do not justify one in violating the rights of other people.

43 thoughts on “Citizenism and open borders”

  1. Wow, it’s fun to find myself so much in agreement with someone. All this is very similar to my general argument for open borders, but stated with extraordinary clarity. By the way, I just bought your book. I was procrastinating because I thought I might get it for my birthday.

    The point where I was closest to dissenting was where you dismissed the social contract theory of government as untenable. However, I don’t really dissent. In Principles of a Free Society, I do argue that a social contract COULD be a legitimate basis for government, in principle, I examine the historicity of the social contract and conclude:

    “So while the the concept of a social contract is by no means destitute of historicity, it is doubtful whether any polity in the history of the world, and in particular whether any modern polity, can truly claim to ‘derive its… powers from the consent of the governed.’ And an examination of free-rider problems cast doubt on whether any government every could.” (p. 19)

    And yet I still want the social contract to do some work:

    “‘Government by the consent of the governed’ turns out to be, after all, not a practical plan, but an unattainable ideal. Yet real governments may be nearer to, or further from, that ideal. The burden of government coercion may be larger or smaller; the degree of consent by citizens, greater or less. And we can make some generalizations about what features of governments position them closer to, or further from, the consensual ideal.” (p. 22)

    So while I’m less embarrassed by the social contract theory than you seem to be, and think it has some value, I’m not an exception to your claim that “no living person who works on political authority and thinks that we actually have a valid social contract.”

    The other position where I’d resist your argument a little bit is on the economist consensus. The basic theorems from the analysis of free trade can be adapted to show that natives as a whole will benefit from free migration, too; that’s fairly watertight as far as it goes, and even economists unfriendly to immigration like George Borjas tend to buy into that. But the wealth and poverty of nations is still a rather mysterious phenomenon, and there are “institutional” factors which might depend on the composition of the population, such that open borders might reduce “total factor” productivity. Or it might raise it. The point is that there’s room for legitimate worry. Economists know that there are certain biases inherent in their methods, and that sometimes gives them a reason to be wary of their own conclusions. That is why I think most economists, though pro-immigration, don’t support open borders: there is too much uncertainty. These disclaimers don’t eviscerate your point II (though they may qualify it), for it is essentially certain that some citizens benefit from immigration, and quite likely that on balance the benefits would outweigh the costs. But I wouldn’t want to browbeat people into kowtowing to the economist consensus.

    Thanks for citing the DRITI proposal, by the way! It’s a fairly simple exercise in policy design, and when I came up with I assumed it wasn’t original because it was so obvious, but I haven’t come across any prior versions of it, so maybe it’s appropriate for me to be the preferred citation here. Gary Becker advocated migration taxes, but the DRITI proposal is subtly different and I think superior. I think it’s useful for the proposal to become a focus of discussions, because it serves to separate out the distributional issues, on the one hand, from issues of both justice and efficiency, on the other. One way to think of Principles of a Free Society is as a somewhat disproportionally sweeping effort to show that DRITI is not only efficient, but also just, or at least more just than the status quo.

    My other vague worry was, if you’re going to argue in this fashion, you’re going to leave government with no warrant for exercising power whatsoever, and where will be then? But that, presumably, is what your book is about, so I’ll find out the answer soon enough.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Nathan. Three brief observations:

      1. A social contract is a logically possible source of legitimate political authority. We agree on that. But it’s so unlikely that it would ever happen (since it needs unanimous consent) that we might as well forget about it.
      2. Yes, the economist consensus point only addresses economic arguments against immigration (“they’re stealing our jobs!”). It doesn’t address cultural arguments. But I think people who assume that every factor that can’t be precisely modeled or that we don’t have enough empirical evidence to assess really supports their side, deserve a bit of brow-beating.
      3. Yes, it turns out in the end that no state is legitimate. Oh, sorry for the spoiler. I won’t spoil any more.

  2. Economists are indeed universally confident about the benefits of immigration, in the short term.
    But consider why immigrants want to move to the West. Generally, it’s to take advantage of an economy supported by a political architecture of laws and institutions which ensure that rights are protected and enforced. But given that this architecture is dependent on popular political support as well as local norms like civic duty and cooperativeness, shouldn’t governments sometimes be wary of importing a population whose support for and capability of maintaining these norms is uncertain?

    1. Three thoughts on that. One, it’s not clear whether and how immigrants would damage the institutions that, as you say, they come here to benefit from. Native born people are just here by chance; immigrants specifically chose this country to come to, often at great cost. Therefore, it might be that immigrants have a stronger and more serious appreciation of the American system than native born Americans. (If they didn’t like our institutions, why would they come?) Perhaps you mean that immigrants will destroy our institutions by voting for … Democrats? Or just corrupt politicians?

      Second thought: if you’re really worried about voting patterns, you can distinguish residency from citizenship. We could grant legal residency to everyone who wants to come, but make citizenship much more demanding. Most would-be immigrants would much prefer that to being entirely excluded.

      Third thought: why should we not be at least as concerned — and willing to take equally strong measures — about native born people who are likely to vote badly? We could exclude all poor people from voting, for instance. But maybe you have some sort of citizenist objection to disenfranchising people who are already citizens. So how about we just refuse to allow their children to become citizens?

  3. I should probably add, having denied that most economists support open borders, why I do. Of course, that’s the topic of the blog as a whole, but it’s worth taking the opportunity to put it in a nutshell.

    First, there’s probably a moral difference here, where I take very seriously both the macro-ethical (so to speak) duty of pursuing the interests of mankind rather than those of the nation, and on the other hand the micro-ethical (so to speak) duty of respecting people’s rights, or as I call them (or at least it’s closely related) submitting to moral side-constraints.

    Second, for various reasons I doubt that the problem of degrading the institutions that support prosperity is as serious as many people fear. I think institutions are a bit overrated as a factor in development, though culture is underrated, so maybe that’s a wash. But I don’t think institutions depend all that much on the composition of the mass of the population: the elite is disproportionately important, and they have a lot of staying power if not violently disrupted, even in the face of large demographic changes. Thus, for example, the institutional trajectory of the United States to this day is very heavily influenced by the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation, even though the genetic contribution of those people to the modern American population is surely rather slight. More subtly, immigration can actually select in favor of the types of characters and preferences suitable to a country. And while we may not have a social contract, there are degrees of consent and perceived legitimacy, and immigration ENHANCES these, because immigrants, unlike natives, have indicated by a large positive action their desire to be part of the American polity.

    Third, I see large upsides to immigration, especially for the world but for natives too. My view of how the economy works emphasizes the value of variety, the importance of specialization and division of labor, and the reality of aggregate increasing returns. All that is separate from the idea generation which, thanks particularly to Paul Romer, is now the widely accepted explanation of long-run economic growth: but idea generation is a separate and powerful reason to be optimistic about immigration. For one thing, if immigration grows the world economy in the short run, even if it were at the expense of a lot of natives, that would boost innovation from the demand side, making invention more profitable and inducing more of it. On the supply side, not only do bright minds become more productive when they go to places more conducive to creative productivity, but the cross-fertilization of cultures tends to generate new ideas. This is visible in the pattern that immigrants always seem to have been disproportionately entrepreneurial.

    1. “Thus, for example, the institutional trajectory of the United States to this day is very heavily influenced by the Puritans at Plymouth Plantation, even though the genetic contribution of those people to the modern American population is surely rather slight. ”

      Your genetic claim is wrong, and likewise for claims about culture passed on parent-to-child, such as religion and partisan identification. Fertility was much higher in the early US, and early settler groups have increased their population (weighting those of mixed descent by genetic ancestry) by as much as a thousandfold.There were only 500,000 African slaves brought to the US, and today there are 40 million African-Americans, mostly descended from slaves. Later migration waves involve more migrants, but produced fewer members of today’s population per migrant.

      Wikipedia on this:

      Particularly in the years after 1630, Puritans left for New England (see Migration to New England (1620–1640)), supporting the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and other settlements. The large-scale Puritan emigration to New England then ceased, by 1641, with around 21,000 having moved across the Atlantic. This English-speaking population in America did not all consist of original colonists, since many returned to England shortly after arriving on the continent, but produced more than 16 million descendants.[34][35] This so-called “Great Migration” is not so named because of sheer numbers, which were much less than the number of English citizens who emigrated to Virginia and the Caribbean during this time.[36] The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~700,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate and lower death rate per year.

      “the cross-fertilization of cultures tends to generate new ideas”

      Really? Is this a serious problem for Japan or China, with their low immigration levels?

      “More subtly, immigration can actually select in favor of the types of characters and preferences suitable to a country.”

      That has been the experience under borders that were mostly closed, and with very high costs of migration. But of course this is less true when you actively work to reduce selectivity.

      “This is visible in the pattern that immigrants always seem to have been disproportionately entrepreneurial.”

      Are you accounting for selection and the substitution of petty entrepreneurship (e.g. subscale retail trade) for employment by those with language or other barriers to corporate employment matching their skill levels?

      1. Yes, a lack of cultural cross-fertilization is a problem for Japan and China, whose pathological closedness is causing the slow-motion meltdown we’ve been watching for the last 20 years. Japan periodically gets its batteries recharged by foreigners like Commodore Perry and General MacArthur, then runs down… I’m simplifying of course, but yes, Japan needs immigrants. As for China, openness to foreign influences, and the benefits of some Chinese being under foreign rule, was critical.

        1. The cases you’re talking about involve trying to imitate the best practices of more successful countries, which had grown to to the point of serious military superiority.

          The benefits weren’t benefits of generic cultural cross-fertilization, they were benefits of copying objectively more effective practices and knowledge. And they involved migrants with expertise in those areas.

          If Japan instituted open borders with Nigeria, what new capacities could it learn from a country that underperforms it in almost every area of technology, governance, and human welfare? Picking up bad ideas would seem more likely than good ones. And knowledge transfer has diminishing returns: what would Japan learn from 100 million low-skill Nigerian migrants that it would not learn from 1 million?

      2. “That has been the experience under borders that were mostly closed, and with very high costs of migration. But of course this is less true when you actively work to reduce selectivity.”

        Is there any reason to believe this claim? As far as I can tell, neither logic nor history supports it. If anything, I’d suppose that state control of migration would lead to a more statist composition of the migration population.

        1. If you are pushing for an unprecedentedly huge portion of the population of poor countries to migrate, they simply can’t be as selected as past migrant waves. If 1 out of 2 people from a country emigrate, they can’t all be in the top quartile for initiative.

    2. Puritan surnames enjoyed growth of 1000-2000 times in number within the United States between settlement and the 1930s, with further growth since then:

      The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Nov., 1936), pp. 435-437

      S. Colum Gilfillan

      After Three Centuries: A Typical New England Family. By Ellsworth Huntington and Martha Ragsdale. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins Co., 1935. Pp. viii+274. $2.50.

      From eighteen thousand Puritans who painfully emigrated in 1620-1642 sprang a race, by multiplication almost without addition, that has molded modern civilization and made the name of Yankee to be “loved and feared thruout the world.” One such obscure emigrant of 1633, Simon Huntington, died on the voyage, but his widow landed with her five children; and from these are descended at least nine-tenths of all the Huntingtons living in America today, numbering 5,500 born with that name, beside 1,500,000 Americans of other surnames. The 5,500 with the name today are the subject of this book, taken as a true sample of the whole Puritan, i.e. New England stock, and written up as a very interesting, novel, and valuable study in sociology and genetics, based on a new method–that of surname group–which should have wide utility to sociologists.

      1. And of course American politics did change significantly with subsequent immigration waves. If you are focused on economic institutions and productivity, the New Deal overthrew much of the old constitutional order with respect to economic institutions, in a process in which immigrant-oriented machine politics played an important role. And there are and have been significant differences in views on economic issues by ethnicity among Americans of European origin, with the later waves more favoring the kind of economic shifts towards increased state control of the economy that have been observed.

        1. The answer to this one shouts from the rooftops. When was the New Deal enacted. JUST AFTER THE BORDERS WERE CLOSED!!!!! Immigrants were part of the pre-1920s political equilibrium. Remove that factor, and you got some unfortunate constitutional changes.

          1. I have a hard time taking this seriously (shouting doesn’t make the argument any better).

            I mentioned two things, the differential support for the growth of the state by white ethnicity in the early 20th century (including the New Deal), and the New Deal shift.

            The first is directly observable and shows a pro-New Deal effect: Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans and other groups greatly augmented by the preceding immigration wave disproportionately supported and helped to devise the New Deal. Second, there is the causal connection with subsequent policy shifts. A mere post hoc, ergo propter hoc doesn’t go far, but the immigrant electoral effects were sizable and in the right direction.

            You offer the bare post hoc claim, when the direct mechanical effects from the observed immigrant population go in the opposite direction. The reduction in immigration levels was endogenous, in response to unusually high levels of immigration, from more culturally distant sources. At other times, when it is convenient, this blog emphasizes that political change is not instantaneous as new immigrants are naturalized, drawn into politics, and have children. So at the time of the New Deal the political impact of migration on economic policy was at historic highs, not lows.

            1. Before the 1920s, America tended to have a lot of new immigrants. It was just when this ceased to be the case that the New Deal was enacted. The timing fits absolutely perfectly, and furthermore after immigration was liberalized somewhat in 1964 policy swung back in a classic liberal direction with a similar lag (Reagan), so that free migration seems to have been a predictor of free market policies on both occasions. Of course, there had been large inflows of immigrants for generations before the 1920s, always from poorer and more authoritarian places, but they had never disrupted the constitutional equilibrium the way it was disrupted shortly after immigration was cut off. When immigration was loosened a bit the pendulum swung back in the direction of the more limited-government constitutional tradition.

      2. What share of the DNA of the modern US population could be traced to Puritan settlers in the 17th century. I’ll bet it’s under 20%, and that’s certainly low enough to make my point.

        1. “I’ll bet it’s under 20%, and that’s certainly low enough to make my point.”
          I don’t see it. What are the distinctive Puritan (as opposed to other groups making up the American population) features and practices that have survived so disproportionately relative to their share of ancestry?

          The US in 1790 was not all Puritan, there were Germans, other religious sects, convicts, and so forth.

          In 1930 the US population was 123 million, which combined with the info above, would give 13% of the general population, and quite a bit more of the electorate owing to differing turnout and disenfranchisement in the Southern states) in the electorate, with higher concentrations in the richer NE states.

          The non-Hispanic white population increased from 107 million in 1930 to 195 million in 2000, and 197 million in 2010, while the overall population grew to 281 and 308 million, while overall population . That would take the Puritan share down to ~10% or a bit lower.


          1. Actually, I think the specifically Puritan contribution to the character and institutions of the United States is overwhelming. America has a “city on a hill” complex which is directly traceable to the Puritans and really can’t be explained otherwise. America wants to set an example to the world. That largely explains why there has been so little interest in borrowing from Europe at the level of political and moral ideas. Old-fashioned monarchist absolutism had no influence here; but Marxism had hardly any influence either outside university campuses. The labor movement was far less important and never revolutionary. Fascism had few followers. Of course not: we’re Americans, we’re the city on the hill, the example to the world, Europe has nothing to teach us.

            Americans to this day are regarded as “puritanical” by Europeans. That moral uptightness is valuable, and I think it’s related both to America’s relative lack of corruption and to a certain democratic egalitarianism and middle-class mentality that persists in spite of the well-publicized rise in economic inequality. American democracy owes much to the New England town hall tradition. Of course, democracy of a sort was practiced in the South too, but the differences are instructive. There were elections, but there was also slavery, and in addition there was a decided aristocratic consciousness, an indolence and a conspicuous consumption, among the landed classes of the South. That’s not what made the great innovative dynamic American economy that emerged in the late 19th century. Not for nothing do we speak of “Yankee inventiveness.” The South shows what America could have been without the Puritans. It was basically overwhelmed and reluctantly, and incompletely, assimilated by the America that began at Plymouth Plantation.

            If you think about Jefferson’s notion, in the Declaration of Independence, that governments are established by consent of the governed, bogus or not the idea has certainly shaped American destiny to an important degree, and surely the template of that manifesto was the Mayflower Compact. Yes, Jefferson was from Virginia, and Locke was the intellectual grandfather of the Declaration of Independence, but a big part of the reason that made so much sense here was that the Puritans really did, almost, found a polity in which the social contract was real. And it was Boston where the American Revolution began.

            Throughout American history, there has been a kind of religious fervor for moral and social betterment, which has taken different forms, some very good, like abolitionism, the civil rights movement, some that I’m less favorable too, like Prohibition or the current push for gay marriage or feminism– though even Prohibition, though it went too far, did represent a real struggle against a social evil, debilitating alcoholism, and would deserve some admiration if it had stuck to moral suasion. Again, it’s not mainly the descendants of Puritans who lead these movements, though possibly the Northeast still does more than its fair share of spearheading them. People from all over the world come here, absorb and take ownership of American traditions, and carry them on.

            This book argues that America’s management tradition, too, is largely Puritan in iits origins.

            1. Thanks, Nathan and BK, for the interesting analyses of the Puritans’ contributions to America. This is very important for understanding America. I confess that I’m having a little trouble seeing why you two need to argue with each other, or exactly how that argument bears on the case for open borders. Let’s stipulate that the Puritans had a surprisingly large and lasting influence on America, both culturally and genetically. And I assume this is because they came at the beginning; the many later generations of immigrants didn’t have as large an impact. I guess that the relevance to open borders is something like this: new immigrants in the future won’t have as big an impact on the culture as you might think, because the culture is much more strongly shaped by its early period. BK, do you disagree with this basic point? Would you say we should worry about future immigrants damaging our culture?

              1. The question is how much of the influence of early settlers, particularly influence affecting the quality of institutions (corruption, economic productivity, etc) is transmitted through at least three mechanisms:

                1. Parent to child (culturally or genetically). Here the Puritans had outsized impact because of their high birth rates and early start in the United States. Religion and genetically mediated differences in personality and intelligence work this way. To the extent this channel is important, then culture and institutions change to reflect the new mix when migrants enter, and the results will vary depending on the culture and biology of the migrants.

                We know that there are lasting differences in educational outcomes, IQ, incomes, and political behavior that track with geographic ancestry, seen at both the international and intranational levels (the latter effects are stronger, see the work of Garrett Jones).

                For example, 3rd and 4th generation Mexican-Americans continue to underperform other Americans in educational levels, IQ, political knowledge, income, large-scale entrepreneurship, and STEM contributions. They also remain disproportionately Catholic (religion is passed down in families culturally). Assimilation in language is rapid, and migrants soon assimilate to the behavior of their coethnics in the US, but the above differences are lasting, and affect the local institutions.

                2. Assimilation to the majority/one’s neighbors. Here the idea is that new entrants tend to imitate those who surround them. If at any particular time immigrants are a minority (not just nationally, but locally enough to cause interactions with others from the majority culture) then they can be assimilated to the majority, and assimilate others in the future, so that eventually the population may be mostly descended from later immigrants, while the culture strongly reflects the early immigrants.

                However, this channel would tend to break down as the immigrant share of the population increases. As Vipul has noted, the immigrant share of the US population is already one of the highest in the world, and quite close to its historical peak:

                Given data on past responses to open borders with rich countries (such as Puerto Rico and the US) and international surveys which show that most of a billion people already express desire to migrate to a developed country, it is likely that fully open borders would make natives a minority within the US, sharply reducing the effectiveness of this assimilation channel.

                3. Institutional inertia. Here the idea is that laws and conventions are hard to change, and themselves alter the culture of incoming migrants. For example, the mere existence of trial by jury creates support for jury trials through status quo bias and participation in jury trials, and the over-representation of rural states in the U.S. Congress resists change since the rural states use their over-representation to maintain itself.

                The more important this channel is, the more populations that have typically generated poor institutions can benefit from migration to regions with good institutions without quickly compromising them. And if institutions do deteriorate, but very slowly, then migrants could successively move to countries with the best institutions, increase their productivity, and then move on to another high-quality jurisdiction when the institutions of the first have decayed, increasing world GDP and the average quality of institutions under which people live.

                The relative strength of these channels is of great importance in predicting the effects of migration. The claims of enormous benefits and ‘doubling world GDP’ typically rely on the assumption that differences in productivity around the world, ‘place premia,’ will not be dissipated by increased migration from countries with poor institutions. But if we look at demographically diverse countries, we tend to find place premia intermediate between countries populated primarily by one or other of the diverse subpopulations (see this post for a fair amount of discussion):


                And based on age, income, and surveys of willingness to migrate, migration under open borders would be dominated by migrants from countries which have historically performed badly as past migrants and in their own countries, in economic/institutional terms.

                This effect could claw back a large chunk of the proffered benefits, and might even make the aggregate effect for world GDP negative in the medium term (it would be positive in the short term). And it could have negative effects long-term through worse decision-making by the rich countries on big questions.

                With respect to your arguments that native citizens would benefit from open borders (I am not a citizenist myself, so this isn’t of primary interest to me), if countries post-migration wind up with performance similar to that of other demographically similar regions, natives could easily lose out in the new equilibrium.

                Unless, of course, institutional inertia is very strong, or institutions are not as central to differences in national productivity as many economists believe.

                1. Thanks for that very helpful explanation. I’m not sure whether you actually favor continued restriction, or if you’re just saying we can’t be sure of the benefits.

                  In any case, I see the cause for concern, and I don’t have the time (nor the knowledge) to do justice to the issue. One very brief thought, though. When we are uncertain of the effects of a policy, I generally think we should err on the side of less restriction. We are coercing a lot of people in a way that is very harmful to those individuals. We would need a really strong argument to justify that. And we’re not even sure if we’re improving anything for other people in the long run.

                  1. I would definitely defend the following claims:

                    1) An immigration system modeled after that of Singapore, which has easy permanent immigration for skilled people (in the expectation that their cultural and genetic contributions as voters, parents, and officials will improve or sustain the local standard of living), and relatively easy guest worker access (but not permanent settlement) for low-skill workers, is preferable to open borders, and to the status quo. It would capture most of the benefits of open borders while avoiding most of the risks.

                    2) It is worth some meaningful delay in increasing immigration, and some meaningful reduction in immigration levels to get a Singapore-style rather than an open borders system.

                    I would not defend current policy as better than large increases in mostly high-skill immigration, and if the alternatives were open borders and locking in current policy forever, I would currently favor open borders, albeit not with much confidence.

                    Regarding your libertarian presumption (assuming you mean something more than “go with the best expected outcome”), I don’t buy it, for several reasons.

                    First, your general approach of appealing to the perceived illegitimacy of coercion by non-state actors to restrict the state relies on intuitions that are themselves produced by states. States assert a monopoly on coercion, and pressure their citizens to accept that monopoly (see Pinker’s book “Better angels of our nature” for evidence and arguments about the role of state consolidation in reducing violence). Personal objections to violence are cheap talk in this context, since engaging in violence would be very costly, and endorsing it is strongly discouraged.

                    But in stateless conditions individuals and small groups are more often in conditions where private coercion may in fact pay off, and they are not subjected to propaganda campaigns from a state. Hunter-gatherers who do not share food face violent reprisals. Fishermen who overfish common stocks face retribution from other fishermen. Pastoralists must maintain a reputation for vengeance against thieves to sustain their livelihood. Individuals who gossip and harm others without violence may nonetheless face coercion.

                    So I think your appeals to “commonsense morality” are being illegitimately boosted by factors that do not apply to the stateless condition, when you have little reason to favor the intuitions produced by state monopoly over those in stateless conditions (your advocacy of statelessness makes the tension all the more striking).

                    Second, libertarianism is strongly associated with atypical neurological clusters such as Asperger’s which impair social skills, empathy with neurotypical humans, and increase resistance to fluid and informal social norms and structures. Strong libertarian intuitions about atomized individuals and their primacy over aggregate welfare or social groups are not shared by most. Similarly, libertarians tend strongly to be white and male. As an intuitionist moral realist who thinks that intuitions provide evidence about the truth, you should find the rarity of these intuitions especially disturbing: why think that your dispositions are more likely to be true than others’, simply because you were born with them?

                    Third, if you are going to privilege a libertarian ‘default’ rather than going with expected consequences, there is a conservative ‘default’ to respond with. Open borders given modern disparities in wages and low transportation costs is an unprecedented policy. It has not been demonstrated anywhere on Earth, and starting with the United States would be relatively high-risk for the world.


                    Fourth, to engage on something closer to your own libertarian terms, the desirability of migration to rich countries is primarily a result of the people who live there and the institutions that they sustain. If the population and norms and institutions in the United States were like those of Africa, Africans would not be eager to migrate to the U.S. Control of immigration can be viewed as a collective effort to internalize the net externalities produced by the existing population. The restrictions on individual contracts between potential employers and employees, or landlords and tenants, are then not too different in kind from restrictions on the freedom of individual fisherman to fish from a common fishery.

                    1. Again, I lack time for more than a brief comment. To BK, I don’t understand your perspective. You seem to be suggesting that we should reject the principle of the presumption against coercion because (a) people in primitive cultures used coercion a lot more than we do, (b) it’s a principle that only libertarians find intuitive, and libertarians have a strange personality type. And then you appear to be suggesting that instead, we should accept a utilitarian ethics. Is that roughly right?

                      If that’s what you’re saying, I’m confused, because, if people in primitive cultures didn’t accept a presumption against coercion, they certainly weren’t utilitarians either. Utilitarians are an even smaller segment of society, both now and throughout history, than libertarians. So I don’t see how these arguments would lead someone to embrace utilitarianism.

                      Also, the presumption against coercion is widely accepted, not just by libertarians but by ordinary conservatives and liberals.

                    2. Hi Mike,

                      I think that the libertarian “presumption against coercion” means different things for libertarians and non-libertarians. For non-libertarians, the presumption against coercion is merely a thumb-rule or a heuristic in the absence of further information, not something that would affect the overall calculus in the sense of changing the burden of proof. The non-libertarian would argue that coercion is bad because of its bad consequences, it’s not intrinsically wrong. In the absence of time to do a full cost-benefit analysis, then going with the libertarian presumption is fine because non-coercion is a generally valid heuristic. If, on the other hand, a full cost-benefit analysis shows that the benefits of coercion even very marginally exceed the costs, then coercion is fine. For a libertarian on the other hand, the benefits have to not just exceed the costs, but exceed the costs significantly.

                    3. I’m a moral skeptic, I don’t think utilitarianism is true. I was explaining why I found your argument unpersuasive.

                      “Also, the presumption against coercion is widely accepted, not just by libertarians but by ordinary conservatives and liberals.”

                      Along with legal controls on the availability of foods, redistributive taxation, land use in the name of civic appearance, the moral permissibility of conscription, immigration restictions, compulsory schooling…

                      Not much of one.

                    4. Vipul, I don’t think that’s correct. Almost everyone gets the standard counterexamples to utilitarianism, like the doctor harvesting the organs to save 5 patients, the judge framing the innocent person to prevent a riot, pushing the fat man in front of the trolley, etc. Maybe economists would say all those actions are right, but hardly anyone else would.

                      I’ve discussed moral skepticism elsewhere (see my book _Ethical Intuitionism_). But I don’t think it’s a fair objection in this context, i.e., I don’t think someone arguing for open borders should have to respond to the possibility that maybe nothing is good, bad, right, or wrong (or we never know that anything is) — even though, if that’s the case, then I’d be wrong in saying that we “should” open the borders. I think this is roughly analogous to a case like this: you’re arguing with someone about whether there is anthropogenic climate change. And at one point, the person says that climate change hasn’t been proven, because no one has proved that physical reality exists. I think the climate-change advocate doesn’t have to respond to that.

                      Now, BK’s objection wasn’t _directly_ like that — he didn’t just say that we don’t know that we should open the borders because no one knows any ethical truth. But he gave objections to my moral premises that, if correct, I think would apply equally to all moral views. The argument from disagreement, if it poses a problem for my views, would be a general problem for all moral views. So I think that, if I don’t have to respond to moral skepticism in general in this context, I also don’t have to respond to an argument that, if consistently applied, entails general moral skepticism.

                    5. Mike, while I am sympathetic to ethical intuitionism, I don’t think that’s a philosophy that most people believe in. I think that people generally justify a doctor not harvesting organs to save patients in consequentialist terms, e.g., that this would reduce trust that would hamper the efficient functioning of society, and have negative long-run consequences. Some people believe in “rule-utilitarianism” which is amenable to that kind of logic even in instances where you might say that “nobody would get to know about this.”

                      Perhaps, all people have an inner ethical intuitionist with a strong moral presumption against coercion. But that inner creature needs quite a bit of work to awaken, so I think it’s incorrect to say that people are already where you want them to be in terms of moral reasoning.

                      I haven’t read Ethical Intuitionism, so perhaps reading it may change my mind. Is there a (planned) Kindle edition for it?

                    6. Vipul, I’m not saying most people believe intuitionism. Most people either have no metaethical theory or have at most some very confused thoughts. But we’re talking about first-order ethical views. When you tell people about the organ harvesting case and the frame-the-innocent case, the vast majority of people unequivocally say it’s wrong to harvest the organs or frame the innocent. They don’t say, “Yes, of course you should frame the innocent. What’s the problem?” They don’t even say, “Wow, that’s puzzling. It maximizes utility, yet there still somehow seems to be something wrong…” No, they just say, “Of course you can’t do that. That’s horrible.”

                      I haven’t surveyed a lot of people in detail on _why_ you shouldn’t kill the healthy patient. I suspect that common reactions would be in the neighborhood of “That’s just wrong!”, “It’s murder”, “He has a right to life”, etc. Only the tiny minority of utilitarian philosophers and economists are going to start talking about the general practices that hamper the functioning of society.

                      If you keep pushing — “But WHY is murder wrong?” — it’s hard to predict what you’ll get. Probably some vague, confused statements. At this point, what you’re doing is demanding that they come up with a philosophical theory to rationalize something that they never reflected on before. Maybe some will say, “God says not to kill people.” Or “Society says not to kill people.” (“Ok, so if society tells you to kill people, will it then be right?” “Society wouldn’t say that!” “Okay, but *if it did*…” “This is stupid. I have to go home.”)

                2. Good summary, though I would add:

                  4. Selection effects. People who migrate tend to have certain traits. Migration itself is an entrepreneurial act, and migrants are likely to be atypical in their preference for the traits of the destination country. Natives may be less so because of mean reversion. Think of what would happen to Hollywood’s movie industry or Boston’s universities or Wall Street’s financial industry if internal migration were prohibited. The children of actors, professors and bankers would inherit some of their parents’ talents, but probably would have less of them than people drawn from the whole country.

                  Actually, one more:

                  5. Social contract effects. Natives don’t do anything, in fact, to indicate consent to the regime, but immigrants sort of do: they come, voluntarily, to live under its rule. Huemer, I presume, would rightly deny that this constitutes a real contract, but I suspect it would still have a psychologocal effect of making people feel bound to their adopted country. They might also be more grateful for its advantages because they’ve seen the alternative.

                  I suspect these are part of the reason that the loss of large populations of recent immigrants in the American republic was quickly followed by a constitutional crisis and a partial breakdown of its heritage even of internal freedom.

                  1. “Selection effects.”

                    Right, which like assimilation are less strong if the barriers to immigration are weaker.

                    “I suspect these are part of the reason that the loss of large populations of recent immigrants in the American republic was quickly followed by a constitutional crisis and a partial breakdown of its heritage even of internal freedom.”

                    This is getting ridiculous. The new immigrant communities, both recent and less recent, disproportionately supported the New Deal. There is no reported effect whereby more recent immigrants were more resistant to the New Deal: if anything, it was the opposite.

                    You are claiming that an increased inflow of people disproportionately supportive of the New Deal would have prevented it? How?

                    If you are going to invoke social contract effects, please present some survey or political behavior data supporting their existence and indicating their magnitude.

                    1. The point is that those groups wouldn’t have been as supportive of the New Deal if the benefits would have gone to poorer more recent immigrants, while the more recent immigrants wouldn’t have been politically/ideologically organized. It may or may not be true, it would be interesting to investigate, but the story makes sense and the timing contradicts the open immigration => New Deal link too strongly for that to be taken seriously.

                    2. There could be many reasons other than political externalities why immigration restriction led to New Deal policies. One causal channel may be through economic depression. Immigration restriction -> bad economic performance -> increased appeal of statist policies. My prior, however, that immigration restriction had nothing to do with the New Deal either way, i.e., the counterfactual without immigration restrictions would not have been too different. I’m open to being convinced otherwise, but would need strong data rather than mere speculation.

            2. “That moral uptightness is valuable, and I think it’s related both to America’s relative lack of corruption .”

              America is now 19/176 on corruption perceptions, behind the Northern European countries, Canada, and the UK:


              Given the corruption levels of the coethnics of ancestors of the current US population, US corruption levels are not particularly surprising. And indeed we know that there are continued subcultural and ethnic disparities in corrupt behavior.

              “and to a certain democratic egalitarianism and middle-class mentality that persists in spite of the well-publicized rise in economic inequality”

              Americans have always actually been richer than Europeans on average, with more land and higher wages and income per person.

              “America has a “city on a hill” complex which is directly traceable to the Puritans and really can’t be explained otherwise. America wants to set an example to the world. ”

              America is bigger and richer and more powerful, so it interferes with the rest of the world, and Americans tend to think of it as the best. I’m very skeptical of this kind of historians’ “traceability,” without evidence of causality. Often one gets “people did X in period A, and also in period B, so the X in B must be caused by the X in period A” where X is some kind of ordinary human behavior that occurs in many times and places.

              “Throughout American history, there has been a kind of religious fervor for moral and social betterment, which has taken different forms, some very good, like abolitionism, the civil rights movement, some that I’m less favorable too, like Prohibition or the current push for gay marriage or feminism– though even Prohibition, though it went too far, did represent a real struggle against a social evil, debilitating alcoholism, and would deserve some admiration if it had stuck to moral suasion.”

              Feminism, the abolition of slavery, and antidiscrimination laws happened in Europe too.

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