How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?

I think open borders is a radical proposal, given how far the world is from it. I also think that open borders (or even partial steps in that direction) will significantly transform the global economy, culture, and society, and the details can’t clearly be predicted. Economists have estimated that open borders will increase global production by 50-150%. Even though I think this might be overstated, I think that even with that overstatement, open borders is still worth pushing for, which is why I’m sticking with it.

If open borders is such a big deal and the consequences are so unclear and uncertain, why should people who are already well off support it? If you lead a comfortable life in the First World and are generally risk-averse, open borders may well not pass a cost-benefit analysis for you. You might gain somewhat economically and in terms of cuisine options, but on the other hand you might see a slight wage dip and have to deal with changes to your neighborhood that you may not like. Even if you gain a bit on net in expectation (and I think there are good reasons to believe that most First-Worlders will benefit from open borders, both as natives of countries receiving migrants and because their own migration options have increased), it may not be enough to get you excited.

Co-blogger Nathan says something similar when discussing differences between the open borders movement and the gay marriage movement:

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits— but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Economic illiteracy and xenophobia probably explain a large part of why the world is far from open borders, but even if you get rid of these, open borders simply isn’t an exciting proposition for many reasonably well-off First Worlders from a purely self-interested and risk-averse perspective. What I mean by this is that, if open borders were to become the status quo, they’d probably get used to it and be quite okay with it over a long timeframe. But it’s not something whose benefits are huge, tangible, and clear.

For me in particular, open borders is interesting because of its global impact (undoubtedly, I would likely personally benefit from it, but not enough to justify all the time and effort I’m spending on it). But most people aren’t that interested in global impact. They (rightly or wrongly) care about their personal lives and their neighborhood (hence all the focus on territorialism, local inequality aversion, and the border as blindfold). They may bear no ill-will to foreigners but aren’t particularly concerned about them.

Given that freeing up migration often involves changing policy in receiving countries, how do we overcome people’s apathy/risk-aversion, even assuming we could overcome the arguably bigger problems of economic illiteracy and xenophobia? What’s a sustainable way of doing this? In this post, I discuss three strategies:

  • Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits
  • Buying support
  • Moral inspiration

After discussing them, I outline my own ideal strategy mix.

Strategy #1: Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits

The first and simplest strategy is to push back on claims of harms and exaggerate the personal benefits that people will receive from freer migration. For instance, one could (somewhat misleadingly) say that because open borders is expected to double world GDP, it’s expected to double “your” income. This isn’t true if the person being addressed is already a reasonably well-off First-Worlder (though people in certain professions may see their incomes more than double, this is domain-specific). Your income might go up or down modestly, and your capital assets are likely to appreciate, but it’ll fall far short of doubling.

Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits can be a good strategy to begin a slippery slope to open borders, but I don’t think it’s a sustainable strategy. There’s a small chance that people initially attracted to migration liberalization in the hope of personal gain later start supporting it for other reasons (such as Oskar Schindler, who was initially motivated to save the Jews for reasons of personal profit, but later became passionate about it as an end in itself). But it’s also possible that being deceived about huge personal gains can make people even more skeptical of migration liberalization, and cause the gains to get frozen earlier than they would if a more honest communication strategy were used.

To be clear, I don’t think that, at the present margin, the general public in First-World countries (or elsewhere) has been successfully misled to believe migration will be a better deal than it actually is. In fact, all the evidence suggests that people are more negative about the consequences of current migration, and marginal increases in migration, than the evidence suggests. So, currently, people are erring in the other direction, and correcting that can be a valuable first step in garnering support for more liberal migration policies. I just don’t think there is an advantage in moving the distortion in the other direction, except in the case of one-time and quick policy changes. I also have moral/epistemic qualms about deception, which might be distorting my views about its efficacy.

Strategy #2: Buying support

Open borders isn’t a Pareto improvement over the status quo, but some cleverly devised keyhole solutions, such as immigration tariffs or co-blogger Nathan Smith’s more elaborate DRITI scheme, can come close. Now, as I explained in this post, it can be hard to be Pareto-improving in practice — somebody, somewhere, is going to get hurt — but one can design policies that are Pareto-improving in expectation:

So, some natives are expected to lose out. A number of people believe that political changes must be, to the extent possible, Pareto improvements: nobody’s worse off than before. This is not to be taken literally: it’s impossible to be sure that nobody would lose out from a change as large as significant liberalization of migration. So I’ll use Pareto improvement in the sense of Pareto improvement in expectation at the clearly identifiable subgroup level: no large subgroup of the population that can be identified clearly in advance should, in expectation, be worse off than before. On this view, then, one native being killed by somebody who migrated due to liberalization of migration does not violate migration being a Pareto improvement. But if high school dropouts can, in expectation, expect to see their wages go down by 5% due to migration liberalization, that is a no-no and we need to get back to the drawing board.

Some people, including co-blogger Nathan, view Pareto improvement as a proxy for moral desirability. On the other hand, co-blogger Paul has pushed back against this line of thinking. He has declared that support for keyhole solutions is more rightly viewed as a way of buying support from people who are extracting rents from the status quo and — a sometimes necessary compromise but still a compromise:

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


Real open borders, where an individual, regardless of where she happened to be born, can choose where in the world she wants to live, is the only moral border regime. Keyhole policies are at best ethical compromises. Compromises, even ethical compromises, are often necessary in political matters, but we should mince no words in naming them what they are.

In addition to the moral qualms, designing keyhole solutions that actually work and get political traction is a hard problem, as I’ve alluded to in my post on the permissibility, desirability, feasibility, and stability of keyhole solutions, and later in my post on the puzzle of why there hasn’t been more aggressive experimentation by governments in an open borders direction. Or as co-blogger John puts it:

I think the main reason why we don’t have open borders — other than general xenophobic prejudice, which is really probably the hugest reason — is that the transaction cost of striking mutually beneficial deals is still really high. This is all the more true when you include in the cost of the deal having to ensure the deal is Pareto-neutral or -improving for every citizen of the more powerful country in the deal.

Put in more concrete terms, there is definitely some arrangement possible whereby some number of Ethiopians greater than the current number permitted are allowed to move to the US for work or play. Perhaps these Ethiopians would have to pay some exit or entry tax to each government — or perhaps their lucrative labour would be subject to a surtax which would be shared by Ethiopia and the US. However way you slice it, there is some way for the human race to come ahead in this deal. And I’m not going to even rule out the possibility that some migration treaty of this kind might be superior to a simple open border policy — if moving to the US leads Ethiopians who drive drunk to cause more property damage than they would have crashing their cars in Ethiopia, it might be better to tax Ethiopians as a group to socially insure against this.

The obvious problem is that striking deals like this is very difficult. It gets even more difficult when you factor existing welfare systems into the equation, and when you consider that it is impossible to fairly actuarially predict a given individual or even a given population’s future income or social costs. Throw in the fact that to be actually Pareto-neutral, you’d have to compensate every old bigot who doesn’t like to see Ethiopian people, and it’s basically impossible to strike such deals, if it wasn’t impossible already.

Strategy #3: Moral inspiration

The idea behind moral inspiration is simple: people are convinced that there is a moral case for something, and so, as long as the personal costs to them aren’t too high, they are willing to support it. Moral inspiration can’t make most people undertake huge sacrifices (though some people certainly will) but it can overcome apathy. If people are reasonably convinced of the moral necessity or wisdom of something, the question shifts away from “does this have a clear, tangible benefit for me worth the risks?” to “are the risks from this so high as to overcome the presumption in favor of doing the right thing?” This is why the moral case for open borders is featured prominently in our site menus (and will be even more prominent once we finish the site revamp).

Bryan Caplan has pushed for moral inspiration as the truly worthy way to promote open borders:

For many other important libertarian issues, appeals to self-interest are factually correct but, to use Brian’s word, “unworthy.” Immigration is such an issue. Yes, doubling GDP by opening world borders will enrich most people in the First World. But these economic benefits for First Worlders are not the main reason why I advocate open borders. The main reason I advocate open borders is that immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice against people from Third World countries. Once someone retreats to, “Yes, immigration restrictions are a terrible injustice, but doing the right thing would be very costly,” I’m happy to delve into the social science with them. Until then, they’re just missing the point.

Morality comes in different flavors, and co-blogger Nathan’s focus on what we owe humanity, and how to grapple with the reality of global poverty, might resonate more with some:

Which brings me to open borders. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think most experts would probably agree that open borders could do more to ameliorate world poverty than anything else we can do. I would say with a good deal of confidence that they could do far more, that everything else we can do is pretty much trivial by comparison. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe my story about getting stuck in the mud is a parable after all. For when I tried to help, offering a ride and then tossing the apple, it didn’t work. The offer was not understood, or the gift caused a fight. But the villagers in Msinja– I should have mentioned the name before now– enjoyed the dignity of being repaid for a service well rendered. I went back to Msinja the next week, with a car loaded with maize (though not the kind they wanted as it turned out, but oh well) and also vegetables, and– this was the best part– a soccer ball! The boys had been playing soccer (football) in the field using a wad of paper bags. I will never forget how their eager eyes followed me after they thought they heard me mention (in English, to the one woman in the village who knew some) a soccer ball; nor how they jumped and cheered when they saw it. They gave us tea, and I was introduced to the whole village, three generations of a few intermarried extended families, people for whom a job as, say, a supermarket checkout clerk in Lilongwe would have been the end of the rainbow, people of the kind from whom I was usually separated by the alienation of beggar and benefactor, but with whom, for once, I now chatted and laughed as equals. We are, at the end of the day, one humanity, and there is great joy in that. This post may have made some people more afraid of open borders. One might approve of the Malawians as I have described them but not want them as neighbors. That will not do. We have a responsibility to our fellow men, and aid will never discharge it: it’s too ineffective, and it doesn’t give people the dignity that work gives. We need to be less squeamish, and less cowardly. We need to open up to far more people the doors of opportunity.

I think moral inspiration is the smartest strategy. Co-blogger Nathan has written about the importance of moral inspiration by comparing the push for open borders with the abolition of slavery, with a particular focus on the role of Christianity (and in particular the Catholic Church) in the fight against slavery:

Again, one might suppose that the Church wasn’t all that serious, that it was dealing in mere “pious exhortation.” But what else does the Church have? To be sure, the Catholic Church in the High Middle Ages had more coercive power than it has, or desires, today. But it never had large armies under its sovereign authority. For brief moments, such as the papacy of Innocent III, it managed to become the leading political actor in Europe through astute diplomacy and the use of multiple channels of influence (e.g., Pope Innocent III authorized the new Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders). But it was never a match for the kings in military terms; it had, rather, moral and what we might call sacramental influence– it could excommunicate: is that “coercion?”– and sometimes a lot of financial power. It was never in a position to enact “a law to which exact obedience was required from the faithful.” Slavery could never have been abolished by papal fiat. It had to change hearts and minds. That’s a slow process. Today, open borders advocates face the same issue: the Catholic Church’s official position is as supportive of open borders, almost, as one could wish; yet the Catholic Church’s 1.2 billion worldwide membership translates into very little practical support for freedom of migration. But why should this surprise us, when 54% of Catholics support gay marriage? With slavery, immigration restrictions, and gay marriage alike, the Catholic Church makes its views plain, but most of its nominal members, most of the time, don’t listen. Yet it has nonetheless, sometimes, moved the world in its direction in the long run. Late medieval Europe was almost free of slavery.

When I talk of moral inspiration, this includes the full spectrum of levels of engagement. At one extreme, you could have people who haven’t really thought deeply of the moral case but support it at the simplest level: “it’s wrong to stop people from moving around unless that has really bad consequences” (a presumptive libertarianism) combined with “open borders may affect me somewhat, but I don’t think it’s going to cause me a lot of harm.” At the other extreme, you have people who have studied migration heavily and have estimates of how open borders would transform the world, and based on all this, they think that the harms aren’t great enough to overwhelm the moral case for migration.

My ideal mix

I think strategy #1 isn’t good, except insofar as it broadly cancels out existing anti-foreign bias or misinformation in that direction. As for strategies #2 and #3, I think they are both important. But temporally, I think #3 should come first. The ideal sequence for me is:

  • Morally inspire a large and influential chunk of the relevant publics, to the point that it’s, say, more than 1/3 of elite publics and more than 1/5 of the general politically engaged population (for the appropriate comparison numbers, see Who favors open borders? by Nathan Smith).
  • The critical mass of morally inspired people plays two roles: first, even though they are still a minority, they form a reliable and dependable group who will stick with migration liberalization even in the face of somewhat rough times. That persistence is needed because opening borders won’t be smooth sailing. Second, devising appropriate keyhole solutions to buy out the rest of the population is not a trivial task. It needs a large number of people who come at the issue from different angles. So the critical mass will be really helpful there.
  • Once the critical mass is in place, double down on exploring and implementing keyhole solutions and slippery slopes to open borders, buying additional support using these. Use feedback from initial experiments to double down further. If initial experiments backfire somewhat, the bought-out contingent might no longer be loyal, but attrition from the morally inspired contingent will hopefully not be that high (unless the results are truly disastrous, but in that case, maybe we do need to rethink the case for open borders).

I’ll close with an excerpt from a blog post by Bryan Caplan. I believe that if a sufficiently large population is morally inspired, we’ll overcome the situation where people aren’t trying hard to realize the gains relative to the status quo. That’s why I put moral inspiration first temporally.

Now consider: Economists already know how to extract many trillions of dollars of additional value from the global economy. How? Open borders. Under the status quo, most of the world’s workers are stuck in unproductive backwaters. Under free migration, labor would relocate to more productive regions, massively increasing total production. Standard cost-benefit analysis predicts that global GDP would roughly double. In a deep sense, we are sitting on an ocean of talent – most of which tragically goes to waste year after year.

When people accept this analysis, though, they rarely display elation, frustration, ingenuity, or tenacity. The standard reaction, instead, is naysaying. “First World workers will lose.” “Only the rich will gain.” “They’ll all go on welfare.” “Our culture will be destroyed.” “The immigrants will increase crime.” The underlying attitude is not frustration at the difficulty of realizing mankind’s full potential, but sheer apathy. People look for reasons not to open borders – no matter how enormous its potential social benefits.

My point: Apathy in the face of unrealized multi-trillion dollar gains is absurd. People wouldn’t be apathetic if a trillion dollars worth of Leonium were under the Empire State Building. Instead, people would be constructive – earnestly searching for ways to surmount every impediment to success – natural or social, real or imagined.

Thanks to Nathan Smith and Rebekah Smith for helpful comments.

Related reading

Here are some posts in addition to the ones linked inline, that I didn’t find a good place to fit into my post without making it too long, but that are nonetheless interesting and related:

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