Influencing policy in the direction of open borders: moderate versus radical approaches

I recently responded to Tyler Cowen’s latest critique of open borders. While thinking through my response, my mind wandered over to the question of what the optimal way would be to influence policy in the direction of open borders, and whether one could make a sort of Straussian argument that the best way to move toward open borders is to eschew it overtly, and instead support moderate pro-immigration groups. Since I founded the Open Borders website (even though I’m no longer blogging regularly for the site) this raises the question of whether I did the world a disservice. At any rate, it raises the question of whether I could, instead of spending the several dozens of hours setting up the site, simply have used that time to earn more money at the margin and then donated it to an existing moderate pro-immigration group such as those listed here, or to a lobbying group such as those listed here.

One potential response here is that advocating and/or discussing open borders is virtuous in and of itself, even if it’s very unlikely to have any effect on the status quo. This is the view of open borders advocacy as a part of virtue ethics (cf. Bryan Caplan’s post on his two modes). This response is, however, not the whole story. Advocating and discussing open borders is unlikely to cause any major short-run changes. But, as I attempted to demonstrate in my clumsy imitation of the Drake equation, the expected value of open borders advocacy could still be huge. Roughly, this is because even though the extent to which the world can move toward open borders is very small, the gains are so huge that even multiplying them by a small number still gives a relatively large number that exceeds the cost of trying.

There are two broad strategies that seem to suggest themselves, namely advocacy of the two ends of the moderate versus radical axis:

  • Switching to moderate pro-immigration rhetoric that directly appeals to the masses.
  • Targeting the intelligentsia with our radical ideas, but presented well in a manner that might affect their thinking and writing, even if they don’t explicitly link to us or endorse our proposals wholesale.

Note that the moderate versus radical axis differs conceptually from the direct (try to directly reach out to the public or people in power) versus indirect (try to make general arguments and let things percolate to the masses over time) axis. However, there is a close relationship: direct approaches are statistically more likely to be moderate, simply because it’s difficult to do direct work on a radical stance. That said, some forms of direct action may implicitly carry an extreme pro-open borders message.

In subsequent blog posts, I’ll consider and compare the historical track records of moderate and radical approaches. In the meantime, I’m curious as to what readers think. Of course, one could say “we need both” but I’m looking for an answer to a more specific question: what does your intuition say about which approach is more valuable at the margin? If you think that the approach that’s more valuable at the margin depends on the skill sets of the people involved, what skill sets do you think are more conducive to each approach?

6 thoughts on “Influencing policy in the direction of open borders: moderate versus radical approaches”

  1. There is a quote from an essay on compromise by Ayn Rand on this:

    The three rules listed below are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.

    In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.

    In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins.

    When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.

    Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal “The Anatomy of Compromise,”
    Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 145

  2. I’m biased given I blog here but I’m pretty in favour of the radical approach. Somebody needs to push the Overton window here, and hard, against the “zero net migration” folks. A moderate approach might yield some modest gains in the mainstream, but I’m skeptical it’d move the needle enough to yield sizeable gains. I find it’s also difficult to build an intellectually honest and coherent case for most “moderate” immigration liberalisations. The only clear, compelling, coherent cases I’ve seen for such moderate policies is that they move us closer to open borders — I’ve not seen any evidence beyond speculation that there’s some Goldilocks amount of “moderate” immigration restrictions.

    I’m also skeptical of the value in focusing our efforts directly on the median voter. IMO it seems like there’s a much better return on investment from targeting “thought leaders” (a set that’s not necessarily congruent with politicians or political leaders). And if you’re going to target thought leaders, you need an intellectually clear and honest case and something that really captures the imagination + compels them to make this a priority. “Moderate” immigration liberalisation approaches generally fail (or at best leave a lot to be desired) on all these counts.

Leave a Reply