Keyhole solutions: permissibility, desirability, feasibility, and stability

At Open Borders: The Case, we have often discussed a general class of “compromises” between full-scale open borders and full-scale closed borders that we call keyhole solutions. The possibilities include immigration tariffs, guest worker programs, linguistic and cultural fluency requirements, and DRITI (migration taxes). As John Lee recently blogged, we also note that open borders does not necessarily imply a path to citizenship for all prospective migrants, although such a path to citizenship may be desirable for other reasons. However, just to be clear, it is not generally the case that Open Borders bloggers endorse each and every keyhole solution, and even to the extent they do, they may not endorse every possible practical implemenetation of the keyhole solution.

Before proceeding, I’d like to note that the general discussion of such keyhole solutions is in the context of migration that is otherwise radically liberalized, not as ways to mitigate (real or perceived) problems with migration that occurs under the status quo. In particular, even if a particular potential migration-related problem (such as crime) does not seem to be actually occurring under the status quo, it might still be worthwhile to consider a keyhole solution to that problem as a possible add-on to a proposal for radically freer migration. Even if there are no compelling reasons to believe that the problem would be severe under open borders, investigating keyhole solutions might still be justified from a “Burkean conservative” perspective, or equivalently, from a moderate and reasonable version of the precautionary principle.

In this blog post, I outline four criteria that can be used to evaluate a potential keyhole solutions. Future blog posts will go into considerable detail evaluating along these criteria various types of keyhole solutions.

Moral permissibility of the keyhole solution

Certain kinds of keyhole solutions may be morally impermissible. For instance, consider a “keyhole solution” to the problem of crime that allows people to migrate as long as they agree to be shot dead if they are suspected of committing any crime (no matter how minor). This keyhole solution might strike some people (including both open borders and closed borders advocates) as immoral, even if it were effective at reducing the risk (and the perception of risk) arising from immigrant crime.

There are some examples that appear morally impermissible from an open borders perspective but not from a restrictionist perspective. For instance, one can argue that guest worker programs as currently constituted are a reasonable keyhole solution: people can migrate if they find a willing employer, and they are required to leave the country if they lose the employment status without acquiring a new one. From the open borders perspective, this may be better than closed borders, and hence less morally impermissible than closed borders, but it is still somewhat morally impermissible, because it denies the right to migrate. It also opens up workers to more risks of worker abuse (see also this video).

Desirability of the keyhole solution

My co-blogger John Lee wrote:

Once we protect non-citizens from arbitrary deportation, the moral harm of raising the bar for citizenship seems almost non-existent. It certainly pales in comparison to the moral harm of keeping people out of your country at gunpoint because you’re afraid letting them in might morally obligate you to throw a blank passport at them.

In other words, John is saying that allowing people to move freely (whether temporarily or permanently) is morally required, whereas giving them a path to citizenship is not. John is not opining here on whether denying a path to citizenship is desirable.

If a particular keyhole solution is morally permissible but undesirable, then the main significance of proposing that keyhole solution is as an alternative to closed borders, not as an alternative to open borders. In the jargon of this blog post of mine, a keyhole solution that is morally permissible but undesirable would (typically) correspond to a rank ordering (1) > (2) > (3), whereas a keyhole solution that is morally permissible and desirable would (typically) correspond to a rank ordering (2) > (1) > (3).

Feasibility of the keyhole solution

Open borders advocates and the audience for their blog posts are not philosopher-kings creating policy in a vacuum. Such policy is created by politicians who respond to incentives, generally catering to the electorate, with some slack exploited by special interest groups. Even if a keyhole solution looks great on paper, it may not be feasible to actually bring about. For instance, one might argue that an immigration tariff scheme in infeasible because of taboos against selling citizenship. Generally, it seems to be that many of the infeasibility claims are not insurmountable, and there may be “keyhole solutions within keyhole solutions” that can be used to get over public resistance. This isn’t to say that these keyhole solutions will be implemented any time soon — it’s just to say that they may be about as feasible as outright open borders, or perhaps even more so. Particularly in the case that a keyhole solution isn’t desirable in and of itself to open borders advocates, its being more feasible than outright open borders may form a compelling reason to advocate it nonetheless (provided it is morally permissible).

Stability of the keyhole solution

Another related concern is stability. Whereas feasibility is about whether the keyhole solution can be implemented in the first place, stability is about whether the keyhole solution will remain intact over time. For instance, some people have argued that denying voting rights to prospective migrants may be feasible, but it’s not stable, because politicians would be sorely tempted to offer citizenship to the currently disenfranchised migrants and win over their loyalty. John addressed this particular example somewhat in his post (same as the one quoted above), but the topic of the stability of voting rights denial or of lengthy paths to citizenship will be treated in more detail in a future post.

5 thoughts on “Keyhole solutions: permissibility, desirability, feasibility, and stability”

  1. I don’t agree that offering people the right to immigrate on the condition that they will be killed for any crime is morally impermissible. (I realize you didn’t say that everyone would think it is wrong).

    The main issue is whether it can ever be morally impermissible to give someone a choice. My answer is no, as long as the decision maker is fully informed.

    However, I do think that it would be morally wrong to carry out the punishment. That is, giving them the choice is not wrong, but killing them still would be.

    The distinction becomes more important when the person giving the choice and the means of carrying out the consequences are separated. For example, what if we knew that there were a gang of uncontrollable vigilantes roaming the country that killed every immigrant suspected of a crime. Would it be morally permissible to allow immigrants in if we told them about the situation?

    In this case, I think most people agree that it would be permissible to let them in if they are willing to take the risk. The moral wrong of killing them would lie at the feet of the vigilantes.

    As a policy maker, however, it is often necessary to make compromises. What if we knew we could get the votes to open up our borders if we passed a comprehensive immigration package granting immunity to the vigilantes who kill them?

    Then we would have to weigh the “goodness” of giving people freedom to choose against the “badness” of agreeing to let someone kill them.

    If this were the only option, and there no immigrants currently living in the country I am not quite sure how I would evaluate the morality of the policy maker.

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