In a previous post, I noted that, in my opinion, the best argument for open borders is that it would allow people, not their birthplace, to control their lives. Open borders would offer people who had the bad luck of having been born in poor and/or unsafe countries the opportunity to escape their unfortunate circumstances and find a better life in a safer, more prosperous country. It is wrong for the lucky who were born in the developed world to deny this opportunity to the unlucky who were born in poor countries, to paraphrase the ideas of several other critics of immigration restrictions.
How persuasive is this argument? Research on the role that awareness of one’s luck has on one’s generosity suggests that the argument, by reminding people of their good fortune in having been born in the First World, could be effective.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Robert Frank of Cornell University focuses on this connection between being aware of one’s good luck and a willingness to help others. Mr. Frank notes that when people disregard the role luck plays in their success, they are less generous. However, “… when people are prompted to reflect on their good fortune, they become much more willing to contribute to the public good.” He cites experiments in which subjects who are induced to feel grateful or consider factors outside their control that have helped them are more generous towards strangers than subjects in control groups.
It would be interesting to see what the results would be if a similar experiment were conducted in which some subjects were prompted to consider their good fortune at having been born in an advanced country and then asked their views on open borders, while other subjects were not given such prompts. The results of the aforementioned studies, even though the generosity was directed at strangers who were presumably fellow citizens, suggest that the subjects in the hypothetical experiment who were led to consider their good fortune would be more favorable towards open borders than the other subjects. (While he doesn’t express his views on immigration policy, Mr. Frank states that “the one dimension of personal luck that transcends all others is to have been born in a highly developed country.”)
As open borders advocates consider which arguments are most likely to convince more people in advanced countries to embrace open borders, this focus on making individuals aware of the huge role that their place of birth has had on their lives could be potent. Of course, this message would be received better by those who are prospering more than others. As the Brexit vote has shown, many of those who are struggling in the developed world are in no mood for increased immigration.
Mr. Frank observes that successful people in the First World tend to overlook the role luck plays in their success: “Most of them are vividly aware of how hard they’ve worked and how talented they are. They’ve been working hard and solving difficult problems every day for many years! In some abstract sense, they probably do know that they might not have performed as well in some other environment. Yet their day-to-day experience provides few reminders of how fortunate they were not to have been born in, say, war-torn Zimbabwe.” If the open borders movement can provide more such reminders, it could be significantly strengthened.