Luck and Open Borders

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.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

8 thoughts on “Luck and Open Borders”

  1. Open borders advocate Joel Newman lacks any understanding of his thesis on open borders and the enormous consequences he rains down on first world countries. In 1965 when American women and all Western countries utilized birth control for two children families, the world population hit 3.5 billion. Developing countries refused to use birth control and added another 3.5 billion people by 2016 to reach 7.3 billion and soaring by 80 million annually.

    They add another 1 billion of themselves every 12 years on their way to 10.1 billion by 2050 according to UN Population Projections. Thus, if allowed via open borders to migrate, they would simply overrun with their desperate numbers all first world countries. It’s unsustainable on every level.

    Newman needs to work simple math. Otherwise, he’s an ‘enumerate’ or mathematically illiterate. To bring an even nastier understanding to open borders, sociological destruction of functioning societies grows as the numbers grow. For instance, Africa at 1.1 billion in 2016 will reach 2.0 billion in 2050 and 4.0 billion at the end of this century according the United Nations Population Projections.

    We cannot solve their problems by their endless numbers and importing them to first world countries via open borders. All arguments to that end prove absurd, out of touch with reality and totally untenable.

    “Unlimited population growth cannot be sustained; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources. No species can overrun the carrying capacity of a finite land mass. This Law cannot be repealed and is not negotiable.” Dr. Albert Bartlett, , University of Colorado, USA.

    Help them in their own countries. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler. Author of: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans.

    1. Over population is a straw man. You provide no support for your argument that societies would be overrun by people practicing, or in favor of, over-population. Yes, over-population is a concern and open borders would be a challenge to implement but let’s not conflate the two.

  2. They are good and bad arguments to open borders,but it mainly depends on which are you live in.

    In Europe the countries are small and connected. Europe is also a very industralized society with lots of business and trading and this is between states as well therefore people need to travel a lot. It becomes a real hassle everytime going through passport control so having relaxed rules makes business easier. Open borders gives an opportunity to increase economic prosperity, and will increase competition in the market place for services, goods and ideas. Therefore decreases prices of goods to consumers and helps business owners regulate wages for employees. Individuals from an impoverish countries will finally have an opportunity to take advantage of resources given in first world countries that are usually taken for granted and those individuals will finally be able to have access.

  3. Still confused by this I just need my man with me so I have a life and a future all this is too confusing for me . no idea what to do.

  4. Still confused by this I just need my man with me so I have a life and a future all this is too confusing for me . no idea what to do. :/

  5. Joel Newman seems to not give any forethought past “you are lucky and others are not so let’s make things equal.”

    Joel seems ready to forsake the sacred rights of families who have labored and toiled for their countries development over the course of generations. Families who have worked for perhaps hundreds of years building schools, laying roads, forming governments… Do they not matter? Not to Joel. To Joel, it is not the oligarchs who usurp wealth who must be schooled, it’s the laboring citizens of a “luckier” nation who need to have more of a heart. Joel’s viewpoint is exactly what corrupt heads of industry and trafficking warlords desire.

    Fortunatly, not all citizens are as lacking in consciousness. Did joel ever stop to think what open borders would do to child trafficking? No, he didn’t.

    Does Joel think there are no victims in his “more equal” approach to social policy? Wake up Joel – Lest thousands of children be sold under your “this is more equal” fantasy. The policies you suggest have REAL consequences. Maybe if you are reincarnated into a trafficked human body you will begin to understand this

  6. I would suggest that there are more positives that we “Open Borders” people seem not to have explained well or of which the restrictionists are not fully understanding. For starters I would posit the simple but easily verified words of Julian Simon: “people are the greatest resource.” This recognition of the benefits of human contributions would seem obvious. If not try to imagine the world with the elimination of most people off the planet, say to pre historic numbers. In the end it is people who create, trade, and can live harmoniously by appreciating the benefits of exchange. More people mean more ideas that enhance life for all of us. Just my thought for the day.

  7. I just found this blog. Very interesting. For a long time I have been an advocate of open borders, although not using a particular term. Basically it leads me to ask, non rhetorically, what is the point or usage for borders.

    Within most any country, as here in the USA, we have open borders. People move between states, counties, townships, cities, towns, villages and so forth without immigration hassles. Whether the travel is as tourists, as visitors, for business, to move residence for various reasons including retirement, we don’t seem to have problems for the most part (unless the rich are wiping out the homes of middle and poor people by “gentrifications”).

    Borders, in large part, set up areas where public services are provided and funded. From roads, sewers, electricity, water, voting and so forth to public health services from medicine to utilities. Why should national borders be any different?

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