Making the moral case for open borders: Crooked Timber’s symposium on the work of Joseph Carens

Bryan Caplan, the economist who originally inspired the founding of this website (and who is quoted in our masthead to this day), is a tireless advocate for both the economic and moral case for open borders. Today, however, he ought to take second billing to ethicist Joseph Carens, who has been building the moral case for open borders since the 1980s. The Crooked Timber blog is running a symposium on Carens’s new bookThe Ethics of Immigration. I highly encourage you to read the symposium contributions, which prod Carens’s case for its weak points.

In case you missed it when the book first came out (what, you mean you don’t pay attention to the latest and greatest developments in the ethics of border policy?), Dylan Matthews did a fantastic interview with Carens in the Washington Post which I cannot recommend highly enough. Carens summarises the thrust of his book, which he divides into two portions:

  1. First, he argues that even if you grant states utter carte blanche over who they can exclude via border policy, it follows from well-established principles of law and liberal democracy that states are still morally required to allow certain foreigners who may immigrate illegally to stay, once they have sufficiently integrated;
  2. Then, he argues that actually, you should not grant states carte blanche discretion in how they determine who to exclude, any more than you should allow a handful of feudal lords to determine the future of millions of serfs.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, so do read the interview (and Carens’s book, if you have the time). I’ve also previously written about that first portion of Carens’s argument on this blog. At the time I write this, Crooked Timber has so far published four takes on Carens’s ideas, by four different authors:

  1. Chris Bertram, criticising Carens’s assumption that his view of the “democratic consensus” about membership in liberal societies is widely-held
  2. Ryan Pevnick, arguing that Carens bites off more than he can chew when he posits that states should offer amnesty to unauthorised migrants who have sufficiently integrated into their societies (I’ve written about Carens’s argument here before)
  3. Brian Weatherson, questioning the validity of Carens’s analogy between movement across international borders versus movement across subnational borders (Carens is not alone in using this; see also “Save Fairfax” and “Texas to Americans: Stay in America“)
  4. Kenan Malik, on the risks of further entrenching the notions that the status quo is “realistic,” or that open borders are utopian

Bertram’s promised in the inaugural post of the symposium that Carens will make an appearance at the end to respond to his critics. I’m looking forward to seeing what other responses they have lined up.

Ultimately, I believe the case for open borders rests much more than just on the pecuniary returns from liberating the families and workers of the world to go and be where they truly want to be. Even if the pecuniary returns to open borders were mildly negative, that would not constitute an open-and-shut case for junking the idea. On the contrary, I think the ethical case for scrutinising how our states exclude people on account of a condition of their birth is extremely resilient to different sets of economic tradeoffs.

That is not to say that I believe we ought to be insensitive or blind to the economic effects of immigration. I simply think that our societies need to weigh on our consciences as well how our immigration controls immiserate and exclude billions of people without any basis beyond the condition of their birth. Both the economic and moral case for open borders matter; I think philosopher Jason Brennan sums them both up nicely when he says:

If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It should not surprise us that the economic disaster of closed borders might have ethical ramifications. Few government decisions, short of actually going to war, have the power to literally make or break the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions of people. In his book Let Their People Come, economist Lant Pritchett (another pioneer of the open borders movement) gives one illustration of the impact which border exclusions can have:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year.However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Now, to be sure, even under open borders we would likely not see full equality of child mortality rates across nations. But to the extent our border controls prohibit Indians from seeking access to more efficient healthcare delivery systems and more qualified doctors, we have contributed to the problem of “missing Indians” — innocent lives snuffed out on account of these babies “choosing” the wrong country to be born in. To bring it home, Pritchett actually goes on to cite Carens’s ethical analysis immediately after this discussion to reinforce his point.

(Pritchett’s book is a tour de force of the case for open borders, and as much as I like Carens, if you choose to read only one book after this, I don’t think you have much of an excuse for failing to read Pritchett: his book is available for free online. )

The nature of how our societies exclude billions of people carries huge ramifications, both economic and ethical. Even though we might disagree with the analysis here, it is critical that we understand just what these ramifications are. When our states literally hold the lives of people in their hands, as they often do when it comes to migration, we have an imperative to strictly scrutinise what our governments do in our name.

This is why Carens’s work matters: somebody has to ask hard ethical questions about government policies which, in arguably quite a literal sense, are a matter of life or death for hundreds of millions. I hope to see many more symposiums like this one. More than that, I hope to see these ideas penetrate the popular consciousness.

Some years ago, novelist Orson Scott Card authored a few brilliant, non-academic elucidations of ideas clearly embedded in Carens’s and Pritchett’s work. In fact, for an illustration of what Carens talks about when it comes to exclusion and arbitrariness, it is hard to outdo Card’s depiction of what would happen if the US were to deport all its unlawful immigrants. The ultimate point of the academy is to mine our brightest minds for the best ideas, and to have those ideas make a difference in our society: I hope to see more of Carens’s ideas (and also those of his reviewers in this symposium) seeping into the mainstream’s consciousness, just as they seem to have in the case of Card’s.

I started this post with a mention of economist Bryan Caplan, whose activism served as inspiration for this site. Perhaps it is fitting to close with Bryan’s words on just why this academic work is so important:

If research energy were proportional to the inefficiency of the status quo, virtually every economist would study immigration.  And if outrage were proportional to harm, virtually every protest on earth would be in favor of open borders.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


2 thoughts on “Making the moral case for open borders: Crooked Timber’s symposium on the work of Joseph Carens”

  1. Vipul gently reminded me I’ve been incredibly remiss in not mentioning our sort of mini-symposium on Carens’s book.

    Vipul first reviewed Carens’s general approach (noting some concerns with the “democratic consensus” idea similar to the ones Chris Bertram raises) here:

    He later went on to discuss some of Carens’s practical proposals for dealing with immigration, and also the philosophical communitarianism which Carens seems to use as a base:

    I understand Vipul has a part 3 planned, though I’m not sure when that will be forthcoming.

  2. Has anyone as yet compiled a comprehensive links list of all the sensible articles during the last few decades? I have a still very incomplete collection of such articles. A common source for all of them might be helpful. –

Leave a Reply