NOTE: All commenters are referred to as “he” in the text below. I did this because the only commenters whose pen names were gendered were male, and in my experience, most commenters on libertarian blogs seem to be male. I suppose I could have used the singular “they” but it seems ungrammatical when one is referring to a specific person. Apologies to any female commenters who might have been misidentified by my choice of pronoun.
Open borders is the most one-sided issue of our times. It wins the argument and to spare. That’s my position, and if there’s a certain bravado about it, that’s my way of daring those who disagree with me to justify themselves. I want to flush out the arguments against open borders, so I can refute them. Yet to argue with run-of-the-mill immigration critics is a tedious business, because their intellectual level is so low (see my dissection of Victor Davis Hanson) that the response could only consist in cutting through crude prejudices and elementary fallacies. Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders Persuasion Bleg a few days ago was useful because he evokes a more intelligent kind of critic. Indeed, as I noted in my previous response to Caplan’s critics, Caplan has managed to muster, in his comments section, the most clear-thinking group of critics of open borders on the web, because they’ve seen him make the case for open borders in its glittering clarity. They are informed dissenters. Though still mistaken.
Caplan started the thread with this invitation:
Immigration restrictions probably have bigger effects on the world’s economy than all other regulations combined. As far as I can tell, virtually every moral theory – utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Kantian, Christian, and Marxist for starters – implies that these effects are very bad. As a blogger, I’ve tried (though perhaps not hard enough) to make open borders my pet issue – to convince as many people as possible that the cause of free immigration is of overriding value.
My question for you: How persuasive have I been? In particular, how persuasive have I been for you personally? Yes, polling your own blog readers obviously courts a strong selective bias, but I still want to hear your answers.
There were probably more positive than negative responses to this introduction, including some who were completely converted to the open borders cause from indifference or hostility. I’ll focus on the negative responses though because they show what we still need to work on. I’ll cover most of them, but skip the long comments from Ghost of Christmas Past because they would need their own post.
I have yet to see a good reason why open borders would not simply destroy what made the rich countries rich and worth immigrating to in the first place, completely undoing any good intermediates results.
Many later commenters expressed agreement with gwern. The odd thing about this comment is (a) that gwern wants Caplan to prove a negative, that something would not happen, and (b) he offers no reason to think the negative is likely. Suppose I were to propose that you and I go for a picnic in the park, and I were to object, “I have yet to see a good reason why the picnic will not cause my wife to divorce me.” You might be rather at a loss. Unless you know why I’m afraid the picnic will lead to my divorce, you would hardly know how to mitigate my fears.
Still, it’s what we have to work with, so we’ll have to try to guess what gwern is thinking. I suppose it must be something along the following lines. Prosperity and freedom depend partly on natural endowments, partly on physical and human capital, but above all, they depend on a country’s culture and institutions. The domestic population are carriers of the culture and institutions– habits, values, protocols– of the country. Immigrants come with different cultures and habits and protocols, and dilute what is handed down by natives. If permitted to play out, this dilution by immigration would destroy the culture and institutions that made the prosperity and freedom possible in the first place.
It may help to distinguish two different channels of causation by which the suggested process of cultural/institutional degradation might occur:
- The voting channel (political externalities). Immigrants would vote for more redistribution and state control, or perhaps for corrupt politicians like they were accustomed to at home.
- The grass-roots channel. This is vaguer, but it includes crime, gangs, immigrants as bad influences on natives’ kids, diminution of social capital, etc.
I am still unconvinced that the median immigrant to the USA is a net positive for the economy.
I am not sure that this response is actually negative. From my point of view, if one were merely unconvinced that the median immigrant is a net positive for the US economy, one should clearly let him in. He will gain a lot, and if the expected effect on the US economy is zero. At any rate, this is why I advocate “don’t restrict immigration, tax it.” (Similar proposals by others are discussed under the broad heading of immigration tariffs). If migrants are clear gainers and for natives it’s a wash, you might as well confiscate a little of the migrants’ gains and transfer them to natives and make open borders benefit everyone. You could quibble with the justice of that, but that taxing immigration is less unjust than restricting it seems indisputable to me. If anyone actually disagrees, I’d be interested to hear the case.
Eelco Hoogendorn writes:
While I enjoy your efforts to point out the hypocrisy in the moral theories that people like to shroud themselves in, I personally don’t put much weight on stated preferences in the face of revealed preferences.
To give an example: I routinely spend hundereds of euros, which could have saved scores of unborn babies from getting infected with AIDS by their mothers, on complete and utter personal luxuries instead. For sure you are not talking to a practicing Christian or Marxist; utilitarian is a possible model; but that could mean anything. Certainly one with a ‘strongly weighted utility function’, in that case.
Why do you suppose that those who are unwilling to give up their smartphones to save human lives, would choose to dillute their ‘property share’ in their sovereign wealth? (taking perceptions for granted, and leaving aside the question whether this would actually increase or decrease; since you seek to argue morals rather than consequencs)
Again, insofar as you make other people squirm, I tip my hat to you, but with all due respect; I do not share your stated moral principles, nor have I seen the extraordinary evidence that you practice what you preach.
I can confirm that Caplan certainly has talked to a practicing Christian. He’s talked to me, and I’m a practicing Christian. But let’s focus on Eelco’s interesting moral argument. I’d put it like this. (1) Caplan’s arguments for open borders are made from a utilitarian universalist meta-ethical perspective. (2) But the fact that people routinely spend money on luxuries like smartphones when they could be saving African babies makes it clear that people don’t live by this standard. (3) So there is no reason to expect them to be convinced by Caplan’s arguments.
(1) is only partly true. Caplan argues from various meta-ethical standpoints, and in general, one of the reasons I’m so convinced of open borders is that it is so meta-ethically versatile. The case seems overwhelming from every plausible and well-defined meta-ethical ground. But since Caplan certainly does put considerable weight on arguments of a utilitarian-universalist type, we can proceed with Eelco’s argument.
I think (2) is actually mistaken, though even Caplan would disagree with me here. Example: I have a smartphone. But it’s not a luxury. It’s a tool that makes me more productive, more able to read, write, agitate, socialize, keep appointments. I do try to live by a utilitarian-universalist standard, and I don’t think my smartphone is a departure from that, though of course, I might be mistaken. I’d add that having studied international development and worked in development aid, I am keenly aware of how difficult it is to get money from donor A to clinic B to provide life-saving drugs to poor person C. Not that we shouldn’t try, and unusually for a libertarian I would actually favor more foreign aid (quite a separate issue from open borders). But it’s possible that you’re doing almost as much good for the world’s poor by buying that made-in-China luxury than you would be by donating to Save the Children. Finally, of course, Eelco’s parenthesis “(taking perceptions for granted, and leaving aside the question whether this [sovereign wealth] would actually increase or decrease; since you seek to argue morals rather than consequencs)” can be answered: No, we won’t leave aside the question, open borders would boost sovereign wealth. It’s important to appreciate the immense power of the moral case for open borders, but in this case, we can do well by doing good.
Philip Belanger writes:
It’s very hard to find a counter-argument to the problem of political externalities in a democracy. Samuel Huntington did some work making the case that the majority of democracies have a western culture/western values. If that is the case, and if you are not willing to have a two-class society (with immigrants having total economic but no political freedom), then it seems unlikely that the efficient flow of immigration is attained with open borders. Your posts have not persuaded me otherwise (although they have persuaded me of plenty of other things).
Btw I don’t see open border as a libertarian position. A good parallel are highways. Libertarians don’t argue for “open highways”; we want people to pay for their use, because there is a externality involved. Why should it be different for people who want to “use” the country? Let’s make them pay for it! That way we can (a) make money, (b) make sure those who value it most or those who expect to make the higher salaries get through, (c) keep the flow of immigrations efficient.
It’s not “hard to find a counter-argument to the problem of political externalities,” and Belanger knows what it is. He tendentiously states it as “a two-class society (with immigrants having total economic but no political freedom).” The way I’d put it, you take a cautious attitude to possible problems with political externalities by making naturalization and citizenship conditional on a fairly long assimilation process, maybe involving economic sacrifices. As a result, there would be a large population of sojourners or not-yet-citizens, many of whom would probably be quite socially integrated with natives while others might prefer the shelter of tight-knit migrant communities, but who would not vote. Since (a) voting is secret and (b) it doesn’t happen that often, it seems unlikely that they would feel this exclusion very strongly, or that it would impede social interaction. Why does Belanger seem to want to rule out this option? What is ethically objectionable about it? And– the kicker– how could it possibly be more objectionable than denying the foreign-born the right to vote and the probably much more valuable right to live and work in the US?
Kenneth A. Regas writes:
You’ve helped confirm my opposition to open borders, which is for the reason gwern gives.
There is a certain kind of argument made in the social sciences (of which economics is certainly one) that has crystalline mathematical clarity – and is utterly foolish. Think Captain Queeg, or Mao Zedong. That’s what your arguments sound like to me.
If it’s “utterly foolish,” Regas should be able to supply arguments.
Not much of a change. Two reasons:
1. Political pollution. I know that you say this isn’t an issue, but there’s no denying that (for example) Central American immigrants are very much opposed to abortion. This could very well shift the balance in the U.S.
I bet this holds for other social issues as well. And I’m not sure why you think that letting in people from socialist countries won’t push us economically to the left.
2. Crime. I know that “every study” shows that immigrants are less likely to get into trouble with the law, but someone on this blog pointed out that these studies deliberately refuse to look at children of immigrants. The results could very well flip, and I don’t see anyone denying this. I’d at least like to see this studied before we made major changes to immigration policy.
Again, there’s a difference between letting them in and letting them vote. Maybe Caplan needs to educate his readers about that a bit more, though of course he has said it. However, the abortion issue is an interesting twist. I wonder if it would be possible to persuade religious conservatives that the only way they’ll win on the abortion issue is to let in and enfranchise a lot more Latin American immigrants.
Overall, your blogging has made me more negative towards open borders. Partly this is because of your work on voting and how political externalities get worse as we consider migrants like those which would come under open borders. It seems like there is a large risk of undermining the distinctive features of the rich countries by diluting their political and institutional differences, as gwern mentions above.
Also, from a utilitarian-leaning perspective, the cost-benefit standard you have offered for assessing immigration restrictions sounds very ominous: you have suggested that because of libertarian deontological reasons there should be open borders unless the costs are 10 (!!!) times the benefits. Given the billions of potential migrants under open borders, the results could be incredibly catastrophic for global institutions, growth, and long-term welfare while still passing your test.
Since you claim to be so indifferent to whether migration helps or hurts, it’s hard for those who are focused on what would actually make things better overall to trust that your analysis is unbiased.
Political externalities and voting again. Same answer. BK’s unease with libertarian deontological reasoning seems irrelevant since the case for open borders seems certain to satisfy a straightforward utilitarian calculus, so whether one would support open borders even if the net harms vastly outweighed the benefits seems neither here nor there.
Tom West writes:
I’m not for open borders (although I support fairly high (Canadian) levels of immigration).
Bryan’s arguments have made it clear that (1) the society that I appreciate could not survive open borders (destruction of the welfare system or two-tier citizenship are both antithetical to my personal happiness) and (2) that the cost of non-open borders is very high to non-citizens. It has forced me to acknowledge that I am a citizen-ist to a far greater degree than I originally would have realized.
I am impressed with the frankness and cogency of this comment. It occurs to me after reading Tom West’s comment that one reason the suggestion by gwern that open borders would “completely undo any good intermediate results” by “destroying what made the rich countries worth immigrating to in the first place” seems so ugly is that gwern’s attempt to claim, very implausibly, that open borders would make migrants worse off is a way to avoid admitting to himself that he wants to keep the borders closed even at an enormous cost to the foreign-born. Gwern wants his security and the feeling of being good at the same time, and he gets it by adopting a view of the world and his possibilities which he probably knows at some level to be false. Hmm. I don’t like exposing people or impugning their motives in this way, but maybe we need to. It seems pretty clear that there’s a lot of bad faith in the arguments made against open borders. Would it be better, if one were arguing against slavery, to insist on treating all the self-serving arguments of slaveholders who said they were doing it for the slaves’ good as perfectly innocent errors? Anyway, Tom West, by contrast with gwern, admits that “the cost of non-open borders is very high to non-citizens,” yet still opposes it. Kudos for honesty.
Yet there seems to be an inconsistency here. I thought citizenism was a moral theory that we really should weight the welfare of our fellow citizens much more than that of foreigners. Is Tom West simply serving the interests of his personal happiness– selfishness– or does he think his first moral obligation is to his fellow citizens? It seems to me he is reluctantly admitting to being, not a citizenist in principle, but a citizenist emotionally, so that his personal happiness depends on welfare states and egalitarianism-among-residents, even if he has an uneasy feeling that, in principle, it shouldn’t. But surely it’s clear what the solution to his dilemma is. He knows, in the abstract, that billions of poor people in Africa and South Asia have the same moral worth as the American-born. If a “welfare state for all residents” principle forces us to exclude them, it does far more harm than good and is very inegalitarian and coercive to boot, and whatever emotional training we have that makes us support them, we need to strive against it and overcome it. We must not let love for our fellow citizens make us unjust to our fellow men.
C writes a comment which needs to be argued with via mid-sentence interruptions because it’s tightly packed.
For me, personally–Significant negative effect towards open borders. I very much respect your arguments on a lot of topics (e.g., education and signaling) and if someone of your intelligence can only come up with arguments of the level you (and to be fair, Vipul Naik) have, then I think the open borders case is extremely weak. [Do you understand them? Examples?] To echo gwern in different words, the nation state has been successful [in what sense?] by specifically creating a coherent body of citizens [But why should the body of citizens be less coherent with foreigners mixed in? What are the benefits of social solidarity, and how do they depend on geographical exclusiveness?] and building universal, self-beneficial [What does that mean?] institutions. [But how does immigration threaten those?] If immigrants (like myself) are educated and skilled like in Canada’s system, I can (and do) buy the argument that this could be beneficial to the host nation.
However, your arguments have time and time again ignored the obvious strong points restrictionists raise (ie., low IQ, [Have you ever heard of comparative advantage?] low skill immigration is not the same or as valuable as high IQ immigration [Apparently not so let me explain it. When people specialize in that in which they have the lowest opportunity cost, then trade, everyone gains. We can gain from trade with immigrants, regardless of their skill composition.] with most illegals especially a net drain on the taxpayer; [(a) No, they’re not. (b) If they were, we could easily correct that problem by adjusting tax and welfare policies without kicking them out or denying them entry.] the 1890s were a far different economy than our present-day stagnant economy which is already facing rising inequality; [The economy would be less stagnant with more immigrants, and since immigration would raise housing prices it might not increase inequality, and again, you can affect that using tax-and-transfer policies.] raising standards in other nations is just as (or more) beneficial as open borders; [But of course we can’t just snap our fingers and “raise standards in other nations,” and in fact, the most effective thing we can do to raise standards in other nations would probably be by letting more of their people earn, learn, and go home.] no nation state has ever survived an open borders or high immigration society; [This is a total, complete falsehood. Britain and the US in the 19th century had open borders and they were thriving. So did Frederick the Great’s Prussia. One has to suspect bad faith here, why else would someone make up such falsehoods?] diversity weakens institutions (some of them, etc.). [Evidence, please?] Just lots and lots of reiteration of how much value *1* generic immigrant in a highly dubious study now produces and so presumably how much value a *whole bunch* of immigrants would produce.
Overall, if you can’t do better than quoting abstract moral theories [(a) Caplan does much more than quote abstract moral theories. (b) What is the alternative to “abstract moral theories?” Amorality? If not, then what? Does C have some other approach to morality, or does he reject morality as such?] (which also imply a lot of other more pertinent conclusions than the one you selectively choose [No, it doesn’t. All the moral theories Caplan cites imply open borders much more strongly than they support any other reform that’s on the horizon.] that gives you cheaper nannies and burdens working class Americans with the externalities) [If this is an ad hominem argument, the fact that Caplan is an academic and thus faces virtually open borders levels of competition from the foreign-born answers it decisively] or weak academic evidence, [The academic evidence suggests that open borders would double world GDP– plus all sorts of intermediate benefits. That’s not “weak.”] then I think you have only strengthened opposition.
You will have gathered that I have a rather low opinion of this comment, but I am indebted to C for one thing. The wildly false, but rhetorically effective if one is not aware of its falsehood, claim that “no nation has ever survived an open borders or high immigration society”– strangely enough, and disturbingly in the opposite way, the great nation-states were not only highly innovative and progressive but highly nationalistic in the 19th-century age of open borders– suggested to me another claim which, if true, might be rhetorically effective: No nation has ever suffered a significant setback to its prosperity or freedom that can plausibly be attributed to peaceful immigration. I think it’s true, but I’ll have to think about it some more.
Greg G writes:
I am someone who would like to see our approach to immigration liberalized. A huge increase in immigration would bring some benefits but it would also create problems, especially for the communities that face the biggest influx.
Bryan, the fact that you so thoroughly trivialize these problems makes you a lot less persuasive to me. If you aspire to go beyond preaching to the choir taking people’s objections more seriously would help a lot.
Fair enough. We might do well to look more closely about how particular communities are affected.
Your argument for open borders seems to boil down to the following: the immigrants would be much better off in America and other developed nations. Therefore, the benefit to them is so great that it trumps any right of the native population to limit immigration.
I find this deeply unconvincing. It’s like arguing that a homeless man would be much better off living in my basement than on the street. Therefore, my family’s preferences about privacy, space and security are irrelevant. I don’t believe that as it applies to my home nor as it applies to my country.
I’ve encountered this kind of argument, as if the nation somehow has collective property rights in a country, and it always disturbs me. Who owns my house, me or the government? If I own it, I control access. If the government owns it, it controls access. If the government owns it, it can tell me not to let in a politically subversive friend, or, if socialists are in power, to let a homeless man live in my basement. I think I own it. It follows that I can exclude or invite whom I wish. So can the government tell me I can’t let in an illegal immigrant? Closed borders are not analogous to property rights. They are a curtailment, an infringement of property rights, because they give the government a veto on whom you invite onto your land. The government doesn’t own us. It doesn’t own our land. We do. JJW14’s analogy is invalid.
D‘s comment also calls for mid-sentence interruptions:
None. Mostly because you don’t engage the best counterarguments that are usually here in your comments section and are usually based on the low quality of immigrants [Not a problem: principle of comparative advantage.] — e.g., low IQ, [Comparative advantage: let low-IQ immigrants mow the lawns and pick the work and leave the brainy office jobs for us.] high crime in the long-term, [There’s no evidence for that. Against it, rather.] vote left, [Probably they wouldn’t, but anyway, letting them in is not the same as letting them vote.] use public services at a high rate, [Not really, but if this were a problem we could restrict their access to public service but still let them come. Everybody wins, relative to keeping them out.] the extremely poor academic achievement going back 4-5 generations of Mexican immigrants, [Again, learn the principle of comparative advantage.] the increase cultural and political balkanization, etc [This is really too vague to ask for evidence. What harms are being alleged?] — and the long-term effects of increasing them as a % of the population [What harms are being alleged?] and the negative spillover effects. [Like what?]
Quick conclusions. First, open borders advocates may need to think more about how to address people’s vague doubts about how immigration would affect social solidarity. Second, a lot of people don’t seem to get the comparative advantage argument, and think that if immigrants, say, reduce average IQ in the US, that’s sufficient to count as a harm. They could be making “hive mind” arguments such as I expect to see in Garett Jones’s upcoming book, but they don’t seem to be doing that, they’re just committing the “maximize the average” fallacy. Third, a lot of people don’t seem to be able to distinguish between letting them in and letting them vote. Fourth, it would probably be useful to drive home the point that open borders with migration taxes are the optimal policy, i.e., that open borders can benefit (basically) all natives.