Open borders advocates and private charity

This post is about an accusation of hypocrisy leveled at open borders advocates. For the philanthropic possibilities towards open borders, see possibilities for philanthropy towards achieving more migration and/or open borders.

Restrictionists have attacked open borders advocates in a number of ways, but one recurring theme in many attacks is the hypocritical private behavior of open borders advocates. Do open borders advocates donate their money to starving children in Africa? If not, what right do they have to advocate open borders, which, in the restrictionist view, impose costs on natives for gains to foreigners? For instance, john oester:

So following your own children analogy, do you feel it morally appropriate to hold back any funds to allow your own children to live at anything more than the basest subsistence level, including a lack of all luxuries from shoes to a college education, while other people’s children are starving throughout the world? If so, then your actions and irrational favoritism of your spawn, are allowing equally deserving children throughout the world to starve just so your children can have central air conditioning, a new winter coat, or other trapping of such a wasteful American lifestyle. I find you to be a monster that you can possibly sleep at night knowing how many children in Sudan could be saved today if you simply signed over your full paycheck to USAid without delay….the clock is ticking.

It would be tempting for open borders advocates to dismiss this as an ad hominem attack and choose not to reply. However, I think that the concerns raised about open borders advocates’ private hypocrisy need to be addressed, particularly given that many open borders advocates rely on their personal credibility to support their arguments.

Let me begin by pointing out that there are radical utilitarians who argue for affirmative moral obligations to give, not just some, but a lot of, one’s wealth to alleviating poverty and its ill-effects, including to people you may never see or know and who live in far-away lands. And they argue this seriously, not as a reductio ad absurdum or to accuse people of hypocrisy. The utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has used the drowning child analogy to argue that we are morally obligated to donate a substantial amount of wealth toward poverty alleviation. Singer begins with an observation that most people would sign on to: if your donation can directly save a life for a minor inconvenience to you, you should make the donation. He then goes on to observe, however, that even after you have made the donation, you can make a further donation to save a life, and so on, and therefore you should keep donating until the overall inconvenience to you is sufficiently substantial that donating more is comparably inconvenient to letting a person die. This apparently simple logic has radical implications for how much individuals should donate to poverty alleviation, as per Singer.

Libertarians like me take issue with this consequentialist utilitarian analysis, primarily on the grounds that donating to charity is supererogatory, so even in cases where it saves lives, it is not morally required (for more on my reasoning, see here and here). I would also add that there are a lot of local knowledge and information problems with figuring out what charities do how much good and why. The best charity evaluator that I know of, GiveWell, has a top-recommended charity list, and their very top charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, saves a life, according to GiveWell, for every $2300-2500 (in US dollars) donated. At this cost, it may well be the case for many in the developed world that, even for those who swallow Singer’s argument wholesale, the amount to be donated annually would not exceed $3000 — hardly trivial, but nowhere near what it would be if, say, the cost of saving a life were $100. But it gets even more complicated. GiveWell also calculates a room for more funding figure, and this figure for the top charities is fewer than a hundred million dollars. In past years, GiveWell’s recommendations have led to charities getting a lot of money, and they’ve often had difficulty allocating/spending that money quickly and efficiently, even though they thought they could. All this adds further to the uncertainty of donating to charity. There is also another point to be noted from the historical trend: GiveWell’s estimate of the cost per life saved has been rising steadily over the years, as they acquire more and more information and make their vetting process more and more thorough. Who is to say that the current figure is a stable value? Perhaps further scrutiny will lead to that figure turning out to be an underestimate as well.

So, overall, I think that donating to charity, with a justified belief that that charity accomplishes good, is a morally praiseworthy activity, but it is not morally obligatory.

What does all this have to do with open borders? Open borders advocates often put a lot of emphasis on the moral case for open borders and also how open borders might lead to the end of world poverty. Their claimed piety and love for the poor opens them up to the question: “Why don’t you donate all your money to the poor, if you care so much about them as to propose open borders?”

A first-cut response is to invoke the killing versus letting die distinction (also called the act/omission distinction in philosophy): refusing to donate to charity may be akin to letting people die and/or come to harm, but using violence to prevent people from crossing borders peacefully is more akin to killing or actively causing harm. Restrictionists generally don’t see “keeping people out” as violence, or at any rate, they see any violence necessary to keep people out as justified violence in the enforcement of collective property rights just as a property owner is justified in using violence (either directly or by calling the police) to protect his/her property from thieves, trespassers, and invaders. This brings us to a different point of contention and deadlock, and there isn’t much hope of agreement on this issue. Nonetheless, to the extent that open borders advocates genuinely believe that the state does not have collective property rights and that keeping potential migrants out through force is a form of active harm while not donating to charity is a “letting die” type of harm by omission, their actions are internally consistent and not hypocritical.

A somewhat different response is to note that if there are different ways of helping the poor, it makes sense to choose the cheapest. Open borders, according to its advocates, has a generally salutary effect on immigrant-receiving countries and on immigrant-sending countries. There are some segments who are worse off than before, but keyhole solutions such as DRITI can convert open borders to a win-win for all. In contrast, donating to charity is not a win-win: the donor loses money, and the charity uses that money for some social good. Assuming that the social good generates social value that exceeds the value of the donation, it is still a gain for the world. But it’s not a win-win. Thus, in the minds of open borders advocates, open borders are a much less costly way to alleviate poverty — in fact, with care, the costs could come out negative. Again, however, restrictionists have a far more pessimistic estimate about the harms engendered by open borders, and question the feasibility and stability of keyhole solutions, so there is an impasse here. Nonetheless, I think that this does absolve open borders advocates of charges of hypocrisy, since the advocates are acting in a manner consistent with what they believe.

That said, restrictionists could counter with the observation that advocacy alone does not substitute for genuine sacrifice. As they say, talk is cheap. Thus, open borders advocates are getting off cheap by simply mouthing platitudes about the gains from a hypothetical and impossible ideal of open borders, while failing to actually do something realistic to help the poor within actually operating constraints (i.e., failing to donate to charity). This is similar to the argument Arthur Brooks makes in his book Who Really Cares? (Amazon paperback): he says that it’s true that progressives generally advocate for higher tax rates on the rich and more generous welfare payments for the poor, but such advocacy is not a substitute for direct charity to the poor — though moving to a high-tax-on-the-rich juridisction, i.e., walking the talk, would be.

I think this is a valid argument. However, it has limited applicability to this context. Brooks, in his book, purports to show that people who oppose government-managed income redistribution tend to donate more to charity (both religious and secular) than people who support government-managed income redistribution. This in particular makes the hypocrisy charge relevant. However, to my knowledge, there is no evidence that people who openly support open borders donate less to charities in other countries than people who oppose open borders. Personally, I’ve made the majority of my charitable donations to charities operating in Africa (see here, and I more recently donated to GiveDirectly, which also operates in Africa) although I have no personal connection with Africa (I’m an Indian citizen and currently reside in the United States in a non-immigrant status). Also, to my knowledge, open borders advocates don’t spend their energies critiquing restrictionists for spending too little of their personal money on the low-skilled Americans whose plight is a big motivator for restrictionists (I tweeted this a while back).

I’ll end by quoting a couple of lengthy comments from Evan on Bryan Caplan’s blog post. Although Evan makes somewhat different points from the ones I do, I agree with the spirit of the excerpted pieces.

first comment (excerpt):

john oester says:

I find you to be a monster that you can possibly sleep at night knowing how many children in Sudan could be saved today if you simply signed over your full paycheck to USAid without delay….the clock is ticking.

Even if you believe that helping strangers is superogatory, like Bryan does, you should still acknowledge that people who choose to do it are simply better than you. I don’t see how this is controversial. If someone really does sign over the majority of their paycheck to USAid they are a morally better person than someone who doesn’t. Does anyone honestly dispute this?

It doesn’t matter if you believe such actions are morally praiseworthy, rather than morally obligatory. If someone does something like that they deserve a whole lot of praise for being so much more awesome then all the other people around them.

The same goes for advocating open borders. Even if I were to concede that people who don’t want to open the borders are not morally obligated to do so, I am still duty-bound to praise the heck out of Bryan for doing the superogatory thing and trying to help all those strangers by getting the borders open. He is morally awesome, and the rest of you are not.

That being said, I don’t concede that open borders are superogatory. I see closed borders as morally equivalent to Michael Huemer’s “Starvin Marvin” case. And I might go further than Huemer and say that Starvin Marvin has a limited right to trespass over people’s private property if it is the only way to get to the market in time to save himself. It’s what I would do if I was in his shoes. And none of you lie and pretend it isn’t what you would do either.

second comment (quoted in full):


We respect the person who gives their money to the poor because they are sacrificing for others. Bryan doesn’t think there’d be a sacrifice for him because he thinks the effects of open borders would be positive for Americans overall, and certainly for Americans like him.

A person who makes big sacrifices to help others definitely deserves more admiration than one who helps others without making serious sacrifices. However, a person who helps others without making big sacrifices is far, far better than someone who doesn’t help others at all. So Bryan is still being highly moral, even if he is less moral than someone who is making more serious sacrifices.

Besides, Bryan is making some sacrifices. He’s spending a huge amount of his personal time advocating open-borders policies instead of playing videogames or looking at porn. He’s putting his views out there and enduring attacks from opponents, some of who can be rather mean-spirited (not you, you’re very civil). Again, these aren’t giant sacrifices, but as I said before, a person who tries to help other people and makes only small sacrifices is still more admirable than someone who doesn’t try at all.


I must say that I think that there is a basic stupidity in Caplan’s assumption that logic should trump emotion…In my mind it is akin to condemning any feelings of sexual desire as lustful and sinful.

Bryan isn’t demanding we reject our emotions. He is simply asking us to use logic to alter the targets of those emotions so that we behave more ethically.

To use your sexual desire example: imagine I had the hots for a serial killer, and didn’t turn her in because of that. I think we can both agree that that is a bad thing. But it’s not because sexual desire is bad, it’s because targeting your sexual desire at a serial killer is bad. Similarly, group love isn’t bad, but targeting it at a group smaller than “all humanity” often makes you do bad things.


I do. How do I know what USAid does with their money?

Fine. Replace it with a charity that you do think is effective. It doesn’t change the argument at all.


Yeah this is definitely some kind of abstruse and bizarre moral doctrine that needs to be spelled out in painstaking detail before it should even be considered.

I think you were being sarcastic, but I actually think your statement, taken literally, is quite correct. Rejecting partiality and treating everyone equally is a foundation of nearly ever ethical system, and I’m not just talking about newer ones like libertarianism. Christianity, and most other major world religions, regard people as being of equal moral worth in most respects. Even Hinduism is forced to justify the caste system’s inegalitarian nature by claiming being in a low caste is punishment for sinning in a past life.

It seems to me that the “default” moral belief for human beings is that everyone has equal moral rights. Partiality is caused by human weakness. It seems to me like citizenism is an attempt to rationalize moral weakness instead of overcoming it.

2 thoughts on “Open borders advocates and private charity”

  1. My response to this kind of critique has already been expressed in a previous post:

    I don’t think ordinary people are as far from the utilitarian-universalist ideal as is often thought. I try to practice it myself, though some weakness of will and much lack of insight get in the way.

    It might be worth making the point that open borders would vastly increase the effectiveness of private charity. That’s one of the upsides of putting the rich and poor in close proximity.

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