Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1

If you take a look at the pro-open borders people, pro-open borders reading list, or the pro-immigration and migration information web resources on this website, you’ll notice that libertarians are overrepresented compared to their share in the general population. Part of it stems from my own biases while collating material for the website (see, for instance, my avoidance of folk Marxist arguments) but part of it reflects the fact that, compared to other political philosophies, libertarianism is more likely to foster clear-cut and radical support for open borders, as outlined on the libertarian case for open borders page. Of course, there are many objections to the libertarian case as well, of which some, such as the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, have been raised by libertarian thinkers. I personally don’t find these arguments convincing, but it’s not the goal of this blog post to rebut these arguments (you can learn more by following the links). Rather, my goal is to consider the question:

For a libertarian who is broadly convinced by the case for open borders, primarily from the libertarian perspective (but also based on other aspects of the case), how important should support or advocacy for open borders be, relative to other libertarian causes?

This is an important question, because libertarians, who generally tend to be economically literate, understand that time, money, and energy for libertarian advocacy are scarce. Allocating these scarce resources wisely is important if libertarians wish to make a practical impact. [For this discussion, I am dodging Patri Friedman’s critique of libertarian folk activism. That critique raises important questions, but it’s a topic for another day.]

I aim to consider three aspects to this issue in three separate blog posts. In the current blog post, I consider the extent to which libertarians do advocate for open borders, relative to many other libertarian causes (my conclusion: not much). In the next blog post [UPDATE: now available], I will consider how much energy I think libertarians should devote to open borders (my conclusion: probably more than they currently do). In my third blog post, I will consider the reasons behind what I perceive as the under-supply of open borders advocacy from libertarians.

The bloggers and writers in the pro-open borders people list are some of the most prolific writers on the subject of open borders. It would be reasonable to assume that the proportion of their writing efforts that they devote to open borders is an upper bound on the proportion devoted by libertarian bloggers and writers in general.

Let’s begin by looking at Bryan Caplan. I took a look at Caplan’s most recent posts. Of his posts so far in September (about 25 of them so far) none is about immigration. In August (about 30 posts), there doesn’t seem to be any post devoted to immigration issues or open borders either (though a post about pacifism references open borders). In fact, the most recent blog post of Caplan that I can find that is devoted to open borders or immigration issues is this post on Vietnam’s 300 days of immigration, posted July 3. Admittedly, Caplan has written so extensively about immigration in the past that he has probably run out of new things to say in recent times. So, a better idea might be obtained by looking at the proportion of posts that Caplan has written about immigration in his lifetime. My guesstimate, based on the list of Caplan’s open borders writings, is that about 150 blog posts by Caplan are about immigration (the list includes about 40 Caplan blog posts, but there are many others that are more tangentially related to immigration that don’t make it to the list), plus may be another 150 that mention immigration as a side note. Caplan’s been blogging for seven years, and posts about 25-35 times a month, so a guesstimate lower bound for his total number of blog posts is about 2000. With these generous guesstimates, about 8% of Caplan’s blog posts are about immigration, and another 8% tangentially reference immigration issues and open borders. I suspect the actual percentages are somewhat lower since these guesstimates have been made generously.

Now, Caplan has gone on record calling immigration the “most important issue of our time” (here and here). So it would be reasonable to assume that most other pro-open borders bloggers and writers devote an even lower proportion of their writings to immigration. This, roughly, seems to be the case, with a few exceptions: Nathan Smith‘s blogging on the Open Borders website (though not his earlier writings) and Alex Nowrasteh‘s writings. Alex is a full-time immigration policy analyst, so it’s natural he devotes most of his energies to the topic — that’s part of his job description. So, in a sense, even the exceptions prove the rule that not too many libertarians devote a significant fraction of their energies to writing about immigration and open borders. I’ve done some back-of-the-envelope ballpark calculations for the other writers on the list, but I may have made some mistakes on the specifics. Nonetheless, I think my broader point is correct — open borders advocacy simply doesn’t rank too high, even for its most passionate advocates.

What if we look at the proportion of effort devoted to discussing immigration spent by libertarian writers who are not focused on immigration advocacy? The proportions are even lower. For instance, Students for Liberty, a mostly US-focused organization (though with some international activities and outreach efforts) that serves as an umbrella group for college campus student libertarian groups, has a blog with about 1300-1500 blog posts. Of these, there are four blog posts with the immigration tag. Two of these four posts simply include a link or video embed of an immigration-related topic, plus other stuff not directly related to immigration. Thus, there seems to be a grand total of only two blog posts devoted to immigration (this one about Obama’s de facto DREAM Act and this one about how freedom to travel can enhance support for libertarian ideals). Note: It’s possible that some blog posts about immigration were not given the immigration tag, but the additional posts obtained by searching for immigration using the website’s search field are only very tangentially related to immigration.

In addition to the quantity of libertarian writing on open borders and immigration, another measure of importance might be the extent of novel insight and thinking that has gone into developing and refining the case for open borders. Yet another criterion might be the extent of response in terms of comments and challenges offered by readers to posts about open borders. In this respect, again, I think the evidence points to a fairly low priority accorded to open borders by libertarians, since libertarian writing about open borders rehashes the same basic talking points and addresses elementary, rather than sophisticated, objections. For instance, LearnLiberty recently shared on Facebook their excellent video on Top Three Myths About Immigration, addressing some of the most elementary arguments against immigration (the video is embedded on the US-specific suppresion of wages of natives page).

There are exceptions, notably Caplan, but to some extent also David Henderson , Donald Boudreaux, Walter Block, and others, who have tried to address other challenges posed by restrictionists and develop novel ways of strengthening the case for open borders. And, if you browse around the Open Borders website, you’ll find links to a number of arguments made in support of open borders from a wide variety of libertarian perspectives. And I’m grateful for all the effort that they’ve put in — if they hadn’t, it would be very difficult to construct meaningful rebuttals to myriad restrictionist objections. But open borders advocacy literature seems to fall way short of addressing many facets of restrictionist arguments, including many of their cultural, racialist, and IQ-based arguments.

In two sequel blog posts, I will consider respectively the questions of how much effort libertarians should devote to open borders advocacy, and the reasons for the alleged shortfall of libertarian open borders advocacy.

UPDATE: Bryan Caplan responds with the blog post Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders.

UPDATE 2: Part 2 of the series is now available.

11 thoughts on “Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 1”

  1. People’s priorities, and advocacy efforts, are difficult things to measure. Your effort to develop numerical estimates in this post is intriguing, partly because of its rarity. I could make a lot of objections to it, but of course it’s always harder to collect data than to critique someone else’s data collection methodology. This is interesting to know.

    What motivates people to write? It isn’t just that they think something’s important. Obviously that helps. Sometimes people might write about a topic they consider utterly unimportant, for instance because they think it’s humorous, or perhaps there’s a fun puzzle to solve. Other reasons to write are (a) because you have something new to say, (b) because you think you might convince people, (c) because you’ll please someone else, and (d) because you’re being paid, directly or indirectly. A topic might be extremely important, but if there’s nothing new to say and you don’t think you can convince anyone, you might not bother. I think some people who favor open borders might not see much point in writing about it because they figure everyone rules out the idea as crazy and no one is willing to listen.

    Concerning libertarians in particular, how high a priority SHOULD open borders be for them, even assuming they all support it? Does the libertarian ideology imply a natural prioritization of its various policy recommendations? Suppose a libertarian says, “Yes, I favor open borders, which would double world GDP and would be by far the most effective way of alleviating world poverty; but personally I’m more interested in gun rights, though I admit it’s mostly just an issue of principle and the positives and negatives are little better than a wash.” Is there something wrong with that? Is it inconsistent? UTILITARIANS have obvious reasons they might prioritize one policy rather than another, though very likely few of them would really prioritize things the way ideology might suggest. Libertarians are not necessary, perhaps not typically, utilitarians, let alone ultra-principled ones. So there may be no particular reason to expect them to have similar priorities.

    Well, I don’t know, maybe there is. Maybe the libertarian’s answer to “maximize utility” is “no, maximize freedom!” Freedom is perhaps even less measurable than utility, but maybe a strong case could be made that the BIGGEST thing “we” could do for freedom (minus scare quotes: the feasible policy change that would have the greatest positive impact on human freedom) is open borders. I have a feeling, though, that a lot of libertarians would object to being told: “You’re a libertarian? Then you should be in the business of maximizing freedom. And the best way to do that is open borders!” Your Randian objectivists might find that a new mask for one of their bogeys, altruism.

    Of course, I’m in a totally different camp: I’m strongly pro-altruism. In that respect I’m as un-Randian as I could possibly be. Which is why I often don’t feel I have that much in common morally with libertarians even though I favor a lot of libertarian policy views, and admire some philosophical forerunners of libertarianism, such as John Locke. But here’s another question. Suppose one believes open borders is the most important issue of all. What should one DO about it? Write? If so, should one immerse oneself in the minutiae, the factual tug-of-wars, the legal hair-splitting… at the cost, in effect, of conceding the legitimacy of a lot of bad laws, and misframing of issues? Or refine one’s arguments at the level of high theory? Or build one’s credibility on topics, in other fields, so as to make one’s open borders stance more convincing to others in itself? Should one seek out opportunities for civil disobedience? Participate in protests — though of course, one is just one of a crowd there? Or perhaps, just retire to one’s closet and pray to God to open the world’s borders?

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Nathan. I’m planning to address the “how much effort _should_ libertarians devote to open borders?” in part 2 of this intended 3-part series (part 3 will be about why there is a shortfall between the ideal and the reality). And you’ve given me some points to think about for this.

      As you may be aware, Nozick, in his “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” considered two different views of libertarianism: a utilitarian-style libertarianism where you maximize a liberty-centric utility function, and a side-constraint-based libertarianism where you simply impose non-violation of liberty as a side constraint. I think that whatever side of the distinction you’re on, supporting open borders should be a strong priority, though it’s easier to justify in terms of a utilitarian-style libertarianism.

      Another issue you have raised is the trade-off between desirability and feasibility. One argument against open borders advocacy is that even if it may be way more desirable than, say, a reduction of trade barriers or a one point drop in marginal tax rates, it is so infeasible that the desirability X feasibility product (which should determine advocacy effort) is low. I’ve been thinking about this as well, and will flesh out my thoughts further in the Part 2 blog post.

      One point you raise, which hadn’t occurred to me, is how open borders advocacy might be helped by first building one’s credibility in other areas unrelated to open borders. A person who seems obsessed with open borders would likely be taken less seriously about the issue than a person who has built solid credibility on less controversial matters. I think this could be a reasonable argument for, say, devoting 15% instead of 50% of your energies to open borders. But it doesn’t seem, in and of itself, to justify devoting 1% instead of 10% of your energies to open borders. But I’ll give this more thought. Stay tuned for the Part 2 blog post!

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  3. I posted a comment on Bryan Caplan’s post in EconLog about this, x-posting here:

    The notion that “Let’s win the fight for global free trade in goods (and capital), and many of the benefits of Open Borders would be delivered” is palpably laughable. Restrictions on human movement are by far the most universal restriction on human liberty that’s socially acceptable today. Even moving the Overton window here slightly would have huge wins, far bigger than anything free trade in goods or capital could deliver.

    The empirics aren’t really up in question. Here’s a summary of the literature:

    Looking across the literature, the most optimistic estimates of the benefits of eliminating all barriers to free trade in goods and capital combined yield an incremental 5.8% in world GDP. The most pessimistic estimate of the benefit of open borders to world GDP is an incremental 67%. Even if you think these numbers are wrong, it’s hard to see how one or both of them could be off by an entire order of magnitude.

    Let’s say the case for libertarians to support immigration restrictions is open and shut. Let’s say immigrants consume more in social services than they contribute in tax revenues (something that studies in the US and UK have found little evidence of), commit more crime (most studies in the US find the converse), and support anti-libertarian political causes (let’s concede this one purely for the sake of argument, even though any libertarian who argued for the oppression of non-libertarians on any other issue would generally be seen as a hypocrite).

    Isn’t the logical implication then that libertarians should be trying to figure out a way to reduce the number of Americans who meet these criteria, up to and including deportation? Or is it coincidentally just so that the US has about the right amount of immigration (or maybe it is slightly too much, but a slight reduction would do the trick)?

    From a purely moral standpoint, it seems ridiculous to be adamant that one would never permit these kinds of people to reside in one’s country, let alone take up citizenship — but at the same time insist that once they are in somehow, magically all is hunky dory. (Not to mention, it remains unclear why this entails strong support of laws that would arbitrarily restrict the liberty of people who meet the converse of all these criteria: economic “makers” as opposed to “takers”, law-abiding libertarians.)

    Yes, citizenship is magical. But there’s no reason it should be. Historically, race was once magical. (Look at the political consensus pre-1865 that it was impossible for African-Americans and white Americans to live side by side as citizens in the same country.) The draft was once magical, a responsibility of good citizens. Libertarians, or perhaps I should say even more broadly liberals (in the all-encompassing sense of the term, not just left liberals) fought until these magical ideas didn’t seem so magical any more. There is absolutely every reason for libertarians like Caplan, who do believe in open borders, to keep pushing on this. There’s nothing more magical about citizenship or the nation state than there is about race or the draft.

    1. ” (let’s concede this one purely for the sake of argument, even though any libertarian who argued for the oppression of non-libertarians on any other issue would generally be seen as a hypocrite)”

      Bryan Caplan does argue for disenfranching the American poor and uneducated, and giving extra votes to their complements!

      1. If I read Caplan correctly, he’s simply arguing that giving extra votes to the educated and college graduates might result in better economic policy, not that, all costs and benefits considered, it would be worthwhile. In other words, he is pointing out one theoretical benefit, rather than making the overall case for it. I don’t think he is actively campaigning for or pushing this as a policy. He also opposed “get out the vote” efforts that try to get people to vote, esp those who weren’t that keen to vote. In other words, may be the right to vote has symbolic importance, but coaxing people into exercising it, not so much.

        btw, I don’t know about John, but if there were a variant of citizenship without voting rights, then I would consider that pretty much the same as citizenship. As it is, people under the age of 18 who are citizens can’t vote in the US, but that doesn’t dilute the fact that they’re citizens. If, in lieu of the age restriction, voting is linked to a license just as driving is (with a test of equivalent difficulty), with only citizens eligible for the license but not all citizens getting it, that might be a “keyhole solution” in principle. The practical difficulty is with figuring out the politics that might creep into the process used to give out voting licenses, but I think that at least in principle this would be a workable keyhole solution to political externalities.

        1. ” I don’t think he is actively campaigning for or pushing this as a policy. ”

          If he isn’t doing it for practical reasons of political feasibility, that’s symmetric with the restrictionist who thinks the welfare state is too big for natives and locals, but knows that it is politically easier to block foreigners from tapping the system than natives. Or an early 20th century eugenicist who thought that eugenics policies ought to be implemented in rich countries, but recognized that selective migration could generate more eugenic effect per unit of effort.

          It’s a fact that there is a lot of nationalism/patriotism/civic loyalty, and this shapes what policies are practical to push for, even for cosmopolitans who don’t think of these as fundamental considerations.

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