Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 2

This is the second of a planned series of three blog posts regarding where open borders fit in the libertarian priority list. In part one, I laid out the overall agenda of the series:

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, 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.

I’m glad to see that my first blog post sparked off a lot of debate. Bryan Caplan responded here. Perhaps coincidentally, a number of non-libertarian bloggers have recently blogged about the importance of pro-immigration advocacy. These include Matt Yglesias here and Adam Ozimek here. My co-blogger Nathan responded to Ozimek here.

This blog post will focus on the extent to which I think libertarians should focus on open borders advocacy. Prior to getting into the details, I want to clarify what I mean by the “should” here. My intuitive three-tiered view of ethics says that there are three tiers to ethical obligations:

  1. Negative rights ethics (don’t kill, steal, etc.)
  2. Contract/responsibility ethics (fulfill your contractual responsibilities, be honest, etc.)
  3. Excellence ethics (be nice, do a great job, give to charity, etc. — this is largely supererogatory).

When there is a conflict, negative rights ethics wins out over contract/responsibility ethics — for instance, it is immoral to be a contract killer, and if you did agree to kill somebody, it would be more moral to break the contract and not kill than to fulfil the terms of the contract. Both negative rights ethics and contract/responsibility ethics win out over excellence ethics, which are largely supererogatory.

Open borders advocacy, like most libertarian advocacy, falls outside the realm of negative rights ethics. For some people, including people hired by libertarian think tanks or advocacy groups, libertarian advocacy falls under the realm of contract/responsibility ethics — but whether or not that libertarian advocacy specifically includes open borders advocacy is a matter between them and their employers. So, my discussion of how important open borders advocacy should be within the context of libertarian advocacy is largely a discussion that’s part of the supererogatory framework of excellence ethics. The key point, therefore, is that I do not claim that libertarians as individuals have a personal moral obligation toward open borders advocacy. When I say that libertarians should engage in open borders advocacy, that’s just my shorthand for saying that engaging in open borders advocacy is the best use of libertarian resources based on my understanding of libertarianism, not that libertarians qua individuals are morally obligated to engage in such advocacy.

I will also repeat the scoping I did back in part 1, to circumvent the problem of libertarians (such as those who subscribe to the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual) who simply reject the case for open borders. The question I specifically consider is:

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?

With the scoping done, I now proceed to make my case: open borders advocacy “should” be quite high on the libertarian priority list.

The law of large proportions

The law of large proportions says, somewhat unsurprisingly, that the same proportional change in something bigger is larger than the same proportional change in something smaller. (This is not a very standard term, and doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia page, but see for instance here and here). In fact, even a much smaller proportional change in something bigger could be larger than a much bigger proportional change in something smaller. This term is used in the context of energy conservation. If private automobile transit causes ten times as much pollution as mass transit, then a 10% reduction in pollution from private automobile transit constitutes as much of a reduction in pollution as a complete elimination of pollution from mass transit. In particular, a 10% reduction in pollution from private automobile transit is twice as much as a 50% reduction in the pollution from mass transit.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: I argue that immigration restrictions constitute a much bigger infringement of liberty, both in theoretical and consequential terms, than almost all other violations of liberty in the world today. Thus, considerably smaller proportional changes in the status of open borders would have larger overall effects for liberty than considerably larger proportional changes in many of the other areas that libertarians work on. I will now flesh out the argument in more detail.

The most natural objection is that my attempt to quantify infringements of liberty is misguided. A purist version of this would be that any attempt to quantify or meaningfully compare infringements of liberty is misguided — however, I don’t think this is a widely held position. Even if people don’t quantify (in cardinal terms) various infringements of liberty, they do ordinally compare infringements of liberty, declaring some to be trivial and others to be serious.

Unlike utilitarianism, which seems to come equipped with a calculus of measurement of utility (albeit an impractical one), libertarianism, with its emphasis on non-aggression, is intrinsically less amicable to quantification. In his seminal book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick considers two different ways that libertarianism helps determine or constrain courses of action. The side constraint view of liberty, which he espouses, is that negative rights impose side constraints — restrictions on the courses of action open to people — and people are free to act as they please as long as they obey the side constraints. The other view that Nozick mentions is a maximization of liberty view, which could be thought of as libertarianism with a utilitarian face: rather than maximizing total utility, maximize total liberty. In this view, for instance, it may be acceptable to deliberately deprive an innocent person of liberty if that is the only way to save a hundred people from a murderer. In the side constraint view, such a course of action is not morally permissible.

With the side constraint view, the case for open borders is slam dunk — via the right to migrate and obligations to strangers — but it’s harder to meaningfully compare immigration restrictions against other violations of liberty. The “maximize total liberty” version, more amenable to quantification, faces the trouble that we don’t really know what it means to measure liberty. Here are some indirect measures:

  • In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the extent of deprivation of liberty can be measured by the foregone gains in utility. As the double world GDP page indicates, the foregone gains in utility from immigration restrictions are immense — open borders would raise world GDP by 50-150%, and even the most pessimistic estimate of this gain is about 10 times the most optimistic estimate of the increase in world GDP possible through the elimination of barriers to trade and capital flows. If we consider that the gains will be greatest among poor people (leading to an end of poverty), and we use the standard logarithmic relation between money and utility, the utility gains from open borders are even larger.
  • The stated and revealed preferences of migrants and potential migrants, both in the form of polling data on migration and the coyote fees paid by illegal migrants, indicate that people desperately want to migrate. As John Lee pointed out in this blog post, Afghans risk death to get into Iran (not otherwise a top destination for immigrants) and Indonesians illegally enter Australia to get into Australian jails! I would say that a violation of a liberty that many people want to exercise is prima facie more serious than a violation of a liberty that few people want.

Others have expressed the case I make above in slightly different language. For instance, here is a part of John Lee’s comment, which references the Overton window in lieu of the law of large proportions:

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.

Here is part of a comment by Swimmy:

Bryan, you have all the evidence in front of you that you should blog about immigration more, right in this very comment section. To wit, people are completely ignoring that you’ve already proposed more humane, pro-immigration alternatives to strict bans that would address most or all of the immigration negatives they point out. And some readers seem to think that we’ll gain most of the benefits to immigration by getting rid of tariffs, even though you’ve already shown that economists’ estimates of the deadweight losses from capital and goods restrictions are massively dwarfed, over 10 times, by restrictions to immigration.

Worse still, your readers still seem to think that the standard arguments against immigration have substantial relevance in light of this fact, when in fact they need to show not only that immigration has negative qualities but that those negative qualities collectively outweigh DOUBLE WORLD GDP!

If you have to repeat yourself, so be it. This is the single most important issue in economics, and it needs more exposure! To start, how about a post on emotional saliency versus empirical relevancy? That would be a nice place to point people who think immigration could possibly be as low as 750th on a list of government policy outrages.

The probability/effectiveness multiplier


Some skeptics of open borders advocacy concede that open borders are far more important than other issues, and even concede the law of large proportions, but are concerned that the effectiveness of open borders advocacy is either very close to zero or negative, and thus, that it overall hurts, rather than helps, libertarianism. And ultimately, it may hurt the cause of open borders itself. I’ll address the “hurts libertarianism” aspect under the “public relations argument” header later in this post. For now, I consider the evidence for and against effectiveness.

I do agree that open borders advocacy does not create instant converts. However, I think that some skeptics understate the effectiveness of such advocacy. Open borders advocacy is effective in shifting the Overton window (as John Lee put it in the comment quoted above).I did a detailed qualitative and quantitative analysis of the comments on Bryan Caplan’s Open Borders Persuasion Bleg, but here’s a quick summary: Caplan’s open borders advocacy has been effective in shifting people along the spectrum from closed borders to status quo to moderate open borders to radical open borders. Further, even people who were already supportive of radical open borders have become more convinced about the importance of the issue. In fact, the Open Borders website and blog owes its very existence to people who were inspired by Bryan Caplan to appreciate the importance of this issue.

I agree somewhat with Simon Cranshaw’s comment:

I agree completely that this is “most important issue of our time”. It is also one of the hardest subjects about which to persuade people to change their views. Ending substance prohibition is something that many people can be persuaded about given time to hear all the arguments. I have had little success though, persuading people that we should have more open borders. I am a foreigner living in Japan, and even speaking to other foreigners enjoying the privilege of working there, I find it hard to persuade them that more people should be allowed to do likewise. So I don’t know how effective more effort on the topic would be. I do think Bryan’s case is a great contribution and the most persuasive summary I have seen.

However, I don’t think that the relative lack of effectiveness of open borders advocacy is sufficient to offset the law of large proportions, so overall, open borders advocacy should still rank higher on the libertarian priority list. Further, it’s likely that more creative effort will substantially increase the effectiveness of open borders advocacy.

The “one-trick pony” and the credibility concern

In a follow up blog post to my Part 1 post titled Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders, Bryan Caplan expresses his own reservations about focusing too much on open borders:

My main excuses: (a) I already blog virtually all of the novel thoughts I have about immigration; (b) I’d be too miserable banging my head against the wall of public opinion and academic apathy if I devoted myself entirely to immigration; and (c) I probably don’t have the right personality or charisma to be a William Lloyd Garrison. It’s also possible that I would actually lose readers and influence if I deliberately became a one-trick pony.

In a comment on my Part 1 blog post, Nathan Smith makes a similar point:

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?

Nathan makes a similar point in his blog post Why the deficit of immigration advocacy? A deficit of demand, not supply (I’ll address this post of Nathan more in part 3 of the planned series). He writes (emphasis in original):

I get the sense from the comments on Caplan’s immigration posts that many readers read him in spite of his open borders views. If he blogged about immigration all the time, he might lose those readers.

I think this is a legitimate concern. Advocates for open borders would probably be taken more seriously if they have built their credibility through (relatively) uncontroversial work in other areas — Bryan Caplan is an example of a person who has built considerable credibility in libertarian circles and has leveraged that credibility for open borders advocacy. However, while I think this is a reasonable argument for devoting, say, only 10% of your libertarian advocacy efforts to open borders compared to 50%, it doesn’t really justify spending 1% of your libertarian advocacy efforts on open borders advocacy instead of 10%. And, as I try to demonstrate using casual empiricism in part 1, the current proportion is closer to 1% than 10%, so it’s the 1% versus 10% debate that is more relevant.

The public relations argument

Building a bit on the preceding arguments is the public relations argument: if libertarians focus on open borders advocacy, then, given the unpopularity of open borders advocacy, this hurts the cause of libertarianism, and ultimately of open borders advocacy. One version of this argument is offered (descriptively, rather than normatively) by commenter Markus Bjoerkheim on Bryan Caplan’s blog post:

the right generally oppose immigration and feels strongly about this. By voicing open borders libertarians are likely to offend(in lack of a better word) those very same groups of voters and politicians they usually have lots of common ground with.

I think there is a strong case to be made for at least moderate open borders from a conservative and small-government perspective. But empirically, Bjoerkheim is correct. For good or bad, fusionism lives on, particularly in the United States, and given that conservatives are empirically more restrictionist (independent of whether conservatism per se supports closed borders) libertarians may be afraid to tread on the toes of their potential allies.

Other commenters on Bryan Caplan’s blog take a normative stance against a high priority for open borders advocacy. Foobarista writes:

Frankly, in the 1000 things that the government should change to be more libertarian, open borders is number 750 at best. And doing it too early could kill other libertarian initiatives by drawing in foreigners who’ll vote anti-libertarian, and unless you buy “increase the contradictions”-style logic from Communist revolutionaries (which surprisingly large numbers of libertarians do buy into), you may be more interested in “libertarianism in one country” versus “transnational” libertarianism (to pursue the Communist analogy of libertarian nationalist “Stalinists” versus the transnational “Trotskyites”).

Also, politics matters, and radical open-borders positions aren’t exactly political winners, particularly if the economy isn’t perfect. If you’re interested in at least occasionally winning votes instead of just arguments, you have to consider this angle.

The idea that open borders advocacy by libertarians might be bad for libertarian public relations has some truth. But there are huge offsetting benefits. Before I proceed, I want to make clear that the public relations costs and benefits of open borders advocacy are, in my personal view, secondary to the compelling moral reasons to advocate for open borders. But for now, I will specifically address the public relations concern.

Libertarianism is often incorrectly stereotyped as a plutocratic ideology designed by and for the rich. This is not, in fact, true. Libertarians are at the forefront of ending the drug war, reducing licensing requirements for a range of professions (most practiced by middle-class and poor people), and opposing police misconduct and violence against foreigners that they challenge as unnecessary (even libertarians who do support some wars — such as my co-blogger Nathan Smith — do so under a very limited range of circumstances — to root out known tyrants, when the local populace is supportive, and with very strong attention to minimization of collateral damage).

But stereotypes die hard, and libertarians probably need to work thrice as hard to get half the credit for not being closeted plutocrats. Open borders advocacy leapfrogs welfare statists (who often acquire the mantle of being pro-poor) by pointing out how restrictions on liberty — in the form of restrictions on the right to migrate — are responsible for the continuation of global poverty. And they can point out the inherent contradiction when welfare statists worry about the contraction of the welfare state or worry about local inequality aversion more than global inequality and absolute poverty. For those libertarians (particularly the bleeding-heart variety) who are concerned about the public relations image of libertarianism, open borders advocacy should be considered a serious means to an image makeover. It also allows libertarians to challenge the hypocrisy of conservative opponents of immigration who claim to abide by principles of equality of opportunity and opposition to affirmative action when such opponents complain about how unfair competition from immigrants is suppressing the wages of natives.

Many people, including Bryan Caplan, have considered the analogy between immigration restrictions and Jim Crow laws in the Southern United States pre-1964. A few weeks ago, I tweeted to Bryan Caplan asking him how important libertarians pre-1964 considered advocacy against Jim Crow laws. This inspired a blog post by him titled Libertarians and Jim Crow Bleg, and some of the comments there make my case quite well. For instance, david writes:

(it ties into the open-borders thing quite well, actually. Americans circa 1930s truly did feel only a very weak impulse to care about liberty in someone else’s subnational identity, viz., the states. Libertarians today correspondingly feel rather weakly about liberty over national borders).

Chris H writes:

I think both the immigration and the government-enforced racial segregation issues demonstrate a frustrating aspect of libertarianism. Namely, we suck at political strategy.

Consider this, blacks in the Jim Crow South and illegal immigrants today both know precisely how terrible the repression of the state can be. They know exactly what happens when the state decides to flex it’s muscles and how this leads to terrible consequences. They don’t need economic or natural rights theory to know about the evils of the state, they lived it. It’s like the state is handing us a natural constituency on a silver platter! And then we marginalize the very issues which we could use as leverage to win these people over to the broader cause of liberty. We have a theory of economics and politics which dove tails perfectly with preventing the state from picking out particular groups for oppression and then we say two words on the point and think we’re done.

Now I think I know why many libertarian thinkers didn’t spend too much time on the Jim Crow issue (and it might have an application to the immigration issue). Jim Crow in comparison to other issues libertarians might comment on probably seemed more contained. From 1930 to 1964 there were some big and rising threats to liberty out there. Compared to fascism and communism, segregation probably seemed like something that wasn’t really spreading too far. The South had it but it wasn’t like the North was enacting too many of these laws. And besides, segregationists were often anti-communist so libertarians might be tricked into thinking they could be allies. But segregationists relied on state power to maintain their system. They could never be permanent libertarian allies while blacks, who at first simply wanted to stop having the state oppress them, were prime targets for actually joining the movement. But we let the new liberals and socialists out bid us. They focused a lot of energy on the issue we ignored and thus understandably won the favor of American blacks. Now we’re in the crummy position of having to argue against some of the state-provided privileges that have been accord to this long oppressed group. Now that’s not to say there aren’t angles libertarians could fruitfully push to regain some of that lost ground (noting how many aspects of the welfare actually help prevent racial equality might help), but we’ve made the battle harder for ourselves than it needed to be.

The same thing is true with immigration. These people come from countries where they are poor because of state interventions. They disproportionately become entrepreneurs when they get to this country. And they know just how much the bureaucracy of this country can suck (for legal immigrants because of the excruciatingly long waits and for illegal ones because of the fear of guys with guns coming in a throwing them out of their new home). Liberals and conservatives shouldn’t be able to win these guys over! Liberals attack the entrepreneurship immigrants tend to exhibit and try to institute state controls which immigrants were fleeing from in their old country. Conservatives are too afraid of change to support immigration. Libertarians should be able to grab these guys with ease! But when we don’t talk about immigration, indulge in fallacious mercantilist thinking, or somehow imagine that immigrants are naturally political enemies to libertarianism despite our philosophy being the only one that provides what they actually want (that is, the ability to try and make better lives for themselves and their families) we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

There are lots of important issues out there that libertarianism has something to say on. But if we actually want to gain more support for political change in this (or any) country we need to spend some more time on political strategy. And that strategy dictates that we’d be fools to ignore the concerns of natural constituents like immigrants or state-oppressed racial minorities.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will discuss what I think are the reasons for the under-supply of libertarian open borders advocacy. I’ve already hinted at some of the reasons here (when discussing them as counter-arguments to the normative case for open borders advocacy) but I’ll address them more descriptively in the next post.

Related posts

Some of these posts were written after the current post.

Related posts on quantitative estimation of the relative importance of open borders:

For more on quantitative estimation of the effects of open borders, see double world GDP.

Related pages and posts on libertarianism and open borders:

3 thoughts on “Open borders and the libertarian priority list: part 2”

  1. As a note, I think I was overly optimistic for the potential results of libertarian support of open borders. I still think it’s good for libertarians to do so, but I don’t think that particularly large numbers of immigrants would switch to libertarianism for the open borders issue. The ones I think a firm open borders stance would attract would then to be the higher education and wealthier. This is probably the most potentially influential group of immigrants and therefore still a win for libertarianism politically. But I don’t see the libertarian candidates winning office on a wave of poor immigrants newly receiving citizenship. Even so, libertarians don’t help their political case by being anti-immigrant. Not to mention politics should take a back seat to securing the rights of hundreds of millions of people.

    1. For those who see immigration as a political tool, I must say I wonder why country of origin makes asking “What are your political beliefs?” a morally relevant question. If we apply the “Does this empower people who politically disagree with me more than it empowers people who politically agree with me?” litmus test to various historical policy debates, I think we would reach morally indefensible answers in a large number of cases. So per Sebastian Nickel, why is the country a morally relevant distinction in a way that other things, such as ethnicity, aren’t?

Leave a Reply