Open Borders Questionnare: Nathan Smith’s answers

This post is intended to initiate a “tournament” in which regular bloggers at Open Borders: The Case as well as guest bloggers will answer a brief but challenging questionnaire. Unsolicited submissions will be considered for publication, and not only from those of the pro-open-borders persuasion, though they should meet the high standards of rigor, with regards to facts, logic, and moral sincerity, which Open Borders: The Case tries to maintain. There is no particular time limit for submissions, which will be posted as they are received/approved.

The questions are:

1. How might the world move to open borders? Describe the most realistic process by which we might get from here to there over the next thirty to fifty years. What are the odds of this happening? And by the way, clarify what you mean by open borders.

2. Are you in favor of open borders? Why or why not?

3. How do you think open borders would affect people currently living in developing countries?

4. And how do you think developed countries would be affected by open borders?

5. What are the political ramifications of open borders, e.g., for national sovereignty, social solidarity, and global governance?

6. What is the meta-ethical standpoint from which you evaluate the issue of open borders?

Think about how you would answer these questions. Here are my answers.

1. How might the world move to open borders? Describe the most realistic process by which we might get from here to there over the next thirty to fifty years. What are the odds of this happening? And by the way, clarify what you mean by open borders.

I envision a convergence of several processes. Though for convenience I’ll sometimes use the future tense in the projections below, I’d actually place the odds that we’ll get to (approximate) open borders in the next half-century at no better than 20% or so. I’d say it’s more likely than not that at least some of the trends below will cause immigration laws to be somewhat more open, and immigration restrictions to be seen as somewhat less morally legitimate. By “open borders,” I mean that a large majority of people will be able to move at will to a large majority of places, weighted by area, GDP, or population, to live and work, subject at most to slight fees ex ante and modest surtaxes ex post, and enjoying ordinary protection of their rights– but I do not include protection against private discrimination under this heading– upon arrival.

  1. Demographic trends. The greying of populations in rich countries will create a growing demand for immigrant workers. Voters will resist for a while but eventually would accept more open immigration policies, not just for “desirable” classes of immigrants but for immigrants generally, since discrimination among immigrants is difficult to do effectively.
  2. Inter-governmental migration negotiations. In the post-WWII period, much progress was made towards free trade through inter-governmental negotiations, even though these were conducted on mercantilist premises. A similar process will develop for migration, with countries making visa concessions to foreigners in order to expand opportunities for their own citizens to live and work abroad. Related to this is:
  3. Substitution of DRITI for discretion-based migration restrictions. One principle of the international trading regimes is that tariffs, which restrict trade by working through the market, are preferred to quotas, which restrict it more directly but less efficiently. A similar principle could arise in international migration negotiations, of preferring special taxes on migrants’ wages to discretionary control. Then international negotiations might gradually reduce these taxes.
  4. Secretary Hildebrand. This is my eccentric name for a possible future UN secretary-general who would play a role similar to that of Pope Gregory VII in the High Middle Ages, whose pre-papal name was Hildebrand. Pope Gregory VII was a drastic critic of the power of kings, who launched a dramatic confrontation with the Hohenstaufen emperor of Germany over the question of lay appointment of bishops. This sounds like a rather arcane casus belli, but it went to the heart of several important matters, including the basis of regal power, which hitherto had been built to an important extent on the wealth and organizational capacity of the Church and of which the prerogative to appoint bishops was an important element, and also, of course, the freedom of the Church. A century-and-a-half of intermittent struggle ensued, with both sides becoming steadily more vicious and unscrupulous, and the popes eventually winning a Pyrrhic victory only to become pawns of their allies, the kings of France, shortly after. However, this high-level struggle was very fertile for the history of Europe, inspiring and motivating much sophisticated thought in the monastic scriptoria, while also opening up many niches in which the city-states of Italy could begin their brilliant independent histories, whose fruit was the Renaissance. The Magna Carta and the birth of English liberty was also an offshoot of the medieval church-state struggle, in that Archbishop Steven Langton, trained in the university of Paris half a century before Thomas Aquinas, acted as a crucial patron for the barons’ revolt against King John.What does this have to do with the present, or with open borders? The United Nations, like the medieval papacy in the 10th and early 11th centuries before Hildebrand and his radical colleagues took it over, has great worldwide moral prestige which, I think, could be converted into real power in the right hands. If UN reform gave it more institutional autonomy, there are a lot of ways it might increase its strength. A radical UN secretary-general who initiated a high-level struggle for power and legitimacy against the proud nation-states could be a great boon for liberty even if his own ideology were not particularly liberal, by weakening the nation-states, stripping them of prerogatives and curtailing them on every side. The cause of open borders, in particular, would almost surely be well-served by Secretary Hildebrand, since it’s an area where, to oversimplify, libertarians, the left, and almost anyone with a globalist perspective and/or placing a high priority on economic development, sort of agree, or at least their sympathies point in the same direction.
  5. The cycle of undocumented immigration, open civil disobedience, and amnesty. It seems likely that some version of the following dynamic will play out in coming decades. Illegal immigration will lead to anomalous populations like the DREAMers which will eventually be accommodated by some sort of amnesty. Each amnesty will encourage further undocumented immigration by making future amnesties seem more likely. Again and again, the human trafficking industry will find ways to get around enforcement. Civil disobedients like Jose Antonio Vargas will repeatedly arise, providing a peculiar moral clarity which stands in beautiful contrast to the various evasions and callous cruelties of all restrictionists. Open borders will shine ever brighter as the only moral high ground amidst a swamp of moral incoherence.
  6. A new Christian politics. Religious leaders already favor immigration reform, as more devout Christians also tend to do relative to the general public. Since the Bible supports open borders, this bias seems likely to recur, or endure, and maybe to intensify. Strong advocacy by Christian churches of immigration reform already leads to interesting forms of political triangulation, with churches and business lobbies making common cause with leftist advocacy groups. What if churches went farther and, say, withheld Communion from ICE agents, as Reverend Charles Finney, the 19th-century revivalist preacher, withheld Communion from slaveholders? What if pastors urging Christians to “face jail [rather] than break God’s commandments” became a cliche, like Mother Theresa? Churchmen will draw on their traditions to serve as ideological guiding lights, supplying a political creed and an inspiring rhetoric to brave civil disobedients speaking truth to power. They will help arrange political coalitions that will surprise secular and vaguely anti-religious journalists.
  7. The internet will reshape identity and community at the nation-state’s expense. This deserves a standalone post at some point, but I expect that there will be a long, slow, but inexorable decline of nationalism as a result of the internet. Nation-states are not inevitable. They are not written in human nature. It would be truer to say that nation-states are a modern and Western invention, and I’m inclined to agree with Benedict Anderson that they are largely a side-effect of print technology, which led to mass literacy and printed books for mass audiences and therefore in vernaculars, which coalesced into the modern national languages of Europe, restructuring the conversation of mankind around national foci. The internet restructures it again, allowing an explosion of niche cultures that dissipate the conformist cultural unity of nation-states while at the same time treating national frontiers as irrelevant. Eli Dourado writes that “the Internet is the anti-Babel,” but relative to nation-states, one might just as well say the opposite: the internet is the new Babel, the doorway into new globalized communities that compete with and crowd out the pastimes and prejudices peculiar to particular places.
  8. World Bank and IMF conditionality. I have argued this before and will be brief here. The IMF and World Bank have significant influence on policy in developing countries around the world, especially poor countries (the World Bank) and during financial/currency crises (the IMF). The IMF, which got its lending capacity doubled during the crisis, are likely to be around for a while. I approve. Their influence comes from a combination of money and expertise. Their advice sort of reflects (with a lag) the consensus among development economists, together with the lessons of experience. Open borders could very appropriately be incorporated into the policy package that the World Bank and the IMF promote– in rich countries, but especially in poor countries where they have the most influence. It would be appropriate for the IMF because freedom of migration under a DRITI scheme would be a revenue source, which could be urged on countries borrowing money during a crisis on the grounds that it would help them repay. It would be appropriate for the World Bank because its motto is “our dream is a world free of poverty,” and not only would poor countries’ economic development probably benefit from letting in more foreigners, but global development would benefit thereby. To the extent that the IMF and World Bank get foreign financing and should to some extent represent the interests of their patrons as well, that’s another reason open borders would be an appropriate objective for the IFIs to pursue, since they would thereby expand the opportunities available to the citizens of the countries that finance them.
  9. Charter cities. The city-state has played a brilliant role in history, from ancient Athens to medieval Florence and Venice to contemporary Singapore, yet we have created a sovereignty cartel that precludes the creation of new city-states. Hopefully it will soon dawn on people that this is a mistake. Honduras will not be the last attempt to establish charter cities on territory carved out of nation-states and run under international rules of one sort or another. This is not directly related to open borders, charter cities might follow Singapore’s lead in being less prone to the “maximize the average” fallacy and territorialism. (They might practice citizenism but realize that smart citizenism is eminently compatible with a high degree of freedom of migration.) Charter cities could be pursued with international sponsorship, and subsidized, as a deliberate effort to make the right to emigrate a reality.
  10. Evolving ideas about democracy and human rights. It is tenable that open borders are inconsistent with democracy. In this view, democracy means “one person, one vote” and sovereignty of the majority within a given territory. The people have to have the right to exclude non-citizens, or they are not sovereign and the polity is not democratic. It is tenable, too, that real democracy requires open borders. In this view, democracy means that people get to have a say in the laws they are subject to, and since it is the foreign-born who are subject to immigration restrictions, and they are the exact set of people who didn’t get to have a say in making the immigration restrictions, immigration restrictions are the mathematical limiting case of undemocratic law. Ideas about democracy have evolved a lot in the past couple of centuries and could evolve to include open borders.

2. Are you in favor of open borders? Why or why not?

I support open borders. The major reasons include:

  1. Natural liberty. Migration restrictions are coercive. Coercion requires special justification, and the crossing of a national frontier by someone fleeing tyranny or seeking economic opportunity is not a sufficient ground for using coercion. In short, migration restrictions are unjust. Justice aside, natural liberty is an important human value, which is greatly curtailed by migration restrictions. Wouldn’t it be cool if one could take a fancy to Norway or South Africa, hop a flight there, look for a job, and stay as long as one desired to do so? Wouldn’t it make the world a better place, more full of adventure, variety, opportunity? Since The Hobbit came out recently, this may be topical: I think there is a widespread, inarticulate nostalgia for times when one didn’t have to ask leave of bureaucrats to go wherever one’s feet will take you, and that the appeal of fantasy lies partly in their portrayal of a world in which the characters could go have adventures without worrying about passports and visas. Tolkien’s hobbits sing this song:Roads go ever ever on,
    Over rock and under tree,
    By caves where never sun has shone,
    By streams that never find the sea;
    Over snow by winter sown,
    And through the merry flowers of June,
    Over grass and over stone,
    And under mountains in the moon.Roads go ever ever on
    Under cloud and under star,
    Yet feet that wandering have gone
    Turn at last to home afar.
    Eyes that fire and sword have seen
    And horror in the halls of stone
    Look at last on meadows green
    And trees and hills they long have known…

    The Road goes ever on and on
    Down from the door where it began.
    Now far ahead the Road has gone,
    And I must follow, if I can,
    Pursuing it with eager feet,
    Until it joins some larger way
    Where many paths and errands meet.
    And whither then? I cannot say.

    Alas, in the benighted world that the 20th century, the heyday of national socialism in its various forms, has created, one can’t follow the road very far before you run into a border checkpoint where you have to show a passport. It shouldn’t be that way.

  2. Poverty alleviation. In the mid-20th century, economic inequality in most rich countries had fallen to levels much lower than what it had been in the 19th century “Gilded Age.” But there is no moral merit in that at all, because at a global level, inequality was greater than ever. Economic growth was concentrated first in the Western core, slightly later in the Pacific Rim of East Asia, but lagged greatly in India, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, China, etc. Rather disgustingly, the West enjoyed what by historical standards was a sort of mass affluence, while extreme poverty, illiteracy, disease, low life expectancy, and chronic hunger plagued much of the world. Open borders (see below for an explanation why) would be a powerful tool for alleviating poverty worldwide, though they would increase visible povery in the rich world.
  3. Fostering innovation. I think open borders would foster innovation and accelerate the progress of the economic frontier. Mechanisms for this include (a) new commercial ideas arising from accelerated cross-cultural exchange, (b) a larger global market as open borders double world GDP would increase returns to R&D and overcome the fixed and transactions costs involved in innovation, (c) permitting the fuller development and flourishing of talented individuals born in unlucky places.
  4. Economic efficiency. Conceptually, one can distinguish (a) distributional effects, (b) dynamic effects, and (c) static effects of open borders. Here my focus is on (c). In a global sense, it is irrational for high-income families in American suburbs to be mowing their own lawns, cooking their own meals, or driving their kids to soccer practice. To allow poor immigrants to come to America and take over such not-particularly-unpleasant drudgery for low-but-better-than-they-would-get-at-home wages benefits everyone concerned, and migration policy is perverse to prevent this.
  5. Rebalancing globalization. Since the 1970s, a new international money regime has been in place: floating fiat currencies. An unexpected and unwelcome feature of this international money regime has been the excessive (relative to fundamentals) volatility of exchange rates. Under open borders, when a country’s currency strengthens, it would attract temporary migrants, who would earn high wages in terms of their home currencies and repatriate their savings; when a country’s currency weakens the reverse would happen. For example, if the pound became anomalously strong relative to the dollar, Americans would migrate to Britain, earn pounds, and repatriate their savings, selling pounds and buying dollars, thus mitigating the pound’s anomalous strength. This would tend to tame excessive currency volatility. In general, I think open borders would make international capital flows work better.
  6. Tiebout competition. Some restrictionists fear that open borders will tend to lead to a larger and more redistributive governments. Maybe, but the Tiebout mechanism of jurisdictional competition would work in the other direction. Eli Dourado is writing about Tiebout competition when he writes: “The wider array of possible economic institutions in the future means that not only will production be more sensitive to matching considerations, but that matching people with the institutions they would like to live under will become more important. Without freer immigration, people could be stuck under economic institutions that they don’t like.” Tiebout competition tends to induce optimal supply of local public goods (in principle) while discouraging redistribution (in principle and probably in practice too) because high-income and/or high-wealth individuals will move out of jurisdictions that tax them to redistribute to poorer people. That’s probably why federal taxes are progressive but state and local taxes are regressive: people will leave high-tax states and municipalities, unless high-quality public goods offset this cost. Open borders would create stronger Tiebout competition at the international level, and nation-states would have to hold down marginal income tax rates, lest high earners move away.
  7. Christianity demands it. When I wrote Principles of a Free Society, it was clear to me that the strong anti-coercive message of the Gospels– “turn the other cheek,” “do not resist the wicked man”– and the Good Samaritan parable profoundly undermined and contradicted the spirit of immigration restrictionism. But at that time, I hadn’t read the Old Testament teachings on immigration and didn’t realize just how strong the Biblical case for open borders is. As mentioned above, devout Christians in the US and worldwide are more favorable to open borders, and hierarchs and church leaders tend to be friendly to immigration. Nonetheless, the claim that God and the Bible demand open borders would probably shock many of my fellow Christians, so I’ll be tentative about it… for now. But my tentative belief is that God and the Bible demand open borders. Especially urgent is the admission of people who are not allowed to practice Christianity freely in their home countries– usually Muslim or communist countries.
  8. Opportunities for Christian evangelism. I don’t have data here, though I could give anecdotes. But it seems clear that allowing immigrants to move to the United States and other countries with strong Christian communities would help to spread the faith by exposing more foreigners to Christianity. Freedom of migration would also make it easier for missionaries to go abroad, living and working in foreign places, while looking for opportunities to preach the faith.
  9. Democracy and social contract. Without reiterating the argument made in point (10) in the response to question 1, I think democracy, though its normative importance is greatly exaggerated and much misunderstood, is an important principle, because people ought to have a say in the laws they live under. Immigration restrictions are inherently undemocratic, or I may say, inconsistent with the social contract as a basis of governmental legitimacy, and this is one reason to try to overturn them.
  10. Private charity would become far more effective. There is wisdom in the old saying that “charity begins at home.” Charity creates perverse incentives, and to mitigate those requires wisdom and local knowledge. International charity is a particularly difficult job, given the long chains of accountability involved and the many opportunities for intercultural misunderstanding. Local charity has an advantage in this respect: but unfortunately, the current global migration regime largely segregates the world’s rich and poor, so that local charities in the rich world end up helping people who are privileged by global standards. Under open borders, the much greater visible presence of poverty in rich countries would serve as a powerful spur to private charity, which would also be much more effective because the long chains of accountability from donor to recipient via international agencies would be shortened. Moreover, migrants to rich countries, who made contacts with philanthropists in rich countries via, say, churches, would serve as excellent agents for international charity later.One reason that I would not add to this list is the peace case for open borders. I can think of a lot of reasons why open borders could promote world peace, but the fact that World War I erupted in the heyday of open borders is one huge data point that goes the other way. There’s an open borders as social conservatism argument which I can’t articulate well so far– very roughly, local populations can deviate quite far from certain fundamentals of human nature, and immigrants can help pull us back towards normalcy– but which probably carries some weight in my internal calculus.

3. More specifically, how do you think open borders would affect people currently living in developing countries?

Maybe the single most important effect of open borders would be to eliminate world poverty, at least in the extreme sense of living with less than $1/day. A decade or so after open borders was established, we would have the luxury of looking back with condescension and horror on a world in which a billion people or so lived on less than $1/day. A couple of decades or so after open borders was established, people living on less than $10/day would be exceptional enough to be scandalous. There is a strong case (though “overwhelming” might overstate it) that open borders would do more to alleviate world poverty than anything else that rich countries can do– likely by an order of magnitude.

The most direct way that open borders would benefit people living in developing countries would be to allow them no longer to live in developing countries. Hundreds of millions, probably, would leave, moving to places with better opportunities. But those who stayed behind would benefit, too, from remittances, and from return migrants bringing capital and experience from abroad, and retaining useful foreign connections. In fact, one of the main motivations for my DRITI scheme is to maximize the development impact of open borders by encouraging return migration. Return migrants would use their mandatory savings under the DRITI program to build houses, start businesses, and provide better educations for their children.

Poor countries would also, in many cases, benefit by opening their own borders to migrants. Fewer migrants would come to poor countries, but some who would come would bring capital and skills and help to modernize the economy. But in that case, why haven’t poor countries opened their borders already? I don’t know as much about this as I would like. Most of the data about and academic literature on migration deal with migration to rich countries. Amy Chua’s book World on Fire is something of an exception: she studies “market-dominant minorities” around the world, their economic role, their frequent unpopularity, and why they make the American habit of trying to export free markets and democracy particularly dangerous. But if market-dominant minorities are politically problematic, it seems on balance that they are quite beneficial economically. Open borders would let more of these people in. By giving professionals, entrepreneurs, and skilled workers a right to live and work in poor countries, backed up perhaps by international treaty obligations, global agencies, and evolving attitudes about law and rights, open borders would make at least some of them more willing to make the risky move to poor countries where they could do a lot of good. Sensitivities about “extraterritoriality” and “imperialism” would be ease by reciprocity. Poor countries tend to be sensitive to any suggestion that they are, as it were, second-class citizens in a global commonwealth of nations. Under open borders, they would just be doing the same thing as rich countries.

In addition to economic development, migration would promote political freedom and cultural Americanization and Westernization. Both emigration from and immigration to poor countries would have this effect. Emigrants from poor countries would act as conduits for new ideas, whether on their return or by remote influence through correspondence. There are many examples of this: Churchill was half-American; T.G. Masaryk, the Czechoslovak president who led the only country in eastern Europe to maintain democracy throughout the inter-war period, had an American wife; Saakashvili, leader of one of the few democratic countries in the former Soviet Union except the Baltic republics, studied and worked in America; Sun Yat-sen, leader of the first, and more benign, Chinese revolution. There are many negative examples, too, of intercultural contacts, such as Sayyid Qutb, whose exposure to American culture seems to have help turn him (via his reaction against it) into a founding father of Islamist ideology, Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, the Nazi finance minister whose parents were immigrants in America for a while and admired their adopted country enough to give their son his odd middle names (after the American publisher) though they did not succeed and went home, Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh who studied in France, or for that matter, Lenin. History suggests that migration makes people smarter for good and evil. Immigrants to poor countries would tend, not always but disproportionately, to be the bearers of a new “Anglobalized” culture, conversant in English and international business and social modernity, even if they didn’t actually come from the West.

A special case deserves mention: refugee crises, long-standing ethnic rivalries, and border disputes. Open borders between Azerbaijan and Armenia, or Palestine and Israel, or Georgia and the Georgian provinces under Russian occupation, would lead to a lot of people returning to their homes, to places where they are in conflict with their neighbors. This could have very good, or very bad, effects, or some of both. Doubtless, these hard cases would stand out as exceptions during a transition to open borders, while at the same open borders would affect the way they were handled, but it’s hard to foresee anything clearly.

4. And how do you think developed countries would be affected by open borders?

Some of the major problems of developed countries today would be solved by open borders. Government debt becomes less burdensome when population and total GDP rise, even if per capita GDP falls. As mentioned above, long-term demographic problems of shrinking and greying populations would be mitigated or eliminated by open borders (this does depend on the composition of immigrants, but given the relative youthfulness of the world population as a whole and the greater propensity of the young to move, the prediction that open borders would help can be made fairly confidently). Almost all homeowners and owners of real estate would enjoy a windfall benefit from rising population as demand and prices rise. This effect would not be offset by losses to renters, or to people unwilling to sell, from higher rents and property taxes. As cities expanded, renters could still live in comparably dense, interesting places, and homeowners who stayed put would get the windfall not in cash but in being through the midst of more economic activity (i.e., more shops, restaurants, entertainment, interesting streets, jobs and business opportunities, etc.– all the amenities of urban living for which people pay high urban rents).

Savers and owners of capital would tend to benefit as well, from an abundance of investment opportunities, but there would be downward pressure on wages. Crudely speaking, “unskilled” workers would see their wages fall, while some “skilled” workers would probably see their wages rise. But then, some of the basic skills Americans take for granted, like speaking native English, cultural fluency, and driving cars, would become “skills” for which premia could be earned. Immigrants would help poorer natives as customers, by creating a mass market for low-price goods, and giving companies a stronger incentive to pursue “frugal innovation.” There might be more business opportunities for entrepreneurially inclined natives even without a lot of education. Overall, it is extremely likely that natives as a whole would benefit, but without deliberate efforts to prevent it via fiscal policy, a substantial minority of natives would be likely to see their living standards fall due to open borders.

I would both advocate and anticipate that policy would do much to protect the least fortunate natives against a fall in living standards due to open borders. Moreover, this would be fiscally feasible, because open borders would greatly expand the tax base. Some natives might find jobs scarce and/or wages very low, yet receive transfer payments from the government which would enable them to live a “middle class,” house-and-car-in-the-suburbs, lifestyle. Others would see their wages fall but find themselves more than compensated by a rise in the price of their home and the value of their stockmarket portfolio– while also, perhaps, enjoying new transfers and/or tax cuts from a government flush with revenues from immigrant taxes. The hardest part of adjustment would be the moral impact of labor falling in value. One tenet of what I call “the macroeconomic social contract”– that anyone who is willing to work should be able to find a job that enables them to earn a decent living standard– would be further undermined.

Also discombobulating for natives would be the emergence of vibrant shantytowns and ethnic districts on an enormous scale. Pre-assimilation would mitigate the problem of absorbing immigrants into mainstream society, though on the other hand the number of immigrants would be larger than in the 19th century both in absolute numbers and as a share of the population. But Americans would hear more languages spoken on the streets, see more holidays celebrated, see a wider variety of religious buildings and of clothing. There would be neighborhoods where native-born US citizens would have the experience, charming to some but frightening to others, of being on American soil yet feeling like they were abroad. European countries, I expect, would face a different problem, namely, that some immigrants would prefer to assimilate to an “Anglobalized” international bourgeoisie, rather than to Dutchness or Norwegianness or Italianness. They would have to cope with large populations of foreigners who seemed content to reside permanently in their countries, getting by with English. Sweden or the Netherlands might see their living standards rise under open borders, even as Swedish and Dutch faced displacement by English as the nation’s first language. (That might happen anyway, but open borders would accelerate it.)

While the native-born citizens of the rich world need not see their living standards fall and most to all would probably see them rise, likely by a lot, under open borders, there would be far more poor people in the rich world. Germans and Danes and Italians and Washingtonians and Californians would have to get used to seeing a lot more deep poverty on the streets, and content themselves with knowing that there was much less poverty in the world because there was a little more at home. The moral underpinnings of the national socialist models of society that prevailed in the 20th century would have to be abandoned. Territorialism as a meta-ethical prejudice would have to be refuted at the level of reason and then wrung out of people’s intuitions.

5. What are the political ramifications of open borders, e.g., for national sovereignty, social solidarity, and global governance?

Some of my arguments above might suggest that I connect open borders to the fading away of the nation-state. Not really. I do see a lot of very long-run forces tending to dissipate the historically anomalous dominance of the nation-state as the locus of personal loyalties and perceived governmental legitimacy, which emerged over a few centuries after the inventing of the press and culminated in the late 20th century. And I think this is a good thing. Or at any rate, the transition out of a nation-state sovereignty cartel into what I might call a neo-medieval system, with power flowing away from the nation-state both upwards to global agencies, sideways to international NGOs and multilateral organizations, and downwards to local governments and civil society, can be a good thing, and will probably be better than a futile attempt to shore up the old model of nation-state sovereignty. But these trends may take several generations to play out. And they are separable from open borders.

Open borders would require only a modest curtailment of national sovereignty. Countries would be bound by international norms, treaty commitments, and a newly enlightened public opinion to keep themselves largely open to all comers, but they could still conduct autonomous foreign, fiscal, and monetary policies. Global governance would have a role in keeping borders open, but the budgets of global agencies might still be small relative to those of national governments, and people might have few direct encounters with them. I would not actually expect patriotism to fade under open borders. Here history is on my side: the late 19th century, the last age of open borders, was also the zenith of patriotism. And that actually makes sense, for under open borders, roughly speaking, all the people in a country would be there because they want to be there, and all the people who want to be in a country would be there. The answer to “why do you live in this country?” would no longer be a mere “because I was born here” but might be “because I love it!” While certain trends towards assimilation would surely be reinforced, national distinctions might even be heightened in some ways, for two reasons: (a) more interaction with foreigners would make people more aware, and proud, of the peculiar virtues of their own nation, and (b) some people would self-select into nations for which they felt a particular affinity and admiration. Migration restrictions, to make the same point from the other side, may have the effect of reducing national distinctiveness, through a kind of mean reversion. For example, if Europe and America established open borders, we might see American lovers of the welfare state moving to Europe, while European lovers of free-market capitalism would move to America.

Very likely, fewer people would know or be friends with neighbors, but this is only a continuation of present trends, which open borders might not even accelerate.

6. What is the meta-ethical standpoint from which you evaluate the issue of open borders?

I dealt with this issue here, where I argue for “universal altruism plus division of labor” as a rule of thumb. The “universal altruism” part, if you like, is a “top-down” meta-ethics: it attempts to discern right and wrong by envisioning a huge overarching goal and then deriving more immediate, practical rights and wrongs of human conduct from it, that is, from whether they are conducive to it or not. In addition, I have a “bottom-up” meta-ethics, which I think I do not unduly abuse a venerable phrase by calling “natural rights.” I think, for example, that I have an overwhelming moral intuition not to torture children or punch strangers in the face. From such intuitions, I derive the idea of natural rights, which serve as a moral side-constraint on what people and polities can do. The term “moral side-constraint” seems to have some appeal, and if I am not mistaken, other bloggers at this site picked it up from me. One way to think about ethics (oversimplified but still useful) is to think of top-down meta-ethics as providing a sort of “utility function” and natural rights as imposing a “budget constraint,” a set of permissible actions. I would oppose migration restrictions from both perspectives, that is: (a) they do not serve the greater good, and (b) they violate natural rights. Either (a) or (b) would be sufficient grounds for condemning them. But I am oversimplifying.

Let me also approvingly quote Bryan Caplan: “On immigration, however, all serious moral theories appear to support open borders. If everyone’s utility counts equally (utilitarianism), if we should treat everyone as an end in himself (Kantianism), if social institutions should maximize the welfare of the worst-off group (Rawlsianism), if inequality is intrinsically bad (egalitarianism), if it’s wrong to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults (libertarianism), how can anyone justify prohibiting poor foreigners from selling their labor to willing domestic employers?” This may need to be qualified, e.g., Rawls didn’t support open borders though I think it’s clear that he would have had to do so if he were to support his own philosophy consistently; and BK has persuaded me of the plausibility if not the truth of the claim that open borders could reduce global GDP in the long run; and possibly a communitarian meta-ethics could provide a philosophically respectable basis for rejecting open borders. Still, the fact that one can more or less take any meta-ethics one’s opponent might care to espouse and show compellingly why it implies the need for open borders is one reason I’m so confident on this issue.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

12 thoughts on “Open Borders Questionnare: Nathan Smith’s answers”

  1. This is a long (if worth reading) post! It might be worth clarifying in the introduction what length requirements/recommendations there are (if any), since I’m not sure how many others might be able to match the length and comprehensiveness of some of these answers in a blog post.

    In response to question 1, point 1, it’ll be interesting to see how things evolve in Japan. Japan has been very resistant to immigration and is also one of the faster-aging societies on earth. Will the latter be enough to overcome traditional Japanese misgivings about immigration?

  2. You’ve made the point about meta-ethics before. I looked into. I wasn’t exactly convinced. To quote from your source:

    According to Richard Garner and Bernard Rosen,[1] there are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general questions:

    What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?
    What is the nature of moral judgments?
    How may moral judgments be supported or defended?

    A question of the first type might be, “What do the words ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean?” (see value theory). The second category includes questions of whether moral judgments are universal or relative, of one kind or many kinds, etc. Questions of the third kind ask, for example, how we can know if something is right or wrong, if at all. Garner and Rosen say that answers to the three basic questions “are not unrelated, and sometimes an answer to one will strongly suggest, or perhaps even entail, an answer to another.”[1]

    A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not attempt to evaluate specific choices as being better, worse, good, bad, or evil; although it may have profound implications as to the validity and meaning of normative ethical claims. An answer to any of the three example questions above would not itself be a normative ethical statement.

    It doesn’t seem to me that you can separate a question like “What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?” from the debate between, say, utilitarians and Kantians. To a utilitarian, a moral term like “right” means “serves the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” To a Kantian, it means “behaving by maxims which you could consistently will to be universal.” Again, if the question is “How may moral judgments be supported or defended?” a Benthamite would offer a utilitarian calculus, while a Kantian would explain how the judgment reflected a maxim that could appropriately be universal. I don’t see how one could say that utilitarianism and Kantianism are NOT meta-ethically different, or that meta-ethical differences between Kantians and utilitarians are accidental or irrelevant.

    Having said that, it does seem relatively innocuous to modify question 6 to “What is the ethical standpoint from which you evaluate the issue of open borders?” The “meta-” signals that we’re looking for a higher level of abstraction, for fundamental generalities; but maybe people will get that anyway.

    Still, it’s not clear to me that my use of the word “meta-ethical” really deviates from the usual philosophical meaning of the word, nor, if so, wherein the distinction consists, nor whether the distinction is really useful. If philosophers are trying to use “meta-ethics” to denote a way of talking about ethics that is still more abstract than utilitarianism or Kantianism, I doubt that they are succeeding. As for “object-level ethical theories,” that doesn’t even come up in a Wikipedia search.

    1. I don’t want to be rude, but pulling rank is a sign of small minds. Can you respond to my objections? If not, adapt. The type of terminological deference between disciplines you’re asking for is not normal and would not work.

    2. Let me provide an analogy here. Economists use the word “competitive” in a special way that makes it roughly synonymous with “price taking behavior” and “efficient” and “large numbers of buyers and sellers.” Lay people might use the word “competitive” in ways unrelated to this, e.g. saying that pride is the quintessentially competitive sin, or inconsistent with it, e.g. to say that a monopolistic tycoon is very competitive because he crushes any new firm that attempts to enter his industry. Economists would be in the wrong if they refused to tolerate this. I’m not sure the analogy is apt here, though, because I’m not convinced that my use of “metaethical” is particularly improper even as philosophical jargon.

    3. Hi Nathan,

      I’ve been reading up this stuff on Wikipedia (I don’t have much prior knowledge of philosophical jargon) and I think that there is a distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics. The distinction is hard to pin down, and your criticisms of the language used in Wikipedia are valid. Let me use an analogy to explain what I think it’s trying to convey:

      If you think of ethics like eating, then “applied ethics” would correspond to rules about what, when, how, and how much to eat. “Normative ethics” would correspond to the underlying principles that go into determining these rules — for instance, “eat until you feel full” or “eat food with less fats and carbohydrates and more vitamins and minerals” and things like that. Meta-ethics, on the other hand, would correspond to questions like “what is food?” or “why do we eat?” or “what does it mean for one type of food to be better than another?”

      There are some questions that can be interpreted both in the sense of meta-ethics and in the sense of normative ethics. For instance, the question “what does it mean for one type of food to be better than another?” could be interpreted in a meta-ethical sense of “what are we even talking about here?” or in a normative ethical sense of “what criteria would one actually use to figure this out?” So, as you point out, the distinction is blurred and there are corner cases. But there is a distinction.

      Coming back to the ethics question, I think that the key way that meta-ethics distinguishes itself from normative ethics is that it’s sufficiently vague as to be practically useless in actually answering any ethical questions. For instance, “moral realism” says that moral facts exist, but can pretty much accommodate any set of moral facts, so saying you’re a moral realist in some sense conveys no information about your normative ethics (other than the fact that you think that those ethics are the right ones). Similarly, “ethical intuitionism” says that some moral facts can be derived from our intuition, but is vague enough as to accommodate any set of moral facts depending on who is doing the intuiting. Some meta-ethical theories preclude definitive talk of normative ethics (e.g., moral nihilism and moral skepticism) but they still allow for talking of normative ethics as an abstract game without any truth content.

      Bryan Caplan is a moral realist, in fact an ethical intuitionist as far as his meta-ethics is concerned, and a libertarian as far as his normative ethics is concerned.

      For Steve Sailer, I suspect that his normative ethics is citizenist, but his meta-ethics is likely moral skeptic or moral nihilist. This is just a guess, though — I’m not trying to be uncharitable, and my apologies to Sailer if I am reading him wrong.

      1. Let me suggest two ways of classifying thought related to ethics:
        A. Two-tier
        1. Ordinary ethics. The right and wrong thing to do vis-a-vis particular situations, e.g. Is it wrong for governments to restrict migration, in general, or in particular ways, or for particular reasons?
        2. Meta-ethics. Abstract theories that may guide or inform ordinary ethical judgments.
        B. Three-tier
        1. Applied ethics. The right and wrong thing to do in particular situations.
        2. Normative ethics. More abstract theories rhat can inform judgments of right and wrong.
        3. Still more abstract theories that deal with what the terms right and wrong mean.
        (2) and (3) in the three-tier framework cannot be very cleanly distinguished. Moreover, we are not, I think, interested in the distinction here. We don’t want to ask people to say, for example, that they’re Kantians, while specially avoiding a commitment to moral realism. The two-tier framework is more apt here. It would be surprising if anyone found the two-tier framework an impediment to understanding. It would not be at all surprising if the mere word “ethical” evoked responses like “I don’t think migration restrictions are wrong,” which is insufficiently abstract. Sometimes distinctions are helpful. Not this one, here.

        By the way, “meta” is an established English prefix, signifying greater abstraction. A rederivation of “metaethics” is an inherent and permanent potentiality of the English language. This potentiality should discipline redefinitions of the word in arbitrary and inconvenient ways.

        1. You’re right that in this context, “meta-ethics” as philosophers use the term isn’t necessary. But it may be clearer if you used the term “normative ethics” — or at least parenthetically indicated at some point that what you’re calling meta-ethics is what philosophers of ethics call normative ethics. That way, people who have studied academic philosophy aren’t penalized for their knowledge of the technical terms by getting unnecessarily confused.

  3. By the way, I do realize of course that I’m not a philosopher specializing in ethics. And I do feel one should defer to the specialists in the use of high-level terms. But only up to a point. If the specialists are defining their terms in ways that don’t facilitate communication, and if other ways of using the terms facilitate communication better, laymen may be justified in taking liberties.

  4. I just finished a PhD in moral philosophy so perhaps I can shed some light on the terminological question about ethics vs. meta-ethics vs. applied ethics.

    Basically, BK is right about this. The main evidence in favor of this is that philosophy professors who teach courses on normative ethics or describe their work as normative ethics tend to focus on the questions you’re asking about (Kantianism vs. utilitarianism vs. contractualism vs. virtue ethics, vs. deontology, vs. other). People who teach standard classes about meta-ethics tend to focus on questions about nihilism, expressivism, intuitionism, moral realism, naturalist meta-ethical theories, non-naturalist meta-ethical theories, and so forth. I think it is more helpful to look at what the classes teaching these subjects are about than what people talking about the disciplines define the questions as. In philosophy, it is often hard to define the questions you’re asking.

    This is oversimplified and leaves a lot out, but here is a rough and ready way of thinking about it:

    The primary goal of normative ethics is to provide a complete mapping from (possible situations, action) pairs to evaluations of the actions in those situations in terms of how right/praiseworthy/blameworthy they are, and for this mapping to be totally correct and exceptionless. Standard theories of normative ethics, such as utilitarianism and contractualism, are mainly disagreeing about this type of thing.

    The primary goal of applied ethics is to answer narrower questions about the mapping, sometimes talking about only a subset of the (possible situation, action) pairs, and allowing for more rough and ready generalizations about the mapping. So, for example, medical ethics is a part of applied ethics that deals with medical decisions in the world as we know it today. And a major question would be something like “under what conditions, if any, should we let doctors help their patients kill themselves?”

    The primary goal of meta-ethics is to ask various big-picture questions about the mapping, such as: why is this mapping special? is there a uniquely correct mapping? how do people use words to talk about this mapping? why do people have a practice of talking about this mapping at all? what are people even asking about when they ask about this mapping? and so forth.

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