Philosophers, wonks and entrepreneurs

I’ve talked about open borders and migration-related issues with people coming from a range of different perspectives (including a wide range of open borders supporters at different levels), and I’ve often found that people are talking past each other. This is partly because of fundamental differences in the mindset that people bring to thinking about the current state of the world and how to change it. In this post, I describe three main (plus some additional) perspectives on the world, and their meaning in the context of open borders.

Philosophers, specifically moral philosophers and ethicists

The moral philosopher or ethicist is interested in figuring out the right course of action, but in a very abstract sense. The moral philosopher may consider questions such as whether we have a duty to vote, whether we are obliged to obey and respect governments’ authority, whether we should eat meat, or whether we have an obligation to make large donations to end poverty. Some of the questions considered refer to the moral choices that individuals face, while others refer to moral choices faced by collectives, represented through intermediaries such as governments, businesses, or other organizations.

Some moral philosophies are deontological, so practical considerations, including the costs and consequences of the relevant alternatives, are not that important. Other moral philosophies are consequentialist, so practical considerations matter in answering moral questions (the most salient example is utilitarianism, where different choices are compared in terms of utility). However, although a consequentialist perspective might seem to be more practical, it is still a philosophical perspective: practical considerations matter only insofar as they shed light on what is right.

Examples of open borders philosophers include Michael Huemer, Jason Brennan, Joseph Carens, and Bryan Caplan. One interesting example to illustrate how the philosopher perspective uses practical considerations merely as a tool of philosophical argumentation is offered by the way people such as Huemer (e.g., here) and Caplan (e.g., here) typically deploy keyhole solutions. When Caplan brings up keyhole solutions, he’s not actually advocating them, let alone offering a specific keyhole solution that he is fully getting behind. In fact, as he’s clarified, he thinks pure open borders is preferable to keyhole solutions, or what I call the (1) > (2) > (3) preference ordering in this post. Rather, he’s using keyhole solutions to win the debate on whether it’s feasible to move in the direction of open borders.

As I noted in my post on Bryan Caplan’s open borders advocacy:

Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.

Commenter BK agreed and went further:

So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.

But from the philosopher perspective, establishing the existence of keyhole solutions can be sufficient to make a case even if one doesn’t feel the onus of developing or recommending them (in Bryan’s case, the logic is analogous to the logic of his views on desert: if one could come up with some way that a person could avoid a bad situation, then they do not deserve sympathy for that bad situation; similarly, if one could come up with keyhole solutions that could in principle allow for open borders, then one has no excuse to maintain the closed border status quo).

When Open Borders: The Case began, it had a fairly heavy philosophical bent. This made sense, because philosophy seems to offer a good place to start an investigation into a change as big and complex as open borders. I feel that this site (and the “open borders movement” at large) has exhausted the philosophical perspective more than the other perspectives. There’s still work to be done with respect to outreach and refinement, but the most important new ground to break on the question won’t come from a purely philosophical angle.

To the extent that work remains on the philosophical side, I believe it will be something of the sort where we apply philosophical reasoning to concrete, specific problems that exist in the world today. Thus, rather than writing another generic post about the right to migrate, we could argue that open borders is the only ethically consistent way of dealing with refugees and DREAMers.

UPDATE: In the comments of an Open Borders Action Group post by Joel Newman linking to an interview in the New York Times of philosopher Joseph Carens, John Lee excerpts a part of the interview that describes the philosopher perspective:

G.G.: So, why argue for open borders if it is not a feasible policy?

J.C.: Because philosophers should tell the truth as they see it (even when that makes some people mad). And it can be important to gain a critical perspective on existing arrangements, even if we cannot do much to change them at the moment. The feudal system was once deeply entrenched. So was the institution of slavery. For a long time, there was no real hope of changing those social systems. Yet criticism was still appropriate. If we don’t ask fundamental questions about the justice or injustice of our social arrangements, we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.

Wonks and policy catalysts

The wonkish perspective to open borders focuses on finding practical solutions or paths in a public policy context. Wonks are interested in the philosophy and ethics insofar as it tells them what subjects to focus on, and insofar as it provides some moral boundaries within which they can explore alternatives, but they’re more interested in working out the details of proposals that are, or might soon become, practical proposals for serious considerations.

Historically, there have been a lot of migration wonks (see for instance our list of migration information web resources and pro-immigration web resources), but few of them, even those whose recommendations push in the direction of freer migration, have identified with the cause of radically freer migration, let alone with “open borders” as a term. Partly, this could be because they are genuine moderates. Partly, this is because wonks, focused as they are on what’s immediately feasible, may lose sight of the ultimately desirable North Star. There are examples of wonks who, even as they propose moderate keyhole solutions, appreciate open borders as a potential end goal. Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett come with a more distinctively academic pedigree, but are still focused on finding ways to get from here to there, and advocating for their particular keyhole solutions with governments, the public, and the intelligentsia. A particularly salient example is Clemens’ work on expanding the H-2 program in the United States to Haiti and trying to make it more easily accessibl to Haitians.

There are also a few wonks at libertarian think tanks who address migration-related issues, and at least in principle support radical open borders, even if the proposals they table for immediate consideration are more gradual. Examples include Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation. And then there are people like Matthew Yglesias who view open borders as a worthy end goal but offer far more moderate proposals for immediate consideration. Moreover, even those who are naturally philosophers can don a wonk’s hat and come up with practical proposals. Open Borders: The Case blogger Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal (that he designed before this site came into existence) and co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s suggestion of making use of NAFTA’s labor provision are examples.

Open Borders: The Case has represented the wonkish perspective to a fair degree, though somewhat less so than the philosopher perspective. My co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s recent post suggesting next steps for the open borders movement basically argues that it’s time for the open borders movement to shift focus from the philosopher perspective to the wonk perspective.

But there’s a very important third perspective that is often ignored in this context, and may well be more promising than it looks.


Entrepreneurs, like wonks, are focused on practical, immediate changes. However, unlike wonks, the practicality of entrepreneurs is not directed primarily at influencing policy. Entrepreneurs do not assume they have the ear of political decision-makers, or a special seat at the table in political negotiations. Rather, they’re attempting to find ways of attacking problems, starting off as ordinary people (albeit with some financial resources and personal connections).

Philosophers tend to be morally judgmental, telling people and institutions what they should believe and do. Wonks tend to be largely accepting of public opinion and belief systems, and tend to either move it at the margin or attempt to influence government policy holding public opinion fixed. Entrepreneurs try to directly sell stuff to the people, attempting to either change public opinion or ignore it and still provide value to the minority that defies the public. The entrepreneurial perspective hasn’t really been given much importance on Open Borders: The Case, or in policy discussions of migration in general. This makes prima facie sense: the main obstacles to open borders seem like policy obstacles, and policy change seems essential. Apolitical entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a good fit.

But I’d like to argue that entrepreneurs are more important than that. Consider business like Uber and Airbnb. Both companies (and many others in recent years) began by operating in a legal gray area, but soldiered ahead, despite injunctions and threats from city governments. And at some point, their services had a sufficiently large loyal following from users that city governments couldn’t really shut them down (but at the same time, they got big enough that they couldn’t ignore government threats, so they reached compromise “keyhole solutions”). For concrete examples with Airbnb, see this and this. And Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s disregard for legal barriers is part of the reason for the company’s success.

What would the analogous situation be for migration? Illegal immigration similarly represents a challenge to the status quo. Just like Uber has done more to challenge the status quo of highly restrictive taxi medallions than numerous academic papers and think tank reports on the subject, continued illegal immigration has done a lot more to keep the issue of migration restrictions and their effect live than the economic or philosophical literature on the subject could alone. One of the main reasons politicians in the United States even consider passing immigration reform is the large number of illegal immigrants who make the issue salient and hard to sweep under the rug. As my co-blogger Nathan Smith says, “heightening the contradictions” through continued amnesty for illegal immigrants might ultimately be the most feasible path to increasing freedom of migration. There are close parallels between such amnesty and post-facto legalization of the gray area services provided by companies like Uber and Airbnb.

Thus, one could argue that those who facilitate illegal migration directly (as human smugglers or document forgers) or indirectly (by providing legal assistance or employment opportunities to illegal immigrants) are making entrepreneurial moves in the direction of open borders. Such entrepreneurs invoke mixed feelings even among open borders advocates, given that operating a successful business of smuggling people in and forging documents can require engaging in many unethical and even violent activities (partly to avoid border controls, partly because the underground nature of the activity makes legal or open means of recourse difficult). A recent post of mine on snakeheads (human smugglers from China), with a special focus on the recently deceased Sister Ping, went into some detail on this matter. The tactics used by some of these people are several shades worse than Uber’s shady tactics to gain market share.

One doesn’t necessary have to directly help people migrate illegally in order to facilitate illegal migration or use illegal migration to help challenge the status quo. One can also assist illegal immigrants once they have migrated, with jobs, educational opportunities, places to stay, and evading immigration enforcement. These fall within the broad category of civil disobedience, on which we’ve done a few posts before.

That said, it’s not necessary to concentrate solely on breaking the law to make an entrepreneurial impact. Some other, more legally above-board routes of an entrepreneurial nature are described at our migration arbitrage business opportunities page and my philanthropic possibilities blog post. A particularly noteworthy example that I’d love to investigate further is CITA, a nonprofit that helps farmers in the United Stateas connect with people interested in doing farm work in nearby countries such as Mexico, so that they can legally apply for H-2 temporary work visas. There may be similar opportunities in other locations, such as Svalbard, Argentina, the UAE, Singapore, Sweden, and Thailand, where at least nominally there is considerable freedom of migration for people who have a job offer in the receiving country.

The social/moral psychologist

A fourth perspective, that is not seen so much from people when they are trying to push the world towards open borders, but that is a very important complement to such pushes, is that of the social or moral psychologist. Such a person strives to understand the world, and the way that humans are behaving in it. Social scientists are part of this spectrum, while moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt are in a different part.

Wonks versus philosophers: two apparent conclusions and why they’re premature

Some might interpret wonks’ apparent practicality as evidence that wonks are more keen to actually see open borders through than philosophers. This is not necessarily true. Many wonks may be motivated at least partly by their paycheck (not that this means they’re saying things they know to be false, but at minimum their proposing practical solutions doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more serious about migration liberalization).

One can also err by interpreting the divide in the opposite way. A person used to wonk-speak may consider a philosopher a starry-eyed extremist who lacks practical sense. But this isn’t necessarily because the philosopher’s actual practical recommendations (if he/she were required to come up with those) would be more extreme, it’s simply that the philosopher is trying to address a different question. Similarly, for those used to moral philosophy, the wonk’s moderation may seem like wussiness, but that may not reflect objective truth. The wonk/philosopher divide is thus closely related to the moderate/radical divide and the moral/practical divide, but it provides a slightly different focal perspective on these divides.

Some hybrids

I think of (that we’ve blogged about in the past) as an ill-conceived attempt at an entrepreneur-wonk-philosopher hybrid. Coming from (and attempting to embody) a Silicon Valley culture, adopted the machismo of entrepreneurs. It borrowed a little bit from philosophical language, but offered no clear idea of what the underlying moral beliefs were and why. But its proposed path to success was purely wonkish. In light of this confused hybrid, it’s unsurprising that the group hasn’t really been able to achieve much, and that Joe Green, the President and CEO, was ultimately pushed out.

The DREAMer movement offers another interesting kind of hybrid. At one level, DREAMers are entrepreneurs: they’re engaged in openly defying and disobeying an existing system of laws, thereby making the contradictions between those laws and commonsense morality more apparent. At another level, to the extent that they propose, or at least stand behind, policy changes, they are playing the wonk. And to the extent that they directly appeal to people’s conscience about the correct way to treat DREAMers, they are engaging in moral philosophy.

The DREAMer hybrid has ben most successful in the entrepreneurial sense: they were able to acquire sufficient political salience that a DREAM Act has sort-of-been in the works for a while, and in June 2012, Obama passed his de facto DREAM Act called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The credit goes to DREAMer thought leaders such as Jose Antonio Vargas and his organization Define American, as well as numerous other grassroots organizations that have pushed for the issue. As wonks, the DREAMers have been relatively weak, offering no compelling long-term or robust solution. As philosophers, I think they’ve been even weaker. My co-blogger Michelangelo, himself a DREAMer, takes issue with what he considers flawed DREAMer logic and proposes instead that the DREAMer movement should use the case for open borders as a foundation. Occasional blogger David Bennion has argued that the DREAMer movement, and undocumented organizers at large, could pave the way towards open borders, and cited his own work for the DREAM 30 as an example.

Pro-immigration organizations such as the Immigration Policy Center, not explicitly pro-open borders, offer an interesting hybrid. They’re largely wonkish, but they also engage in and indirectly promote various forms of activism that could be construed as entrepreneurial. Personally, I’ve found their philosophical foundations to be poor. This isn’t necessarily an overwhelming criticism, because they specialize in something else. There is also a somewhat related issue of how their pro-immigration stance could conflict with certain kinds of keyhole solutions, and how they may be reluctant to consider trade-offs that improve greater freedom of migration in exchange for fewer immigrant rights (I discussed this a while back in this post, but there’s a lot more I hope to say on the rights-volume trade-off in future posts, probably referring to the work of Martin Ruhs).

Addendum: philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs against migration

The philosopher/wonk/entrepreneur distinction also applies to those who oppose some or all migration. This reference page on our site discusses the various philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments, and includes commonly used argument types such as citizenism, territorialism, and local inequality aversion. Unsurprisingly, I think that the philosophical bases for arguments against freedom of migration seem weak, but that’s what you’d expect from a blogger on Open Borders: The Case.

The anti-open borders wonkish perspective is represented by organizations such as those listed on the anti-immigration web resources page. In the United States, the most respectable (in the view of legislators) of the anti-immigration think tanks is the Center for Immigration Studies.

What about anti-immigration entrepreneurship? The Minutemen and various other vigilante justice and citizen initiatives to identify and report illegal immigrants come to mind. One could also argue that websites like VDARE offer interesting (if confused) philosopher-wonk-entrepreneur hybrids.

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