Tag Archives: Alex Nowrasteh

A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation

My recent post, “How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?” attracted a fair amount of attention, most recently an article in the Washington Examiner with the deliciously intriguing headline “Open Borders Would Produce Dystopia, says Open Borders Advocate.” The headline, which somewhat misrepresents the more balanced article by Michael Barone that appears beneath it, is a crude caricature yet in its way bracingly lucid, for it points to what I think this debate has clarified, namely, that the chief difference between open borders advocates and their critics lies not in what they foresee but in how they assess it. As Niklas Blanchard puts it, “this is purely an emotional dystopia for (wealthy) people of a certain temperament…Smith‘s piece is… maximally grating to the ‘social justice’ crowd” (Blanchard, however, goes on to praise me for rigorous adherence to demand and supply logic in making projections and concludes that he finds my analysis “rather beautiful”– thanks!) but it still features doubling world GDP and ending world poverty and the rest of the good features that open borders advocates want in the world they’re trying to bring about. The disagreement is more about values than facts, more normative than positive. 

I’m very grateful for all the feedback, which was not only abundant, but in many cases, pretty astute! To express my gratitude, I’ll reply to some of it. Probably not many of those who responded to the first “billion immigrants” post will ever read this one, but it seems right to have a response, so that anyone who cares to look, knows that I’m listening. (I already engaged a bit at OBAG.)

One point that was raised privately by my colleagues here at Open Borders is that the migration of a few billion around the world (“a billion immigrants” refers, very roughly, to the projected  immigation to the US alone) might not happen as a steady flow, but rather, as a response to crises, such as civil wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, anthropogenic global warming, etc. Or perhaps, more positively, in response to dramatic economic booms, the emergence of new cultural meccas, or religious quests to establish new Jerusalems, such as brought the Puritans to North America and the Mormons to Utah. The Syrian civil war has produced over 4 million refugees, almost one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population. That’s tragic, but much better than the experience of the Jews on the MS St. Louis,  many of whom died in the Holocaust after an attempt to emigrate from Nazi Germany was thwarted because no one would permit German Jews to immigrate. For some, this may mitigate the implausibility of a billion immigrants coming to the US. I don’t find a billion immigrants prima facie implausible, but this “punctuated equilibrium” version of the scenario seems at least as likely as a steady flow version.

Alex Nowrasteh also pointed out that Americans might respond to a billion-immigrants scenario with more aggressive “Americanization” policies, such as were adopted in the USA around the turn of the last century, about which he wrote an interesting and informative Cato blog post. His take is mildly negative, but I would regard an Americanization campaign led by civil society as quite benign, and even an aggressive, government-subsidized, mildly intolerant Americanization campaign would be very benign compared to current migration restriction policies. However, I don’t know what “Americanization” would mean today, because American culture seems so fractured that I don’t see much to assimilate to. I love listening to bluegrass gospel, which to me represents the very soul of America, yet there is another America where San Francisco liberals would feel at home, and which to me is more hostile and alien, not than Iran perhaps, but certainly more so than many a Christian church in Africa, Russia, or Latin America. I don’t know what Americanization would mean today.

Big Think has a pretty good article about my article, entitled “Thought Experiment: What if the US Had 100% Open Borders?” The summary of my hypothetical is pretty astute, though I might object slightly to this:

What’s most interesting is how Smith conjures a scenario out of which American constitutional democracy becomes so destabilized that it collapses beneath its own weight. We’d be looking at a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable compared to the present.

“Collapse” is the wrong word. What I projected (again, very tentatively: no doubt these disclaimers become tedious, but I want to prevent anyone from investing too much epistemic confidence) is “a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable to the present,” but the path to it would be a kind of swift and mostly peaceful evolution, not any revolutionary collapse. And I’m not sure, in an age of runaway judicial activism, what the phrase “American constitutional democracy” means, anyway. (The phrase “American constitutional democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1900 but not in 1950. The phrase “American democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1950, and to a lesser extent in 1980, but not today.) Which leads to my other objection to the piece:

For many people, that might sound like a reason to scrap a 100 percent open-border policy. Smith is not one of those people. He’s got a bone to scrap with American politics and wouldn’t mind it turning into collateral damage amidst the rush of a brave new society [followed by my comparison of modern constitutional law to the late medieval Catholic theology of indulgences and my call for a kind of Lutheran Reformation to overthrow it.]

I can see how someone who read only that article might get the impression that my main reason for supporting open borders is my indignation at judicial activism. This is a case of being misunderstood because one reaches unanticipated audiences. I was writing for regular readers of Open Borders: The Case, who already know my main reasons for favoring open borders. That post reached a wider audience and so caused confusion. A quick review of my position may help.

My major reasons for supporting open borders may be classified into the deontological and the utilitarian:

Deontological. Human beings have rights, arising from their own natural telos, which we must respect. By “must” I mean something close to an absolute prohibition: I would tend to say that one mustn’t torture an innocent child even to save a great city from a terrorist attack. However, life doesn’t generally present us with such stark test cases. More often, we are tempted to violate human rights to prevent amorphous threats clothed in bombastic rhetoric. Thus, Nazi soldiers were driven to terrible crimes by spurious fears of Malthusian national impoverishment or starvation if Germany didn’t acquire sufficient Lebensraum, and even more spurious fears of a conspiracy of international Jewry against the German race. Astute intellectuals may see through such propaganda, or even refute it, but for the ordinary person, the key is to cling stubbornly to one’s humanity and the dictates of conscience, and refuse to commit crimes, no matter how vividly society makes you believe in the horrors that will come from not committing them, and no matter how propaganda stirs your passions to make you want to commit them. Now, migration restrictions involve doing terrible things to people. US immigration enforcement separates thousands of parents from their children by force ever year. European coast guards are culpable for a mounting toll of migrant deaths at sea, and so on. These things simply must stop.

We are not at liberty, as moral beings, to read through my “billion immigrants” scenario and think, “Hmm… Do we want that? No, we’d rather not.” In order to maintain migration restrictions, people who work for governments that represent us are doing things that must not be done. We are constrained by the imperative of human rights, constrained far more tightly than most in the West have yet been willing to admit to themselves. We are guilty every day that we tolerate the status quo. I won’t say, quite, that human rights imperatives demand open borders. (People have a right to migrate inasmuch as their practical telos requires migration, e.g., if it’s necessary to survival or earning a living, while in other cases there is a liberty to migrate in the sentence that no one else has a right to prevent migration by force. See Principles of a Free Society for details.) Rather, I doubt that any policy short of some kind of open borders simultaneously gives adequate respect for human rights and makes it incentive-compatible to obey the law. My “billion immigrants” scenario isn’t like an item on a restaurant menu, which a patron may choose, or not, according to pure preference. It’s more like a forecast of how the courts are likely to treat a robber if he does his duty by turning himself in to the law. Of course, such a forecast might give a robber self-interested reasons to turn himself in– the jail cell may be warmer than his hideout in the woods, with better food; and if he turns himself in he’ll get a shorter sentence– but these are secondary. I hope readers will find the prospect of a billion immigrants not too unpleasant, and that it will encourage people to do the right thing, but if the prospect is frightening, still we must stop deporting people, and prepare ourselves for the consequences.

Utilitarian (universalist). My other major reason for supporting open borders is that it is the best way to promote the welfare of mankind. This belief is based primarily on economic analysis, and more generally is derived from my expertise in international development. As far as I can tell, it seems to be broadly shared by others with similar expertise who have studied the question. Even a thinker like Paul Collier, an expert in international development and a critic of open borders or greatly-expanded immigration, does not so much dissent from the proposition that open borders is optimal in utilitarian-universalist terms, as reject utilitarian universalism as a mode of ethical analysis.

But how can open borders be optimal from a utilitarian-universalist perspective when my “billion immigrants” scenario is so dystopian? Simple: it isn’t dystopian, except from a certain historically myopic and rather unimaginative American/Western perspective that takes “democracy” as the magic word distinguishing everything good from everything bad, without thinking deeply about what the word means. My “billion immigrants” scenario does not involve widespread deprivation of real human goods like food, art, material comforts, family life, freedom of conscience and worship, health, education, truth, adventure, etc. On the contrary, it would seem to involve greater enjoyment of those things by almost everyone, native-born and foreign-born alike. The most dystopian aspects of the scenario, e.g., “latifundia” paying wages that look like slave labor to Americans, aren’t novel features of an open borders world, but features of our present world, which open borders would simultaneously move and mitigate. In soundbite format: open borders would bring sweatshops to America, but they’d be more humane and pay better wages than the sweatshops in China and Indonesia that would mostly vanish as their workers found better lives abroad. Meanwhile, for many an Indian or African peasant, even a steady job in a sweatshop is the end of the rainbow. (Also see John Lee on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops.)

How do these deontological and utilitarian-universalist meta-ethical* perspectives interact? A crude but helpful model is to think of ethical problems as analogous to the consumer’s problem in economics, with the utilitarian-universalist goal of maximizing the welfare of mankind serving as the “utility function,” while deontology provides the “budget constraint.” Deontology dictates that there must be no violence except in self-defense or retaliation against violence, plus a few other things like no lying, no adultery or (I would add, more controversially) premarital sex, no abandoning one’s spouse or children, no non-payment of one’s debts, and so forth. (Just because deontology dictates that it’s wrong doesn’t mean it should be illegal, e.g., most private lying is wrong but probably shouldn’t be punishable by law.) Within the constraints imposed by deontology, we can consider which courses of action are most conducive to promoting the welfare of mankind, and pursue them. At this point, if I were writing a treatise on ethics, I would segue into virtue ethics, explaining how contributing to the welfare of mankind involves the pursuit of all sorts of excellence; but the pursuit of excellence in turn requires certain traits or habits, such as courage, justice, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, and love, which we call virtues; and how, once acquired, we recognize that these virtues are not only the key to effectiveness in all sorts of situations and to doing any real good in the world, but are more desirable in themselves than any merely material pleasures, or any praises from multitudes. But for the present, it suffices to establish that deontology and utilitarian-universalism both point the way to open borders. The need to respect human rights and the moral law, and the desire to promote the welfare of mankind, are why I support open borders. That it might destabilize the judicial oligarchy that currently misgoverns the US is just a small side-benefit.

Next, I’ll turn for a moment to what stands out as one of the least astute reader responses to the article (whom I’ll leave anonymous, but it’s at Marginal Revolution):

Am I the only person who thinks this sounds really, really bad? Transition from republic to empire? Rich people employing almost-slave laborers? No social safety net? No more ‘one person, one vote’? Lots of gated communities? Destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans?

Sometimes my “billion immigrants” scenario seems to have served as a kind of Rorschach test. In the mass of detail, people saw whatever they were predisposed to see. I didn’t predict a “transition from republic to empire.” Rather, I used Rome’s transition from republic to empire to illustrate how a superficial continuity of a polity could be consistent with substantive transformation. I would expect open borders to lead to substantive transformation of the American polity, combined with superficial continuity, but the substantive transformation isn’t aptly described as “transition from republic to empire.” A more astute reader might have noticed that at the end of the transition, my open borders scenario looks rather like the Roman Republic in its heyday, say around 200 B.C., with a well-armed citizen minority ruling fairly beneficently (for one has to grade historic regimes on a very generous curve) over a large and diverse subject population, who to considerable extent consented to Rome’s/America’s rule.

However, the “transition from republic to empire” misconception is somewhat understandable. What’s baffling is the impression that I predicted “destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans.” On the contrary, I predicted continuous, surging economic growth, an enormous rise in the stock market, major appreciation of home values, lots of business for professional workers, government handouts and subsidies to the native-born, cheap drivers, cheap nannies, cheap domestic servants… basically, a bonanza for native-born Americans, to the point where many of them become a rentier class whose greatest complaint is the ennui of idleness. Admittedly, I also foresaw that some natives would see their wages fall, but the loss would be more than made up for by other income sources. I also suggested that threats of revolt might lead to the conscription of natives into a domestic police force, but while some might find that unpleasant, it’s not a case of falling living standards. It’s one thing to say that I’m wrong about all this, and that the impact of open borders on most native-born Americans would actually be the destruction of native-born Americans’ living standards, perhaps because restricting immigrants’ voting rights would prove politically infeasible, and immigrant voters would degrade institutions and/or redistribute resources to themselves via the ballot box. But this commenter seems to think that predicted the destruction of natives’ living standards. I wonder how often writers get blasted as having said the exact opposite of what they actually said.

I found this comment by Jorgen F. a pithy characterization of me:

He is convinced that only white people in the West can create a decent society. Hence America should create a shortcut for the rest of the world.

You know, America should care more for non-Americans than for Americans. It is so beautiful.

That’s not far wrong, though of course I don’t think the capacity to create a decent society has anything to do with race. I think it has more to do with 2,000 years of cumulative Christianization (in which story, historical episodes like the High Middle Ages when parliaments and universities and the common law appeared, the Renaissance, and the benign early Enlightenment, were chapters). Nor is high economic productivity synonymous with “decent society.” But I do think that Western societies are going to be nicer places to live than most of the rest of the world for a long time, so I’d like to see a lot more people get the chance to live in them. And of course we should care more about non-Americans than Americans, because there are a lot more of them, just as we should care more about non-Russians than Russians, non-Chinese than Chinese, etc. That said, since I propose to tax immigration to compensate natives for lost wages (DRITI), I can actually make a citizenist case for open borders too. I think open borders can be designed to benefit almost all native-born Westerners, without much reducing the benefits to the rest of mankind. But the main reason for opening borders is to respect human rights and end world poverty. When I worked for the World Bank, I was proud that its motto is “Our dream is a world free of poverty,” and in advocating open borders, I’m still being faithful to that vocation.

A comment by E. Harding that:

This is precisely the kind of atomism that anti-libertarians decry.

is directed less at me than at fellow commenter Chuck Martel (who had given reasons why he shouldn’t care about most of his fellow Americans), but E. Harding may also have had me in mind. As I argued in a post some time ago, I’m not ultimately very individualistic in my view of human nature and human happiness. Human flourishing almost always has a communal character, and this insight is necessary to fully appreciate the evil of migration restrictions, which inevitably lead to deportations and the forcible separation of families. “Communitarian” arguments against open borders generally boil down to “we’ll protect our communities from possible disruption by shattering your communities by force.” Open borders would allow families and other communities forcibly kept apart by migration controls to come together.

One of the comments I found most horrifying was by Horhe:

I do not understand how anyone can read [Smith’s article] and some of the other writings online and offline that doubt the wisdom of open borders (I particularly liked “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe” by Christopher Caldwell) and still think that this is a good idea.

If the closed borders crowd are wrong and you do it their way, then nothing is lost and you can open the borders some other time, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities. But if they are right, and the open borders people get their way, then there is no going back to the way things used to be, without a bloody ethnic war. Which, come to think of it, might actually be started by the newcomers, who would be hurrying history along.

Now, I consider myself a Burkean conservative as far as conscience permits; I always advocate due regard for the precautionary principle; and in my vainer moment I sometimes think that Chapter 2 of my book The Verdict of Reason is a defense of tradition worthy of G.K. Chesterton. But there are fundamental principles of right and wrong that are deeper and more sacred than any human traditions, and in the face of which any mere precautionary principle must give way.

When I was a passionate Iraq War advocate some years back, I never forgot that in supporting the war, I was making myself complicit in a lot of killing, including some killing of innocent people. I thought the price was worth it, to abolish one of the two (Saddam Hussein vs. North Korea was a close call) most detestable totalitarian tyrannies on earth, but it was a great moral burden. Migration restrictionists, too, have a duty always to remember the human toll of border controls: the people stuck in poverty; the families forcibly separated. Maybe, even if they contemplated this frequently, some would still conclude that migration restrictions are a tragic necessity. But to say “nothing is lost”… the mind boggles in horror! How is such callousness possible?

I would not have enjoyed explaining to a bereaved Iraqi mother why I had supported the war that had just killed her son. But I could have done it. I would have spoken of the horror of totalitarianism, the transcendent moral importance of living in truth, and the value of setting a precedent that would make future murderous dictators doubt their impunity. I think many an Iraqi mother, after what her country had been through, would have understood me. Poll evidence tends to suggest that, while by 2005, the Iraqis already wanted the US out, most thought the hardships of the war and transition were worth it to be rid of Saddam.

Migration restrictionists should put themselves to the same moral test, taking responsibility for the vast human toll of the policies they advocate. How would you explain to a mother who is being deported from her children, not to see them again for a decade perhaps, or even forever, why her life is being thus shattered, when she never harmed anyone, never did anything to the Americans who are doing this to her, except clean their houses, or pick grapes and oranges for their table? There might be arguments that would mitigate the offense, but to say that “nothing is lost” since we can always stop doing these horrible things “some other time”… can such a detestable blasphemy, at such a moment, be imagined?

My imagination conjures a scene in which Horhe and his ilk are compelled by some Ghost of Christmas Present to watch, invisible and helpless, as some weeping mother is seized and dragged away from her terrified and uncomprehending children. Their humanity awakened, they plead with the Ghost: “Spirit, please, let them stay together!” And then the Ghost, in the appropriate tone of sneering contempt, quotes their own words back to them: “Later, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities, we’ll let families like these stay together. Nothing is lost by waiting.”

The answer to Horhe is: Repent! Find the ugly place in your soul from which such heartless thoughts arise, and kill it!

But sorry for getting so heated. I’m not living up to Bryan Caplan’s praise of Open Borders: The Case as a “calm community of thinkers.”

Thiago Ribeiro’s response to Horhe is also good:

If people who were against vaccines, fertilizers, abolishing slavery, abolishing witch trials, eliminating Communism, emancipating the Jews (…) nothing would be lost. Those things could have been dealt with later… Status quo bias at its more stupid.

Exactly. Any reform in history could be opposed on such pseudo-Burkean grounds. And contra “nothing would be lost,” vast losses are incurred every single day that we fail to open the borders to migration.

I found the last bit of this comment by Christopher Chang gratifying:

Sweden… for all practical purposes [has] already been running this experiment for more than a decade, and there still is supermajority citizen support for continuing the experiment…

Of course, most open borders advocates are systematically dishonest and avoid talking about Sweden even after they’ve known about it for years, because the “experimental results” to date are much worse than their rosy projections. I’ve repeatedly told them that one of the best things they could do for their cause is advise the Swedes to adjust their implementation of open borders to be less self-destructive (support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has skyrocketed from ~2% to ~25%, so the supermajority is unlikely to hold for much longer unless the government changes course), but they’ve been totally uninterested even though they’ve interacted with e.g. Singapore’s government in the past. Instead they continue to pretend their ideas are “untried” and might constitute a “trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk”.

Since revealed preference is far more informative than rhetoric, I’m sadly forced to conclude that they don’t actually care as much about increasing global prosperity as they do about harming ordinary Westerners they don’t like, even though some of them have done genuinely good work in other areas. (With that said, I hasten to note that Nathan Smith, the author of the linked post, is an exception who respects the principle of “consent of the governed” and has an excellent track record of intellectual integrity.)

In return, I can say that Christopher Chang’s comments have often alerted me to interesting immigration policy developments around the world. However, the claim that Sweden practices open borders seems a bit clueless. A recent NPR piece reports that “for decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees.” Virtual. In other words, not an open borders policy, but simply a relatively generous policy. And only “for asylum-seekers and refugees,” which are only a small subset of all would-be immigrants. If you look at the official site about getting work permits in Sweden, it says (a) you need to get a job offer first, so you can’t just go to Sweden and start applying, (b) the job has to have been advertised for 10 days, so Swedes have a head start in applying for it, and (c) “the terms of employment offered are at least on the same level as Swedish collective agreements or customary in the occupation or industry,” thus robbing migrants of what for most would be their biggest competitive advantage: a willingness to work for much lower wages and in worse working conditions than Swedes. Sweden does seem to be fairly generous in its immigration policy, at least relative to other Western countries (a very low bar), but this isn’t open borders, not even close. (I suppose one could argue that the last condition is just immigrants being bound by Swedish labor law, but the point is that Sweden isn’t just making an open global offer for anyone to come to Sweden and making a living as best they can. Setting refugees to one side, it’s hard for most people to get in.)

Jason Bayz makes an interesting remark:

The essay is interesting because, unlike some politically correct libertarians, Smith does not pretend that his open borders experiment would lead to liberal nirvana. He’s quite open about the fact that it would kill things like “equality of opportunity.” Especially interesting is [the] paragraph [about] “gaps… where where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail”… Private law? A more traditional term would be Lynch Law. The Middle East would be an apt comparison for its tribalism, discrimination, importance of religion, and “private” settlement of disputes.

Readers have a right to wonder what my cryptic phrase “anarcho-capitalist natural law” was a placeholder for, and I suppose, to fill in the blank in their own way. Yes, lynching is an example of private law, but so are more benign things like eBay’s customer rating system, or in-between things like the private security companies whose logos appeared on every single house in a South African suburban neighborhood where I once spent the night.

I would also want to push aside the mere knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “lynch mob” and raise the deeper question of what is wrong with lynch mobs. I welcome practical objections to lynch mobs, such as that they don’t respect due process and often punish innocent people, or that they’re not even motivated primarily to prevent real crime but instead want to oppress minority communities. I would challenge the assumption, or resist the assertion, that lynch mobs are evil simply because they’re private, unauthorized by a “sovereign” authority. In US history, it may be the case that private law has been, on average, less just than public law, though that’s unclear, when you recall the injustices perpetrated by the US government against many Indian tribes, in upholding slavery, in the Prohibition era, in deporting peaceful immigrants, etc. But certainly the worst crimes of American lynch mobs don’t hold a candle to the crimes of the sovereign regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, etc. I would suggest that violence should be judged by the same standard of justice, whether it’s done by “private” or “public” actors. The problem with lynch mobs is that they so often act unjustly,  but as their injustices seem to be much less than those perpetrated by bad governments, our horror of them out to be less than our horror of bad governments, in the same proportion.

As for the suggestion that there is an “apt comparison” to be made between an open borders America and the contemporary Middle East, the obvious rebuttal is that the Middle East is mostly Muslim, whereas an open borders America would almost certainly be majority or at least plurality Christian, since Christianity is the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion believers today and an expected 3 billion by mid-century; Christians would probably be more attracted to the US as a migration destination; and many immigrants of non-Christian origins would assimilate to America’s predominant religion. I’ll assume (since it’s rather obvious but would take a lot of space to explain) that most readers understand that Christianity and Islam are profoundly different, and that religion is a major factor determining the differences between Muslim societies and Christian societies, including those in western Europe, where Christian belief and practice have recently waned, but where the nature of the societies is largely defined by the moral and institutional legacy of Christianity. An open-borders America wouldn’t be majority-Muslim, so it wouldn’t resemble the contemporary Middle East; it’s as simple as that.

Commenter Mulp makes a historical objection to my assumption that an open borders America would restricting voting rights for immigrants and thus end majority rule:

“If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. …”

Hey, why not simply discuss US history from 1790 to 1920 when the US had open borders except in California?

It’s true that from 1790 to 1920, the US had open borders and also open voting. But that open borders America never had nearly as large a share of migrants in the population as the economic models predict that a future open-borders America would, and the US government wasn’t an engine of economic redistribution then. I think my scenario is a better forecast of what an open borders future would look like, than an extrapolation from the experience of the US from 1790 to 1920.

Commenter Fonssagrives writes:

If the writer thinks “All men are created equal” is idealistic twaddle, then why do Americans have any moral obligation to let 1 billion foreigners into their country?

This is an interesting objection. It’s symptomatic of the psychic damage that the cult of equality has done to American minds. It invites a longer answer than I’ll make time for at present, but as a placeholder for that longer answer: people are very unequal in their talents and virtues; and treating them unequally is often prudent; but it doesn’t follow they should get unequal weights in a social welfare function.

Jer writes:

Maybe success can only happen (and be spread) if we restrict access to it.

Maybe the world needs a somewhat isolated ‘system experiment’ that can only remain so (and continue along its special type of development), by restricting access, and therefore be a teaching tool through its successes and short-comings.

Maybe ‘moving away’ from your problems is to not solve them at all and certainly does not lead to overcoming them in-situ.

Maybe those who have the ambition to move away were the ones most likely to effect change and improve their origin, with the move likely resulting in the weakening of the source state and increasing world inequality overall. (is it ethical to allow people to emigrate if that depopulation damages the future potential of the source system itself?)

What I like about this argument is that it seems to accept a utilitarian-universalist meta-ethics, and then argues, or at least tries to suggest (“Maybe…”), that migration restrictions (perhaps even ones as draconian as the status quo?) might serve the common good of mankind through the good example that rich countries can set when they segregate themselves from the rest of the world. I find it wildly implausible that migration restrictions anything like as tight as those the West currently has in place are optimal for the welfare of mankind, and even if they were, I’d have human rights objections. Thus, even if preventing “brain drain” from poor countries did aid development there (on balance), I’d still object to forcing, say, Malawian doctors to stay in Malawi, on the same grounds that I’d object to seizing American doctors by force and exiling them to Malawi. I believe in human rights. But if we could establish consensus that utilitarian-universalism (with deontological side-constraints) is the right meta-ethical framework in which to consider the question, that’s a large point gained.

Finally, thanks to John Lee’s OBAG link, I noticed that my “billion immigrants” scenario got linked in a National Review piece by Mark Krikorian entitled “Where There is No Border, the Nations Perish.” Here’s the context:

But the publics of Europe’s various nations aren’t going to tolerate unlimited flows. The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence à la Camp of the Saints. (And “extinguishing” is the right word; just read this piece by an open-borders supporter on how U.S. society would change if 1 billion immigrants moved here.)

Krikorian cites my scenario as evidence (almost, flatteringly if unwarrantedly, as proof) that “the nations perish” under open borders, a phrase amenable to multiple interpretations. It is tendentious because the word “perish” might subliminally suggest some sort of threat of genocide. But if it is interpreted simply as “open borders will bring to a close the episode in world history, which began around the mid-19th century, when the nation-state was the predominant form of political organization,” then I’d tentatively agree. Krikorian disapproves, I approve.

In general, it seems that my “billion immigrants” scenario has made me a useful “reluctant expert” for immigration critics to cite. Maybe that should distress me more than it does. I tend to think the strength of the arguments for open borders is so superior that the more we can get a hearing, even if initially an unfavorable one, the better. Many people don’t even know that being an open borders supporter is a live option. If they’re made aware that one can support open borders, they’ll pay more attention to the arguments for and against. On the plane of intellectual argument, open borders advocates have many rhetorical handicaps, but enjoy the long-term structural advantage of being right.

*My use of the term “meta-ethics” is slightly unconventional. For me, utilitarianism, for example, is a “meta-ethical” perspective.

The image featured at the top of this post is a 1917 painting depicting Armenian refugees at Port Said, Egypt.

Related reading

High-skilled hacks: why the US immigration system needs serious refactoring

This post is the introduction to the series of “high-skilled hacks” posts, focused on immigration to the United States. The series explores various workarounds and caveats to immigration law that high-skilled immigrantworkers and their employers have discovered and engineered in order to further their own interests, at the expense of the original intent of immigration law. Through the series, I try to argue that, although these hacks are an improvement over an alternative where only the basic immigration system existed, freer migration for all would be simpler, fairer, more efficient, and more just.

Recently, I posted the following puzzle to the Open Borders Action Group:

In a comment on an OBAG post, Alex says of liberalizing high-skilled immigration to the United States: “Most folks in the policy debate want those reforms or something similar to them. They haven’t happened because high tech reform is intentionally bundled with the rest of the less popular elements of the comprehensive immigration reform package to “sweeten” the whole deal. If high-skilled reform becomes law separately, the rest of the portions of immigration reform become less likely to pass. Those who want the less popular items hold enough power to block individual pieces of the reform from becoming law on their own.

That’s the dominant theory that has failed to produce immigration reform just about every year since 2002.”

Does this accord with your impressions? Do you think people calculated correctly? As an open borders advocate, would you try to reduce the chances of a standalone high-skilled immigration passing in the hope that it could later be added to other, more comprehensive, bills, to sweeten the deal and increase the probability of their passage?

The comments were generally supportive of Alex’s view. I’ll have more to say this later (but check out the comments in the meantime) but in this post I want to consider an auxiliary puzzle: why haven’t high-skilled workers (in the technology sector, academia, and elsewhere), a generally influential population segment where even the natives who “compete” with the migrants tend to be more favorable to migration of their competitors than the general population, been more successful at getting their way? The answer is that they have been able to get their way, but in hackish fashion. They’ve basically taken an immigration system that isn’t designed to be helpful to them at all and made a bunch of changes to it here and there that somewhat approximate a migration regime that is, in practice, a lot more liberal than it looks on paper. Indeed, even a lot of criticism of existing skilled migration regimes generally accepts the broad premises of the status quo and only argues for special treatment of their favored groups. An example of this sort is Paul Graham’s recent article, that I recently critiqued. Yet another example may be high-skilled migration proponent Vivek Wadhwa, whose somewhat confused position at the Intelligence Squared Debate was critiqued by my co-blogger John. Relatedly, the advocacy efforts of FWD.us appear to have been at least partly responsible for the inclusion of H-1B liberalization suggestions in Obama’s November 2014 immigration executive action announcement.

The clever workarounds come at a price. The price is simplicity and fairness. Despite that, the system, with all its hacks, is probably vastly better for the high-skilled workers, the United States, and the world at large (through greater economic growth and more innovation), than the system as originally intended and designed.

Why have high-skilled immigrant workers and the groups that lobby for them been able to engineer so many hacks, and yet not fundamentally changed the system? To understand this, we need to understand the division of labor between different branches of government with respect to immigration law. Some types of changes to immigration law (the creation of new visa categories or the expansion or elimination of quotas for some capped visa categories) require legislative action by the US Congress. Any changes that need explicit legislative action are subject to legislative gridlock for the reasons Alex highlighted. On the other hand, there are other changes, including changes to the scope and time limits of existing visas, as well as enforcement details and the types of evidence that need to be provided, that are a matter of executive discretion. Some of these are decided at the very top, by the US President, but others can be decided at lower levels, by the DHS branches (USCIS, CBP, and ICE) working in conjunction. It is changes of the latter sort where interest groups are best able to move fast. For instance, as I’ll describe in my forthcoming post on Optional Practical Training, Bill Gates’ Congressional testimony suggesting that the length of the Optional Practical Training period be extended led directly to the creation of the OPT STEM extension through direct action at the executive level without the need for new legislation. As Gates himself observed:

This only requires action by the Executive Branch, and Congress and this Committee should strongly urge the Department of Homeland Security to take such action immediately.

In a similar vein, co-blogger Michelangelo has proposed that Obama work to expand the scope of NAFTA’s labor provisions (the TN visa):

Expansion of the TN status should be an attractive route and it is surprising that both successive Presidents and open border advocates have ignored it. The TN status is already part of the US code (Title 8 Section 214.6) and no further enabling legislation from Congress would be necessary. The President’s administration would not be creating a new status using executive order, it would merely be easing the administration process of a well established aspect of US immigration law.

Guest blogger Fabio Rojas has noted that there are many “publics” on any given issue, and on the issue of immigration, immigration lawyers and government agents form a public that is easier to influence at the margin than the general public. Fabio was focused on courts, but the same point applies to enforcement agencies:

This is why open borders advocates should directly target the legal public because of its special position in society. Courts are responsible for enforcing and interpreting the law. Contrary to popular opinion, judges do not apply the law in the same way that a baseball umpire calls “balls and strikes.” Instead, judges are influenced by what they learned in law school, in their time as practicing attorneys, and by political and social trends. That is why the open borders movement should target the legal public. If we can introduce a legal theory that supports open borders, then it will be easier for courts to uphold open borders policy and side with immigrants.

The “hacks” to expand the scope of immigration law are not limited to high-skilled workers. Similar hacks can be found in family immigration law, humanitarian statuses, low-skilled temporary work, and the regularization of people who entered unlawfully. But this series will focus on high-skilled hacks, which have the most “above-board” legal status, partly because of the greater political influence of high-skilled workers and partly because high-skilled immigration meets with less nativist opposition.

On this blog, we’ve been somewhat critical of the “high-skill only” focus of some immigration reform efforts (see for instance Nathan’s post). We’ve also been critical of high-skill-focused groups such as FWD.us. I think our criticism is generally valid. But I recently had a chance to look at the FWD.us video section, and I was somewhat favorably impressed at their use of high-skilled immigration as a way to open a conversation on migration policy. They don’t go as far as I’d like, but they offer important information and provoke interesting thoughts. In this series, I hope to go further and deeper, helping people both understand the current status of immigration law and the direction in which it should be changed.

PS: For those curious about the terminology in the title, code refactoring is a common practice in software engineering. A piece of software originally designed for a particular context, that gets successively rewritten to handle a number of special cases, can get very messy over time. Occasional refactoring to clean up the code can be helpful. The FWD.us homepage had a quote to a similar effect. As John Lee pointed out in a comment on the OBAG post, the “outdated” message has been used for quite a while, at least since the time of Harry Truman. My focus here, though, is not so much the “outdated” message as the “messy” message. There’s a lot of copy-and-paste code and clever workarounds in immigration law. Let’s think of a simpler way of accomplishing morally and practically appropriate goals: radically freeing migration.

Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way — be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services — failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

Economists want more immigration, why don’t you?

A perennial assertion of open borders skeptics is that they are the voice of reason and empirics in the immigration debate, while open borders advocates are soft-headed people thinking with their hearts instead of their brains. So this humble blogger spent a Friday lunch hour in Washington, D.C. attending a Cato Institute panel titled What Economists Think About Immigration. Incidentally, the panel was broadcast on C-SPAN, and thanks to them, you can also view the full panel online.

Of the four people on stage, only one was a new face to me:

  1. Alex Nowrasteh (moderator of the panel, Cato Institute researcher, and an Open Borders blogger)
  2. Madeline Zavodny (panelist, chair of the Agnes Scott College economics department)
  3. Ethan Lewis (panelist, associate professor of economics at Dartmouth, and my former econometrics professor)
  4. Michael Clemens (panelist, Center for Global Development researcher, and the man who single-handedly changed the way I think about immigration)

Zavogny presented first, talking about high-skilled immigrants to the US and how they contribute economically to the US. I think even open borders skeptics tend to favour high-skilled immigration. Those who don’t are either unmoored from reality, or openly admit that they don’t have a hard empirical reason for their belief that high-skilled immigrants should be banned from taking good jobs. So I won’t cover Zavogny’s presentation in depth.

Clemens presented third, but similar to Zavogny, I don’t think he covered much terribly new ground in the debate (at least, that would be new to someone already familiar with the academic debate on immigration’s empirical impacts). Clemens presented a version of his double world GDP lecture, covering the usual ground: immense gains to migrants, doubling world GDP, banning “brain drain” dehumanises immigrants and doesn’t help anyone, and ending restrictions on freedom of movement may seem crazy, but crazier things have happened (see: the abolition of slavery).

Lewis, on the other hand, presented some really compelling and new material. To me, one of the new things was how strongly he feels about immigration! I suppose econometrics does not lend itself to very passionate lectures, but although I knew he studied immigration while I was a student of his, I had no inkling of the depth of his support for reducing immigration restrictions.  (Full disclosure: I was also a student of his wife, Elizabeth Cascio, who supervised my senior seminar and final economics paper.) Even more new and exciting to me: Lewis presented some of his latest work, which finds that immigration has boosted the income of Americans across the board — even low-income Americans.

Perhaps the most commonly-cited harm of immigration is its impact on the wages and employment of natives. Immigration supposedly reduces wages across the board. This is a complete myth, which no economist would sign on to (at least, none that I’ve read, including prominent skeptics). There is concern among a few economists that immigration harms income and employment for low-earning natives. However, few find this result, and most that do have been subject to various criticisms: the impact they find is extremely small (the most popular estimate here would suggest that 20 years of immigration to the US resulted in a cumulative 3% decline in low-earning natives’ wages); it’s sensitive to the removal of a few data points; it doesn’t account for how capital investments  react to the influx of labour; it relies on data from a period when other things driving reduction in wages, such as the decline of trade unions, could be confounding the results.

Lewis presents a slide (at roughly the 25:30 mark in the C-SPAN recording) suggesting that not only has immigration increased the wages of high-skilled natives, as you would expect — it has also increased the wages of low-skilled natives. Why does the wage data suggest this? What plausible mechanisms are there? Lewis suggests two major things:

  1. Changes in the use of capital — firms respond to an influx of immigrants by investing less in capital than they had planned, creating jobs for low-skilled natives as well as immigrants and ameliorating the potential negative wage impacts for low-skilled natives
  2. Immigrants compete in a different labour market than natives — immigrants whose English fluency is limited or non-existent will compete among one another for jobs, and natives emerge unscathed thanks to their English skills

Lewis presents the arguments for these mechanisms quite well, so I’d urge you to watch his talk yourself. In particular, he has a number of interesting charts backing all these points up. My understanding is he has a forthcoming paper that will fully flesh out the ideas in his presentation. My take is this is just one data point, but if you’re analytically evaluating the likely outcomes of more immigration, seeing this ought to make you revise upward your assessment of the probability that immigration helps or doesn’t harm natives. And given the existing literature, that assessment should already have been assigned a fairly high probability in the first place — certainly not the 0% chance that so often seems to be assumed in immigration debates.

Lewis wraps up his talk by urging the audience to think beyond the current policy debate in Washington, which focuses today primarily on whether to regularise the 11 million unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US. He points out that it makes absolutely no sense to ban people from migrating in the first place, and given the immense gains to the migrants, even if you don’t believe his estimates, you should be happy to enforce a tax or fee on them that captures some of those gains, to ensure all natives benefit from immigration.

Economists overwhelmingly reject popular myths that immigrants are economic harms. Yet these myths refuse to die. We no longer believe that Jews drink the blood of babies, that Chinese eat rats, or that Irish are just drunk beggars. Why do we believe that people born on the other side of an invisible line called the national border are an incredible harm to us, while people born on the other side of an invisible line demarcating a county or province are perfectly guiltless? Both types of people are as likely to “steal” our jobs and drive down our wages. But one person we call a criminal for crossing that invisible line; the other, we call a good citizen.

I can’t echo my former professor’s words enough. We need to think beyond today’s debates about immigration. The fact is, today’s debates rely on ignorant assumptions about immigration. They assume immigrants are “job thieves”. Having a debate on these terms is like arguing whether we should let more Jews in or hold back lest they start drinking our children’s blood or poisoning our wells. We’re starting from premises so utterly wrong that there’s no point having the debate.

Of course the US should have a process for legalising people who’ve lived in the US for a long period of time. If they ever did any harm by crossing an invisible line 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, as long as they aren’t committing any crimes and harming anyone today, we should live and let live. This is so basic that as Lewis says, we need to think bigger. We need to reject the myths of the past, and adopt a reality-based immigration policy — one that embraces all human beings as people with dreams and goals and potential and contributions that will enrich us all and build our communities.

It Can’t All Be About (the) U.S.

In February, National Public Radio aired a segment, part of its Planet Money series, in which it asked three immigration experts what sort of immigration system they would have if they “controlled the borders.” To NPR’s credit, one of the experts was the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh (a contributor to the Open Borders site). He proposed letting all immigrants in, except for suspected terrorists, criminals, and those with serious communicable diseases. He noted that this policy would benefit the economy and would mean that people wouldn’t have to put themselves at risk crossing the border.

Not surprisingly, the other two experts chosen by NPR did not propose open borders. One expert was the economist Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, who has researched the economic impact of immigration on the U.S. and found it to be mostly positive. His ideal immigration system would be one in which employers would bid for permits allowing them to employ individual foreign workers, including low-skilled workers. The other expert was Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (we’ve critiqued Baker before). He would admit immigrants with families in the U.S. and would provide visas to highly skilled individuals who, in the words of NPR’s host, “would benefit our economy the most.” Mr. Baker said he “would like to make sure that you had a lot of immigrants at the high end” but is “less concerned about farm workers.”

The proposals from Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker seem designed to maximally benefit the U.S. and apparently make the interests of immigrants who are excluded from their systems irrelevant. Formulating such an immigration policy probably makes sense to many Americans. After all, some may think, the government should look out first and foremost for the interests of its citizens. Joseph Carens of the University of Toronto articulates this view: “The power to admit or exclude aliens is inherent in sovereignty and essential for any political community. Every state has the legal and moral right to exercise that power in pursuit of its own national interest…”

Mr. Carens suggests, however, that this nationalist position doesn’t justify immigration restrictions. He explains that “When the stakes are high (e.g., legal proceedings) we normally create institutional rules to try to prevent people from being able to favor their friends and relatives. In other words, our notion of justice constrain the extent and ways in which we think it is acceptable for us to favor family members… even if we are morally entitled to favor compatriots in some ways, it is not self evident that we are entitled to favor them by excluding potential immigrants. Perhaps that form of preferential treatment goes too far.” Restricting immigration in effect would be nepotism writ large, an attempt to favor those identified as being more closely connected to us by giving them access to the U.S. labor market and denying access to those deemed less connected.

Bryan Caplan of George Mason University (who has also guest blogged for Open Borders) echoes Mr. Carens in his critique of the analogy between the nation and a family: “…almost everyone recognizes moral strictures against familial favoritism.  Almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason to commit murder, break someone’s arm, or steal.  Indeed, almost everyone knows that ‘It would help my son’ is not a good reason for even petty offenses – like judging a Tae Kwon Do tournament unfairly because your son’s a contestant.” Despite this, Mr. Caplan points out that at the national level citizens tend to lose this sense of morality and use nationalism “as an acceptable excuse for horrific crimes against outgroups.” Nationalism leads to immoral treatment, such as interfering with the right to immigrate.  The logic of Mr. Carens and Mr. Caplan discredits nationalist arguments around the world supporting immigration restrictions, not just those in the American context.

Given Planet Money’s focus on economics, the underlying question posed to the three experts about their preferred immigration regime may really have been: “From a purely economic standpoint, which immigration policy do you believe would most benefit current American citizens?” (Even within these parameters, the proposals of Mr. Peri and Mr. Baker are questionable; open borders, as Mr. Nowrasteh suggests, may have the most beneficial economic impact on the U.S.) Actual policymaking, however, should not exclude moral concerns. NPR should air another segment asking guests, “What would be a moral immigration policy?” That would help Americans think more profoundly about immigration policy.