Tag Archives: Bryan Caplan

Open Borders Day 2015 roundup

Open Borders Day is held every year on March 16, to commemorate the launch of Open Borders: The Case, the website, back on March 16, 2012. The day was first celebrated in 2014, and you can see a roundup of last year’s posts here. Open Borders Day this year was bigger and better, with much of the focus this year being on the Open Borders Manifesto.

Posts from the site

Posts from elsewhere on the Internet

Social media

The Independent Institute did a series of posts about Open Borders Day on their Facebook page, such as this, this, this, and this.

You can also see all tweets with the #OpenBordersDay hashtag here.

You can also read some criticism of Open Borders Day at the (NSFW, PG-13) mpcdot forum.

Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions

A naive thinker about open borders might think of it as simply a continuum of possibilities: we can open the borders a bit, or a lot. This distinction is discussed on our moderate versus radical open borders page.

The idea of keyhole solutions has added more dimensions (in a very literal mathematical sense, in addition to the more metaphorical one) to the discussion. Rather than thinking simply of “how much more open should borders be?” the question shifts to “what sort of policy combinations can allow for us to get the most benefit out of migration, in the ways we care about?” The term “keyhole solutions” has come to represent the general idea of exploring a larger space of possibilities with respect to how migration can be expanded.

The purist in me isn’t too happy about this, because “keyhole solutions” as I believe the term originated had a more narrow meaning: to refer to narrow, targeted solutions that address the particular (real, perceived, or predicted) problem at the intersection of migration and whatever other domain is being considered, while trying to interfere as little as possible with the rest of the universe. But meaning is imbued by usage, and I’m okay with the meaning expanding and getting more fuzzy. In this post, however, I discuss some important distinctions between different approaches to “compromise” on open borders policy. There are a few additional subtleties that I’ll deliberately refrain from here, thereby meaning that my post is not reflective on my full thinking on the topic. I’m making that trade-off to keep the post simple.

A simple illustration of the distinction between true keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and (selective) blanket restriction

Consider the (abstract) problem that high levels of migration, along with current de facto rules for the rules for eligibility for welfare benefits, could lead to fiscal bankruptcy. Consider three potential “solutions” (note that these don’t even come close to exhausting the space of possible “solutions” — but they help to illustrate the distinction I’m trying to draw here):

  1. Improve the effectiveness with which immigrants (perhaps limited to the additional immigrants under migration liberalization) are walled off from the welfare state (this could involve changing the rules, or enforcing existing rules more effectively, or a combination).
  2. Reduce welfare benefits across the board for the whole population (see also our contraction of welfare state page).
  3. Forbid the migration of people for whom the probability of welfare benefit use, or the extent of such use (in expectation) exceeds a threshold.

In a loose sense, these are all “keyhole solutions” insofar as they attempt to address the (perceived or predicted) problem of migrant welfare benefit use.

However, they are all different in important ways:

  1. The first addresses the perceived problem at the intersection of migration status and welfare eligibility. Prima facie, this targets the problem most narrowly and is most deserving of the “keyhole solution” label. I’ll call this type of solution a true keyhole solution.
  2. The second addresses the problem but focuses on the broader issue of welfare use and welfare eligibility. Rather than focusing on migrants per se, it addresses a potential problem that is made more severe due to migration flow, but it addresses it in a way that does not per se discriminate on the basis of migration status. I’ll call this type of solution a complementary policy change.
  3. The third seeks to preserve the status quo as far as possible with respect to domestic policy, and addresses the potentially dangerous interaction with migration by forbidding the forms of migration perceived as risky. I’ll call this type of solution a blanket restriction. To emphasize that the blanket restrictions don’t apply to everybody, we might call it selective blanket restriction.

However, from another perspective, (2) and (3) are examples of keyhole solutions, insofar as they directly address problems created by migration. Whatever names you choose, I want to claim that there is an important conceptual distinction. Continue reading “Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions” »

Terror in Paris and Open Borders

My recent exchange with Bryan Caplan about tolerance (see here, here and here) suddenly seems terribly topical in light of events in France last month, where 12 people were killed in a murderous attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, by gunmen shouting “Allahu Akbar!”

The attacks may strengthen anti-immigration parties in Europe, and they have provoked attacks against Muslims. They seem to lend support to the tolerance=>migration restrictions argument that I mentioned at the end of the last post in my back-and-forth with Caplan:

2. Tolerance => Migration restrictions. Tolerant moral and social values are a distinctive Western achievement which will be diluted if we let in foreigners from less tolerant cultures. So we should keep  most foreigners out.

Now, you don’t have to think tolerance, as a concept, does much useful work in ethical or political argument, to think this kind of intolerance is a big problem. In one sense, tolerance is beside the point: what France needs to do isn’t so much to promote tolerance as to prevent murder. Still, if intolerant attitudes were the motive for murder, promoting tolerance might promote public safety. But public safety would be equally promoted if intolerance were kept peaceful. And peaceful intolerance– scorn and ostracism– for the kinds of attitudes and views that lead to violent intolerance, might be an effective way of making such attitudes scarce.

My take on tolerance, Islam, and open borders may sound paradoxical. I view Islam as inherently, and perhaps incorrigibly, intolerant and violent. But I nonetheless believe that the West and the world generally should be much more open to Muslim immigrants. Why? Because even Muslims shouldn’t have to live under Muslim rule.

On Charlie Hebdo

The attackers were avenging the paper’s depictions of the prophet Muhammad, and most recently, a cartoon depicting two men kissing, one in Muslim dress and the other labeled “Charlie Hebdo,” with the slogan “Love is stronger than hate.” From a Muslim perspective, I suppose, the cartoon is pornographic as well as blasphemous. I agree with the attackers in considering it offensive, though obviously not in how they responded. It’s symptomatic of the contemporary West’s degradation of the old Christian virtue of love into mere sensuality, as well as of its obsession with homosexuality. And there is a bitter irony in a cartoon that pretends to proclaim love while deliberately insulting those for whom it is pretending to advocate love.

I found the pope’s remarks in the Philippines refreshing. “Killing in the name of God is wrong,” he said, but also that it is wrong to belittle someone’s religion, adding that if a friend “says a swear word against my mother, then a punch awaits him.” I’m wary of the suggestion that violence can be an appropriate response to speech, but as a moral matter, we should have strong inhibitions against mocking what others hold sacred. If we do so– as God sometimes does in the Bible (or even more memorably, Elijah)– it should be with the loftiest of motives: to challenge evil powers, dispel myths, and save souls. But while I don’t think one should gratuitously offend Muslims by depicting Mohammed, serious criticism of Islam is another matter. We need more of it.

On Islam

It can be conceded, I suppose, that the Charlie Hebdo perpetrators don’t represent Islam: they went a bit further than most Muslims would. But the idea that Islam is a “religion of peace” is only wishful thinking; Sam Harris is closer to the truth. The advent of Islam ushered in a thousand years of tyranny in the lands the Arabs conquered, and as Rowley and I showed in a 2009 paper, there is a striking democracy deficit in the Muslim world to this day, especially in the historic heartland of Islam, the territories conquered by Islam before 800 AD. We found that there were no democracies at all in Islam’s historic heartland. Moreover, the correlation between GDP and democracy is reversed in Islam. In the non-Islamic world, higher GDP per capita is associated with a greater likelihood of democracy; in Islam, with a lesser likelihood. Islam’s freedom deficit is worse than its democracy deficit. The lack of religious freedom, in particular, is strikingly captured by the fact that apostasy is legally punishable in most Muslim countries, sometimes by death, which seems to have been the normal penalty for apostasy before the arrival of European colonialism.

Tolerance vs. freedom of conscience

I am not all that worried about Islam’s democracy deficit per se, since I regard democracy as a considerably overrated form of government. But democracy is, so to speak, overrated for a good reason, namely, that it is correlated with something much more important: freedom of conscience. But the freedom that Charlie Hebdo exercised, and that the terrorists violently cut short, is not a part of what I consider freedom of conscience.

There are a number of expressions which some hear as nearly synonymous with “tolerance,” but which, under closer scrutiny, vary in meaning, though they also overlap. “Freedom of speech” is a venerable phrase, but we don’t mean it literally. By what principle is it OK to prohibit perjury, false advertisement, inciting a crowd to violence, libel, and certain IP violations, if “freedom of speech” is sacrosanct? And on the other hand, how are Charlie Hedbo‘s cartoons protected by freedom of speech? “Freedom of thought” is very important but doesn’t demand enough: in a narrowly logical sense, a prisoner in chains is still free to think as he likes. “Free inquiry” is a noble ideal, in defense of which Socrates was martyred; but we want the freedom not only to inquire after truth, but to preach it when we find it. “Freedom of the press” makes the extension of free speech to printed material explicit; “freedom of expression” sounds vaguer but seems to cover all media.

“Freedom of religion” is narrower than freedom of speech, but includes elements of “free association” as well, e.g., the right to assemble with fellow believers to worship God. Problematically, “freedom of religion” crosses the line between speech and action, and it violates freedom of religion to be forced to bake a cake for a gay commitment ceremony even if you’re allowed to protest all the while that you don’t believe in it. It might also be a violation of freedom of religion to have to work on Sunday, or provide contraceptive coverage for one’s employees, or refrain from giving alcohol to children. Free speech sometimes crosses the speech/action divide, too, e.g., if people demand the right to conduct public protests– disrupting traffic, etc.– in the name of free speech.

My way through this confusion is to stress freedom of conscience as the key principle that explains all the others and defines their scope. Freedom of conscience is my right to obey conscience, to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong. “Free speech,” “free press,” and “free expression” mean freedom to state the truth as I see it, in whatever medium is most expedient, to speak as conscience compels me to speak. But my conscience doesn’t necessarily deny to the government a say in what media are expedient. If, for example, all print media were prohibited for environmental reasons, “freedom of the press” in the literal sense seems clearly extinguished, but I would not regard that as a violation of freedom of conscience. “Freedom of religion” is of special importance because conscience obliges me to worship God, and more generally, for Christians, what religion commands and what conscience commands are essentially identical. “Freedom of association” requires not only that I be able to assemble with fellow believers to worship God, but also that I be able to collaborate with a team of bloggers to advocate open borders, because both of those activities arise from the demands of conscience; but it is not a violation of freedom of conscience, even if it is a curtailment of freedom of association, if I’m forbidden to found a company with a whites-only hiring policy.

I would regard an environmentalist prohibition of all print media as very foolish, and I’m skeptical about whether the government either has the right or is well-advised to prohibit workplace discrimination. But since such policies, even if unwise, do not violate freedom of conscience, I am relatively relaxed about them. But when freedom of conscience is violated, when the government commands someone to do what is wrong, or forbids someone to do what is right, a deep alienation occurs, and the social contract is shattered.

Patrick Henry’s ultimatum, “Give me liberty or give me death!” might have been a bit overwrought as a response to the mild misrule of King George III. But it is absolutely correct as a response to threats to freedom of conscience. A person who would surrender his freedom of conscience even in the face of certain death is, in the end, a person not worth knowing, a person whose actions and utterances have no real meaning, a person without value, except inasmuch as he might repent someday and become brave, become fully human, become real. Why trust a person’s utterances, when they are only a function of his circumstances? Society bribes us in all sorts of subtle ways to lie, if we’re willing to be bribed. Socrates and Jesus preferred death to denying the truth, to doing what is wrong. So should we all.

I have a tentative and vague preference for democracy over the alternatives. I have a firm, definite, and strong preference for market capitalism over the alternatives. But neither democracy nor market capitalism matters much relative to freedom of conscience. Any amount of unaccountable autocracy or needless and inefficient regulation is preferable to being forced by the state to do what one knows is wrong, or prohibited from doing what one knows is right.

In defense of Voltaire

Now, in Bryan Caplan’s recent dissent from the militant tolerance of Voltaire, I detect a reluctance to be drafted into fighting for freedom of the press as exercised by Charlie Hebdo, which I share:

If standing up for your own right to utter truth X is a grave mistake, why is standing up for someone else’s right to do the same any better?  Indeed, common sense morality says you have only modest obligations to help perfect strangers in dire need.  Why then should you assume a blanket obligation to die in defense of strangers’ rights to speak when they could easily remain silent?

But my reasons are a bit different. The conduct of Charlie Hebdo was gratuitously offensive. It certainly didn’t deserve death, but they didn’t deserve to be elevated to hero status by mass marches either, and it might, just possibly, be sensible for civilized societies to say that Charlie Hebdo kind of had it coming, and that protecting such useless, reckless, and vicious behavior isn’t the best use of scarce police resources. But when Caplan writes that…

Sure, you can devise hypotheticals where courting death by asserting the right to say X is an admirable choice.  Maybe standing up for the right to say X will, via your death, save many innocent lives, or replace an awful tyranny with something much better.  Maybe you only have ten minutes left to live, and want to go out with a noble bang.  Except in such unusual circumstances, however, throwing your life away to speak a few forbidden words seems not only imprudent, but wrong.  Any true friend would beg you to come to your senses and shut your piehole.

… he treats as odd “hypotheticals” what is really the normal situation of the courageous person speaking truth to power. Socrates and Jesus, the apostles, the Christian martyrs, and Martin Luther King all spoke truth to power and died for it. Just for that reason, their historical impact is wildly disproportionate to their numbers, and infinitely beneficent. For everyone who spoke truth to power and died for it, there are probably a hundred who spoke truth to power knowing that they might die for it, and where would the human race be without them? How much of the moral progress of mankind, in the end, is traceable to such people? Half? Nine-tenths? As the song says, “He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young.” Bryan Caplan calls himself (or at least invites others to call him) a “coward” at the end of the post, and says that “staying alive> asserting your own right to say truths.” A nation of such cowards is a nation of slaves.

The point Caplan is missing is that we all face a collective action problem, which is captured in (let’s call it) the Parable of the Playground. Suppose there are 50 Nerds in the playground, and 1 Bully. The Nerds are nice, tolerant, productive, independent-minded people who make the world a better place. The Bully is an intolerant, parasitic thug. Collectively, the Nerds are stronger than the Bully, but the Bully is stronger than any 1 Nerd alone. The Bully threatens to beat up any Nerd who speaks against him. If the Nerds think “staying alive > asserting your own right to say truths,” then no one will ever be able to tell the truth. But if the Nerds believe, with Voltaire, that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” then as soon as the Bully enforces his rule against one Nerd, he’ll be challenged and defeated by them all. Such is the foundation of courage on which free societies are built.

So we should certainly be ready to fight for our own freedom of conscience and that of others; but what is the scope of this freedom? I have said that freedom of conscience is the freedom to do what is right and refrain from doing what is wrong, but our knowledge of what is right and wrong must be fallible, since there is so much disagreement about it. So should freedom of conscience mean the freedom to do what is really right, or the freedom to do what we think is right? Here a balance must be struck: some accommodation of eccentric ideas of right and wrong is needed, but we can’t respect the freedom of conscience of the armed jihadist. It’s all manageable enough as long as there is a certain degree of right-minded consensus about what conscience demands, such as prevailed in 19th-century America, where almost everyone was a Christian of some sort. In today’s America, afflicted as it is with people who think it’s morally acceptable to force photographers to serve at gay commitment ceremonies, I have grave doubts about the sustainability of freedom of conscience.

On courage

And that is one reason why I’m relaxed about Muslim immigration: I’m less afraid of Muslim intolerance than of the home-grown sort. I’d much rather have occasional random terrorist attacks against the publishers of gratuitously offensive cartoons, than Swedish-style arrests of pastors for preaching against homosexuality. Doubtless, the Charlie Hebdo attackers wouldn’t like an outspoken Christian apologist and critic of Islam like myself. But I’m much less afraid of them than I am of the PC police and the rising LGBT state.

More importantly, though, I want freedom of conscience for Muslims, and I think they’re unlikely to get it in their home countries any time soon. If you believe, as I do, that Islam is a false religion, then you ought to be very concerned about the fact that hundreds of millions of people live in countries where they are forced to believe it, or pretend to believe it, on pain of losing civic rights or even their lives. While I’m an unapologetic supporter of the 2003 liberation of Iraq, I think it’s clear that the West can’t impose freedom, least of all religious freedom, on the Muslim world by force (even if we can and should overthrow the worst totalitarian regimes). For the foreseeable future, the path to full freedom of conscience for Muslims is emigration. The West should give them that chance, even if it involves some risk to ourselves.

And that is why I don’t believe Caplan’s confession that he’s a “coward.” He surely knows there are risks, risks to the freedom of speech which few take more advantage of than he does, in letting in tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants, but he still wants to do it. He’s got a comfortable and secure life, but he’s willing to jeopardize that for the sake of a reform that he knows would be a great leap forward for the liberty and flourishing of mankind as a whole. I call that courage. Meanwhile, the nativist cowards are in a panic to build the walls higher.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

UPDATE: In addition to the comments here, you might also be interested in some discussion of this blog post in the comments on an Open Borders Action Group post about the blog post.

Related reading

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

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 FWD.us (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, FWD.us 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.

The inconsistent social engineers: why do we have border controls, but no birth controls?

I’m not sure who first observed this, but a lot of arguments against allowing people to move freely are based on a set of premises that boil down to: “People are bad. Immigration brings more people ‘here’. Therefore free immigration is bad.” In March this year, British comedian Stewart Lee did a fantastic monologue about this, stepping back through the history of the British Isles and denouncing various peoples who’ve settled the land along the way. After going through the Romanians, the Poles, the Huguenots, the Saxons, and so on, he finally got to the evolution of land-based animals: “They crawled out of the sea onto the land — OUR LAND!” Lee wound up his misanthropic speech with a thunderous denunciation of the Big Bang: “Remember the good old days? When you could leave your door unlocked? Because there was nothing there? Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a Big Bang!”

(I’d link to a video or transcript of this great monologue, but the only extant video I could find seems to no longer work, and nobody seems to have thought to transcribe it. The quotes I’ve furnished here are actually from memory and not verbatim.)

The typical objections people have to greater immigration are after all just as applicable to higher birth rates:

  • More people entering the labour market causes a rise in unemployment and lower wages
  • More people by definition means there will be more criminals, since criminals are people
    • And worse still, if lower-socioeconomic status people have higher birth or immigration rates, we would expect overall crime rates to go up disproportionately
  • More people by definition require larger state expenditures, both for the upkeep of public goods and services like roads, and also for benefits programmes
    • And again, if lower-socioeconomic status people have more children or immigrate more, then the economic burden on the state will increase disproportionately
  • More people create adjustment costs — someone, whether it is the public or private sector, will have to build more homes, open more schools, hire more nurses; the list goes on and on

If all these arguments are valid defences for strict border controls, why not have similar ones for birth controls? Would it not be a catastrophic risk to our society if lower-socioeconomic people began giving birth to more and more children? Co-blogger Johnny Roccia has blogged about this, and more recently guest blogger Bryan Caplan blogged about a hypothetical world of eugenics over at EconLog, After all, if you’re happy to advocate arbitrary and broad-reaching state power over people’s ability to move, because of all the attendant ill-effects of, you know, dealing with human beings, why stay silent about reproductive restrictions? Shouldn’t advocates of border controls who complain about population growth leading to more crime, more welfare payments, fewer jobs, and so on, be worried not just about immigrants but also newborns? Economist Daniel Lin makes light of this on his Twitter, but surely he has a point:


Now, there are some extreme environmentalists who advocate immigration restrictions as just one form of population control among many, but they are a fringe minority. Their minority status is thus puzzling: if people truly worry about where jobs will come from, or who will pay for the burgeoning benefits cheque, or how to manage a growing incidence of crime — to cite three of the most common ills associated with immigration, but also with population growth in general — why focus all energy on stopping immigration, and not consider devoting some effort to implementing a government-backed eugenics policy? Why not ban welfare recipients from having children? Why not sterilise all habitual violent criminals? Why not cap the number of “low-skilled” workers allowed to reproduce, lest the number of low-skilled people in the economy outpace its ability to create jobs for them?

Now, some people do bite the bullet and say “Yes, eugenics is a good idea and the government should be doing something there too.” To these people, I don’t have a lot to say; we will probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t see a compelling reason, except perhaps in extreme scenarios, for the state to regulate human reproduction. I don’t see an existential threat to our societies or the human race posed by our general lack of eugenics programmes.

But most people try to distinguish border controls from birth controls in some way. The argument is that it’s unjust and immoral for the state to restrict births, but it is not similarly unjust or immoral for the state to restrict human movement. People who argue that migration controls and birth controls should not be compared in this manner often take three tacks:

  1. International migration is an uncommon, unnatural desire, while reproduction is not;
  2. Birth rates are generally predictable, while international migration rates are not;
  3. Immigrants originate from different cultures, while natives give birth to and raise children from a common culture.

Even if you take all their premises for granted, all three are essentially arguments for violent and coercive social engineering by the state. The first argument assumes that the state has a right to quash “unnatural desires”, even if no individual can point to a specific wrong that was committed against them in the process of pursuing this “unnatural desire”. The second assumes that what social changes the state can predict and manage are tolerable, while social changes that the state cannot predict and may not be able to manage are intolerable. And of course the third gives the state explicit authority to use force (not just nudges or incentives) to micromanage the cultures of a society, which seems like the epitome of violent social engineering to me.

But even the premises of these arguments are questionable. To the first argument, UN economists already estimate there are about 250 million international migrants in the world, and another 800 million domestic migrants. This is what occurs even under highly restrictive border regimes; if migration policies were liberalised, we would expect the true numbers to be much higher. How many of those domestic migrants would choose to move internationally instead? These numbers exclude temporary migrants too; those people would also benefit significantly from open borders. If hundreds of millions of people want to move, and do move even under highly restrictive border regimes, in what sense is this desire unnatural or uncommon?

And to the second argument, yes, there is a natural, fixed limit to how many children a woman can bear, making childbearing rates somewhat more predictable than migration rates. But migration rates are hardly impossible to manage either; indeed, to a large degree they can be quite predictable. The main constraint hampering a state’s ability to predict free migration flows today is that we haven’t had open borders for so long that it is difficult to tell what migration flows might result. But that’s an argument at best for gradual opening of the borders; it’s not an argument for maintaining arbitrary border controls in perpetuity.

Finally to the third argument, most countries have plenty of heterogeneity even internally. If the state has a legitimate interest in taking coercive action to prevent the current mix of cultures from changing too much, should the state gear up for action if one cultural group’s birth rate falls behind another? Should the state force citizens from regions or ethnic communities with low birth rates to give birth at gunpoint? Should the state forcibly prevent the births of citizens in regions or ethnic communities where the birth rate seems out-of-whack with what the state believes is warranted or manageable? Shouldn’t Americans be concerned about plummeting birth rates in New England, the cradle of American institutions? Or worried about soaring fertility rates in culturally distinct states like Utah or Texas? Is there not a risk that New Englanders will literally die out, or that Texans will outbreed and therefore wipe out the rest of the American nation? At some point, cultural micromanagement implies not only a strong role for the government in border controls, but birth controls too.

Now, of course, there are plenty of other efficiency-based arguments for implementing either stricter reproductive controls, strict border controls, or both — ones that rest purely on the consequential or utilitarian outcomes of these policies. The eugenics analogy can’t by itself make a comprehensive case for open borders. But what it can do, as economist Scott Sumner’s argued, is really compel us to doubt the wisdom and justness of the typical arguments we use to defend arbitrary border controls.

Scott is not an open borders supporter, though he advocates significant liberalisation of immigration policies. But he found Bryan’s eugenics hypothetical to powerfully illuminate how the arguments we deploy for border controls are actually rooted in exactly the sort of injustice that we would immediately decry if manifested instead in advocacy for reproductive controls:

I’ve actually met academics that favor China’s one child policy. I’m pretty sure they’d be horrified by this story. They’d say it’s unfair to punish the innocent child for the sins of their parents. But is it really possible to have a clean, antiseptic one child policy that doesn’t punish the children?

Now ask yourself how many of those academics that supported the one child policy actually thought through what would happen to the millions of children born in violation to that policy? I’d guess not very many. Now let’s consider immigration restrictions. Is there a clean, antiseptic way to keep out illegal immigrants?

Bryan has not convinced me that 100% open borders are clearly the way to go. But he has convinced me that my objections to his arguments are not as reliable as I might have assumed. My reservations about open borders are actually pretty similar to the reservations that people in a eugenics society would have had to a proposal for an open birth policy.

The fact that superficially similar arguments against birth restrictions would have been rejected out of hand by a eugenic culture should, at the very least, make us do a bit of soul-searching.

Let’s face it, most people oppose open borders at the gut level, and then they search for logical reasons to support the position that had already formed in their reptilian brain.

None of this is to say that all border controls are bad, or that all birth controls are bad. In some cases, the state may have compelling reasons to restrict human reproduction, or human movement. (Forcible sterilisation and mandatory residence registration of sex offenders comes to mind.) There may be a human right to a family and a human right to migrate — but all the same, as long as we accept the authority of our governments, no right is truly unqualified.

But before our governments take coercive action against these rights, they are obligated to weigh the far-reaching implications of doing so, and comprehensively rule out more humane alternatives. The callous attitude towards human life implied by eugenics wrought untold horror and injustice throughout the 20th century, even in what we once thought to be “civilised” societies. Just because the government can micromanage our culture and society through birth controls does not mean it always ought to do so.

And the desire to have a family is just as strong and natural as the desire to move for a better life. We cannot exclude someone from our society and economy without just cause — just as we cannot forcibly sterilise someone, or coercively matchmake a couple, without just cause. Before we enact broad, far-reaching curbs on the exercise of these human rights, we need to be sure that strict controls are the only tolerable option we have to achieve the ends we have in mind. If we wouldn’t force innocent people to have sex at gunpoint to achieve this goal, it’s worth asking why we’d be all right pointing guns at innocent people to accomplish the exact same thing.