Tag Archives: Bryan Caplan

Vivek Wadhwa, and the moral contradictions of mainstream liberal views on immigration

Last week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Let anyone take a job anywhere”, with Open Borders guest blogger Bryan Caplan and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa speaking for the motion, facing conservative intellectual Ron Unz and migration policy wonk Kathleen Newland in opposition. I’ve already given my take on the debate: Bryan fought the good fight, but Unz and Newland threw up too many blatant inaccuracies and moral contradictions for any single debater to feasibly bat down in the time allotted. I said then that I thought Wadhwa was an ineffective advocate, primarily because he seemed like a moderate open borders supporter who hadn’t thought through things very well. I take that back: Wadhwa was not an effective speaker for the motion, primarily because he is a moderate open borders opponent who hasn’t thought through things very well at all.

I was originally thrown off by Wadhwa’s seeming endorsement of low-skilled migration during the debate: “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.” Sure, Wadhwa endorsed Ron Unz’s proposal for a high minimum wage, even though Unz’s proposal is explicitly intended to bar most immigrants from coming — but paying lip service to the minimum wage is par for the course for any mainstream left liberal. What changed my mind was Wadhwa sending Bryan a harshly-worded missive which accused Bryan of failing the motion because Bryan used “silly analogies”, and failed to demonstrate how the US welfare system would provide for foreigners who come to the US. Wadhwa made it clear: “I do not advocate open borders.”

Bryan republished Wadwha’s missive on EconLog, at his request, and Wadhwa waded into the EconLog comments to defend his views. I give Wadhwa a lot of credit for this. Not many public intellectuals venture into blog comments, let alone get as deeply engaged as he did. However, I found Wadhwa’s elaboration even more disappointing than the seemingly-unwarranted missive he sent Bryan. Wadhwa first stated that he was upset with Bryan because Bryan made the focus of the debate turn on open borders, instead of “jobs”. What exactly Wadhwa intended to debate about “jobs” remains quite unclear to me, but his lack of clarity here explains in hindsight his unfocused opening statement at the debate. In response to his opening statement, Kathleen Newland chided Wadhwa that the motion was “let anyone take a job anywhere”, and not “let anyone take an anywhere job”.

I asked Vivek why exactly he opposes open borders. He’s made it clear that he wants to ban immigrants from coming to the US if they are going to work minimum wage jobs. But what is his alternative then? As I’ve written before, the primary alternative for immigrants and prospective immigrants if they are banned from coming is sweatshop or slave labour, at wages on the order of a few dollars a day, in workplaces where they run the risk of dying daily. If they can find a job here paying $8/hour (the approximate US minimum wage), I say bully for them. The remittances they send home to other poor foreigners already dwarf the foreign aid packages our governments send by 3 to 1. What humanitarian case is there for destroying the global flow of remittances and forcing hundreds of millions to live lives of sweatshop slavery?

When I posed these questions to Wadhwa, he responded:

Why do you assume that the best way of helping poor workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is to bring them here to the US? Trust me, these people don’t want to leave their families and friends, culture, heritage, and homes to be here. They would rather stay where they are and make a living minimum wage.

It’s a neat story. But I have a hard time squaring this with the fact that immigrants routinely pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the developing world, running the risk of death in the desert or on the high seas. If they are so happy at home, why are they doing these things? And why is it more humane for us to interdict them with gunboats, for the sake of banning them from earning the “inhumane” wage of $8/hour? Is that really the most humane thing we can do? What is inhumane about allowing these people to buy their own plane ticket, pay the government a visa fee or surtax, and come here to work for wages higher than they would ever dream of earning at home?

Mind you, it’s our guns and border fences that force Bangladeshis to choose between backbreaking farm work and murderous sweatshop hours. If you’re going to tell me this is more humane than allowing those Bangladeshis to seek minimum wage work outside Bangladesh, you’d better be prepared to defend it. Even if you think allowing these people a choice won’t actually result in much migration, simply the fact that these workers now have an opportunity to exit will force their employers to pay better wages and improve working conditions. Making some handwavy arguments about brain drain won’t cut it, considering the paucity of evidence of any tangible harms to the developing world from “brain drain”. The burden of proof here is high: you’re asserting that it’s basic humanitarian policy to point a loaded gun at an unarmed human being and force him to turn around, because the alternative of allowing him to go on his merry way in search of a better job is simply too inhumane to tolerate.

Wadhwa at this point departed the comments, but closed on a gracious note, with words of praise for Bryan (albeit, words I find hard to square with his missive, which claimed Bryan’s arguments failed to convince a single person). He also acknowledged that they were likely mismatched partners as a result of a misunderstanding about the motion’s wording. The discussion continued, though, with EconLog commenters trying to make sense of Wadhwa’s position.

It seems quite clear to me now that Wadhwa and Kathleen Newland from the debate are actually kindred spirits. Both believe that it’s inappropriate to permit immigrants entry unless the government guarantees them a social safety net of some kind — and that because it is impossible to extend a single country’s social safety net to every single human being, there must be strict border controls of some kind. Both favour relatively liberal immigration policies, but policies still very far from open borders: they essentially want the status quo, with slightly fewer restrictions.

Wadhwa and Newland seem to be adopting a territorialist view of some kind, whereby a government owes greater obligations to people within its territory, citizens or non-citizens, than it does to people outside its territory. This is why both favour legalising the US’s population of undocumented immigrants and why both believe it’s fatal for open borders to point out that a single government’s welfare system cannot guarantee equal benefits to every single person on earth. There seems to be “local inequality aversion” at play: Wadhwa and Newland feel uncomfortable about admitting more poor people to the US (Wadha calls this “importing poverty”) unless the government can guarantee these poor people socioeconomic uplift.

But moderate territorialism is actually quite compatible with open borders, just like moderate citizenism. During the IQ2 debate, Bryan’s retort to “but they’ll burden our welfare system” was to essentially say: “we can ban them from enrolling in welfare”. This is going to strike most people as too harsh. But more than that, it’s also not really necessary for most developed countries.

The extreme territorialist thinking that pervades mainstream discussions of immigration concludes that the moment we admit a foreigner to our territory, we assume strong moral obligations, especially socioeconomic ones, towards that person. One obligation might be, say, to ensure that every person in our territory is guaranteed a job at a good wage — perhaps one much higher than $8/hour. Now, I’m happy to admit that sure, we assume moral obligations of some kind. (Providing non-citizens the equal protection of our labour laws would be a good start!) But I reject the extreme territorialist view that our obligations to all people in our territory, citizen or not, are identical.

Open borders skeptics say it’s inhumane to allow people to starve in our streets. But we don’t need to see starvation in our streets under open borders: we can simply subsidise the return ticket home for poor foreigners who lose their jobs. Let’s say you reject that as too inhumane. But we don’t need to break the bank still; we don’t need to furnish foreigners with all the same guarantees we make to citizens. We can offer them a basic social safety net: access to some form of healthcare, perhaps unemployment insurance, etc. All these can be guaranteed at levels lower than what we guarantee natives, but levels that still prevent people from dying in our streets.

To put this concretely, government can restrict an immigrant’s access to the state’s retirement funds while still giving the immigrant basic healthcare coverage. Something similar is already the case in the US and most developed countries today. Few, if any, countries give foreigners equal access to their state benefits as they do to citizens — but similarly, few totally deny foreigners access to any benefits. Yet when economists look at the most generous welfare states, even Sweden’s, they find no evidence of the supposed looming fiscal disaster that immigration is supposed to cause. It is perfectly possible to say, as a moderate territorialist-cum-citizenist, that you support open borders with a limited welfare state for non-citizens. Feasibility is not an issue; this is the exact course our governments are already charting capably (though one could argue they could cut foreigners’ access to welfare more). Economists agree that with a limited welfare state, immigrants are not a fiscal burden.

This is not a hamhanded attempt to dismiss the implications of open borders for the welfare state. This is the ultimate implication of the moderate citizenist and moderate territorialist views that most people hold. If the state has to choose who to spend its limited resources on, there is a prima facie case for prioritising citizens. Newland breezily dismissed the claim that immigration restrictions are unjust discrimination against foreigners at IQ2 by saying: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favour.”

I completely disagree: if anything, governments are obliged to enforce labour and contract laws equally, without regard for national origin! What I am happy to say is that governments are obliged to discriminate in citizens’ favour when it comes to the social safety net. It seems absurd to me to take the stand Wadhwa and Newland have staked out: that it is just and moral to discriminate against foreigners in labour law, but completely unethical to discriminate against foreigners in the social safety net.

But this absurdity may yet be reconcilable, if you stretch territorialism and citizenism to their extremes. The flipside of territorialism and citizenism is that if someone is not currently in our territory, and not a fellow citizen, then they aren’t our problem. Sure, some bricklayer might be dying of cholera in Haiti right now — but that’s not my problem. I don’t live in Haiti, and he doesn’t live in my country. It’d be my problem if I lived in Haiti and elected the Haitian government — or if he lived in my country, subject to the administration of the government I elect. But otherwise, that Haitian’s poverty isn’t my problem, and he should bugger off.

As a result, the perverse conclusions that Wadhwa and Newland seem to endorse — that it is better to prevent the entry of an immigrant if we can’t afford to give him the same healthcare subsidies as a citizen — can actually make eminent sense. It’s not inhumane to use your guns and tanks to keep a poor person trapped in Haiti. You’re just preventing the Haitian government from “exporting poverty”. You’re preventing them from dumping their problems of poverty and squalor into your government’s lap. It’s not your problem; it’s Haiti’s problem!

But this completely denies the agency of individual migrants. No government forces these people to leave Haiti, or wherever they came from. The Haitian government can barely keep the lights turned on! They certainly don’t have the capacity to subsidise emigration or to brainwash their citizens into leaving, or to force their own people at gunpoint into boats headed for the US. And even if they did, so what? That is exactly what Cuba and Vietnam did to their own people, and the free world welcomed these people with open arms. In fact, that is what the US still does today for Cubans — allowing the Castro regime to dump the people it doesn’t want in the US’s lap.

That you have to jump through so many intellectual hoops to morally justify forcing people at gunpoint to turn away from your shores, on the basis that it’s inappropriate for them to work for the wage of $8/hour, suggests something is wrong with your thinking. These people spend thousands of dollars and risk their own lives in deserts or on the high seas to get those $8/hour jobs. That indicates strongly that what they’re fleeing is even more of a bum deal than minimum wage — perhaps, say, a sweatshop, or worse. How can anyone conclude that it is more humane to force these people at gunpoint to go back to a life — and quite possibly death — toiling away for cents an hour in a sweatshop somewhere, than it is to permit them to come in peace in search of minimum wage $8/hour jobs?

When our taxpayer-hired guns force unarmed civilians seeking work to turn back and go home, we make their poverty our problem as well. When they were suffering in Haiti, or Bangladesh, or wherever they came from, their troubles were of no consequence to us. We did not put them in the plight they faced, nor did we hinder them from uplifting themselves. But when they sought work from an employer willing to pay them a wage multiples of what they might ever hope to earn at home, we put our guns in the way. If we’re going to stop them from solving their own problem, we’d better damn well have a better solution to offer them. Nobody asked us to interfere with their job search; we took it upon ourselves to do this. It’s our duty to figure out what to do with these people now.

Now, Wadhwa and Newland believe quite strongly that a high minimum wage and greater foreign aid (or some other mechanism of “exporting prosperity”, as Wadhwa puts it) is the more humane thing to do. Wadhwa seems to think enforcing a “living minimum wage” in the developing world would slow immigration to a trickle. Supposedly this is the liberal solution to the conundrum of immigration; this is the fulfillment of the developed world’s responsibilities to the developing world citizens whom it has arbitrarily banned from its labour markets.

But are a high minimum wage, high levels of foreign aid, and government-enforced social justice in the developing world realistic options? How would we ever find the money to spend on the vast amounts of foreign aid that would be necessary to “level” the world economically, as Newland put it at the debate? How would the governments of the developing world build the capacity to enforce just labour laws — to say nothing of the capacity needed to enforce a high minimum wage? The answer is clear: Newland herself said at the IQ2 debate that there is no apparent way we can accomplish such “leveling”. So what’s the next least inhumane alternative?

Economist and mainstream liberal Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay justifying the toleration of sweatshops as the least inhumane thing we can do for the world’s poor. I excerpted Krugman for my piece on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops. His logic holds true as ever — but it really applies to immigration, not sweatshops:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. (emphasis added)

I hope Wadhwa and Newland, and all the liberals who share their views, will do their moral duty, and think things through.

The photograph of Vivek Wadhwa used in the header of this post was taken by John P. Harvey and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Myths and muddled thinking: the case for closed borders made at the Intelligence Squared debate

I was lucky enough to personally be in the audience earlier this week when guest blogger Bryan Caplan and software entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa made the case for open borders at the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “let anyone take a job anywhere“. Bryan and Wadhwa were up against Ron Unz, an American conservative intellectual, and Kathleen Newland, a migration policy wonk opposing the motion. You can watch a video of the full debate, read the transcript, or see our page on the debate and related links. The IQ2 organisers polled the audience before and after the debate on support for the motion; the winner was the one who moved the needle the most. No prizes for guessing how I voted.

Still, I was surprised at how much the polling going on favoured the motion; a plurality voted for it, 46%-21%, with another third of the audience undecided. The restrictionist side more than doubled their vote share to a solid plurality of 49%-42% by the end of the debate, with another 9% still undecided. The hypothesis which makes the most sense to me, which I think a lot of folks, including Bryan, subscribe to is that a good deal of the audience going in did not fully appreciate the gravity of the motion: this isn’t about moving from closed borders to cracking the door open an inch. This is about truly liberating the workers of the world from the chains which keep them locked up in the country they happen to be born into. A relatively naive pro-immigration person going into the debate could well have voted for the motion initially, and realised after the debate that they may want a slightly more liberal policy, but nothing close to open borders, and voted accordingly then. Overall, I am heartened that almost half the audience remained in favour of open borders even after hearing out the case for and against; I’d rather have 42% who strongly favour open borders in full knowledge of the case for and against, than 46% who think it sounds good but aren’t sure what the case for either side might be.

I am hardly an unbiased observer, but I felt Bryan’s opening and closing statements summarised well the best of the case for open borders: closed borders oppress innocent people. They treat people like enemies of the state simply because they were born in the wrong country — something they had no choice in. This is both manifestly unjust and incredibly inefficient. The world is losing the fantastic talents of billions, which could be put to so much better use outside the countries they are trapped in by happenstance.

Having said that, I did enjoy the other side’s arguments. Although I was hardly persuaded by them, I felt both Unz and Newland very clearly crystallised almost every single argument, short of outright bigotry, that I’ve heard against open borders. Unz played a very effective restrictionist bad cop to Newland’s “we can let more in, but we can’t open the borders” mainstream liberal good cop. Unz trotted out a bunch of familiar populist right-wing arguments: immigrants depress wages; they’re scheming welfare parasites; and they will only be a boon for wealthy capitalists. Newland trotted out all the familiar left-wing arguments: admitting immigrants imposes an obligation on government to care for them and government’s resources are not unlimited; every government has the authority to impose its own restrictions on immigration as it sees fit; it is irresponsible to outsource immigration policy to private citizens like employers.

Wadhwa was the only debater who disappointed me. He and Bryan came in seeming to have agreed to specialise; Bryan would cover the arguments for low-skilled immigration, and Wadhwa would speak to the arguments for high-skilled immigration. This arrangement turned out to be ineffective, I think largely because hardly anyone can oppose open borders for high-skilled workers: every single argument made by Unz and Newland was really against open borders for low-skilled workers. Wadhwa thus didn’t really have much to say other than repeat all the points for what, in my mind, is the virtual slam dunk of high-skilled immigration.

Having said that, one thing that was new to me that night was finding that Wadhwa really favours open borders. I know I wasn’t the only one who, when I heard the line-up, wondered why Wadhwa was speaking, when all his prior activism has focused on high-skilled immigration. People standing up for the right of the privileged, educated classes to move freely around the world are a dime-a-dozen. But try talking to them about immigration from anyone else, and these people’s positions often change either to apathy or outright restrictionist antipathy. From his comments during the debate, Wadhwa showed he is on on side of open borders for all, and rejects all the apocalyptic predictions which Unz so ponderously repeated that night. As Wadhwa so simply put it, “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.”

My favourite moment of Wadhwa’s was when he took to the stage for his opening statement and showed himself clearly speechless at Unz’s demagoguery: I’ve read Unz’s work, as have Bryan and Wadhwa, and we know Unz is far more intelligent and nuanced than the caricature of restrictionism he appeared that night. Unfortunately, Unz’s demagoguery clearly worked. All you have to do is trot out the laundry list of myths about the evils of immigrants, and dramatise the scenario out of any proportion to the actual facts. Unz repeatedly declared that open borders would “convert America’s minimum wage into its maximum wage” — a prediction I’d gladly bet with Unz on, if only we could somehow open the borders. Economists have repeatedly found that more immigration actually has hardly any impact on wages for most workers, and may even boost low-skilled natives’ incomes. Even if you multiply the most pessimistic estimates of immigration’s effects on wages several times over, you cannot come close to driving wages down to the level of the minimum wage.

Unz knows none of this; he happily opened with the cheerful declaration that he doesn’t know anything about economics. But populist demagoguery is quite an effective debating tactic, especially when you’re dealing with a non-technical audience. Unz harped on how open borders would cause class warfare, ostensibly because a massive influx of foreign labour would harm native labour tremendously, to the benefit of capital. But the economist consensus is quite clear: Unz is wrong. As one economist, Ethan Lewis (who, full disclosure, is a former teacher of mine) has said: “Calculations often include native ‘capital owners’ as additional short-run beneficiaries, but there is ample theoretical and empirical support for the idea that such benefits do not last beyond a few years – the short run really is short.” Moreover, Lewis has looked at how industrialists actually respond to inflows of foreign labour — and he has found that they respond by cutting back on their investments in capital and investing more in low-skilled labour, in turn driving up low-skilled natives’ incomes!

Unz’s arguments are superficially appealing, but they simply cannot withstand scrutiny when you look into the ideas and thinking which Unz purports to back him up. I thought Unz did exactly what a debater looking to persuade people to the restrictionist side should do: choose what people are likeliest to believe, and hammer away at it. But convincing as he might have sounded, I think that Newland likely was the one who won the debate for their side.

To be fair to her, Newland is no lover of closed borders: she’s an advocate for more liberal immigration policies and clearly cares for migrants. But she was the speaker who took the positions that I feel appeal the most to any layperson in the mainstream who is asked to consider open borders: well, it’s good to help poor people by letting them in, but we have to be careful to ensure we don’t admit too many, since it creates an obligation for us to care for these people, and we don’t have limitless resources. She elucidated these positions clearly. I also felt that she made perhaps the most frank and revealing statement of the evening: when asked if she favoured government discrimination against the foreign-born, she responded: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favor“. As she so clearly says, the case against open borders rests in large part on denying the assertion Bryan made in his opening statement that banning foreigners from seeking honest work is no different from banning women, Jews, or blacks from seeking honest work. It’s different, you see: discriminating against women, Jews, and blacks is wrong. But it is so right to discriminate against foreigners.

Much to my dissatisfaction, after opening statements, the debaters spent a lot of time arguing about whether a minimum wage should apply to immigrant workers, and if so, how high should it be. Here, Bryan was alone in insisting there was no need to set such a precondition on opening the borders. The rest of the panel agreed that the US ought to raise its minimum wage, and spent a good deal of time going back and forth about how this impacted the motion. To me, this question is entirely irrelevant, and I think Bryan could have tried harder to shut down this red herring by following up on a point Wadhwa made: the debate is about whether we should let anyone take a job anywhere. The debate has nothing to do with other labour market regulations. Any government has the authority to regulate its domestic labour market. Whether those regulations are appropriate or need amending is a completely different issue. All Bryan and Wadhwa are saying is that governments do not have the authority to discriminate against foreigners in the labour market — to impose one set of labour laws on foreigners that do not apply to natives.

To put it differently, there are different laws governing the labour market in the US, the UK, Bangladesh, and Brazil. But nobody’s saying that they all should have the same set of labour laws, the same minimum wage. The point of open borders is that people who want to move out of one labour market, out of one set of labour laws and regulations, and into another one, should be allowed to. People should be allowed to seek work anywhere, and people should be allowed to hire anyone from anywhere, in compliance with all the same labour laws that apply to native workers. Restrictionists in Unz’s camp may favour a high minimum wage to price unskilled foreign workers out of the labour market — but that’s a very different kettle of fish from favouring the use of tanks and gunships to threaten unskilled foreign workers with violent force. The scope of the motion was fundamentally about ending the global war on immigrants — not raising the US minimum wage.

One thing I liked about how the IQ2 moderator, John Donvan, set up the debate was that he made clear open borders is already being tried in the EU, and can readily be accomplished on a larger scale today via multilateral open border treaties. I thought it quite funny how Unz and Newland argued that we shouldn’t count this a success for open borders, because EU policy poured aid into poorer EU countries prior to opening the borders in hopes of dissuading economic migration. They made it sound like the EU only opened its internal borders once every country had more or less attained a similar level of economic performance. But EU countries range in per capita income (adjusted for purchasing power) from the $15K-$20K range (for countries like Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland) up to the $40K-$50K range (for countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria). The fact of the matter is, as Bryan and Wadhwa pointed out, that none of the catastrophes which Unz and those of like minds have insisted are sure to happen under open borders actually happened in the EU. And Mexico has a higher per capita income than Bulgaria, mind you!

After the debate, I felt that the organisers had actually put together a fantastically representative panel:

  1. Bryan, the open borders cum free market radical
  2. Wadhwa, the open borders moderate
  3. Unz, the restrictionist doomsday prophet
  4. Newland, the mainstream liberal open borders skeptic

Each person represented a distinct side of the debate. Unfortunately, because of disagreements on rather irrelevant points (like the level of the minimum wage), Bryan and Wadhwa sometimes found themselves having to disagree. Moreover, Unz and Newland were careful to make points which complemented each other; even though right- and left-wing populism rarely agree on much elsewhere, it’s hardly surprising that they tend to agree on immigration. Both left- and right-wing restrictionists share the belief, so clearly articulated by Newland, that government is obliged to protect people from competition in a fair market by use of tanks and battleships — by treating innocent people who happen to have been born in another country as if they are armed, invading armies. It was not a huge surprise to me that the audience, by a slight margin, felt more persuaded by Unz and Newland, even if their facts and assertions were often way off base, especially in Unz’s case.

Newland dealt more in moral arguments that evening than she did in facts, which made her the more formidable opponent, even though you can certainly say the moral case for open borders is a slam dunk. Newland stated simply that people feel that admitting immigrants is to assume some sort of responsibility for them, and this makes it impossible to admit everyone, since our resources are not limitless. In other words, governments have an obligation to provide the same level of welfare and benefits for everyone in their territory.

Newland also harped on the claim that governments have the fundamental authority to set any immigration policy they like, no matter how unjust or arbitrary this policy may be. She never backed this up, moving on to argue that it’s undemocratic and unjust to place immigration policy in the hands of private citizens like employers. While I agree it would be concerning if we allowed private companies or citizens to grant citizenship to anyone they like, that clearly has nothing to do with open borders: open borders is not open citizenship.

Newland’s arguments amounted to assuming that governments have the authority to discriminate against foreigners in any way they like because foreigners are not citizens. This is extreme; surely Newland and I imagine Unz would draw the line at allowing the government to impose the death penalty on foreigners who illegally immigrate. But Bryan, Wadhwa and I would move that line a little more: we draw the line at allowing the government to force its own citizens to discriminate against foreigners in hiring and firing decisions. We draw the line at forcing people to face arbitrary rules and punishment simply to hold down their job or live with their families. Governments can discriminate against foreigners in all other sorts of ways; as Bryan proposed, governments can even charge foreigners a fee or surtax for immigration. If it is unjust to murder someone for the crime of being born in the wrong country, it is also unjust to use armed force to deprive them of a job they are qualified to do.

The most effective counter-argument from Bryan and Wadhwa that evening was their concrete illustration of how so many of the citizenist and doomsday-type arguments which Unz and Newland used were old replays of the arguments used against allowing blacks or women into the labour force. The labour market wouldn’t be able to cope. Capital would exploit the new workers at the expense of the old workers, who’d be laid off or see wage cuts. It wouldn’t be fair to existing workers, who society and its institutions have obligations to. None of these are convincing reasons to ban blacks or women from joining the labour force; neither should they convince you that it’s right to ban someone from working somewhere just because of where he was born.

Bryan also pointed out the moral tension in Newland’s seemingly compassionate argument. Her insistence on using armed force to keep out immigrants if the welfare state isn’t able to accommodate them seems self-defeating: if someone wants to do a job, because it makes them better off many times over, why ban them from doing it at the point of a gun? If this person is one of the most economically oppressed people alive today, and if leaving their current job is literally a matter of life or death, why are we so happy to ban them from taking a job that multiplies their income by leaps and bounds, saving them from a life risked working on the floor of a sweatshop that might just collapse one day? Even if we find it unpleasant to witness poverty in our country, how is it anything but cruel to use armed force to keep out those poor people who want to come here simply to better their condition with honest wages?

Ultimately, I think the main elephant in the room that wasn’t quite adequately addressed was the point Newland made about citizenism: that governments are obliged to discriminate in favour of citizens. I think that is quite true, yes, in matters of national security, as she herself said. But the labour market is not a matter of national security any more than the agricultural market or information technology market are. Those markets are surely sensitive and of national importance, which is the excuse the US government uses to impose farm subsidies and import tariffs, and the excuse it uses to ban the export of some encryption technologies. But the government imposes such restrictions selectively and only where warranted. It does not impose a blanket ban on trade. Let’s put aside the question of whether those other restrictions make sense; the point is, there is far more of an open border when it comes to markets of unquestionable national importance like farming and information security, than when it comes to labour. As Wadhwa said, it is crazy that we are having a debate about whether an employer should be allowed to hire whoever he likes, when the only disqualifying factor we can think of is the candidate’s country of birth. If the foreigner isn’t a terrorist or public health threat, what business is it of the government’s to ban its citizens from hiring him?

The citizenist point of view clearly resonated; it came up frequently in the audience Q&A. More than once, someone stood up to demand to know why the US should open the borders at all when it is beset by domestic problems. Nobody on stage seemed to clearly grapple with this to me. I think I can imagine what Bryan would have said if he wanted to thoroughly grapple with this thinking, but his preferred total rejection of all citizenist ideas is not, I imagine, a great rhetorical strategy, especially when you have limited time to make your case.

Yet, in my mind, this citizenist thinking is the most important barrier to break down. Sure, governments have obligations to their citizens that they do not have to foreigners. But governments do not have the obligation to ban foreigners from competing with citizens in a fair marketplace. What purpose does it serve to use armed force against innocent civilians? To call Unz’s apocalyptic scenarios if we open the borders “unrealistic” is too kind. There is no prima facie case for banning an innocent person from taking whatever job he can get in the marketplace in any country of the world. There is no reasonable basis for treating someone who wants to work in a restaurant kitchen or get an education as if they are a common criminal, or worse, an armed enemy of the state. Governments have the authority to impose immigration restrictions — but for the sake of the common good and in response to a clearly defined threat, not for the sake of simply “protecting” citizens from fair competition in the marketplace.

The organisers of the IQ2 debate billed it as a thrilling contest of wits and persuasion. As you can tell from how much space I’ve devoted here to discussing the debate, I’m certainly happy to give them that point. Although I can’t say I’m happy that open borders “lost” the debate, I am glad to have heard some of the best arguments that both sides offer, and glad that a broader audience was able to hear them too. The case for open borders rests on debunking the economic myths and muddled moral thinking which make closed borders so appealing to many. The open borders side might not have won this time, but we gave the closed borders side a good run for their money — and I look forward to seeing the progress we can make here the next time around.

Photo credit for picture of Bryan Caplan and Vivek Wadhwa at the debate: Samuel Lahoz, Intelligence Squared.

If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?

In a recent post, Vipul wrote about the importance of better understanding the number of people who might migrate under policy changes in the direction of open borders.  One reason why he considers this important is to evaluate the legitimacy of concerns about “swamping:” “One of the main concerns of people ranging from hardcore restrictionists to moderate pro-immigrationers and even some who identify as being pro-open borders is that true open borders would lead to very large numbers of people moving over short time periods in a manner that would strain housing, electricity, water supplies, and other infrastructure in the countries receiving the immigrants.”

Whether receiving countries would be swamped if open borders were implemented, and what the swamping would actually be like, is pivotal to determining the morality of open borders.  That’s because, absent the possibility of a swamping that turns a receiving country into an economic and political basketcase similar to Haiti or Somalia, from a moral standpoint there are no obstacles to instituting open borders immediately.

In fact, two of the strongest moral arguments in favor of open borders include caveats in which extremely harmful swamping might override the arguments.  In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open BordersJoseph Carens uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255)  Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate.  In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

However, in “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Mr. Carens states that with open borders “… the number of those coming might overwhelm the capacity of the society to cope, leading to chaos and a breakdown of public order… A threat to public order could be used to justify restrictions on immigration… because the breakdown of public order makes everyone worse off in terms of both liberty and welfare.”  At the same time he writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (p. 30)

In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Michael Huemer argues that unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” people have a right “not to be subject to seriously harmful coercion.” (p. 432)  Therefore, unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434)  Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures.  Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

Nevertheless, the possibility of swamping gives Mr. Huemer pause.  He writes, “No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open.”  Referring to Brian Barry, who predicts a billion immigrants coming to the U.S. with open borders and disastrous consequences, Mr. Huemer states that “Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society.  If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement.” (pp. 453-454)

So would receiving countries be swamped with open borders, and would that swamping essentially destroy the economic and political systems that made those countries desireable destinations in the first place, thus overriding the moral imperative for open borders?  That is what Vipul is apparently exploring, but it seems that a clear answer will be elusive.

In apparent response to concerns about swamping, some, including Mr. Huemer (p. 454), have advocated for a gradual transition towards open borders.  This would involve increasing immigration levels over a period of time.  If receiving countries are not being severely swamped after each increase, then immigration levels would again be increased.  Politically, and perhaps morally, this approach may be warranted, although the suffering associated with restrictionism would persist.

At least the initial increase in immigrant numbers under a gradual transition could be substantial, without severe swamping of receiving countries, based on Israel’s experience with high levels of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  Philippe Legrain has highlighted this experience in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.  This flow of people to Israel was, in Mr. Legrain’s words, “one of the most dramatic experiments in the history of immigration.” (p. 133)  Mr. Legrain notes that between 1990 and 1997 over seven hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, a country with a population of about 4.6 million in 1989, and almost half of the immigrants entered in a two year period. (p. 134)  Mr. Legrain puts these numbers in perspective for America:  “Imagine, then, what would happen if over 15 million foreigners were suddenly to arrive in the U.S. over the next two years, rising to 29 million over eight years.  Twenty-nine million people who don’t speak English, don’t have jobs to go to and don’t even have any experience of working in a capitalist economy… Mass unemployment?  Riots in the streets?  Perhaps even the collapse of society?” (p.134)

Citing an Israeli economic expert on this impact, Mr. Legrain states that at first native Israelis’ wages fell by about 5 percent for men, and there was a sharp rise in interest rates.  However, “Israel’s economy seems to have absorbed a vast number of new workers without a rise in unemployment.”  Unemployment among native Israelis dropped during this period, and by 1997 the ex-Soviet employment rate was similar to that of native Israelis.  (p. 135)  In addition, by 1997, “natives’ wages had recovered to where they would have been without the mass immigration, and interest rates had fallen to their pre-immigration levels.”  Mr. Legrain concludes that “flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants without any cost to native workers if the inflows are reasonably predictable, and with only a short-term cost to them if they are unexpected.” (p. 135)

Some might counter that the ex-Soviet immigrants had higher levels of education than those who might immigrate to western countries from developing countries under an open borders policy.  However, Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh found that “… the Russian immigrants suffered from substantial occupational downgrading in Israel and thus did not increase the relative supply of skilled workers in Israel.” (p. 27) Many female immigrants, and presumably many male immigrants, ended up doing menial service jobs. This fits with Mr. Legrain’s explanation of how differences between native and immigrant workers limit competition between the two groups:  “… critics of immigration would be the first to argue that  immigrants and native workers are not identical.  The newcomers will almost certainly speak the local language less well, have fewer contacts and less knowledge of local practices… At most, then, they are imperfect substitutes for local workers, which implies that they only indirectly compete with them in the labour market—thus limiting any short-term harm they might cause natives.” (p. 137) Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.

The Israeli experience suggests an initial immigrant admissions level for the U.S., as part of a gradual move towards open borders, could be established that is much higher than current American admissions levels.  I don’t know how Mr. Legrain calculated the U.S. equivalent of 29 million people over eight years based on the Israeli experience, but my calculation is significantly higher.  First, there were over 820 thousand immigrants over the eight years, including immigration from other source countries in addition to that from the former Soviet Union.  Using the 1989 Israeli population of about 4.6 million and using a rounded down figure of eight hundred thousand immigrants between 1990 and 1997, there was about a 2.1% annual addition to the 1989 population over eight years.  A 2.1% addition to the current U.S. population of about 316 million yields more than 6.5 million new immigrants a year (52 million over eight years).  Therefore, a conservative recommendation would be to establish an initial immigration level to the U.S. of 6.5 million a year.  (By comparison, there have been about one million immigrants who have gained permanent legal status in the U.S. each of the last three years.  The undocumented population has been falling in recent years.)  The level would be raised regularly thereafter, assuming no devastating effects on the U.S. from previous levels.  Other receiving countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe and East Asia could also set their initial immigration levels at 2.1 percent of their current populations.

Again, this gradual approach to open borders means that much of the suffering associated with immigration restrictions would continue for years to come.  I share Bryan Caplan’s concern that fears of swamping, which are unsubstantiated, stand in the way of open borders: “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because we know that free migration has very bad consequences” arguably overcomes the presumption in favor of open borders. “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because there’s a small chance that free migration has very bad consequences” does not.”   While I am very uncomfortable with the gradualist approach to open borders, at least we have evidence showing a relatively high level at which receiving countries should begin their gradual implementation of open borders.

 

Citizenists need to clarify their views on moral side-constraints (a response to commenters on Caplan’s Himmler post)

The occasionally nasty but frequently lucid discussion triggered by Bryan Caplan’s provocative post about Himmler shed new light, for me, on citizenism. While I’m convinced by Vipul’s arguments that citizenism is (much) more influential than its currency in public discourse would suggest, it’s unusual to encounter people explicitly defending it. However, to Caplan’s challenge– “How did Himmler misapply citizenism?”– I think the citizenists’ answer is quite clear: moral side-constraints. My favorite comment was by Theo Clifford, who basically summed up the whole discussion…

The obvious point here is that the citizenists show up and reply, “of course we believe in moral side-constraints to citizenism!” And then it’s the same old philosophical and empirical argument about whether freedom of migration should be one of those side constraints.

… while also pointing to where the discussion could most productively go next. I would characterize Peter Hurley, Tom West, Eric Falkenstein, Kenneth Regas, and possibly Hansjorg Walther as suggesting some form of moral side-constraints, whether they were themselves self-identified citizenists (like Ken) or definitely not (like Peter) or non-committal (like, I think, everyone else). Of course, I may be biased because “moral side-constraints” is my term, and I noted early on in the discussion that this was a tack citizenists were likely to take. I was right, and the discussion tends to confirm my knee-jerk reaction that citizenists aren’t like Himmler because they accept, albeit usually implicitly and half-unconsciously, moral side-constraints. By the way, my least favorite comment was Eric Falkenstein’s response to Theo Clifford:

Theo: citizenists show up and reply, “of course we believe in moral side-constraints to citizenism!”

That’s silly, characterizing the reasonable limits of a citizen-centric policy as an ad hoc confabulation. Every virtue becomes a vice if sought to an extreme. Balancing competing principles (liberty vs. property) is what makes prudence essential. Moderation in all things.

This comment is the kind of vapid, platitudinous, condescending humbug that gets in the way of serious argument. Falkenstein wants to replace the useful phrase “moral side-constraints” with the loaded, cumbersome phrase “reasonable limits of a citizen-centric policy,” because he doesn’t want to accept Theo’s invitation to engage in “philosophical… argument about whether freedom of migration should be one of those side-constraints. ” His mention of “property” is an allusion to an earlier comment in which he argued that “a nation is the ‘commons’ of a population,” a view which I think I could pretty easily tear apart in an argument but which has at least a crude surface plausibility. But to quote “property” against open borders advocates as if they hadn’t heard of it is ridiculous. No, Theo is right to posit that all citizenists seem to accept moral side-constraints of one kind or another, and to steer the conversation towards a discussion of what appropriate side-constraints are. Incidentally, Hansjorg Walther’s comment

Just a question. Sailer in the quote you give says the following:

– My starting point in analyzing policies is: “What is in the best overall interests of the current citizens of the United States?”

How do you get from that to your claim that his position is equivalent to Himmler’s position:

– Himmler embraces absolute devotion to “the best overall interests of the current citizens of Germany” as the highest morality.

Can’t you take something as a starting point for analyzing a policy without embracing it with absolute devotion as the highest morality which trumps everything else?

I don’t see how you can make this leap.

… is important because Steve Sailer, coiner of the term “citizenism,” endorsed it with a one-word comment: “Right.” Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but Sailer seems to have picked his moment shrewdly. For his comment dodges the Himmler analogy while being extremely non-committal. Citizenism, he suggests, is his starting point for analyzing a policy, but it does not follow that he embraces absolute devotion as the highest morality. Maybe Sailer means that he acccepts some other, higher morality as more absolute, but citizenism as a starting-point, as indeed even Vipul suggests might be appropriate when a policy doesn’t affect the welfare of non-citizens much. Maybe Sailer does embrace absolute devotion to citizenism as the highest moral value, agreeing with Himmler, but doesn’t want to say so openly, and is eager to establish that he can’t actually be proven guilty of that view based on what he’s written. Maybe Sailer wants to pursue citizenist ends subject to a certain basic respect for human rights. At any rate, he doesn’t say. Which is why I think he’s shrewd. This is not an argument that can work out favorably for him. He’s got popular prejudices on his side at least to some extent. He does not have reason on his side. “I’m not like Himmler, but I won’t tell you why I’m not,” may be his best bet here. But I shouldn’t make too much of an argument from near-silence.

By contrast, Kenneth Regas, self-declared citizenist, directly met Caplan’s challenge with admirable forthrightness, in one of the clearest defense of citizenism by an avowed citizenist that I have ever heard. For the rest of this post, all blockquotes are from his comment. Continue reading “Citizenists need to clarify their views on moral side-constraints (a response to commenters on Caplan’s Himmler post)” »

Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?

Here at Open Borders: The Case, we have devoted a large number of blog posts to critiquing citizenism. Some others on the open borders side have been critical of this resource allocation decision. One criticism is that by devoting so much attention to citizenism, we’re giving it more serious consideration than it deserves. This sentiment was echoed in a comment by Andy Hallman for instance.

Citizenism would deserve consideration if it were either plausible or popular. As Bryan Caplan writes:

As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.

So, is citizenism either plausible or popular? If we look at the explicit origins of citizenism, we might be tempted to think otherwise. The term “citizenism” has been coined by Steve Sailer, who, while doubtless considerably more widely read than Open Borders, is quite controversial himself, and hardly mainstream. The use of the term hasn’t caught on much outside a few select circles: Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers on the one hand, and a few other blogs such as Open Borders and EconLog on the other.

Even among Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers, consent to the term is far from unanimous. For instance, the very first commenter on one of Sailer’s posts on citizenism begins with “Citizenism deserves all the scorn it gets, no doubt about that.”

I believe that even though few people explicitly subscribe to the tenets of citizenism as formulated by Sailer, most restrictionist arguments, particularly those that refer to the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, implicitly make their normative claims using citizenist reasoning — they weigh the interests of natives/citizens much higher than that of non-citizens, and view this as a legitimate basis for immigration restrictions. Citizenism is an important undercurrent in the majority of restrictionist thinking and perhaps even in some mainstream pro-immigration circles.

A more general framing it is that a lot of people subscribe to the moral relevance of countries. But, the mere assertion that countries have considerable moral relevance could be interpreted and made more concrete through a number of different normative ethical perspective such as:

  • Citizenism, the idea that national governments and citizens should give primacy to the interests of current citizens (and their descendants). Citizenism may be justified by neocameralism or some variant thereof.
  • Territorialism, the idea that national governments should give primacy to the interests of people within the geographic area of the nation-state, regardless of their citizenship status.
  • Local inequality aversion, the idea that local inequality within national boundaries is an evil in and of itself, independent of global inequality.
  • Nation as family, a variant of citizenism which asserts that the family is a useful metaphor for the nation, and that the head of family is the nation-state’s government.
  • “Maximize the average” type views, where the goal is to maximize the average indicators of the nation as it is constituted in the future, through appropriate migration, deportation, and extermination policies.
  • Love for the physical land or specific cultural capital of the nation-state as a motivator for national government policy, independent of whether people are willing to pay to preserve these.
  • “Proposition nation” theories: Here, the goal is to preserve specific values or institutions associated with the nation, such as slavery, ethnic strife, democracy, free markets, or a large welfare state.

All of these are important and they interact in interesting ways, but I contend that citizenism is one of the more important formalizations of the moral relevance of countries. Later in the post, I will return to the question of why it isn’t more explicitly embraced or discussed in mainstream circles, and why it took a relatively heterodox figure like Steve Sailer to articulate it clearly.

Sophisticated citizenism among policy wonks and social scientists

A passage from a recent op-ed by Tyler Cowen (which has been praised by David Henderson on EconLog and many of my Facebook friends) notes and critiques the citizenistic underpinnings of many policy analyses relating to immigration:

“Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn’t dream of producing a study that counted “men only” or “whites only,” at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data. So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration?”

For some other examples of citizenistic arguments from an unexpected quarter — leftists in the UK — see here and here (HT: co-blogger John Lee for both links). Here’s a relevant quote from the latter (emphasis added, not in original):

I would guess that it remains the common sense assumption of 90 per cent of British citizens that public policy should give preference to the interests of citizens before non-citizens should the two conflict: that does not mean you cannot be an internationalist, or believe that it is a valuable part of our tradition to offer a haven to refugees, or believe that all humans are of equal moral worth and if they are in British space are entitled to certain basic rights. But it does mean that the first call on our resources and sense of obligation begins with our fellow citizens.

And this should be a central principle underlying immigration policy that the authors do not spell out robustly enough: immigration policy must be designed to serve the interests of existing British citizens, especially poorer ones. [see also our master race page] It is true that it is not always easy to work out what those interests are. It is also true that Matt and Sarah do accept discrimination on grounds of nationality (and reject post-national arguments in favour of global social mobility) and understand that immigrants do not necessarily have the same entitlements as the settled population, but this is all rather tentative and overshadowed by a far more robust and often repeated commitment to a human rights ideology that too often overtly seeks to dissolve the precious distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

In a Facebook post, I posited three possible explanations for the implicit citizenism in policy analyses and policy wonk discussions. Continue reading “Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?” »