Tag Archives: communitarianism

Borders and Inequality

This is a guest post. Please see the author bio, editorial note, and related reading at the bottom for more context.

Inequality is big news. From Piketty’s bestseller to Oxfam’s reminder to Davos’ economic elites that by 2016, the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of us combined, we are newly concerned with the threat growing inequality poses to global stability. And in seeking to meet what US president Barack Obama has called ‘the defining challenge of our time’, many politicians have claimed that mass immigration is contributing to inequality and poverty at home: that the movement of people leads to lower wages, higher unemployment and greater dependency upon social security and the welfare state among displaced citizens.

Understood in these national terms, if inequality is the problem, the solution would seem to involve less migration and stronger borders. Yet for champions of global justice, the opposite is true. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrollment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Framed like this, migration is no longer contributing to the problem of inequality. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the solution.

So who’s right? Is inequality really a zero-sum game, in which global justice comes at the expense of national equity? Do we have to choose between addressing inequality between citizenships, and inequality between citizens? And if this is the case, what are the implications for the Open Borders movement?

Of course in strict utilitarian terms, if more migration maximizes total benefit at a global level, national effects are secondary. But when it comes to politics, global justice arguments can’t simply trump national ones because – at an almost instinctive level – the vast majority of people would claim that nations – communities – are important, and effects of migration at a local level can’t simply be discounted.

It’s therefore important to recognize that the evidence for many claims made about the injurious effects of immigration upon locals is dubious. In the case of the UK, for instance – where anti-immigration rhetoric has proved popular in recent elections – economic data suggests that the effects of immigration on the labour market are minimal, and that immigrants make an unambiguous net fiscal contribution to the UK treasury, paying in much more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Yet even if the idea that immigration is bad for equality at home doesn’t hold up to close empirical scrutiny, we still need to ask why it continues to hold such sway when it comes to public opinion and political action.

So why do nations matter? Part of it undoubtedly is about culture and belonging. We are none of us ‘unencumbered individuals’, and national cultures play a role in shaping our identities. Yet in practice, national identity is often a chameleon: ask a San Franciscan and an Alabaman what it means to be an American, and the chances are you’d get very different answers. This means ‘national culture’, in and of itself, isn’t a justification for why we need nation-states – let alone why we should restrict migration.

Instead, arguably the most persuasive progressive case for national borders rests upon something more tangible: the promise of equality of opportunity that is a fundamental component of citizenship. In a modern state, that promise is usually articulated through the funding of a whole set of national institutions designed to close this gap – social security, healthcare, education. This is the nation-state not – in David Goodhart’s words – as a ‘mystical attachment’, but the institutional arrangement that can consistently deliver the democratic, welfare and psychological outcomes that ‘most people, when given a choice, seem to want’. Many in favour of tightly restricting migration argue that it’s these institutions that really make national citizenship meaningful. They also insist that such institutions can only function if borders be drawn somewhere, in order to turn a universal but vague commitment to equality of opportunity in principle into a limited but tangible effort to create more equality in practice.

Of course, in practice, equality of opportunity is still a fiction at a national level too. Outcome and opportunity cannot be so easily separated. In 2007, the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth. In the UK, the wealthiest 1% is 215 times wealthier than the poorest 10% of Britons. But for advocates of tighter border controls, this is just further evidence that we should make good on national promises first, before turning to think about the greater challenges we face in tackling global inequality.

And at first glance, this seems reasonable: pragmatism legitimized by the bonds of community. After all, nearly all of us ultimately care more about our family members’ wellbeing than that of our acquaintances, especially when it comes to action rather than sentiment. Arguably, favouring locals over migrants is just an extension of this – a recognition that being part of a national community cements closer ties, so a fellow-citizen’s wellbeing matters more to us than that of a stranger. Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, and we have a justification for a bordered world, carefully tied to the measuring of fiscal contribution and social cohesion.

Yet we should also see the limits of this argument. Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Inequality, then, is largely determined at birth and tied to geography. This means there’s still a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore. Norway, for instance, offers much more to all its citizens than Afghanistan can. The West’s citizens cannot possibly claim that the relative riches that derive from our citizenship are fair: they are above all a fortunate accident of birth. When it comes to justifying borders as a means of preserving some equality within – protection for the poorest citizens ­– this needs to be balanced against the risk that such borders aren’t about protection as much as they are about maintaining privilege.

So what does this mean when it comes to thinking about borders and inequality? First, it suggests that ‘protection, not privilege’ is a good maxim around which to build a ‘fair’ migration policy. Our fellow citizens should be protected from harm, the basic promises of the social contract met. However, providing this is done, international migrants should not be locked out. For at that point our interest in maintaining what are essentially inherited privileges – that 50% lifetime birthplace bonus – begins to look pretty selfish. At some point, borders are no longer self-preservation: they’re greed.

Principle, of course, is one thing: practice is another. This line of reasoning has at least two important political implications. First, if borders are to be defended as a protection against inequality, the justification rests first on demonstrating tangible progress in promoting equality between citizens, and then on showing such measures are being helped by restricting immigration. The evidence strongly suggests that states are currently unable to show either of these conditions holding true. In fact, immigration plays a crucial role in underpinning the current institutions and fiscal commitments that are intended to bridge the equality gaps between citizens too.

Second, if more migration is to be justified on the grounds that it helps to reduce global inequality, efforts to relax border controls and open up freedom of movement cannot focus only on the movement of elites: the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. This is directly counter to current policy trends. Increasing numbers of states are selling citizenship to the highest bidder: but in an age of elite hypermobility, fences are also being built to ensure the poor are kept in place.

There is thus a powerful case to be made that when it comes to inequality, the real fight isn’t between migrants and citizens: it’s between the elites and the ordinary. And if equality of opportunity is the end, then greater freedom of movement is one means by which such a goal can be achieved. This means that most immediately, there’s a need to counter the efforts being made to reduce immigration by many states, and to articulate the reasons why efforts at immigration reform in others should not focus only on securing visas for the wealthy, the highly educated, and corporate employees. And in the long-term, perhaps considering an alternative mantra – not “Open Borders”, but “Equal Borders” – might help to underline that if what we’re ultimately interested in is equality, greater freedom of movement is an important means of getting there – for migrants and citizens alike.

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.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

Author Bio

Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University  and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Since completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, she has held faculty positions at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights and Repatriation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Katy is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Katy has also worked extensively with policy-makers including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, she is engaged in furthering public understanding and engagement on migration issues, speaking and writing for a number of media outlets including the BBC World Service, ITV Tonight, The Conversation and openDemocracy. Follow Katy on Twitter at @mobilitymuse.

Related Open Borders: The Case links

The author of the post brought a different perspective to the issue than that typically espoused in Open Borders: The Case content and blog posts. To minimize disruption to the flow, we didn’t include links to related content from the site in the main post. However, the site does explore some questions related to the content. A brief list of related site content is below. There might be response blog posts by Open Borders: The Case bloggers responding to the author’s points. These links were curated by Open Borders: The Case editors and are not the author’s responsibility.

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 2

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I began discussing The Ethics of Immigration by Joseph Carens (Oxford University Press, 2013). The item numbering continues from the previous post.

#7: Reasonable accommodations by and for migrants

Chapter 4 of Carens’ book covers an aspect of migration that is related to, but at the same time largely orthogonal to, the question of open borders. Specifically, Carens considers what reasonable accommodations migrants and non-migrants should ideally make for each other for harmonious living. Much of this discussion is not specifically related to migration policy or even to politics — though people with an expansive view of the state’s role would infer many political prescriptions from it, those of a more libertarian or voluntaryist nature could simply consider these as soft guidelines for the actions of individuals and organizations.

Importantly, Carens argues the following (the summary presented below is my own — Carens does not list these points together the way I’m doing — and therefore the act of summarizing may reflect to a large extent my own judgment of what is most important):

  • He argues that the democratic ethos goes beyond majority rule, to reasonable accommodation of people’s differences where possible. Such reasonable accommodation is not simply limited to non-violation of people’s legally guaranteed basic rights, but also to not making people unduly uncomfortable or inconveniencing them without appropriate justification. To some extent, this involves migrants accommodating the beliefs and adjusting to the conventions of the majority, even when it conflicts with their personal religious or cultural beliefs. At the same time, non-migrants also have a responsibility to make reasonable accommodations towards migrants where this does not impose huge costs.
  • Generally, Carens says, it is reasonable to expect migrants to do most of the adjusting — after all, they are the ones who chose to move. For instance, they may be expected to acquire (and provide to their children) a working familiarity with the main language of the region, follow the rules of the road, and be respectful to the dress choices and habits of natives. Carens argues that in prcatice, migrants do do most of the adjusting. At the same time, there is a nonzero level of responsibility (in the loose sense) for non-migrants to accommodate migrant preferences. For instance, he argues, natives should not be critical of migrants for talking in the non-native language when conversing among themselves in public, though they may have a reasonable expectation that migrants will attempt to converse in the native language when interacting with natives.
  • Carens argues in favor of being flexible to make exceptions to general rules. He is critical of the idea that rules must be enforced rigidly on everybody, and also opposes the ideal of formal equality. He cites the example of holidays here. In a country influenced heavily by Christianity (even if people are not devoutly Christian), Sunday is likely the day off for most businesses. This works best for Christians who attend Sunday services. For Muslims or Jews, whose religious observances are on Friday and Saturday respectively, this could pose an inconvenience. Carens rejects the option of: (a) a formal “equality” where the holiday date is shifted to a completely unrelated day, such as Tuesday, to be “fair” between religions, or (b) making all three days holidays (insofar as that might not be economically feasible). However, he argues that businesses and institutions can show some flexibility to their employees who hold the alternative religious beliefs, for instance, by giving Muslims a few hours off on Friday. There are no hard-and-fast rules here — the type of accommodation would depend on the employer and employee, but the general principle should be one of looking for possible accommodations.

Here is a quote from Carens:

The challenge for this chapter is to say something about the sort of democratic ethos that is needed in a political community if citizens of immigrant origin are to be fully included . Here a caution is in order. In public discussions of immigration, it is a recurring theme that immigrants and their descendants should accept democratic values and practice democratic virtues. Suitably qualified, that is a reasonable expectation, as we shall see. But an equally reasonable and perhaps more important expectation is that other citizens also accept democratic values and practice democratic virtues . All too often, the assumption seems to be that the majority of citizens already possess the values and virtues that are needed for a democracy to function properly. But that is frequently not the case. Democratic principles require the inclusion of immigrants, and the inclusion of immigrants requires the majority of citizens to embrace the implications of the principles and values that they profess. This will often entail developing attitudes and dispositions that many citizens do not yet exhibit, at least in the requisite degree. I will say more about these requirements as the chapter proceeds. People sometimes speak of the need for democratic states to engage in a more “muscular” assertion of their values and to demand adherence to those values from people living in their societies. If that is indeed what is called for, a lot more of the muscle should be applied to the nonimmigrant majority of citizens than is commonly acknowledged.

Carens, Joseph (2013-09-19). The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford Political Theory) (p. 64). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

#8: Communitarian versus contractarian views of citizenship

Carens makes a theoretically deep point about communitarian and contractarian views of citizenship. In most political philosophizing (cf. social contract theory), the set of people (citizens) is fixed in advance, and their relationship and mutual obligations with the state are considered in that context. Carens believes that bringing migration into the picture helps us step back. We see that citizenship is not really the fundamental source of moral or social obligation, but a consequence — a formalization of a particular level of connection with the community. Carens says that social membership precedes citizenship — that citizenship (or the right thereto) is a consequence of being a part of the community, rather than a formal grant of citizenship creating a right to such a community. Carens also emphasizes the idea that social membership matters morally.

This is important because Carens uses it as a basis (implicitly — he pieces the theory together after examining all the individual cases) for arguing about why people are entitled to citizenship. People such as:

  • children born to citizens, permanent residents, or temporary workers, or even to irregular migrants (his word for illegal/undocumented) who are staying long enough,
  • anybody who’s stayed for a few years as a child,
  • anybody who’s stayed long enough as an adult.

He also argues that levels of social membership aren’t in the binary category of citizen versus non-citizen. Permanent residents who have enough roots to call the place their home deserve most of the same rights as citizens, including the right to return and the right against deportation, even if they haven’t lived long enough to become citizens. He also argues (alluded to in earlier points) that most laws should be the same for temporary workers and irregular migrants. Some exceptions he makes:

  1. Temporary workers may be exempted (optionally or mandatorily) from work-related social programs, and for a limited period (maybe the first couple months) ineligible for welfare or unemployment insurance. He says that if temporary workers are required to participate in work-related social insurance programs (so as not to make them cheaper to employers than permanent employers) the non-redistributive component of the program (i.e., the part that they would in expectation get paid back were they to stay longer) should be returned to them on their departure. What he’s suggesting seems to be a lot like my co-blogger Nathan Smith’s DRITI — except he’s using existing social insurance taxes rather than adding a new set of taxes.
  2. Some restrictions on employment opportunities for irregular migrants.
  3. Non-permanent residents may be barred from government offices that involve sensitive matters of national security.

The communitarian approach followed by Carens is different in focus from Steve Sailer’s preferred foundation for citizenism. Sailer defines citizenism as the doctrine that government policy should be biased in favor of current citizens and their descendants. Now, to be clear, Sailer, like many citizenists, does consider community loyalty and ties to be an important component of citizenship — hence his proposal that prospective immigrants be required to spend 100 hours doing community service outside of their ethnic group in order to receive citizenship. But Sailer, and citizenist restrictionists at large, view community belonging as a necessary but not sufficient condition for a non-citizen to become a citizen. Carens thinks that being a part of the community for a sufficient length of time — without having done anything special (such as Sailer’s community service proposal) for it per se — entitles one to citizenship.

#9: Firewalling government services from immigration enforcement

Carens argues that for irregular migrants, all of their basic human rights (protection of life, liberty, etc.) should apply in theory and in practice. His suggestion for making sure they apply in practice: establish a firewall between all agencies tasked with protecting basic human rights or basic services, and the immigration enforcement. In other words, these agencies are required not to report any information about irregular migration status to immigration enforcement authorities, and any information that is reported via these agencies cannot be treated as evidence. He points out precedents:

  • There are restrictions on the information that the Internal Revenue Service can share with immigration enforcement agencies in the United States, though it’s unclear how strongly these restrictions apply in practice (see here).
  • Some “sanctuary cities” in the United States, such as San Francisco, have policies of the sort Carens advocates.
  • There are rules in criminal cases that evidence collected through illicit means cannot be used, and similar rules can apply in immigration cases.

Carens also says that the children of irregular migrants should have the right to a free public education, just as the children of temporary workers do (this is conditional to such a right existing for citizens, but Carens assumes that that follows from “democratic principles”).

Carens also says that after people have resided for some length of time, they become part of the society, and should be regularized. He suggests 5 years as the length of time after which people deserve to be regularized as permanent long-term residents. This applies both to temporary workers on a regular migration status and to irregular migrants.

So what can governments do to enforce the status quo? Carens says that border security would be acceptable in principle — provided it can be done in a way that doesn’t add to human tragedy (border-crossing deaths, etc.), but that often the human toll of border security makes it unacceptable. But his main proposal is the restrictionist favorite of attrition through enforcement: heavy penalties for employers who hire irregular migrants. He has an interesting twist though: if an employer has hired an irregular migrant, that particular migrant has a right to the wages for that worker and to legal recourse if the wages are denied (and the enforcement of this legal recourse channel has a firewall with immigration enforcement). Also, he says that employers should not be allowed to report their own workers’ irregular status.

Carens offers one argument in favor of blaming employers: they are part of the society, so they can be held to the standard of the laws of that society, whereas migrants aren’t part of the social contract. Nonetheless, I find his arguments unconvincing. Why single out employers as the one group to be punished, while doing the very opposite — firewalling — for all the other groups? Carens says that if immigrants aren’t able to find employment, they’re likely to leave (the attrition-through-enforcement idea) but this applies to housing, and plausibly to education for children, and other services Carens thinks should be firewalled. Carens arguably sees the right to work as somehow less fundamental than all the other rights, at least when he’s putting on his status quo hat, and this seems reminiscent of anti-market bias.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll look at the case Carens makes for family reunification and reforming the system for refugee asylum and resettlement.

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 1

In academic philosophical circles, Joseph Carens is well known as a proponent of open borders. His 1987 article Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders was included in our pro-open borders reading list since around the time of the site launch, and co-blogger Nathan blogged about the paper back in April 2012. We’ve referenced Carens quite a bit in subsequent blog posts.

I recently learned that Carens has given the philosophical issues surrounding migration the book-length treatment they deserve in the book The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is the first book-length treatment I’m aware of that deals with migration from a philosophical perspective and is written by a single author (UPDATE: As Paul Crider points out in the comments, Philosophies of Exclusion by Phillip Cole is an earlier book on the subject that I’d forgotten about. I haven’t read it, though). I was quite excited to hear about it, and read it with great eagerness. I found much food for thought in the book. In this blog post series (which may have two, three, or more parts, depending on the amount of material I end up wanting to write up) I will go over the parts of Carens’ book I found most interesting.

#1: Broad strategy followed by Carens

The book is not largely a defense of open borders. In fact, while the author does defend open borders, this is only a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and these chapters operate on somewhat different starting assumptions from the rest of the book. Rather, Carens spends the first ten chapters arguing within the status quo framework, i.e., assuming that it is just that the world is carved into nation-states and that states can exercise significant discretionary control over migration, but he also assumes that these are constrained by what he (inaptly?) terms “democratic principles” — more on that in #3. In the last four chapters, he critiques the status quo itself, and argues for open borders. He also defends himself against the charge of Trojan Horse-ing his way through. Chapters 1-8 come to many mainstream pro-migrant but migration policy-neutral conclusions, while Chapters 9-10 argue for for the right to family reunification and some rights for refugeees. Echoing Nathan’s view that a strong case for freer migration and more migrant rights can be made from communitarian premises, the bulk of Chapters 1-8 argues for migrant rights on communitarian grounds. This isn’t surprising, because communitarian grounds may be the only defensible framework that can simultaneously justify nation-states in the broad sense while still being compatible with moral egalitarian conditions. Roughly, the worldview Carens embraces is that everybody is equal, but many aspects of people’s rights are membership-specific (in relation to their communities) rather than universal moral claims, thereby permitting differential treatment (in some respects) by a state of tourists, temporary migrants, permanent residents, and citizens.

#2: Alleged target audience

Carens claims that his book is targeted at the median resident of the democracies of Europe and North America. This is an improvement over most migration-related books, that are often singularly focused on one specific country. However, I found Carens’ claim disingenuous in two ways:

  • I don’t see a good reason why universal moral arguments should not be applicable to people outside Europe or North America, and Carens’ limited targeting may be viewed as a version of the soft bigotry of low expectations — i.e., that people in India or Malaysia or Australia or Japan or Saudi Arabia or Singapore or Hong Kong or the UAE need to be held to a lower moral bar with respect to migration policy. Carens occasionally cites policies in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, UAE, etc. as policies that no sensible country devoted to “democratic principles” (more on that catchword later) would follow. Contra Carens, I believe not only that the case for open borders is universal, but also that any case that can be made for or against various migrant rights is universal.
  • Carens gives too much credit to the median resident of Europe or North America. The median resident doesn’t buy tracts from a university press that spend 300+ pages pondering over philosophical questions. About 15% of Americans are judged college-ready, and my guess is that the college-readiness benchmark would be a rough minimum to get through Carens’ book (you’d also need to be very interested in the subject). There’d of course be exceptions, but the percentage would overall be less than, not more than, 15%. This per se isn’t worrisome — authors often claim that their works have wider reach than they actually have — but it’s related to other things problematic about Carens’ logic.

#3: The “democratic principles” catchphrase

Carens uses the catchphrase “democratic principles” to describe beliefs that the median resident of Europe or North America might hold, but which seems to me to be (largely) shorthand for the ethical intuitions that people Carens interacts regularly with hold. To be clear, I’m no expert on the median person either, but a lot of the claims that Carens makes about how ordinary people think seem a bit off to me, judging by polling data I’ve seen. I feel like he’s slippery in roughly the same way Michael Huemer is when making claims about reasonable starting points for intuitions that most people hold.

For instance, Joseph Carens argues that it is obvious to any observer today (or at any rate, any observer who is faithful to “democratic principles”) that the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) was wrong, because it is obviously wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality. While I agree that the CEA was wrong (see this lengthy blog post by co-blogger Chris Hendrix), it’s unclear to me that it’s significantly more “obvious” than open borders at large. If you embrace the principle that it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality to the point that the CEA is obviously wrong, haven’t you more or less embraced open borders (insofar as closed borders discriminate on the basis of nationality in a fairly fundamental way)? Further, to the extent that the CEA is condemnable on the grounds that it discriminated between different foreign nationalities, couldn’t the same be said of free movement within the EU (in that it discriminates between “other EU countries” and “non-EU countries” in its admissions policy)? Empirically, too, it’s unclear that people today have a strong view against the Chinese Exclusion Act. My impression is that the majority of Americans, if polled today, would be largely indifferent and consider it morally acceptable (even if unwise), rather than recoil in horror at the idea that such an act was passed a while back.

The remaining points are all arguments Carens makes presupposing the status quo framework, not necessarily ones he supports in reality, though every argument he makes moves in the “pro-migrant” and/or “open borders” direction once he takes off the hat of presupposing the status quo.

#4: Carens’ argument in favor of local legal equality

In a bow of sorts to territorialism and local inequality aversion, Carens argues that the same legal rules should apply to everybody within the physical territory, as opposed to a multi-tiered legal system. Carens does not propose an actual set of optimal policies, arguing that doing so would be outside the scope of the book. Rather, he uses a meta level argument. He argues that when a government (at a national or provincial level) chooses policies based on a balancing of considerations (e.g., choosing a minimum wage or labor regulation) the optimal policy that applies should be the same for natives as well as non-natives. Therefore, it makes no sense to have different labor regulations or policies for citizens and non-citizen permanent residents and temporary workers (a different policy for tourists is acceptable, because they’re not supposed to work). For instance, if minimum wage requirements are wrong, then they should not be applied to citizens either.

I see two objections to this, the first of which Carens anticipates to some extent, but the second he does not:

  • It can be argued that different subdivisions of the population based on citizenship/residency are statistically different, so the best balancing of interests would suggest different optima for them. This can be analogized to how the optimal labor regulation changes with time — changes with time change the nature of the labor work being done, or the skill level, and therefore change optimal labor regulation. Similarly, different segments of the labor force have different labor needs and different optimal laws.

    Carens addresses this (largely in implicit fashion). He argues that segmenting the force this way is not appropriate, any more than having different labor laws by race is appropriate. If different laws are needed, they should be based on the relevant criterion — occupation or skill level — rather than migration status. To the extent that natives and migrants have different optima, the best overall optimum should be considered.

    This, however, raises an interesting point that Carens does not acknowledge. To the extent that migration policy changes the composition of the labor force, it changes optimal labor policies for the whole labor force. If you’re having a single general minimum wage, and the value of the minimum wage depends on the skill level of the population as a whole, then if large number of people at low skill levels migrate, this could move the optimal minimum wage downward (for instance), for the population as a whole, including natives. Carens’ tone seems to suggest that the optimal policy can be determined just by looking at natives, and once non-natives are added to the mix, they just get subjected to the same policy. But if you’re insisting on one policy for everybody, it needs to take everybody into account. I don’t know if Carens would disagree, but he doesn’t really acknowledge the implications of this (so far) — the idea that changes may need to be made to regulation that move the First World in a potentially “Third World” direction to accommodate the changing composition of the labor force. This seems like the only reasonable alternative to having a two-tiered regulatory system. (As an interesting aside, opponents of expanded migration under the status quo, such as the otherwise pro-migrant Ron Unz, often support increased minimum wages as a way to deter migration).

  • Even if you believe that the optimal policy is independent of the population, the fact that the optimal policy for citizens is the same as the optimal policy for non-citizens doesn’t imply that the current policy for citizens (or for non-citizens for that matter) is close to that optimum. Therefore, moving the current policy for non-citizens in the direction of the current policy for citizens doesn’t make sense unless you already believe that that direction is the same as the direction of optimum. To take an example, suppose you believe that labor regulation X is bad (for everybody), but X applies to citizens currently. You have the opportunity to decide whether to support “not X” for non-citizens. Should you do that? (This also relates to the next point).

#5: Symbolic significance of reasonable measures undertaken in response to anti-immigration sentiment

Carens notes that there may be measures that are not wrong in substance but that have the symbolic significance of being anti-immigrant. He (tentatively) cites the UK’s tightening of birthright citizenship laws (to prevent tourists’ kids from getting such citizenship) as one example of such a measure. He doesn’t see the end result as morally wrong — he doesn’t think tourists’ kids prima facie deserve citizenship, but he believes that the move was in response to anti-immigrant sentiment.

To take another example (not provided by Carens), suppose you’re one of those who believes that “welfare creates a dependency trap that hurts its recipients more than it helps.” Would you vote for a ballot measure that sought to deny such welfare to some subclass of non-citizens? In your view, this denial would be in the non-citizens’ interest, but most likely the symbolic significance of it, and the perceived message, would be that the non-citizens are unwelcome.

#6: Against occupation-specific work visas

Carens offers an interesting argument against having occupation-specific work visas (i.e., work visas where the workers are restricted to a particular occupation). I don’t remember seeing the argument in that precise form before, though on this site we’ve obviously argued for a much more expansive vision of free movement than tying workers to a specific employer or occupation (see here for instance). I’ll take the liberty of paraphrasing Carens’ argument in a manner that will make both the argument and my subsequent critique of it clearer.

Consider these three types of prices of farm work:

  1. The price that farm work commands in the native labor market, without migration.
  2. The price that farm work would command if foreigners were free to migrate for work without being tied to an occupation.
  3. The price that farm work would command if foreigners could be hired to come on a visa restricted to farm work only.

Carens’ point is that (2) would be greater than (3), i.e., if workers had the option of competing on the entire labor market, they could probably command higher wages for farm work. Though Carens doesn’t explicitly say it, his language suggests that he thinks that (1) ~ (2), so that having occupation-restricted work visas distorts prices quite a bit, more than closed borders do. I think the point is theoretically interesting, and regardless of the empirics, is yet another reason to argue against occupation-restricted work visas (though they may still beat out closed borders). Going into the empirics would be too much of a distraction in the context of this post, but it would involve looking at the general issue of the impact that migration has on native wages. To a first approximation, wages are likely to fall in the sectors that experience heavier migration and rise in the other sectors. To the extent that workers are free to move between occupations, both as a matter of law and as a matter of skill level, this would ameliorate the sector-specific wage effects, so Carens’ point does seem to have prima facie merit. However, I still wouldn’t hinge the case for open borders on the general claim that (1) ~ (2), because it is quite possible that even with workers being legally free to move between occupations, wages for some sectors, such as farm work, do fall significantly.

This isn’t the end of my commentary on the book. I’ll be publishing part 2 of the commentary sometime in the next month.

Communitarianism, open borders, and “prisoners of the food metaphor”

Let me start by quoting a good article on deportation at Huffington Post:

The True Cost of Deportation (Marielena Hincapie)

Americans are learning about a reality that immigrant families and communities have known about for some time: there has been a monumental rise in policies to deport the men and women who are living, working, and raising families in this country. Earlier this week, the Migration Policy Institute issued a report that shined a spotlight on just how much our federal government spends each year to detain and deport immigrants. Their findings are staggering: funding for these programs, which are housed under the Department of Homeland Security, dwarfs spending on the FBI, the Secret Service, and all other federal law enforcement combined.

What the Migration Policy Institute did not, and could not, quantify was the societal cost we all incur when a routine traffic stop turns a worker’s commute into a one-way trip out of the country she has made her home. The study did not consider the psychological cost we place upon U.S. citizen children whose studies are adversely affected because they worry about whether their mother will be able to pick them up from school.

This report chronicled the rise of a formidable immigration enforcement machine that came to life as a result of the immigration laws of 1986 and 1996, and rapidly expanded in the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedy. This machine has allowed the federal government to deport individuals at unprecedented levels; records show that more than 400,000 people were banished from the country in the last year alone. Among these are tens of thousands of parents, men and women who will now miss birthdays, Thanksgivings, and other celebrations with their children.

Those costs are impossible to estimate: how much is a mother’s presence at a birthday worth? What price would you put on a loved one’s participation in life’s daily challenges and celebrations? These costs extend beyond the immediate family. Each working parent who is deported takes her ability to provide economically for her children with her, removing dollars that would otherwise have been spent in communities and local economies across the country.

A $17.9 billion price tag on federal deportation policies is evidence that our taxpayer dollars are being misallocated and that our priorities as a nation are off. At a time when our nation is about to embark upon a serious immigration reform debate, we must acknowledge that the true cost of these deportation policies will only continue to grow unless we create a process for the 11 million aspiring citizens who live and work in this country to apply for citizenship. We now know what some people’s insatiable appetite for deportations costs, both financially and at societal level, and we should be shocked by the bill.

This is a good jumping-off point for a foray into a discussion that started when commenter BK responded to Bryan Caplan’s recent post by suggesting that a communitarian ethical perspective would provide a justification for migration restrictions. Caplan wrote:

Philosophers emphasize a menagerie of mutually incompatible competing moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, Rawlsianism, egalitarianism, even libertarianism. On immigration, however, all serious moral theories appear to support open borders.

BK replies to this:

Suspiciously wrong. Communitarianism is more popular than libertarianism among philosophers.

John Lee and Vipul Naik both seem to concede the point (I wrote a brief dissent). And that brings me to the quote above. I’m not sure that $17.9 billion– a little over 0.1% of GDP– is too high a price to pay for deportation policies. That is, if someone thinks the moral cost is worth it, I’d be surprised (though glad, I suppose) if someone felt the financial cost was not worth it. Certainly, I’d happily sacrifice 0.1%, or for that matter, 10%… well, actually, since a moral imperative is at stake here, I might as well say, oh I don’t know, 80%… of GDP, to prevent these deportations from happening. The more powerful argument in the article pertains to the intolerable moral cost of separating families by force. And that seems to be precisely a communitarian argument. If anything, it is what I might call the communitarian case against migration restrictions that is the most urgent of all.

I don’t wish, however, to pose as an expert in communitarian philosophy. I assume I haven’t read enough of the relevant authors, though I have read Alasdair MacIntyre, and (not a philosopher exactly) Robert Putnam, on whose recent work I commented here. Yet I do have some communitarian sympathies, and I’ll use an essay I wrote seven and a half years ago as an EconLog comment as an idiosyncratic segue from the individualism characteristic of economics into a more communitarian view of the world. The point of departure is utility theory, of which the essay is both an extension and a critique. You might, if you like, characterize the essay as a communitarian critique of economics. (In those days, I was writing under the pen name “Lancelot Finn.”)

Someday I’d like to write a book entitled Prisoners of the Food Metaphor: Why Economists Misunderstand the World.

After laying the groundwork by reviewing the miraculous power of division of labor, specialization and trade, and economies of scale to better the human condition (an argument mimicking, and updating, that of Adam Smith); after arguing that economies of scale are more important than science in explaining improved human welfare; I then take my experience in the remote Russian republic of Tuva as a starting place for questioning whether we know that humans are better off at all. Continue reading “Communitarianism, open borders, and “prisoners of the food metaphor”” »