Tag Archives: discrimination

My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders

There are a prodigious number of moral arguments for open borders. Openborders.info lists libertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and other types of cases for open borders, with a number of arguments within each category.  What are my favorite arguments for open borders?

Before answering this question, it is important to consider what constitutes a strong argument for open borders. First, it should be logical. Second, it should not be overly complicated, requiring layers of explanation. Finally, it should, in the words of Fabio Rojas, appeal to “basic moral intuition;” it should resonate emotionally. While each of the following arguments may not contain all of these elements, they have at least some of them.

In descending order of strength, here are the three best arguments, in my opinion:

1. Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.

This argument is based on the unfairness that some people are born into poverty in countries that offer little opportunity for them to improve their situations (not to mention that in some of these countries human rights abuses and violent conflict are endemic), while in other countries people are born into relative wealth and have ample opportunities to improve their situations. (For example, the poorest 5% of Americans earn more than 60% of the world’s population. (p. 21) ) Hopefully currently disadvantaged countries will catch up with the advantaged ones, but in the meantime it is unjust to block citizens of disadvantaged countries, through immigration restrictions, from accessing the opportunities available to those born in advanced countries by moving to those advanced countries. Among other negative consequences, restrictions prevent would-be immigrants from benefiting from the place premium, which allows a person from a disadvantaged country to earn much more in an advanced country, even without an increase in the person’s skills. (See also here and here.) An open borders policy addresses the unfairness associated with place of birth, while immigration restrictions maintain it. (Openborders.info communicates the argument thusly: “open borders rectifies a glaring and morally problematic inequality of opportunity based on birthplace.”)

One measure of the argument’s potency is its use by many open borders advocates. Joseph Carens, who made the idea of open borders “intellectually respectable,” states that

In a world of relatively closed borders like ours, citizenship is an inherited status and a source of privilege. Being born a citizen of a rich country in North America or Europe is a lot like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages. It greatly enhances one’s life prospects (even if there are lesser and greater nobles). And being born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is a lot like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages. It greatly limits one’s life chances (even if there are some rich peasants and a few gain access to the nobility)… Is there some story that they [people in rich countries] can tell to the human beings on the other side of this rich-poor divide as to why these existing arrangements are fair? Would they think the arrangements were just if they were in the position of the excluded? I don’t think so.

Using the terms “geographical roulette,” Stephan Faris, author of Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration, likewise notes that “our system of passport controls, immigration restrictions, and closed borders has created a world in which few factors shape a child’s life as much as one she can do nothing about: the flag under which she was born.”  Bryan Caplan of George Mason University states that “when most people are on earth are dealt such a bad hand, to try to stop them from bettering their condition seems a very cruel thing to do to someone.” And R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”

I suggested that this argument is a powerful one in a previous post.  It is logical and simple. It also could appeal to the moral intuition of many, especially Americans, who oppose discrimination against others based on factors they cannot control. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, forbids discriminating against someone based on their skin color or gender, traits that people are born with. As Mr. Caplan asks, “What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else? So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

2. If before you were born you didn’t know where you would be born (and who your parents would be) but could choose what the laws would be, you would choose laws allowing open borders because they could be key to your well-being.

This argument was developed by Mr. Carens. In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” he 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.)

This argument is very logical and probably appeals to the moral intuition (or at least the self-interest) of many people by helping them achieve a global perspective. I have not seen the argument used frequently, however, probably because its logic is somewhat intricate. It was used by John Tierney almost a decade ago in an op-ed calling for expanding immigration to the U.S. Despite its infrequent use, it is a potent case for open borders.

3. Immigrants, like everybody else, have a right to not to be harmfully coerced, and implementation of immigration restrictions constitutes harmful coercion. (Or, in the words of Mr. Caplan, leave people alone so they can go and make something out of their lives.)

This argument was formulated by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”  he argues that 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’ right not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

This argument is logical and straightforward. It is not necessarily morally intuitive, since some people see  government as being in the business of harmful coercion through taxation, regulation, and law enforcement, in order to serve the greater good. The hypothetical of “Starving Marvin” contained in Mr. Huemer’s paper humanizes the argument, however. In the hypothetical, Marvin, a potential immigrant in danger of starvation, seeks food by going to a seller in the U.S. The U.S. government, embodied in a person named Sam, forcibly prevents Marvin from reaching the U.S. Marvin then returns home and dies of starvation.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Mr. Carens and Mr. Huemer include caveats to their arguments indicating that extremely harmful swamping under open borders could override them. (Swamping refers to an immense migration flow in a short period of time.) Unfortunately, dispelling concerns about swamping is not as straightforward as presenting one of the three strong prima facie arguments enumerated in this post, since no one knows with certainty what migration flows might look like under open borders or what the effects of swamping would be, should it occur. Vipul has written posts which dispel concerns about swamping and suggest factors that would limit migration initially after implementing open borders, such as the availability of jobs, wage levels, connections in host countries, and moving arrangements. Declining birth rates in some countries, including Mexico, could be another limiting factor, as could strong ties to one’s home country, as Kevin Johnson suggests. (Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws, p. 27)

One can also look at situations where borders are currently open for clues about migration flows under worldwide open borders. Philippe Legrain, in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, observes that Britain hasn’t been deluged with East Europeans despite the ability of citizens from relatively poor East European countries to come and work there. (p. 328) Mr. Johnson has written that despite the fact that the mainland U.S. has a per capita GDP twice that of Puerto Rico, most Puerto Ricans do not leave (p. 29), although many nations are much poorer relative to the U.S. and about a third of the people born in Puerto Rico have moved to the mainland U.S., which is a significant proportion.

On the other hand, co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his recently published paper “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” writes that “Gallup polls have found that hundreds of millions of people worldwide would like to emigrate permanently. But economic models of open borders tend to predict that billions would actually emigrate.” Nathan suggests that these predictions, while uncertain, “deserve at least to be preferred to whatever casual assumptions may be harbored by untrained minds concerning the question.”

Assuming that billions migrate, Nathan’s research suggests, as does that of others, that world GDP would nearly double and that the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide would rise. The impact on Western countries that receive the bulk of the migration would be mixed, but generally positive: “… unskilled workers would see their wages driven down by competition from immigrants. There would be an enormous boom in investment, and elevated returns on capital for decades, as the world adapted to an enormously expanded effective labor supply.”  Nathan’s predictions about the impact on the U.S. political landscape in a forthcoming post similarly suggest significant changes, but not ones that should cause an open borders policy to be overriden.  Keyhole solutions would also be available to ameliorate the impact on receiving countries.

Uncertainty is always associated with radical policy changes, whether they be the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women. This uncertainty should not prevent doing the right thing, however. The three arguments in this post powerfully show that, in the context of immigration policy, implementing open borders is the right thing to do.

Related reading

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 photograph featured at the top of this post is of West and East German border police confronting each other, moments after a woman successfully crossed the interior German border in Berlin, 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via the Google Cultural Institute.

My reasons for skepticism of linking open borders to legalizing private discrimination

In the world as it stands today, the pro-immigration/pro-immigrant crowd has aligned itself with the anti-discrimination/anti-racist crowd. There is clear common cause in more ways than one:

Many open borders advocates accept or even deploy these arguments, and this helps establish common ground with many mainstream pro-immigration people. However, there is another interesting strain of thought in the open borders movement, stemming from its ideologically libertarian-leaning wing, that affirms the importance of allowing private discrimination. The idea is that freedom of association is of intrinsic value, and forbidding private discrimination interferes with this right. Interestingly, from this perspective, the quest for open borders (specifically framed in terms of the right to migrate and right to invite) and the quest for allowing private discrimination have affinity: both can be justified based on the importance of freedom of association (I discuss this at greater length a little further down in the post, before getting into the implications for open borders).

Now, to be clear, all three positions discussed (open borders, moral opposition to racism and discrimination, and the importance of letting private discrimination be legal) are mutually consistent. Nonetheless, the position that private discrimination should be legal and the view of discimination as morally problematic are connotatively in tension, particularly once we get outside the circle of people with hardcore libertarian beliefs.

An interesting twist to this triad of views was introduced by my co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his blog posts No Irish Need Apply and Private discrimination against immigrants is morally fine, and should be legal and later in a post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook. Nathan argued that allowing private discrimination might be a way to appease people concerned about their ability to avoid (particular types of) immigrants that we’d see more of under open borders. He therefore proposed (open borders + allow private discrimination) as a package deal (in the language of this post of mine, this would qualify as a complementary policy to open borders, though if the legalization of discrimination was restricted to discrimination against immigrants, it would qualify as a keyhole solution in that jargon). In this post, I’ll dissect different arguments of the sort Nathan has articulated and alluded to, and explain my reasons for skepticism of them.

Some background on discrimination

In many contemporary polities, particularly in the United States, opposition to discrimination (particularly along certain dimensions such as race and ethnicity) has attained a moral primacy, at least rhetorically. Philosophically, this has puzzled me. Consider a recent topical category: when incidents of police brutality are reported, there is often significant emphasis on whether the police behavior was discriminatory on the basis of race, often even more so than the question of how justified or excessive the police action was. Racial discrimination was a key theme in discussion of the recent 2015 Texas pool party incident, even though the officer in question had, to begin with, arrested a white girl (this was not part of the viral video, but happened before the video commenced). This led to the weird situation where the officer sought to defend his behavior from charges of racism by pointing out that he had arrested a white girl, even though that arrest too was unjustified.

The emphasis on discrimination can be counterproductive because it can lead to the rejection of Pareto-improving solutions that are discriminatory. In the context of migration, for instance, the expansion of migration quotas or relaxation of migration barriers for people of certain classes or nationalities increases discrimination between potential migrants, even if, overall, it expands human freedom. Reasons of this sort are why those I know who are more hardcore libertarians, as well as more utility-oriented or efficiency-oriented, tend to not give primacy to narratives focused on discrimination. My point here isn’t that hardcore libertarians or utilitarians support discrimination, but rather, that they don’t treat discrimination as a key yardstick by which to judge the morality or desirability of actions.

However, I believe that the focus on discrimination in public discourse is not as irrational or ungrounded as it might appear from a purely philosophical standpoint. I think there are a few reasons for this:

  • It feels awful to be discriminated against, and more generally to be in an environment where you’re constantly wondering whether other people’s behavior toward you is influenced by prejudice: Obviously, in cases where the people who might be discriminating against you are people with a huge amount of authority over you (such as police officers, consular officers, or judges) the feeling is terrible. The fear that they are prejudiced against you, whether justified or not, adds insult to any injury they may inflict on you. But even when the other actors involved have little power over you, the fear that their behavior towards you is based on discrimination for reasons you cannot control, can be demoralizing. My co-blogger Nathan has pointed out in his posts the standard economic wisdom that, even if many people discriminate against a particular race or ethnicity, the material harm to members of that race or ethnicity is minimal as long as there are enough people who don’t discriminate. But despite this small material harm, the psychological damage, even if not debilitating, is nothing to be laughed at. If you know that 20% of restaurants will refuse to serve you due to your race, or that 10% of police officers will stop you for absolutely no reason other than your race and subject you to a time-wasting and humiliating strip search, this detracts from your ability to partake of public life with dignity.
  • In addition to the direct effects of discrimination against those parties being discriminated against (as well as others who my incorrectly believe themselves to be the victims of discrimination) there are also ripple effects on economic and social activity. Some of it might get canceled because of the impediments and inefficiencies created by discrimination. A business might choose not to hire the best employee because of discrimination by its customers against the employee’s race/ethnicity. A group of people might decide not to go to a restaurant or cinema hall that they would have enjoyed, because one member of the group would be barred from the place on account of race or ethnicity.
  • Discrimination, insofar as it largely targets people who lack the relevant kind of power (which may be political, economic, or social) means that the people with the power to change policies are often insulated from the consequences. If police officers behave in humiliating ways only when interacting with people who look young and poor, then those who run city governments and police forces, who tend to be older and richer, may never experience the brunt of humiliating policing. Since these individuals don’t get firsthand experience in the implementation of the policies, they have little incentive to change them. A non-discriminatory and egalitarian approach makes sure that those creating and influencing policies eat their own dog food.

The libertarian perspective, that I largely endorse (although this isn’t an issue that I’m passionate enough about to generally argue in favor of) acknowledges these points, but balances them against these considerations (note that while I try to articulate below a libertarianish view, many libertarians don’t subscribe to it, and many non-libertarians do):

  • In the context of coercive state actors, the libertarian perspective seeks to reduce the coercive, discretionary power that lies with these actors in the first place. The less coercive power these actors have, and the less discretionary leeway the actors have, the less scope there is for them to discriminate in invidious ways, while also reducing abuse of these powers at large. In the context of police abuse, reduced police authority to arbitrarily stop and detain people, the legalization of victimless crimes, and an end to Broken Windows policing-like approaches, reduce the scope for those in authority to harass people at large, and also to do so in a discriminatory fashion.
  • In the context of private discriminators, the libertarian position acknowledges that those discriminated against have experiences ranging from unpleasant to traumatizing. However, the libertarian position still gives importance to freedom of association, even when it leads to bad consequences for others, as long as it does not directly violate their rights. Libertarians also point out that forbidding discrimination can have bad effects not only on those engaged in the odious type of discrimination that is the target of the law but in other, more innocuous, forms of discrimination.

James Joyner articulates the second point well:

Paul’s views are identical to those I held when studying Constitutional Law as an undergrad and not all that far removed from my current position. There’s no question in my mind that private individuals have a right to freely associate, that telling owners of private businesses whom they must serve amounts to an unconstitutional taking, and that it’s none of the Federal government’s business, anyway. Further, in the context of 2010 America, I absolutely think that business owners ought to be able to serve whomever they damned well please — whether it’s a bar owner wishing to cater to smokers, a racist wanting to exclude blacks, or a member of a subculture wishing to carve out a place for members of said subculture to freely associate with only their kind out of purely benign purposes.

The problem, circa 1964, was that there really was not right to freely associate in this manner in much of the country. Even once state-mandated segregation was ended, the community put enormous pressure on business owners to maintain the policy. That meant that, say, a hotel owner who wished to rent rooms without regard to color really weren’t free to do so. More importantly, it meant that, say, a black traveling salesman couldn’t easily conduct his business without an in-depth knowledge of which hotels, restaurants, and other establishments catered to blacks. Otherwise, his life would be inordinately frustrating and, quite possibly, dangerous.

In such an environment, the discrimination is institutionalized and directly affecting interstate commerce. It was therefore not unreasonable for the Federal government to step in using their broad powers under the 14th Amendment. I’m still not sure parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (especially the issue in question here) or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (especially treating individual states differently from others) are strictly Constitutional. But they were necessary and proper in the context of the times.

The problem that libertarians and strict Constitutionalists have, however, is that precedents set under extreme and outrageous conditions are often applied to routine and merely inconvenient ones. (Or, as the old adage goes, “Hard cases make bad law.”) Once someone’s private business is transformed by fiat into a “public accommodation,” there’s precious little limit to what government can do with it. Requiring private individuals to treat black people with a modicum of human dignity is one thing and dictating what kind of oil they can cook their French fries in or how much salt they can put on them is quite another. But, in principle, they’re not much different.

Piyo draws parallels between freedom of association and freedom of speech, noting the irrationality in how people unequivocally defend freedom of speech while treating defense of freedom of association as anathema:

I confess that I’ve always found this controversy rather puzzling. Consider the following two propositions:

1. A citizen should be allowed to promote white supremacy and racial segregation in a personal blog, in a book, in flyers that he hands out on street corners, to his children, or among his neighbors at weekly meetings at his home

2. A citizen should be allowed to refuse service to non-whites at his store

I find it incredibly odd that believing #1 is considered normal, enlightened, and mainstream, while believing #2 is considered crazy at best and mega-, KKK/slave-owning/Django-level racist at worst. In fact, judging from the controversy over Paul’s stance, I think many or most people believe that it is totally impossible to believe #2 without being racist. Don’t get me wrong; I can easily imagine a reasonable set of beliefs that would lead a person to agree with #1 and disagree with #2. However, I can’t imagine how everyone seems to believe the following

3. #1 is obviously true and everyone should believe so, and #2 is obviously false, and anyone who disagrees is either evil or being willfully ignorant.

I can think of two reasons why a person might confidently believe that #2 is false. Unfortunately, neither of these theories explain the widespread belief in #3.

[…]

More reasonable, I think, is to conclude that almost nobody’s attitude toward #1 or #2 is based on any kind of ratiocination. Through a combination of historical accident and the all-powerful status quo bias, endorsing #1 has become a way to express to others that you, too, value freedom, and rejecting #2 has become a way of expressing that you, too, think racism is bad. If you hold these beliefs, then you’re part of our “group”.

For more discussion of the libertarian perspective on discrimination and some pushback to it, see this Cato Unbound discussion of the subject.

UPDATE: In an email, reproduced with permission, Nathan responds to my point about it being awful to be discriminated against:

The place where I had least sympathy with the argument was where you talked about being discriminated against and how horrible it feels. I can see why it would be pretty bad to be in the position of African Americans before the civil rights movement, when widespread discrimination was enforced by a sinister conspiracy of the law with the domestic terrorists of the KKK, and when most of the population discriminated against you so that your opportunities to flourish in life were severely limited by discrimination on every side, and when discrimination did seem to be motivated by hatred. But I can’t see how it would be so bad to suffer from occasional statistical discrimination not motivated by hatred. Suppose a taxi cab driver were to tell me, “Sorry, it’s nothing personal, but I don’t pick up young men in this part of town, because young men commit most of the crime, and I only have to pick up the wrong fare once, and my wife’s a widow.” If I needed the cab that would be inconvenient of course, but I wouldn’t feel profoundly insulted. I’d feel sorry for the guy for being in such a risky job and earnestly hope and pray for his safety. The notion that it’s an intolerable indignity to be discriminated against, but it’s NOT an intolerable indignity to be forced by the government and its anti-discrimination laws to open one’s home or business to people one doesn’t like or approve of, seems utterly insane. If it feels so horrible to be discriminated against today, even when it causes negligible inconvenience, I suspect that’s either because we’ve been brainwashed into thinking discrimination is the root of all evil, or because what certain groups (LGBT especially) really want is to coerce people to APPROVE of them, a common motive among those who have power. Discrimination against LGBT is an expression of disapproval and as such must be suppressed.

Bryan Caplan’s weighing of the relative importance of immigration restrictions and anti-discrimination law

In a blog post titled Association, Exclusion, Liberty, and the Status Quo, Bryan Caplan, who supports both open borders and an end to anti-discrimination laws, compared the importance of the issues:

I don’t deny that laws against exclusion occasionally have important effects. But their main effect in the modern U.S. economy isn’t to reduce exclusion, but to pressure businesses to either overpay or avoid hiring workers who can easily sue for “discrimination.”

Now consider regulations on the freedom of association. Many are marginal, too. Not much would change if you legalized gay marriage or polygamy; they’re just niche markets. But one class of regulations has a massive effect: immigration laws. Indeed, they probably have a bigger effect than all other regulations combined.

It’s simple. Billions of people around the world live on a few dollars a day or less. Under open borders, tens of millions of them would migrate to the U.S. every year. Remember: Even if you’re an illiterate peasant from Bangladesh, credit markets and/or employers would be happy to front the money for airfare.

This immigration flow wouldn’t stabilize until real estate prices massively increased and low-skilled wages drastically declined. The U.S. population could easily increase by 50% in a decade. New cities would blanket the country. The level of output would skyrocket – and its composition would rapidly change, too. Whether you love this vision or hate it, you can’t deny that free association would radically and rapidly reshape the face of America.

I’m as supportive of the right to exclude as anyone. But current restrictions on this right are pretty minor. There are plenty of ways for markets to engineer exclusion, and there’s not much demand for greater stringency. In contrast, restrictions on the right to associate are massive, and there is enormous pent-up demand to migrate. Hundreds of millions of people want to move here, landlords want to rent to them, employers want to hire them – but the law won’t allow it.

Contrary to my conservative friend, then, libertarians aren’t the ones with a blind spot. He is. While restrictions on exclusion are occasionally irksome, they rarely ruin lives. Immigration laws, in contrast, usually condemn their victims to life – and often early death – in the Third World. Libertarians rightly emphasize the freedom to associate, because the status quo’s restrictions on exclusion are minor and mild – and the status quo’s restrictions on association are massive and monstrous.

A closer look at the link between legalizing private discrimination and open borders

Here’s Nathan’s Open Borders Action Group Facebook post (which is the most recent formulation of his view, though his previous blog posts are also worth reading):

Would it be useful to the open borders movement to roll back anti-discrimination laws? Consider the following argument, made to a nativist: “Hey, if YOU don’t like immigrants, fine, you don’t have to do associate with them. But stop interfering with those of us who DO want to associate with them.” This argument needs refining, but I think some form of it could have a lot of force if it weren’t for “public accommodation” laws that force all residents of the US to integrate. As long as so-called “anti-discrimination” laws are in place (misnamed of course since for now discrimination against undocumented immigrants is not only allowed but mandated), this argument doesn’t work very well, since the government might force you to hire immigrants. In effect, the current policy choice is whether discrimination against the foreign-born should be mandatory or illegal, whereas of course, the sensible middle way is to make it voluntary. But to get to it, we’d have to legalize discrimination. Now, I’m hopeful that the attack on religious freedom by the LGBT lobby will backfire and lead to a general revival of tolerance and freedom of association, as the absurdity of having the government force people to bake a cake for a “wedding” they don’t morally approve of, forces us to revisit some deep ethical mistakes we’ve been making for the past generation. If this happens, would it help the open borders cause?

There are several different flavors of the argument, that I’ll list before opining:

  1. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more philosophically defensible than it is now.
  2. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more philosophically defensible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.
  3. If private discrimination were legalized first, the open borders position would be more practically feasible than it is now.
  4. The (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible than mere opening of the borders, while private discrimination continues to remain illegal.

I agree with the view (1): the freedom-based arguments for open borders make more sense in a world where people are freer to not associate with immigrants if they so choose, and the other arguments are largely unaffected. I think the change to the strength of open borders isn’t too huge, largely because of the reasons that Caplan articulated in his post that I quoted above.

I also agree (weakly) with (2): bundling open borders with a broader expansion of the freedom to associate (and exclude) would be more philosophically defensible than merely opening the borders. However, unlike (1), (2) only applies from the perspective of the libertarian case. Those whose reasons for supporting open borders are more egalitarian might well disagree with (2). If you agree with Caplan’s post, however, the effect size either way is relatively small.

This leaves (3) and (4), the questions of practical feasibility. Regarding (3), I believe that there are good arguments on both sides, and I think ultimately it will depend on the details of the societal changes that lead to a relaxation or termination of anti-discrimination laws in the first place. However, I am very skeptical of (4). I don’t think an (open borders + allow private discrimination) package deal is more practically feasible. I don’t think those keen to see open borders become a reality should attempt to draft such a deal or push for it. I think the main benefit of discussing such a combination, apart from the philosophical clarity it offers, is that if somehow the circumstances changed and such a deal became the main way to proceed with open borders, then our thoughts on the issue would be clearly fleshed out.

I’ll begin by elaborating on (3). Why might anti-discrimination laws, such as those surrounding public accommodations in the United States, be repealed or relaxed? I believe there are three broad categories of reasons:

  1. The moral argument for the freedom to associate and exclude gains widespread acceptance.
  2. Efficiency-based arguments against such laws take force. This could be helped by public outrage or disgust at what is perceived as spurious use of anti-discrimination laws.
  3. People interested in discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or some other criterion push for the changes, and their views become influential among the public or among policymakers.

I think that, if (1) is the prime mover for the change in laws, there is a decent chance that public opinion would have also shifted more in favor of freer migration, and Nathan’s logic might then accentuate the effect. In the case of (2), public opinion may remain largely unchanged on migration, but Nathan’s logic might help tip it slightly more in favor of free migration. However, in the case of (3), I think it’s quite likely that public opinion will be more hostile to immigration than before. Even if Nathan’s logic serves to counter that somewhat, I think the net effect would still be in a significantly restrictionist direction. I think that, given what we know today about public opinion, in the highly unlikely event that anti-discrimination law is repealed, this is more likely to happen because of reason (3) than because of the other two reasons (though I expect the overall chances of such repeal as pretty low, so this is merely an academic observation).

Finally, as for (4), the reason I’m skeptical is that, in the present day, there isn’t really a large coalition (outside of hardcore libertarians and efficiency-oriented folks) who support the repeal of anti-discrimination law out of a love of true freedom, as opposed to a desire to facilitate discrimination per se. And, outside of libertarians, people have trouble separating private action from government-enforced action. So, this bundle wouldn’t really appeal to many people, and in addition, means that open borders advocates might lose the support of the broader, mainstream, pro-immigrant people.

John Lee offers a detailed response to Nathan’s Facebook post that I largely endorse:

While this is an interesting idea, I don’t see how you would be able to build a political coalition around both liberalising migration and repealing anti-discrimination laws. I’m skeptical that xenophobes would tolerate having more immigrants around if they were allowed to discriminate against them; I mean, I’m persuadable that their opposition to open borders might diminish somewhat, but I don’t think it’d go away.

A lot of the costs that people complain about as far as integration goes have to do with things that anti-discrimination law doesn’t really meaningfully impact: pressing 1 for English, overhearing funny languages in public, not being able to ask for directions in a strange neighbourhood where nobody looks like you or can speak your own language, etc. Repealing anti-discrimination laws solves for essentially none of these xenophobic complaints.

(Technically repealing anti-discrimination law might partially solve for the “press 1” complaint since that’s to some degree a policy caused by public accommodation laws, but in a free market operating in a diverse society, a lot of companies would naturally provide multilingual servicing anyway. Malaysia and Singapore don’t have meaningful anti-discrimination laws but multilingual servicing is omnipresent in the market because of how diverse their societies are.)

As an aside, this idea is not even applicable outside the Western world; to Christopher’s point, I don’t think this is a “reform” that can be bundled into anything in Asia or Africa, perhaps even Latin America, because most non-Western countries don’t have much anti-discrimination laws to speak of. Speaking from my experience, it’s common to see classified ads in Malaysia and Singapore specifying that they won’t accept job candidates or tenants of particular sexes or genders. (Recently some companies have tried to capitalise on public distaste for these kinds of ads by running ads which explicitly state that they don’t discriminate.)

Now to be sure, introduction of new anti-discrimination laws to these non-Western societies would spur blowback, and I would generally advise against trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms with new anti-discrimination laws in these societies. But that’s separate from trying to bundle liberal immigration reforms w/ anti-discrimination legislation repeals in societies that already have these laws.

He later writes:

[T]he reality of mood affiliation makes me skeptical that one could build a coherent political coalition aligned on just these two things without that coalition consisting pretty much entirely of libertarians.

A couple of my comments in the thread are also relevant, and I quote them below:

I don’t think that the repeal of such legislation would make the world more friendly to open borders: your argument for would be balanced by an argument against, namely that the legitimization of discrimination as morally acceptable might make people more forthright about using it as a basis for public policy (given that people generally have trouble keeping private preferences out of the domain of government-enforced public policy).

“But I don’t think there’s any point in pitching an advocacy strategy to such numbskulls. If mankind is as stupid as that, we won’t make any headway. Fortunately, mankind does sometimes exhibit a capacity to think such moderately subtle thoughts as, “Discrimination against the foreign-born should be legal for private individuals but not be mandated by law.””

Most people would be able to understand this idea if they tried hard enough, but people aren’t generally inclined to put in a lot of effort into evaluating political positions. In general, I would expect that a move that legitimizes private discrimination would be seen (by the general public) as a signal that discrimination is more acceptable both in private and in public policy. At the same time, the people you are most trying to appease with such a policy are likely to not stop at private discrimination anyway.

Conclusion

Discrimination is hurtful, both directly when it’s done, and indirectly because of the fear and inefficiency it creates in society. However, freedom of association and exclusion are important values. Libertarian-leaning people (including myself) think that under most circumstances, private discrimination should remain legal. There may be exceptional circumstances where the harm from discrimination is severe enough to infringe on people’s freedom of association and exclusion. Some people sympathetic to the overall libertarian argument have argued that the post-1964 Jim Crow South presented such an exceptional circumstance, but the present day is not similarly exceptional, so legalizing private discrimination in the modern era is okay.

From a libertarian philosophical perspective, that I largely endorse, repealing some anti-discrimination laws make the case for open borders stronger, insofar as open borders will mean dealing more with a wider range of people. However, as a practical matter, I don’t think it makes sense to try to push for a deal packaging open borders with such repeal. If such a deal emerged as the most feasible way to push for more liberal migration, it might be worth supporting.

Related reading

These links are offered in addition to the numerous inline links in the post.

What part of “immoral” don’t you understand?

A common retort to suggestions that our governments regularise the status of irregular immigrants is that these people are “criminals”, they’re “illegal”, and just what part of illegal don’t I understand? The mainstream immigration reform has adopted this rhetoric too, even if they claim to reject it; the rhetoric of US President Obama (who at the time I write just announced a deferral of deportation for some few million migrants) and others has been chock full of insistence that irregular immigrants owe a debt to society, that they ought to do some sort of penance — perhaps pay a fine — in return for any sort of regularisation. In short, the mainstreamers say that they do understand that these migrants are “illegal”, and that they do intend to punish them — just not as badly as the hardcore restrictionists want.

I see no justice in this. As co-blogger Joel Newman says, our governments owe irregular migrants an apology, not a fine. Make no mistake about it: if you’ve done something wrong, if you’ve injured someone or taken someone’s property, you ought to pay the price. But if all you’ve done is an honest day’s work, if all you’ve lived in is a home you’ve paid the price for, then there is nothing to punish you for. Living in the shadows our government forced you into for dreaming of a better future for yourself and a family was more than punishment enough.

The persistent, shrill cries of “what part of illegal don’t you understand?” are pretty blind to the meaning of the term “illegal” in the first place. For instance, most of these people don’t seem aware that it’s not a crime to be present without a lawful immigration status in the US; this is such basic legal knowledge that it didn’t make any headlines when the Supreme Court acknowledged this in an aside as part of a larger ruling on immigration law. For another, most of these people routinely break the law and get indignant when it is actually enforced against them. Just witness the furore when bicyclists are ticketed for cycling on the sidewalk, or when drivers are caught speeding by automated cameras. If committing unlawful acts in the course of ordinary business makes immigrants “illegal”, that makes everyone “illegal”.

Now of course people will say immigration law is on a special plane of existence, something that deserves far more respect than menial traffic laws. Sure. I simply say: let the punishment fit the crime.

The consensus is that half of all undocumented migrants in the US entered lawfully at a border checkpoint, and simply took up residence or employment in violation of the terms of their visa. There is no crime in paying rent for a residence, and no crime in searching for work. If an immigrant applying for my job is stealing from me, then who did I steal from when I applied for the job I hold now? Is it only a crime when immigrants do it?

These undocumented migrants should be punished appropriately for any actual crimes they have committed. If they drove drunk, if they shoplifted, if they committed welfare fraud, whatever — they should do the time, and pay the fine. But they should not be deported or excluded from the country they call home. As long as they are willing to accept the laws of their new home, and accept the punishments of these laws, they should be allowed to stay. They entered legally. The most they should be required to do to stay is fill out a basic form, and submit to legal proceedings for any other unpunished crimes in their past. Innocent immigrants who have done nothing worse than pay rent and earn honest wages deserve an apology for the persecution that our laws unjustly put them through.

As for the other half who entered without inspection at a border checkpoint, they should submit to a screening comparable to what they would have gone through at the border, and register with the authorities. Again, the idea is to make restitution for the original offense. The original offense, in legal parlance, was “entering without inspection”. So let the punishment fit the crime.

But it wouldn’t be fair, you might say. What about all the immigrants waiting in line? Well, whose fault is it that they are waiting in that line? Isn’t it your fault that the government you elected made crappy laws which have kept out all these innocent immigrants, and forced them to choose between waiting in a line that will never end (literally: some visa categories have backlogs that exceed 80 years), or migrating illegally?

I do agree it is not fair to do amnesties in a one-off manner. It is not fair to the good people who want to immigrate legally, but who are banned from doing so by irrational quotas and queues. It is also not fair to all of us who are harmed by the bad apples, the actual criminals, who either hide amongst the innocents in the undocumented population, or worse, take advantage of these migrants’ warranted fear of the government to abuse and exploit them.

Many governments — such as those of France and Germany, to name a couple you may have heard of — do not do one-off amnesties; instead, anyone who migrated illegally but who has otherwise complied with the law for a sufficient length of time is allowed to register with the government and become a legal immigrant. If we can’t have open borders, let’s at least allow anyone who has proven their commitment and loyalty to our laws to come out into the open and register as a law-abiding member of our community. That’s the fair thing to do, instead of having these one-offs.

But at the end of the day, if being fair to those immigrants in line is what bothers you so much, well — it’s the line your government created. The absurdity of having queues backlogged such that people applying today would have to wait an entire human lifetime to get their application approved is something only a government could create. The problem isn’t those good people forced to choose between waiting in line versus entering by other means to rejoin their families or seek gainful employment. The problem is your government and the stupid laws it made up.

Now, those laws aren’t stupid you might say. I agree: to the extent that they protect us from criminals, contagious disease outbreaks, and other harms, they are good laws. But to the extent that they “protect” us from people who just want to pay the market price to live in a safe home and work in a functioning economy, they are bad laws. To the extent that they treat someone whose ambition is to earn minimum wage washing dishes 18 hours a day as if he’s the scum of the earth, they are evil laws.

I’ve written before that the best way to secure the US’s border with Mexico would be to open it. Drug lords and slave traffickers rely on being able to disguise themselves among the masses of innocent people crawling through sewers to rejoin their families; let those innocent people buy bus tickets instead of paying thousands to coyotes, and where will the criminals hide? Restrictionists scoff at the idea of these immigrants being innocent — but you tell me, where’s the sense in treating someone who just wants to mop your floors for minimum wage as if he is the equivalent of a murderous drug trafficker?

I understand the intuition that one should comply with the law, and that failing to comply with the law generally marks you as a bad person — somewhere on the scale between reckless and just plain criminal. But this intuition only works for laws where the burden of compliance applies equally to everyone. Everyone knows what it means to not steal. But does everyone know what it means to comply with immigration law?

I would bet anyone that the majority of citizens of any country have no idea how the typical migrant in their country should comply with their own country’s immigration laws. Why should any of us know? All we ever did to comply with the law was be born. We didn’t have to do anything else, just slide out of the right person’s uterus at the right time, on the right soil.

Anyone in the US who has ever been in trouble with their taxes should know the feeling: you did everything right, and yet apparently your filing was still illegal — the government says you didn’t pay enough taxes. US tax law is so complicated that in some cases even the Internal Revenue Service throws up its hands and admits it doesn’t know what the law says. Yet for all your trouble, the public lambasts you as a tax evader, blasts you for not paying your fair share. And that is pretty rich, when virtually everyone who files taxes has likely fallen afoul of some technicality in the law (did you really report on your tax return the $20 in income you earned from that casual bar bet with your cousin?).

Multiply this frustration a few hundred times over and you can imagine the frustration of complying with immigration law. Some of the best, most honest and decent people I have personally known have been “illegal”. In some cases they didn’t even realise it until after the fact: as a student, your visa bans you from working more than a certain number of hours. Exceed the limit, and bam, you’re “illegal”. In other cases, delays or government processing issues while you’re transitioning from one visa type to another mean that you can “fall out of status” until your new visa is approved. Bam! Illegal.

And these are the lucky ones: they were already present in the US, and nobody could conveniently detect they’d committed these violations of immigration law. Usually nobody would ever be the wiser that they had, for a period of time, been “illegal”. Millions more such innocent people are trapped in the unlucky position of either waiting decades in line, or just jumping a fence that shouldn’t be keeping them out in the first place. Long wait times for immigrants to the US aren’t unusual; they’re the norm. Stories of the insanity of immigration law are a dime a dozen: see this, this, this, or this.

But how many citizens know of this? They know nothing, of course: the law has nothing to do with them. They can feel free to demand 100% compliance with the law, because they will always be 100% compliant. All they have to do is breathe. It’s pretty easy to follow the law when you have to do nothing. How can you demand people follow the law when you yourself have no idea what the law demands, and you yourself don’t have to do anything to comply with it?

I am making no claim to perfection here. As a Malaysian, I have no idea what laws the foreigners living in my country have to comply with. When people ask me about how easy it is for foreigners to live in Malaysia, all I can say is “Well I saw a lot of them in my junior college so I think it’s pretty easy to come in”. I honestly have no freaking idea what our visa laws are; I have no reason or incentive to, because by definition, it is impossible for me to ever break the law!

Claims that “Well, my ancestors followed the law” ring pretty hollow. After all, what laws did your ancestors follow? In the case of most Americans, their ancestors immigrated legally because all you had to do to immigrate was not be Chinese. If by definition it is impossible for you or your ancestors to have broken the law, then it is pretty rich of you to insist that you know exactly what laws others should comply with. Yet people often pretend they know exactly what the laws are, and blame the victims of these abusive laws for not submitting to their unwarranted punishment.

Anti-Chinese poster

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you want people to prove their loyalty and knowledge of your country by passing a test, then why don’t you subject yourself to that same test? Why not? Didn’t your schooling prepare you for that test?

If millions of ordinary people can waste 20 years of their adult lives waiting for government permission to pay rent and apply for jobs, why not you? What makes you so special? Isn’t it unfair to others who did wait those decades in line, who actually complied with the bullshit hoops your government made them jump through? Your ancestors didn’t jump through those hoops — so don’t you owe it to them to follow the law on their behalf?

And so on you go, railing against “amnesty”, even though there’s a good chance if you are American that you are only here today thanks to an amnesty your ancestors arguably didn’t deserve. I refer, of course, to that time some of your ancestors took up arms in violent rebellion against the lawful government of the United States, and were rewarded with an unconditional amnesty for their trouble.

At the end of the day, there is nothing that makes sense about most immigration laws. A handful of restrictions actually target terrorists, criminals, or contagious disease carriers. The rest of these laws just treat people who want to pay market rent for a safe home and the chance to earn the market wage for honest work as though they are criminals for doing the same things as everyone else. There is no sense in treating a minimum wage cook like a cutthroat, and there is no justice.

The real question isn’t what part of illegal don’t I understand; I’m well aware that, at least far as my own country goes, I don’t understand, because I have no reason to! No matter how many laws I break or how many wrongs I commit, I’ll always be in compliance with Malaysia’s immigration laws.

The real question is, what part of “illegal” do you understand at all? You don’t understand any of it. You don’t know what it’s like to be worried that accidentally working one extra hour a week this semester might mean that you’ll get deported. You don’t know what it’s like to earn pennies a day, banned from earning the dollars which your hard work could easily earn you because this year, only 23 people from your country of millions will be given work permits.

The persistence in which people pretend that complying with the law is no burden, that if their ancestors could do it then so can anyone else, truly boggles the mind. Laws which ban parents from paying to put a roof over their children’s heads and ban dutiful children from sending home money to care for their aging parents criminalise the virtues we so often commend to ourselves. What can this be, if not hypocritical injustice? Let me ask you — what part of “immoral” don’t you understand?