Tag Archives: double world GDP

What open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can teach each other

I’ve recently been reading the scholarly literature on migration and development. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize my understanding of important ways in which researchers in the area are similar to and important ways that they differ from open borders advocates. Then, I’ll discuss what I think both sides can learn from each other.

For examples of the sort of things I’ve been reading, consider this 2007 report for the Department for International Development in the UK, this article on labor migration in India, the World Bank People Move blog, and the websites of KNOMAD and Migrating out of Poverty.

Who are the migration and development scholars who’ve explicitly endorsed radically freer migration?

Some scholars of migration and development are quite sympathetic to the logic of open borders, want the world to move as far as possible in that direction, and explicitly say so. One example is Michael Clemens. While he has expressed some terminological disagreement with “open borders” as a term, he accepts the basic moral logic, he’s all for the main aspects of open borders, and he supports moving as far in that direction as is feasible. Clemens is a co-creator of the place premium and income per natural concepts. He has raised the status in the economic development community of the idea that development is about people, not places. And he wrote the paper that prompted Bryan Caplan to come up with the double world GDP slogan. Note that Clemens isn’t famous solely as a migration researcher; he has also been at the forefront of critiquing some aspects of the Millennium Villages Project.

Another migration scholar who’s expressed considerable sympathy for the open borders position is Lant Pritchett. Pritchett co-authored the place premium paper with Clemens, and has also written a book advocating for freer migration. Pritchett is a renowned development economist who has done considerable work on many areas unrelated to migration, including the return to schooling worldwide and the relation between desired and actual fertility and the importance of contraception to fertility reduction.

How has the community of development scholars changed its views on migration?

I haven’t been able to get a very clear picture, but it seems to me that the international development community as a whole used to be more hostile to migration as a poverty reduction strategy, but they are now more open to it. The following are some general observations:

  • Brain drain was considered a major argument against migration among development scholars, but the balance of the evidence in recent years has moved scholars to the view that the problem is not severe, with many scholars believing that brain circulation and idea flows can be beneficial on net.
  • Historically, the dominant view in the international development community has been similar to the view of many mainstream moderate pro-immigration people that John Lee described here, namely, that migration is not natural, that barriers to it are natural, and that removing migration barriers creates an artificial subsidy encouraging people to move. They’ve also taken the view that suggesting migration as a solution to poverty is essentially a cop-out that accepts defeat in tackling the harder problem of how to get countries to develop. These views again seem to be declining somewhat. It’s more common now for development scholars to consider migration a legitimate part of a strategy that can facilitate improvements in the living conditions of people who migrate and people who stay behind.
  • Dilip Ratha’s work on remittances (see also this New York Times article) got people more interested in the idea that migration can benefit the people who are left behind. Robert Guest’s book on the importance of diasporas encapsulates the growing recognition among migration scholars of how migration can benefit people everywhere, not just those who migrate.

Some other people weighed in on the topic on the comments on this post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook.

How do the mainstream migration and development scholars differ from open borders advocates in their views and in their rhetorical emphasis?

In general, mainstream scholars of migration and development are quite similar to the mainstream moderate pro-immigration people John Lee described. In some respects, however, the scholars of migration and development come closer to the open borders position. In particular, compared to mainstream pro-immigration people, and perhaps even compared to some open borders advocates, they differ in these respects:

  • They have a clearer understanding of what poverty and wealth mean, and how rich and poor people are in different parts of the world. And they confront these facts on a regular basis in their work, so it’s harder for them to simply brush these under the carpet. Even somebody like Paul Collier, who wrote the book Exodus that took a lukewarm stance to migration, showed clear understanding and concern about just how big the differences in living standards are.
  • Even if they don’t use the term, they understand the concept of the place premium — the idea that an individual can improve his or her earnings just by crossing borders, with no change in skills, and that much of this improvement is attributable to differences in the value of what the person produces rather than a result of labor legislation or government redistribution.
  • They understand that governments often pander to nativist, citizenist, and territorialist sentiments to an extent that goes beyond what they think is morally appropriate, and also that the sentiments they are pandering to often rely on misguided economic logic. They themselves personally lean more universalist, sometimes in the additive utilitarian sense, sometimes in the egalitarian sense.
  • Even if they’re not themselves libertarians, the libertarian argument in favor of the right to migrate is something that stands out to them more than it does to moderate pro-immigration folks who haven’t thought much about international development. To them, it’s not just an armchair hypothetical. They are also aware of arguments based on human capabilities, even if they haven’t encountered the explicit framework.

On the other hand, they still differ from us “tear down the borders” folks:

  • Their more laser-like focus on poverty alleviation can make them seem somewhat lacking in moral qualms as they discuss issues of optimal migration policy, even when they favor freer migration.
  • Even when they do favor dismantling border controls or other regulations, they’ll frame it in language that suggests more government management of migration. For instance, a concrete recommendation like “get rid of Know Your Customer regulations that forbid migrants from opening bank accounts” would be framed as “facilitate migrant access to banking through reform in Know Your Customer regulations.”
  • Many of their recommendations are focused on strengthening existing patterns of migration that already exist, rather than on loosening border controls that could facilitate new patterns of migration. This may be partly because they’re too anchored to the status quo to consider radical changes. More defensibly, diaspora dynamics suggests that it’s easier to facilitate the expansion of existing migration patterns than create new ones.
  • Related to the preceding, migration and development scholars are a lot more focused on intranational migration as well as international migration among low-income countries and between low-income and middle-income countries.
  • For policy questions, migration and development scholars concentrate their energies on thinking about how to tweak existing systems rather than coming up with new systems from scratch (such as DRITI).
  • Migration and development scholars are very focused on other aspects of the welfare of migrants that are not directly related to open borders. These include migrant childrens’ access to schools, migrants’ access to government-provided and private sector services, and facilitation of communication between migrants and their relatives back home.

What can open borders advocates learn from migration scholars?

Here are some things I believe open borders advocates should learn from migration scholars:

  • More attention to the actual experiences of poor people who migrate: Open borders isn’t purely about poor people, and in particular I believe that there will be a strong imperative for open borders even in a world without poverty. But certainly, freer migration should be an important part of the toolkit to end poverty, and the current state of world poverty considerably raises the importance of the issue. To the extent that open borders advocates are interested in the issue not just theoretically but at a practical level, a closer empirical look at how poor people fare under migration is warranted. Migration and development scholars spend a large part of their life thinking about poverty, and we can be inspired to spend at least a few hours on it.
  • More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: Open borders advocacy can sometimes seem like too much speculation about something that doesn’t exist at all. And to an extent, that’s right: open borders across a huge place premium (of 5X or more) hasn’t happened. But it might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus more on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

What can migration scholars learn from open borders advocates?

I think migration scholars can also take a few lessons from open borders advocates:

  • The moral case for free migration matters. It’s the foundation of everything else. Make the case boldly wherever possible.
  • It helps to consider the radical proposal that is open borders, and ask just how far one can get there. Bold policy changes can be useful to consider, even if they aren’t possible to directly implement. It’s not good to stay anchored to the present all the time.
  • When advocating for reductions in government restrictions on migration, it may make sense to not obfuscate this with the “more government management of migration” language. Further, in cases where the optimal policy comes very close to complete deregulation, consider advocating complete principled deregulation instead of trying to target the specific optimal policy. Complete principled deregulation, even if not optimal on paper, leaves less room for governments to re-institute the counterproductive controls seen in current policy.

The photograph of an open borders campaigner at the top of this post was taken by Jonathan McIntosh at a rally in Los Angeles, California, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Implications of embracing low-end estimates of the global economic impact of open borders

Carl Shulman’s recent post on upward and downward biases in the double world GDP estimates, as well as Nathan’s (forthcoming) post proposing his own model, led me to start thinking about the extent to which the case for open borders is tied to uncertain claims about the economic effects, and whether pushing the “double world GDP” idea as a slogan is epistemically unsound.

One can make a case that high estimates of the global effect of open borders have value in getting people initially interested in the subject, and that once they’re sufficiently invested they will not change their mind even if they learn that the estimates were too high. Indeed, something similar seems to have happened with the growth of the effective altruism movement: initial estimates of the money you needed to donate to save a life were in the range of a few hundred dollars, whereas current estimates are over 2000 dollars, and still rising. Jacob Steinhardt described this in his critique of effective altruism:

The history of effective altruism is littered with over-confident claims, many of which have later turned out to be false. In 2009, Peter Singer claimed that you could save a life for $200 (and many others repeated his claim). While the number was already questionable at the time, by 2011 we discovered that the number was completely off. Now new numbers were thrown around: from numbers still in the hundreds of dollars (GWWC’s estimate for SCI, which was later shown to be flawed) up to $1600 (GiveWell’s estimate for AMF, which GiveWell itself expected to go up, and which indeed did go up). These numbers were often cited without caveats, as well as other claims such as that the effectiveness of charities can vary by a factor of 1,000. How many people citing these numbers understood the process that generated them, or the high degree of uncertainty surrounding them, or the inaccuracy of past estimates? How many would have pointed out that saying that charities vary by a factor of 1,000 in effectiveness is by itself not very helpful, and is more a statement about how bad the bottom end is than how good the top end is?

People who may have been attracted initially by the lowball estimates have generally tended not to leave, perhaps due to an endowment effect or status quo bias, or because they found more compelling and robust reasons to stay once they became effective altruists.

On the other hand, “too-good-to-be-true” estimates can also make it difficult to get people to take the cause seriously in the first place, and can also lead to people getting disillusioned once they realize the estimates won’t work, thereby throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. As Carl Shulman wrote in the context of effective altruism estimates:

Mainly, I think it’s bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don’t correct them, then the community’s credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened. This is why GiveWell goes ballistic on people who go around quoting its old cost-effectiveness estimates rather than more recent ones (revisions tend to be towards less cost-effectiveness).

I have listed above some of the strategic pros and cons of embracing overly optimistic estimates, but I am personally more interested in the epistemic question of the extent to which the case for open borders, or for migration liberalization in general, hinges on the magnitude of the estimates, and what a reasonable case for open borders, and for open borders advocacy, might be in the lowball scenario.

Let’s first look at the lowball scenario. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that Clemens does in his literature review paper (Pages 84-85) (emphasis mine):

Should these large estimated gains from an expansion of international migration outrage our economic intuition, or after some consideration, are they at least plausible? We can check these calculations on the back of the metaphorical envelope. Divide the world into a “rich” region, where one billion people earn $30,000 per year, and a “poor” region, where six billion earn $5,000 per year. Suppose emigrants from the poor region have lower productivity, so each gains just 60 percent of the simple earnings gap upon emigrating—that is, $15,000 per year. This marginal gain shrinks as emigration proceeds, so suppose that the average gain is just $7,500 per year.
If half the population of the poor region emigrates, migrants would gain $23 trillion—which is 38 percent of global GDP. For nonmigrants, the outcome of such a wave of migration would have complicated effects: presumably, average wages would rise in the poor region and fall in the rich region, while returns to capital rise in the rich region and fall in the poor region. The net effect of these other changes could theoretically be negative, zero, or positive. But when combining these factors with the gains to migrants, we might plausibly imagine overall gains of 20–60 percent of global GDP.

This 20-60% comes under assumptions that I think would seem reasonable to many critics of migration. For instance, it largely accords with the assumption of no closing of the skills gap between migrants and natives. Also, it doesn’t consider the long term (the children of migrants getting better education and therefore having more human capital than their counterfactuals in the home country). So it does not rely on beliefs about the closing of skill level and achievement gaps, which are controversial among many critics of migration. In particular, if you believe in intergenerational persistence of these gaps, the above estimation exercise should still seem reasonable to you. The only thing the above doesn’t account for is a radical form of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs (note that the lower end of the 20-60% estimate already accounts for moderate forms of goose-killing, as the original point estimate is 38%). So, setting such radical goose-killing aside for now as an important possibility worth separate investigation, let’s look at the 20-60% estimate. What would it mean?

The pessimistic end of the estimate, 20%, is still more than three times the total of the highest literature estimate of the gains from removing trade barriers and the gains from removing barriers to capital mobility (4.1% + 1.7% = 5.8%) among the papers cited by Clemens. So, free labor mobility still has higher upside — even with these pessimistic assumptions — than free trade.

But even though there’s bigger upside, the margin isn’t that huge. If you had originally believed that open borders would double world GDP, but you then revised the estimate downward to 20%, that would mean that the extent to which open borders advocacy is a compelling cause would reduce, ceteris paribus. However, there are a few countervailing considerations, even if you embrace the lowball estimate.

To help explain this, let me look at my Drake equation-like estimate of the social value of open borders advocacy. I expressed the value as a product:

$latex \text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz$


  • $latex W$ is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • $latex x$ is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set $latex x = 0.1$, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely $latex Wx$, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • $latex y$ is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product $latex Wxy$ is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • $latex z$ is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting $latex z = 10^{-4}$ for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

Now, note that we have at least two ways that a decline in $latex W$ might be compensated for:

  • Compensating increase in $latex x$: This would be tricky to argue, because we need to show that our current belief of how realistically our new model accounts for stuff is better than our past belief of how the old model accounted for stuff. In other words, if our original estimate of $latex x$ was based on the knowledge that that model is as crude as it turns out to be, then when we adjust $latex W$ downward and thus make our model realistic, we can compensatingly adjust $latex x$ upward. The effects would approximately, though not exactly, cancel out.
  • Compensating increase in $latex y$: In the specific case at hand, in fact, these arguments do apply. The main source of overestimation in the models predicting huge gains in world GDP is the large number of people that would need to move. Adjusting those numbers alone would get us in the 20-60% range. But, to the extent that this is true, the fraction in which we can move in the direction of open borders might also increase: if open borders involves “only” 300 million people moving instead of 3 billion, then allowing 30 million people to move moves us 10% (0.1) of the way to open borders, rather than 1% (0.01). Again, whether or not $latex y$ gets compensated in practice depends on whether we were aware a priori of the large numbers of people that the model needs to move — if we weren’t, then the adjustment might not happen.
  • Compensating increase in $latex z$: If open borders, or partial moves in that direction, aren’t as radical as they seemed, maybe partial advocacy efforts in that direction are more likely to move us toward them. We should be careful not to double-count this against $latex y$, though — if we’ve already made the adjustment for $latex y$, we probably don’t need to make the adjustment for $latex z$.

A couple of additional notes:

  • All the estimates ($latex x$, $latex y$, and $latex z$) are highly speculative. Combined with the fact that these estimates are related to our estimates for $latex W$ and the methods we used to arrive at those estimates, there’s a lot of room for fudging and very little that can be said conclusively. The order of magnitude of decline in our gain estimate (from 100% of current world GDP to 20%) is only a decline by a factor of five, so our estimates of utility go down by only one order of magnitude, whereas the range of uncertainty is about three orders of magnitude (the range I gave in the original blog post for the Open Borders website was $50,000 -$50,000,000).
  • That said, it would be surprising if the decline in $latex W$ were accompanied by no decline in the overall utility of the form of open borders advocacy. That could happen, based on the considerations listed above, but we should have a prior against it happening. Remember the one-penny proof whenever you’re tempted to believe that a specific change in the estimate of one value will not affect the estimate of another value that it is in general related to.

UPDATE: Diaspora dynamics might reconcile low short-run estimates of how many would move with large long-run estimates of the same. For more, see here.

Doubling world GDP versus doubling utility: a technical note

Carl Shulman, one of the most impressive people I know, pointed me to a blog post he’d written a couple of weeks ago titled Turning log-consumption into a measure of short-run human welfare. Carl brought to my attention that a passage in my recent post titled how far are we from open borders?, used ambiguous language. Specifically, he pointed out that the passage:

These same estimates also suggest that much of the gain in production – and consumption – would be experienced by the world’s currently poorest people, leading to a significant reduction in, and perhaps an elimination of, world poverty. If we take utility to grow logarithmically with income, then this distributional aspect argues even more strongly in favor of the idea that open borders would increase global utility tremendously.

might suggest that I’m saying that taking utility as logarithmic points in the direction of the proportional gain in utility being higher than the proportional gain in world GDP. That was not my goal. Rather, my goal was to say that, if we take utility as the sum of logarithms of incomes, then for a given gain in world GDP, the gain in global utility resulting from that gain in world GDP would be higher if inequality was also reduced than if it wasn’t. Explicitly, having the poor’s income increase four-fold and the rich’s income stay the same, with overall GDP doubling, would give a higher utility gain than having everybody’s income double.

That’s the quick clarification. But Carl’s post raises a number of other points about the use of logarithms for considering utility, and I want to talk a bit more about some of the issues raised. The upshot, based on my reading, is that the considerations Carl raises point in favor of life-saving interventions (such as combating malaria) over interventions (such as open borders) that improve the quality of life of an existing population. But within the class of interventions that improve the quality of life of an existing population, the relative value of open borders to other interventions is not affected by the considerations Carl raises. Note also that the calculations in Carl’s original post explicitly adopt a short-run perspective, although he is elsewhere on the record stating that long-run considerations should dominate. Finally, population ethics is a fraught subject and there are a large number of issues that are somewhat related to this blog post that I do not get into, such as the question of how to value the potential existence of nonexistent people. See Nick Beckstead’s Ph.D. thesis for a detailed discussion of the far future and a summary of the philosophical literature on population ethics.

The rest of the post is fairly technical — following it properly requires a basic knowledge of calculus-level mathematics, though you can skip the quantitative statements and just consider the verbal statements.

I will consider six cases of progressively increasing complexity.

Case 1a: If you just have one person: taking logarithms is a monotone transformation that translates ratios into differences

Let’s begin with the case that we’re looking at just one person’s income. We want to understand, roughly, how the person’s “utility” grows with his or her income. We know that the greater the person’s income, the higher the person’s utility. In other words, utility is an increasing function of income. This in and of itself is good enough to tell us whether a given change in income leads to an increase or decrease in utility. What it doesn’t do is allow us to compare different changes in income with different starting and ending points. In other words, simply knowing that utility goes up with income says that income can be used as an ordinal scale for utility, but doesn’t allow us to answer questions such as: would increasing income from $10,000 to $11,000 matter more or increasing income from $100,000 to $101,000?

The assumption that utility grows logarithmically with income is an assumption that allows us to make cardinal comparisons between different changes in incomes. If we take utility to be logarithmic in income, then the increase in utility is the logarithm of the ratio of the final income by the initial income. This allows us to now meaningfully say that increasing income from $10,000 to $11,000 results in a bigger utility gain than increasing income from $100,000 to $101,000, because the ratio in the former case (1.1) exceeds that in the latter case (1.01). Note that we don’t need to take logarithms to answer the question of what gain is greater: we can just compare the ratios themselves.

The logarithm function is concave down, i.e., its second derivative is negative, so the average of the logarithms is less than the logarithm of the average. In other words, the gain in the logarithm for a given absolute gain in income is greater at lower income levels than at higher income levels. This can also be seen directly in terms of ratios as above: a $1,000 gain from $10,000 to $11,000 is larger as a proportional gain than a $1,000 gain the same absolute gain value) from $100,000 to $101,000.

There are two parameters to choose when setting up the logarithm-taking process, both of which are irrelevant for our purpose of comparing utility gains:

  1. The base to which logarithms are taken. Changing the base of logarithm from one value to another corresponds to a scaling transformation.
  2. The choice of “1” for income when taking logarithms, or equivalently, the choice of “0” for after taking logarithms, i.e., the income level whose logarithm we take to be zero. Changing this corresponds to a translation of the logarithmic scale, i.e., a change in the origin point.

Both choices are irrelevant for our main purpose: (2) is irrelevant because we are always looking at differences between points on the scale, so the location of the origin does not matter. (1) is irrelevant because we are comparing the differences with each other, not looking at their absolute magnitudes (in the same way as switching from meters to feet for length measurement will not change any of our fundamental analysis). (Technical note: We do need to impose the condition that the base of logarithms be greater than 1 for the analysis to hold, otherwise the scaling factor becomes negative and everything gets messed up).

A technical way of framing this is that we are treating the logarithm of income as an interval scale, i.e., a scale where it’s permissible to compare and take ratios of differences, but there is no natural zero, so it does not make sense to “double” a particular value of logarithm of income, nor does it make sense to add two values of logarithm of income. We can add, scalar-multiply, and take ratios between differences between logarithms of incomes, as these operations are invariant under the choice of origin. This is similar to how we treat temperature in practice: it does not make sense to add two temperatures and double a temperature, but we can perform the operations meaningfully on temperature differences.

However, once you delve deeper into physics, you discover that temperature actually does have an absolute zero and therefore can be measured on a ratio scale (the Kelvin scale being the standard choice in the case of temperature). If expressed in that scale, temperatures can legitimately be added and multiplied by scalars. Does there exist a similar natural choice of “absolute zero” for the logarithm of income? Not quite, but sort of. We now turn to some reasons for looking for such a zero.

Case 1b: Interpersonal utility comparisons

Let’s now consider the situation of comparing two people. We make the assumption not only that the utility functions of both are logarithmic in income, but also that the base of logarithms is the same. With these assumptions, we can compare an income change for one person to an income change for the other. If we also set an absolute zero for the log-income scale (i.e., a unit value for the income) for both the people (we could choose it to be the same for both) then we can also compare the income levels of the two people.

Case 1c: Considering the problem of zero income and non-existence

As income approaches zero, its logarithm approaches $latex -\infty$ (negative infinity). If we approximate death as switching to an income level of zero, then being dead corresponds to having a utility of negative infinity. This can pose problems when computing expected utilities in situations where there is a nonzero probability of death. Carl Shulman describes a standard way to get around the problem in his post. Explicitly, he suggests taking “subsistence income” as the absolute “1” for income, but with a twist: add a constant for the value of existing. Carl defines utility for a dead or non-existent person as 0, and utility for a living person as:

$latex s + \log(\text{income}) – \log(\text{subsistence income})$

where $latex s$ is the value of existence, and $latex \log(\text{income}) – \log(\text{subsistence income})$ is the additional value accrued from having income above the subsistence level. With this model, the effective “1” for income would be (subsistence income)/$latex b^s$ (where $latex b$ is the base of logarithms). People whose incomes are lower than that value have a negative value of existing. But in practice, we choose subsistence income and $latex s$ in a manner that nobody falls below subsistence income, let alone below (subsistence income)/$latex b^s$.

Once we have set up utility as a ratio scale as above, it makes sense to talk of the proportional change in utility. In particular, it makes sense to ask whether a given change in income causes utility to double, or more than double, or less. The answer to that would depend on the value of existence ($latex s$) and also on how far above subsistence income the person under consideration is. However, for reasonable choices, doubling income will lead to far less than a doubling of utility.

For instance, suppose we chose $latex b = 2$ as the base of logarithms, take subsistence income as $1/day, and take the existence value as $latex s = 5$. In this case, doubling income from $2/day to $4/day increases utility from 6 to 7, which is far less than doubling. Doubling income from $32/day to $64/day has an even smaller effect in terms of proportional utility gains: utility goes up from 10 to 11. (Technical aside: considering proportional gains in log-income is tantamount to taking differences of log-log-income.)

In fact, for a reasonably high choice of existence value, any change to the situation of an already existing person pales relative to a change that affects whether or not the person exists, such as birth and death. We’ll get back to this point once we consider the issue at the population level.

Case 2a: Getting multiple people into the picture, but abstracting away from the problem of people dying

We began by dealing with just one person who can earn different incomes, and then moved on to interpersonal utility comparisons, and also considered the possibility of death or non-existence, as well as . Let’s ignore the problem of death or non-existence right now, and consider a fixed population with more than one person.

The goal is to consider two different income configurations for this population, and compare them to find out which one is better. Now, at the individual level, the knowledge that utility is increasing in income was enough to say which of two income levels is greater, and the logarithmic assumption was necessary only to answer the question of how differences compared. However, in order to effectively aggregate the individual data, we do need to use a cardinal scale. In this case, since utility is assumed to be logarithmic in income, the “total utility” is the sum of all log-income values. We can then compare these totals across different configurations. Note that this case relies, albeit indirectly, on our being able to execute interpersonal utility gain comparisons (the case 1c above), and that reliance is reflected in our choice of using the same base for logarithms for all members of the population.

Now, although we are taking the sum, we are still using only the interval scale properties, and in particular, the location of the zero does not matter. This is because we are adding the same number of terms (corresponding to the members of the population) in all configurations. If we shift the location of the “zero” then that affects our “sum of log-incomes” for all configurations by an equal amount. Perhaps a better way to think than the sum is the average, for which the conclusion is clearer.

If open borders were to double every individual’s income, it would increase the average value of log-income by $latex \log 2$ and it would increase total utility by $latex \log 2$ times the population size. If, however, open borders doubled world GDP with its effect concentrated on people with low incomes, it would increase the average value of log-income by more than $latex \log 2$ (this follows from the remarks made in the discussion of Case 1a about the logarithm function being concave down).

The above is the situation that I consider by default and that is the context in which the quoted passage from my earlier post was written.

Case 2b: Comparing different populations

The remarks above continue to apply to the case of comparing improvements for different populations, including populations of different sizes, with the following catch: unless we fix an absolute zero, we can only compare changes in one population with changes in the other population. We cannot compare the absolute level of one population against the absolute level of the other, except in the following cases:

  • If both populations have the same size, we can compare absolute utility levels for the populations with one another assuming they have the same absolute zero, but we do not need to specify this absolute zero.
  • If the populations have different sizes, we need to specify absolute zeros for both populations in order to compare their absolute utility levels.

Case 2c: How the absolute zero allows us to compare absolute levels for different populations and introduce the possibility of death

If we embrace the model used by Carl described in Case 1c, we can tackle both the situation of comparing different populations and dealing with the problem of a nonzero probability of death. In this context, it actually does make sense to ask questions such as:

  • What is the ratio of the utility levels of two different populations?
  • What is the ratio of the utility levels of two different configurations for the same population?
  • What is the expected utility gain for a population in a scenario (where there is a nonzero probability of death or new births in the population)?

In this context, therefore, it makes sense to ask whether doubling world GDP would indeed double utility. The general answer would be that it falls far short of doing so, even if the gains are concentrated on the poorest people. This is for the reasons already discussed in Case 1c: for any individual, doubling income has a far smaller effect on utility than doubling. Note that the gains being concentrated on the poorest people still has more effect on utility than having the gains evenly distributed or concentrated on the richest people, but that “more” still isn’t sufficient to cause doubling.

The main reason why open borders gets to look a lot worse from the point of view of the ratios of utility levels than otherwise is simply that existence itself carries huge value, and open borders, by simply moving people, doesn’t add value commensurate with the value of existing. But this argument applies generally: for a reasonably high estimate of the value of existence, any measure that makes an existing population somewhat better (without increasing births or eliminating deaths) would look a lot worse than a measure that increased the size of the population. In fact, from the existence value perspective, there’s very little that’s more promising than pro-natalism and mortality reduction — which could range from combating malaria to ending aging. Thus, the comparative analysis of open borders with most other typically considered interventions, except interventions that directly and significantly affect mortality, still points strongly in favor of open borders.

With that said, it’s worth noting that it’s likely that, by reducing poverty, open borders would reduce child mortality and increase life expectancy worldwide, and therefore could also increase global utility more greatly through that channel than the GDP estimates indicate. Also, the effects on global population growth would need to be considered: it’s likely that open borders would lead to a short-term increase in population (as first-generation migrants resemble the fertility rates of their source countries but would have lower mortality rates), meaning a significant gain in utility, but within a few generations, migrants would assimilate to native fertility rates, which may well mean lower world population than in the status quo scenario. The effect of open borders on long-term demographic trends is an important topic but is outside the scope of the current post.

How far are we from open borders?

I’m planning to write a multi-post series on how far the world as of now is from open borders. There are many different angles from which the question can be approached. In this post, I will provide a brief summary of the four major angles I’m considering. In future posts, I’ll elaborate on the individual angles. The four angles are:

  • Legal
  • How many want to move
  • How desperate people are to move
  • How different the world would look (economically, socially, etc.) under open borders

The idea behind the post is quite similar to the idea behind my earlier post titled open borders is a radical proposal. They differ both in rhetorical approach and in the particular points of emphasis. The earlier post focused on how open borders is, in many ways, historically unprecedented whereas this post focuses on how it significantly differs from the current status quo. Rhetorically, while the earlier post viewed open borders as the thing being judged in relation to the status quo, this post judges the status quo as a deviation from open borders.

Legal: Presumption and reviewability

Before looking at the status quo, it might be worth thinking about how an open borders regime might look like. Such a regime is not inherently incompatible with passports and visas. For instance, people need driver’s licenses to drive vehicles on roads, and the test is not completely trivial, but it is generally open and not too difficult for somebody who’s willing to work for it and take the test enough times. Democracies may require voter identification in order to allow people to vote, but they are still considered to have universal (adult) franchise if such identification is easy to obtain.

How closely a passport and visa regime comes to open borders would therefore depend on how procedurally straightforward it is to get a visa or equivalent permission to enter another country. In cases where this is just a matter of paying a small fee to have an application processed, we’d be close to open borders. In cases, however, where visas can be rejected for a variety of reasons, we’d need to start looking more closely at the list of reasons why a visa might be denied.

Legal theory has a useful concept called presumption of innocence, also known as innocent until proven guilty. The principle is generally applied in the context of criminal trials: the legal burden of proof rests on the state (the prosecuting party) that is trying to show that the accused is guilty, rather than on the accused to prove his or her innocence. Part of the justification for this asymmetry is the coercive and destructive nature of the punishment that people suffer once they have been found guilty. There is a strong presumption against forcibly making an innocent person suffer such punishment. The extent to which such a presumption exists, and should exist, is a matter of considerable debate, but the idea is straightforward.

In an open borders world, the analogous doctrine would be a presumption in favor of free movement, and the equivalent slogan would be “unrestricted until proven dangerous” — for approximately the same reasons: denying a person who expresses the desire to move to a new country the ability to do so is a significant infringement of the person’s freedom, and as such, deserves justification. There would be two components to this:

  • When denying a visa, a consulate would need to provide a specific reason for doing so and cite evidence in support of the reason. The evidence would need to be made available to the applicant.
  • The applicant would be in a position to challenge the consulate’s decision in front of a relatively neutral arbiter, who would hear out both sides and come to a decision.

Of course, just having the above doesn’t equate to open borders — the criteria may be very transparently stated but still very stringent. The same principle applies in criminal law: criminalization of a large number of victimless crimes, even if the law is executed fairly, can still be an indicator of an unjust and tyrannical society.

How far is the status quo from this open borders-like scenario? Very far. The United States is perhaps a somewhat extreme example, but not by a huge margin.

According to official estimates (linking HTML page), about 15-20% of applications across all nonimmigrant visa categories to the US in 2012 were rejected initially, and only about a third of the rejected applicants were able to overcome the refusal and get a visa eventually, resulting in a rejection rate of 10-15%. The primary reason for rejection is Clause 214(b): failure to establish entitlement to nonimmigrant status. In other words, the consular officer rejected the visa application on the grounds that the applicant might transition to long-term permanent resident status. Thus, not only does the US lack a direct route for most long-term migrants, it also coercively restricts people who want to visit the US for the short term (for work, study, or tourism) on the grounds that they might stay too long (with no evidence needed that such a long stay would hurt anybody). The US also has a doctrine of consular nonreviewability (see here and here): decisions by consular officers cannot be challenged by law or overturned by anybody, even the US President. Combine consular nonreviewability with Section 214(b), and the paradigm we basically have is the migration analogue of guilty until proven innocent.

How many want to move

I looked at this question in some detail in my earlier posts here and here. But here’s a quick summary: according to polling data on migration (the most recent available poll is here) about 13% of the world’s adults, or 630 million people, say that they are interested in permanently moving to another country. This is a huge number. In a world with open borders, there would still be people who are unable to move to another country due to personal issues, but it wouldn’t approach 13% of the world population. It’s safe to say that this is far from open borders. (The potential distinction between stated and revealed preferences is implicitly handled in the next point, which deals with how desperate people are to migrate). About 138 million people expressed a desire to permanently relocate to the United States. For contrast, the total annual number of people who migrate annually to the United States (through authorized and unauthorized channels) is a little over a million.

In his post titled Some Unpleasant Immigration Arithmetic, Bryan Caplan proposes an Open Borders Index as follows:

Open Borders Index = C/F

where C equals the total number of immigrants who enter the country every year, and F equals the total number of people who would annually enter the country under open borders. Caplan argues that C/F would be 0 under perfect closed borders and 1 under perfect open borders, and therefore it provides a normalized measure of border openness. He estimates that the C/F ratio for the United States is about 0.05 (i.e., about 20-30 million people would migrate to the US annually under open borders), and that the United States is thereby far from open borders. While the specifics of Caplan’s estimate can be disputed, the general idea suggests that the United States in particular is quite far from open borders.

How desperate people are to move

Desperation can be measured by the amount of resources people invest, relative to their current financial situation, to migrate. On the side of migration via legal authorized channels, this includes the fees that people pay as visa fees and lawyer fees. On the side of migration via unauthorized channels, this includes coyote fees as well as fees for document fraud that people who enter in an authorized fashion may pay in order to overstay their authorized stay. The cost measures need to be viewed in conjunction with the number of people who are willing to pay these costs. All these measures point in the direction of the world being quite far from open borders. Coyote fees from Mexico to the US are in the $3000-4000 range, and there are estimated to be millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the US, many of whom were smuggled via coyotes (others overstayed legally obtained visas). Coyote fees from China to the US have been estimated at $75,000, and although there are fewer Chinese who use coyotes to get into the US, the number is nontrivial. Note that coyote fees are an underestimate of the costs of moving, because migrants moving illegally often need to take other precautions in order to avoid being caught, and often need to tolerate inhumane conditions during the course of their movement – all costs that would need to be factored in. Finally, these fees should be considered in relation to their home country income. For the profile of people that migrate illegally from Mexico to the United States, coyote fees are generally equivalent to about 1-2 years’ worth of their current income.

How different the world would look if we had open borders

Finally, let’s consider the impact on economic output. Again, the estimation exercise is tricky because of the significant deviation we’re making from reality. A literature review by Clemens (2011) cites estimates suggesting that removing barriers to global labor mobility would yield world GDP gains anywhere between 67% and 147.3%. To rephrase, Clemens estimates that the status quo is shrinking world GDP to somewhere between 40% and 60% of what it might be under open borders. In the median case, open borders would “double world GDP” or equivalently, closed borders are “halving world GDP.” In contrast, ending all trade barriers is estimated to raise world GDP by about 5%. This isn’t surprising. Labor is a large share of the economy, and a lot of the world’s labor is confined to relatively unproductive segments of the world economy. Freeing people to move to places where their labor can be used better would lead to more production. How much more is debatable, but an estimate of doubling world production isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility when viewed in conjunction with the very large number of people who want to move. These same estimates also suggest that much of the gain in production – and consumption – would be experienced by the world’s currently poorest people, leading to a significant reduction in, and perhaps an elimination of, world poverty. If we take utility to grow logarithmically with income, then this distributional aspect argues even more strongly in favor of the idea that open borders would increase global utility tremendously. Open borders would also significantly reduce global inequality. For instance, a paper by Branko Milanovic estimates that under the status quo, country of origin accounts for 2/3 of global inequality (controlling as best as possible for other attributes). While the country of origin would still play a significant role in global inequality under open borders, there’s strong reason to believe that the fraction of global inequality accounted for by country of origin would be far lower than it currently is.

The cultural, social, and political effects of open borders are harder to quantify, but their existence is undisputed. To a large extent, the pushback to open borders is precisely because of the huge perceived cultural, social, and political changes that might be unleashed through open borders. Whether these effects are a net positive or a net negative is a more difficult question that the site at large is devoted to, and is beyond the scope of this post. What’s important is that the effects are significant, indicating that the world is far from open borders in a meaningful manner.

Autism Can’t Explain Away Open Borders Arguments

One of the strangest arguments anti-immigration advocates make is that immigration proponents have Asperger’s Syndrome.  What exactly is the substance (if there is any at all) of this criticism?

A brief background in Asperger’s syndrome may be helpful before continuing.  It is a mental condition characterized by difficulties in verbal and social communication, as well as a tendency to be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli.  People diagnosed with it often have difficulty perceiving the feelings of others. However, people with Asperger’s generally have otherwise normal intelligence.  In fact, they are often unusually good at abstract reasoning, ordering and organizing knowledge, and focusing their attention on a single subject of interest without distraction.  Asperger’s is often considered a type of autism, but there is some debate on this topic.

Steve Sailer’s brief blog post “Libertarianism is Applied Autism,” is one of the earliest examples of this argument.  The main point he makes in this post is that libertarian economists do not realize that other people can sometimes behave violently.  He argues that a good reason for one to embrace citizenism is that citizens will assist one another in fighting against the violent people in the world.

Taken in this context, Sailer’s criticism is yet another iteration of the common “economist blind spot” attack.  He is essentially arguing that people engage in a form of non-market interaction (violence),  that anti-free-market solutions such as immigration restriction and citizenism are needed to deal with this fact, and that immigration advocates are blind to this fact.  The only difference is that this time he is claiming that the cause of this blindness is the cognitive impairments caused by autism rather than the simplifying assumptions that economists make in their work.

Other restrictionists have since made autism-related comments, but these do not really add anything new to Sailer’s original argument.  They retain the essential claim that open-borders advocates suffer from a cognitive dysfunction that prevents them from understanding certain restrictionist arguments.

This criticism is problematic in numerous ways.  The most obvious one is that many open borders advocates do engage with the “non-economicobjections restrictionists make and devote time, effort, and research to addressing them.  For instance, Bryan Caplan addresses the claims that immigrants generate political externalities and the claim that they contribute to crime. Nathan Smith addresses the “war” objection here and the “social capital decline” objection in great detail.  John Lee also addresses many of these objections and finds them wanting in the face of the incredible good that open borders could do.  And these are just a few examples.  Open borders advocates do understand these particular objections, and do make serious attempts to address them.

Furthermore, while it is true that open borders advocates do focus on the economic side of things, this is partly because it is simply the best researched topic.  Economists have done serious analyses of open borders and how it might affect the economy, but criminologists and sociologists have not done the same level of thorough research in regards to its effects on crime and society.  Open borders advocates have made serious efforts to research these “non-economic objections,” and what results on these topics they have found have been limited.

Another problem with this criticism is that it is not clear that the common-sense, intuitive view of human behavior that a neurotypical person would have is more correct than economic research.  The entire reason that economic research (and science in general, for that matter) is even done is that the human race’s common-sense view of how the world works is sometimes wrong.

There is a very large amount of psychological literature focused on phenomena such as the “fundamental attribution error” and “ultimate attribution error.”  These phenomena encompass the human tendency to incorrectly assume that a person or group’s innate disposition is the cause of their behavior, rather than external factors.  If human beings are biased towards attributing human behavior to innate dispositions, rather than external factors, an economic model the focuses on external incentives may well be more accurate than a common-sense model that disregards them.  A cynical reading of tendency of certain restrictionists to focus attention on innate factors like IQ is that they are attempting to find a way to salvage the fundamental attribution error.

Another problem with using the intuitive view when addressing immigration is scope neglect.  The human mind did not evolve to process the extremely large numbers of people that immigration policy deals with.  For this reason it seems likely that addressing immigration policy with an abstract, scientific approach, is more fruitful than using our more intuitive systems for understanding other humans.  Consider in particular the restrictionist tendency to focus on dramatic, frightening scenarios like crime, social pathology, and ethnic violence; and compare it to the open-borders advocate’s focus on economic deprivations. Also note that restrictionists sometimes seem to think that all they need to do is establish that these things could happen at all, rather than do a cost-benefit analysis of how likely they are to happen.  This is strongly reminiscent of the human tendency to focus on dangers that make for scary stories (i.e. murders, shark attacks) instead of dangers that are common and likely to happen (i.e. car crashes, heart disease).

A final objection to the “Asperger’s argument” can be found by considering what exactly it means to say that people with Asperger’s often “lack empathy.”  The term empathy has two common meanings.  It can mean the ability to perceive and notice other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 1).  And it can mean caring about other people’s feelings and desires (let us call this Empathy 2).  To put it another way, Empathy 1 is about noticing the existence of other’s feelings, Empathy 2 is about caring about others’ feelings.  The “lack of empathy” in “Asperger’s syndrome” is Empathy 1, people with Asperger’s have trouble noticing if someone is happy or upset, but if they do manage to notice they display normal human levels of sympathy.

Many restrictionists, however (especially those of the “citizenist” bent), seem to be lacking in Empathy 2.  They tend to see potential immigrants in terms of IQ statistics, standard deviations and collections of “social pathologies,” rather than as people.  They lack much in the way of concern for the harm that immigration restriction inflicts upon others, particularly non-citizens.  If Libertarianism is applied Autism then Citizenism is applied Antisocial Personality Disorder. If one is to go about associating a political position with a mental disorder, it would probably be wise to check to make sure one’s own philosophy can’t be easily associated with an even worse disorder.

In light of this, it does not seem like the “Asperger’s argument” is a particularly valid criticism of open borders advocates.  Open borders advocates understand and engage with the criticisms that restrictionists claim “autism” makes them overlook.  Furthermore, it is not clear that the cognitive functions that Asperger’s and other forms of autism impair are necessary to understand the issues surrounding immigration policy.  Finally, the project of associating political positions with mental disorders is probably not a wise undertaking in the first place.