Tag Archives: egalitarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, they are all different in important ways:

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

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

A job thought experiment

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine you’ve been applying for a good job, and the hiring manager calls you in for the final interview. He tells you that there’s only one hurdle left: The interview process has narrowed the contestants down to just you and one other candidate. Your potential boss gives you some information about the other candidate – namely, that you and this mystery person have exactly the same level of qualification, and are willing to work for exactly the same wage; but this mystery candidate has more to lose than you if they don’t get the job (i.e. their bills are higher, or they have more mouths to feed, or they have some illness they need medicine for, whatever), and they’re willing to work without the two weeks’ vacation each year that you demanded.

Then, to make matters worse, your potential boss asks you your final interview question: “Tell me why I should give this job to you instead of the other candidate, given what you know about that person.”

Hard, isn’t it?

Well, let me give you a few potential answers, and you decide what you think about them.

  1. “You should give me the job because I’m male, and this other person is female.” Whoa, sounds pretty bad, huh? In fact, I think we still tar and feather people in our society for that sort of thing. Or at least we should.
  2. “You should give me the job because I’m related to you in some way, and the other person isn’t.” The word for that is nepotism, and it also tends to be frowned upon, in case you hadn’t heard.
  3. “You should give me the job because I’m white, and the other person is non-white.” Uh oh, we’re getting worse, aren’t we?
  4. “You should give me the job because I’m young, and the other person is old.” Ageism doesn’t get as much attention as sexism or racism, but it’s definitely out there and definitely sucks.
  5. “You should give me the job because I’m more attractive than the other person.” Well that one’s just a slap in the face, isn’t it?

Imagine how mad you’d be if you even overheard someone with the cojones to actually say this in an interview! Someone claiming that a mere accident of birth that they had no control over – and for that matter places them in a category of substantial relative privilege – should entitle them (and it’s entitlement they’re claiming, make no mistake) to a job over a person that doesn’t have these purely unintentional qualities, but is equally qualified, harder working, and in greater need of the job would rightly make your blood boil. And if you think that would make you mad, imagine how much angrier you’d be at an employer who actually accepted that rationale and gave the job to this horrible person!

Let’s add one more to the list, shall we?

6. “You should give me the job because I was born in this country, and the other person wasn’t.”

Wait. Wait a minute – that one didn’t raise the hackles on the back of your neck, did it? In fact, the part of you that adapts to your society as a whole found that to be downright reasonable-sounding, didn’t it? Something’s definitely wrong here. Some essential wiring has been installed incorrectly. Say any of the first five things on the list in a job interview and not only can I guarantee you that you won’t get the job, but you’re very likely to start a physical fight with someone that overhears you. But say the sixth thing, and not only does it sound perfectly rational, but you sound like a damned patriot. They elect to public office people who say things like that. Of course, being the rational person that you are, you came through this little thought experiment realizing the truth: That if you can’t rationalize desert based on accidents of birth, then that applies to ALL accidents of birth.

Of course, there’s a sliver of hope here. You see, at one point or another in history, all of points 1 through 5 were considered just as reasonable and just as point 6 is considered by our society today. But bit by bit, through some combination of general societal enlightenment and the tireless efforts of the champions of the downtrodden, those absurd opinions were gradually overturned. There are still some holdouts, of course – there always will be – but thankfully we seem to grow more enlightened each day. And so I’m quite assured that over time (maybe, if I’m lucky, in my own lifetime), I’ll see the end of one of the last great institutionalized prejudices – nationalism.

This post was inspired by the article Waitresses in Saskatchewan lose jobs to foreign workers.

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 1

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

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

#1: Broad strategy followed by Carens

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

#2: Alleged target audience

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

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

#3: The “democratic principles” catchphrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6: Against occupation-specific work visas

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

Consider these three types of prices of farm work:

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

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

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

Cosmopolitanism and open borders: a follow-up

After I wrote my post on the apparent lack of interest in open borders among cosmopolitans, I received some comments offering some contrary evidence. While, as an advocate of open borders, I remain disappointed with the book I referenced in that post (though more generally as a student of cosmopolitanism I happily recommend The Cosmopolitanism Reader), I believe I was premature in claiming cosmopolitans have unduly ignored migration.

First, even if most of the mentions of migration and border controls in the book are cursory, some of the contributors have substantively commented on migration elsewhere. Brian Barry, one of the contributors to the part titled “Cosmopolitan Global Justice” that focused so much on global distributive justice, mostly ignored movement across borders in his essay. Yet he also edited a book in 1992 titled Free Movement: Ethical Issues in the Transnational Migration of People and of Money (which I have not read fully).

Simon Caney, another contributor, has also discussed migration separately. In a 2006 paper he admirably brought the sometimes abstract discussions of global justice into the practical realm of policy by comparing a dozen (ostensibly) cosmopolitan policies, one of which was open borders. He proceeds by defending the policy against the charge that open borders would not actually benefit the world’s poor:

Maybe the upshot will simply be that talented and able-bodied people will migrate, leaving the most vulnerable behind and unprotected. This is no doubt a risk but two points should be made in reply. First, recent evidence from the World Bank and elsewhere does indicate that migration aids the global poor. It is important to recognize here that migration generates two distinct kinds of beneficial effects. First, it improves the standard of living of the migrants and, second, migrants send remittances to their family members who remain in the home country and so the latter too can benefit from migration. So the beneficiaries include not simply those who leave (who are likely to be able bodied and skilled) but also those who are not able to leave to seek work. In its 2006 report entitled Global Economic Prospects: Economic Implications of Remittances and Migration, the World Bank found, for example, that the amount of money sent as remittances to developing countries was likely to be approximately $167 billion in 2005 and it has increased by 100% in five years […]. The report further adds that ‘remittances have been associated with declines in the poverty headcount ratio in several low-income countries—by 11 percentage points in Uganda, 6 in Bangladesh, and 5 in Ghana, for example. […]

Other cosmopolitan thinkers were also brought to my attention, including Phillip Cole, who has written two books on the ethics of immigration (or one and a half: the second was co-written with Christopher Heath Wellman, who argued for the right of states to restrict immigration. Phillip Cole has been discussed on this site previously here). I am not sure Cole considers himself a cosmopolitan, but he is certainly a fellow traveler, basing his arguments on the moral primacy of the individual and universalizing this primacy by applying it to every individual.

Likewise, Joseph Carens is an ethicist with whom I was already familiar (and who has been discussed on this blog previously), but I didn’t include him in the original post because I’ve never seen him adopt the cosmopolitan label. But focusing too much on labels can be unproductive. Carens has been writing about the ethics of migration for decades, with one classic essay, Migration and Morality: a Liberal Egalitarian Perspective, appearing in Barry’s book mentioned above. In this essay he stakes out the position, similar to that advanced by this site, that “Liberal egalitarianism entails a deep commitment to freedom of movement as both an important liberty in itself and a prerequisite for other freedoms. Thus the presumption is for free migration and anyone who would defend restrictions faces a heavy burden of proof.” Carens has continued his work in defending free migration to the present: Amazon tells us he has a book forthcoming on the subject in December.

Arash Abizadeh is a political philosopher at McGill University of a cosmopolitan bent who has defended open borders in a number of recent papers. In one especially novel paper (pdf), he defies the conventional wisdom that democratic principles and liberal egalitarian principles come to loggerheads on the issue of border control. He proposes that, because border control is coercive to individuals seeking to cross borders, democratic legitimacy requires that the migrants (those on the business end of coercion) must be given some democratic say in the matter.

According to the state sovereignty view–the dominant ideology of the contemporary interstate system–entry policy ought to be under the unilateral discretion of (the members of) the state itself, and whatever justification is required for a particular entry policy is simply owed to members: foreigners are owed no justification and so should have no control over a state’s entry policy. What I seek to demonstrate is that such a position is inconsistent with the democratic theory of political  legitimation domestically is thereby committed to rejecting the unilateral domestic right to control and close the state’s boundaries, whether boundaries in the civic sense (which regulate membership) or in the territorial sense (which regulate movement).

Obviously I cannot exhaustively cover all the cosmopolitan and cosmo-curious thinkers who have discussed the ethics of migration in this post. A brief dip in the literature has turned up more than I originally thought I would find based on my introductory text. I’d like to close with perhaps my most encouraging find. Gillian Brock, in her 2009 book Global Justice: a Cosmopolitan Account, devoted a whole chapter on immigration. An adapted excerpt of the chapter was published on openDemocracy. Brock is not opposed to increased migration per se, but she expresses skepticism that freer migration will advance global justice if unaccompanied by policies mitigating perceived adverse side effects of liberalized emigration from poor countries. Specifically, she contends brain drain effects on sending countries can outweigh the positive effects on host countries and the migrants themselves, especially in the case of health workers.

I plan to address Brock’s concern about the “brain drain” in another post, but for now I want to point to the attention her arguments received among other cosmopolitans. The journal Global Justice: Theory Practice Rhetoric (mercifully ungated) hosted a special issue in 2011 to discuss her book. Two of the response essays focused on Brock’s treatment of migration, criticizing her skepticism of freer migration policies. The journal editors, perhaps sensing the wide interest in the topic, then devoted their 2012 issue to migration and its relationship to global justice. Even when cosmopolitans oppose unrestricted movement or hedge their arguments against it, they offer a refreshing point of view. In a debate where so often advocates of open borders struggle to get our interlocutors to acknowledge that the rights and preferences of would-be migrants warrant our consideration at all, skeptical cosmopolitans on the contrary fear that we may have insufficiently considered the effects on all of the relevant affected people. The coverage of migration by cosmopolitan philosophers is more substantive than I thought, and it’s heartening to see that, if anything, interest in the subject has deepened in recent years.

Cosmopolitanism: global redistribution versus open borders?

As a personal project, I’ve embarked on a self-led course in the ethics of cosmopolitanism. I’ve been calling myself a cosmopolitan for a long time and I thought it was time to see what the professionals had to say on the matter. And of course I’ve been interested in learning more about the relationship between cosmopolitanism and open borders. In particular, to what extent does cosmopolitanism imply open borders and to what extent does the open borders position imply cosmopolitanism?

My initial venture into this field has been The Cosmopolitanism Reader, edited by Garrett Wallace Brown and David Held. I haven’t yet finished the book, which is a collection of essays by cosmopolitan political philosophers, but after a dozen essays I’ve tentatively concluded that self-described cosmopolitan philosophers are for the most part uninterested in open borders. The overwhelming focus is instead on global distributive justice. Issues like climate change are mentioned more often than immigration. And it doesn’t appear to be a peculiarity of this book. A couple other books I’ve glanced through or have lined up to read barely mention migration (or its derivatives) in their indices, if at all.

This isn’t because I misunderstood the definition of cosmopolitanism. From the introduction of the Cosmopolitan Reader:

In its most basic form, cosmopolitanism maintains that there are moral obligations owed to all human beings based solely on our humanity alone, without reference to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, state citizenship, or other communal particularities. […] From this basic ethical orientation, cosmopolitanism as a political theory generally posits three corresponding moral and normative commitments. First, cosmopolitans believe that the primary units of moral concern are individual human beings, not states or other forms of communitarian or political association. Although this does not rule out localized obligations, or render states “meaningless,” cosmopolitanism does insist that there are universal commitments to respect the moral worth of individuals everywhere. Second, cosmopolitans maintain that this moral concern for individual should be equally applied, where “the status of ultimate concern attaches to every living human equally.” […] Third, as the etymology of the word suggests, cosmopolitanism is universal in its scope, maintaining that all humans are equal in their moral standing and that this moral standing applies to everyone everywhere, as if we are all citizens of the world.

Emphasis in original. Individualism, egalitarianism, and universalism. There might be some quibbling over what is supposed to be equal in “egalitarianism”, but this definition seems straightforwardly compatible with open borders, and given my beliefs about the real world economic and distributional effects of a liberal migration regime, I think the definition directly points to open borders. So perhaps the enthusiasm gap has something to do with differences of opinion about the real world effects. One of the few mentions of international migration exceeding a few sentences I have come across in the book (at ~50%) came from Onora O’Neill, who makes the case for cosmopolitanism and global distributive justice by way of Kantian obligations as opposed to appeals to human rights (think ethical supply side rather than demand side). In this section, O’Neill doesn’t come out against open borders so much as she just waves the notion aside. The context of the following is a critique of the limited libertarian view of human rights.

Despite there embargo on redistribution, libertarians could hold positions that have powerful and perhaps helpful implications for the poor of the Third World. Since they base their thought on respect for individuals and their rights, and judge any but minimal states unjust, libertarians view actual states, none of which is minimal, as exceeding their just powers. In particular, libertarian [sic] and other liberals may hold that all interferences with individuals’ movement, work and trade violate liberty. On an obvious reading this suggests that those who are willing to work for less have the right not to be excluded by residence and trades union restrictions and that protective trade polices violate liberties. Libertarians are known for advocating free trade, but not for advocating the dismantling of immigration laws. This may be because their stress on property rights entails an attrition of public space that eats into the freedom of movement and rights of abode of the unpropertied, even within national jurisdictions.

It is hard to see the global import of such radically cosmopolitan libertarianism. Presumably such policies would greatly weaken the position of the relatively poor within rich economies, by undercutting their bargaining power. Ostensibly “perfected” global markets might spread resources more and more evenly across the world’s population: in practice it is doubtful whether a removal of restrictions on movement, abode and trade would achieve this. In an era of automated production, the poor might no longer have anything marketable to sell: even their labour power may lack market value. Concentrations of economic power have been able to form and survive in relatively “free” internal markets: international economic powers could presumably ride the waves of wider competition equally successfully.

Emphases in original. O’Neill seems open to the possibility that free movement across borders could help the global poor in principle, but doubts this would occur in practice. I am on record as doubting how fruitful it is to keep banging on about the economic argument for open borders, suggesting instead that it’s not that people don’t understand the economics (whether they do or not), it’s that they morally disregard the foreigner. O’Neill appears to be a fairly stark counterexample.

I want to stress that I have only begun to get my feet wet in this literature, but if it is the case that self-described cosmopolitans are mostly unconcerned with the status quo regime of controlled migration, then it would be interesting to know why. There are a few possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive.

A cosmopolitan may be unaware of the potential distributional benefits associated with more liberal migration regimes. This reminds me of the Bloggingheads diavlog between the economist Tyler Cowen and the renowned utilitarian Peter Singer (to my knowledge not not a self-identified cosmopolitan, but easily a fellow traveler). In the diavlog, Singer appeared not to have given the matter of international migration much thought.

Cosmopolitans have considered the distributional impact of open borders to some extent but are unimpressed. The cosmopolitan/liberal egalitarian Thomas Pogge has acknowledged* that a global regime more permissive to migration would indeed help to alleviate global poverty, but that open borders could not on its own eliminate poverty and that international migration could only help the relatively better off among the global poor.

[O]ther things being equal, those who accept a weighty moral responsibility toward needy foreigners should devote their time, energy, and resources not to the struggle to get more of them admitted into the rich countries, but rather to the struggle to institute an effective programme of global poverty eradication.
[…]
[T]he admission of needy foreigners into the rich countries cannot possibly protect all who now live under dreadful conditions and would want to come. One reason for this is that the number of needy persons in the world […] is simply out of all proportion to the number of needy foreingers which the rich countries admit or could admit. […] For every person we can persuade some rich country to admit, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, left in desperate need.

Pogge’s emphases. This seems like a case of the perfect being the enemy of the good, though I should add I haven’t read the full piece due to its unavailability. It is unclear there should be a feeling of either/or between global redistribution and global free migration. In any case the principal difference between cosmopolitans of this flavor and those of us who advocate open borders for the sake of the global poor essentially reduces to an empirical question of which strategy will benefit the poor the most. The moral values of the two camps are aligned, at least on the question of borders (global institutions and redistribution schemes may be a different matter).

My own novice hypothesis is that there may be some ideological self-selection to cosmopolitan identification. Those modern philosophers committed to global wealth redistribution have called themselves cosmopolitans, while others equally committed to the three principles of cosmopolitanism described above but perhaps skeptical of redistribution schemes have avoided the moniker, possibly for that very reason. This could be as basic as a distinction between egalitarians and libertarians: two roads diverged in a wood and the egalitarian took the path of redistribution while the libertarian took the path of open borders.

It’s worth noting that many advocates of open borders discussed on this website have some form of libertarian worldview, as do many of the writers of this website. If there is any truth to this hypothesis, it invites the question of whether this divide is substantive or, more hopefully, permeable. That is, can egalitarian cosmopolitans be persuaded on the merits of open borders? Contrary to Pogge’s assessment, I think the egalitarian could well afford to advocate open borders, even while keeping a commitment to global redistribution. From the perspective of proponents of open borders, cosmopolitans favoring global redistribution should, in principle, be low-hanging fruit for conversion efforts. I maintain that the hardest part of selling open borders is acknowledging the moral worth of the foreigner as a full human being, and that economic arguments are often fig leaves for disregarding the legitimate demands of justice concerning the foreigner. With cosmopolitans, this hardest part of persuasion is already done.

*This argument appeared in an essay titled “Migration and Poverty” in an out-of-print book called “Citizenship and Exclusion“, edited by Veit Bader.