Tag Archives: end of poverty

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.

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.

Poverty, International Aid and Immigration

One of the main justifications for supporting open borders is that it has the potential to alleviate poverty.  But opening borders is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of poverty reduction measures.  Most people tend to think of international aid programs. Trouble is, international aid isn’t that effective.

For a quick primer, see this report published by the Center for Global Development. The main points include the following:

  • International aid has four main objectives: stimulation of economic growth, strengthening local institutions, immediate humanitarian relief, and economic stabilization after a shock.
  • The evidence accumulated from numerous studies is that there is basically no correlation between international aid and economic growth even though many countries receive over 10% of their gross national income in aid annually.
  • Donors are faced with a significant Principal-Agent problem, which results in a lot of aid ending up in the hands of corrupt officials and useless bureaucrats, or being wasted in some other way.
  • There is some evidence that aid is (slightly) more effective when given to countries with better governance and policies in place, but this does not always correlate with who needs aid the most.

Basically, international aid doesn’t work that well in the long run. Interestingly, this does not mean that we are losing the war on poverty. In fact, according to this article in the economist, the world met the millennium challenge goal of cutting poverty in half between 1990 and 2015 five years early.  So how did it happen?

In a word, China. We are all familiar with the story of China by now. After China adopted meaningful economic reforms in the 1970’s, their economy exploded and millions of people got jobs in new industries making goods that are exported across the world.  What we don’t always take into account is that this massive economic growth depends on a massive level of economic migration.  Chinese cities have over 250 million migrant workers.  Some estimates claim that another 250 million will move to the city by 2025.  China’s migrant population will soon be greater than the entire population of the US.

China has hundreds of millions of internal migrants despite the fact that the government does not allow its citizens to freely move around the country.  Chinese migrant workers live under conditions similar to illegal immigrants in this country.  Millions of migrant worker children are not even allowed to attend school even though China’s leaders know that their urban industries depend on migrant labor.  Migration has been vital to China’s economic growth, but there is massive bureaucratic resistance to granting these migrants basic rights because of the strain it would put on local welfare and education systems.  Sound familiar?  Still, hundreds of millions of rural Chinese have decided it is better for them to live on the margins of an industrialized economy than to risk starvation in a backward agricultural area.

Despite government attempts to prevent it, migration has been a fundamental part of how the world has cut poverty in half.  The explanation is pretty simple. Prior to industrialization, pretty much everyone lives in poverty.  Individuals in agricultural societies don’t produce very much, and they are fairly evenly distributed across the land. Individuals who specialize in a modern economy are very productive but they need to live in close proximity to other people. Thus industrialization goes hand in hand with massive rural-urban migration.

China isn’t the only country that has been transformed by internal migration. 30 percent of India’s population are migrants, as that countries citizens search for better conditions. In Brazil, the urban population went from 36% to 81% of the total in the second half on the 20th century.  And of course, the United States has experienced several periods of migration that shaped our nation’s history.

When we talk about poverty reduction, migration should be the first word that comes to mind.  Of course, the movements discussed here have been internal.  Internal migration is a bigger factor than international immigration in global poverty reduction because it is easier for people to move around within their own countries (despite restrictions, as in China).  A few countries have both the massive rural populations and dynamic urban production centers that make economy changing rural-urban migration possible.  But many areas of the world are being choked off either because their rural population has nowhere to go or their aging economy lacks an influx of new workers.

The benefit of open borders is that it allows the process of industrialization and poverty reduction to proceed without artificial barriers.  The China miracle could become a comprehensive global solution to poverty.

 

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.

World poverty

If there is a single worthiest cause, a goal most deserving of our best efforts, that goal may be the alleviation of world poverty. That is not the only reason I favor open borders, but it is the biggest. It was to try to do something about world poverty that I enrolled in the MPA/ID program at the Kennedy School of Government ten years ago. I had lived in Prague, far from the poorest place in the world but certainly poorer than the US, and traveled through Bulgaria, Serbia, and Turkey. I felt the guilt of privilege. I had a very high opinion of my own intelligence then, and when I was admitted to the MPA/ID program, I was confident I could be useful, somehow, though I had no idea how. Afterwards, I went to the World Bank, and spent a couple of months, in the spring of 2004, on a project in Malawi.

It may be that by the time I’m an old man, such poverty as I saw in Malawi will have vanished from the world for good. Malawi has improved since I was there (nothing to do with my work), though it’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. At that time, it was chronically on the brink of hunger. There had been, not quite a famine, but a food shortage in 2002. I was there in the spring, and my colleagues would look at the maize fields and say it wasn’t enough, they foresaw hunger coming. A Peace Corps volunteer I met, who had been there during the hunger in 2002, said she had seen someone dead in the road, dead simply of hunger. I was told that people from the cities visiting their relatives in the villages in those days would bring food, but with a layer of clothes on top. If stopped, they would claim they were delivering clothes. Food would be stolen. That’s hearsay, but I saw plenty with my own eyes. There were beggars everywhere. That seems to be a cultural difference, in part, for even well-off Malawians would ask you for stuff. One group of young people we met and spent an evening with had jobs in government ministries, yet afterwards they sent us an e-mail explaining their problems and asking for a few hundred dollars. But most of the beggars really were desperate.

There was a general lack of professionalism. I was working with people from the Malawian statistical agency. We would work 9am to 4pm, at a leisurely pace, which I was always pushing, and then they’d go home and I’d go back to the World Bank offices and keep working. The culture is relaxed. Indeed, the people were as friendly and pleasant as the weather. Americans, by contrast, seem much busier and more stressed. This is only an impression, and I don’t want to give offense, but it seemed to me that Malawians exhibit a good deal less forethought than Americans, or Europeans, or Russians do. It’s not an American thing, nor even a Western thing: in China, I had a very different impression, and I suspect that the Chinese practice forethought as much as Americans do. And doubtless there are exceptions among Malawians; but that did seem to be the pattern. If a Malawian had a full belly– again, take it with a grain of salt, but it was my impression– he was happy. That’s good in a way, but it doesn’t contribute to the long-term planning that grows the economy. Continue reading “World poverty” »