The rise of modern communications technology has drastically changed the way humans interact with each other. Physical distance matters less than ever. You my dear reader may be seeing this post of mine from 10 minutes away from my apartment or from 12,000 miles away. Indeed the difference in time which you might theoretically be able to first read this is insignificant between those two locations. Compared to times when it took six months to traverse the silk road from Europe to China that is absurd. And this technology is not limited by borders (with some important exceptions, though just like real borders people find ways to sneak around that). Looking at the author list for this site even it’s possible to find people from across the globe writing about open borders. Technology might be beating us to the punch on open borders (for a similar argument that poverty might end before we open the borders see Vipul’s earlier post). So if this is all true does this mean there’s no point to open borders advocacy? Has technology already won the battle for us?
This argument emphasizes the rapid strides being made in the elimination of world poverty, improvement in other human development measures, and progress of technology around the world. The end of 2010 saw a lot of celebratory articles about the past decade and the promise of the future (such as this). One website aims to end poverty by 2015, and their ambitious blueprint doesn’t include open borders or anything close. The Global Poverty Project uses a simple line fitting to estimate that poverty can be ended by 2040 or so, provided the right steps are taken — steps that don’t involve significant changes to immigration policies (see here and here). Open borders advocate Bryan Caplan thinks that, even without a shift to an open borders policy, absolute poverty will be completely eliminated and living standards will be much higher a hundred years from now.
If open borders advocacy does significantly open world borders, the process is likely to take at least 15-30 years. If all the things that people are already doing will lead to the elimination of poverty within 15-30 years, doesn’t that dramatically undercut the end of poverty argument for open borders? And once poverty is eliminated, won’t the pressure for open borders dissipate considerably? Perhaps open borders will be rendered redundant, and so there’s no point working oneself up over them?
This argument has some merit, but I list here some counter-arguments.
Open borders now help people now, and 15-30 fewer years of poverty mean a lot
If open borders can solve the problem of world poverty more rapidly, then they’re worth it. It’s true that completely open borders will take a long time to achieve. But even minor, partial reductions in migration restrictions that can help a few people would be a meaningful improvement in their lives. Continue reading Optimistic futility arguments against open borders→
In a video titled Immigration, World Poverty, and Gumballs, Dr. Roy Beck (CEO of NumbersUSA, an immigration restrictionist group) argues for the futility of trying to solve the gigantic problem of world poverty by permitting a trickle of immigration:
Dr. Beck’s goal is to argue against immigration, but a careful reading of his arguments shows that they provide strong support to substantially more open borders as a mechanism to double world GDP and end world poverty.
What Dr. Beck gets right
Dr. Beck is correct to point out that the United States currently takes in a very small number of immigrants, and even the most ambitious currently realistic proposals, which may double or triple the number of immigrants, would still be quantitatively insignificant relative to the size either of the United States or the countries sending immigrants. Further, he is also right that, with the exception of illegal immigration (most of it along the southern border with Mexico) most immigration to the US is that of highly skilled workers, rather than the few billion people who live in moderate and extreme poverty.
Thus, Dr. Beck is right to chide those supporters of the status quo who believe that current US immigration policy is making a significant direct impact on reducing world poverty. It’s not.
What Dr. Beck gets wrong and omits from consideration
Dr. Beck does, however, get a few things wrong. Most importantly, he ignores the fact that the value of an individual escaping poverty and improving his or her condition of life is not reduced by the existence of others in poverty. Saving a single starving child is no less worthwhile an endeavor if there are a hundred other starving children. Consider the story of The Girl and the Starfish (quote from Everything2.com):
Once there was a great, great storm. Waves high as mountains, winds strong as giants.
But that’s not important
What is important is the next day, when Old Man Acha comes walking down the beach, looking for bodies and treasure, the last remnants of ships gone to sleep in the storm. He has to pick his way carefully, ’cause the beach is littered in starfish, castaways from the deep. The storm plucked them from their watery beds and deposited the poor souls on the sandy shore. Acha steps around them – many still alive. He keeps ambling up the beach, minding his own business, when he spies a youngling. She’s throwing starfish into the ocean, many as she can, but still not makin’ a dent in the piles. The Old Man, he wonders at this and says:
“Why bother to throw back any? How can it matter when there are so many? You throw back one, you still left with a ton? You never save them all.”
That little girl she doesn’t even pause to glance his way. She just keeps on flinging those ‘fish back in the sea. She stops only long enough to say:
“It matters to this one”
as she flings it into the ocean.
As noted on the Double world GDP page, a literature summary by Michael Clemens suggests that even partial open borders would lead to a greater increase in world GDP than the removal of all barriers to trade and capital flows. Also, as noted on the end of poverty page, a significant fraction of the individuals from poor countries who escape poverty have done so through migration, even with currently restrictive migration policies. The country-level aggregated statistics often paint a misleading picture due to compositional effects, which is why development economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett use income per natural instead of income per resident to track the effect of migration.
Finally, Dr. Beck’s argument contains an interesting asymmetry. On the one hand, he dismisses the value of a few million people from third world countries escaping poverty and/or a few skilled workers from third world countries being able to find a job in the developed world that allows them to put their skills to better use for the benefit of the world, based on the logic that these are only a drop in the bucket. On the other hand, he expresses great concern for the even more modest harms to immigrant-receiving countries.
All in all, it’s a great speech, and despite its errors of omission and commission, it does get one thing right: what the United States has today is far from open borders. Something much more radical is needed to make a rapid dent in world poverty. Kudos to Dr. Beck for spreading this important truth!
"The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP" — Bryan Caplan