Tag Archives: Joseph Carens

My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This argument was developed by Mr. Carens. In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” he uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255) Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate. In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

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

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

This argument was formulated by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”  he argues that unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434) Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures. Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ right not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

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

Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

Philosophers, wonks and entrepreneurs

I’ve talked about open borders and migration-related issues with people coming from a range of different perspectives (including a wide range of open borders supporters at different levels), and I’ve often found that people are talking past each other. This is partly because of fundamental differences in the mindset that people bring to thinking about the current state of the world and how to change it. In this post, I describe three main (plus some additional) perspectives on the world, and their meaning in the context of open borders.

Philosophers, specifically moral philosophers and ethicists

The moral philosopher or ethicist is interested in figuring out the right course of action, but in a very abstract sense. The moral philosopher may consider questions such as whether we have a duty to vote, whether we are obliged to obey and respect governments’ authority, whether we should eat meat, or whether we have an obligation to make large donations to end poverty. Some of the questions considered refer to the moral choices that individuals face, while others refer to moral choices faced by collectives, represented through intermediaries such as governments, businesses, or other organizations.

Some moral philosophies are deontological, so practical considerations, including the costs and consequences of the relevant alternatives, are not that important. Other moral philosophies are consequentialist, so practical considerations matter in answering moral questions (the most salient example is utilitarianism, where different choices are compared in terms of utility). However, although a consequentialist perspective might seem to be more practical, it is still a philosophical perspective: practical considerations matter only insofar as they shed light on what is right.

Examples of open borders philosophers include Michael Huemer, Jason Brennan, Joseph Carens, and Bryan Caplan. One interesting example to illustrate how the philosopher perspective uses practical considerations merely as a tool of philosophical argumentation is offered by the way people such as Huemer (e.g., here) and Caplan (e.g., here) typically deploy keyhole solutions. When Caplan brings up keyhole solutions, he’s not actually advocating them, let alone offering a specific keyhole solution that he is fully getting behind. In fact, as he’s clarified, he thinks pure open borders is preferable to keyhole solutions, or what I call the (1) > (2) > (3) preference ordering in this post. Rather, he’s using keyhole solutions to win the debate on whether it’s feasible to move in the direction of open borders.

As I noted in my post on Bryan Caplan’s open borders advocacy:

Although Caplan has proposed keyhole solutions, he doesn’t spend enough effort developing these or explaining why and how they may actually be made practical and palatable. Commenters on his posts may get the impression that he is using “keyhole solutions” as a way to deflect restrictionist arguments rather than looking at the reality on the ground regarding what’s actually politically feasible.

Commenter BK agreed and went further:

So generalized pro-immigration ideological pushes strengthen the opponents of keyhole solutions more than they support keyhole solutions. And in practice Bryan and folk at this site do seem to use keyhole solutions primarily as a rhetorical fig-leaf to deflect opposition and shut down conversations.

But from the philosopher perspective, establishing the existence of keyhole solutions can be sufficient to make a case even if one doesn’t feel the onus of developing or recommending them (in Bryan’s case, the logic is analogous to the logic of his views on desert: if one could come up with some way that a person could avoid a bad situation, then they do not deserve sympathy for that bad situation; similarly, if one could come up with keyhole solutions that could in principle allow for open borders, then one has no excuse to maintain the closed border status quo).

When Open Borders: The Case began, it had a fairly heavy philosophical bent. This made sense, because philosophy seems to offer a good place to start an investigation into a change as big and complex as open borders. I feel that this site (and the “open borders movement” at large) has exhausted the philosophical perspective more than the other perspectives. There’s still work to be done with respect to outreach and refinement, but the most important new ground to break on the question won’t come from a purely philosophical angle.

To the extent that work remains on the philosophical side, I believe it will be something of the sort where we apply philosophical reasoning to concrete, specific problems that exist in the world today. Thus, rather than writing another generic post about the right to migrate, we could argue that open borders is the only ethically consistent way of dealing with refugees and DREAMers.

UPDATE: In the comments of an Open Borders Action Group post by Joel Newman linking to an interview in the New York Times of philosopher Joseph Carens, John Lee excerpts a part of the interview that describes the philosopher perspective:

G.G.: So, why argue for open borders if it is not a feasible policy?

J.C.: Because philosophers should tell the truth as they see it (even when that makes some people mad). And it can be important to gain a critical perspective on existing arrangements, even if we cannot do much to change them at the moment. The feudal system was once deeply entrenched. So was the institution of slavery. For a long time, there was no real hope of changing those social systems. Yet criticism was still appropriate. If we don’t ask fundamental questions about the justice or injustice of our social arrangements, we wind up legitimating what should only be endured.

Wonks and policy catalysts

The wonkish perspective to open borders focuses on finding practical solutions or paths in a public policy context. Wonks are interested in the philosophy and ethics insofar as it tells them what subjects to focus on, and insofar as it provides some moral boundaries within which they can explore alternatives, but they’re more interested in working out the details of proposals that are, or might soon become, practical proposals for serious considerations.

Historically, there have been a lot of migration wonks (see for instance our list of migration information web resources and pro-immigration web resources), but few of them, even those whose recommendations push in the direction of freer migration, have identified with the cause of radically freer migration, let alone with “open borders” as a term. Partly, this could be because they are genuine moderates. Partly, this is because wonks, focused as they are on what’s immediately feasible, may lose sight of the ultimately desirable North Star. There are examples of wonks who, even as they propose moderate keyhole solutions, appreciate open borders as a potential end goal. Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett come with a more distinctively academic pedigree, but are still focused on finding ways to get from here to there, and advocating for their particular keyhole solutions with governments, the public, and the intelligentsia. A particularly salient example is Clemens’ work on expanding the H-2 program in the United States to Haiti and trying to make it more easily accessibl to Haitians.

There are also a few wonks at libertarian think tanks who address migration-related issues, and at least in principle support radical open borders, even if the proposals they table for immediate consideration are more gradual. Examples include Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation. And then there are people like Matthew Yglesias who view open borders as a worthy end goal but offer far more moderate proposals for immediate consideration. Moreover, even those who are naturally philosophers can don a wonk’s hat and come up with practical proposals. Open Borders: The Case blogger Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal (that he designed before this site came into existence) and co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s suggestion of making use of NAFTA’s labor provision are examples.

Open Borders: The Case has represented the wonkish perspective to a fair degree, though somewhat less so than the philosopher perspective. My co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave’s recent post suggesting next steps for the open borders movement basically argues that it’s time for the open borders movement to shift focus from the philosopher perspective to the wonk perspective.

But there’s a very important third perspective that is often ignored in this context, and may well be more promising than it looks.


Entrepreneurs, like wonks, are focused on practical, immediate changes. However, unlike wonks, the practicality of entrepreneurs is not directed primarily at influencing policy. Entrepreneurs do not assume they have the ear of political decision-makers, or a special seat at the table in political negotiations. Rather, they’re attempting to find ways of attacking problems, starting off as ordinary people (albeit with some financial resources and personal connections).

Philosophers tend to be morally judgmental, telling people and institutions what they should believe and do. Wonks tend to be largely accepting of public opinion and belief systems, and tend to either move it at the margin or attempt to influence government policy holding public opinion fixed. Entrepreneurs try to directly sell stuff to the people, attempting to either change public opinion or ignore it and still provide value to the minority that defies the public. The entrepreneurial perspective hasn’t really been given much importance on Open Borders: The Case, or in policy discussions of migration in general. This makes prima facie sense: the main obstacles to open borders seem like policy obstacles, and policy change seems essential. Apolitical entrepreneurship doesn’t seem like a good fit.

But I’d like to argue that entrepreneurs are more important than that. Consider business like Uber and Airbnb. Both companies (and many others in recent years) began by operating in a legal gray area, but soldiered ahead, despite injunctions and threats from city governments. And at some point, their services had a sufficiently large loyal following from users that city governments couldn’t really shut them down (but at the same time, they got big enough that they couldn’t ignore government threats, so they reached compromise “keyhole solutions”). For concrete examples with Airbnb, see this and this. And Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick’s disregard for legal barriers is part of the reason for the company’s success.

What would the analogous situation be for migration? Illegal immigration similarly represents a challenge to the status quo. Just like Uber has done more to challenge the status quo of highly restrictive taxi medallions than numerous academic papers and think tank reports on the subject, continued illegal immigration has done a lot more to keep the issue of migration restrictions and their effect live than the economic or philosophical literature on the subject could alone. One of the main reasons politicians in the United States even consider passing immigration reform is the large number of illegal immigrants who make the issue salient and hard to sweep under the rug. As my co-blogger Nathan Smith says, “heightening the contradictions” through continued amnesty for illegal immigrants might ultimately be the most feasible path to increasing freedom of migration. There are close parallels between such amnesty and post-facto legalization of the gray area services provided by companies like Uber and Airbnb.

Thus, one could argue that those who facilitate illegal migration directly (as human smugglers or document forgers) or indirectly (by providing legal assistance or employment opportunities to illegal immigrants) are making entrepreneurial moves in the direction of open borders. Such entrepreneurs invoke mixed feelings even among open borders advocates, given that operating a successful business of smuggling people in and forging documents can require engaging in many unethical and even violent activities (partly to avoid border controls, partly because the underground nature of the activity makes legal or open means of recourse difficult). A recent post of mine on snakeheads (human smugglers from China), with a special focus on the recently deceased Sister Ping, went into some detail on this matter. The tactics used by some of these people are several shades worse than Uber’s shady tactics to gain market share.

One doesn’t necessary have to directly help people migrate illegally in order to facilitate illegal migration or use illegal migration to help challenge the status quo. One can also assist illegal immigrants once they have migrated, with jobs, educational opportunities, places to stay, and evading immigration enforcement. These fall within the broad category of civil disobedience, on which we’ve done a few posts before.

That said, it’s not necessary to concentrate solely on breaking the law to make an entrepreneurial impact. Some other, more legally above-board routes of an entrepreneurial nature are described at our migration arbitrage business opportunities page and my philanthropic possibilities blog post. A particularly noteworthy example that I’d love to investigate further is CITA, a nonprofit that helps farmers in the United Stateas connect with people interested in doing farm work in nearby countries such as Mexico, so that they can legally apply for H-2 temporary work visas. There may be similar opportunities in other locations, such as Svalbard, Argentina, the UAE, Singapore, Sweden, and Thailand, where at least nominally there is considerable freedom of migration for people who have a job offer in the receiving country.

The social/moral psychologist

A fourth perspective, that is not seen so much from people when they are trying to push the world towards open borders, but that is a very important complement to such pushes, is that of the social or moral psychologist. Such a person strives to understand the world, and the way that humans are behaving in it. Social scientists are part of this spectrum, while moral psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt are in a different part.

Wonks versus philosophers: two apparent conclusions and why they’re premature

Some might interpret wonks’ apparent practicality as evidence that wonks are more keen to actually see open borders through than philosophers. This is not necessarily true. Many wonks may be motivated at least partly by their paycheck (not that this means they’re saying things they know to be false, but at minimum their proposing practical solutions doesn’t necessarily mean that they are more serious about migration liberalization).

One can also err by interpreting the divide in the opposite way. A person used to wonk-speak may consider a philosopher a starry-eyed extremist who lacks practical sense. But this isn’t necessarily because the philosopher’s actual practical recommendations (if he/she were required to come up with those) would be more extreme, it’s simply that the philosopher is trying to address a different question. Similarly, for those used to moral philosophy, the wonk’s moderation may seem like wussiness, but that may not reflect objective truth. The wonk/philosopher divide is thus closely related to the moderate/radical divide and the moral/practical divide, but it provides a slightly different focal perspective on these divides.

Some hybrids

I think of FWD.us (that we’ve blogged about in the past) as an ill-conceived attempt at an entrepreneur-wonk-philosopher hybrid. Coming from (and attempting to embody) a Silicon Valley culture, FWD.us adopted the machismo of entrepreneurs. It borrowed a little bit from philosophical language, but offered no clear idea of what the underlying moral beliefs were and why. But its proposed path to success was purely wonkish. In light of this confused hybrid, it’s unsurprising that the group hasn’t really been able to achieve much, and that Joe Green, the President and CEO, was ultimately pushed out.

The DREAMer movement offers another interesting kind of hybrid. At one level, DREAMers are entrepreneurs: they’re engaged in openly defying and disobeying an existing system of laws, thereby making the contradictions between those laws and commonsense morality more apparent. At another level, to the extent that they propose, or at least stand behind, policy changes, they are playing the wonk. And to the extent that they directly appeal to people’s conscience about the correct way to treat DREAMers, they are engaging in moral philosophy.

The DREAMer hybrid has ben most successful in the entrepreneurial sense: they were able to acquire sufficient political salience that a DREAM Act has sort-of-been in the works for a while, and in June 2012, Obama passed his de facto DREAM Act called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The credit goes to DREAMer thought leaders such as Jose Antonio Vargas and his organization Define American, as well as numerous other grassroots organizations that have pushed for the issue. As wonks, the DREAMers have been relatively weak, offering no compelling long-term or robust solution. As philosophers, I think they’ve been even weaker. My co-blogger Michelangelo, himself a DREAMer, takes issue with what he considers flawed DREAMer logic and proposes instead that the DREAMer movement should use the case for open borders as a foundation. Occasional blogger David Bennion has argued that the DREAMer movement, and undocumented organizers at large, could pave the way towards open borders, and cited his own work for the DREAM 30 as an example.

Pro-immigration organizations such as the Immigration Policy Center, not explicitly pro-open borders, offer an interesting hybrid. They’re largely wonkish, but they also engage in and indirectly promote various forms of activism that could be construed as entrepreneurial. Personally, I’ve found their philosophical foundations to be poor. This isn’t necessarily an overwhelming criticism, because they specialize in something else. There is also a somewhat related issue of how their pro-immigration stance could conflict with certain kinds of keyhole solutions, and how they may be reluctant to consider trade-offs that improve greater freedom of migration in exchange for fewer immigrant rights (I discussed this a while back in this post, but there’s a lot more I hope to say on the rights-volume trade-off in future posts, probably referring to the work of Martin Ruhs).

Addendum: philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs against migration

The philosopher/wonk/entrepreneur distinction also applies to those who oppose some or all migration. This reference page on our site discusses the various philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments, and includes commonly used argument types such as citizenism, territorialism, and local inequality aversion. Unsurprisingly, I think that the philosophical bases for arguments against freedom of migration seem weak, but that’s what you’d expect from a blogger on Open Borders: The Case.

The anti-open borders wonkish perspective is represented by organizations such as those listed on the anti-immigration web resources page. In the United States, the most respectable (in the view of legislators) of the anti-immigration think tanks is the Center for Immigration Studies.

What about anti-immigration entrepreneurship? The Minutemen and various other vigilante justice and citizen initiatives to identify and report illegal immigrants come to mind. One could also argue that websites like VDARE offer interesting (if confused) philosopher-wonk-entrepreneur hybrids.

Making the moral case for open borders: Crooked Timber’s symposium on the work of Joseph Carens

Bryan Caplan, the economist who originally inspired the founding of this website (and who is quoted in our masthead to this day), is a tireless advocate for both the economic and moral case for open borders. Today, however, he ought to take second billing to ethicist Joseph Carens, who has been building the moral case for open borders since the 1980s. The Crooked Timber blog is running a symposium on Carens’s new bookThe Ethics of Immigration. I highly encourage you to read the symposium contributions, which prod Carens’s case for its weak points.

In case you missed it when the book first came out (what, you mean you don’t pay attention to the latest and greatest developments in the ethics of border policy?), Dylan Matthews did a fantastic interview with Carens in the Washington Post which I cannot recommend highly enough. Carens summarises the thrust of his book, which he divides into two portions:

  1. First, he argues that even if you grant states utter carte blanche over who they can exclude via border policy, it follows from well-established principles of law and liberal democracy that states are still morally required to allow certain foreigners who may immigrate illegally to stay, once they have sufficiently integrated;
  2. Then, he argues that actually, you should not grant states carte blanche discretion in how they determine who to exclude, any more than you should allow a handful of feudal lords to determine the future of millions of serfs.

There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, so do read the interview (and Carens’s book, if you have the time). I’ve also previously written about that first portion of Carens’s argument on this blog. At the time I write this, Crooked Timber has so far published four takes on Carens’s ideas, by four different authors:

  1. Chris Bertram, criticising Carens’s assumption that his view of the “democratic consensus” about membership in liberal societies is widely-held
  2. Ryan Pevnick, arguing that Carens bites off more than he can chew when he posits that states should offer amnesty to unauthorised migrants who have sufficiently integrated into their societies (I’ve written about Carens’s argument here before)
  3. Brian Weatherson, questioning the validity of Carens’s analogy between movement across international borders versus movement across subnational borders (Carens is not alone in using this; see also “Save Fairfax” and “Texas to Americans: Stay in America“)
  4. Kenan Malik, on the risks of further entrenching the notions that the status quo is “realistic,” or that open borders are utopian

Bertram’s promised in the inaugural post of the symposium that Carens will make an appearance at the end to respond to his critics. I’m looking forward to seeing what other responses they have lined up.

Ultimately, I believe the case for open borders rests much more than just on the pecuniary returns from liberating the families and workers of the world to go and be where they truly want to be. Even if the pecuniary returns to open borders were mildly negative, that would not constitute an open-and-shut case for junking the idea. On the contrary, I think the ethical case for scrutinising how our states exclude people on account of a condition of their birth is extremely resilient to different sets of economic tradeoffs.

That is not to say that I believe we ought to be insensitive or blind to the economic effects of immigration. I simply think that our societies need to weigh on our consciences as well how our immigration controls immiserate and exclude billions of people without any basis beyond the condition of their birth. Both the economic and moral case for open borders matter; I think philosopher Jason Brennan sums them both up nicely when he says:

If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

It should not surprise us that the economic disaster of closed borders might have ethical ramifications. Few government decisions, short of actually going to war, have the power to literally make or break the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions of people. In his book Let Their People Come, economist Lant Pritchett (another pioneer of the open borders movement) gives one illustration of the impact which border exclusions can have:

Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year.However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

Now, to be sure, even under open borders we would likely not see full equality of child mortality rates across nations. But to the extent our border controls prohibit Indians from seeking access to more efficient healthcare delivery systems and more qualified doctors, we have contributed to the problem of “missing Indians” — innocent lives snuffed out on account of these babies “choosing” the wrong country to be born in. To bring it home, Pritchett actually goes on to cite Carens’s ethical analysis immediately after this discussion to reinforce his point.

(Pritchett’s book is a tour de force of the case for open borders, and as much as I like Carens, if you choose to read only one book after this, I don’t think you have much of an excuse for failing to read Pritchett: his book is available for free online. )

The nature of how our societies exclude billions of people carries huge ramifications, both economic and ethical. Even though we might disagree with the analysis here, it is critical that we understand just what these ramifications are. When our states literally hold the lives of people in their hands, as they often do when it comes to migration, we have an imperative to strictly scrutinise what our governments do in our name.

This is why Carens’s work matters: somebody has to ask hard ethical questions about government policies which, in arguably quite a literal sense, are a matter of life or death for hundreds of millions. I hope to see many more symposiums like this one. More than that, I hope to see these ideas penetrate the popular consciousness.

Some years ago, novelist Orson Scott Card authored a few brilliant, non-academic elucidations of ideas clearly embedded in Carens’s and Pritchett’s work. In fact, for an illustration of what Carens talks about when it comes to exclusion and arbitrariness, it is hard to outdo Card’s depiction of what would happen if the US were to deport all its unlawful immigrants. The ultimate point of the academy is to mine our brightest minds for the best ideas, and to have those ideas make a difference in our society: I hope to see more of Carens’s ideas (and also those of his reviewers in this symposium) seeping into the mainstream’s consciousness, just as they seem to have in the case of Card’s.

I started this post with a mention of economist Bryan Caplan, whose activism served as inspiration for this site. Perhaps it is fitting to close with Bryan’s words on just why this academic work is so important:

If research energy were proportional to the inefficiency of the status quo, virtually every economist would study immigration.  And if outrage were proportional to harm, virtually every protest on earth would be in favor of open borders.

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 2

This is a continuation of an earlier post where I began discussing The Ethics of Immigration by Joseph Carens (Oxford University Press, 2013). The item numbering continues from the previous post.

#7: Reasonable accommodations by and for migrants

Chapter 4 of Carens’ book covers an aspect of migration that is related to, but at the same time largely orthogonal to, the question of open borders. Specifically, Carens considers what reasonable accommodations migrants and non-migrants should ideally make for each other for harmonious living. Much of this discussion is not specifically related to migration policy or even to politics — though people with an expansive view of the state’s role would infer many political prescriptions from it, those of a more libertarian or voluntaryist nature could simply consider these as soft guidelines for the actions of individuals and organizations.

Importantly, Carens argues the following (the summary presented below is my own — Carens does not list these points together the way I’m doing — and therefore the act of summarizing may reflect to a large extent my own judgment of what is most important):

  • He argues that the democratic ethos goes beyond majority rule, to reasonable accommodation of people’s differences where possible. Such reasonable accommodation is not simply limited to non-violation of people’s legally guaranteed basic rights, but also to not making people unduly uncomfortable or inconveniencing them without appropriate justification. To some extent, this involves migrants accommodating the beliefs and adjusting to the conventions of the majority, even when it conflicts with their personal religious or cultural beliefs. At the same time, non-migrants also have a responsibility to make reasonable accommodations towards migrants where this does not impose huge costs.
  • Generally, Carens says, it is reasonable to expect migrants to do most of the adjusting — after all, they are the ones who chose to move. For instance, they may be expected to acquire (and provide to their children) a working familiarity with the main language of the region, follow the rules of the road, and be respectful to the dress choices and habits of natives. Carens argues that in prcatice, migrants do do most of the adjusting. At the same time, there is a nonzero level of responsibility (in the loose sense) for non-migrants to accommodate migrant preferences. For instance, he argues, natives should not be critical of migrants for talking in the non-native language when conversing among themselves in public, though they may have a reasonable expectation that migrants will attempt to converse in the native language when interacting with natives.
  • Carens argues in favor of being flexible to make exceptions to general rules. He is critical of the idea that rules must be enforced rigidly on everybody, and also opposes the ideal of formal equality. He cites the example of holidays here. In a country influenced heavily by Christianity (even if people are not devoutly Christian), Sunday is likely the day off for most businesses. This works best for Christians who attend Sunday services. For Muslims or Jews, whose religious observances are on Friday and Saturday respectively, this could pose an inconvenience. Carens rejects the option of: (a) a formal “equality” where the holiday date is shifted to a completely unrelated day, such as Tuesday, to be “fair” between religions, or (b) making all three days holidays (insofar as that might not be economically feasible). However, he argues that businesses and institutions can show some flexibility to their employees who hold the alternative religious beliefs, for instance, by giving Muslims a few hours off on Friday. There are no hard-and-fast rules here — the type of accommodation would depend on the employer and employee, but the general principle should be one of looking for possible accommodations.

Here is a quote from Carens:

The challenge for this chapter is to say something about the sort of democratic ethos that is needed in a political community if citizens of immigrant origin are to be fully included . Here a caution is in order. In public discussions of immigration, it is a recurring theme that immigrants and their descendants should accept democratic values and practice democratic virtues. Suitably qualified, that is a reasonable expectation, as we shall see. But an equally reasonable and perhaps more important expectation is that other citizens also accept democratic values and practice democratic virtues . All too often, the assumption seems to be that the majority of citizens already possess the values and virtues that are needed for a democracy to function properly. But that is frequently not the case. Democratic principles require the inclusion of immigrants, and the inclusion of immigrants requires the majority of citizens to embrace the implications of the principles and values that they profess. This will often entail developing attitudes and dispositions that many citizens do not yet exhibit, at least in the requisite degree. I will say more about these requirements as the chapter proceeds. People sometimes speak of the need for democratic states to engage in a more “muscular” assertion of their values and to demand adherence to those values from people living in their societies. If that is indeed what is called for, a lot more of the muscle should be applied to the nonimmigrant majority of citizens than is commonly acknowledged.

Carens, Joseph (2013-09-19). The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford Political Theory) (p. 64). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.

#8: Communitarian versus contractarian views of citizenship

Carens makes a theoretically deep point about communitarian and contractarian views of citizenship. In most political philosophizing (cf. social contract theory), the set of people (citizens) is fixed in advance, and their relationship and mutual obligations with the state are considered in that context. Carens believes that bringing migration into the picture helps us step back. We see that citizenship is not really the fundamental source of moral or social obligation, but a consequence — a formalization of a particular level of connection with the community. Carens says that social membership precedes citizenship — that citizenship (or the right thereto) is a consequence of being a part of the community, rather than a formal grant of citizenship creating a right to such a community. Carens also emphasizes the idea that social membership matters morally.

This is important because Carens uses it as a basis (implicitly — he pieces the theory together after examining all the individual cases) for arguing about why people are entitled to citizenship. People such as:

  • children born to citizens, permanent residents, or temporary workers, or even to irregular migrants (his word for illegal/undocumented) who are staying long enough,
  • anybody who’s stayed for a few years as a child,
  • anybody who’s stayed long enough as an adult.

He also argues that levels of social membership aren’t in the binary category of citizen versus non-citizen. Permanent residents who have enough roots to call the place their home deserve most of the same rights as citizens, including the right to return and the right against deportation, even if they haven’t lived long enough to become citizens. He also argues (alluded to in earlier points) that most laws should be the same for temporary workers and irregular migrants. Some exceptions he makes:

  1. Temporary workers may be exempted (optionally or mandatorily) from work-related social programs, and for a limited period (maybe the first couple months) ineligible for welfare or unemployment insurance. He says that if temporary workers are required to participate in work-related social insurance programs (so as not to make them cheaper to employers than permanent employers) the non-redistributive component of the program (i.e., the part that they would in expectation get paid back were they to stay longer) should be returned to them on their departure. What he’s suggesting seems to be a lot like my co-blogger Nathan Smith’s DRITI — except he’s using existing social insurance taxes rather than adding a new set of taxes.
  2. Some restrictions on employment opportunities for irregular migrants.
  3. Non-permanent residents may be barred from government offices that involve sensitive matters of national security.

The communitarian approach followed by Carens is different in focus from Steve Sailer’s preferred foundation for citizenism. Sailer defines citizenism as the doctrine that government policy should be biased in favor of current citizens and their descendants. Now, to be clear, Sailer, like many citizenists, does consider community loyalty and ties to be an important component of citizenship — hence his proposal that prospective immigrants be required to spend 100 hours doing community service outside of their ethnic group in order to receive citizenship. But Sailer, and citizenist restrictionists at large, view community belonging as a necessary but not sufficient condition for a non-citizen to become a citizen. Carens thinks that being a part of the community for a sufficient length of time — without having done anything special (such as Sailer’s community service proposal) for it per se — entitles one to citizenship.

#9: Firewalling government services from immigration enforcement

Carens argues that for irregular migrants, all of their basic human rights (protection of life, liberty, etc.) should apply in theory and in practice. His suggestion for making sure they apply in practice: establish a firewall between all agencies tasked with protecting basic human rights or basic services, and the immigration enforcement. In other words, these agencies are required not to report any information about irregular migration status to immigration enforcement authorities, and any information that is reported via these agencies cannot be treated as evidence. He points out precedents:

  • There are restrictions on the information that the Internal Revenue Service can share with immigration enforcement agencies in the United States, though it’s unclear how strongly these restrictions apply in practice (see here).
  • Some “sanctuary cities” in the United States, such as San Francisco, have policies of the sort Carens advocates.
  • There are rules in criminal cases that evidence collected through illicit means cannot be used, and similar rules can apply in immigration cases.

Carens also says that the children of irregular migrants should have the right to a free public education, just as the children of temporary workers do (this is conditional to such a right existing for citizens, but Carens assumes that that follows from “democratic principles”).

Carens also says that after people have resided for some length of time, they become part of the society, and should be regularized. He suggests 5 years as the length of time after which people deserve to be regularized as permanent long-term residents. This applies both to temporary workers on a regular migration status and to irregular migrants.

So what can governments do to enforce the status quo? Carens says that border security would be acceptable in principle — provided it can be done in a way that doesn’t add to human tragedy (border-crossing deaths, etc.), but that often the human toll of border security makes it unacceptable. But his main proposal is the restrictionist favorite of attrition through enforcement: heavy penalties for employers who hire irregular migrants. He has an interesting twist though: if an employer has hired an irregular migrant, that particular migrant has a right to the wages for that worker and to legal recourse if the wages are denied (and the enforcement of this legal recourse channel has a firewall with immigration enforcement). Also, he says that employers should not be allowed to report their own workers’ irregular status.

Carens offers one argument in favor of blaming employers: they are part of the society, so they can be held to the standard of the laws of that society, whereas migrants aren’t part of the social contract. Nonetheless, I find his arguments unconvincing. Why single out employers as the one group to be punished, while doing the very opposite — firewalling — for all the other groups? Carens says that if immigrants aren’t able to find employment, they’re likely to leave (the attrition-through-enforcement idea) but this applies to housing, and plausibly to education for children, and other services Carens thinks should be firewalled. Carens arguably sees the right to work as somehow less fundamental than all the other rights, at least when he’s putting on his status quo hat, and this seems reminiscent of anti-market bias.

Stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll look at the case Carens makes for family reunification and reforming the system for refugee asylum and resettlement.