Tag Archives: Joseph Carens

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 1

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

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

#1: Broad strategy followed by Carens

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

#2: Alleged target audience

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

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

#3: The “democratic principles” catchphrase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#6: Against occupation-specific work visas

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

Consider these three types of prices of farm work:

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

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

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

Uphold the rule of law, and let your illegal immigrants stay

A common restrictionist trope is that allowing people who have settled unlawfully to regularise their legal status would be an intolerable departure from legal tradition and the rule of law. But in his recent book Immigrants and the Right to Stay, philosopher Joseph Carens demonstrates that the opposite is true: our legal and moral traditions demand a rules-based system for regularising the unauthorised. Justice and the rule of law are perverted when they deny people due process and instead offer them justice so delayed that to call it anything but denied would make the term “delay” a mockery.

Carens’s basic contention: anyone who has lived in a community for a certain period of time can be reasonably considered a member of that community and should be afforded similar rights as other members of that community. This sounds rather abstract, so let me put this to you: someone is a pillar of your community. Attends your religious services, well, religiously. Always ready to lend a helping hand when a neighbour could use it. Always the first to chip in a donation for someone in need. Never in trouble with the law. One day, the authorities raid his home and evict him, on the grounds that a long, long time ago, he didn’t fill out the right form allowing him to join this community. Not that he murdered someone; not that he trafficked drugs; he filled out the wrong forms, and that makes him “illegal”.

Carens’s contention, which makes eminent sense, is that your status as part of a community of people does not flow from a piece of paper. It flows from your contributions to and standing with your peers. We do not gain our humanity, our family, our friends, our neighbours from the law. We learn about and make our families, friends, and neighbours long before the law ever got or gets involved. In his book, Carens notes that the British immigration authorities once tried to deport an 80-year-old woman who had lived in the United Kingdom her entire adult life, and only public outrage stopped them. If living somewhere for 60 years makes you a member of the community, Carens notes, then might not a shorter time period still grant you similar standing? He ultimately proposes a waiting period of 5 to 7 years. Irrespective of what the right period should be, the principle is clear: living somewhere in peace with your fellow man eventually makes you a part of that community. The law cannot tear that community apart without tearing up basic morality.

Carens notes that tradition is on his side: that even countries like the US, where today any amnesty is seen as taboo by many, have a long history of allowing people who have lived there for a certain period of time to regularise. Even today, many countries have ongoing rules-based regularisation regimes: simply identify yourself to the authorities, present proof you’ve lived peacefully in the community long enough, and the sword of Damocles over your head is lifted.

Basic legal principles are on Carens’s side too: typically, the statute of limitations on most crimes isn’t more than a few decades, and for many crimes it’s under a decade. (The statute of limitations refers to the period of time after a crime after which the state can no longer prosecute you for it.) In most jurisdictions, only the worst crimes, such as murder, don’t have a statute of limitations. As I’ve written before, the US legal system treats crossing an imaginary line (which harms nobody) as a crime worse than exploiting children for sex. US law essentially sends the message that crossing a border illegally is worse than filming child pornography or committing murder!

And regardless of what harm may inherently occur from crossing an invisible and arbitrary line, I certainly don’t think you can reasonably compare it to filming child pornography or murder. The primary “harm” of non-violent border crossing is economic competition between foreigners and natives. But how is Josef “stealing” a job from Joe supposed to be harming Joe, while John taking a job Joe could have taken isn’t any harm at all? Why do we criminalise Josef from earning an honest living because it might “harm” someone, while we allow Johns to steal jobs from Joes every day? Competing on a level playing field is not an infringement of anyone’s legal rights, unless you believe some people are less human than others.

And yet dehumanisation of the foreign-born is yet another message which the legal system sends: we give inanimate objects more rights than people. The robot that “steals” your society’s jobs has an easier time getting into the country than a foreign-born person who might be able to do that robot’s job for even cheaper. And what does that robot contribute to your society? Maybe it creates jobs for robotics maintenance crews, but that’s about it. The human being is a living, organic part of our community — he or she creates jobs for and immeasurably enriches the lives of landlords, restauranteurs, hairdressers, community organisers. Despite this, most countries’ laws look more kindly on importing inanimate objects that “destroy” jobs than they do on allowing free people to come in and “create” service jobs. And we have somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that this legal system makes moral sense: I once asked a free trade advocate why he opposes liberalisation of immigration laws. He proudly told me that it was because he believes, I quote, “people are not commodities.”

Sure, you can pretend your legal system humanely does allow immigrants to come. But most people consider waiting a year for any government document a rather intolerable delay. For many immigrants — on occasion, even the spouses and children of citizens — a year’s wait is far better than anything they got. Some immigrants to the US are getting their visas today after waiting in the “queue” for over two decades. Many of the “queues” for US visas are backlogged by decades — 80 years in some cases. And the US has one of the better immigration systems out there! Is it even right to speak of a queue for immigration to the UK, when the government’s avowed goal is to cut net immigration essentially to 0 — and it has every intention of accomplishing this by hook or by crook, regardless of how many families and communities and jobs it must destroy? If the phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” was not coined to describe the world’s immigration laws, it seems remarkably apt.

The world’s numerous legal systems have tried to ban many things in the past. They have experimented with banning various sexual acts among consenting adults, banning alcohol production/distribution, banning interracial families. They have tried and they have failed. What we find is that pretending to enforce the unenforceable only engenders disrespect for the law. It makes a mockery of the rule of law when we concoct laws that cannot be enforced. Now, these are not laws that many people were willing to risk their lives to violate — yet these laws could not stand. Meanwhile, every single day, innocent people around the world risk death in deserts or on the high seas to get into countries that offer them no legal way to enter. What hope have we of ever enforcing a law that bans innocent, hardworking people from supporting themselves and taking care of their families?

Moralists and conservatives often worry about what message the law is sending. I have to agree: what message does the law send when it deports a mother for caring for her children? When it denies the husband a visa to live with his wife? When it tells the hardworking wage-earner, “Sorry — the queue is 50 years long, don’t even dare send an employer your CV”? We are making a mockery of fundamental morality when we criminalise the family and we criminalise honest wages. As Carens says, the law is violating social reality.

Yes, the message is supposed to be: when crossing made-up lines on the map, identify yourself to the proper authorities. Somehow this is a crime worse than exploiting children for sex, and at least as bad as murder. If that is the message the law wants to send, ok. But if our message really is that innocent people identify themselves properly, why not allow them to do so? If this really is your concern, what do you have against allowing people to identify themselves after they have entered — or simply allowing people to enter and identify themselves at regular ports of entry, instead of making them wait in a queue that’s so long, it shouldn’t be called a queue at all?

There are a lot of things we could do to move to a more just legal system, one offering all people the due process they deserve. But Carens’s moral and philosophical case for ongoing regularisations intrigues me, precisely because it so neatly reconciles many of the moral absurdities of arbitrary immigration restrictions with the rule of law. Offering people a transparent legal process to acknowledge their standing as contributors to our society and community resonates with the principles of justice. The punishment fits the crime, if you can call crossing a made-up line a crime at all.

We wouldn’t send people to jail 40 years after the fact for a speeding ticket. So why would we wreck families and communities years or decades after the fact? When we are presented with such absurdities, as shown in the case of the grandmother facing deportation from Britain, we recoil because we recognise that the law is destroying the community and imposing a punishment all out of proportion to the offense. A legal mechanism for regularising “illegals” should be essential for any civilised society. If we can’t have truly open borders, we should at least have an immigration regime that doesn’t make a mockery of the rule of law. Only barbarians believe the law should send the message that the just reward for doing our job or taking care of our family is deportation and exile from the place we call home.

The illusion of self-determination

The right of a people to determine its own fate—national self-determination—is one of pillars of the Westphalian model of world political order holding nation-state sovereignty as its core principle. It also underpins most philosophical defenses of the right of nation to control who moves across its borders and who can join its citizenry.

Here at the outset I’d like to submit that, provisionally, the principle of national self-determination makes a fair bit of sense. The principle was included in the Westphalian model in order to minimize war (capably discussed by my co-blogger in this post). It proscribes invasions of foreign lands for causes like defending or advancing a religion or ideology, for instance. After all, the birth of Protestantism was the proximate cause of the Thirty Years War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia and the principle of national self-determination.

But the presumption in favor of national self-determination can be overridden in certain circumstances. I take it as mostly uncontroversial to say that if a genocide is underway within a nation’s borders, national sovereignty carries insufficient moral weight to prevent a humanitarian intervention (even if, say, military intervention is ruled out for pragmatic reasons, it isn’t respect for sovereignty that restrains those who would intervene). More importantly (and less dramatically), I’d like to suggest that the principle of self-determination loses coherence when it strays too far from its primary task of protecting a population against external threats of violence.

To bring this to migration, national self-determination is often appealed to in order to justify the right of a state to limit its membership. Michael Walzer, the distinguished communitarian philosopher, has argued in his book, Spheres of Justice, that the authority to limit membership of the national community is fundamental to national independence.

Admission and exclusion are at the core of communal independence. They suggest the deepest meaning of self-determination. Without them, there could not be communities of character, historically ongoing associations of men and women with some special commitment to one another and some special sense of their common life.

In his essay, Immigration: the Case for Limits (found in this book), David Miller has also defended the right of the citizens of a nation to exclude migrants at the border on the basis of cultural continuity:

[T]he public culture of their country is something that people have an interest in controlling: they want to be able to shape the way that their nation develops, including the values that are contained in the public culture. They may not of course succeed: valued cultural features can be eroded by economic and other forces that evade political control. But they may certainly have good reason to try, and in particular to try to maintain cultural continuity over time, so that they can see themselves as the bearers of an identifiable cultural tradition that stretches backward historically.

The ability to preserve culture is fundamental to self-determination-based defenses of controlled borders. “The distinctiveness of cultures and groups depends upon closure. … If this distinctiveness is a value … then closure must be permitted somewhere.” (Walzer again) Given the persevering cultural distinctiveness that can be observed among the several states of the USA and among nations within the European Schengen area of porous borders, for a couple examples, it seems like this concern may be overwrought. Indeed, cultural distinctiveness can even be observed among various neighborhoods within individual multicultural metropolises around the world. Nonetheless, the preservation of national cultural distinctiveness has a strong and intuitive appeal. In Migration and Morality: a Liberal Egalitarian Perspective (found in this anthology), Joseph Carens—a friend of liberal migration if ever there was one—sketches out a case for limiting immigration for the sake of preserving culture as one of the few acceptable—in principle—justifications for limiting migration. He argues that Japanese culture, for example, would be worth preserving even to the inconvenience of would-be immigrants. This argument can only go so far, however, for he concludes that this cultural preservation can’t overcome the claims of migrants whose basic needs are not being met.

[M]ost people in Japan share a common culture, tradition and history to a much greater extent than people do in countries like Canada and the United States. It seems reasonable to suppose that many Japanese cherish their distinctive way of life, that they want to preserve it and pass it on to their children because they find that it gives meaning and depth to their lives. They cannot pass it on unchanged, to be sure, because no way of life remains entirely unchanged, but they can hope to do so in a form that retains both its vitality and its continuity with the past. In these ways many Japanese may have a vital interest in the preservation of a distinctive Japanese culture; they may regard it as crucial to their life projects. From a liberal egalitarian perspective this concern for preserving Japanese culture counts as a legitimate interest, assuming (as I do) that this culture is compatible with respect for all human beings as free and equal moral persons.

It also seems reasonable to suppose that this distinctive culture and way of life would be profoundly transformed if a significant number of immigrants came to live in Japan. A multicultural Japan would be a very different place. So, limits on new entrants would be necessary to preserve the culture if any significant number of people wanted to immigrate.

Carens anticipates the most obvious counter that restricting immigration limits real individual freedoms for the sake of what is essentially a “by-product of uncoordinated individual actions” that does not itself violate any individual’s rights.

The problem with this sort of response (which clearly does fit with some strains in the liberal tradition and even with some forms of liberal egalitarianism) is that it uses too narrow a definition of freedom. It excludes by fiat any concern for the cumulative, if unintended, consequences of individual actions. A richer concept of freedom will pay attention to the context of choice, to the extent to which background conditions make it possible for people to realize their most important goals and pursue their most important life projects. That is precisely the sort of approach that permits us to see the ways in which particular cultures can provide valuable resources for people and the costs associated with the loss of a culture, while still permitting a critical assessment of the consequences of the culture both for those who participate in it and for those who do not.

The problem with Carens’s “richer concept of freedom”—which I acknowledge is real and worthy of consideration—is that it is difficult to conceive of a legitimate ownership of it. Who decides which aspects of “traditional” society are worth preserving (at the cost of more focused and observable individual freedoms, let’s not forget) and which aspects are merely parts of inevitable cultural evolution? The “by-products of uncoordinated individual actions” can presumably manifest as cultural improvements, and not just “erosion”, as Miller seems to assume. Some things (Islam, manga comics, or capitalism, for a few examples) that may represent cultural decay to some will be embraced by others as beneficial innovation, and it’s difficult to say who would be right in such a contest of values. Should a committee of bureaucrats be set up to decide which foreign influences are acceptable cultural adaptations, the way the French have circled their wagons around the integrity of their language? Even if such a committee were popularly elected, it’s difficult to see how that democratic mechanism would achieve any greater legitimacy than uncoordinated individual actions.

The larger point I want to make is that restricting immigration for the sake of cultural preservation is ineffective to the point of quixotic. There are other influences that will impact culture, influences that cultural preservationists are less willing to stifle by coercion. Indeed in the quotes above Carens and Miller both recognize that culture evolves in ways that “evade political control”. The first of these purely internal. Culture, including language, social values, artistic (literary, musical, etc) expression, and political values can and do all change as a result of younger generations challenging the ideas and practices of their forebears. This process of change over generations may be exacerbated by outside influences, but it would be hard to deny that at its core it is a natural phenomenon at work even in closed societies. I think the relatively recent and rapid expansion of the gay rights movement in America is a good example of this. It has seemed primarily domestic in origin (the fact that some other countries have possibly made greater strides in gay rights hasn’t been particularly influential), and the level of acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is famously starkly divided between young and old folks. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s can likewise not be said to be imported, as the legal and cultural legacy of southern slavery and the long reign of Jim Crow were peculiar to American history. Less politically, musical innovations like rock & roll, entertainment innovations like video games, and linguistic innovations like African American Vernacular English have not needed outside influences to sprout and evoke consternation among parents and other squares.

It isn’t even clear that anyone notices the difference between cultural innovation by natives and that by outsiders. Invention from the outside can “go native” as well as a person can. Carens’s example of Japan gave me an excuse to read about the history of manga, an art form I think I can safely describe as distinctively Japanese. Five minutes of research unearthed a surprisingly mongrel history, including its inspiration by a nineteenth century British cartoonist and “U.S. cultural influences, including U.S. comics (brought to Japan by the GIs) and images and themes from U.S. television, film, and cartoons (especially Disney).” The desire to protect a national culture from outside influences seems to ignore the ability of those same cultures to ingest, adapt, and own inputs from the outside, all in bottom-up fashion without need for supervision from any cultural defenders at the top.

Technological innovation can radically change the contours of a society and isn’t intrinsically related to immigration. The Industrial Revolution destroyed old occupations and enabled people to leave rural life en masse. Widespread rail networks and the adoption of the automobile made the world a smaller place, even within nations. Electrification, radio, television, the airplane, the printing press, the integrated circuit, and the Internet have all profoundly changed human life and the ways individuals relate to each other and wider society. The birth control pill empowered women to control their own sexual and reproductive lives and enabled them to pursue opportunities in the world outside the home (occupational, educational, political, etc). All these innovations have arguably changed national cultures on a scale greater than anything widespread immigration could likely achieve.

It could be argued that the American examples above do not actually serve my cause since America is so famously and fundamentally shaped by immigration. And it could be argued that the technological innovations I mentioned and the ways they undoubtedly transformed societies are nonetheless irrelevant to the present discussion: technological changes affecting the whole world can be adapted to different national cultures in unique ways and so perhaps the point is more that each national culture must be allowed to express itself through technological advancement in its own way. Technological change is, of course, not all homegrown, but it spreads through international avenues other than migration, avenues which most immigration restrictionists would not attempt to close.

Ideas are spread through trade between nations, through travel and tourism, through international communications and media, and through common international gatherings like professional conferences and sporting events. Good ideas (and bad ones), will find ways to spread whether there are appreciable levels of migration or not. International migration will surely speed up cultural change, but it’s not the only driver of change, or even the most important one. Yet the focus of the argument for national self-determination is always on preserving the right of a nation’s sovereign authority to restrict entry of new members, and little ink is spilled advocating closing off these other pathways of social change. Given the long odds of meaningfully preserving national culture (however it is defined), and the apparent lack of enthusiasm for protecting it from equally powerful mechanisms of change,  it is fair to ask, Why does immigration warrant such special treatment?

Cosmopolitanism and open borders: a follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?

In a recent post, Vipul wrote about the importance of better understanding the number of people who might migrate under policy changes in the direction of open borders.  One reason why he considers this important is to evaluate the legitimacy of concerns about “swamping:” “One of the main concerns of people ranging from hardcore restrictionists to moderate pro-immigrationers and even some who identify as being pro-open borders is that true open borders would lead to very large numbers of people moving over short time periods in a manner that would strain housing, electricity, water supplies, and other infrastructure in the countries receiving the immigrants.”

Whether receiving countries would be swamped if open borders were implemented, and what the swamping would actually be like, is pivotal to determining the morality of open borders.  That’s because, absent the possibility of a swamping that turns a receiving country into an economic and political basketcase similar to Haiti or Somalia, from a moral standpoint there are no obstacles to instituting open borders immediately.

In fact, two of the strongest moral arguments in favor of open borders include caveats in which extremely harmful swamping might override the arguments.  In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open BordersJoseph Carens 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.)

However, in “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Mr. Carens states that with open borders “… the number of those coming might overwhelm the capacity of the society to cope, leading to chaos and a breakdown of public order… A threat to public order could be used to justify restrictions on immigration… because the breakdown of public order makes everyone worse off in terms of both liberty and welfare.”  At the same time he writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (p. 30)

In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Michael Huemer argues that unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” people have a right “not to be subject to seriously harmful coercion.” (p. 432)  Therefore, 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’ rights not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

Nevertheless, the possibility of swamping gives Mr. Huemer pause.  He writes, “No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open.”  Referring to Brian Barry, who predicts a billion immigrants coming to the U.S. with open borders and disastrous consequences, Mr. Huemer states that “Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society.  If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement.” (pp. 453-454)

So would receiving countries be swamped with open borders, and would that swamping essentially destroy the economic and political systems that made those countries desireable destinations in the first place, thus overriding the moral imperative for open borders?  That is what Vipul is apparently exploring, but it seems that a clear answer will be elusive.

In apparent response to concerns about swamping, some, including Mr. Huemer (p. 454), have advocated for a gradual transition towards open borders.  This would involve increasing immigration levels over a period of time.  If receiving countries are not being severely swamped after each increase, then immigration levels would again be increased.  Politically, and perhaps morally, this approach may be warranted, although the suffering associated with restrictionism would persist.

At least the initial increase in immigrant numbers under a gradual transition could be substantial, without severe swamping of receiving countries, based on Israel’s experience with high levels of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  Philippe Legrain has highlighted this experience in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.  This flow of people to Israel was, in Mr. Legrain’s words, “one of the most dramatic experiments in the history of immigration.” (p. 133)  Mr. Legrain notes that between 1990 and 1997 over seven hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, a country with a population of about 4.6 million in 1989, and almost half of the immigrants entered in a two year period. (p. 134)  Mr. Legrain puts these numbers in perspective for America:  “Imagine, then, what would happen if over 15 million foreigners were suddenly to arrive in the U.S. over the next two years, rising to 29 million over eight years.  Twenty-nine million people who don’t speak English, don’t have jobs to go to and don’t even have any experience of working in a capitalist economy… Mass unemployment?  Riots in the streets?  Perhaps even the collapse of society?” (p.134)

Citing an Israeli economic expert on this impact, Mr. Legrain states that at first native Israelis’ wages fell by about 5 percent for men, and there was a sharp rise in interest rates.  However, “Israel’s economy seems to have absorbed a vast number of new workers without a rise in unemployment.”  Unemployment among native Israelis dropped during this period, and by 1997 the ex-Soviet employment rate was similar to that of native Israelis.  (p. 135)  In addition, by 1997, “natives’ wages had recovered to where they would have been without the mass immigration, and interest rates had fallen to their pre-immigration levels.”  Mr. Legrain concludes that “flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants without any cost to native workers if the inflows are reasonably predictable, and with only a short-term cost to them if they are unexpected.” (p. 135)

Some might counter that the ex-Soviet immigrants had higher levels of education than those who might immigrate to western countries from developing countries under an open borders policy.  However, Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh found that “… the Russian immigrants suffered from substantial occupational downgrading in Israel and thus did not increase the relative supply of skilled workers in Israel.” (p. 27) Many female immigrants, and presumably many male immigrants, ended up doing menial service jobs. This fits with Mr. Legrain’s explanation of how differences between native and immigrant workers limit competition between the two groups:  “… critics of immigration would be the first to argue that  immigrants and native workers are not identical.  The newcomers will almost certainly speak the local language less well, have fewer contacts and less knowledge of local practices… At most, then, they are imperfect substitutes for local workers, which implies that they only indirectly compete with them in the labour market—thus limiting any short-term harm they might cause natives.” (p. 137) Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.

The Israeli experience suggests an initial immigrant admissions level for the U.S., as part of a gradual move towards open borders, could be established that is much higher than current American admissions levels.  I don’t know how Mr. Legrain calculated the U.S. equivalent of 29 million people over eight years based on the Israeli experience, but my calculation is significantly higher.  First, there were over 820 thousand immigrants over the eight years, including immigration from other source countries in addition to that from the former Soviet Union.  Using the 1989 Israeli population of about 4.6 million and using a rounded down figure of eight hundred thousand immigrants between 1990 and 1997, there was about a 2.1% annual addition to the 1989 population over eight years.  A 2.1% addition to the current U.S. population of about 316 million yields more than 6.5 million new immigrants a year (52 million over eight years).  Therefore, a conservative recommendation would be to establish an initial immigration level to the U.S. of 6.5 million a year.  (By comparison, there have been about one million immigrants who have gained permanent legal status in the U.S. each of the last three years.  The undocumented population has been falling in recent years.)  The level would be raised regularly thereafter, assuming no devastating effects on the U.S. from previous levels.  Other receiving countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe and East Asia could also set their initial immigration levels at 2.1 percent of their current populations.

Again, this gradual approach to open borders means that much of the suffering associated with immigration restrictions would continue for years to come.  I share Bryan Caplan’s concern that fears of swamping, which are unsubstantiated, stand in the way of open borders: “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because we know that free migration has very bad consequences” arguably overcomes the presumption in favor of open borders. “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because there’s a small chance that free migration has very bad consequences” does not.”   While I am very uncomfortable with the gradualist approach to open borders, at least we have evidence showing a relatively high level at which receiving countries should begin their gradual implementation of open borders.