Tag Archives: keyhole solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, they are all different in important ways:

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

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

How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?

I think open borders is a radical proposal, given how far the world is from it. I also think that open borders (or even partial steps in that direction) will significantly transform the global economy, culture, and society, and the details can’t clearly be predicted. Economists have estimated that open borders will increase global production by 50-150%. Even though I think this might be overstated, I think that even with that overstatement, open borders is still worth pushing for, which is why I’m sticking with it.

If open borders is such a big deal and the consequences are so unclear and uncertain, why should people who are already well off support it? If you lead a comfortable life in the First World and are generally risk-averse, open borders may well not pass a cost-benefit analysis for you. You might gain somewhat economically and in terms of cuisine options, but on the other hand you might see a slight wage dip and have to deal with changes to your neighborhood that you may not like. Even if you gain a bit on net in expectation (and I think there are good reasons to believe that most First-Worlders will benefit from open borders, both as natives of countries receiving migrants and because their own migration options have increased), it may not be enough to get you excited.

Co-blogger Nathan says something similar when discussing differences between the open borders movement and the gay marriage movement:

An important difference between open borders and same-sex marriage is that it is widely and plausibly held (though I think it’s a half-truth at best) that same-sex marriage is a victimless reform which will have hardly any effect on the lives of non-LGBT individuals, or for that matter of LGBT individuals who don’t choose to marry. If so, supporting same-sex marriage isn’t just cheap talk but cheap action. Open borders, by contrast, will involve, if not perhaps great sacrifice, then certainly great upheaval. Many will benefit– perhaps wisely-designed policies could even ensure that everyone benefits— but lives and societies will be transformed. That doesn’t alter the fact that saying one is for open borders is a cheap and easy way to display one’s virtue and benevolence.

Economic illiteracy and xenophobia probably explain a large part of why the world is far from open borders, but even if you get rid of these, open borders simply isn’t an exciting proposition for many reasonably well-off First Worlders from a purely self-interested and risk-averse perspective. What I mean by this is that, if open borders were to become the status quo, they’d probably get used to it and be quite okay with it over a long timeframe. But it’s not something whose benefits are huge, tangible, and clear.

For me in particular, open borders is interesting because of its global impact (undoubtedly, I would likely personally benefit from it, but not enough to justify all the time and effort I’m spending on it). But most people aren’t that interested in global impact. They (rightly or wrongly) care about their personal lives and their neighborhood (hence all the focus on territorialism, local inequality aversion, and the border as blindfold). They may bear no ill-will to foreigners but aren’t particularly concerned about them.

Given that freeing up migration often involves changing policy in receiving countries, how do we overcome people’s apathy/risk-aversion, even assuming we could overcome the arguably bigger problems of economic illiteracy and xenophobia? What’s a sustainable way of doing this? In this post, I discuss three strategies:

  • Glossing over harms and exaggerating benefits
  • Buying support
  • Moral inspiration

After discussing them, I outline my own ideal strategy mix. Continue reading “How do you convince people to sustainably support migration liberalization?” »

International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day

Last year, we decided to observe March 16 as the annual Open Borders Day. The date was chosen because Open Borders: The Case, the website, officially launched on March 16, 2012. Broadly, the goal of the day is to ponder a world with open borders, the moral case for it, and how such a world might differ from the status quo.

Before settling on March 16, we had an internal debate among our regular and some of our guest bloggers about the choice of date. Various dates, including the Fourth of July, had been proposed, but we ultimately decided to go with our own day, so that it would be free of the baggage (positive or negative) of other days, and could be used to highlight open borders as an issue in its own right. At the time, I (and as far as I can make out, the others participating in the discussion) weren’t aware of perhaps the closest contender: International Migrants Day. The day was designated and is recognized by the United Nations to be on December 18 each year, starting in the year 2000. The Migrant Rights Network has a nice-looking website devoted to the day.

In this blog post, I explain three ways that International Migrants Day and Open Borders Day differ:

  1. Focus: the status quo versus open borders
  2. The attention to migrants as a separate class of people
  3. The focus on migrants, territorialism, and the overlooking of quantity issues

Continue reading “International Migrants Day versus Open Borders Day” »

We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation

The climate change movement is not one that obviously parallels the open borders movement; it’s not a civil rights or social justice issue (except insofar as it might disproportionately harm the world’s poorest — but the same could be said for almost any noteworthy public policy issue) and it has far more clout and attention than migration. But there are three things that I think we have in common:

  1. Political leaders love to make grand statements about how they must and will act on these pressing issues
  2. Political leaders take no meaningful action to address the issue whatsoever (other than very marginal policy changes)
  3. This, in spite of reasonably strong agreement amongst experts in the field who have devoted their lives to the study of the issue that strong action is needed — and that strong action will have large impacts

Continue reading “We’ll likely have open borders before serious climate change mitigation” »

Paul Krugman and the Immigration Act of 1924

In 2006 Paul Krugman, prominent liberal economist and New York Times columnist, expressed concern that low-skilled immigration could threaten the American welfare state.  Due to this supposed threat and the claim that the wages of some Americans were lowered because of immigration, he supported a reduction in the number of low-skilled immigrants entering the U.S. (See here for this site’s page on Mr. Krugman.)

So it wasn’t surprising when Mr. Krugman recently declared that he didn’t support open borders.  What was surprising was that he justified immigration restrictions that were enacted in the early 1920s. He stated that without those restrictions the New Deal in the United States “wouldn’t have been possible,” in part because “…there would have been many claims, justified or not, about people flocking to America to take advantage of welfare programs.” The New Deal of the 1930s, as many readers may know, involved the establishment under Franklin D. Roosevelt of government programs which continue to exist today, such as monetary support for the elderly (Social Security) and aid to poor mothers and their children.

The immigration legislation to which Mr. Krugman referred included the Immigration Act of 1921, which established the first numerical restrictions on European immigration.  It was followed by the longer lasting Immigration Act of 1924, which also involved numerical restrictions and a national origins quota system in which visas were apportioned predominately to immigrants coming from northwest Europe. Maldwyn Jones, author of American Immigration, notes that:

it was American policy which brought to an end the century-long mass movement from Europe. The adoption of the quota system… all but slammed the door on the southern and eastern Europeans who had formed the bulk of the arrivals in the prewar (World War I) and immediate postwar periods. The result was that European immigration slumped from over 800,000 in 1921 to less than 150,000 by the end of the decade. (page 279)

The legislation was in many respects the model for our current immigration system, with its numerical limitations on immigration from individual countries, numerical limitations for certain categories of immigrants,  use of preference groups within these categories, consular control over permission to immigrate, and the creation of the Border Patrol. From an open borders perspective, it was a disaster, ending a long period of generally open immigration from Europe.

Whether or not Mr. Krugman is correct or not that the 1920s immigration restrictions helped to provide a political environment conducive to passing the New Deal legislation, there are two reasons why his support for the restrictions are surprising. One is that the legislation was largely racist. The Immigration Act of 1924 was inspired by racist sentiment and, as noted, discriminated against the immigration of people from eastern and southern Europe, who were perceived by some to be racially inferior. As John Higham has written in Strangers in the Land, as the House of Representatives worked towards the 1924 legislation, the champions of the legislation:

now largely ignored the economic arguments they had advanced in behalf of the first quota law three years before. Instead, they talked about preserving a ‘distinct American type,’ about keeping American for Americans, or about saving the Nordic race from being swamped. The Ku Klux Klan, which was organizing a vigorous letter-writing campaign in support of the Johnson bill, probably aided and abetted this swell of racial nativism… (page 321)

The second reason why it is surprising Mr. Krugman would be supportive of the 1924 immigration law is that because it, combined with other restrictionist maneuvering, blocked many of Europe’s Jews from fleeing the Nazis during the 1930s and 1940s. David Wyman has written in Paper Walls that,

if, in the crucial years from 1938 to 1941, the world had opened its doors to the victims of persecution, the history of Europe’s Jews from 1942 to 1945 would have been significantly different. Instead the barriers held firm and relatively few refugees found asylum. (page xiii)

Mr. Wyman also has noted that although America received more refugees (about 250,000) from Nazism than other countries during the period 1933 to 1945 (p. 209),  “the total response of the United States… fell tragically short of the need.” (preface) According to Mr. Wyman, it was the 1924 law that was the fundamental barrier to the people seeking refuge in the U.S., noting that “the quota limitations formed by far the most significant bulwark against large-scale American rescue of refugees.” (p. 210)

It is difficult to determine the number of would-be refugees who were killed because of U.S. immigration restrictions.  However, the following information from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum site suggests the large numbers who were put at risk from the restrictions:

In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.

The fate of 908 refugees aboard the ship named the St. Louis who were denied refuge in the U.S. in 1939 is more certain, with 254 perishing in the Holocaust.  Mr. Wyman also notes that other refugee ships, either without a place to land or planning to land illegally in Palestine, sank, drowning hundreds. (pp. 38-39)

Mr. Krugman must surely be bothered by the racist nature of the 1924 legislation and must certainly wish that the U.S. had been more welcoming to refugees during the Nazi period. Furthermore he has noted that he is “grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.” Had his grandparents tried to enter America after the 1924 restrictions were in place, they may not have been allowed in and may have perished at the hands of the Nazis.

How does Mr. Krugman square all this with his support for the 1924 immigration legislation? Was the suffering associated with the legislation an acceptable sacrifice in order to ensure that the New Deal legislation could be passed? Mr. Krugman might respond to this question by wishing that the U.S. had adopted a more generous refugee policy during the Nazi period within a system of immigration restriction, but the fact is that the U.S. didn’t.

Of course, even setting aside the history of the American immigration system’s response to the refugees fleeing the Nazis, the suffering associated with immigration restrictions are immense. Co-blogger Nathan Smith challenges Mr. Krugman’s suggestion that the American welfare state is of higher moral value than open borders.  He writes that: 

Krugman wants a social democratic welfare state even at the cost of excluding most of mankind by force. I start from a utilitarian universalist ethics and conclude that its need for immigration exclusion renders the welfare state a moral travesty. 

Nathan argues that a truly moral anti-poverty policy would focus on alleviating the extreme poverty of the Third World rather than the poverty found in the U.S.:  “Domestic redistribution is at best from the very-rich to the relatively-rich.”  He writes that “the best thing America could do for the poor is to open the borders.”

I support both open borders and the welfare state.  Fortunately, perhaps with the use of keyhole solutions, countries may be able to have both. Mr. Krugman should explore this possibility, as well as reconsider his support for the 1924 immigration legislation.

Featured image: Paul Krugman’s press conference following his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Economics, by Prolineserver from Wikimedia Commons.