Tag Archives: Lant Pritchett

Interview with Stephan Faris: Homelands, and abolishing global apartheid

Last week, we published an excerpt from journalist Stephan Faris’s thought-provoking book, Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration. A cheap, USD3 buy on Amazon, it is worth reading — if only for the compelling way he argues that modern border regimes constitute apartheid. A taste from the excerpt we carried:

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.

Now, we bring you an exclusive interview with Stephan himself.


In Homelands, you reach a radical conclusion — that modern border controls are essentially unjust and illegitimate. You outline a thought-provoking case, but I’m especially interested in the experiences and insights that motivated you to reach this conclusion in the first place. What is the intellectual journey, so to speak, that led to this conclusion?

The idea came to me slowly, when I was a reporter writing mostly for Time Magazine out Africa. Across the continent, I kept having the same conversation, brief and to-the-point with people I hardly knew at all. A motorcycle taxi driver in Lagos would drop me off and then ask “How do I get to your country?” A young man at an Internet cafe in Kenya would do the same. And again, from a hotel clerk in Zimbabwe. “How do I get to your country?”

I can’t remember what I’d say to them. But the real answer was embarrassing. Put bluntly, it was: “You probably can’t. You’re young and African. The chances that you’ll be let in are vanishingly small.” That’s what got me thinking about the problem in those terms.

My experience has been that people anchor heavily to the status quo on immigration, making it difficult to even begin explaining to people that most immigration laws are unjust and unfair. Before you can begin, you have to overcome the sense that if we abolish border controls, then everything will collapse. Did you encounter this yourself in the process of outlining your ideas, and are you satisfied with the way you handle this sort of response in the book? Looking back, would you change anything about your argument?

The book is driven by an analogy between the status quo on immigration and the policies of South Africa’s apartheid regime. That in itself puts forward a couple of arguments that I find compelling. First of all is the moral case. If the immigration policies resembles apartheid, we have to grapple with that if we want to maintain the status quo. Secondly, apartheid eventually came to an end, and the result has hardly been as disastrous as many predicted.

How in general has the response been to your book, now that it’s been out for several months? Was it better or worse than you expected, and are you planning any follow-ups? What most surprised you about the response?

As a writer it’s always difficult to get a feel for how readers respond to your work. My feeling, however, is that the emotional argument has resonated with a lot of people, but the conclusion remains hard to accept. As you point out, the idea is fairly far beyond the bounds of what most people are willing to consider.

You are not the first person to describe immigration restrictions as a form of apartheid, but I think your most original contribution to the conversation has been a clear articulation of how apartheid was modeled on immigration restrictions and why the analogy between the two is so apt. How did you come across this connection in the intentions of apartheid’s architects? Are there other historical or modern parallels that you considered drawing?

I don’t remember exactly how I came across it or came up with it. I wrote a brief piece on the subject in 2005 or 2006. However, I’m not the first person who came up with it. I later came across a fantastic chapter in a book by the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson, in which he made a similar comparison. In Homelands I make a reference to Lesotho, as a tiny country with which potential Bantustans could be compared. That’s an analogy I learned about from Ferguson.

In some sense, the analogy between apartheid and immigration restrictions is obvious: both are mechanisms by which a particular social group seeks to preserve its purity via coercively excluding other people. However I imagine this analogy doesn’t work for many, because they consider racial discrimination illegitimate, while discrimination on the basis of nationality is legitimate. How would you address this?

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is it about nationality that makes it legitimately grounds for discrimination. Nationality, like race, is not something people choose or are responsible for.

To allay concerns about the effects of liberal border laws, you discuss how the economic nightmare predicted by naysayers on the eve of apartheid’s abolition never came to fruition. But economic arguments don’t necessarily carry the day in a conversation about nationality and political institutions. How would you respond to concerns about the political and social effects of open immigration?

Those concerns are real, but as with apartheid, you have to weigh them against the injustices and distortions resulting from the status quo. I think we’ll find that the discomforts resulting from open immigration will pale when compared with the suffering that is alleviated by allowing people to move where to places where they can better themselves.

I imagine most people of liberal politics are somewhat sympathetic to liberal immigration laws. Why do you think there is such resistance, even among those with such sympathies, to the idea of truly open borders, or at least open immigration regimes, with visas available to most? What barriers do you see to convincing a typical liberal person that most immigration restrictions are unjustifiable?

I’m not sure that views on immigration laws fall neatly along the traditional lines between left and right. Concerns about the impact of open immigration on workers’ rights is certainly widespread among many on the left. Again, however, I’d argue one needs to extend our circle of concern beyond our co-nationals, and then it becomes pretty clear that lightening restrictions on immigration is broadly beneficial.


I think it is particularly fitting that this interview with Stephan follows on our inaugural blog post from migration scholar Katy Long, where she observed that we cannot blindly cite national borders as reason enough to wall out those not fortunate enough to be born in our home countries:

Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Harvard and former World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, another notable who labels our border regimes tantamount to apartheid, has a poignant way of illustrating Stephan’s and Katys point in his seminal book, Let Their People Come:

The analogy between apartheid and restrictions on labor mobility is almost exact. People are not allowed to live and work where they please. Rather, some are only allowed to live in places where earning opportunities are scarce. Workers often have to travel long distances and often live far from their families to obtain work. The restrictions about who can work where are based on conditions of birth, not on any notion of individual effort or merit. The current international system of restrictions on labor mobility enforces gaps in living standards across people that are large or larger than any in apartheid South Africa. It is even true that labor restrictions in nearly every case explicitly work to disadvantage people of “color” against those of European descent.

The obvious response is that with apartheid people of the same nation-state were treated differently while the apartheid of international barriers to mobility is is treating people of different nation-states differently. People subject to the same laws should be treated the same based on conditions of birth. The fact that people are, by whimsy of birth, allocated to different nation-states and hence treated differently has no moral traction. In nearly all modern theories of justice and ethical systems, most conditions of birth—one’s sex, race, and ethnicity—are excluded as morally legitimate reasons for differences in wellbeing, and yet discrimination on the basis of nationality is allowed.

…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.

The Bantustans that Stephan draws our attention to still exist, even if few of us had anything to do with their creation, as Pritchett’s book points out with a compelling thought experiment:

There are 10 million people in the Sahelian country of Niger; if there were globally free labor mobility and only 1 million lived in Niger now, how many people would move there? Though some people might say that this creates a case for more aid or freer trade, it is hard to believe that if people moved out of Kansas because farming was no longer an attractive opportunity, then the best that can be done for the people of Niger or Chad is that they get slightly more assistance and slightly better prices for the items they grow.

Most of us remain blind, willfully or otherwise, to the suffering and waste of human potential that our countries’ immigration laws engender. All credit to scholars like Stephan, Katy, and Lant Pritchett, who can never be thanked enough for their tireless work aimed at exposing the regime of global apartheid for what it is.

HomelandsBuy Stephan Faris’s Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration on Amazon

The Huddled MassesBuy Katy Long’s The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality on Amazon

Let%20Their%20People%20Come[1]Download free or buy the paperback of Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock On Global Labor Mobility from the Center for Global Development

The image featured at the top of this post is of a mother with her child crawling under the South African fence bordering Zimbabwe, taken by Themba Hadebe for the Associated Press in 2010 and published in The Guardian.

What open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can teach each other

I’ve recently been reading the scholarly literature on migration and development. In this blog post, I attempt to summarize my understanding of important ways in which researchers in the area are similar to and important ways that they differ from open borders advocates. Then, I’ll discuss what I think both sides can learn from each other.

For examples of the sort of things I’ve been reading, consider this 2007 report for the Department for International Development in the UK, this article on labor migration in India, the World Bank People Move blog, and the websites of KNOMAD and Migrating out of Poverty.

Who are the migration and development scholars who’ve explicitly endorsed radically freer migration?

Some scholars of migration and development are quite sympathetic to the logic of open borders, want the world to move as far as possible in that direction, and explicitly say so. One example is Michael Clemens. While he has expressed some terminological disagreement with “open borders” as a term, he accepts the basic moral logic, he’s all for the main aspects of open borders, and he supports moving as far in that direction as is feasible. Clemens is a co-creator of the place premium and income per natural concepts. He has raised the status in the economic development community of the idea that development is about people, not places. And he wrote the paper that prompted Bryan Caplan to come up with the double world GDP slogan. Note that Clemens isn’t famous solely as a migration researcher; he has also been at the forefront of critiquing some aspects of the Millennium Villages Project.

Another migration scholar who’s expressed considerable sympathy for the open borders position is Lant Pritchett. Pritchett co-authored the place premium paper with Clemens, and has also written a book advocating for freer migration. Pritchett is a renowned development economist who has done considerable work on many areas unrelated to migration, including the return to schooling worldwide and the relation between desired and actual fertility and the importance of contraception to fertility reduction.

How has the community of development scholars changed its views on migration?

I haven’t been able to get a very clear picture, but it seems to me that the international development community as a whole used to be more hostile to migration as a poverty reduction strategy, but they are now more open to it. The following are some general observations:

  • Brain drain was considered a major argument against migration among development scholars, but the balance of the evidence in recent years has moved scholars to the view that the problem is not severe, with many scholars believing that brain circulation and idea flows can be beneficial on net.
  • Historically, the dominant view in the international development community has been similar to the view of many mainstream moderate pro-immigration people that John Lee described here, namely, that migration is not natural, that barriers to it are natural, and that removing migration barriers creates an artificial subsidy encouraging people to move. They’ve also taken the view that suggesting migration as a solution to poverty is essentially a cop-out that accepts defeat in tackling the harder problem of how to get countries to develop. These views again seem to be declining somewhat. It’s more common now for development scholars to consider migration a legitimate part of a strategy that can facilitate improvements in the living conditions of people who migrate and people who stay behind.
  • Dilip Ratha’s work on remittances (see also this New York Times article) got people more interested in the idea that migration can benefit the people who are left behind. Robert Guest’s book on the importance of diasporas encapsulates the growing recognition among migration scholars of how migration can benefit people everywhere, not just those who migrate.

Some other people weighed in on the topic on the comments on this post on the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook.

How do the mainstream migration and development scholars differ from open borders advocates in their views and in their rhetorical emphasis?

In general, mainstream scholars of migration and development are quite similar to the mainstream moderate pro-immigration people John Lee described. In some respects, however, the scholars of migration and development come closer to the open borders position. In particular, compared to mainstream pro-immigration people, and perhaps even compared to some open borders advocates, they differ in these respects:

  • They have a clearer understanding of what poverty and wealth mean, and how rich and poor people are in different parts of the world. And they confront these facts on a regular basis in their work, so it’s harder for them to simply brush these under the carpet. Even somebody like Paul Collier, who wrote the book Exodus that took a lukewarm stance to migration, showed clear understanding and concern about just how big the differences in living standards are.
  • Even if they don’t use the term, they understand the concept of the place premium — the idea that an individual can improve his or her earnings just by crossing borders, with no change in skills, and that much of this improvement is attributable to differences in the value of what the person produces rather than a result of labor legislation or government redistribution.
  • They understand that governments often pander to nativist, citizenist, and territorialist sentiments to an extent that goes beyond what they think is morally appropriate, and also that the sentiments they are pandering to often rely on misguided economic logic. They themselves personally lean more universalist, sometimes in the additive utilitarian sense, sometimes in the egalitarian sense.
  • Even if they’re not themselves libertarians, the libertarian argument in favor of the right to migrate is something that stands out to them more than it does to moderate pro-immigration folks who haven’t thought much about international development. To them, it’s not just an armchair hypothetical. They are also aware of arguments based on human capabilities, even if they haven’t encountered the explicit framework.

On the other hand, they still differ from us “tear down the borders” folks:

  • Their more laser-like focus on poverty alleviation can make them seem somewhat lacking in moral qualms as they discuss issues of optimal migration policy, even when they favor freer migration.
  • Even when they do favor dismantling border controls or other regulations, they’ll frame it in language that suggests more government management of migration. For instance, a concrete recommendation like “get rid of Know Your Customer regulations that forbid migrants from opening bank accounts” would be framed as “facilitate migrant access to banking through reform in Know Your Customer regulations.”
  • Many of their recommendations are focused on strengthening existing patterns of migration that already exist, rather than on loosening border controls that could facilitate new patterns of migration. This may be partly because they’re too anchored to the status quo to consider radical changes. More defensibly, diaspora dynamics suggests that it’s easier to facilitate the expansion of existing migration patterns than create new ones.
  • Related to the preceding, migration and development scholars are a lot more focused on intranational migration as well as international migration among low-income countries and between low-income and middle-income countries.
  • For policy questions, migration and development scholars concentrate their energies on thinking about how to tweak existing systems rather than coming up with new systems from scratch (such as DRITI).
  • Migration and development scholars are very focused on other aspects of the welfare of migrants that are not directly related to open borders. These include migrant childrens’ access to schools, migrants’ access to government-provided and private sector services, and facilitation of communication between migrants and their relatives back home.

What can open borders advocates learn from migration scholars?

Here are some things I believe open borders advocates should learn from migration scholars:

  • More attention to the actual experiences of poor people who migrate: Open borders isn’t purely about poor people, and in particular I believe that there will be a strong imperative for open borders even in a world without poverty. But certainly, freer migration should be an important part of the toolkit to end poverty, and the current state of world poverty considerably raises the importance of the issue. To the extent that open borders advocates are interested in the issue not just theoretically but at a practical level, a closer empirical look at how poor people fare under migration is warranted. Migration and development scholars spend a large part of their life thinking about poverty, and we can be inspired to spend at least a few hours on it.
  • More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: Open borders advocacy can sometimes seem like too much speculation about something that doesn’t exist at all. And to an extent, that’s right: open borders across a huge place premium (of 5X or more) hasn’t happened. But it might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus more on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

What can migration scholars learn from open borders advocates?

I think migration scholars can also take a few lessons from open borders advocates:

  • The moral case for free migration matters. It’s the foundation of everything else. Make the case boldly wherever possible.
  • It helps to consider the radical proposal that is open borders, and ask just how far one can get there. Bold policy changes can be useful to consider, even if they aren’t possible to directly implement. It’s not good to stay anchored to the present all the time.
  • When advocating for reductions in government restrictions on migration, it may make sense to not obfuscate this with the “more government management of migration” language. Further, in cases where the optimal policy comes very close to complete deregulation, consider advocating complete principled deregulation instead of trying to target the specific optimal policy. Complete principled deregulation, even if not optimal on paper, leaves less room for governments to re-institute the counterproductive controls seen in current policy.

The photograph of an open borders campaigner at the top of this post was taken by Jonathan McIntosh at a rally in Los Angeles, California, and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1

Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World is probably the best book on migration from the restrictionist side that currently exists. Though, that is not saying much. It is pretty strong on the economics, and while I find Collier’s ethical attitudes weird, repugnant, and indefensible, they serve as a useful window on the way a lot of people think. Exodus is a refreshing contrast to books like Victor Davis Hanson’s Mexifornia: A State of Becoming. The arguments in Hanson’s book are too thoroughly flawed to be answered. You’d have to rip them to shreds, almost sentence by sentence, to avoid leaving the impression that anything in them is valid. Any reader who would be a worthy interlocutor in a learned conversation would have seen through books like these. My advice to writers like Hanson is to read Collier’s book and spend a couple of weeks contemplating its intellectual merits, and then ask themselves seriously whether they can emulate them sufficiently that their future writings will be net positive contributions to public debate. If Collier sets the standard that future restrictionist writings will be expected to live up to, the quality of public discourse about immigration will be vastly improved.

Interestingly, Exodus is responding in part to open borders as a political cause, even if it’s a cause that his implicit interlocutors don’t usually embrace explicitly. Whereas others will speak loosely of “the open borders lobby” as an epithet to characterize mainstream people who, in fact, want a lot of immigration restriction, Collier is a development economist who has some idea what real open borders would mean, and knows that there is a case for it. He seems to know about the double world GDP literature. So far, the debate has been conducted within the restrictionist end of the spectrum, with advocates of more migration sometimes mistaking themselves for open borders advocates because they’re naïve about how radical open borders really is. Collier thinks about migration in the context of the global struggle against poverty. He doesn’t pretend the rest of the world isn’t there. He doesn’t adopt a principle of moral indifference to the rest of mankind. That’s a big improvement over previous restrictionist literature.

At present, then, Exodus is the argument to beat on the question of open borders. For that reason, I thought it deserved, not just a book review, but a thoroughgoing engagement with the argument. That said, Collier gave me very little reason to change my mind about supporting open borders, though he might have convinced me to shift my position on a few aspects of the question in subtle ways. There are two main reasons that Collier is unconvincing. First, he has the wrong ethics: he knows about “utilitarian universalism” but is constantly engaged in inadequately motivated attempts to substitute manifestly inferior ethical ideas. Second, his policy imagination is very deficient. My greatest regret is that Collier doesn’t engage with DRITI. Again and again, I found myself saying, “Yes, that’s a problem, but DRITI solves it.”

Chapter 1 sets the stage for Collier’s book with a lot of reflections on the peculiar character of the public debate about immigration. For example, he writes that… Continue reading “Response to Paul Collier: Chapter 1” »

Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates

After reading books by both Krikorian and Riley, I am struck by the contrast in what they consider the natural/efficient state of labor markets to be.

Restrictionists like Krikorian view the “natural” state of the labor market as one with no immigrants. Thus, if large scale immigration increases the supply of labor in a particular labor market, Krikorian refers to this as an “artificially loose labor market” which he in turn blames for the suppression of wages of natives and slowdown in technological progress. This isn’t to suggest that Krikorian isn’t open to allowing immigration when it is helpful, but rather, he views any immigration as a distortion of labor markets that needs justification. Quotes are included below the fold.

On the other hand, moderate open borders advocates such as Riley, as well as more radical open borders advocates like Lant Pritchett, view local labor markets as inherently embedded in global labor markets, and the “efficient” state as one with relatively unrestricted labor mobility. To Riley, then, it is immigration restrictions that constitute a distortion of the labor market. Again, this is not to suggest that Riley would not be open to immigration restrictions under any circumstances, but rather, he would view them as a distortion of the labor markets that would need to be justified on other grounds. Quotes are included below the fold.

Is there a way of resolving the issue? Continue reading “Efficient or artificial? Restrictionists versus open borders advocates” »