Tag Archives: local inequality aversion

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” »

Borders and Inequality

This is a guest post. Please see the author bio, editorial note, and related reading at the bottom for more context.

Inequality is big news. From Piketty’s bestseller to Oxfam’s reminder to Davos’ economic elites that by 2016, the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of us combined, we are newly concerned with the threat growing inequality poses to global stability. And in seeking to meet what US president Barack Obama has called ‘the defining challenge of our time’, many politicians have claimed that mass immigration is contributing to inequality and poverty at home: that the movement of people leads to lower wages, higher unemployment and greater dependency upon social security and the welfare state among displaced citizens.

Understood in these national terms, if inequality is the problem, the solution would seem to involve less migration and stronger borders. Yet for champions of global justice, the opposite is true. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrollment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Framed like this, migration is no longer contributing to the problem of inequality. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the solution.

So who’s right? Is inequality really a zero-sum game, in which global justice comes at the expense of national equity? Do we have to choose between addressing inequality between citizenships, and inequality between citizens? And if this is the case, what are the implications for the Open Borders movement?

Of course in strict utilitarian terms, if more migration maximizes total benefit at a global level, national effects are secondary. But when it comes to politics, global justice arguments can’t simply trump national ones because – at an almost instinctive level – the vast majority of people would claim that nations – communities – are important, and effects of migration at a local level can’t simply be discounted.

It’s therefore important to recognize that the evidence for many claims made about the injurious effects of immigration upon locals is dubious. In the case of the UK, for instance – where anti-immigration rhetoric has proved popular in recent elections – economic data suggests that the effects of immigration on the labour market are minimal, and that immigrants make an unambiguous net fiscal contribution to the UK treasury, paying in much more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Yet even if the idea that immigration is bad for equality at home doesn’t hold up to close empirical scrutiny, we still need to ask why it continues to hold such sway when it comes to public opinion and political action.

So why do nations matter? Part of it undoubtedly is about culture and belonging. We are none of us ‘unencumbered individuals’, and national cultures play a role in shaping our identities. Yet in practice, national identity is often a chameleon: ask a San Franciscan and an Alabaman what it means to be an American, and the chances are you’d get very different answers. This means ‘national culture’, in and of itself, isn’t a justification for why we need nation-states – let alone why we should restrict migration.

Instead, arguably the most persuasive progressive case for national borders rests upon something more tangible: the promise of equality of opportunity that is a fundamental component of citizenship. In a modern state, that promise is usually articulated through the funding of a whole set of national institutions designed to close this gap – social security, healthcare, education. This is the nation-state not – in David Goodhart’s words – as a ‘mystical attachment’, but the institutional arrangement that can consistently deliver the democratic, welfare and psychological outcomes that ‘most people, when given a choice, seem to want’. Many in favour of tightly restricting migration argue that it’s these institutions that really make national citizenship meaningful. They also insist that such institutions can only function if borders be drawn somewhere, in order to turn a universal but vague commitment to equality of opportunity in principle into a limited but tangible effort to create more equality in practice.

Of course, in practice, equality of opportunity is still a fiction at a national level too. Outcome and opportunity cannot be so easily separated. In 2007, the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth. In the UK, the wealthiest 1% is 215 times wealthier than the poorest 10% of Britons. But for advocates of tighter border controls, this is just further evidence that we should make good on national promises first, before turning to think about the greater challenges we face in tackling global inequality.

And at first glance, this seems reasonable: pragmatism legitimized by the bonds of community. After all, nearly all of us ultimately care more about our family members’ wellbeing than that of our acquaintances, especially when it comes to action rather than sentiment. Arguably, favouring locals over migrants is just an extension of this – a recognition that being part of a national community cements closer ties, so a fellow-citizen’s wellbeing matters more to us than that of a stranger. Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, and we have a justification for a bordered world, carefully tied to the measuring of fiscal contribution and social cohesion.

Yet we should also see the limits of this argument. 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.

Inequality, then, is largely determined at birth and tied to geography. This means there’s still a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore. Norway, for instance, offers much more to all its citizens than Afghanistan can. The West’s citizens cannot possibly claim that the relative riches that derive from our citizenship are fair: they are above all a fortunate accident of birth. When it comes to justifying borders as a means of preserving some equality within – protection for the poorest citizens ­– this needs to be balanced against the risk that such borders aren’t about protection as much as they are about maintaining privilege.

So what does this mean when it comes to thinking about borders and inequality? First, it suggests that ‘protection, not privilege’ is a good maxim around which to build a ‘fair’ migration policy. Our fellow citizens should be protected from harm, the basic promises of the social contract met. However, providing this is done, international migrants should not be locked out. For at that point our interest in maintaining what are essentially inherited privileges – that 50% lifetime birthplace bonus – begins to look pretty selfish. At some point, borders are no longer self-preservation: they’re greed.

Principle, of course, is one thing: practice is another. This line of reasoning has at least two important political implications. First, if borders are to be defended as a protection against inequality, the justification rests first on demonstrating tangible progress in promoting equality between citizens, and then on showing such measures are being helped by restricting immigration. The evidence strongly suggests that states are currently unable to show either of these conditions holding true. In fact, immigration plays a crucial role in underpinning the current institutions and fiscal commitments that are intended to bridge the equality gaps between citizens too.

Second, if more migration is to be justified on the grounds that it helps to reduce global inequality, efforts to relax border controls and open up freedom of movement cannot focus only on the movement of elites: the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. This is directly counter to current policy trends. Increasing numbers of states are selling citizenship to the highest bidder: but in an age of elite hypermobility, fences are also being built to ensure the poor are kept in place.

There is thus a powerful case to be made that when it comes to inequality, the real fight isn’t between migrants and citizens: it’s between the elites and the ordinary. And if equality of opportunity is the end, then greater freedom of movement is one means by which such a goal can be achieved. This means that most immediately, there’s a need to counter the efforts being made to reduce immigration by many states, and to articulate the reasons why efforts at immigration reform in others should not focus only on securing visas for the wealthy, the highly educated, and corporate employees. And in the long-term, perhaps considering an alternative mantra – not “Open Borders”, but “Equal Borders” – might help to underline that if what we’re ultimately interested in is equality, greater freedom of movement is an important means of getting there – for migrants and citizens alike.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

Author Bio

Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University  and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

Since completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, she has held faculty positions at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights and Repatriation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Katy is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).

Katy has also worked extensively with policy-makers including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, she is engaged in furthering public understanding and engagement on migration issues, speaking and writing for a number of media outlets including the BBC World Service, ITV Tonight, The Conversation and openDemocracy. Follow Katy on Twitter at @mobilitymuse.

Related Open Borders: The Case links

The author of the post brought a different perspective to the issue than that typically espoused in Open Borders: The Case content and blog posts. To minimize disruption to the flow, we didn’t include links to related content from the site in the main post. However, the site does explore some questions related to the content. A brief list of related site content is below. There might be response blog posts by Open Borders: The Case bloggers responding to the author’s points. These links were curated by Open Borders: The Case editors and are not the author’s responsibility.

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.

Vivek Wadhwa, and the moral contradictions of mainstream liberal views on immigration

Last week, I attended the Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Let anyone take a job anywhere”, with Open Borders guest blogger Bryan Caplan and tech entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa speaking for the motion, facing conservative intellectual Ron Unz and migration policy wonk Kathleen Newland in opposition. I’ve already given my take on the debate: Bryan fought the good fight, but Unz and Newland threw up too many blatant inaccuracies and moral contradictions for any single debater to feasibly bat down in the time allotted. I said then that I thought Wadhwa was an ineffective advocate, primarily because he seemed like a moderate open borders supporter who hadn’t thought through things very well. I take that back: Wadhwa was not an effective speaker for the motion, primarily because he is a moderate open borders opponent who hasn’t thought through things very well at all.

I was originally thrown off by Wadhwa’s seeming endorsement of low-skilled migration during the debate: “if an employer thinks that this Mexican gardener is more qualified to do this job than someone else they can hire locally, let them do it.” Sure, Wadhwa endorsed Ron Unz’s proposal for a high minimum wage, even though Unz’s proposal is explicitly intended to bar most immigrants from coming — but paying lip service to the minimum wage is par for the course for any mainstream left liberal. What changed my mind was Wadhwa sending Bryan a harshly-worded missive which accused Bryan of failing the motion because Bryan used “silly analogies”, and failed to demonstrate how the US welfare system would provide for foreigners who come to the US. Wadhwa made it clear: “I do not advocate open borders.”

Bryan republished Wadwha’s missive on EconLog, at his request, and Wadhwa waded into the EconLog comments to defend his views. I give Wadhwa a lot of credit for this. Not many public intellectuals venture into blog comments, let alone get as deeply engaged as he did. However, I found Wadhwa’s elaboration even more disappointing than the seemingly-unwarranted missive he sent Bryan. Wadhwa first stated that he was upset with Bryan because Bryan made the focus of the debate turn on open borders, instead of “jobs”. What exactly Wadhwa intended to debate about “jobs” remains quite unclear to me, but his lack of clarity here explains in hindsight his unfocused opening statement at the debate. In response to his opening statement, Kathleen Newland chided Wadhwa that the motion was “let anyone take a job anywhere”, and not “let anyone take an anywhere job”.

I asked Vivek why exactly he opposes open borders. He’s made it clear that he wants to ban immigrants from coming to the US if they are going to work minimum wage jobs. But what is his alternative then? As I’ve written before, the primary alternative for immigrants and prospective immigrants if they are banned from coming is sweatshop or slave labour, at wages on the order of a few dollars a day, in workplaces where they run the risk of dying daily. If they can find a job here paying $8/hour (the approximate US minimum wage), I say bully for them. The remittances they send home to other poor foreigners already dwarf the foreign aid packages our governments send by 3 to 1. What humanitarian case is there for destroying the global flow of remittances and forcing hundreds of millions to live lives of sweatshop slavery?

When I posed these questions to Wadhwa, he responded:

Why do you assume that the best way of helping poor workers in Bangladesh and other developing countries is to bring them here to the US? Trust me, these people don’t want to leave their families and friends, culture, heritage, and homes to be here. They would rather stay where they are and make a living minimum wage.

It’s a neat story. But I have a hard time squaring this with the fact that immigrants routinely pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the developing world, running the risk of death in the desert or on the high seas. If they are so happy at home, why are they doing these things? And why is it more humane for us to interdict them with gunboats, for the sake of banning them from earning the “inhumane” wage of $8/hour? Is that really the most humane thing we can do? What is inhumane about allowing these people to buy their own plane ticket, pay the government a visa fee or surtax, and come here to work for wages higher than they would ever dream of earning at home?

Mind you, it’s our guns and border fences that force Bangladeshis to choose between backbreaking farm work and murderous sweatshop hours. If you’re going to tell me this is more humane than allowing those Bangladeshis to seek minimum wage work outside Bangladesh, you’d better be prepared to defend it. Even if you think allowing these people a choice won’t actually result in much migration, simply the fact that these workers now have an opportunity to exit will force their employers to pay better wages and improve working conditions. Making some handwavy arguments about brain drain won’t cut it, considering the paucity of evidence of any tangible harms to the developing world from “brain drain”. The burden of proof here is high: you’re asserting that it’s basic humanitarian policy to point a loaded gun at an unarmed human being and force him to turn around, because the alternative of allowing him to go on his merry way in search of a better job is simply too inhumane to tolerate.

Wadhwa at this point departed the comments, but closed on a gracious note, with words of praise for Bryan (albeit, words I find hard to square with his missive, which claimed Bryan’s arguments failed to convince a single person). He also acknowledged that they were likely mismatched partners as a result of a misunderstanding about the motion’s wording. The discussion continued, though, with EconLog commenters trying to make sense of Wadhwa’s position.

It seems quite clear to me now that Wadhwa and Kathleen Newland from the debate are actually kindred spirits. Both believe that it’s inappropriate to permit immigrants entry unless the government guarantees them a social safety net of some kind — and that because it is impossible to extend a single country’s social safety net to every single human being, there must be strict border controls of some kind. Both favour relatively liberal immigration policies, but policies still very far from open borders: they essentially want the status quo, with slightly fewer restrictions.

Wadhwa and Newland seem to be adopting a territorialist view of some kind, whereby a government owes greater obligations to people within its territory, citizens or non-citizens, than it does to people outside its territory. This is why both favour legalising the US’s population of undocumented immigrants and why both believe it’s fatal for open borders to point out that a single government’s welfare system cannot guarantee equal benefits to every single person on earth. There seems to be “local inequality aversion” at play: Wadhwa and Newland feel uncomfortable about admitting more poor people to the US (Wadha calls this “importing poverty”) unless the government can guarantee these poor people socioeconomic uplift.

But moderate territorialism is actually quite compatible with open borders, just like moderate citizenism. During the IQ2 debate, Bryan’s retort to “but they’ll burden our welfare system” was to essentially say: “we can ban them from enrolling in welfare”. This is going to strike most people as too harsh. But more than that, it’s also not really necessary for most developed countries.

The extreme territorialist thinking that pervades mainstream discussions of immigration concludes that the moment we admit a foreigner to our territory, we assume strong moral obligations, especially socioeconomic ones, towards that person. One obligation might be, say, to ensure that every person in our territory is guaranteed a job at a good wage — perhaps one much higher than $8/hour. Now, I’m happy to admit that sure, we assume moral obligations of some kind. (Providing non-citizens the equal protection of our labour laws would be a good start!) But I reject the extreme territorialist view that our obligations to all people in our territory, citizen or not, are identical.

Open borders skeptics say it’s inhumane to allow people to starve in our streets. But we don’t need to see starvation in our streets under open borders: we can simply subsidise the return ticket home for poor foreigners who lose their jobs. Let’s say you reject that as too inhumane. But we don’t need to break the bank still; we don’t need to furnish foreigners with all the same guarantees we make to citizens. We can offer them a basic social safety net: access to some form of healthcare, perhaps unemployment insurance, etc. All these can be guaranteed at levels lower than what we guarantee natives, but levels that still prevent people from dying in our streets.

To put this concretely, government can restrict an immigrant’s access to the state’s retirement funds while still giving the immigrant basic healthcare coverage. Something similar is already the case in the US and most developed countries today. Few, if any, countries give foreigners equal access to their state benefits as they do to citizens — but similarly, few totally deny foreigners access to any benefits. Yet when economists look at the most generous welfare states, even Sweden’s, they find no evidence of the supposed looming fiscal disaster that immigration is supposed to cause. It is perfectly possible to say, as a moderate territorialist-cum-citizenist, that you support open borders with a limited welfare state for non-citizens. Feasibility is not an issue; this is the exact course our governments are already charting capably (though one could argue they could cut foreigners’ access to welfare more). Economists agree that with a limited welfare state, immigrants are not a fiscal burden.

This is not a hamhanded attempt to dismiss the implications of open borders for the welfare state. This is the ultimate implication of the moderate citizenist and moderate territorialist views that most people hold. If the state has to choose who to spend its limited resources on, there is a prima facie case for prioritising citizens. Newland breezily dismissed the claim that immigration restrictions are unjust discrimination against foreigners at IQ2 by saying: “I think our governments are obliged to discriminate in our favour.”

I completely disagree: if anything, governments are obliged to enforce labour and contract laws equally, without regard for national origin! What I am happy to say is that governments are obliged to discriminate in citizens’ favour when it comes to the social safety net. It seems absurd to me to take the stand Wadhwa and Newland have staked out: that it is just and moral to discriminate against foreigners in labour law, but completely unethical to discriminate against foreigners in the social safety net.

But this absurdity may yet be reconcilable, if you stretch territorialism and citizenism to their extremes. The flipside of territorialism and citizenism is that if someone is not currently in our territory, and not a fellow citizen, then they aren’t our problem. Sure, some bricklayer might be dying of cholera in Haiti right now — but that’s not my problem. I don’t live in Haiti, and he doesn’t live in my country. It’d be my problem if I lived in Haiti and elected the Haitian government — or if he lived in my country, subject to the administration of the government I elect. But otherwise, that Haitian’s poverty isn’t my problem, and he should bugger off.

As a result, the perverse conclusions that Wadhwa and Newland seem to endorse — that it is better to prevent the entry of an immigrant if we can’t afford to give him the same healthcare subsidies as a citizen — can actually make eminent sense. It’s not inhumane to use your guns and tanks to keep a poor person trapped in Haiti. You’re just preventing the Haitian government from “exporting poverty”. You’re preventing them from dumping their problems of poverty and squalor into your government’s lap. It’s not your problem; it’s Haiti’s problem!

But this completely denies the agency of individual migrants. No government forces these people to leave Haiti, or wherever they came from. The Haitian government can barely keep the lights turned on! They certainly don’t have the capacity to subsidise emigration or to brainwash their citizens into leaving, or to force their own people at gunpoint into boats headed for the US. And even if they did, so what? That is exactly what Cuba and Vietnam did to their own people, and the free world welcomed these people with open arms. In fact, that is what the US still does today for Cubans — allowing the Castro regime to dump the people it doesn’t want in the US’s lap.

That you have to jump through so many intellectual hoops to morally justify forcing people at gunpoint to turn away from your shores, on the basis that it’s inappropriate for them to work for the wage of $8/hour, suggests something is wrong with your thinking. These people spend thousands of dollars and risk their own lives in deserts or on the high seas to get those $8/hour jobs. That indicates strongly that what they’re fleeing is even more of a bum deal than minimum wage — perhaps, say, a sweatshop, or worse. How can anyone conclude that it is more humane to force these people at gunpoint to go back to a life — and quite possibly death — toiling away for cents an hour in a sweatshop somewhere, than it is to permit them to come in peace in search of minimum wage $8/hour jobs?

When our taxpayer-hired guns force unarmed civilians seeking work to turn back and go home, we make their poverty our problem as well. When they were suffering in Haiti, or Bangladesh, or wherever they came from, their troubles were of no consequence to us. We did not put them in the plight they faced, nor did we hinder them from uplifting themselves. But when they sought work from an employer willing to pay them a wage multiples of what they might ever hope to earn at home, we put our guns in the way. If we’re going to stop them from solving their own problem, we’d better damn well have a better solution to offer them. Nobody asked us to interfere with their job search; we took it upon ourselves to do this. It’s our duty to figure out what to do with these people now.

Now, Wadhwa and Newland believe quite strongly that a high minimum wage and greater foreign aid (or some other mechanism of “exporting prosperity”, as Wadhwa puts it) is the more humane thing to do. Wadhwa seems to think enforcing a “living minimum wage” in the developing world would slow immigration to a trickle. Supposedly this is the liberal solution to the conundrum of immigration; this is the fulfillment of the developed world’s responsibilities to the developing world citizens whom it has arbitrarily banned from its labour markets.

But are a high minimum wage, high levels of foreign aid, and government-enforced social justice in the developing world realistic options? How would we ever find the money to spend on the vast amounts of foreign aid that would be necessary to “level” the world economically, as Newland put it at the debate? How would the governments of the developing world build the capacity to enforce just labour laws — to say nothing of the capacity needed to enforce a high minimum wage? The answer is clear: Newland herself said at the IQ2 debate that there is no apparent way we can accomplish such “leveling”. So what’s the next least inhumane alternative?

Economist and mainstream liberal Paul Krugman once wrote a seminal essay justifying the toleration of sweatshops as the least inhumane thing we can do for the world’s poor. I excerpted Krugman for my piece on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops. His logic holds true as ever — but it really applies to immigration, not sweatshops:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty. (emphasis added)

I hope Wadhwa and Newland, and all the liberals who share their views, will do their moral duty, and think things through.

The photograph of Vivek Wadhwa used in the header of this post was taken by John P. Harvey and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence.

Will Natives be Blamed for Lack of Immigrant Success?

In a short post, Steve Sailer manages to both make a potentially true and not really relevant point about how some people respond to the “lack of success” among immigrants (Vipul Naik blogged about another of Sailer’s comments that were also along these lines). Sailer points out an article that argues that even high performing schools fail Latino students. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention immigration there is a point that can be made here. Namely, when do we stop saying that the problem is a native institution and the problem is the immigrant? Surely saying that immigrants have no agency in their own success or failure and are only shaped by institutions is wrong. After all, Asian students, many of whom are immigrants or the children of immigrants themselves and coming from linguistic and cultural backgrounds that are more distant than the average Hispanic child, do very well.

Of course, the problem could be a system set up that is specifically designed to fail Latinos but not Asians. That would depend upon the specific policies of the school. But even then a point could be made that redesigning the best schools for Latinos benefit could ruin what works for the rest of the student population. Thus if even the best schools fail to pull Latinos up the problem may not primarily be on the side of native institutions. This relates to a broader problem of natives being blamed for the lack of immigrant success.

There are a few points I’d make in this regard. First off, to those saying that if immigrants or their children don’t achieve parity with natives that there is a major problem, I think that view suffers from a problem my co-blogger Nathan Smith has discussed, the use of borders as a blindfold. Specifically, comparing immigrant success to native success is the wrong metric to use. Most low-skill immigrants come from countries and backgrounds which produce far poorer results in terms of education and income (even crime though immigrants may not under perform natives in that category). The real metric to use isn’t a comparison to natives, against whom they will likely under-perform for a variety of reasons beyond the failure of natives to accommodate, but a comparison to the outcomes they were achieving in their home country. Results here tend to show immigrants far exceed what results they might have gotten in their native countries.

This complaint is ultimately a problem of local inequality aversion and territorialism. The fact that individuals are better off than they were before and that global inequality is reduced is already a huge benefit to the world. This is related to the problem of compositional effects, where the average success of both sending and receiving countries can conceivably drop while still achieving a Pareto-improving outcome. We don’t need immigrants to match natives in results to make the world a far better place through immigration. As I’ve posted about before, we shouldn’t make local equality with natives a precondition for enabling people to make their lives better.

Can local inequality cause dissent? Potentially yes, though such issues are not so terrible as to necessitate banning immigrants from a country. Riots such as those that happened recently in Sweden may in part be due to local inequality (the fundamental causes still cause some dispute), but if so this may relate more to a change in inequality than absolute inequality as Sweden has had large increases in income inequality recently, but remains far more equal than most OECD countries. If the varying levels of skill and productivity immigrants and their descendants bring does cause some unrest, that is likely to be transitory. For instance, the United States didn’t see increasing violent crime in general during the major late 19th century immigration waves, and if anything immigration seems to be a factor in decreasing crime rates. If immigrant-induced inequality causes unmanageable amounts of discontent we should notice this is overall crime not simply in big flashy riots.

So no, the complaint that we need even our best schools to bend over backwards to create local equality isn’t a necessary idea for open borders. Outright hostility to immigrants isn’t justified (and that would be something to legitimately blame natives for doing), but at the same time if immigrant groups simply have less skills, productivity, or academic achievement that should not be automatically assumed to be the fault of natives. But will some groups still denounce natives if immigrants fail to match native outcomes without unfair discrimination being a major cause? Quite probably. For me however, I have to respond with a big “so what”? If such statements make a native upset, it is ridiculously easy to avoid in the modern media environment. Indeed, avoiding alternative view points might be something of a problem nowadays, but it does mean that it’s easier to avoid unfair complaints. However, to the extent people can’t avoid this though the effect might even be beneficial from Steve’s point of view. The end result may be average natives finding those who blame them for immigrant problems (or “problems” considering the gain immigrants get compared to where they came from) to be distasteful and oppose their policy prescriptions more.

Social integration isn’t a bad thing when it happens, and ideally natives shouldn’t deliberately act to exclude immigrants from society. And it can be unfortunate when the second and third generations of immigrant families feel excluded or like they don’t measure up. But I doubt even in the worst cases of feeling excluded many would wish their families still lived in poverty in the developing world. Even when adjusting for inequality, one of the most unequal countries in the OECD, the United States, is still a healthier, wealthier place to be than any major immigrant sending country. If the angst of not being fully integrated into a broader society is less than ideal, it’s also much better than being in a Starving Marvin situation. Not to mention that one of the beauties of open borders is a greater chance for everyone to find the kind of culture or society that works for them.