Tag Archives: local inequality aversion

Why open borders are the solution to brain drain

I’m intensely ambivalent about the new book by Paul Collier, Exodus, that’s scheduled to come out in October of this year. Of course, I don’t know exactly what’s in it. But I know the author: Collier is a respected development economist and author of The Bottom Billion, one of the best books on the world’s poorest people and the causes of the world’s direst poverty. And Amazon provides a preview of the contents of Exodus.

More than ever before, those in the poorest countries-the bottom billion-feel the lure of greater opportunities beyond their borders. Indeed, the scale of migration driven by international inequality is so massive that it could make nations as we know them obsolete.

In Exodus, world-renowned economist and bestselling author Paul Collier lays out the effects of encouraging or restricting migration in the interests of both sending and receiving societies. Drawing on original research and numerous case studies, Collier explores this volatile issue from three unique perspectives: the migrants themselves, the people they leave behind, and the host societies where they relocate. As Collier shows, those who migrate from the poorest countries, primarily though not exclusive the young, tend to be the best educated and most energetic in their cultures. And while migrants often benefit economically, the larger impacts of mass migrations remain unsettling. The danger is that both host countries and sending societies may lose their national identities– an outcome that Collier suggests would be disastrous as national identity is a powerful force for equity. Collier asserts that migration must be restricted to ensure that it helps those who remain in sending countries and also benefits host societies that make the investment on which migrant gains rely.

Sharply written and brilliantly clarifying, Exodus offers a provocative analysis on one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Interestingly, Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to the Amazon page and apparently quoted it, except with slightly different words:

…bestselling author Paul Collier makes a powerful case for the ethical legitimacy of restricting migration in the interests of both sending and receiving societies… [the rest is the same]

I don’t know where Cowen got the text he quoted, which makes the book sound a little more restrictionist than the book description that actually appears at Amazon. Will Collier “make a powerful case for the ethical legitimacy of” migration restrictions, I wonder? Or not? Still, the Amazon book description still says that “Collier asserts that migration must be restricted to ensure that it helps those who remain in sending countries and also benefits host societies,” etc.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but it does seem to matter whether Collier is simply arguing that it would be in poor countries’ interest to restrict certain kinds of migration, and lazily advising this as good economic policy without inquiring into whether it’s ethically legitimate or not, or whether Collier is actually going to try to defend the ethical proposition that it is licit for countries to cage their citizens inside and not let them leave. If he is going to argue that, he is, I think, breaking somewhat new ground. Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Soviet restrictions on their citizens’ right to travel abroad or emigrate were long recognized as a violation of fundamental human rights. The Berlin Wall was built for the purpose of violating East German citizens’ right to emigrate. I don’t know as much about this as I would like to, but other than North Korea, how many states today attempt to prohibit emigration? Certainly a lot of people lack the right to emigrate de facto because nowhere will accept them, and this is one of the systemic abuses that open borders advocates want to overcome; but how many states curtail the right to emigrate per se? Or is Collier simply going to argue that other countries should cage citizens of poor countries at home so as to promote the development of their homelands, thus backing into the curtailment of the right to emigrate without attacking it head-on? Continue reading “Why open borders are the solution to brain drain” »

Stan Tsirulnikov on progressive immigration restrictionism

Writing at The Umlaut, Stan Tsirulnikov offers an interesting take on progressive immigration restrictionism. Tsirulnikov dubs it “immigration protectionism” and critiques it as being against the spirit of the bold changes that progressivism should be about. The targets for Tsirulnikov’s criticism include Dean Baker, head of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, for espousing strict limits on high-skilled immigration and apparently zero (?) low-skilled immigration. Another target is a piece by Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones titled How H-1B Visas Are Screwing Tech Workers. Tsirulnikov concludes:

Harkinson isn’t wrong to be concerned about the plight of struggling Americans. But as Bryan Caplan has pointed out in the past, it is morally questionable to put more emphasis on the “American” rather than the “struggling” part. Nevertheless, many progressives want to use immigration restrictions as a round-about way of helping vulnerable American workers. They know that the American public will not support direct subsidies to individual workers harmed by immigration, so they use restrictions as a cynical half-measure to prevent the supposed harm from happening at all. Baker’s proposal has the restrictions fall disproportionally on unskilled and poor foreigners, while Harkinson wants to make hiring high-skilled foreigners more difficult. But both view immigration as a potentially hostile force that needs to be managed for the exclusive benefit of Americans.

Overall, I tend to agree with Tsirulnikov. I considered progressive immigration restrictionism and its territorialist underpinnings in a blog post a little over two months ago (see also a ollow-up by Arnold Kling). I’ve also tried to address specific concerns raised by employees of the Economic Policy Institute (referenced by Harkinson’s Mother Jones piece) in the following blog posts: guest worker programs and worker abuses and Eisenbrey argues against increasing US visas for high-skilled work. Alex Nowrasteh offered a more detailed and forceful critique of Eisenbrey here.

How opponents of immigration on the left and right differ: territorialism versus citizenism

Post by Vipul Naik (regular blogger and site founder, launched site and started blogging March 2012). See:

Alex Nowrasteh recently tweeted criticisms of open borders from two fronts: Daniel Costa of the progressive Economic Policy Institute in a blog post titled On International Migrants Day, remember that guest worker programs aren’t the solution for immigration reform and Mark Krikorian of the center-right Center for Immigration Studies in a piece on National Review titled Black Unemployment: Just Don’t Mention the Immigration!

So I read both pieces. What struck me (and I also tweeted this) was that a quick reading of the articles wouldn’t reveal clearly which one was coming from a progressive/left-leaning perspective and which one was coming from a right-leaning/conservative perspective. Superficially, both arguments fell under what Bryan Caplan might dismiss as the master race argument — the idea that low-skilled natives are the ultimate interest group who should be given special preference in any policy discussion. It’s not my place here to critique this line of argument (though, if you’re interested, Nathan Smith blogged about teens and immigrants a while back, and Alex Nowrasteh had a critique of a related CIS study several years ago).

The point I want to make is that, despite the superficial similarity in the two pieces, there is one important difference, which I think is the key difference between the left-wing/progressive segment of opposition to open borders and the right-wing/conservative segment of opposition to open borders. Namely, progressive opponents of open borders tend to be influenced by a mix of territorialism and local inequality aversion. Their sphere of moral concern includes everybody who is within the geographical territory of their country, including citizens and non-citizens, and including both legal and illegal immigrants. And, in addition to being concerned about the absolute status of these people, progressive opponents of immigration are also concerned about inequality within the territory. As Arnold Kling notes in his three axes theory, the distinguishing feature of progressives (compared to conservatives and libertarians) tends to be their tendency to give more importance to the oppressor-oppressed axis (I’ve also written about why I find this sort of folk Marxism unconvincing, even when it is ostensibly pro-open borders). Combining a focus on the oppressor-oppressed axis with territorialism and local inequality aversion produces the kinds of proposals and concerns that Costa raised in his EPI blog post. Explicitly, it generally involves a combination of a path to citizenship, stricter enforcement, strong laws against worker exploitation, and an immigration policy designed to benefit currently low-skilled natives.

Anti-immigration individuals on the center-right, which probably includes all the hardcore restrictionist groups from CIS to VDARE and anti-immigration voices in more mainstream conservative outlets, are more likely to favor citizenism instead of territorialism. They are more likely to favor policies that explicitly discriminate in favor of current citizens. Immigrants and non-citizens who happen to reside within the geographic territory do not get the special status that citizens do, and in so far as they crossed borders illegally, it is considered moral to deport them. As per Kling’s three axes, center-right individuals are likely to be more focused on concerns of civilization versus barbarism, and while the alien invasion metaphor is probably an exaggeration, basic concern about how illegal immigration undermines the rule of law adds to the general worries about the harms created by immigration. Thus, center-right restrictionists are more likely to favor reform proposals that include attrition through enforcement and stronger border security while simultaneously reducing future levels of legal immigration, and while they are not completely averse to a path to citizenship, they would probably insist that it be restricted to a very special subclass (for instance, Mark Krikorian has expressed support for a version of the DREAM Act, but not the current version being passed around).

All in all, the main difference between progressive restrictionists and center-right restrictionists lies in how they want to deal with the illegal immigrants already here. Generally, restrictionists in both camps agree that future immigration levels need to be cut down or tailored to the interests of low-skilled natives, that enforcement (both at the border and in the interior) needs to be stricter, and that large-scale guest worker programs create more problems than they solve. Nonetheless, the differences between these two groups present unique challenges to those who are trying to come up with keyhole solutions. A keyhole solution that denies a path to citizenship, or walls off eligibility to the welfare state, might appeal somewhat to some (but not all) center-right restrictionists, but would be taken very negatively by progressive restrictionists.

A quick final note: I don’t mean to suggest that anybody who subscribes to citizenism or territorialism must necessarily be a restrictionist. Open borders do benefit many citizens, and keyhole solutions can be devised that help make them a win-win for the vast majority of citizens and those living in the geographical territory (as an example, see Nathan Smith’s DRITI proposal, or his blog post the citizenist case for open borders). Progressive restrictionists concerned about a path to citizenship might nonetheless come to the conclusion that expanded guest worker programs, despite their ills, and despite the lack of a path to citizenship, are still an improvement over the status quo. While I personally think of both citizenism and territorialism as morally flawed, there is no prima facie inconsistency between adopting these stances and supporting considerably freer migration than the status quo allows.

The border as blindfold

For the record, I thought it might be worth jotting down what I think is really the reason people reject open borders. Maybe it would be better to say the deepest, most fundamental, most difficult-to-negotiate-with reason people reject open borders. I don’t mean for the restrictionist commenters here or at EconLog: they’re unrepresentative. I mean the reason for the typical person in a typical rich democratic country, the person who hasn’t specially thought about the issue a whole lot. And this is only a hunch. Not only is my evidence merely anecdotal, but it involves a lot of interpretation on top of those anecdotes.

The welfare state / fiscal burden argument against open borders, as well as the political externalities argument, are, as I see it, easily defeasible via keyhole solutions. I think the arguments themselves haven’t occurred to a lot of ordinary people, but the answers to them are simply (a) don’t make immigrants automatically eligible for welfare, and (b) don’t automatically give immigrants the vote. Problem solved. Of course, that’s not all there is to be said. It is possible to argue that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. I don’t think it is possible to be justifiably confident that excluding immigrants from the welfare state, or from the franchise, isn’t really feasible. At any rate, the difficulty of persuasion does not seem to lie there. Some restrictionists don’t make these arguments, or after making them at first abandon them when they hear the answers to them, yet still resist open borders.

Why? Partly it’s just a natural conservatism of the mind which doesn’t accept novelties, no matter how strong the case may seem to be at the moment. I think this can be wise. Confronted with an articulate advocate of an eccentric view, one may feel oneself bested in the argument but still have good reason to refuse to be persuaded. One hasn’t had time to collect all one’s arguments and/or articulate all one’s intuitions in favor of the mainstream view. One hasn’t had time to consult all the other people who agree with the mainstream view and figure out why they hold it. One may raise one’s estimate of the plausibility of the view, and put it as it were on probation, but reserve judgment until one has had time to absorb a broader range of evidence. “Some clever and earnest people think this,” one might think, “and on the surface they seem to make a strong case. They’re probably wrong because everyone disagrees with them, and most people with such atypical views are wrong. Still, I’ll be on the lookout now for what good arguments there really are for the prevailing view. They might have passed me by before without my noticing. Now I’ll notice them if I hear them. And if they don’t seem to come along, I’ll gradually raise my subjective probability that these eccentrics have really hit on the truth.” That’s how I hope Open Borders: The Case might be influencing some readers. It’s also sort of my response, as of now, to BK’s advocacy of an IQ and the Wealth of Nations-type thesis (see here for more of my take on that).

Anyway– now I’m finally getting to the point– the most stubborn reason I run into, which often seems to be at the bottom of all the others, is that the border protects people from seeing the poverty that it shuts out. As I put it in Principles of a Free Society:

So what an argument like Paul Krugman’s [that once they’re here, we have to take care of them] is that America’s moral obligation to “assure health care and a decent income” for a person is completely non-existent when that person is located outside America’s borders, then magically appears when a person crosses the Rio Grande.

The only guess I can offer as to why anyone would hold this belief is that people want to avoid, not actual guilt, but feelings of guilt that result when one has to see poverty close up. Migration controls serve as a blindfold, enabling Americans to ignore most of the poverty, deprivation, and vulnerability that exist in the world by keeping it physically at a distance. In the past, people lived without this blindfold. The wealthy lived amidst poverty, sometimes engaging in generous charity to the poor, sometimes learning, perhaps callously, to ignore them.

Citizens of a modern welfare state, by contrast, feel that the state should coerce people to give to the poor so as to remove from the streets the kind of visible poverty that would make them feel obliged to give, allowing them to feel conscientious and affluent at once. The price of this moral complacency is paid by would-be immigrants who are not allowed to come to America to better their condition by honest labor, lest their poverty trouble the consciences of affluent Americans. (Principles of a Free Society, p. 148)

Sometimes, people seem to think that immigration creates the poverty because people come here and are poor. Sometimes this is an argument of unguarded moments. Surprised by the failure of one or two favorite arguments, an until-recently-complacent restrictionist says, “But I don’t want to see people starving on the streets!”– even if they recognize that the people would be worse off elsewhere. Sometimes people seem to sense the weakness of the border-as-blindfold argument, and I get the feeling they’re casting about for other arguments, but that not wanting to see a lot of poverty on the streets of American cities is part of what is motivating them. In other cases, people are unapologetic. (I’ve argued this issue with a lot of people over the years.)

For example, one version of the argument I heard is that open borders would reduce private charity by inducing donor fatigue. That is, currently private charity plays an important role in helping the poor, but under open borders, people would see a lot more poverty and become callous, feeling the cause was hopeless, so private charity would fall in absolute terms. To this I would say (a) I doubt it: I think more visible poverty would evoke more private charity, though the average poor native might see less of it; and (b) even if private charity completely disappeared, that would be dwarfed by the benefits, according to the modal estimates, of open borders. But it was interesting to hear a conscientious defense of a position prima facie so embarrassing.

As I have noted elsewhere, using the border as a blindfold is analogous to the priest and the Levite in the Good Samaritan parable, who crossed to the other side of the road to avoid helping the wounded man. It is a self-interested rationale for closed borders, but self-interested in an odd way, since it presupposes that people feel empathy for their fellow human beings, but also that that empathy is situation-specific and instinctive rather than rational, and that the rational aspect of a person can avoid situations in which his instinct for pity will be awakened to his disadvantage. Maybe some of these people would, as Jesus told the rich young ruler in vain (Mark 10:21), sell all they had and give to the poor, if the world’s poor appeared on their doorstep, and they want the government to protect them from their own generous impulses by keeping the poor out of sight.

Again, all this is just vague guesswork about the thought processes of the typical restrictionist, derived from impressions in a variety of debates with many different kinds of people. I could be wrong, but anyway I think the phrase “the border as blindfold” is worth introducing to the conversation.