Tag Archives: Matt Yglesias

The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders

We’ve done a fair number of posts on the distinction between moderate and radical open borders. This post explores an important angle that we haven’t yet explored, and should be of particular interest to people who come from the outside view as truth-seekers.

Here are some facts:

  • There is a small collection of explicit advocates of open borders, including Open Borders bloggers, as well as some of the people in our pro-open borders people list, plus many of the people who’ve liked us on Facebook. While their (our) views aren’t identical, there is general agreement that there should be a strong presumption in favor of free movement around the world.
  • The pro-open borders view is a minority view, even within the “enlightened” public (i.e., even among people who have a reasonably accurate general picture of economics, politics, and some basic facts about migration).
  • That said, the enlightened public does exhibit attitudes more favorable to freer migration than the public at large. This may be due to a mix of a more cosmopolitan (as opposed to citizenist or territorialist) outlook, and a more positive estimate of the impact of migration on natives. For more, see our pages on economist consensus, legal and political scholarly consensus, and smart and more informed opinion.
  • It is quite rare to see reasoned critiques from supporters of moderate open borders of the more radical open borders position. Therefore, it is difficult both to know the extent to which moderate open borders supporters have rationally considered and then rejected radical open borders, and to know their reasons for doing so.

Why does this matter? In general, in the absence of further information, it makes sense to defer to the majority view within the enlightened public. So if you had never given thought to the issue of migration, it might be most reasonable to conclude that moderate steps in the direction of open borders are optimal. But how do you decide whether radical steps are better or worse?

Here, the dearth of explicit critiques of radical approaches from moderates creates a problem. If there was good evidence that moderates had carefully considered and rejected radical approaches, then, even without examining the details, we could have a reasonable prior in favor of the moderate view. If, on the other hand, there is little evidence of moderates carefully considering and rejecting radical approaches, our confidence in favoring moderate approaches instead of radical ones would be lower, and an inside-view examination of the issues may be necessary.

From the weak inside view, the lack of critiques is even more puzzling, because many of the arguments advanced by moderates in favor of open borders easily extend to radical open borders, and moderates’ typical formulations of the arguments rarely provide criteria for just what level of openness would void their arguments. As co-blogger John Lee wrote:

Already, I can hear the thousands of moderate reformers protest: that’s wholly unfeasible! That’s simply too crazy! But why is that? You can’t cite studies showing “Immigrants add $X to our economy” or “Immigrants pay $X million more in taxes than they get in benefits” or “Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here” without addressing the inescapable conclusion: if immigration is so good, what’s wrong with having more of it?

Now, to be sure, I’ve slightly oversimplified the social science here for the sake of argument. But none of the caveats to the conclusions I’ve cited above can at all come close to explaining the immense reluctance moderate reformers seem to have about reaching the inevitable conclusion of the research here. Using the very premises I outlined above that we agree on, it seems that open borders is the only defensible, reality-based policy.

You might protest that most of the evidence pointing to neutral or positive effects from immigration is based on existing levels of immigration. Open borders is sufficiently radical that it might just be “out of sample” for any of the empirical studies we have about migration’s effects so far. I would say that although not strictly empirical, we do have some pretty good evidence from the pre-closed borders era of the 20th century that open borders pose no existential threat to humanity or the nation; for an example, see my take on what open borders history suggests will happen to Latin-American migrants in the modern US. Either way, if we’re being truly honest about the social science, then the right skeptical position is: “We have every reason to believe open borders is the right thing to do. We must move towards it, monitoring the evidence as it comes in for proof to the contrary.”

To be clear, moderates haven’t been completely silent in their critiques of open borders. Consider, for instance, economist Tyler Cowen. He has written a fair number of short posts critical of extreme open borders and its advocacy. But he is an exception among moderates, and, as I noted earlier, open borders advocates’ own description of potential weaknesses in their case seems to be more thorough than Cowen’s criticisms. Other open borders moderates, such as Scott Sumner and Matt Yglesias, have argued against radical open borders mainly based on principled arguments in favor of moderation, but have generally appeared favorably inclined to the idea of open borders as an end goal that is desirable in at least some sense (Sumner here and Yglesias here). There are other occasional criticisms of open borders from moderate standpoints, that we have sometimes responded to in blog posts (such as Gene Callahan’s Immigration, Yes- and No post that Nathan responded to here), but criticism of open borders is still a lot rarer than ignoring it.

An interesting observation: how explicit engagement with open borders tends to move people in a more pro-open borders direction

If you took the view that the case for open borders is correct but largely ignored by people because they don’t give it sufficient consideration, you would expect that the more people tried to engage critically with the case for open borders, the further they would move in the direction of supporting open borders. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear out the latter (namely, that people move in a pro-open borders direction when attempting to critique open borders), and therefore provides some support for the former (namely that the case for open borders is correct but somewhat ignored). I noticed some evidence of this when discussing John Cochrane’s seeming shift towards an open embrace of open borders in my review of the inaugural issue of Peregrine. Separately, co-blogger Nathan noted in a recent post:

[Reading Callahan’s argument against open borders] confirms my casual impression from years of debating immigration, namely, that in arguing against you, restrictionists tend to position themselves a lot further in the right (i.e., pro-immigration) direction than it seems likely they would have gone without your provocation. If we could establish consensus about “the moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear,” that would be major progress. It’s not a very well-defined criterion, and restrictionists would doubtless seek to define the “we can bear” clause in very limiting ways. Open borders advocates would explain why it’s unreasonable to call a large population of resident non-voters, or a significant drop in the wages of unskilled natives, “unbearable.”

Summary of reasons

So what are the main reasons why moderates rarely engage with radical open borders, to either praise it or critique it? In an Open Borders Action Group post on Facebook, I considered a few possible reasons, and others added to my list. I include the full list of reasons below, then discuss them in more detail. I choose a somewhat different ordering from that used in the OBAG post, in order to be more logically consistent.

Reasons #1-#3 in the list represent some form of ignorance or irrationality on the part of moderates that leads them to fail to consider open borders. Reasons #4-#6 indicate laziness or sloppiness on the part of moderates in terms of their decision to not engage. Of the reasons proposed, the most substantive reasons, and the ones that should cause us to give moderates’s views most weight, are reasons #7 and #8.

  1. Ignorance (was #1 in OBAG list): They haven’t thought about it, don’t understand how far the world is from open borders, and/or haven’t encountered people who explicitly advocate for open borders.
  2. Reflexive moderation (was #7 in OBAG list): They package deal the word extremism with the general idea of “negative” or “wrong”. So, if you propose open borders their first reaction is that, “we can’t be so extreme.” (Suggestion from Bryan Hayek, who points to “Extremism and the Art of Smearing” by Ayn Rand).
  3. Failure of language (Sapir-Whorf-like hypothesis): They commonly associate “open borders” with even more extreme versions thereof (no borders, abolition of the nation-state) or with particular empirical consequences (border lawlessness). Moderates who might support specific moves that radically liberalize migration (perhaps not complete open borders, but sufficiently broad keyhole solutions that come close enough for all practical purposes) don’t have a vocabulary with which to think about and express such ideas.
  4. Silence motivated by indifference (was #4 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders but don’t care about it because open borders advocates are politically inconsequential. (Language altered somewhat from a suggestion by David E. Shellenberger).
  5. Nothing to say (was #5 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but don’t have any compelling arguments, so stay silent. (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  6. Morally embarrassing arguments (was #6 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but their objections sound terrible (at least in some social circles) when stated baldly, like “I’d rather one poor American get $1 than 10 far poorer foreigners get $1 each.” (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  7. Strategic silence despite agreement, motivated by infeasibility and potential for backfiring on moderate reform (was #2 in original list): They agree to quite an extent with the case for open borders, but consider it politically infeasible at present, therefore they keep mum about it to avoid sabotaging the chances for moderate reform.
  8. Strategic silence despite disagreement, motivated by avoiding giving ammunition to restrictionists (was #3 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but believe that if they openly critique it, the criticisms would be used by their restrictionist opponents against the case for moderate immigration reform.

The reasons offered here are not mutually exclusive, but they do have different implications for how much weight a truth-seeker coming from the outside view should attach to the case for open borders. Continue reading “The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders” »

How do open borders meaningfully differ from mainstream “immigration reform”?

Co-blogger Vipul raised recently the question of whether pursuing the radical concept of open borders is really worth it, compared to just focusing on moderate “immigration reform”. Given I blog here, my response to Vipul’s question is not in doubt. But there’s a basic question I think we can easily overlook if we try to answer Vipul’s question based on gut feel: how do open borders differ from moderate “immigration reform” which most pro-immigration liberals across the world work towards? Here, I’ll outline: several starting premises that we all share; three important ways in which we fundamentally disagree; and finally, one important thing which we actually agree on (or at least, don’t disagree anywhere close to the degree it’s commonly imagined).

At first glance, this seems trivial: open borders is a substantial or total dismantlement of existing border controls. Moderate liberal immigration reforms either seek to reinforce border controls while treating unlawfully-present immigrants better (e.g., most of the immigration reform proposals on the table in the US as of this writing) or minor loosening of border controls for certain types of people (e.g., proposals to allow for greater economic migration in certain job categories, or refrain from holding asylum-seekers in prisons). In other words, open borders supporters want to tear it all down, while moderate reformers simply want to selectively patch up or open certain parts.

This is not the whole story, however. You can’t explain the differences between open borders supporters and moderate reformers until you’ve looked at the reasons why their approaches diverge. Both groups of people I daresay come at the problem of immigration sharing certain perspectives and premises:

  • Economically, immigration is not harmful and actually can be a huge boon
  • Socially, immigration does not threaten the existing order and may actually strengthen and/or improve it
  • Most reasons commonly given for tight border controls have little basis in fact
  • The way border controls treat most prospective migrants is highly inhumane
  • The way governments treat irregular or unlawful migrants is also very inhumane

When you consider these points of agreement, it’s actually a wonder why these two groups of people advocating changes to our immigration systems land so far apart. Why do some embrace a completely radical view that concludes the whole edifice is rotten to its core, and must be fundamentally torn down and rebuilt, while others simply focus on what amount to tweaks — tweaks that no doubt affect the lives of millions, but remain almost infinitesimal compared to the changes which open borders might bring?

The first salient difference I can see is that open borders advocates are not afraid to follow the straightforward conclusions of immigration research to their ultimate conclusion:

  • Immigration is good for the economy? Awesome, why not allow as much immigration as people want to engage in? If a citizen wants to hire a foreigner, everyone benefits — so have at it!
  • Immigration doesn’t threaten our society? Great, yet another reason we can shut down government programmes that spend billions “defending” our borders from restaurant cooks and IT workers, and divert those precious resources to better uses for our nation.
  • Our immigration system treats millions of people as if they are subhuman? Seems like a good reason to begin shutting the whole thing down and replacing it with a more humane legal regime: we could just allow everyone who wants a visa to get one.

Already, I can hear the thousands of moderate reformers protest: that’s wholly unfeasible! That’s simply too crazy! But why is that? You can’t cite studies showing “Immigrants add $X to our economy” or “Immigrants pay $X million more in taxes than they get in benefits” or “Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here” without addressing the inescapable conclusion: if immigration is so good, what’s wrong with having more of it?

Now, to be sure, I’ve slightly oversimplified the social science here for the sake of argument. But none of the caveats to the conclusions I’ve cited above can at all come close to explaining the immense reluctance moderate reformers seem to have about reaching the inevitable conclusion of the research here. Using the very premises I outlined above that we agree on, it seems that open borders is the only defensible, reality-based policy.

You might protest that most of the evidence pointing to neutral or positive effects from immigration is based on existing levels of immigration. Open borders is sufficiently radical that it might just be “out of sample” for any of the empirical studies we have about migration’s effects so far. I would say that although not strictly empirical, we do have some pretty good evidence from the pre-closed borders era of the 20th century that open borders pose no existential threat to humanity or the nation; for an example, see my take on what open borders history suggests will happen to Latin-American migrants in the modern US. Either way, if we’re being truly honest about the social science, then the right skeptical position is: “We have every reason to believe open borders is the right thing to do. We must move towards it, monitoring the evidence as it comes in for proof to the contrary.”

Economist Bryan Caplan has made just this argument before, responding to the precautionary principle-based argument against open borders. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to meet a mainstream immigration reform advocate who openly takes such a position; the way most advocates talk, they’re happy to embrace empirical evidence which may support “immigration reform,” but shrink from any inexorable conclusion, no matter how firmly the evidence may point towards it, that open borders could possibly be the right thing to do. Most mainstream immigration liberals strike me as irrationally certain that the immigration status quo is backed by the evidence, and open borders aren’t — when actually just the opposite is true. But to give credit where credit is due, one of the few immigration liberals who has been willing to grapple with the tough question of open borders is Slate‘s Matt Yglesias, who had some pretty thoughtful things to say in response to criticism of open borders advocacy.

On to the second important area of disagreement: are loose border controls a government “subsidy” for migration, or are they simply relaxation of the state’s control on an organic human activity? In discussing migration with many of my liberal friends or acquaintances, I find many inherently frame an open migration policy as a subsidy to migrants, artificially spurring human activity that only occurs because the state has encouraged it. This paradigm is why someone like say, Vivek Wadhwa so casually dismisses open borders as not a very meaningful source of empowerment — because in his view, migrants don’t actually want to move! In this worldview, loose border controls are a subsidy to migration: people don’t actually want to move in some platonic world, but by opening the borders a little, you’ve subsidised their migration, and so they’ll pack up and leave the only home they’ve ever known.

I find this view very difficult to understand and almost as hard to rebut, because it seems so obviously self-refuting. Let’s say the government required you to apply for a permit before you were allowed to write any blog post. If government loosened the permit requirements, or abolished them altogether, would any sane person call this new blog permit policy a “subsidy” to bloggers?

It is of course true that loosening border controls promotes migration. But this promotion of migration occurs as a result of migration flows being able to edge back towards their natural state. Returning to my example, you would see an immense spike in blog posts if government abolished the application fees for blogging permits. This abolition of fees would be a “promotion” of blogging in one obvious sense of the word, but it clearly is not a subsidy to blogging — it is a removal of one government barrier to blogging.

In my opinion, seeing border controls as a government barrier, instead of just a natural state of the world, is one of the key differences between open borders advocates and mainstream reformers. If we treat borders as natural, and any loosening in their control as some sort of state “subsidy”, the right intuitive response would be skepticism. After all, a subsidy requires resources from the state. Even if no actual transfer payment is being made, government investment is required to effect the policy, and some prioritisation calls have to be made about the trade-offs of pursuing this particular subsidy or programme versus some other alternatives.

This is why, when open borders comes up, some mainstream liberal in the room will almost always pipe up: “But what about all the problems we have in our country? Sure, we could invest in open borders and that’d raise world GDP, halve world inequality, etc., but don’t we owe it to our citizens to spend our scarce resources on solving their problems first?” The stereotypical open borders response to this might be to stare flabbergasted at someone who just suggested it is more important to spend money on, say, domestic farm subsidies than on aiding the escape of people fleeing genocide. But honestly, we don’t even have to do that. You can be a good citizenist and nationalist and still find this cliched liberal response totally unappealing — because it’s coming from the unintuitive and senseless view that loosening border controls constitute a subsidy, instead of a removal of a barrier.

There is nothing natural about watertight controlled borders. Borders themselves are sometimes natural: rivers, mountain ranges, and so forth have marked out tracts of territory since time immemorial. Many borders are obviously artificial, drawn by some dead white man who might never have met anyone who lived on either side of the line he invented. Can we say that a system of brutal border enforcement truly serves the people’s interest, when these borders have often been drawn with utter disregard for the actual interests, welfare, or way of life of the people living on either side?

Whether drawn artificially or naturally, borders sealed to a degree where virtually nobody can cross are an immense historical aberration. There is nothing natural or logical about assuming a watertight border and taking any loosening of that to be an artificial subsidy. Quite the opposite: our society has to invest an immense amount of resources in sealing our borders to a degree that we fancifully imagine to be somehow “natural”.

The people suggesting that any loosening or opening of the borders would be a pull on the state’s or society’s limited resources are totally ignoring that tight border controls already pull immensely on our resources. Border guards do not work for free. Electrified fences do not build themselves. Prison camps for people fleeing war or economic disasters don’t spring out of nowhere. Plane tickets for deportees do not simply pay for themselves. Every dollar less that we can spend on deporting people or keeping them out is a dollar we can spend on a more deserving citizen here. There simply is no “investment” necessary to “subsidise” open borders.

This pernicious view of sealed borders as natural, and loose borders as a subsidy for migration, directly ties to the third fundamental disagreement: open borders advocates hold state-enforced border controls to a much higher bar for ethical legitimacy than moderate reformers do. Most moderate reformers are not very ethically- or morally-bothered by immigration laws.

A lot of the passionate moderate reformers I’ve encountered are bothered by these laws primarily to the degree that they affect people they know: in other words, migrants who are already present in the country. Open borders advocates on the other hand seem oddly-motivated and passionate about all the prospective migrants who aren’t even here yet, and, if we don’t open the borders, will never come. But this is because moderate reformers see sealed borders as a state of nature, and any loosening of the border as a subsidy to targeted classes of migrants. Consequently, they aren’t interested in open borders, which seem like an untargeted subsidy: it seems infinitely costly, and it’s not clear what the return on what seems like an infinite investment would actually be.  Moderate reformers want the “subsidy” of looser border controls to focus on groups they can immediately see as deserving target beneficiaries: children of illegal immigrants, some illegal immigrants, refugees, high-skilled workers. They don’t see much reason to care about other possible classes of migrants, since that’d be diverting the scarce resources necessary to enact the “subsidies” they’re seeking for these classes of migrants. It’s not morally- or ethically-important to consider people outside these narrow classes: sealed borders are the natural state of things, and it doesn’t make sense to invest resources in opening the borders to unskilled day labourers. The onus is on these “economic migrants” to prove why it’s worth investing in opening the borders to them.

Open borders advocates on the other hand find it ethically abhorrent to insist on removing barriers to organic human movement for certain classes of people, but not others. Why treat a refugee fleeing genocide so differently from another refugee fleeing famine, or another refugee fleeing economic collapse? What is the morally-relevant difference? If we allow refugees from one dictatorship open borders, but not refugees from other dictatorships, what morally-relevant reason is there?

The key difference is that moderates find arbitrary restriction of movement across borders totally ethically acceptable: of course it’s okay for the state to ban you from crossing if you don’t have a university degree, because we shouldn’t be investing scarce resources in subsidising migration for people like you. Open borders advocates reach a completely opposite conclusion: it’s completely ethically unacceptable for the state to do this arbitrarily. Allowing you to cross the border is not a subsidy to you; it is a loosening of an artificial government restriction. If you want to look for work here, come shop, go for a walk, whatever, the onus is on the state to show why your doing this would impose unacceptable costs that require you to be refused entry.

The different ethical bars that state controls over migration are held to here follow completely from the “subsidy versus felling a barrier” paradigm clash. And open borders advocates then go one step further to say: in most cases, there is no such unacceptable cost to society from allowing the person entry, and as such, there is no permissible reason for the state to refuse them entry. This follows entirely from the first disagreement: the evidence is overwhelming that in general, immigration is beneficial. To the extent the state refuses foreigners entry, it must narrowly target these refusals to the exceptions of the general rule that immigration benefits the economy and society.

This brings us to my last promised point: that in one respect, open borders advocates and moderates are not really that far apart. Except for no-borders advocates and anarchists, most of us sympathetic to open borders will grant the state the authority to regulate and control border crossings. I’ve drawn an analogy to trade in the past: nobody thinks “free trade” means that I should be able to import AK-47s at will. Governments control many aspects of movement and life. If you are carrying bird flu, as a general rule you should not expect freedom of movement, domestically or internationally. Open borders is not about allowing armed soldiers or criminal gangs to cross sovereign borders at their whim. Open borders is about allowing innocent people, who want nothing more than to seek a better life, to cross sovereign borders in peace. I don’t think we need to tear down all border checkpoints in the world to achieve open borders. It would be perfectly feasible to maintain border checkpoints in an open borders world: you’d simply approve every visa application unless evidence arises that the applicant has malicious intent, or otherwise is a person who poses a significant and meaningful threat to your society.

The vast majority of migrants in the world today, actual and prospective, neither have malicious intent, nor do they pose a threat to us. The social science shows that their coming here would benefit our economy. They wouldn’t undermine the foundations of our society. Preventing them from coming as if they are an invading army causes a disproportionate use of state force which violates basic human rights and common sense: in what way is it reasonable to bring warships to bear on refugees fleeing mass murder, or use gunships and drones to turn back people looking for a kitchen job that pays minimum wage? Unsealing our world’s borders would not be an untargeted, infinitely-costly subsidy to the migrants of the world, nor would it eliminate a fundamental natural feature of our states: it would simply free up billions of dollars for us to spend on our own citizens in more enriching ways, and allow millions of people to put their talents to better use serving us and each other. Open borders is a radical idea — and we should absolutely move towards it.

The photograph of Syrian refugee children in Jordan that appears above this post was taken by Russell Watkins, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution licence.

Contra Tyler Cowen, closed borders should scare people

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution recently graced us with a pretty bracing set of criticisms:

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice.  The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way.  I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring.  Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.  (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

Co-blogger Nathan Smith has already taken Tyler to task on the economics, asking Tyler specifically if keyhole solutions like immigration tariffs would address his concerns about the risks of open borders. Tyler issued a laconic response, which referred to Nathan’s suggestions as “surrender”, presumably because any sort of immigration restriction is inconsistent with open borders. Nathan has already  updated his post to address Tyler’s riposte. Since we have covered the economics around Tyler’s thinking fairly comprehensively already, I want to tackle something different: exploring what we mean by open borders, and why an open borders agenda (as opposed to some generic “liberal immigration policy”) matters.

But first off, as reasonable as Tyler’s critique may be, I find it strange in how it implies that restrictionist myths and urban legends deserve more credence than any economist would give them. The tone of Tyler’s criticisms about the risks of open borders strikes me as slightly reminiscent of Paul Krugman’s tone on macroeconomic policy: worded just so, to avoid falling afoul of the economics, without really dissuading people from mistaken beliefs about what the economics says. Paul Krugman hardly ever directly contradicts the mainstream economist consensus that monetary policy can be effective at the zero lower bound. But if you ask any layperson reading Krugman what Krugman believes about the efficacy of monetary policy when interest rates are low, I’d bet you the median layperson thinks Krugman believes monetary policy is totally ineffective, making fiscal policy the only game in town.

Likewise, if you ask him, Tyler is all for liberal immigration policies (as he said himself, right before launching into his critique). He doesn’t buy into the myths that immigrants are fatal drains on the welfare state, or deadly threats to the working class of the developed world. The prevalence of these two myths, in the face of all the economic evidence, is depressingly common; it is as if the lay person believed “all Chinese are opium addicts” or “deporting Jews will reduce the prevalence of poisoned wells”.  Like numerous other economists, Tyler has explicitly declared he repudiates the popular scaremongering myths about immigration’s economic effects. It is all the more surprising then that he declares “people should be scared” of open borders — when, as he’s said time and time again, the main reasons people fear immigration have nothing to do with fact.

To solidify his critique, Tyler says that he is in particular worried about a scenario where:

  • The US is the only country that opens its borders
  • The US opens its borders essentially overnight (i.e., from highly restrictive one day to highly liberal the next)

But other than as thought experiments, I daresay you won’t find any blogger on this site who would say “Yes, that’s a regime I’d be happy with and world that I’d gladly sign up to live in, because the risks are so obviously worth it!” There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  There are plenty of ways to gradually open the world’s borders while mitigating their risks. Here, the three most obvious options off the top of my head, with links to prior Open Borders posts where we’ve explored them (those posts are far from the final word, but they show just how untapped an intellectual well this area of thought is):

  1. Have a steadily increasing immigration quota
  2. Establish free movement unions or areas, similar to customs unions or free trade areas
  3. Abolish deportation as a form of punishment, except in extreme cases

All three options are eminently practical ways of achieving open borders which address the perennial question, “But what on earth would you do with 500 million new American residents tomorrow?” And there are plenty of other practical ways to open the borders; I see no reason to wed ourselves to a particular approach. Maybe some countries will only be able to open their borders via guest worker visa regimes. Maybe others will only be able to open their borders via immigration tariffs or surtaxes of some kind. Still others may be able to get away with true open borders. And I’m confident many countries are capable of mixing and matching. You can imagine a North American free movement union between Canada and the US (or perhaps even, as Barry Goldwater envisioned, such a zone that includes Mexico) which imposes a different regime on immigrants from other countries. The destruction of all conventional immigration policies on some longer timeframe than “within the next 24 hours” is something I’d be happy to see. But even that is only one possible means to the end of open borders.

At this point, you’re probably either scratching your head, or nodding it in agreement with Tyler’s point from earlier about surrender, because what I’ve just outlined may well strike you as utterly inconsistent with the label of “open borders”; after all, what is open borders if not a total rejection of conventional immigration policies? But I don’t define open borders as one particular policy regime or one particular set of immigration laws. I define open borders simply as the principle that, subject to clearly-defined (i.e., not wishy-washy, unclear, or opaque) necessary constraints, people are free to travel, live, and work wherever they want. I am happy to accept any policy regime that satisfies this principle.

Tyler’s critique focuses on an airy-fairy type of open borders which any reasonable person can see is not going to happen, and likely shouldn’t happen at all. So while we’re at it, we might as well criticise a single world government too, since that’s also going to be an absurdly impractical and unreasonable way to open the borders. Where I find Tyler’s critique goes astray is that it focuses on one particular means of opening the borders, instead of the end itself — thereby lending more credence to restrictionist myths about the evils of open borders.

Ultimately, open borders is an end; it is the freedom to author your own life story. It is about being able to sleep safe in your own home, with your family, amongst your community of friends, knowing the government doesn’t have the arbitrary and unchecked power to take you away from all of them tomorrow morning. It is about being safe in the knowledge that the job your employer hired you to do can’t be eliminated by government fiat tomorrow because you made the mistake of being born in the wrong country. All of these are rightful ends for anyone to aspire to. They may well be unattainable on some level, but that is no reason to reject open borders out of hand, any more than the infeasibility of economic “perfect competition” constitutes a reason to reject economic liberalisation. Rejecting open borders because you reject one possible open borders policy is an oddly narrow-minded approach unworthy of an economist or thinker of Tyler’s stature. Even mainstream immigration liberals who remain skeptical of open borders like Matt Yglesias find Tyler’s stance here bemusing.

I can imagine no better label for a world with freedom of movement than a world of open borders. What else captures the sentiment so concisely? If Tyler is so unhappy about calling the goal of free movement “open borders”, he’s free to propose a catchier title. But I really don’t think freedom of movement is something Tyler opposes. He may well have ideas about how to achieve open borders that don’t jive with mine. That’s fine. I’m happy to have a debate about how to achieve open borders. I think Tyler’s on the same page with me here, which is why he kicked off this debate about whether rhetorically, the open borders label is tactically useful.

But while Tyler’s gotten to that point, what concerns me more right now is how far the rest of the world is from reaching that point. Most people don’t give a second thought to the fact that people die every day thanks to the governments we elect and the taxes we pay.  We so blithely accept that the state has total, virtually unlimited power to abuse innocent and unarmed civilians. It’s one thing to disregard a destitute person living in, say, Zambia. None of us is responsible for giving that person a job, or for preventing that person from finding work in Zambia. But it’s a completely different thing to disregard how our tax-funded armed forces treat that person as a life-threatening enemy of the state, simply because he or she tried to find work in our country.

When it’s our money and our political authority being used to prevent that person from finding or holding down a job someone in our country is willing to hire them to do, I have a huge problem with that. The use of armed force against armed force is one thing. The use of armed force against civilian job-seekers or civilians seeking to be with their family is another; it is galling. We would never accept it against those born in our own country. Why do we so easily accept bringing tanks and gunships to bear against those innocents born outside our own country? Once we accept that this is a problem, we might still conclude that there’s no reasonable solution to the immigration problem, and that current policy to risk the lives of unarmed civilians is the best we can hope for. But most people, unlike Tyler, aren’t even willing to accept that this is a problem!

Given Tyler’s libertarian leanings, I imagine he won’t disagree much with me on these points. So it’s all the more puzzling to me then that he slips into the trap of encouraging popular fallacies used to justify the torture and slaughter of innocent immigrants. As Tyler points out, people fear the risks of more liberal immigration. But they will be fearful whether you call it “amnesty”, “comprehensive immigration reform”, or “open borders”. And their fears, in almost every single case, will be far more grounded in speculation and conjecture than any empirical fact. Tiny, statistically insignificant effects on a subsegment of the native working population will be blown up into “They took our jerbs!”-style paranoia. Economists quite bravely stuck their necks out for the cause of free trade, despite knowing the popular fears and risks. What keeps them from preaching the same consensus they’ve reached on immigration?

Putting modern economics aside, reasonable people in the US once feared letting blacks into the labour market (they had this “reasonable” fear that freed blacks would lynch them in retaliation for centuries of slavery — for what it’s worth, a more reasonable fear than the notion that Latin American immigration would turn the US political system into that of Chavez’s Venezuela). Pretty reasonable people once feared the impacts of letting women into the labour market. People fear any kind of change. Citing fears instead of facts is no way to make a reasonable policy argument.

It’s not news to anyone that the notion of open borders is scary. Dramatic policy changes should scare any reasonable person, because that’s only human. But scariness in of itself is not a plausible reason to come down firmly on one side or another. Many historical struggles for justice and human rights were shockingly frightening. Abolishing slavery or allowing women into the labour market constituted far more radical and scary reforms than would be dramatically liberalising immigration quotas, or dramatically halting most deportations. You tell me, what’s more dangerously untried and radical: allowing an illiterate, newly-freed black to buy his own land and farm his own crops in 1870; allowing a woman to build an aeroplane in 1940; or allowing a Pole to work on a UK construction site in 2010?

And on the flip side, it’s impossible to ignore how radically totalitarian is the immigration status quo. None of us can condone an immigration system that bans a woman from attending her daughter’s wedding because it suspects she’ll want to immigrate (never mind that, legally present or not, she won’t be eligible for most state entitlements). None of us can condone a legal system that gives government uncontrolled, unchecked, arbitrary power to destroy jobs, families, and homes in one fell swoop. I can’t see anyone signing up to defend a legal system that arbitrarily decides who you can love or who you can work for based on which emperor technically ruled the piece of dirt your ancestors happened to live on two centuries ago.

As the recent tragedy at Lampedusa, Italy illustrates, our legal systems often as good as murder people — people whose lives are so full of suffering that they willingly risk death to immigrate to our jails. We force people to choose between dying in sweatshops or dying at the hands of our border patrols. As some Syrians trying to flee chemical warfare are learning first-hand today, our ostensibly humane laws declare that it is better to force people to be gassed by a dictator than to let them try to make ends meet in our countries. How is any of this not radical? How is it not frightening that we supposedly have to resort to these measures to make the world safe for “civilisation”?

Are we truly happy and safe today because our border guards force Bangladeshis to die in sweatshops and Syrians to suffocate under clouds of sarin? Yes, inasmuch as today’s policies are inefficient and inhumane, the right solution isn’t tearing down every guard post and every border fence in the world within the next 24 hours. But beginning to think about a good alternative to closed borders consistent with both security and dignity is surely a moral imperative. I don’t think any of us want to live in a world that has to destroy human rights in order to preserve them. The problem with the traditional liberal approach towards immigration reform is that, implicitly or explicitly, it embraces closed borders. It might want to open them a little, but it has no sound reasoning (other than “this feels right, I guess”) for picking a trade off point between open and closed borders.

Open borders matters because it is the only paradigm that rejects the fallacious and unethical presumptions of closed borders, and the only paradigm that provides a sound moral basis for moving towards liberal immigration policies in the first place. Open borders presumes a right to move, one that can be overridden as necessary. Closed borders presumes a total ban on movement, one that can be overridden as necessary — a ban nevertheless so strong, it has to be enforced by punishments that destroy mutual employment, family, and community relationships; punishments that sometimes result in the taking of human life. Tyler may well draw a different line than I, or many others, do about what sorts of immigration restrictions are necessary. But I believe we are all on the same page: that people should be free to move, and that this right should only be denied when clearly necessary.

Defenders of the status quo ban essentially assert that a fascist totalitarian regime which kills unarmed civilians is the only way to preserve civilisation and safeguard people’s lives and property. Maybe they think our policies should kill slightly fewer people per year, but they otherwise are comfortable with the status quo as it is. Baldly saying ,”We need to open the borders”, forces a rethink of how readily we can accept the status quo. We know there’s a problem today, a problem that costs the human race thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Have we truly explored every possible alternative to the totalitarian border regime we have today?

Writing off open borders as an unattainable goal without exploring all avenues we have to get there I think amounts to saying “It is just and right that we force people to die under a cloud of poison gas or in a sweatshop’s fiery inferno, because that is an appropriate punishment for daring to be born in the wrong country.” Sure, that’s a strawman, since no reasonable person wants to sign on to that trade-off. But that trade-off is exactly the one our governments make in our name every damn day, and it’s a trade-off they’re making based far more on “scary” prejudices than it is on any evidence or fact. Opening the borders is the only way we can put an end to the unholy, inhumane slaughter of innocents — the slaughter of slightly less fortunate people who, same as you and me, just want a better life for themselves and their family. Before we reject open borders, and say there’s nothing we can do to stop the killing and dying, let’s at least be sure we’ve covered all our bases.

Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously

Post by Paul Crider (regular blogger for the site, joined June 2013 as an occasional blogger, promoted to regular blogger July 2013). See:

The clamoring for intervention in the Syrian bloodbath has given Matt Yglesias an excuse to discuss the impressive cost-effectiveness of distributing mosquito-proof bed nets as a form of humanitarian foreign aid. He argues that if the unfortunate plight of foreigners really tugs on our heartstrings, the bed nets are a better deal than bombs by a couple orders of magnitude.

Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO at the time, and James Stavridis, NATO’s top military officer at the time, bragged in Foreign Affairs about the extraordinary success of [the Libya] operation:

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost—$1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall—that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

That is extremely impressive. What about the Against Malaria Foundation? What they do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

A similar argument can be made in favor of facilitating voluntary migration of refugees from the Syrian conflict to destinations of their choice in areas of the world where the risk of death or dismemberment by military violence is less, such as developed countries. (The more general argument has been made on this blog before.) This would be approximately free if the refugees were allowed to work and pay taxes in their newly chosen countries. While it probably wouldn’t be as cost-effective as insecticidal bed nets in terms of lives saved, those lives would be potentially radically improved in terms of expanded human capabilities. Of course bed nets and open borders don’t have to compete. It’s possible that open borders could even magnify the beneficial effects of bed nets in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.

This may seem like a facetious argument, or an impolitic way of roping a serious humanitarian crisis into the service of yet another argument for open borders. But just as my esteemed co-blogger recently argued with the case of sweatshops, if we want to take our humanitarian concerns seriously, liberalizing the immigration policies of the rich world needs to be part of the discussion. Collapsing factories and wars, like natural disasters, act as rare reminders that foreigners are human beings just like us, so these tragic events are the perfect time to press for policies that can do significant good in the world. A couple years ago on my personal blog, I suggested that another thing these events have in common is that their victims have done nothing to deserve their fates aside from running afoul of luck.

I claim that natural disasters and catastrophic misgovernance are morally indistinguishable. If a disaster strikes your country or you happen to be born in North Korea, both events are best described by luck. Unless you’re a Calvinist, you probably agree that bad luck has nothing to do with culpability or just deserts. Then if you accept the premise (perhaps a big if*) that we in rich countries owe some kind of aid to people in nations struck by disaster and that emigration is an optimal kind of aid, then I think it follows that we also owe similar aid to people fleeing grossly incompetent or malevolent governments.

* It’s a big if that a reader will accept the premise, but it’s interesting to note that natural disasters do tend to tug our heartstrings, empirically. You see this in the sudden, worldwide spike in donations to aid organizations and relief efforts when big tsunamis or earthquakes occur.

My asterisked comment is important. We humans seem to be a jumble of contradictions when it comes to recognizing the humanity of others living far away. We are often completely numb to the fates of foreigners when they even partially seem to obstruct our goals. Consider the bored way we skim over collateral damage reports, or the stubborn way we cling to our agricultural subsidies which directly harm the world’s poor. Yet we do appreciate the tragedies of natural disasters and atrocities of war. And it should be noted that even in as militarily adventurous a nation as the USA, wars and bombing campaigns are always presented to the public at least partially as acts of liberation or prevention of even greater violence.

I have argued that the world’s poorest individuals are constantly in the equivalent of a state of disaster and that open borders could help to ease that ongoing disaster. But it seems to be inconsistent with human nature to keep this fixed in the foregrounds of our minds. This is unfortunate but there isn’t much to be done about human nature. Perhaps another approach worth considering is advocating the voluntary immigration of refugees as an effective policy option for those times when we are already psychologically primed for humanitarian action. Every time some bloody dictator catches the world’s attention afresh, there are people who oppose military intervention out of the (quite reasonable) fear that the unpredictable consequences of interference may prove to be worse than non-interference. It’s time for skeptics to start offering the concerned public an alternative policy response: open borders for victims of foreign wars.

Matt Yglesias: making open borders mainstream

I was delighted to read the piece What Would Happen If We Let All The Immigrants In? by Matt Yglesias on the Slate Moneybox blog, his current digital home. That’s not because I found Ylgesias’s argument new or particularly path-breaking — those who are familiar with the Open Borders site, or with the work of other open borders advocates, would probably be aware of the polling data on migration that Yglesias cites, and also of the many problems with naive formulations of overpopulation/environmental breakdown/carrying capacity-style arguments.

What I like about Matt Yglesias’s piece isn’t the substance of his argument, but the fact that he’s making it in a mainstream forum (as opposed to fringe parts of the web such as the Open Borders site you’re reading right now). For those who don’t know, Yglesias is one of the most prolific bloggers on politics and related matters in the United States (he even has a Wikipedia page). Yglesias generally identified as a left-wing progressive, but his political positions are inspired by thinkers across the political spectrum. Thus, he is widely read and respected by people across the political spectrum. When Yglesias talks about migration and open borders, hundreds of thousands of people hear him, and some of them listen to him.

In the past, Yglesias has argued for immigration/citizenship tariffs and also argued about how consequential immigration is in terms of shaping the future. His new blog post, however, seems to be his first attempt at directly engaging the empirics of complete open borders. To be clear, Yglesias doesn’t come across as an unabashed advocate of free migration. But that’s okay. Empirical debate about what will or could happen under radical open borders — with contributions from restrictionists and pessimists in addition to optimistic open borders advocates — is itself an improvement over most discussions of migration, which are myopically focused on the status quo and modest changes to it. Shifting the Overton window in a pro-open borders direction, just in terms of what sort of stuff gets discussed in migration discussions, is an important first step in the move towards actually achieving open borders.