[UPDATE: See the follow-up blog post A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation by Nathan Smith, where he responds to comments on and criticisms of this blog post. You may also be interested in the Open Borders Action Group discussion of this post, where Smith articulates some aspects of his views in more detail, and others offer criticism.]
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “The American Polity Can Endure and Flourish Under Open Borders.” I would not write that post today. The American polity might endure and flourish under open borders, but I wouldn’t claim that confidently. What changed my mind? A greater familiarity with the theoretical models that are the basis for “double world GDP” as a claim about the global economic impact of open borders, especially my own. It turns out that these estimates depend on billions of people migrating internationally under open borders. Previously, my vague and tentative expectations about how much migration would occur under open borders were akin to Gallup poll estimates suggesting that 150 million or so would like to migrate to the USA. Others may disagree, but I was fairly confident at the time that the US polity was robust enough to absorb 150-200 million immigrants (over, say, a couple of decades) and retain its basic political character and structure. I do not think the US polity is robust enough to absorb 1 billion immigrants (even, say, over the course of fifty years) and retain its basic political character and structure.
For more educated guesswork about the number of migrants under open borders, see also our reference article on swamping; Joel Newman’s article “If Open Borders are Instituted Gradually, What Should be the Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?”, which, among other things, details how the threat of swamping gives open borders advocates like Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer pause, as well as Joel Newman’s latest post; and Vipul Naik’s explorations of whether the case for open borders can be combined with radical agnosticism about how many would migrate and whether the number of migrants under open borders would be “too high” or “too low” (e.g., by utilitarian-universalist criteria). In this post, I’ll argue that swamping probably will happen, and that open borders is the right thing to do anyway.
To the question of what kind of polity and society the US would become with a billion immigrants, I have only the vaguest and most speculative notions, but for this post to make sense at all, I’ll have to outline my guesses as best I can. I’m focusing on the US case because I’m most familiar with US institutions and they’re most well-known, but I’d expect other Western countries to have similar experiences. As an aid to intuition, think of the way Roman and British institutions evolved when they came to govern far more people (albeit due to territorial expansion rather than immigration). In both cases, the polity in question survived in the sense that a continuous thread of sovereign authority was maintained. But the character of the polity was transformed.
In the Roman case, the participatory institutions of the Republic gradually broke down. The family farmer, backbone of the old Republic, was crowded out by latifundia, large farms worked by slaves. The Roman populace was largely turned to a mob dependent on public handouts. Finally, the Republic gave way to a permanent dictatorship by the emperors, which, though the loss of the Republic was felt keenly by Rome’s aristocratic intellectuals, was not all bad. Historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, celebrated the reigns of the “five good emperors” Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD) as the happiest time in the history of mankind. The Senate still met, and Romans still called their state the “Republic,” but the real constitution had changed.
The British case is quite different in that the acquisition of a globe-girdling empire “on which the sun never set” didn’t influence the governance of the UK all that much. In four centuries of British empire, from the settlements at Jamestown and the Caribbean sugar islands to the relinquishing of Hong Kong, the British home constitution certainly underwent profound transformations, towards liberalism (the change took place from about 1750 to 1850), democracy (from about 1830 to 1910) and socialism (from the Liberal/Labor victory of 1906 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979), but these had far more to do with the influence of Enlightenment ideas and the Industrial Revolution, than with the empire. The empire, meanwhile, was never governed by the same liberal-democratic principles that prevailed in Britain. It was governed in a manner at once authoritarian and improvisational. Since London was so far away and could rarely understand local circumstances and difficulties, it tended to ratify what the “man on the spot” had done. Often, in effect, public power passed into private hands, as when the East India Company ended up governing India. Often, too, the British Empire was conservative, in the sense that British officialdom tried to co-opt and collaborate with local, traditional institutions. At the same time, a kind of ideology developed, according to which it was the British imperial mission to gradually foster liberal, democratic, representative institutions– not Christianity, interestingly: imperial institutions weren’t particularly friendly to missionary efforts– among the empire’s subject peoples. British political thought provided the templates for both the conservative (Edmund Burke; Winston Churchill) and the liberalizing (Locke; Adam Smith; J.S. Mill) strands in British imperial governance.
I would tentatively envision the US experience under open borders as resembling the British and Roman cases, inasmuch as the protocols and ideals of the US polity, as well as its merely ethnic characteristics, would persist in attenuated form, but governing a much larger population would necessitate improvisational and sometimes authoritarian expedients that would cumulatively transform the polity into something quite different, even as it claimed descent from the historic constitutional polity of the United States as we know it. The illusion of continuity would deceive the subjects of the new polity, native-born and immigrant, to a considerable extent, though on the other hand there would be a good deal of lamentation and triumphalism, and only after several generations would historians be able to look back and assess the bewildering transformation in a sober, balanced way.
Certain American ideals would die of their own increasing impracticality, e.g., “equality of opportunity,” the social safety net, one person, one vote, or non-discrimination in employment. Americans might continue to feel that these ideals were right long after they had ceased to be practiced, as the Romans seemed to feel that Rome ought to be governed by its Senate long after real governance had passed to the emperors. I don’t see how public schools could adapt to a far larger and more diverse student body. I think there would have to be a transition to some sort of vouchers combined with individual and/or community responsibility for education, e.g., the government pressures the Chinese neighborhoods to set up Chinese schools. Jefferson’s cry that “all men are created equal,” which today is sometimes mistaken, almost, for an enforceable policy rule, would retreat until wasn’t even an aspiration, but only a dream. Of course, open borders would actually mitigate global inequality, but American egalitarianism is a sheltered creed that needs the border as blindfold to retain its limited plausibility as an ideal.
If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. This would put an end to majority rule, for a large fraction, likely a majority, of the resident population would lack votes. As it did in the British empire, minority governance would clash with democratic ideas to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, though not, I think, fatally. This could be a benefit, in that defenders of the regime would need to appeal, as Edmund Burke once did, more to the regime’s performance in fostering prosperity and adhering to objective norms of justice, than to crude majoritarian math (which in any case has long since been exposed as logically incoherent). The Republican and Democratic parties would be likely to maintain their duopoly, but their ideologies would go through a continual metamorphosis, not only to appeal to new immigrant voters, but perhaps even more, to adapt to the realigned interests of the natives, who would derive their incomes more from land, shareholding, and government subsidies, and less from wages.
Spontaneous Schelling segregation, even if not enforced by, or even if actively opposed by, the law (but I doubt the law would resist for long), would make neighborhoods and workplaces, and a fortiori churches and community organizations, far more homogeneous than the resident population as a whole. I have advocated legalizing and de-stigmatizing private discrimination against immigrants, but even if it remained illegal, I think private discrimination would be widely practiced, simply because statistical discrimination is efficient, and in the more complex and dynamic economy of an open-borders America those efficiencies would be more worth capturing than ever. Many natives would retreat into gated communities, not so much from fear of crime as simply from love of the familiar. There would be large immigrant neighborhoods dominated by particular ethnicities, where English was rarely spoken, yet English in the US would remain a lingua franca for all the immigrant groups and wouldn’t be threatened as the national language (though German in Germany, Dutch in the Netherlands, etc., might). Overall crime rates might or might not rise, but law enforcement would often be baffled by new and complex challenges. The overworked and puzzled courts would have to improvise and compromise and decline a lot of cases, and would end up leaving a lot of stuff in an emerging domain of private law. I’d expect gaps to emerge where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail, and these might be the most productive, innovative, prosperous places in the new, open-borders America. As in the Dark Ages, the Christian churches would likely be more effective than the government in reaching out to, serving, and cultivating a sense of community and identity in many immigrant populations. As in ancient Rome, native-born Americans would find themselves increasingly unable to govern a larger and more diverse subject population through traditional institutions of self-government– they might often find it expedient, as the British empire did, to let public power slip into private hands– but on the other hand, they could easily vote themselves increasing handouts from a burgeoning treasury.
There would probably be an increasing role for private security companies, both to supply protection to private firms that didn’t trust the police to handle the strange new situation, and as contractors for the government. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a regime claiming descent from the US Constitution to fend off open contestation of its sovereignty. Still, if you remember America’s national reaction to 9/11, it isn’t difficult to imagine that even intermittent, local stirrings of revolt would transform the American psyche enough to make weapons training in schools or even universal conscription into some sort of national police force attractive, in order to empower the citizenry physically to defend its sovereignty against a possible immigrant revolution. The vote and citizenship would likely be bestowed opportunistically on immigrant groups deemed especially loyal or effective, both for national security reasons, and for partisan advantage when Republicans or Democrats found themselves favored by some immigrant group.
The least tentative part of my forecast is that all this would take place amidst a continuous surge of booming economic growth, with fortunes being made galore, but this might take forms that some would find disturbing. We would see some modern latifundia, worked not by slaves this time but by voluntary immigrants, but working for pay rates that would strike native-born Americans as a form of slave labor. Meanwhile, we would likely see modern equivalents of the ancient Roman mob, privileged idlers demanding bread and circuses paid for by taxes collected from non-citizens. Entrepreneurs would thrive with so many new workers and customers. The Dow would rise, and rise, and rise. Landowners would see their assets appreciate rapidly and would face a bewildering variety of opportunities to put them to profitable use. Educators and medical personnel would enjoy an almost limitless demand for their services. Of today’s middle-class Americans, even many who failed to find ultra-productive niches in the new open-borders economy would find domestic servants suddenly affordable. The cruel dilemma now faced by educated women, career vs. children, would be greatly mitigated as live-in nannies would become abundant and cheap. American seniors, too, would flourish as the quantity and quality of eldercare workers rose sharply, and paid drivers became affordable to anyone with a little income over and above their Social Security check. But while two-income professional couples would find their domestic arrangements greatly eased, employment rates among native-born Americans would probably fall significantly, partly because lower wages for unskilled labor would make working too unremunerative to bother with for those without special skills, partly because many Americans would be able to live rather comfortably on dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies. For some, this comfortable rentier lifestyle would rankle, clashing as it does with Americans’ traditional disdain of parasitic aristocracies. People need to feel like they have a function. But some sort of general conscription into a national police force might help here. Americans cognitively or culturally ill-equipped to thrive in the dynamic new open-borders economy would be useful to their fellow citizens, and would justify the increasingly valuable privileges and subsidies to which citizenship entitled them, by serving as a kind of praetorian guard.
In short, I think the most wild-eyed predictions of the open borders optimists will come true, and to spare, but I think a lot of the forebodings of the grimmest open border pessimists will also prove more than justified.
All these forecasts are so tentative that I’m embarrassed to write them down at all, but they are necessary to help readers to understand what I mean when I doubt that the American polity can endure and flourish under open borders. It’s not that I’d expect a complete civilizational collapse, or a revolution. On the contrary, I’d expect superficial continuity. But an open-borders America of a billion people would, in substance, be as different a polity from the polity that the United States of America is today, as the Roman Empire of the 2nd century AD was from the Roman Republic of the 3rd century BC. At the end of this post, I’ll write a bit about whether the end of the American polity as we know it should be regretted or welcomed. But first, would billions really migrate under open borders?
It may seem foolish of me to have so much altered my view of what an open-borders future would look like, in response to a few mere economic models. To be sure, I certainly don’t believe that these models are anything like exact descriptions of an open borders future. The authors, including myself, make all sorts of simplifications, some of them obviously unrealistic, to create a platform from which to launch heroic feats of extrapolation. The wisest course, which Paul Collier for example seems to adopt, may seem to be to dismiss the guesses as unrealistic. But my former guesses had, and any other guesses I could now formulate without reference to the models would have, even less basis. I believe the economic models of open borders, flawed and fallible as they are, represent the most rational estimates available of how many would migrate under open borders. I’ll try to anticipate and reply to a few objections in order to consolidate this point.
1. What about the Gallup polls? That’s easy. Gallup can’t take diaspora dynamics (also see Bryan Caplan and Paul Collier on this) into account. It can only find out how many people would now like to emigrate. But under open borders, after a little while, many people would be more willing to emigrate because there would be large communities of their fellow nationals abroad, including some of their loved ones.
2. What about Europe? Contemporary Europe stands as an apparent counter-example to claims that open borders would trigger an epic transformation of human geography. The European Union is said to have internal open borders, and though a glance at the relevant European Commission webpage suggests that EU citizens’ rights to live and work elsewhere in the EU are subject to some red tape, it surely comes close. And while this has led to many millions of internal EU migrants, the migrant share is an order of magnitude less than what the global economic models of open borders predict. I think there are several reasons for this. First, GDP per capita doesn’t vary that much within Europe, which not only mitigates the pressure to migrate but may prevent diaspora dynamics from achieving critical mass. Second, EU countries are among the world’s oldest, with most having a median age above 40, whereas young people are more inclined to migrate. Third, far more than any other region of the world, Europe has been carved into national homelands through centuries of cultural genius and military jostling, so that local ties are probably more important there than elsewhere. Fourth, EU “cohesion” policies deliberately subsidize the poorest European regions, mitigating pressure to migrate. Fifth, migration within the EU seems to be accelerating as a result of the economic crisis that began in 2008, so slow migration may turn out to have been a temporary anomaly. Puerto Rico, which has enjoyed open borders with the USA for a century, has experienced so much emigration that most (about 60%) people of Puerto Rican descent live on the US mainland, even though Puerto Rico isn’t all that poor, with a GDP about half that of the USA as a whole. Puerto Rico’s experience, or that of 19th-century Ireland, may be more predictive of an open borders future than contemporary Europe is. In that case, many billions would migrate, and the global economic models of open borders are getting the order of magnitude right.
3. It’s never happened before. Even in the 19th century golden age of open borders, the share of migrants in world population was well below 10 percent. Before and since, it’s been lower. And now we’re predicting a rise in the share of international migrants to around 50 percent of world population! But of course, just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t. The Roman Empire and its fall, the medieval cathedrals, the circumnavigation of the world, and the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened till they happened.
4. People are loyal to their homelands. Another reason for skepticism is that the models apparently leave out of account that people feel affection and love for their homelands, while foreign countries are scary and forbidding. That’s why international migration has always been something “exceptional people” do. But first, the models don’t actually leave this completely out of account. My estimates of global migration under open borders, for example, assume that everyone stays put unless (relative to the status quo) migration offers higher pay for raw labor and/or human capital. No one would emigrate from the USA, since both raw labor and human capital would be attracted to the USA. Yet a recent poll suggests that 1 in 3 Americans would like to emigrate if they could. Few can have a strong economic motive to do so, since the USA is one of the richest countries on Earth, so either weak economic motives suffice (do they want to earn Australia’s minimum wage? to enjoy the Swedish social safety net?) or else cultural preferences (the fun loving culture of Brazil? the ancient dignity of Japan? the beauty and charm of western European cities?) actually motivate them to leave rather than to stay. I agree that people’s attachment to their homelands, along with simple inertia, would probably keep migration down to hundreds of millions in the short run, but in the long run, e.g., over the course of a few decades, I think diaspora dynamics would overwhelm local ties. Also, the globalization of culture (see me and Bryan Caplan) has made migration (especially to the US, the chief source of the globalizing culture) much easier, and will continue to make it easier in future. (Language is one of the more quantifiable elements of this trend. This site estimates that there are almost 1 billion. The British Council expects two billion English speakers by 2020. Of course, you can also immigrate first and learn English later, or immigrate into a diaspora bubble and never learn English.)
5. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn’t epic mass migrations be self-halting, because the desirable properties that make wealthy countries such attractive immigration destinations would be erased by mass migration? Don’t the economic models ignore this? Actually, no. In particular, my model allows for some total factor productivity (TFP) reduction in destination countries. Even if epic mass migrations degraded institutions (or whatever causes TFP) in rich countries, they’d still be attractive to billions.
6. Backlash. Paul Collier, in Exodus, contemptuously dismisses the economic models of open borders, but hardly pretends to give any reason why. To the extent that his implicit reason for dismissing them can be deduced from the book, it’s that he thinks there would be a huge nativist backlash. More recently, Ryan Cooper at The Week argued that “a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy” because “air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes.” But this begs the question. It’s certainly unlikely that open borders will be adopted by any country anytime soon, but the question is what would happen if it were.
My new doubts that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders do not in the least undermine my support for open borders. For one thing, the American polity is too small a thing to have much weight in these scales, when the well-being of so many billions is at stake. But my estimation of the value of the American polity as an institution has also dwindled considerably of late. Daron Acemoglu’s thesis in Why Nations Fail, basically that the prosperity of the West depends mainly on its representative and democratic institutions, has quite a few adherents in contemporary development economics, but I attach little credence to it. I was actually surprised, in the data exercise undergirding my open borders forecasts, by how much of the wealth and poverty of nations seems explicable by human capital, broadly understood, so I’ve downgraded “institutions” (and “total factor productivity”) as explanatory factors in the wealth and poverty of nations. Even to the extent that institutions are important, I think democracy is less important than things like the thousand-year-old British common-law tradition, or norms of religious freedom and free speech, that predate and are quite separable from democracy. I don’t think the US polity, as it was founded in 1789, is or ever was the chief explanation of the enviable economic prosperity that the US has enjoyed throughout its history. But I do attach some value to what that polity was historically.
In particular, I see the US Constitution of 1789 as one of the wisest systems of government ever devised, albeit seriously marred by its tolerance for slavery. There followed almost 80 years of what may be called “Tocqueville’s America,” a time when a Jeffersonian political philosophy was in the ascendant, government was mostly small and local and highly participatory, and the way the Constitution was implemented in practice was reasonably conformable to its intended meaning. Then came the Civil War, which erased slavery, a magnificent achievement, while at the same time replacing the loose social contract among states with a powerful federal government from which there was no right of secession. Nonetheless, for a few more decades, the US still enjoyed a genuinely limited government, wherein elected officials really felt that the Constitution endowed them with limited powers, and they simply had no right to do more than it had authorized them to do. This limited, constitutional government was lost forever in the 1930s, when Roosevelt bullied the Supreme Court into elastic interpretations of the Constitution, especially the commerce clause, that rendered obsolete the enumerated powers strategy for restraining the federal government on which the founders had principally relied. From the 1930s onward, the federal government was still somewhat constrained by the Bill of Rights, but other than that, a kind of absolutist democracy was born, where elected majorities could do anything they liked, very high tax rates produced a substantial economic leveling of the population, and conscription fostered a sense of shared citizenship and made foreign policy much more participatory than it has been before or since. Meanwhile, the most distinctive and important feature of the American polity, religious freedom, traced its origins back before the 1789 Constitution to the original pious motives of the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and the English-speaking peoples of North America maintained an almost unblemished record of respect for religious freedom through all the other changes that took place, until the past few years.
Starting with the school prayer decisions of the 1960s, this absolutist democracy was in its turn eviscerated by a creeping secularist coup d’etat emanating from the courts, which claimed a warrant from the Constitution. The courts were certainly mistaken in thinking the Constitution warranted a comprehensive secularization of American governance, but they seem to have been sincere. Later, as the rising imperial judiciary also became a key patron of the Sexual Revolution, the courts’ reasoning became so disgracefully inept that the possibility that the courts sincerely think they are doing anything other than arbitrarily legislating from the bench is hard to take seriously. Roe v. Wade was a brazen attack on democracy, and while it’s hard to say when the Rubicon was definitely crossed, in the wake of the Obergefell decree, I agree with Justice Scalia that “my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” A country whose Constitution can suddenly, poof!, take on a new meaning that no one can seriously doubt would have amazed and disgusted its authors, and thereby override many democratically-passed laws and rob the people of the ability to legislate according to the majority will on an absolutely crucial social question, is not aptly described as a democracy. It might be best described as a judicial oligarchy in which elected elements play the chief administrative and a subordinate legislative role.
I’m not so fond of democracy that my loyalty to a regime would depend very greatly on its democratic character, but I am very, very fond of telling the truth, and I can have no respect for, and no loyalty to, judges who, in decreeing gay marriage, pretend that they’re interpreting the Constitution. Modern constitutional law is a lot like the Catholic Church’s theology of indulgences in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It makes very little sense, and every critical thinker more or less feels that it’s a disgraceful travesty, but people are afraid to challenge it as aggressively as reason demands, because it underpins the order of society. Reams and libraries are dedicated to rationalizing it, precisely because it’s rationally indefensible, yet is a crucial currency of power. And yes, I’d like to see modern constitutional law immolated in a kind of Lutheran Reformation, and would gladly pay a high price in chaos to see the dragon slain. Thanks to my low opinion of the US constitutional regime as it currently exists is one reason, I can contemplate with very little distress the immigration of a billion or so people from all over the world, unschooled in the peculiar mythology of early 21st-century American democracy and its ever-more-irrational cult of equality.
It would be interesting to hear the reactions to the billion-immigrant scenario, of people with a more favorable view of the legitimacy and beneficence of the present US regime.
Editor’s note: You might be interested in reading Nathan Smith’s follow-up blog post to this piece, A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation, where he fleshes out some of the arguments outlined in this blog post, and responds to some comments and criticisms of it.
In addition to the numerous inline links in the article, the following links are relevant. You are also strongly encouraged to check out our double world GDP page.
- What will the rapid economic growth under open borders look like? by Vipul Naik.
- Upward and downward biases in the “double world GDP” estimates of the gains of open borders by Carl Shulman (off-site link).
- Open Borders Questionnare: Nathan Smith’s answers by Nathan Smith.
- The dark side of DRITI by Nathan Smith.
- The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders: My Take by Nathan Smith, an early version of the thoughts that would eventually lead to his paper on the subject.
- Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders by John Lee.
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.”