Tag Archives: moderate versus radical open borders

Another Take on Moderate Vs. Radical Approaches to Immigration Policy

The mainstream debate in the United State over immigration policy focuses on whether there should be “immigration reform” or not, with reform being generally synonymous with the immigration bill passed by the U.S. Senate last year and endorsed by President Obama.  The bill would raise legal immigration levels by 50 to 70 percent within five years and legalize the millions of undocumented individuals already in the U.S., while also spending more money on tightening control of the southern border.

Earlier this year, John examined the similarities and differences between those backing “immigration reform” (“moderate reformers”) and those promoting open borders.  He noted that both groups share the beliefs that immigration can be beneficial economically and socially to a receiving country and that immigration enforcement is often inhumane.  Yet, as John points out, moderate reformers “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.”

I recognize that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and have written how moderate reforms can benefit some immigrants, and Vipul has pondered whether the work of the moderate reformers may be more valuable than that of open borders advocates. Nonetheless, the moderate reformers’ intransigence in their thinking about open borders is vexing.

So it is satisfying when the reform camp is challenged in the mainstream media to consider an open borders policy.  Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, criticizes reformers with regard to the recent influx of children from Central America.  Mr. Douthat argues that “the mere promise of an amnesty” has been a factor in the migration.  He then presents an open borders solution: “One answer, consistent and sincere, is that the child migration really shows we need an open border — one that does away with the problems of asylum hearings and deportations, eliminates the need for dangerous journeys across deserts and mountains, and just lets the kids’ relatives save up for a plane ticket.  Come one, come all.  But this is not the answer that President Obama or the congressional architects of an immigration bill would offer.  Instead, the official promise is always that we’ll get amnesty and a system of enforcement that will deter and deport and police employers more effectively…”  While I disagree with Mr. Douthat’s position that building “a more effective enforcement system” should be attempted before considering amnesty, I applaud his suggestion that the open borders position on the migration of children and immigration generally makes more sense than that of the reformers.

Similarly, on the PBS Newshour Jan Ting of Temple University, a foe of increased immigration levels, has pushed reformers to clarify their thinking: “… I think we have to answer the fundamental question: Do we want unlimited immigration to the U.S. or not?… I actually think a rational, coherent argument can be made for completely open borders… we have just got to make up our minds.  Is illegal immigration a problem, yes or no?  If it’s not a problem, let’s let everybody in.”

In the long run, it will be beneficial to the open borders cause for the moderate reformers to embrace open borders and join us in pushing for its realization.  At the same time, perhaps in the short run it might be beneficial to have both groups, with moderate reformers achieving some gains for immigrants while open borders advocates begin pushing for larger gains in the more distant future.  Open borders advocates also can lay the groundwork for moderate reformers to join our cause by continuing to point out the flaws in their thinking, as John has done.  Opponents of both reform and open borders, like Mr. Douthat and Mr. Ting, are welcome to help out in this effort.

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.

If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?

In a recent post, Vipul wrote about the importance of better understanding the number of people who might migrate under policy changes in the direction of open borders.  One reason why he considers this important is to evaluate the legitimacy of concerns about “swamping:” “One of the main concerns of people ranging from hardcore restrictionists to moderate pro-immigrationers and even some who identify as being pro-open borders is that true open borders would lead to very large numbers of people moving over short time periods in a manner that would strain housing, electricity, water supplies, and other infrastructure in the countries receiving the immigrants.”

Whether receiving countries would be swamped if open borders were implemented, and what the swamping would actually be like, is pivotal to determining the morality of open borders.  That’s because, absent the possibility of a swamping that turns a receiving country into an economic and political basketcase similar to Haiti or Somalia, from a moral standpoint there are no obstacles to instituting open borders immediately.

In fact, two of the strongest moral arguments in favor of open borders include caveats in which extremely harmful swamping might override the arguments.  In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open BordersJoseph Carens uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255)  Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate.  In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

However, in “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Mr. Carens states that with open borders “… the number of those coming might overwhelm the capacity of the society to cope, leading to chaos and a breakdown of public order… A threat to public order could be used to justify restrictions on immigration… because the breakdown of public order makes everyone worse off in terms of both liberty and welfare.”  At the same time he writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (p. 30)

In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Michael Huemer argues that unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” people have a right “not to be subject to seriously harmful coercion.” (p. 432)  Therefore, unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434)  Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures.  Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

Nevertheless, the possibility of swamping gives Mr. Huemer pause.  He writes, “No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open.”  Referring to Brian Barry, who predicts a billion immigrants coming to the U.S. with open borders and disastrous consequences, Mr. Huemer states that “Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society.  If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement.” (pp. 453-454)

So would receiving countries be swamped with open borders, and would that swamping essentially destroy the economic and political systems that made those countries desireable destinations in the first place, thus overriding the moral imperative for open borders?  That is what Vipul is apparently exploring, but it seems that a clear answer will be elusive.

In apparent response to concerns about swamping, some, including Mr. Huemer (p. 454), have advocated for a gradual transition towards open borders.  This would involve increasing immigration levels over a period of time.  If receiving countries are not being severely swamped after each increase, then immigration levels would again be increased.  Politically, and perhaps morally, this approach may be warranted, although the suffering associated with restrictionism would persist.

At least the initial increase in immigrant numbers under a gradual transition could be substantial, without severe swamping of receiving countries, based on Israel’s experience with high levels of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  Philippe Legrain has highlighted this experience in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.  This flow of people to Israel was, in Mr. Legrain’s words, “one of the most dramatic experiments in the history of immigration.” (p. 133)  Mr. Legrain notes that between 1990 and 1997 over seven hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, a country with a population of about 4.6 million in 1989, and almost half of the immigrants entered in a two year period. (p. 134)  Mr. Legrain puts these numbers in perspective for America:  “Imagine, then, what would happen if over 15 million foreigners were suddenly to arrive in the U.S. over the next two years, rising to 29 million over eight years.  Twenty-nine million people who don’t speak English, don’t have jobs to go to and don’t even have any experience of working in a capitalist economy… Mass unemployment?  Riots in the streets?  Perhaps even the collapse of society?” (p.134)

Citing an Israeli economic expert on this impact, Mr. Legrain states that at first native Israelis’ wages fell by about 5 percent for men, and there was a sharp rise in interest rates.  However, “Israel’s economy seems to have absorbed a vast number of new workers without a rise in unemployment.”  Unemployment among native Israelis dropped during this period, and by 1997 the ex-Soviet employment rate was similar to that of native Israelis.  (p. 135)  In addition, by 1997, “natives’ wages had recovered to where they would have been without the mass immigration, and interest rates had fallen to their pre-immigration levels.”  Mr. Legrain concludes that “flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants without any cost to native workers if the inflows are reasonably predictable, and with only a short-term cost to them if they are unexpected.” (p. 135)

Some might counter that the ex-Soviet immigrants had higher levels of education than those who might immigrate to western countries from developing countries under an open borders policy.  However, Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh found that “… the Russian immigrants suffered from substantial occupational downgrading in Israel and thus did not increase the relative supply of skilled workers in Israel.” (p. 27) Many female immigrants, and presumably many male immigrants, ended up doing menial service jobs. This fits with Mr. Legrain’s explanation of how differences between native and immigrant workers limit competition between the two groups:  “… critics of immigration would be the first to argue that  immigrants and native workers are not identical.  The newcomers will almost certainly speak the local language less well, have fewer contacts and less knowledge of local practices… At most, then, they are imperfect substitutes for local workers, which implies that they only indirectly compete with them in the labour market—thus limiting any short-term harm they might cause natives.” (p. 137) Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.

The Israeli experience suggests an initial immigrant admissions level for the U.S., as part of a gradual move towards open borders, could be established that is much higher than current American admissions levels.  I don’t know how Mr. Legrain calculated the U.S. equivalent of 29 million people over eight years based on the Israeli experience, but my calculation is significantly higher.  First, there were over 820 thousand immigrants over the eight years, including immigration from other source countries in addition to that from the former Soviet Union.  Using the 1989 Israeli population of about 4.6 million and using a rounded down figure of eight hundred thousand immigrants between 1990 and 1997, there was about a 2.1% annual addition to the 1989 population over eight years.  A 2.1% addition to the current U.S. population of about 316 million yields more than 6.5 million new immigrants a year (52 million over eight years).  Therefore, a conservative recommendation would be to establish an initial immigration level to the U.S. of 6.5 million a year.  (By comparison, there have been about one million immigrants who have gained permanent legal status in the U.S. each of the last three years.  The undocumented population has been falling in recent years.)  The level would be raised regularly thereafter, assuming no devastating effects on the U.S. from previous levels.  Other receiving countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe and East Asia could also set their initial immigration levels at 2.1 percent of their current populations.

Again, this gradual approach to open borders means that much of the suffering associated with immigration restrictions would continue for years to come.  I share Bryan Caplan’s concern that fears of swamping, which are unsubstantiated, stand in the way of open borders: “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because we know that free migration has very bad consequences” arguably overcomes the presumption in favor of open borders. “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because there’s a small chance that free migration has very bad consequences” does not.”   While I am very uncomfortable with the gradualist approach to open borders, at least we have evidence showing a relatively high level at which receiving countries should begin their gradual implementation of open borders.


A case for open borders that is radically agnostic about migrant count

In a previous post, I considered the considerable divergence, even among open borders advocates, about the raw count and selectivity of migrants under open borders. I argued that it is important to get more clarity on these questions, including understanding the source of disagreement and how different views regarding these can affect the other estimates (including economic growth estimates) related to open borders.

In this post, I attempt to sketch several arguments that could form building blocks of a case for open borders that is radically agnostic about how many people would move.

The right to migrate argument

This argument states, simply, that people have a right to migrate. Denial of this right is immoral. How many people would end up choosing to exercise that right is not of direct relevance. Migration restrictions are immoral because they prevent a large number of people who are in a position where they may wish to exercise the right from doing so. The human capabilities case for open borders is somewhat similar.

The lower bound argument

This argument states that even the lowest possible estimate of how many people would actually move under open borders (perhaps such estimates can be obtained by looking at the number of people who have moved under relatively modest migration liberalization regimes) is high enough to make open borders worthwhile. Whether we are talking of 10 million people over a decade or 200 million people over 2-3 years, open borders would have huge impact.

The “it anyway won’t happen immediately” argument

This argument views open borders as a goal we should set our sights on as we gradually work towards it. Thus, determining the numbers of people who’d migrate under complete open borders is at best an illuminative theoretical exercise and at worst a distraction from the more important goal of seeking marginal change that is far better understood. Some proponents of this argument many view open borders advocacy as a means for shifting the Overton window in a manner that makes immigration liberalization appear to be a more “moderate” position.

The “market forces will prevent swamping” argument

One of the concerns that critics of open borders have is that under open borders, countries (mostly rich countries) that are attractive targets for immigrants will get swamped with large numbers of migrants. This is part of the motivation behind the desire to estimate how many would move under open borders. Some open borders advocates believe that market forces, loosely defined, will take care of this concern. If too many immigrants are moving into the area, rents and other prices will rise and wages will fall to the level that it is no longer attractive to move to the destination. Other non-pecuniary negative feedback loops may also counter the swamping threat. Many people use phrases like “migration flows tend to be self-regulating” to describe this perceived phenomenon.

The “however much it takes to attain labor market convergence” argument

This argument states that migration will continue until there is (upward) labor market convergence between the sending and receiving countries. Convergence may not be complete, but may stop when the place premium between the two countries is a factor of 1.5 or less (i.e., there is only a ~50% wage gain from migrating). The point here is that we don’t know for sure how many people would need to move in order for this convergence to occur, because of countervailing factors: governments may begin instituting economic reforms once people start leaving en masse, emigrants may return to the country to set up new factories and business connected with other countries, etc. Or, this may not happen. Uncertainty about how things play out result in considerable agnosticism about the number of people who move, but relatively more certainty about the nature and desirability of the eventual outcome for humanity.

Bleg: research on the effects of open borders beyond the labor market

The double world GDP literature cited in Clemens’ paper (and also John Kennan’s paper) provides estimates of how free global labor mobility would affect world GDP, mainly through their effects on the labor market (though other channels of effect are also considered in these papers, albeit perhaps not as much as they should be). But I don’t know of any literature about the effect that open borders might have on crime (something I speculated about here), global IQ (something I asked Bryan Caplan to bleg), and global politics (whether through political externalities in the receiving countries or a changed political landscape in the immigrant-sending countries). Speculation about the effects on the dating and mating markets and the genetic composition of future generations might also be quite valuable (see for instance Erik’s comment).

If a serious case is to be made for open borders, and if serious efforts are to be made to move towards open borders with appropriately designed keyhole solutions, it is essential to understand, envisage and prepare for a range of scenarios regarding these questions.

So, I’m blegging for the answers to two questions:

  1. If you’re aware of any literature that considers counterfactual scenarios of radically more open borders, whether locally (for specific country pairs) or globally, but that goes beyond simply measuring the effects on the labor market, please pass it on in the comments.
  2. Assuming that I am correct about the paucity of such research, though, why is there so little research on these topics, even compared to economics research on the effects of open borders? Two hypotheses have been suggested to me:
    • Nathan Smith’s view: Various frameworks in economics, such as rationality, allow for the consideration of radical counterfactual scenarios in a manner that is not necessarily realistic but still bears some semblance of objectivity and offers some type of ballpark. No similar widely-agreed-upon first-pass framework exists in other disciplines.
    • Bryan Caplan’s view: Economics manages to attract a few people who are genuinely curious and adventurous and willing to consider radical alternative scenarios and perform a serious analysis of these scenarios. Other disciplines may not attract such people.

    Any alternative hypotheses would also be welcome.