Tag Archives: moderate versus radical open borders

Tyler Cowen’s not too convincing argument against open borders

Tyler Cowen’s capacious mind prioritizes input over synthesis. He is a compulsive moderate, happiest in the mainstream, always glad to have an excuse not to rock the boat. I respect him tremendously. I am a happy user of his Principles of Economics textbook, and his blog, Marginal Revolution, is in my top five. Better yet is MR University. I haven’t listened to all of it yet, but I listened for hours last Friday to their brief profiles of many development economists, while doing the more mechanical parts of exam grading. I’ve rarely encountered such great content in a course distributed online, and never in economics. It’s amazing that this stuff is free. Three cheers for Cowen and Tabarrok’s two-man crusade to educate the world in economics. Cowen isn’t as dazzlingly lucid as Bryan Caplan as his best, but his judgment is probably more reliable precisely because of his prejudice for moderation. I sympathize with Cowen’s conservatism, his deference to consensus views. But of course, that’s also why I wouldn’t expect him to favor open borders, though he is pro-immigration. Open borders is too radical an idea for him. Still, he’s not one to dismiss a position without argument. Here’s Cowen on “Why open borders won’t work”:

The first issue is to pin down what we mean by open borders.

Land use restrictions are often a more important “”immigration policy” than border control per se.  It is not just how many people getin at what cost, but who can afford to live here.  This includes zoning laws, restrictions on the number of people allowed to live in an apartment, policies toward “squatters,” and rules for the homesteading of public property.  So by “open borders” I mean also liberal land use policies; nominally open borders would matter far less if unskilled laborers couldn’t also afford to live in the U.S.  (Note to anti-immigration types: you are focusing too much on the ease of crossing the border and not enough on the costs of living here.  How much the best immigration restrictions involve land use policy or border policy is a curiously underexplored question.)

Now, it’s true that immigration could be controlled indirectly through land use policies. But I think these questions are more separable than Cowen implies. Even if land use restrictions placed an absolutely binding ceiling on how many people could live in the US, so that even under borders no net immigration were possible, open borders would still make a huge difference. Land values would soar, and many US citizens whose value of living in the US is relatively low would sell out and emigrate. Since some of those who don’t own real estate would, I suppose, find themselves effectively evicted from the country, which is bad, but of course this whole scenario is counter-factual. In practice, whatever limit land use regulations notionally place on the number of people who can live in the US are not even close to binding, and if they threatened to become binding, they could be relaxed. A few metropolitan downtowns might be blocked by law from increasing their populations, and open borders would just drive up rents, but plenty of other places would allow developers to house the new people.

If both the border and land use were free, markets would be very powerful in organizing mass migration.  Consider Hyderabad.  Many of the very poor live either at or right next to garbage dumps.  They live in tents or ramshackle lean-tos.  Their jobs often involve scavenging the garbage dump for potentially useful scraps.  Why do they live there?  Do they like the short commute?  Is it because they love the Indian culture one finds right next to the garbage dump?  No, no, and no.  They live there because they will put up with almost anything to have a chance of survival.

How many of these people would book passage on a slow ship to Baltimore, with the hope of living in a richer garbage dump?  The ship would serve cheap rice and lentils, make them sew garments while sailing, and collect further payment five years after arrival, tagging them with GPS if need be or “monitoring” relatives back home.  Or perhaps the Indian government would pay their way.

How about the nine or so million Haitians — almost all living in extreme poverty — who face a much shorter and cheaper boat trip?

I like Cowen’s imaginative filling out of the picture of what open borders would look like. I think it would turn out something like this. But he hasn’t gotten to the downside yet. After all, probably these people would find a richer garbage dump to live on, and since he hasn’t given any reason to expect natives to be harmed by it, the changes envisioned may be Pareto-improving.

I can imagine the U.S. staying a high-quality capitalist democracy with some percentage of the population living in garbage dumps and shantytowns.  While I think we are underinvesting in shantytowns, the permissible percentage is not very high and almost certainly falls short of fifteen percent.  (Btw, there is much complaining about the Mexicans, but in fact we share a long land border with a relatively wealthy third world country; this is rarely appreciated.)

OK, but given how important the issue is, I’d appreciate a little more theory here. What exactly would prevent the US from being a high-quality capitalist democracy with 20% of the population living in shantytowns? Would the shantytown dwellers stage a revolution? Would they vote for redistributionist politicians? But of course, that assumes they’re given the franchise, and that doesn’t have to happen automatically. Cowen would be the first to agree that the golden age of US-led innovation was the golden age of open borders. Capitalist democracy was thriving then, too. Things have changed a lot since then, and yes, global income gaps are larger and the relative poverty of immigrants might be more severe than in the 19th century. But the world is also more Americanized, democratic, English-speaking, etc., than it was in the 19th century, and anyway, is there any evidence that America was pushing the limits of its absorptive capacity in 1914? With all due respect to Burkean conservatism and the precautionary principle, the humanitarian stakes are very high here. It’s fair to ask for a clearer argument of what exactly Cowen means by “high-quality capitalist democracy,” and how it’s threatened by open borders, and if so, whether “high-quality capitalist democracy” in Cowen’s sense (whatever that is) is really so valuable as to justify shutting out so many tens or hundreds of millions from a great chance at a better life.

That is why I do not favor unlimited immigration.  To the extent that nominally “open borders” would be tolerable, it is because we already impose implicit immigration restrictions through land use policies.

That all said, I will reiterate my view that we could take in many more immigrants than we are doing now, both skilled and unskilled.

Maybe Cowen and I aren’t so far apart. Cowen’s not sure what the upper bound on absorptive capacity is, but it’s certainly higher than what the US permits now. Raise it, see what happens, repeat. I wonder if he could be persuaded to position himself as an open borders skeptic rather than nailing his flag to “open borders won’t work.” Also, I wonder whether he’d endorse my DRITI scheme, which seeks to safeguard natives’ living standards and the integrity of existing institutions while retiring discretionary migration restrictions.

Open borders is a radical proposal

After poring through some of the data on the foreign-born proportions in the US during my spare time this past weekend, I came to the conclusion that other than radical open borders advocates and restrictionists, most people don’t really have an idea of just how radical open borders would be. Many pro-immigration people are quick to point to the US’s experience with open borders in the 19th century. But there’s a lot of difference between then and now. On a variety of numerical metrics, the US as it stands today comes fairly close to where it was when borders were most open. This table goes up to 1990, but the 2010 census data puts the total population at 310 million and the foreign-born population at 40 million, so the 1970-1990 trend is geometrically continued in the 1990-2010 period.

  • The foreign-born population as a fraction of the total US population as per the 2010 census is about 13%. This is quite close to the 1910 historical high of about 15%.
  • The foreign-born population in the 1970-2010 period has been roughly doubling every two decades in absolute terms (it went up from about 10 million in 1970 to 20 million in 1990, then again to 40 million in 2010). Compare that to the US’s heyday of open borders: the 19th century. The foreign-born population from 1850 to 1890 grew at a comparable rate: up from 2.2 million in 1850 to 5.6 million in 1870, and then again to 9.2 million in 1890. Note that the Chinese Exclusion Act and related restrictions started kicking in the last quarter of the 19th century. It’s true that the period from 1920 to 1960 saw little growth in the foreign-born population, due to closed borders.

If the foreign-born population in the US continues to grow at roughly the same geometric rate as for the last 40 years, it will be about 55 million in 2020 and about 80 million in 2030. Possibly by 2020 and definitely by 2030, this would mean that the foreign-born share of the population would be well past the 1910 peak.

What would happen under an open borders policy today that mimicked the pre-1875 immigration policy of the United States? I think it’s safe to say that the growth rate will be notably higher than under today’s business as usual scenario. Even people friendly to open borders worry about getting swamped, which is why many propose a gradual opening of the borders. On the upper end of the estimates is David Henderson’s speculation that up to 300 million people could migrate to the United States in the first two years after open borders. But even a moderate view would involve about 10 million people migrating (many of them temporarily) to the United States in the first year following radical open borders. Since the exact smoothing of the flow will depend on the precise policy contours, I’d say that an increase in the foreign-born population of the United States by about 50-100 million in the first decade following open borders (or something close to open borders, such as DRITI) is a fairly conservative, low-end estimate. If you applied the lowest end estimate of this range, 50 million, assuming that the borders opened in 2010, then in 2020, the foreign-born population of the United States would be at about 85-90 million (give or take a few existing foreign-born people dying), which would make the foreign-born proportion in the United States between 20% and 25% — way higher than at any time in US history. If you took the higher end of the (still conservative) estimate of 100 million more foreign-born people in the United States after a decade of open borders starting 2010, that’d be about 135-140 million foreign-born in 2020, out of a total population of somewhere between 400 and 450 million, which would be 30% or more of the population. (Note also that, for comparison, according to polling data on migration, about 135 million people claim they would move to the US in the near future if the US allowed them to do so legally, and this is approximately in line with the above estimates).

[I’m starting 2010 because that’s the last year for which census data is available, though of course one cannot travel back in the past to open the borders].

How does this compare to other countries? Here’s a chart of the foreign-born shares of OECD countries (it’s a few years old, unfortunately). The only countries that have a ~20% or higher population share are Luxembourg, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Luxembourg is extremely small, and is part of the EU, so its anomalously high value may be worth discarding. With the exception of Luxembourg, none of the foreign born shares crosses 25% (though this might have changed since 2006, for which the data was available). Chile’s inclusion in the OECD is misleading for the purposes of this comparison, since its per capita GDP is less than $20,000, so less than half that of the United States. Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have extremely low population densities overall. According to Wikipedia’s summary, the US ranks 76th in population density with a density of 34 people/square kilometer. Canada (4 per square kilometer), Australia (3 per square kilometer), and New Zealand (16 per square kilometer) fail to make it to the top 200 in the list. If you exclude all of these, you’re left with basically no country.

But even if you keep Canada, Australia, and New Zealand in, the most ultra-conservative estimate for the foreign-born share in the United States under an open borders type policy is comparable to the highest foreign-born currently seen in the OECD, and more realistic estimates of what would happen in the US under open borders with respect to the foreign-born population place us literally in uncharted territory.

All these data are of course well known to most people in the migration debate. Restrictionists often embrace statistics and factoids of just the sort described here to paint open borders as truly lunatic. And in a sense, they’re right. Open borders is a truly radical, unprecedented proposal. Historical analogies can get us this far, but they simply don’t cut it quantitatively when describing the potential effects (good or bad) of open borders today.

Note that the reason I focused on the United States is simply because I’ve been looking at US-related data in the recent past. However, the case for open borders is universal, so one might wonder if there are other countries for which open borders would be less unprecedented. I don’t know an answer offhand, but it’s also true that many other countries are much smaller (in area and population) compared to the US, so their enacting open borders wouldn’t quite mean the same thing as the US doing so. However, I don’t see how the stats would look less dramatic for most other countries. If Canada announced open borders, then given that the population of Canada is about 1/10 that of the US, a much smaller migrant inflow would have a much larger impact on the foreign born proportion. In fairness, though, it may be argued that since Canada has a much lower population density, some of the overpopulation-related arguments touted by restrictionists have far less force in Canada.

What I think this points to is that when open borders advocates rely on historical precedent regarding open borders, they need to determine the appropriate adjustment factors for a reasonable comparison between the past and present, and justify what these adjustment factors should be. A naive copy-and-paste of population growth rates between the past and present suggests that the current immigration policy of the United States (and possibly of many other countries) already produces results similar to the heyday of open borders. This also raises the question of why we intuitively expect far larger migration flows today, in both absolute and proportional terms, compared to 19th century open borders. Falling transportation and communication costs are the obvious culprits that come to mind, but other technological and social changes might also be involved (for instance, a society that’s far more welcoming of different races and cultures may reduce the perceived and real costs of migrating for people from these different races and cultures — independent of the role of government policy). The next question would be whether all aspects of society have become faster at equal rates, or whether some aspects (people’s ability to physically migrate) have become much faster compared to others (the ability to form new industries and residential areas to accommodate large population influxes), along with the implications of these different degrees of speeding up for the effects of open borders.