Tag Archives: moral case

Optimistic futility arguments against open borders

In the past, I’ve addressed Roy Beck’s argument on the futility of open borders. There is, however, another direction of argument that comes from an optimistic, rather than pessimistic, view of the future.

This argument emphasizes the rapid strides being made in the elimination of world poverty, improvement in other human development measures, and progress of technology around the world. The end of 2010 saw a lot of celebratory articles about the past decade and the promise of the future (such as this). One website aims to end poverty by 2015, and their ambitious blueprint doesn’t include open borders or anything close. The Global Poverty Project uses a simple line fitting to estimate that poverty can be ended by 2040 or so, provided the right steps are taken — steps that don’t involve significant changes to immigration policies (see here and here). Open borders advocate Bryan Caplan thinks that, even without a shift to an open borders policy, absolute poverty will be completely eliminated and living standards will be much higher a hundred years from now.

If open borders advocacy does significantly open world borders, the process is likely to take at least 15-30 years. If all the things that people are already doing will lead to the elimination of poverty within 15-30 years, doesn’t that dramatically undercut the end of poverty argument for open borders? And once poverty is eliminated, won’t the pressure for open borders dissipate considerably? Perhaps open borders will be rendered redundant, and so there’s no point working oneself up over them?

This argument has some merit, but I list here some counter-arguments.

Open borders now help people now, and 15-30 fewer years of poverty mean a lot

If open borders can solve the problem of world poverty more rapidly, then they’re worth it. It’s true that completely open borders will take a long time to achieve. But even minor, partial reductions in migration restrictions that can help a few people would be a meaningful improvement in their lives. Continue reading “Optimistic futility arguments against open borders” »

Double world GDP versus scope insensitivity

One of the things that puzzles me about immigration restrictionists is how minor the harms they think they need to establish from immigration to overcome the moral presumption in favor of immigration. Even for those who don’t have sympathy for the libertarian and egalitarian arguments for open borders, there remains an extremely strong utilitarian case for open borders, which includes the doubling of world GDP and the end of poverty.

One explanation for restrictionists’ reluctance to concede the strong utilitarian case is that there are various philosophical bases for anti-immigration arguments such as citizenism, territorialism, local inequality aversion, and nation as family, which fundamentally reject universalist morality and favor the interests of specific individuals.

In a blog post comment on EconLog, Evan offers a somewhat different explanation:

I don’t know what Bryan will argue, but I think you could make a good case by using “shut up and multiply” type arguments. I.E., immigration restrictions are such a horrible violation of ethics and liberty that they’re worth putting up with other violations in order to stop them.

I personally know that if I had a choice between the USA as it currently is, or a USA with no welfare state, but closed borders between states or counties, I’d pick the status quo. In fact, if I was forced to choose between doubling the size of the welfare state, or closed borders between states and counties, I’d probably pick the former. That indicates to me that closed borders are a monstrous injustice, and the only reason people don’t realize it is scope insensitivity, or by being lucky enough to not have personally been harmed by them.

Here’s a quick summary of scope insensitivity from this page:

Once upon a time, three groups of subjects were asked how much they would pay to save 2000 / 20000 / 200000 migrating birds from drowning in uncovered oil ponds. The groups respectively answered $80, $78, and $88 [1]. This is scope insensitivity or scope neglect: the number of birds saved – the scope of the altruistic action – had little effect on willingness to pay.

Is Evan on to something? I don’t know. I suspect that scope insensitivity is a real phenomenon in immigration debates, but restrictionists are often quick to point out numbers when it comes to talking about natives hurt by immigration. So, my best guess is that restrictionists employ selective scope insensitivity. Another possibility is that they are using the logic in Roy Beck’s gumball video to dismiss the gains from open borders.

A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket

Post by Nathan Smith (regular blogger for the site, joined April 2012). See:

The relevance of this post to open borders will not be immediately obvious, but bear with me, I’ll get to it. “Meta-ethics” is a real word, as my sister, a professional philosopher, recently confirmed to me. I was afraid I had made it up, because it’s so useful in immigration debates. Meta-ethics is basically theorizing about where ethical rules or values come from. “Don’t steal” is ethics. “Seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number” is meta-ethics. Specifically, it’s a statement (a rather clumsy one) of utilitarian meta-ethics. People can have similar ethical views derived from quite different meta-ethical starting places. For example, a virtue ethicist might act bravely because courage is part of the good life for man, while a utilitarian acts bravely because he is convinced that the greatest happiness of the greatest number will be served, in a particular crisis, by his keeping cool while running terrible risks. People can also arrive at quite different views on a whole range of particular ethical questions starting from the same meta-ethical starting point: one utilitarian might believe in largely laissez-faire capitalism, while another is a Communist. If one wants to make a rational argument against a particular ethical rule (e.g., stay in the country you were born in unless some foreign government gives you permission to migrate there), I don’t see much possibility of doing this without appealing to one or more meta-ethical standards. On the other hand, one can argue against a meta-ethical position via a reductio ad absurdum showing that a consistent application of it would lead to monstrous moral positions. For example, one might attack utilitarianism by arguing that, under certain circumstances, consistent utilitarians should be willing to torture children to death. Anyway, in the course of many debates, I’ve found that a surprisingly satisfactory meta-ethics is comprised by the following two rules:

1. Universal altruism. Regard the welfare of every human being as equally important, and act accordingly. The ultimate end or standard of behavior should be to maximize the happiness of all mankind, with no special preference either for oneself or for any subset of humanity– family, tribe, nation, class, religious community, whatever– to which one happens to belong.

2. Division of labor. But as Adam Smith so lucidly explained, people are rendered more productive by specialization and division of labor, and we will do the task of caring for humanity much better if we split it up into many different tasks and assign most people, at least, a much smaller range of activity. Nature and circumstances gives us a kind of rough draft of how to arrange this division of labor, giving us all impulses to serve our families and those neighbors who evoke our pity or who have done us a good turn and earned our gratitude. Reason might urge us to modify this template somewhat, but not to discard it completely.

Continue reading “A Meta-Ethics to Keep in Your Back Pocket” »

Are Open Borders Utopian?

I can’t remember if anyone has ever actually responded to my advocacy of open borders by calling them “utopian,” but they often seem to be thinking it. Are open borders utopian? It would be truer to think of them as “back to normal.” The attempt to control migration through a comprehensive passport regime is a 20th-century innovation. The late 19th century was a kind of golden age of open borders, when passport regimes were removed and the world’s leading countries accepted immigrants with few or no restrictions, but even before that migration was restricted only in certain places and for certain groups and not very rigorously. Certain countries– England in the Middle Ages, Spain a couple of centuries later– expelled the Jews, but you didn’t need a visa to travel from Rome to London.

That said, for most of history, no one, native or foreign, enjoyed the degree of protection of human rights that people in the advanced nations of the West take for granted today. Much of the history of civilization was dominated by absolute monarchs of one kind or another, who were above any law. Often, too, aristocratic castes had the de facto power and/or the de jure right arbitrarily to violate the property or persons of their social inferiors. Courts have tended to be more arbitrary and corrupt than in the contemporary West; and crime rates were higher. Economic opportunity was limited and more dependent on scarce resources, which gave people more valid reasons to see a migrant as a security threat. (How will he survive, unless by stealing our cattle?) Literacy was less widespread, and there has never been a lingua franca with a reach comparable to that enjoyed by English today. For all these reasons, the practical opportunities for safe migration have surely been limited for most of historical mankind, even if passport control was not among the obstacles.

So if we were to abolish passport controls today, we would be giving rise to something rather new under the sun. Relative to the late 19th century, freedom of migration has been politically restricted but technologically and socially enabled. It’s hard to get a visa, but once you do, you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism. If we were to remove the passport controls, human beings worldwide would be born with a far greater prospect of practical mobility than ever before in history. Considering that (a) it’s always presumptively good to give people more options, and (b) a glance at the global distribution of income makes it clear that some people could benefit a lot by moving, that’s a very good thing. Is it too good? Are open borders utopian? Continue reading “Are Open Borders Utopian?” »

All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders

That’s a one-line summary of Joseph Carens’ article “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” first published in 1987. More exactly, Carens shows how three broad ethical theories– I prefer the term meta-ethics, but it’s an idiosyncratic term– namely, (1) Nozick’s, (2) Rawls’, and (3) utilitarianism, all imply a case for fully open borders or at least much more open immigration than rich countries permit today. That’s what I’ve always thought. At some point, I’d like to look through the 515 citations to see whether any counter-arguments have any strength. Carens’ job seems rather too easy, but it’s good that someone’s done it, and in a charming and easy to read style. Carens discusses, however, a “communitarian challenge” to the case for open borders, as argued by Michael Walzer. Continue reading “All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders” »