Tag Archives: political externalities

Which states oppose DAPA?

Earlier this year the Obama administration announced the expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, creation of the new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, and several other executive changes to the US immigration system.  In response twenty four states, led by Texas, have filed suit against the Obama administration.

Their alleged concern is that the policy change will cause them to extend benefits to illegal aliens. This claim is not without warrant. Deferred Action not only grants recipients work permits, but also ‘legal presence’ which might make DAPA recipients eligible for some welfare programs depending on the state in question. I sympathize greatly with open border critics whose concern is over the fiscal cost of migrants. Indeed, if the states involved in the lawsuit were acting  solely with the goal of addressing the fiscal cost of illegal aliens I would wish them the best of luck.

However once you start looking at the data it becomes clear that the fiscal cost of illegal aliens is not the reason why these states have elected to file their lawsuit.  If the fiscal cost was so great we would expect those states with the largest share of the illegal alien population to be leading the fight. Yet California, housing 22% of all illegal aliens in the US, is notably absent from the lawsuit.

Indeed most of the states involved in the lawsuit have a tiny portion of the nation’s illegal aliens. At time of writing the following states have joined the lawsuit: Alabama (1%), Arizona (4%), Arkansas (0%), Florida (7%), Georgia (4%), Idaho (0%), Indiana (1%), Kansas (1%), Louisiana (1%), Maine (0%), Michigan (1%), Mississippi (0%), Montana (0%), Nebraska (0%), North Carolina (3%), South Carolina (0%), North Dakota (0%), Ohio (1%), Oklahoma (1%), South Dakota (0%), Texas (14%), Utah (1%), West Virginia (0%), and Wisconsin (1%).

I have constructed and included below a linear probability model, and probit model, where I find the probability of a state having filed lawsuit given its illegal alien population as a percentage of its total state population. If fiscal cost is a significant motive then we should expect a positive correlation, with those states with a large illegal alien population being more likely to have signed onto the lawsuit.

My findings? There is negative, albeit very weak, correlation. That is to say that states with a larger portion of their population as illegal aliens are less likely to have filed the lawsuit.

Probability of Lawsuit

None of this should be taken to mean that the fiscal cost of providing welfare to migrants should be ignored. Migrants are already disqualified from most federal welfare benefits, but several states could reform their local welfare benefits nonetheless. If excluding migrants from welfare benefits is not politically feasible then they should at least be made to pay state taxes in order to allow states and other local governments to recoup some of their loses.




Estimates of illegal alien counts come from the Pew Research Center (Table A3).  Data set modified from John Lee’s earlier post on comparing US states by their illegal alien population.

Further Reading:

Open Borders: The Case page on Political Externalities.

Zachary Gochenour and Alex Nowrasteh on the Political Exernalities of Immigration.

Support for open borders is a fundamental tenet of libertarianism, and David Brat is not a libertarian

I live in Virginia, where unknown challenger David Brat just recently made US national news as a political giant-killer, toppling Eric Cantor from his Congressional seat and running on a vehemently anti-immigration, anti-open borders campaign. Cantor was widely seen as a strong candidate for next Speaker of the House of Representatives, and his loss was a huge shock to the US political establishment. A lot of ink’s been spilled on this, but I want to focus specifically on the libertarian response to Brat’s unexpected victory.

Brat teaches economics at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia, and generally describes himself both as a strong Christian and an adherent of Ayn Rand, a very influential thinker in the libertarian movement. He makes a lot of strong nods to libertarianism in his political rhetoric, although I’m unclear whether he self-identifies as libertarian.

Either way, I honestly don’t care that much about the outcome of this election: I have never liked Cantor, and although he has made some welcome limited moves towards amnesty for some irregular immigrants, he has basically been more pro-closed borders than many others in the political establishment (which says something). It is pretty amazing that Brat campaigned in part on the basis of alleging that Cantor supports open borders, and disappointing that Brat won, but it’s unclear how far his victory reflects voters’ stance on immigration or other policy areas, versus their general distaste for Cantor as a politician and legislator. I wouldn’t even bother to comment on this brouhaha, if not for how libertarians on the internet seem to be reacting to Brat’s win.

Now, full credit to the various libertarian analysts I’ve seen writing about Brat on immigration — virtually all of them dismiss his closed borders stance as inconsistent with libertarianism:

But reading through the reader comments on all these pieces, one cannot help but be struck at the amazing number of self-identified libertarians who are not just skeptical of open borders but outright opposed to it. If they support Brat for his alignment with Christian ideals or Randian thought, perhaps they ought to be aware that to the extent the Bible speaks about borders, it actually advocates for immigrant rights and the human right to migration (see our blog posts tagged Christianity), and that Rand was “indignant” at the idea of opposing open borders.

Although my personal policy stances (not just on immigration) tend to lean libertarian, like some other libertarian-leaners I have some skepticism about identifying as libertarian — in part because of the paleoconservative right-wingers who seem to occupy a disproportionate space in the libertarian movement. Either way, I lean libertarian, and so I feel somewhat obligated to engage with the idea that opposing open borders is consistent with the ideas of libertarianism.

In my view, it is impossible for a consistent libertarian to oppose open borders. One of the fundamental tenets of classical liberalism, which has been adopted (at least in name) by most of its descendants — including modern left liberalism and modern libertarianism — is respect for the individual’s rights and dignity. Prohibiting individuals from moving freely is a prima facie violation of these individuals’ rights. Now, in some or many cases, violating these individuals’ rights may be justified. But what sort of justifications can we provide that would be acceptable to libertarians?

The libertarian case for open borders hinges on the opinion — though I am tempted to call it fact — that you cannot justify arbitrary restrictions on the movement of individual people without resorting to fundamentally illiberal excuses which (to a libertarian) unjustly put the interests of the government or state ahead of the rights of the individual. From a libertarian standpoint, most — if not all — arguments for restricting the movement of individuals who have committed no crime against any identifiable victim simply boil down to collectivism, totalitarianism, or both.

On our site, we list out some common retorts to the libertarian case for open borders. They are:

  1. Enforcement of border controls is not a form of government action, and should be viewed instead as a form of government inaction
  2. Because governments are obligated to put the interests of their citizens above all else (a view sometimes called citizenism), they must prioritise the interests of citizens over the liberty of non-citizens
  3. The people of a state have a collective property right over their state’s territory which grants the state’s government a moral authority or right to arbitrarily exclude any foreigner that the polity sees fit to exclude
  4. That in an anarcho-libertarian world, many individual landowners would be able to and would in actuality exclude immigrants from their land, and therefore in a second-best world with government, governments must similarly exclude immigrants

True enough, virtually every one of these rationales for ostensibly-principled libertarian opposition to open borders has appeared in the reader comments section of the libertarian analyses I mentioned earlier. So let’s dissect them each in turn:

  1. Are states literally spending billions of dollars to do nothing? The barbed wire fences we build and gunships which our governments deploy in our name are surely meant to do more than just sit around and look pretty. It seems almost intentionally obtuse to deny that these things are meant to serve an active, violent purpose.
  2. There are many reasons to be skeptical of the citizenist worldview (or at least its most strong form), but to a libertarian, surely it’s relevant that citizenism outright declares that the interests (not just rights) of some individuals are more important than others’ rights. Sure, you can argue that a fundamental tenet of citizenism is that some people just aren’t entitled to certain rights, but you’re just shifting the goalposts: you can’t justify restrictions on individual movement of non-citizens without resorting to a literally collectivist worldview that says “citizens” are a collective whose interests supersede the rights of individuals that don’t belong to the citizens’ collective.
  3. The “collective property rights” argument literally has the word “collective” in its name. You can’t dress this up with liberal sprinklings of the phrase “property rights”. In the end, you’re still saying that a collective should be allowed to supersede the rights of individuals.
  4. First, I’m not sure the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual is all that compelling to libertarians who embrace minarchism or basically any non-anarchist approach. But even if it is, you can imagine a counterfactual world where many private property owners are happy to build a road and allow anyone to travel on it, whether for free or for a toll, and therefore bypass those landowners less amenable to immigration (if such a concept as “immigration” could even exist in a world with literally no borders). Libertarians who espouse this counterfactual also often take for granted that individual landowners could easily choose to ban natives, not just foreigners, from their lands. Consistent libertarians who take this idea seriously should agitate for stronger mobility controls over other citizens too, to preserve their property rights ostensibly implied by this counterfactual. In light of all this, why should my open borders counterfactual — one which also happens to more closely resemble the real world, with its actual roads built on the common law concept of right-of-way — be any less compelling than this strange hypothetical world?

You may not be a libertarian and find all of this irrelevant navel-gazing, if not possibly counter to your actual views. If so, sorry, but as is hopefully clear, these arguments aren’t aimed at non-libertarians. There are plenty of non-libertarian or non-libertarian-specific reasons to favour open borders and indeed to characterise open borders as a fundamental human right — I’m just intentionally not getting into them because I think the libertarian case for open borders ought to be compelling enough for libertarians.

Now, obviously a decent number of self-identified libertarians are able to reconcile their opposition to open borders with their proclaimed respect for individual rights. I think in general they do this by compromising a little and saying that collectives such as nations or states do have some rights (in some cases, such libertarians have explicitly made this part of their rationale).

Some libertarians no doubt will be tempted to right away dismiss these people as traitors to the libertarian cause. While yes, these people are surely no anarcho-libertarians, on the face of it they don’t seem to me all that different from libertarian minarchists or even other centre-leaning libertarians (such as, most famously, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom seemed content to accept the state even though this obviously necessitated some compromises on individual vs collective rights).

But saying that a collective has rights does not tell us what the collective is allowed to do — what its rights are, or how it may exercise those rights. I contend that a collective entity such as the state simply lacks the authority to forcibly exclude anyone, citizen or not, from its territory or jurisdiction on the basis of arbitrary reasons. Individuals may delegate collective authority to legislate to the government of a state, but that does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people whose last name starts with the letter Z, or people who have a freckle on their chin. It certainly does not give the government a justifiable reason to arbitrarily exclude people because of their race or sex or even sexual orientation.

I simply go one step further to say that place of birth should also be up there on that list of intolerably arbitrary criteria. I am not saying that your place of birth is irrelevant to who you are. It is no less relevant to who you are than your sex, your race, or a whole host of other things about you. I am simply saying that as far as the government is concerned, these conditions of birth should not be any of its business when it comes to deciding who it can exclude.

Now you can protest my general statement that governments cannot justifiably exclude people in an arbitrary manner — in which case you seem to be endorsing government exclusion of people on the basis of race, sex, and a whole bunch of other things, which in general is repugnant to libertarianism (a vocal racist fringe who self-identify as libertarian notwithstanding). But more likely you’ll protest my specific statement that exclusion of foreigners is arbitrary.

Now it’s certainly true that foreigners are different from citizens in a whole bunch of ways. They often grow up speaking a different language and operating under a different set of institutions. But our own citizens also grow up in a variety of communities, institutions, and backgrounds. Why do we treat citizens as morally non-excludable, and foreigners as excludable?

The objection seems to be that foreigners are fundamentally different from citizens. But why should this matter to a libertarian? If foreigners agree to respect the state’s laws, then they don’t harm any citizens and certainly don’t harm the state. If foreigners run afoul of the state’s laws, then the state may exclude them. The state certainly has no compunctions about excluding citizens who violate its laws, although it typically excludes them from society by jailing them instead of deporting them.

Perhaps anti-open borders libertarians worry that foreigners’ promise to respect the laws can’t be trusted. But judging from what they’ve written on this issue, it seems the clear theme is this: foreigners will respect the law, and that’s the problem. To be specific, they’ll obtain welfare as provided for by the state’s laws, and as Milton Friedman supposedly told us, society will literally collapse as a result.

To these libertarians, the claim that open borders and a welfare state are not compatible is a self-proving result; it also often seems to self-axiomatically lead to the conclusion that a welfare state which opens its borders will collapse into violence and disorder. Now, Friedman never stated that a welfare state with open borders would collapse into violence, so that second half seems completely suspect to me. But even so, it seems to me that libertarians are also completely taking for granted that Friedman must have been right when he declared this fundamental incompatibility.

The biggest reason Friedman was wrong is simple: welfare states generally do not determine who has access to their benefits simply on the basis of who is present on their territory or in their jurisdiction. There is almost always a whole bunch of paperwork you have to fill out to get your benefits, which is how the government makes sure you’re eligible. You can’t just show up and say “I’m a warm body, so give me my benefits!”

You might argue discrimination in benefits access isn’t an implementable public policy. But virtually every welfare state you can think of, even the most generous ones, already curtail foreigners’ and/or immigrants’ access to welfare benefits in some way. So it’s not impossible; it’s already being done. Americans often seem to forget that part of Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reforms included stricter eligibility criteria for immigrant access to federal benefits.

You might say that our insistence that the government refrain from arbitrarily excluding people inevitably forces us to open benefits access to anyone irrespective of birth condition. But this confuses two very different things: under the collectivist principles we’ve been taking for granted, governments have the authority to exclude some people from society, and they also have the authority to subsidise some people. These two things are separate. The criteria you use to decide who to exclude don’t have to be the criteria you use to decide who to subsidise.

Exclusion is a matter of fundamental justice; abuse of the state’s power to exclude is a violation of the fundamental human right to associate with other people. Fundamentally everyone agrees the state exists to provide criminal and civil justice services — failure to provide these in a just and fair manner is unconscionable. Subsidies on the other hand are a matter of redistributive justice or compassion. Yes, these are things which many if not most libertarians reject as any reasonable basis for government policy — but if we’re taking the welfare state as a given, we are still taking as a given that the principles under which welfare benefits get doled out may and ought to differ from the principles under which we decide who to criminally punish and exclude.

So Milton Friedman was just wrong here: the welfare state does not fundamentally require border controls to limit access to benefits. The welfare state already has access to documentary evidence which it uses to determine eligibility. It is not just strange to insist that the police-military state be allowed to violently exclude people for the sake of protecting a limited pool of welfare benefits; it is completely unnecessary. The welfare state doesn’t need you to violently exclude anyone, because it already has its own process for checking people’s papers to confirm eligibility for benefits.

Grasping for straws, anti-open borders libertarians finally reach for perhaps the least libertarianism-compatible of all objections so far: the claim that immigrants will implement or encourage citizens to implement more statist policies, such as an expansion of the welfare state, and that to protect what little libertarian policies are left, it is imperative for libertarians to support the exclusion of immigrants. This argument is so patently unjust and transparently unlibertarian that I am amazed anyone can make it and call themselves libertarian with a straight face.

Let’s take for granted the questionable empirical claim that immigration leads to an expansion of the state’s power over individuals. How does this justify restricting immigration, without also justifying a whole host of other unjust exclusionary policies?

After all, besides immigrants, you can think of a whole bunch of other demographic groups who seem inclined to oppose libertarianism: in the US context, these include people like blacks, women, perhaps Jews. Why shouldn’t libertarians support policies that exclude these people too? You know what: allowing blacks to eat means that there’ll still be blacks around to oppose libertarian policies. Therefore, a good American libertarian should support policies that restrict the sale of food to African-Americans. Force the state to starve the statists, and ensure a brighter future for liberty!

You will surely object: hey, libertarians should oppose policies that unjustly exclude citizens, but libertarians may and should support the exclusion of non-citizens who hold the wrong political beliefs. But what rationale do you have for holding non-citizens’ rights to a different bar? Now we go back to all the rationales you cited earlier: collective property rights, bla bla bla.  But it sure seems to me like your whole project to erect an edifice of libertarian arguments for closing the borders is actually tearing down liberty, not building it up: if you’re so willing to make compromises on the liberty of people who’ve committed no crime other than being born in the wrong place, or thinking the wrong way, it’s questionable whether you’re committed to the liberty of anyone else at all.

Let’s say you’re all right with the idea that libertarians shouldn’t oppose open borders, but still find it a self-defeating political strategy to “eat your own” when it comes to the likes of David Brat. After all, when there’s someone saying the right things about markets and all freedom and all those things libertarians love, but also saying the wrong things about some other things, is it fair to criticise him? Especially when he’s doing well in the polls and might make a real political splash?

I am not all that qualified to pontificate on the political ramifications here, but let’s focus on whether support of open borders should be a top consideration in assessing someone’s libertarian credentials. From our discussion here, it seems to me that any libertarian who opposes open borders either has some serious missteps in their thinking, or simply rejects, in very large part, libertarianism’s ostensible commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual. Libertarians who oppose open borders simply should not exist; either you favour open borders, or you aren’t a libertarian.

This is not an arbitrary hurdle, such as “Well he doesn’t fully oppose government subsidisation of healthcare, so he must be a statist nut” (as was said of Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian Party candidate for Governor of Virginia in 2013, when he articulated a healthcare policy that didn’t boil down to “Abolish all government subsidies”). No, if you are a libertarian, the way you think about open borders cuts to the core of what it means to truly respect and uphold the rights and dignity of individuals. Opposing open borders is not just putting the collective ahead of the individual in a few fringe cases; it is literally letting the collective trample on individuals who have done nothing wrong except choosing to be born in the wrong place or holding the wrong political views. This cannot be libertarianism.

For centuries, the clarion call of liberals standing for liberty has been: “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” You can come up with clever pseudo-libertarian justifications for opposing open borders, but those seem to me to virtually always devolve to: “I may disagree with what you say, and so if statists will let me, I’ll put you to death.” That characterisation may seem uncharitable, but I cannot see how you can describe yourself as committed to the rights of the individual if you have a gap in that commitment big enough to drive the lives of billions of people right through.

For decades, a commitment to the free market has been a key component of the libertarianism acid test. But as many libertarians responding to David Brat have observed, you cannot have a free market when you ban your citizens and billions of other individuals from doing business as they would like to do it in your country. But worse, you cannot have a free society. A society which spends billions of dollars to exclude billions of peaceful individuals by using violent force can hardly call itself free. No libertarian should want any part of a society built on the active and continuing oppression of innocents who have committed no crime worse than being born on the other side of a border.

Immigration and Political Freedom

This is a guest post by Ilya Somin, a Professor of Law at George Mason University and a blogger at The Volokh Conspiracy (posts by Somin only). He is the author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter. A list of some of his writings relevant to open borders can be found at the Open Borders page about Somin. Somin has also written on the relation between foot voting and political freedom (see here) and he draws upon that work in this blog post. His previous guest post for the site was about immigration and the US constitution.

There is widespread agreement that political freedom is a fundamental human right – that everyone is entitled to substantial freedom of choice in deciding what type of government policies they will live under. This is one of the main justifications for democracy. Voting enables the people to exercise political choice. But the principle of political freedom also has implications for international migration. The same logic that justifies giving people a right to vote at the ballot box also implies that they should have a right to vote with their feet. This is particularly true of people living under authoritarian governments, where foot voting is often the only feasible way of exercising any political choice at all. But even for those fortunate enough to live under a democracy, the right to migrate elsewhere is an important aspect of political freedom. In both cases, obviously, the right to emigrate is of little value unless there is also a right to immigrate to some other nation.

I. Political Freedom and Migration Rights for People Living Under Authoritarian Regimes.

Although the democracy has spread rapidly in recent decades, the majority of the world’s population still live in undemocratic states. According to Freedom House, almost 2.4 billion of the world’s 7 billion people live in nations that are “not free” at all in political terms, while another 1.6 billion live in “partly free” countries that have some semblance of democracy, but also place severe restrictions on political rights such as freedom of speech or the right to form opposition parties. These figures are surely imperfect. But there is no doubt that hundreds of millions of people languish in authoritarian and partially authoritarian societies where there is little or no meaningful democratic political process.

For most such people, emigration is their only practical way to exercise political freedom in the sense of the ability to choose the government policies they live under. One can object that they should instead work to democratize their home societies. In many cases, however, such efforts are both highly unlikely to succeed and dangerous for those who attempt them. Many authoritarian regimes repress dissenters ruthlessly, imprisoning or even killing them. We rightly admire the Vaclav Havels and Nelson Mandelas who bravely seek to transform oppressive regimes. But it is understandable that most subjects of such governments are unwilling to run such enormous risks. Moreover, in many oppressive societies, no amount of effort and courage is likely to succeed in establishing a functional democracy in the foreseeable future. Such societies lack the economic or cultural preconditions for the establishment of liberal democracy.

Residents of many authoritarian nations can exercise political freedom only through international migration or not at all. If developed democracies refuse admission to migrants from such countries, they effectively deprive them of their political freedom. They therefore become complicit in violating a fundamental human right. One can object that Westerners are not responsible for the lack of democracy in many Third World nations. But as philosopher Michael Huemer explains, immigration restrictions don’t merely leave in place poor conditions created by others. They involve the active use of force to prevent people from bettering their condition through voluntary transactions. If I forcibly prevent a starving man from purchasing food, I bear moral responsibility for his resulting death, even if it is not my fault that he was starving in the first place. Similarly, those who use force to prevent the exercise of political freedom through migration are partially responsible for would-be immigrants’ political oppression, even if they had nothing to do with establishing undemocratic governments in the migrants’ homelands.

Deprivation of political freedom is far from the only wrong inflicted by immigration restrictions that prevent people from fleeing oppressive regimes. Such people are also often forced to endure a variety of other human rights violations, as well as severe poverty. But the loss of political freedom is an important additional strike against immigration restrictions, one that is usually ignored even by most advocates for migration rights.

II. Migration and Political Freedom for Citizens of Democracies.

Residents of democratic nations generally have much greater political freedom than those who live under authoritarian rulers. But even in the best-functioning democracies, the freedom provided by the franchise is distinctly limited. Any individual voter has only an infinitesmal chance of making a decisive difference in an election – about 1 in 60 million in a US presidential race, for example. We would not say that person enjoys adequate religious freedom if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine his religion. We would not say that he has freedom of speech if he has only a 1 in 60 million chance to determine what he can say or write. Similarly, a 1 in 60 million chance at political freedom is far from sufficient. In many democracies, voters’ already miniscule chance of making a difference is further undermined by institutional corruption, “capture” of the political process by narrow interest groups, and other forces that make it harder for the electorate to influence government policy.

In addition, the effectiveness of the ballot as an exercise of political freedom is vitiated by the reality that voters have little incentive to acquire enough knowledge to make an informed decision. Because the chance of casting a decisive ballot are so low, most voters devote little time and effort to acquiring politically knowledge; they are “rationally ignorant.”

By contrast, migration rights enable individuals to have a genuinely decisive say in choosing the policies they wish to live under. An individual or family can migrate from one nation to another regardless of whether millions of others agree with the decision or not; or at least they can if governments do not use force to prevent it. And, unlike ballot box voters, migrants who “vote with their feet” have strong incentives to acquire adequate information about their decision, and use it wisely. While liberal democracies do not differ from each other as starkly as from authoritarian states, there is still substantial policy divergence between them on issues as varied as health care, economic regulation, land use policy, education, taxation, and law enforcement policy. That creates opportunities for meaningful international foot voting. Where governments permit it, many people already vote with their feet for such reasons.

None of this suggests that the ballot is utterly worthless. Democratic elections are often an important check on abuses of government power. But they are not enough to give individuals meaningful political freedom. That goal can only be achieved by giving people the power to “vote with their feet” as well as at the ballot box. Even for citizens of democratic states, political freedom is greatly enhanced by having the right to migrate to other nations.

Even in the absence of restrictive immigration policies, not everyone can effectively use international migration to enhance their political freedom. For many, the costs of moving are likely to be too great. Others are unable to make the adjustment to living in a society with different language or culture. Nonetheless, freer international migration could greatly increase political freedom for millions of people, even if it is not a complete solution for the problem of political oppression.

III. What About the Political Freedom of Citizens of Receiving Nations?

Immigration restrictionists might object to the above argument on the grounds that it ignores the political freedom of citizens of receiving countries. If they have to accept immigrants they may not want, that might vitiate their own freedom to choose their government’s policies. The new migrants could, for example, vote for policies that are inimical to the interests of natives. There may indeed be cases where the harms inflicted by immigration on natives are grave enough to justify restrictions on immigration. The political freedom of potential migrants is not an absolute right that always trumps all other considerations. But in the vast majority of situations, any such harms can be dealt with by “keyhole solutions” less draconian than excluding migrants, and forcibly consigning many of them to lives of poverty and political oppression.

For example, the obvious remedy for concerns that immigrant voters will undermine the political freedom of natives is to have a long waiting period before immigrants are allowed to gain the franchise or – in extreme cases – even deny them the vote entirely. Living in a nation without voting rights may be unjust to immigrants. But, in many cases, it will still be far better than being forcibly consigned to poverty and political oppression in their home countries. At the very least, their political freedom is enhanced by having the right to make the choice between the two for themselves. There are also a variety of other possible solutions for potential “political externalities” of immigration.

Restrictionists could still argue that denial of the ability to exclude migrants undermines the political freedom of natives even if immigration does not lead to objectionable changes in other government policies. But the right to political freedom surely cannot encompass the power to complete destroy the political freedom of others, as happens when residents of authoritarian states are denied the only means by which they can exercise any political choice at all. That is like saying that the right to religious freedom includes a right to force others to practice your own preferred faith if you believe God commands you to forcibly convert infidels. Moreover, any reduction in natives’ political freedom caused by an inability to exclude migrants irrespective of their influence on other policies is minor compared to that suffered by potential migrants who are trapped in authoritarian states by restrictionist policies.

Even in cases where immigration does cause some harm that cannot be alleviated by keyhole solutions, any such harm must be weighed against the many wrongs caused by immigration restrictions themselves. Political freedom should be an important factor in any such analysis. It certainly is not the only issue that must be weighed in debates over immigration policy. But it is a major and oft-ignored consideration tipping the scales towards broader migration rights.

The stability of excluding migrants from the franchise: part 1

One of the main concerns surrounding open borders, or radical immigration liberalization in general, is political externalities: migrants may vote in ways that destroy the prosperity-creating institutions of their destination countries. This would be bad not merely from a citizenist point of view, but could also entail killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thus leading to an overall decline in global utility. To minimize this (potential) danger, a keyhole solution that has been advocated is to significantly increase the length and complexity of the path to citizenship.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued that open borders can be separated from open citizenship both in theory and practice. My co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his DRITI proposal for migration to the United States, has suggested that migrants have some fraction of their income be stored in a mandatory savings account, and once the amount in the account crosses a threshold, they can become citizens, if they are willing to forfeit the amount to the state. This creates a de facto waiting period as well as what amounts to a citizenship tariff.

Stability and other dimensions

In a previous blog post, I had written that any proposed keyhole solution needs to be evaluated along four dimensions:

  • Moral permissibility
  • Desirability
  • Feasibility
  • Stability

The purpose of this post is to consider the keyhole solution of an extended (or, in the limit, an infinite) waiting period for migrants to obtain citizenship (and hence access to the franchise) along the fourth of these dimensions, namely stability. In other words, I’m asking the question: suppose a political compromise were somehow worked out where a new visa class were created whereby it would be very easy to migrate — temporarily or permanently — but very difficult, or almost impossible, to obtain citizenship, and therefore, to vote. Would such a compromise be stable?

Before I begin discussing this, a few brief words about the first three dimensions. Each of these dimensions is very tricky:

  • Moral permissibility is something that many people would disagree on. Is a society where a large fraction of the resident population is disenfranchised morally permissible? I think it is, for similar reasons as those that John Lee offers in his blog post. But it’s a difficult and contentious issue, as Nathan has noted in the past. So I’ll duck the question entirely in this post. Obviously, one would need to seriously consider moral permissibility before actually advocating or lobbying for such a proposal, but the goal of this post is more limited: let’s first figure out if the solution can be stable! I do think that the keyhole solution is, at any rate, not so obviously morally impermissible as to make it pointless to even study it along the other dimensions.
  • Desirability would depend crucially on what we understand of the research on political externalities and the arguments that free migration might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. My co-blogger Paul Crider recently argued that a lengthy path to citizenship was undesirable, contra co-blogger Nathan. To say something intelligent about this would require a lot of space. Suffice it to say that concerns about political externalities are sufficiently plausible that one can make at least a prima facie case that keyhole solutions should be investigated.
  • Feasibility would be something that depends heavily on the current political climate and the specific country where the proposal is being considered. It’s a topic worth exploring in its own right. I believe it makes sense to investigate stability before investigating feasibility, because one of the arguments for infeasibility is that people (whom one would need to get on board for feasibility) are concerned that the solution (of delaying or denying citizenship) isn’t stable.

Stability and the political tug-of-war

My ultimate goal will be to examine historical instances of disenfranchised segments of the resident population and when, if ever, these segments of the population got to vote. Prior to doing that, I’d like to explore a theoretical framework intended to address the question. The framework begins with the observation that decisions about enfranchisement and disenfranchisement are controlled by the elected governments, and the politicians here are concerned about getting re-elected. Although it is not the only motive, one major constraint affecting what politicians can afford to support is the effect it has on their electoral prospects.

A year ago, I had blegged for which of four possible positions on immigration and US politics readers found most plausible:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

One can consider a similar story with respect to excluding migrants from the franchise. I’ll form the story more generally, since the purpose here is to consider historical examples around the world, not to study modern-day politics. Consider a country with a de facto two-party system where the parties are A and B. Consider the following possibilities for what might happen if migrants excluded from the franchise (under a keyhole solution compromise) were given the franchise:

  1. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party A, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  2. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party B, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  3. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as taking the lead, or being more actively involved, in giving them the franchise.
  4. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as less enthusiastic, or more opposed, to giving them the franchise. One possible story for this is nativist backlash against whichever party is seen to be championing migrants.

In the earlier discussion of Democrats and Republicans, (3) was the ideal position from the pro-immigration perspective, and (4) was the ideal position from the restrictionist perspective. In some sense, the story is flipped now: when trying to judge the stability of the keyhole solution, (3) is the worst possibility (both sides have incentives to compete for granting migrants the franchise), and (4) is the best (each side wants to avoid being seen as friendly to the idea of extending the franchise to migrants). (1) and (2) are intermediate: if it is known in advance that one specific party would benefit by granting the franchise, then the other party would oppose it. If decisions to grant the franchise require supermajorities in the legislatures, and political power is approximately evenly distributed in the legislature, the existing arrangement of denying the franchise would be relatively politically stable.

Although (3) is in some ways the worst for stability, it is plausible to imagine the keyhole solution being stable even if (3) were true, as long as one party had accumulated a huge lead over the other in terms of being seen as friendly to the idea of the migrant franchise. In this case, the other party would need to either expend a lot of effort overtaking its competitor in terms of how friendly it appears to the migrant franchise, or it could just block the legislation to grant migrants the franchise. The latter course of action might well prevail for a fair length of time, if for no other reason than status quo bias.

Stability and feasibility: it’s relative

One plausible argument is that if a keyhole solution were sufficiently feasible as to actually get implemented, it would also be stable. In this view, then, stability is not something to be worried about per se, and all our energies should be focused on the question of feasibility. However, this is not completely satisfactory particularly in the context of the franchise because of the incentives (for members who agree to the original compromise) to later defect and enfranchise the migrants, particularly if (3) is the most valid.

The relevant question (that we will consider for each example we explore) is what, historically, has been relatively easier: liberalizing migration, or enfranchising existing migrants?

Short versus long run: a brief note

The answer to the question of whether a particular electoral arrangement is stable depends to a considerable extent on the timeframe over which the arrangement is considered (as some of the historical examples below, that I’ll discuss in my next blog post, shall clarify). One can critique practically any arrangement by arguing that it will not be stable over the next 100 or 200 years. But such a critique, to be taken seriously, would need to be clarified in at least two ways.

  1. The critique should point out to specific features of the proposed arrangement that make it more unstable relative to other arrangements. It is not enough to point out that the arrangement will be unstable. Even the status quo isn’t particularly stable over a sufficiently long time frame. The world in 2013 looks different — very different — from the world in 1913.
  2. The critique should elaborate on whether the factors that make the arrangement unstable over the long run also affect our assessment of its desirability over the longer run. In other words: does the keyhole solution self-destroy because the problem to which it was a solution became irrelevant? To the extent that this is the case, the long-term instability of the keyhole solution is not a problem. Let’s say, for instance, that a concern is that if migrants are given a quick path to citizenship, then they will vote badly. Somebody proposes a keyhole solution of a lengthy path to citizenship. One might critique such a keyhole solution on the grounds that in a century, most people will be very loath to make any distinctions based on nationality of origin or length of stay in granting citizenship, due to a shift in global values surrounding human rights and the relationship between people and political institutions. This is plausible, but one would simultaneously need to consider whether this changed relationship also nullifies, or at any rate, weakens, the original political externalities concern. On the other hand, if the instability of the keyhole solution arises from factors that make the underlying problem worse (for instance, a world war or large-scale ethnic conflict) then indeed this is a problem.

As Nick Beckstead and Carl Shulman explained, the long run is very important, if we care about humanity without much bias for the present. And the long-run effects of open borders and/or keyhole solutions are very important. To the extent that we can speculate intelligently about these, or even better, make guesstimates, such speculation and guesstimates have considerable value. Nonetheless, we should be wary of the risk of making the future a Rorschach test for whatever we prefer to believe about the world, a point that Will Wilkinson eloquently made in a related context.

What historical examples are useful for understanding the question?

Any arrangement that has persisted for a reasonable length of time in the real world can safely be called stable, concerns of tipping points notwithstanding. There may well be other stable arrangements that have not yet existed in the real world, so this is just a starting point. The most direct evidence in this regard would be historical examples of large non-citizen populations that arose as a result of guest worker programs or illegal immigration, and the extent to which there were pressures to grant citizenship and the franchise to the large numbers of non-citizens that accumulated as a result of these programs.

In my next post, I will look at the following historical examples.

  • In the United States, slavery was ended after the Civil War of 1861-1865. However, blacks (including freed slaves) were de jure and de facto barred from political participation on a significant scale via Jim Crow-era voter literacy tests, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (there were admittedly a number of smaller civil rights acts in the years leading up to that). The arrangement appears to have been stable for a considerable length of time, and does not seem to have attracted any vocal political opposition until the end of World War II, although there were unsuccessful legal attempts to overturn other parts of Jim Crow-era legislation such as enforced segregation. In private conversation, Ilya Somin cited this as an example of how excluding people from the franchise can be stable for considerable lengths of time, and my co-blogger Chris Hendrix cited the same example in an EconLog comment. Is that a justified inference to draw? What other lessons can we draw from this historical fact? (Note that the purpose here is to assess stability, not to discuss the moral permissibility or desirability of the exclusion from the franchise).
  • In relative terms, have pushes for granting citizenship (and hence the franchise) to existing non-citizen residents (including both legal and illegal immigrants) been more powerful than pushes for expanding migration, or less? The answer is not clear-cut, and a reasonable case could be made either way. In the United States, for instance, a typical “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal typically focuses on (a) creating a path to citizenship for existing residents (the pro-immigration side), (b) more resources for enforcement and border security (the restrictionist side). This is what is considered a reasonable compromise. Even expanding high-skilled immigration gets low priority in comprehensive immigration reform bills, and guest worker programs are opposed by both the territorialist left and citizenist right (loosely speaking). On the other hand, “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals rarely make headway anyway (the only major amnesty in the US was in 1986, though Europe seems to have had amnesties on a more regular basis). Expansions of legal migration opportunities have happened in small steps, but more steadily. The evidence is decidedly mixed.
  • Germany has had a large Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program and it has been argued that, for a considerable period of time, there was no political pressure to grant citizenship to these guest workers (a large number of them from Turkey), despite their forming a large mass of possible voters. How true is this? This question is worthy of further investigation.
  • Other examples worth looking at might be: how did the Reform Act of 1867 (enfranchising the British working class and lower middle class), championed by Benjamin Disraeli, affect the electoral landscape in Britain? How did the 19th amendment to the United States constitution (granting women the right to vote), favored mainly by the Democratic Party, affect US electoral politics? How sensitive were the votes of Jews to the perceived anti-Semitism of European parties?