Tag Archives: quantitative estimation

A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation

My recent post, “How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?” attracted a fair amount of attention, most recently an article in the Washington Examiner with the deliciously intriguing headline “Open Borders Would Produce Dystopia, says Open Borders Advocate.” The headline, which somewhat misrepresents the more balanced article by Michael Barone that appears beneath it, is a crude caricature yet in its way bracingly lucid, for it points to what I think this debate has clarified, namely, that the chief difference between open borders advocates and their critics lies not in what they foresee but in how they assess it. As Niklas Blanchard puts it, “this is purely an emotional dystopia for (wealthy) people of a certain temperament…Smith‘s piece is… maximally grating to the ‘social justice’ crowd” (Blanchard, however, goes on to praise me for rigorous adherence to demand and supply logic in making projections and concludes that he finds my analysis “rather beautiful”– thanks!) but it still features doubling world GDP and ending world poverty and the rest of the good features that open borders advocates want in the world they’re trying to bring about. The disagreement is more about values than facts, more normative than positive. 

I’m very grateful for all the feedback, which was not only abundant, but in many cases, pretty astute! To express my gratitude, I’ll reply to some of it. Probably not many of those who responded to the first “billion immigrants” post will ever read this one, but it seems right to have a response, so that anyone who cares to look, knows that I’m listening. (I already engaged a bit at OBAG.)

One point that was raised privately by my colleagues here at Open Borders is that the migration of a few billion around the world (“a billion immigrants” refers, very roughly, to the projected  immigation to the US alone) might not happen as a steady flow, but rather, as a response to crises, such as civil wars, economic depressions, natural disasters, anthropogenic global warming, etc. Or perhaps, more positively, in response to dramatic economic booms, the emergence of new cultural meccas, or religious quests to establish new Jerusalems, such as brought the Puritans to North America and the Mormons to Utah. The Syrian civil war has produced over 4 million refugees, almost one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population. That’s tragic, but much better than the experience of the Jews on the MS St. Louis,  many of whom died in the Holocaust after an attempt to emigrate from Nazi Germany was thwarted because no one would permit German Jews to immigrate. For some, this may mitigate the implausibility of a billion immigrants coming to the US. I don’t find a billion immigrants prima facie implausible, but this “punctuated equilibrium” version of the scenario seems at least as likely as a steady flow version.

Alex Nowrasteh also pointed out that Americans might respond to a billion-immigrants scenario with more aggressive “Americanization” policies, such as were adopted in the USA around the turn of the last century, about which he wrote an interesting and informative Cato blog post. His take is mildly negative, but I would regard an Americanization campaign led by civil society as quite benign, and even an aggressive, government-subsidized, mildly intolerant Americanization campaign would be very benign compared to current migration restriction policies. However, I don’t know what “Americanization” would mean today, because American culture seems so fractured that I don’t see much to assimilate to. I love listening to bluegrass gospel, which to me represents the very soul of America, yet there is another America where San Francisco liberals would feel at home, and which to me is more hostile and alien, not than Iran perhaps, but certainly more so than many a Christian church in Africa, Russia, or Latin America. I don’t know what Americanization would mean today.

Big Think has a pretty good article about my article, entitled “Thought Experiment: What if the US Had 100% Open Borders?” The summary of my hypothetical is pretty astute, though I might object slightly to this:

What’s most interesting is how Smith conjures a scenario out of which American constitutional democracy becomes so destabilized that it collapses beneath its own weight. We’d be looking at a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable compared to the present.

“Collapse” is the wrong word. What I projected (again, very tentatively: no doubt these disclaimers become tedious, but I want to prevent anyone from investing too much epistemic confidence) is “a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable to the present,” but the path to it would be a kind of swift and mostly peaceful evolution, not any revolutionary collapse. And I’m not sure, in an age of runaway judicial activism, what the phrase “American constitutional democracy” means, anyway. (The phrase “American constitutional democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1900 but not in 1950. The phrase “American democracy” would have had a clear meaning in 1950, and to a lesser extent in 1980, but not today.) Which leads to my other objection to the piece:

For many people, that might sound like a reason to scrap a 100 percent open-border policy. Smith is not one of those people. He’s got a bone to scrap with American politics and wouldn’t mind it turning into collateral damage amidst the rush of a brave new society [followed by my comparison of modern constitutional law to the late medieval Catholic theology of indulgences and my call for a kind of Lutheran Reformation to overthrow it.]

I can see how someone who read only that article might get the impression that my main reason for supporting open borders is my indignation at judicial activism. This is a case of being misunderstood because one reaches unanticipated audiences. I was writing for regular readers of Open Borders: The Case, who already know my main reasons for favoring open borders. That post reached a wider audience and so caused confusion. A quick review of my position may help.

My major reasons for supporting open borders may be classified into the deontological and the utilitarian:

Deontological. Human beings have rights, arising from their own natural telos, which we must respect. By “must” I mean something close to an absolute prohibition: I would tend to say that one mustn’t torture an innocent child even to save a great city from a terrorist attack. However, life doesn’t generally present us with such stark test cases. More often, we are tempted to violate human rights to prevent amorphous threats clothed in bombastic rhetoric. Thus, Nazi soldiers were driven to terrible crimes by spurious fears of Malthusian national impoverishment or starvation if Germany didn’t acquire sufficient Lebensraum, and even more spurious fears of a conspiracy of international Jewry against the German race. Astute intellectuals may see through such propaganda, or even refute it, but for the ordinary person, the key is to cling stubbornly to one’s humanity and the dictates of conscience, and refuse to commit crimes, no matter how vividly society makes you believe in the horrors that will come from not committing them, and no matter how propaganda stirs your passions to make you want to commit them. Now, migration restrictions involve doing terrible things to people. US immigration enforcement separates thousands of parents from their children by force ever year. European coast guards are culpable for a mounting toll of migrant deaths at sea, and so on. These things simply must stop.

We are not at liberty, as moral beings, to read through my “billion immigrants” scenario and think, “Hmm… Do we want that? No, we’d rather not.” In order to maintain migration restrictions, people who work for governments that represent us are doing things that must not be done. We are constrained by the imperative of human rights, constrained far more tightly than most in the West have yet been willing to admit to themselves. We are guilty every day that we tolerate the status quo. I won’t say, quite, that human rights imperatives demand open borders. (People have a right to migrate inasmuch as their practical telos requires migration, e.g., if it’s necessary to survival or earning a living, while in other cases there is a liberty to migrate in the sentence that no one else has a right to prevent migration by force. See Principles of a Free Society for details.) Rather, I doubt that any policy short of some kind of open borders simultaneously gives adequate respect for human rights and makes it incentive-compatible to obey the law. My “billion immigrants” scenario isn’t like an item on a restaurant menu, which a patron may choose, or not, according to pure preference. It’s more like a forecast of how the courts are likely to treat a robber if he does his duty by turning himself in to the law. Of course, such a forecast might give a robber self-interested reasons to turn himself in– the jail cell may be warmer than his hideout in the woods, with better food; and if he turns himself in he’ll get a shorter sentence– but these are secondary. I hope readers will find the prospect of a billion immigrants not too unpleasant, and that it will encourage people to do the right thing, but if the prospect is frightening, still we must stop deporting people, and prepare ourselves for the consequences.

Utilitarian (universalist). My other major reason for supporting open borders is that it is the best way to promote the welfare of mankind. This belief is based primarily on economic analysis, and more generally is derived from my expertise in international development. As far as I can tell, it seems to be broadly shared by others with similar expertise who have studied the question. Even a thinker like Paul Collier, an expert in international development and a critic of open borders or greatly-expanded immigration, does not so much dissent from the proposition that open borders is optimal in utilitarian-universalist terms, as reject utilitarian universalism as a mode of ethical analysis.

But how can open borders be optimal from a utilitarian-universalist perspective when my “billion immigrants” scenario is so dystopian? Simple: it isn’t dystopian, except from a certain historically myopic and rather unimaginative American/Western perspective that takes “democracy” as the magic word distinguishing everything good from everything bad, without thinking deeply about what the word means. My “billion immigrants” scenario does not involve widespread deprivation of real human goods like food, art, material comforts, family life, freedom of conscience and worship, health, education, truth, adventure, etc. On the contrary, it would seem to involve greater enjoyment of those things by almost everyone, native-born and foreign-born alike. The most dystopian aspects of the scenario, e.g., “latifundia” paying wages that look like slave labor to Americans, aren’t novel features of an open borders world, but features of our present world, which open borders would simultaneously move and mitigate. In soundbite format: open borders would bring sweatshops to America, but they’d be more humane and pay better wages than the sweatshops in China and Indonesia that would mostly vanish as their workers found better lives abroad. Meanwhile, for many an Indian or African peasant, even a steady job in a sweatshop is the end of the rainbow. (Also see John Lee on how open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops.)

How do these deontological and utilitarian-universalist meta-ethical* perspectives interact? A crude but helpful model is to think of ethical problems as analogous to the consumer’s problem in economics, with the utilitarian-universalist goal of maximizing the welfare of mankind serving as the “utility function,” while deontology provides the “budget constraint.” Deontology dictates that there must be no violence except in self-defense or retaliation against violence, plus a few other things like no lying, no adultery or (I would add, more controversially) premarital sex, no abandoning one’s spouse or children, no non-payment of one’s debts, and so forth. (Just because deontology dictates that it’s wrong doesn’t mean it should be illegal, e.g., most private lying is wrong but probably shouldn’t be punishable by law.) Within the constraints imposed by deontology, we can consider which courses of action are most conducive to promoting the welfare of mankind, and pursue them. At this point, if I were writing a treatise on ethics, I would segue into virtue ethics, explaining how contributing to the welfare of mankind involves the pursuit of all sorts of excellence; but the pursuit of excellence in turn requires certain traits or habits, such as courage, justice, prudence, temperance, faith, hope, and love, which we call virtues; and how, once acquired, we recognize that these virtues are not only the key to effectiveness in all sorts of situations and to doing any real good in the world, but are more desirable in themselves than any merely material pleasures, or any praises from multitudes. But for the present, it suffices to establish that deontology and utilitarian-universalism both point the way to open borders. The need to respect human rights and the moral law, and the desire to promote the welfare of mankind, are why I support open borders. That it might destabilize the judicial oligarchy that currently misgoverns the US is just a small side-benefit.

Next, I’ll turn for a moment to what stands out as one of the least astute reader responses to the article (whom I’ll leave anonymous, but it’s at Marginal Revolution):

Am I the only person who thinks this sounds really, really bad? Transition from republic to empire? Rich people employing almost-slave laborers? No social safety net? No more ‘one person, one vote’? Lots of gated communities? Destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans?

Sometimes my “billion immigrants” scenario seems to have served as a kind of Rorschach test. In the mass of detail, people saw whatever they were predisposed to see. I didn’t predict a “transition from republic to empire.” Rather, I used Rome’s transition from republic to empire to illustrate how a superficial continuity of a polity could be consistent with substantive transformation. I would expect open borders to lead to substantive transformation of the American polity, combined with superficial continuity, but the substantive transformation isn’t aptly described as “transition from republic to empire.” A more astute reader might have noticed that at the end of the transition, my open borders scenario looks rather like the Roman Republic in its heyday, say around 200 B.C., with a well-armed citizen minority ruling fairly beneficently (for one has to grade historic regimes on a very generous curve) over a large and diverse subject population, who to considerable extent consented to Rome’s/America’s rule.

However, the “transition from republic to empire” misconception is somewhat understandable. What’s baffling is the impression that I predicted “destruction of the living standards of native-born Americans.” On the contrary, I predicted continuous, surging economic growth, an enormous rise in the stock market, major appreciation of home values, lots of business for professional workers, government handouts and subsidies to the native-born, cheap drivers, cheap nannies, cheap domestic servants… basically, a bonanza for native-born Americans, to the point where many of them become a rentier class whose greatest complaint is the ennui of idleness. Admittedly, I also foresaw that some natives would see their wages fall, but the loss would be more than made up for by other income sources. I also suggested that threats of revolt might lead to the conscription of natives into a domestic police force, but while some might find that unpleasant, it’s not a case of falling living standards. It’s one thing to say that I’m wrong about all this, and that the impact of open borders on most native-born Americans would actually be the destruction of native-born Americans’ living standards, perhaps because restricting immigrants’ voting rights would prove politically infeasible, and immigrant voters would degrade institutions and/or redistribute resources to themselves via the ballot box. But this commenter seems to think that predicted the destruction of natives’ living standards. I wonder how often writers get blasted as having said the exact opposite of what they actually said.

I found this comment by Jorgen F. a pithy characterization of me:

He is convinced that only white people in the West can create a decent society. Hence America should create a shortcut for the rest of the world.

You know, America should care more for non-Americans than for Americans. It is so beautiful.

That’s not far wrong, though of course I don’t think the capacity to create a decent society has anything to do with race. I think it has more to do with 2,000 years of cumulative Christianization (in which story, historical episodes like the High Middle Ages when parliaments and universities and the common law appeared, the Renaissance, and the benign early Enlightenment, were chapters). Nor is high economic productivity synonymous with “decent society.” But I do think that Western societies are going to be nicer places to live than most of the rest of the world for a long time, so I’d like to see a lot more people get the chance to live in them. And of course we should care more about non-Americans than Americans, because there are a lot more of them, just as we should care more about non-Russians than Russians, non-Chinese than Chinese, etc. That said, since I propose to tax immigration to compensate natives for lost wages (DRITI), I can actually make a citizenist case for open borders too. I think open borders can be designed to benefit almost all native-born Westerners, without much reducing the benefits to the rest of mankind. But the main reason for opening borders is to respect human rights and end world poverty. When I worked for the World Bank, I was proud that its motto is “Our dream is a world free of poverty,” and in advocating open borders, I’m still being faithful to that vocation.

A comment by E. Harding that:

This is precisely the kind of atomism that anti-libertarians decry.

is directed less at me than at fellow commenter Chuck Martel (who had given reasons why he shouldn’t care about most of his fellow Americans), but E. Harding may also have had me in mind. As I argued in a post some time ago, I’m not ultimately very individualistic in my view of human nature and human happiness. Human flourishing almost always has a communal character, and this insight is necessary to fully appreciate the evil of migration restrictions, which inevitably lead to deportations and the forcible separation of families. “Communitarian” arguments against open borders generally boil down to “we’ll protect our communities from possible disruption by shattering your communities by force.” Open borders would allow families and other communities forcibly kept apart by migration controls to come together.

One of the comments I found most horrifying was by Horhe:

I do not understand how anyone can read [Smith’s article] and some of the other writings online and offline that doubt the wisdom of open borders (I particularly liked “Reflections on the Revolutions in Europe” by Christopher Caldwell) and still think that this is a good idea.

If the closed borders crowd are wrong and you do it their way, then nothing is lost and you can open the borders some other time, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities. But if they are right, and the open borders people get their way, then there is no going back to the way things used to be, without a bloody ethnic war. Which, come to think of it, might actually be started by the newcomers, who would be hurrying history along.

Now, I consider myself a Burkean conservative as far as conscience permits; I always advocate due regard for the precautionary principle; and in my vainer moment I sometimes think that Chapter 2 of my book The Verdict of Reason is a defense of tradition worthy of G.K. Chesterton. But there are fundamental principles of right and wrong that are deeper and more sacred than any human traditions, and in the face of which any mere precautionary principle must give way.

When I was a passionate Iraq War advocate some years back, I never forgot that in supporting the war, I was making myself complicit in a lot of killing, including some killing of innocent people. I thought the price was worth it, to abolish one of the two (Saddam Hussein vs. North Korea was a close call) most detestable totalitarian tyrannies on earth, but it was a great moral burden. Migration restrictionists, too, have a duty always to remember the human toll of border controls: the people stuck in poverty; the families forcibly separated. Maybe, even if they contemplated this frequently, some would still conclude that migration restrictions are a tragic necessity. But to say “nothing is lost”… the mind boggles in horror! How is such callousness possible?

I would not have enjoyed explaining to a bereaved Iraqi mother why I had supported the war that had just killed her son. But I could have done it. I would have spoken of the horror of totalitarianism, the transcendent moral importance of living in truth, and the value of setting a precedent that would make future murderous dictators doubt their impunity. I think many an Iraqi mother, after what her country had been through, would have understood me. Poll evidence tends to suggest that, while by 2005, the Iraqis already wanted the US out, most thought the hardships of the war and transition were worth it to be rid of Saddam.

Migration restrictionists should put themselves to the same moral test, taking responsibility for the vast human toll of the policies they advocate. How would you explain to a mother who is being deported from her children, not to see them again for a decade perhaps, or even forever, why her life is being thus shattered, when she never harmed anyone, never did anything to the Americans who are doing this to her, except clean their houses, or pick grapes and oranges for their table? There might be arguments that would mitigate the offense, but to say that “nothing is lost” since we can always stop doing these horrible things “some other time”… can such a detestable blasphemy, at such a moment, be imagined?

My imagination conjures a scene in which Horhe and his ilk are compelled by some Ghost of Christmas Present to watch, invisible and helpless, as some weeping mother is seized and dragged away from her terrified and uncomprehending children. Their humanity awakened, they plead with the Ghost: “Spirit, please, let them stay together!” And then the Ghost, in the appropriate tone of sneering contempt, quotes their own words back to them: “Later, when people might be more easily absorbed because of lower disparities, we’ll let families like these stay together. Nothing is lost by waiting.”

The answer to Horhe is: Repent! Find the ugly place in your soul from which such heartless thoughts arise, and kill it!

But sorry for getting so heated. I’m not living up to Bryan Caplan’s praise of Open Borders: The Case as a “calm community of thinkers.”

Thiago Ribeiro’s response to Horhe is also good:

If people who were against vaccines, fertilizers, abolishing slavery, abolishing witch trials, eliminating Communism, emancipating the Jews (…) nothing would be lost. Those things could have been dealt with later… Status quo bias at its more stupid.

Exactly. Any reform in history could be opposed on such pseudo-Burkean grounds. And contra “nothing would be lost,” vast losses are incurred every single day that we fail to open the borders to migration.

I found the last bit of this comment by Christopher Chang gratifying:

Sweden… for all practical purposes [has] already been running this experiment for more than a decade, and there still is supermajority citizen support for continuing the experiment…

Of course, most open borders advocates are systematically dishonest and avoid talking about Sweden even after they’ve known about it for years, because the “experimental results” to date are much worse than their rosy projections. I’ve repeatedly told them that one of the best things they could do for their cause is advise the Swedes to adjust their implementation of open borders to be less self-destructive (support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats has skyrocketed from ~2% to ~25%, so the supermajority is unlikely to hold for much longer unless the government changes course), but they’ve been totally uninterested even though they’ve interacted with e.g. Singapore’s government in the past. Instead they continue to pretend their ideas are “untried” and might constitute a “trillion dollar bill on the sidewalk”.

Since revealed preference is far more informative than rhetoric, I’m sadly forced to conclude that they don’t actually care as much about increasing global prosperity as they do about harming ordinary Westerners they don’t like, even though some of them have done genuinely good work in other areas. (With that said, I hasten to note that Nathan Smith, the author of the linked post, is an exception who respects the principle of “consent of the governed” and has an excellent track record of intellectual integrity.)

In return, I can say that Christopher Chang’s comments have often alerted me to interesting immigration policy developments around the world. However, the claim that Sweden practices open borders seems a bit clueless. A recent NPR piece reports that “for decades, it had a virtual open-door policy for asylum-seekers and refugees.” Virtual. In other words, not an open borders policy, but simply a relatively generous policy. And only “for asylum-seekers and refugees,” which are only a small subset of all would-be immigrants. If you look at the official site about getting work permits in Sweden, it says (a) you need to get a job offer first, so you can’t just go to Sweden and start applying, (b) the job has to have been advertised for 10 days, so Swedes have a head start in applying for it, and (c) “the terms of employment offered are at least on the same level as Swedish collective agreements or customary in the occupation or industry,” thus robbing migrants of what for most would be their biggest competitive advantage: a willingness to work for much lower wages and in worse working conditions than Swedes. Sweden does seem to be fairly generous in its immigration policy, at least relative to other Western countries (a very low bar), but this isn’t open borders, not even close. (I suppose one could argue that the last condition is just immigrants being bound by Swedish labor law, but the point is that Sweden isn’t just making an open global offer for anyone to come to Sweden and making a living as best they can. Setting refugees to one side, it’s hard for most people to get in.)

Jason Bayz makes an interesting remark:

The essay is interesting because, unlike some politically correct libertarians, Smith does not pretend that his open borders experiment would lead to liberal nirvana. He’s quite open about the fact that it would kill things like “equality of opportunity.” Especially interesting is [the] paragraph [about] “gaps… where where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail”… Private law? A more traditional term would be Lynch Law. The Middle East would be an apt comparison for its tribalism, discrimination, importance of religion, and “private” settlement of disputes.

Readers have a right to wonder what my cryptic phrase “anarcho-capitalist natural law” was a placeholder for, and I suppose, to fill in the blank in their own way. Yes, lynching is an example of private law, but so are more benign things like eBay’s customer rating system, or in-between things like the private security companies whose logos appeared on every single house in a South African suburban neighborhood where I once spent the night.

I would also want to push aside the mere knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “lynch mob” and raise the deeper question of what is wrong with lynch mobs. I welcome practical objections to lynch mobs, such as that they don’t respect due process and often punish innocent people, or that they’re not even motivated primarily to prevent real crime but instead want to oppress minority communities. I would challenge the assumption, or resist the assertion, that lynch mobs are evil simply because they’re private, unauthorized by a “sovereign” authority. In US history, it may be the case that private law has been, on average, less just than public law, though that’s unclear, when you recall the injustices perpetrated by the US government against many Indian tribes, in upholding slavery, in the Prohibition era, in deporting peaceful immigrants, etc. But certainly the worst crimes of American lynch mobs don’t hold a candle to the crimes of the sovereign regimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, etc. I would suggest that violence should be judged by the same standard of justice, whether it’s done by “private” or “public” actors. The problem with lynch mobs is that they so often act unjustly,  but as their injustices seem to be much less than those perpetrated by bad governments, our horror of them out to be less than our horror of bad governments, in the same proportion.

As for the suggestion that there is an “apt comparison” to be made between an open borders America and the contemporary Middle East, the obvious rebuttal is that the Middle East is mostly Muslim, whereas an open borders America would almost certainly be majority or at least plurality Christian, since Christianity is the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion believers today and an expected 3 billion by mid-century; Christians would probably be more attracted to the US as a migration destination; and many immigrants of non-Christian origins would assimilate to America’s predominant religion. I’ll assume (since it’s rather obvious but would take a lot of space to explain) that most readers understand that Christianity and Islam are profoundly different, and that religion is a major factor determining the differences between Muslim societies and Christian societies, including those in western Europe, where Christian belief and practice have recently waned, but where the nature of the societies is largely defined by the moral and institutional legacy of Christianity. An open-borders America wouldn’t be majority-Muslim, so it wouldn’t resemble the contemporary Middle East; it’s as simple as that.

Commenter Mulp makes a historical objection to my assumption that an open borders America would restricting voting rights for immigrants and thus end majority rule:

“If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. …”

Hey, why not simply discuss US history from 1790 to 1920 when the US had open borders except in California?

It’s true that from 1790 to 1920, the US had open borders and also open voting. But that open borders America never had nearly as large a share of migrants in the population as the economic models predict that a future open-borders America would, and the US government wasn’t an engine of economic redistribution then. I think my scenario is a better forecast of what an open borders future would look like, than an extrapolation from the experience of the US from 1790 to 1920.

Commenter Fonssagrives writes:

If the writer thinks “All men are created equal” is idealistic twaddle, then why do Americans have any moral obligation to let 1 billion foreigners into their country?

This is an interesting objection. It’s symptomatic of the psychic damage that the cult of equality has done to American minds. It invites a longer answer than I’ll make time for at present, but as a placeholder for that longer answer: people are very unequal in their talents and virtues; and treating them unequally is often prudent; but it doesn’t follow they should get unequal weights in a social welfare function.

Jer writes:

Maybe success can only happen (and be spread) if we restrict access to it.

Maybe the world needs a somewhat isolated ‘system experiment’ that can only remain so (and continue along its special type of development), by restricting access, and therefore be a teaching tool through its successes and short-comings.

Maybe ‘moving away’ from your problems is to not solve them at all and certainly does not lead to overcoming them in-situ.

Maybe those who have the ambition to move away were the ones most likely to effect change and improve their origin, with the move likely resulting in the weakening of the source state and increasing world inequality overall. (is it ethical to allow people to emigrate if that depopulation damages the future potential of the source system itself?)

What I like about this argument is that it seems to accept a utilitarian-universalist meta-ethics, and then argues, or at least tries to suggest (“Maybe…”), that migration restrictions (perhaps even ones as draconian as the status quo?) might serve the common good of mankind through the good example that rich countries can set when they segregate themselves from the rest of the world. I find it wildly implausible that migration restrictions anything like as tight as those the West currently has in place are optimal for the welfare of mankind, and even if they were, I’d have human rights objections. Thus, even if preventing “brain drain” from poor countries did aid development there (on balance), I’d still object to forcing, say, Malawian doctors to stay in Malawi, on the same grounds that I’d object to seizing American doctors by force and exiling them to Malawi. I believe in human rights. But if we could establish consensus that utilitarian-universalism (with deontological side-constraints) is the right meta-ethical framework in which to consider the question, that’s a large point gained.

Finally, thanks to John Lee’s OBAG link, I noticed that my “billion immigrants” scenario got linked in a National Review piece by Mark Krikorian entitled “Where There is No Border, the Nations Perish.” Here’s the context:

But the publics of Europe’s various nations aren’t going to tolerate unlimited flows. The diminution of sovereignty engineered by the EU is bad enough for some share of the population, but many more will object to extinguishing their national existence à la Camp of the Saints. (And “extinguishing” is the right word; just read this piece by an open-borders supporter on how U.S. society would change if 1 billion immigrants moved here.)

Krikorian cites my scenario as evidence (almost, flatteringly if unwarrantedly, as proof) that “the nations perish” under open borders, a phrase amenable to multiple interpretations. It is tendentious because the word “perish” might subliminally suggest some sort of threat of genocide. But if it is interpreted simply as “open borders will bring to a close the episode in world history, which began around the mid-19th century, when the nation-state was the predominant form of political organization,” then I’d tentatively agree. Krikorian disapproves, I approve.

In general, it seems that my “billion immigrants” scenario has made me a useful “reluctant expert” for immigration critics to cite. Maybe that should distress me more than it does. I tend to think the strength of the arguments for open borders is so superior that the more we can get a hearing, even if initially an unfavorable one, the better. Many people don’t even know that being an open borders supporter is a live option. If they’re made aware that one can support open borders, they’ll pay more attention to the arguments for and against. On the plane of intellectual argument, open borders advocates have many rhetorical handicaps, but enjoy the long-term structural advantage of being right.

*My use of the term “meta-ethics” is slightly unconventional. For me, utilitarianism, for example, is a “meta-ethical” perspective.

The image featured at the top of this post is a 1917 painting depicting Armenian refugees at Port Said, Egypt.

Related reading

Open Borders and the Hive Mind Hypothesis

I recently finished a (fairly advanced) draft of “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” posted to SSRN here. Here’s the abstract:

Open borders, in the sense of the abolition of policies restricting migration, would cause billions of people to migrate, and result in almost a doubling of world GDP. Based on a model that stresses human capital as a determinant of the wealth and poverty of nations, but which also has a spatial element and allows total factor productivity to differ across cities, two openborders scenarios are constructed. In the first, “pure market clearing” scenario, world GDP rises 91% as 82% of the world’s population migrates, mostly to the West, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 26% of the US level. In the second scenario, with several adjustments made to favor greater realism at the expense of some arbitrariness, world GDP rises 85% as 58% of the world’s population migrates, and the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide rise to 31% of the US level.

For more on this paper, see my guest post at Market Monetarist last fall; and my three-part series on “Open borders and the economic frontier” (part 1, part 2, and part 3).

While I plan to do another round of revisions (a sorely needed Acknowledgments section is high on the priority list), I want to bring out some of the main themes of the paper, through blog posts at Open Borders: The Case. One of these is that while the claim that open borders would dramatically raise world GDP (“double world GDP” is the usual, sometimes criticized as over-optimistic but in my view apt, slogan) is robust to many changes in assumptions, it cannot withstand the “hive mind” hypothesis about the determination of GDP.

In technical jargon, the “hive mind” hypothesis is that TFP (total factory productivity) depends on human capital externalities. In non-technical language, the hive mind hypothesis is that people’s productivity and earnings depend, not so much on their own intelligence or skill, as on that of people around them.

(In the academic literature, Jones (2011), “The Hive Mind Across Asia,” seems to be the most prominent paper using the phrase “hive mind” in this sense, but Lucas (1988) is a seminal paper for the idea that human capital externalities are an important determinant of TFP, on which a large literature builds. John Lee comments here on how Docquier, Machado, and Sekkat (2014), the chief outlier among papers estimating the global economic impact of open borders, uses a form of the hive mind hypothesis to arrive at its conclusion that open borders would only raise world GDP by 4%.)

The principal motivation for the hive mind hypothesis is to explain the fact that highly skilled workers do not tend to earn more where skills are scarce. If anything, they earn more where they are abundant. A well-designed study by Michael Clemens uses the randomness of US visa allocations to show clearly that Indian software programmers earn far more in the US than in India, for reasons that seem to indicate higher productivity, since they’re working for the same companies, and the companies would have no reason to sponsor their visas if they didn’t anticipate a productivity increase sufficient to justify the higher salary. Against this, my own experience in Malawi taught me that what Amy Chua (2004) calls “market-dominant minorities” can achieve, in the poorest countries on earth, living standards much superior to those of middle-class Westerners in some respects (land, servants, to some extent leisure) while inferior in others (access to shopping, internet) in such a way that, overall, they might be rated as similar; and Chua (2004) gives very extensive evidence that this is true not just in Malawi but all over the world. My rough assessment is that while Indian software programmers might be far more productive in the US, the living standard earned by human capital is similar all over the world. (More precisely, the additional living standard that a worker with human capital equivalent to that of an average American will enjoy, over and above whatever a local unskilled worker would earn varies by less than an order of magnitude across countries.) Still, even if skills don’t earn less where they are scarce, they ought in theory to earn more, and that they don’t is a mystery demanding explanation.

Normally, a factor of production is most valuable where it is scarcest. Thus, water is intensely valued in California but less so on the rainy East Coast. Land is very expensive in Manhattan, where it is scarce (relative to population), but much less so in Montana, where there’s plenty of it. We should ordinarily expect the same thing with respect to brains, skills, human capital. They should be expensive where they are scarce, cheap where they are abundant. In fact, human capital seems to earn as much or more where it is abundant. To resort to technical language again (sometimes it clarifies) there is a correlation between average human capital and total factor productivity (TFP); and the hive mind hypothesis is essentially that this is causal, with the direction of causation running from average human capital to TFP. There may be a variety of reasons, e.g., smart people vote more like economists (so that democracy => good policy works only as well as the voters are smart), or smart people are better at cooperating, or maybe smart people need stimulation from other smart people to exercise and improve their intelligence. That’s the hive mind hypothesis in a nutshell. If you want more, ParaPundit’s post “Benthamite Libertarian Collectivists Wrong on Open Borders” has a good explanation (though without the term “hive mind”) with further links. Even better are the extensive contributions by anonymous commenter BK at the “Open borders and the economic frontier” posts linked above, and also here and here. Chaper 2 of Collier’s Exodus, which I review here, has what might be called an institutional spin on the hive mind hypothesis.

If the hive hypothesis is true (if average human capital is causally linked to TFP), what does it imply for open borders?

First, if the hive mind hypothesis is true, the impact of open borders on world GDP would probably be far less favorable than most of the existing estimates suggest. In one of the two model extensions that make TFP a function of human capital externalities, I find that world GDP falls by nearly one-quarter under open borders. One critique of open borders is that it would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The hive mind hypothesis is probably the form of “killing the goose” argument that has the best support in the literature at the moment.

Second, even in my most pessimistic hive mind scenario, unskilled workers worldwide end up with living standards 15% of the current US level, an order of magnitude above current levels. This is a counter-intuitive result, because in essence, what it shows is that the seemingly most pessimistic open borders scenario, killing the goose, and the seemingly most optimistic open borders scenario, the end of poverty, are actually not inconsistent! Even if the institutional harms/negative externalities/various downsides of open borders were severe enough that world GDP, far from doubling, actually fell substantially, yet billions of the world’s most destitute people would still see their incomes multiplied five-fold, ten-fold, or more, because they could live under institutions that, while much degraded relative to the pre-open borders rich world, were still a good deal better than those they suffer under today; and also because they would benefit from greatly increased opportunities for productive complementarity with skilled workers, which the status quo precludes. Is it worth reducing world GDP by one-quarter to raise the wages of the bottom billion ten-fold? Probably so, if it came to that.

Third– and this is why ParaPundit misses the mark– whatever the normative implications of the hive mind hypothesis may be with respect to immigration, they certainly do not suggest that the status quo is anything like optimal. If one’s goal is to maximize world GDP, the only advantage of the status quo, relative to open borders, is that it involves some human capital stratification, allowing today’s rich countries to be productive “hive minds” of high human capital people. But the migration status quo is a very suboptimal human capital stratification system. First, there should be open borders for smart people– no reason to shut them out– and the admission of people with high IQs and advanced degrees to rich countries could be far more automatic and transparent. We could create schemes to bribe low-IQ, less-educated citizens of rich countries to emigrate and surrender their citizenship, since such emigration should raise average human capital, and TFP, in the source country. We could establish charter cities for low-IQ people to emigrate to, and a bit of ongoing foreign aid might be a fiscal price well worth paying to have them out of the way. Meanwhile, we could establish gated communities for smart people, graduating them into increasing levels of self-government, until eventually they attain full independence as (not philosopher-kings but) philosopher-republics.

Critics of open borders from a hive mind angle, like ParaPundit, can be called on to explain why they don’t advocate a global program of maximal human capital stratification, since that’s what their arguments would really point to.

I’m skeptical of the hive mind hypothesis, and I don’t think open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs; I think it would double world GDP. But I don’t rule the hive mind hypothesis out either, and it’s one of the most respectable reasons to dissent from claims that open borders would raise world GDP dramatically.

More related reading

  • Grappling with the Goose by Paul Crider, Open Borders: The Case, February 17, 2014.
  • How migration liberalization might eliminate most absolute poverty by Carl Shulman, May 27, 2014, making a very similar point. Here is the summary:

    While some estimates that open borders would double gross world product implicitly project the migration of most of the developed country labor force, a much smaller quantity of migration might cut global poverty rates by half or better. The additional income to the poorest required to bring them above extreme poverty lines is in the hundreds of billions of dollars per annum, while doubling world product would approach a hundred trillion dollars of additional annual output. Legal barriers to migration, and blocked desire to migrate, are most extreme for the poorest countries, suggesting extra migrants from those sources. While migrants may receive more income gains than are needed to escape absolute poverty remittances to family, trade, and investment may help to distribute the gains more widely. Overall, the case that migration liberalization for less skilled workers could eliminate most absolute poverty is significantly more robust than the most extreme estimates of global output gains.

  • Intelligence, international development, and immigration by Vipul Naik, Open Borders: The Case, August 19, 2012. See also the follow-up Garett Jones responds to my intelligence post.

Why I’m sticking with open borders, or, plucking the not-so-low-hanging fruit

I started Open Borders: The Case about 2.5 years ago, in March 2012 (you can read the site story, my personal statement for the site, and some general background for my involvement with open borders). My active involvement with the site has reduced a lot since summer 2013, but it’s still the biggest single topic on which I semi-regularly write stuff for the general public. I have considered switching my attention to other topics such as drug policy (both recreational and medical), organ trading, economic freedom broadly construed, existential risks, cause prioritization in effective altruism, and animal welfare. However, I’ve decided to stick with open borders. This includes participation at the Open Borders Action Group, more blogging here, and other miscellaneous work. In this post, I’ll describe my reasons.


My reasons in summary form:

  1. My estimates for the value of open borders, or the extent to which we can realistically move to open borders, haven’t changed much.
  2. There are two countervailing, roughly canceling effects in terms of the extent of marginal impact of open borders advocacy, so on net that hasn’t changed much either.
  3. I am still well-positioned to help take Open Borders: The Case to the next level.
  4. Other causes, including the most promising ones, seem less promising than open borders.
  5. There is value to personal specialization. I’ve already acquired experience with thinking and writing about open borders, so I can do more by sticking to it.

Never give up
Cartoon showing the importance of not giving up. Source Moving Forwards Seminars

A quick review of the Drake equation

Before delving into the reasons, I’ll recall a framework I developed a while back in my Drake equation post. I wrote there:

$latex \text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz$


  • $latex W$ is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • $latex x$ is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set $latex x = 0.1$, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely $latex Wx$, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • $latex y$ is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product $latex Wxy$ is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • $latex z$ is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting $latex z = 10^{-4}$ for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

#1: My estimates for $latex W, x, y$ haven’t changed much

After a few years of reading, thinking about, and discussing open borders, my broad estimates of the gains from complete open borders, the fudge factor, and the extent to which we can realistically move in the direction haven’t changed. To some extent, my estimate for $latex W$ has fallen somewhat, but this is compensated for by an increase in $latex x$. I’ve moved in the direction of embracing lower estimates of the GDP gains from open borders, but also reduced my probability estimate of open borders being a total dud or having net negative consequences, so the fudge factor $latex x$ improves correspondingly. Open borders feels like a somewhat more known quantity. Moreover, the degree of uncertainty regarding consequences reduces further considering that we aren’t going to have complete open borders. Overall, I continue to believe that the product $latex Wxy$ falls somewhere between 500 million and 500 billion dollars, as I’d stated in my Drake equation post.

For a different take on the numbers, see Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations (that I excerpted in an Open Borders Action Group post). Berger’s summary estimate for the gains from open borders (included in an earlier table in that doc) offer the range $300 million – $3 trillion per year (middle estimate $150 billion) for what seems like the analogue of $latex Wxy$. This closely accords with my numbers, though Berger’s methodology is a little different and arguably more concrete and object-level.

#2: Two countervailing effects on $latex z$ approximately cancel each other

How has the $latex z$ value for Open Borders: The Case, and affiliated efforts, changed over time? There are two countervailing considerations:

  • Open Borders: The Case has exhausted some of the very low-hanging fruit. We now play a defining role on the subject: since at least the middle of 2014, and possibly earlier, we’ve topped web searches for open borders. In some ways, we’ve reached our asymptotic potential, and in many other ways, we’re at diminishing returns: even if additional effort yields positive returns, they’re not as high as the initial returns. One could argue that my very first 25 hours of work on the site, which led to this, had the highest return per unit time.
  • On the other hand, now that we’ve done the basic work of building out the case and collecting a community interested in debating the issue, each new post generates more discussion and can more quickly lead to better ideas. When I started blogging, there were only a couple other bloggers and a few commenters with whom we’d go back and forth. Just a year ago, we had about 900 likes on Facebook. Now we have over 1800, or about twice that number. The Open Borders Action Group launched in February 2014, and now has over 600 members and 20+ fairly active participants. Thus, we can quickly have discussions with 5-10 active participants without somebody needing to spend a couple of hours researching a post. And both our active participants and our readers include a fair number of people who might be able to influence the implementation of actual migration policies in different places in the world.

#3: Open Borders: The Case will survive without me, but I can still contribute a lot to taking it to the next level

I was very active in the first 1.5 years of the site, and my job back then was to help grow the community and build the site and blog to the point where it could continue to run and grow without me. I worked hard to recruit people to the site who’d be willing and able to write great stuff (I’ve written a very long Quora answer on this). I think I’ve succeeded. I can have a busy week where I barely check in on the site, and there are still new blog posts and new draft posts, many new discussions on OBAG, and lots of site visitors. I could completely stop my involvement with the site and it wouldn’t collapse.

At the same time, there is so much more to do on this front. The world is still very far from open borders (this circles back to #2). Open Borders: The Case has established a niche that, while close to pre-existing libertarian-leaning blogging on the issue, is sufficiently distinctive. As John Lee wrote in an interview with Lis Wiehl:

The main thing which I think differentiates Open Borders from many other immigration advocacy groups is that we are the only ones who really take global freedom of movement seriously. It’s not merely that we champion it; it’s that we honestly ponder the question of how the world might be different — both for better and for worse — if people could freely choose where to travel, where to settle, and where to work or study.


Our mission is to offer a rational assessment of what the world would look like under open borders, and to articulate the case of why our governments and societies must respect the right to migrate (except in those extreme cases where infringement might be justified — just the same as with any other right).

The way things are going, we are establishing and solidifying our position as the premier place for philosophical analysis of the case for freedom of movement. Continued growth on this front would not be a laughing matter. But to actually get the world to open borders, so much more needs to be done. If we just keep posting and publishing stuff similar to what we’ve been publishing, we might continue to gain more adherents and grow traffic, but at the core, there won’t be progress.

Co-blogger Michelangelo recently asked about next steps for the open borders movement, and suggested we move in the direction of coming up with concrete actionable policy proposals, perhaps setting up a think tank to do so. In another recent post, I talked of the distinction between philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs and reframed Michelangelo’s suggestion as moving from a philosopher focus to a wonk focus.

Personally, I think a move in the wonk/entrepreneur direction is warranted, though I think of it a little differently. I think Open Borders: The Case should offer something so unique, so distinctive, that people feel wowed by it, and inspired to consider and work towards a world of open borders. We need to break new ground content-wise, combining in-depth exploration of the current realities of the world with our pro-open borders ideals, and coming up with stuff that’s captivating to read, whether it’s co-blogger Nathan’s lessons from slavery, co-blogger John’s takedown of the international refugee system, or my recent post on snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs. But there’s a lot more to do. It’s possible that such an evolution would occur even without me (some of my co-bloggers have done a great job with writing compelling material that breaks new ground, with no prompting on my part). But I do think that I could significantly accelerate the process, simply by being focused on it and pushing harder for it.

#4: The relative value of other causes

An affirmative decision to continue with open borders is also a decision against pursuing other causes, at least in the short term. A full evaluation would compare open borders with these other causes. And indeed, I think that open borders offers a lot more value than the other top contenders (this comports with Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, where open borders has the largest upside by a huge margin and also the largest median case gain, though it’s tied for that status with other options).

I think the case for focusing on open borders over drug policy liberalization, free organ trading, economic freedom, and free trade is relatively clear. One might argue that now that a site on open borders has been created, there’s more low-hanging fruit in the other domains. This circles back to my point #2 and (to a lesser extent) point #1, so I won’t go in depth here. Moreover, I also think that, given its high potential, open borders continues to be relatively neglected (relative to drug policy, for instance). For instance, it’s relatively neglected among libertarians, as I’d discussed in these two posts.

The one economic freedom-related cause that I think offers high value and is relatively neglected is the economic freedom-related cause of allowing freer foreign direct investment. I’m mainly going by Bryan Caplan’s assessment of this cause as the most promising after open borders (see also this blog post by him). This is something I hope to investigate at greater depth. If its tractability proves extremely high, I might switch attention to it (i.e., it might have higher $latex x, y,z$ values to compensate for the lower $latex W$ value). Until then, I’ll stick to open borders.

#5: The value of personal specialization

When I first started Open Borders: The Case, my knowledge of migration-related matters was fairly shallow. Over the last few years, I’ve learned many things. Nonetheless, there still remains a lot to learn. If I start a website on a new topic, I’ll have to learn a lot about that topic. If, on the other hand, I continue working on Open Borders: The Case, I can build on the knowledge I’ve already acquired and be even more effective.

Would migration levels under open borders be optimal, too high, or too low?

A common criticism of free markets is that due to market failure, the level of supply of a particular good or activity may be too high or too low. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a case for government intervention. Governments may fail too: they may exacerbate the problems further, overcorrect in the other direction, or introduce a new dimension of problems. But the question of market failure is worth considering, whether one comes up with a governmental solution, non-governmental solution, or concludes that there is no solution.

The question for migration: under open borders, will the level of migration be optimal, too high, or too low? The majority of open borders supporters (or at least, those who consider the question sufficiently well-posed) probably adhere to the view that the level of migration under open borders would be closer to optimal than under the status quo. That still leaves open a range of possibilities for the situation under open borders: perhaps there is slightly more migration than optimal, or perhaps there is slightly less, or even a lot less, migration than optimal. Most open borders skeptics who consider the question well-posed (and particularly those coming from a universalist angle) probably feel that the amount of migration under open borders is a lot more than optimal (hence their support for migration restrictions).

I will lay out some possible reasons why there might be “too much” or “too little” migration, though it will be difficult to arrive at a conclusion. In future posts, I might talk more about how to weigh the considerations and how to address the issues raised.

Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Wealth effects: inability to afford the upfront costs causing too little migration
  2. Hyperbolic discounting combined with large upfront costs of migration causing too little migration
  3. Overestimation of the private importance of material gains causing too much migration
  4. Under-accounting for positive flow-through effects and externalities (growth of other parts of the global economy) causing too little migration
  5. Under-accounting for negative flow-through effects and externalities (including goose-killing) causing too much migration
  6. Under-accounting for the benefits accruing to future generations causing too little migration

UPDATE: Mike Carey points out in his comment below that (1)-(3) in my list refer to ways that the migrant miscalculates his/her personal gain or loss, whereas (4)-(6) in my list refer to ways that the migrant fails to account for effects on other people.

1. Wealth effects: inability to afford the upfront costs causing too little migration

Some prospective migrants may benefit greatly from migrating, and wish to do so, but the upfront cost of migrating may be so high that they literally cannot afford it. Joel Newman discussed this case in his recent post. Prima facie, I don’t see this as a big issue long-term: I expect that to the extent that people care deeply about migrating, loans (repaid through greater post-migration earnings) and private charity will help fund the upfront costs.

The catch: people need to be sufficiently eager to migrate to avail of the opportunity of a loan (along with the attendant liabilities). But the failure to do so is more a problem of hyperbolic discounting (next on our list) than of an inability to afford the move.

Intranational migration, or the lack thereof, offers important lessons. There’s a great deal of intranational migration, but a lot less than one might naively expect given the cost-benefit analysis, raising the possibility that wealth effects constrain intranational migration, and therefore are also likely to constrain international migration under open borders.

GiveWell’s shallow overview of intranational migration discussed a study by Bryan, Chowdhury, and Mobarak. Quoting from GiveWell’s summary of the study:

Both the 0% interest loans and the conditional cash transfers led to large increases in seasonal migration, while “information only” treatment had no apparent effect,7 leading the authors to combine the cash and credit groups and information only and control groups into “incentivized” and “non-incentivized” groups, respectively, for the remainder of their analysis.

In the year the study was conducted, incentives led to a 22 percentage point increase in migration on a baseline level of 36% in the non-incentivized group, a 60% increase.9In the following year, when incentives were no longer provided, migration was still 10 percentage points higher in the villages that had previously received cash or credit incentives. Three years later, an 8 percentage point increase persisted in these villages. This increase in seasonal migration led to large and well-identified gains for the families of migrants at the origin, who benefit from remittances.

2. Hyperbolic discounting combined with large upfront costs of migration causing too little migration

People value the future less than the present. This isn’t considered ipso facto irrational. Economic models typically use exponential discounting. Roughly, this means that the ratio in which you value today and tomorrow is the same as the ratio in which you value tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. In other words, a constant increment of time leads to a fixed proportion change in value.

In practice, though, people tend to engage in hyperbolic discounting. They value the present highly, and the future a lot less, but the proportional dropoff from the present to the near future is much greater than the dropoff between dates in the future. In other words, people value their present a lot more than their selves six months into the future, but they’re pretty much indifferent between 30 months in the future and 36 months in the future. Hyperbolic discounting is not invariant under time translation and therefore leads to dynamic inconsistency. What this means in practice is that people might avoid migrating now because of the huge upfront cost, even in the face of numerically larger benefits within six months of migrating. On the other hand, if they are asked now whether they’d be willing to migrate 2.5 years later to achieve huge gains 3 years later, they are more likely to express willingness.

Hyperbolic discounting isn’t a problem per se if people have access to commitment devices that can allow them to force themselves to migrate at a later date (a bit like Save More Tomorrow). But such mechanisms are hard to develop and implement without morally impermissible coercion, particularly for a weighty decision such as migration. This argument points in the direction of there being far less migration than people would like from a non-present-biased vantage point.

3. Overestimation of the private importance of material gains causing too much migration

An articulate critic of Bryan Caplan has made this point in detail. The relevant passage is quoted below:

It seems clear that many immigrants chose to immigrate in-order to obtain better economic standing. Surveys from around the world have found that improvements in their material condition is the first thing people list when asked about how their lives might improve. They think that they will be better off if they have more money. This is an area in which immigrants might plausibly make a mistake: they overestimate the importance of absolute wealth to their well being and in so doing under appreciate other factors, such as their relative wealth and their sense of belonging in their community.

First, I am going to look at the relationship between absolute income, relative income, and happiness. To be clear, relative income is how much money you make relative to the people around you. If you live in a third world country and make a third world income then you have a pretty average income relative to the people around you. If, on the other hand, you move to a first world country, you could have a significant increase in the total amount of money you are making and still be making less money than the people around you. That is, you can experience an increase in your absolute economic standing and a decrease in your relative economic standing. And if relative income is more important to your mental well being than absolute income is then you could experience a decrease in happiness as a result.

Some of the most important data on this topic has been documented by economist Richard Easterlin. He has documented that, over the course of the twentieth century, the absolute income of people in the United States more than doubled. Yet, levels of life satisfaction haven’t increased in any substantial way. What this suggests is that absolute income effect on life satisfaction isn’t very large. Similarly, following the second world war Japan rose from a third world nation to one of the richest nations in the world in about 30 years. Over that period, Japan’s GDP per capita increased fivefold and major lifestyle changes were experienced by Japan’s inhabitants as they rose from international poverty to affluence. Yet, average reported levels of life satisfaction in Japan remained unchanged. Further still, an analysis of economic growth and life satisfaction in 9 European countries over a 16 year period found no relationship between economic growth and changes in happiness. A similar relationship exists between individuals happiness and changes in their incomes over their lifespan. Several studies have shown that individuals do not typically experience an increase in happiness between the ages of 20 and 40. And yet, their income increases substantially over that same time period.

In-spite of all this data showing that individuals can experience massive changes in their absolute wealth with no corresponding change in their mental well being, many studies have found that there is a correlation such that the more money people have the happier they are. One way to explain this finding is by positing that the people who end up with the most money are the happiest to begin with and that their income is therefore not the cause of their happiness. There is some good evidence for this position. For instance, in one study researchers interviewed around 15,000 participants at ages 16, 18, and 22, and obtained information on their income at age 29. During the interviews in adolescence and young adulthood they assessed how happy the participants were and preformed a statistical analysis to see if happiness at this earlier period predicted income at age 29. What they found was that not only did happier people go on to make more money than less happy people but that happier siblings grew up to make more money than their less happy siblings. This means that coming from a wealthy family cannot explain why happier young people end up making more money. After all, siblings come from the same family. Thus, the correlation between happiness and income is partially explained by the fact that people that are happier to begin with make more money.

On a related note, see the article on the Gallup website titled Worldwide, Migrants’ Wellbeing Depends on Migration Path.

This is an interesting argument, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it (see Will Wilkinson’s detailed review of happiness research, that I draw upon somewhat):

  • I think that revealed preference says a lot, not just in that people choose to migrate, but that they don’t choose to return, and that people continue to migrate even after learning of conditions in the area that they want to migrate to. If anything, migration tends to increase with the presence of diasporas.
  • It is more likely that people’s attempt to provide a numerical estimate of their happiness level is based on relative wealth and other considerations, whereas their actual happiness levels correlate with actual wealth.
  • One’s absolute level of wealth may not be important, but the opportunity to earn wealth might matter. People who have this option, and then choose not to exercise it, may not be too unhappy. People who choose not to exercise the opportunity still benefit from its existence, insofar as they are making a conscious tradeoff.
  • One reason why people’s happiness predicts their future income is that people are aware of their future income, and make present life choices, including choices of consumption levels, taking that into account. If you know your salary ten years from now will be millions of dollars, you have less inhibitions taking out a bigger loan to buy a bigger, better house.

4. Under-accounting for positive flow-through effects and externalities (growth of other parts of the global economy) causing too little migration

For most jobs, doing the job benefits not only the person doing it but also benefits other people, including the person’s customers, employers, and (perhaps) co-workers. People who migrate to take up a job with higher productivity are likely to increase their own income, but in addition, they’re also likely to benefit the people around them to a greater extent than they did with their earlier job. The increased flow-through effects, spillover effects, and externalities are something that people may not consider in their personal accounting. Thus, they may migrate less than they “should” from a universalist perspective.

In particular, as Carl Shulman pointed out (continuing on a theme I blogged about), economic models focused on finding arrangements that are most economically efficient routinely predict substantially larger migration flows than polling data indicate, and it’s believed that the polling data themselves are either about right or an overestimate.

Flow-through effects and externalities should be internalizable through compensation: for instance, employers can pay relocation costs for workers, and local governments can give special tax breaks to people when they move (similar to the discounts that subscription services offer for the first few months). However, there may be practical problems associated with compensation mechanisms.

5. Under-accounting for negative flow-through effects and externalities (including goose-killing) causing too much migration

Concerns such as brain drain and delay of the reform of political institutions might lead to more migration than is optimal under open borders. One culprit is wealth effects: people in poor countries can pay less (for the same subjective benefit) to their doctor than people in rich countries. When a doctor moves from a poor country to a rich country, attracted by a higher income, the doctor’s private gain might overstate the social gain from migration. Note that the claim here isn’t that brain drain justifies the status quo, or even that most skilled migration is bad, but rather that complete free migration might lead to somewhat more skilled migration than is socially optimal. Then, of course, there’s the concern about killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

6. Under-accounting for the benefits accruing to future generations causing too little migration

Migrants have to pay both the upfront costs of moving and the costs of adjusting to a different culture (this may include learning a new language, familiarizing oneself with a new culture, or adjusting to new types of work). Their children, born in the new country, however, do not need to “adjust” in the same sense, though they do need to juggle the somewhat different cultural and linguistic traditions of their parents and the ambient culture. The grandchildren face even lower adjustment costs. In the case of migration from poorer to richer countries, the children and grandchildren can acquire more relevant skills and human capital early on in their lives, and therefore have greater earning potential than the parents. In other words, the place premium for migrants understates the long-term gain from migration because the place premium only accounts for improved earning capacity of migrants without a change in their skill level, whereas their descendants have an opportunity to acquire more skills right from childhood.

It is thus likely that prospective migrants are less willing to migrate because they give insufficient weight to the life satisfaction and earnings of their descendants, particularly their as-yet-unborn descendants.

For a somewhat extreme example, consider Africans who were brought to the United States as slaves in the late 18th century. They were brought against their will, and the vast majority would not have voluntarily migrated. Further, it’s likely that their life (or even their children’s) was worse as slaves in the US than it would have been in Africa, though this isn’t completely clear — they may have been enslaved in Africa in worse material conditions. But there’s strong reason to believe that their descendants today are much better off than the descendants of comparable people who stayed behind in Africa (as can be seen from a variety of health and development indicators). The point here isn’t to endorse slavery, but rather to point out that migration could benefit potential descendants even if it is a net loss for the migrants themselves. (Even if this were true, I don’t think it would justify coercing people to migrate, let alone endure slavery, so that their descendants can lead better lives than the counterfactual. There are other ways of encouraging migration if migration levels are lower than optimal).

In a subsequent post or posts, I’ll look at empirical data relevant to weighing the above considerations and at possible ways to encourage or discourage migration to fix any “market failure” that might occur under open borders.

Implications of embracing low-end estimates of the global economic impact of open borders

Carl Shulman’s recent post on upward and downward biases in the double world GDP estimates, as well as Nathan’s (forthcoming) post proposing his own model, led me to start thinking about the extent to which the case for open borders is tied to uncertain claims about the economic effects, and whether pushing the “double world GDP” idea as a slogan is epistemically unsound.

One can make a case that high estimates of the global effect of open borders have value in getting people initially interested in the subject, and that once they’re sufficiently invested they will not change their mind even if they learn that the estimates were too high. Indeed, something similar seems to have happened with the growth of the effective altruism movement: initial estimates of the money you needed to donate to save a life were in the range of a few hundred dollars, whereas current estimates are over 2000 dollars, and still rising. Jacob Steinhardt described this in his critique of effective altruism:

The history of effective altruism is littered with over-confident claims, many of which have later turned out to be false. In 2009, Peter Singer claimed that you could save a life for $200 (and many others repeated his claim). While the number was already questionable at the time, by 2011 we discovered that the number was completely off. Now new numbers were thrown around: from numbers still in the hundreds of dollars (GWWC’s estimate for SCI, which was later shown to be flawed) up to $1600 (GiveWell’s estimate for AMF, which GiveWell itself expected to go up, and which indeed did go up). These numbers were often cited without caveats, as well as other claims such as that the effectiveness of charities can vary by a factor of 1,000. How many people citing these numbers understood the process that generated them, or the high degree of uncertainty surrounding them, or the inaccuracy of past estimates? How many would have pointed out that saying that charities vary by a factor of 1,000 in effectiveness is by itself not very helpful, and is more a statement about how bad the bottom end is than how good the top end is?

People who may have been attracted initially by the lowball estimates have generally tended not to leave, perhaps due to an endowment effect or status quo bias, or because they found more compelling and robust reasons to stay once they became effective altruists.

On the other hand, “too-good-to-be-true” estimates can also make it difficult to get people to take the cause seriously in the first place, and can also lead to people getting disillusioned once they realize the estimates won’t work, thereby throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. As Carl Shulman wrote in the context of effective altruism estimates:

Mainly, I think it’s bad news for probably mistaken estimates to spread, and then disillusion the readers or make the writers look biased. If people interested in effective philanthropy go around trumpeting likely wrong (over-optimistic) figures and don’t correct them, then the community’s credibility will fall, and bad models and epistemic practices may be strengthened. This is why GiveWell goes ballistic on people who go around quoting its old cost-effectiveness estimates rather than more recent ones (revisions tend to be towards less cost-effectiveness).

I have listed above some of the strategic pros and cons of embracing overly optimistic estimates, but I am personally more interested in the epistemic question of the extent to which the case for open borders, or for migration liberalization in general, hinges on the magnitude of the estimates, and what a reasonable case for open borders, and for open borders advocacy, might be in the lowball scenario.

Let’s first look at the lowball scenario. Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation that Clemens does in his literature review paper (Pages 84-85) (emphasis mine):

Should these large estimated gains from an expansion of international migration outrage our economic intuition, or after some consideration, are they at least plausible? We can check these calculations on the back of the metaphorical envelope. Divide the world into a “rich” region, where one billion people earn $30,000 per year, and a “poor” region, where six billion earn $5,000 per year. Suppose emigrants from the poor region have lower productivity, so each gains just 60 percent of the simple earnings gap upon emigrating—that is, $15,000 per year. This marginal gain shrinks as emigration proceeds, so suppose that the average gain is just $7,500 per year.
If half the population of the poor region emigrates, migrants would gain $23 trillion—which is 38 percent of global GDP. For nonmigrants, the outcome of such a wave of migration would have complicated effects: presumably, average wages would rise in the poor region and fall in the rich region, while returns to capital rise in the rich region and fall in the poor region. The net effect of these other changes could theoretically be negative, zero, or positive. But when combining these factors with the gains to migrants, we might plausibly imagine overall gains of 20–60 percent of global GDP.

This 20-60% comes under assumptions that I think would seem reasonable to many critics of migration. For instance, it largely accords with the assumption of no closing of the skills gap between migrants and natives. Also, it doesn’t consider the long term (the children of migrants getting better education and therefore having more human capital than their counterfactuals in the home country). So it does not rely on beliefs about the closing of skill level and achievement gaps, which are controversial among many critics of migration. In particular, if you believe in intergenerational persistence of these gaps, the above estimation exercise should still seem reasonable to you. The only thing the above doesn’t account for is a radical form of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs (note that the lower end of the 20-60% estimate already accounts for moderate forms of goose-killing, as the original point estimate is 38%). So, setting such radical goose-killing aside for now as an important possibility worth separate investigation, let’s look at the 20-60% estimate. What would it mean?

The pessimistic end of the estimate, 20%, is still more than three times the total of the highest literature estimate of the gains from removing trade barriers and the gains from removing barriers to capital mobility (4.1% + 1.7% = 5.8%) among the papers cited by Clemens. So, free labor mobility still has higher upside — even with these pessimistic assumptions — than free trade.

But even though there’s bigger upside, the margin isn’t that huge. If you had originally believed that open borders would double world GDP, but you then revised the estimate downward to 20%, that would mean that the extent to which open borders advocacy is a compelling cause would reduce, ceteris paribus. However, there are a few countervailing considerations, even if you embrace the lowball estimate.

To help explain this, let me look at my Drake equation-like estimate of the social value of open borders advocacy. I expressed the value as a product:

$latex \text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz$


  • $latex W$ is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • $latex x$ is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set $latex x = 0.1$, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely $latex Wx$, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • $latex y$ is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product $latex Wxy$ is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • $latex z$ is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting $latex z = 10^{-4}$ for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

Now, note that we have at least two ways that a decline in $latex W$ might be compensated for:

  • Compensating increase in $latex x$: This would be tricky to argue, because we need to show that our current belief of how realistically our new model accounts for stuff is better than our past belief of how the old model accounted for stuff. In other words, if our original estimate of $latex x$ was based on the knowledge that that model is as crude as it turns out to be, then when we adjust $latex W$ downward and thus make our model realistic, we can compensatingly adjust $latex x$ upward. The effects would approximately, though not exactly, cancel out.
  • Compensating increase in $latex y$: In the specific case at hand, in fact, these arguments do apply. The main source of overestimation in the models predicting huge gains in world GDP is the large number of people that would need to move. Adjusting those numbers alone would get us in the 20-60% range. But, to the extent that this is true, the fraction in which we can move in the direction of open borders might also increase: if open borders involves “only” 300 million people moving instead of 3 billion, then allowing 30 million people to move moves us 10% (0.1) of the way to open borders, rather than 1% (0.01). Again, whether or not $latex y$ gets compensated in practice depends on whether we were aware a priori of the large numbers of people that the model needs to move — if we weren’t, then the adjustment might not happen.
  • Compensating increase in $latex z$: If open borders, or partial moves in that direction, aren’t as radical as they seemed, maybe partial advocacy efforts in that direction are more likely to move us toward them. We should be careful not to double-count this against $latex y$, though — if we’ve already made the adjustment for $latex y$, we probably don’t need to make the adjustment for $latex z$.

A couple of additional notes:

  • All the estimates ($latex x$, $latex y$, and $latex z$) are highly speculative. Combined with the fact that these estimates are related to our estimates for $latex W$ and the methods we used to arrive at those estimates, there’s a lot of room for fudging and very little that can be said conclusively. The order of magnitude of decline in our gain estimate (from 100% of current world GDP to 20%) is only a decline by a factor of five, so our estimates of utility go down by only one order of magnitude, whereas the range of uncertainty is about three orders of magnitude (the range I gave in the original blog post for the Open Borders website was $50,000 -$50,000,000).
  • That said, it would be surprising if the decline in $latex W$ were accompanied by no decline in the overall utility of the form of open borders advocacy. That could happen, based on the considerations listed above, but we should have a prior against it happening. Remember the one-penny proof whenever you’re tempted to believe that a specific change in the estimate of one value will not affect the estimate of another value that it is in general related to.

UPDATE: Diaspora dynamics might reconcile low short-run estimates of how many would move with large long-run estimates of the same. For more, see here.