Tag Archives: Scott Sumner

The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders

We’ve done a fair number of posts on the distinction between moderate and radical open borders. This post explores an important angle that we haven’t yet explored, and should be of particular interest to people who come from the outside view as truth-seekers.

Here are some facts:

  • There is a small collection of explicit advocates of open borders, including Open Borders bloggers, as well as some of the people in our pro-open borders people list, plus many of the people who’ve liked us on Facebook. While their (our) views aren’t identical, there is general agreement that there should be a strong presumption in favor of free movement around the world.
  • The pro-open borders view is a minority view, even within the “enlightened” public (i.e., even among people who have a reasonably accurate general picture of economics, politics, and some basic facts about migration).
  • That said, the enlightened public does exhibit attitudes more favorable to freer migration than the public at large. This may be due to a mix of a more cosmopolitan (as opposed to citizenist or territorialist) outlook, and a more positive estimate of the impact of migration on natives. For more, see our pages on economist consensus, legal and political scholarly consensus, and smart and more informed opinion.
  • It is quite rare to see reasoned critiques from supporters of moderate open borders of the more radical open borders position. Therefore, it is difficult both to know the extent to which moderate open borders supporters have rationally considered and then rejected radical open borders, and to know their reasons for doing so.

Why does this matter? In general, in the absence of further information, it makes sense to defer to the majority view within the enlightened public. So if you had never given thought to the issue of migration, it might be most reasonable to conclude that moderate steps in the direction of open borders are optimal. But how do you decide whether radical steps are better or worse?

Here, the dearth of explicit critiques of radical approaches from moderates creates a problem. If there was good evidence that moderates had carefully considered and rejected radical approaches, then, even without examining the details, we could have a reasonable prior in favor of the moderate view. If, on the other hand, there is little evidence of moderates carefully considering and rejecting radical approaches, our confidence in favoring moderate approaches instead of radical ones would be lower, and an inside-view examination of the issues may be necessary.

From the weak inside view, the lack of critiques is even more puzzling, because many of the arguments advanced by moderates in favor of open borders easily extend to radical open borders, and moderates’ typical formulations of the arguments rarely provide criteria for just what level of openness would void their arguments. As co-blogger John Lee wrote:

Already, I can hear the thousands of moderate reformers protest: that’s wholly unfeasible! That’s simply too crazy! But why is that? You can’t cite studies showing “Immigrants add $X to our economy” or “Immigrants pay $X million more in taxes than they get in benefits” or “Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born here” without addressing the inescapable conclusion: if immigration is so good, what’s wrong with having more of it?

Now, to be sure, I’ve slightly oversimplified the social science here for the sake of argument. But none of the caveats to the conclusions I’ve cited above can at all come close to explaining the immense reluctance moderate reformers seem to have about reaching the inevitable conclusion of the research here. Using the very premises I outlined above that we agree on, it seems that open borders is the only defensible, reality-based policy.

You might protest that most of the evidence pointing to neutral or positive effects from immigration is based on existing levels of immigration. Open borders is sufficiently radical that it might just be “out of sample” for any of the empirical studies we have about migration’s effects so far. I would say that although not strictly empirical, we do have some pretty good evidence from the pre-closed borders era of the 20th century that open borders pose no existential threat to humanity or the nation; for an example, see my take on what open borders history suggests will happen to Latin-American migrants in the modern US. Either way, if we’re being truly honest about the social science, then the right skeptical position is: “We have every reason to believe open borders is the right thing to do. We must move towards it, monitoring the evidence as it comes in for proof to the contrary.”

To be clear, moderates haven’t been completely silent in their critiques of open borders. Consider, for instance, economist Tyler Cowen. He has written a fair number of short posts critical of extreme open borders and its advocacy. But he is an exception among moderates, and, as I noted earlier, open borders advocates’ own description of potential weaknesses in their case seems to be more thorough than Cowen’s criticisms. Other open borders moderates, such as Scott Sumner and Matt Yglesias, have argued against radical open borders mainly based on principled arguments in favor of moderation, but have generally appeared favorably inclined to the idea of open borders as an end goal that is desirable in at least some sense (Sumner here and Yglesias here). There are other occasional criticisms of open borders from moderate standpoints, that we have sometimes responded to in blog posts (such as Gene Callahan’s Immigration, Yes- and No post that Nathan responded to here), but criticism of open borders is still a lot rarer than ignoring it.

An interesting observation: how explicit engagement with open borders tends to move people in a more pro-open borders direction

If you took the view that the case for open borders is correct but largely ignored by people because they don’t give it sufficient consideration, you would expect that the more people tried to engage critically with the case for open borders, the further they would move in the direction of supporting open borders. Anecdotal evidence seems to bear out the latter (namely, that people move in a pro-open borders direction when attempting to critique open borders), and therefore provides some support for the former (namely that the case for open borders is correct but somewhat ignored). I noticed some evidence of this when discussing John Cochrane’s seeming shift towards an open embrace of open borders in my review of the inaugural issue of Peregrine. Separately, co-blogger Nathan noted in a recent post:

[Reading Callahan’s argument against open borders] confirms my casual impression from years of debating immigration, namely, that in arguing against you, restrictionists tend to position themselves a lot further in the right (i.e., pro-immigration) direction than it seems likely they would have gone without your provocation. If we could establish consensus about “the moral case for allowing as much immigration as we can bear,” that would be major progress. It’s not a very well-defined criterion, and restrictionists would doubtless seek to define the “we can bear” clause in very limiting ways. Open borders advocates would explain why it’s unreasonable to call a large population of resident non-voters, or a significant drop in the wages of unskilled natives, “unbearable.”

Summary of reasons

So what are the main reasons why moderates rarely engage with radical open borders, to either praise it or critique it? In an Open Borders Action Group post on Facebook, I considered a few possible reasons, and others added to my list. I include the full list of reasons below, then discuss them in more detail. I choose a somewhat different ordering from that used in the OBAG post, in order to be more logically consistent.

Reasons #1-#3 in the list represent some form of ignorance or irrationality on the part of moderates that leads them to fail to consider open borders. Reasons #4-#6 indicate laziness or sloppiness on the part of moderates in terms of their decision to not engage. Of the reasons proposed, the most substantive reasons, and the ones that should cause us to give moderates’s views most weight, are reasons #7 and #8.

  1. Ignorance (was #1 in OBAG list): They haven’t thought about it, don’t understand how far the world is from open borders, and/or haven’t encountered people who explicitly advocate for open borders.
  2. Reflexive moderation (was #7 in OBAG list): They package deal the word extremism with the general idea of “negative” or “wrong”. So, if you propose open borders their first reaction is that, “we can’t be so extreme.” (Suggestion from Bryan Hayek, who points to “Extremism and the Art of Smearing” by Ayn Rand).
  3. Failure of language (Sapir-Whorf-like hypothesis): They commonly associate “open borders” with even more extreme versions thereof (no borders, abolition of the nation-state) or with particular empirical consequences (border lawlessness). Moderates who might support specific moves that radically liberalize migration (perhaps not complete open borders, but sufficiently broad keyhole solutions that come close enough for all practical purposes) don’t have a vocabulary with which to think about and express such ideas.
  4. Silence motivated by indifference (was #4 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders but don’t care about it because open borders advocates are politically inconsequential. (Language altered somewhat from a suggestion by David E. Shellenberger).
  5. Nothing to say (was #5 in OBAG list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but don’t have any compelling arguments, so stay silent. (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  6. Morally embarrassing arguments (was #6 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but their objections sound terrible (at least in some social circles) when stated baldly, like “I’d rather one poor American get $1 than 10 far poorer foreigners get $1 each.” (Suggestion from Carl Shulman).
  7. Strategic silence despite agreement, motivated by infeasibility and potential for backfiring on moderate reform (was #2 in original list): They agree to quite an extent with the case for open borders, but consider it politically infeasible at present, therefore they keep mum about it to avoid sabotaging the chances for moderate reform.
  8. Strategic silence despite disagreement, motivated by avoiding giving ammunition to restrictionists (was #3 in original list): They disagree with the case for open borders, but believe that if they openly critique it, the criticisms would be used by their restrictionist opponents against the case for moderate immigration reform.

The reasons offered here are not mutually exclusive, but they do have different implications for how much weight a truth-seeker coming from the outside view should attach to the case for open borders. Continue reading “The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders” »

The inconsistent social engineers: why do we have border controls, but no birth controls?

I’m not sure who first observed this, but a lot of arguments against allowing people to move freely are based on a set of premises that boil down to: “People are bad. Immigration brings more people ‘here’. Therefore free immigration is bad.” In March this year, British comedian Stewart Lee did a fantastic monologue about this, stepping back through the history of the British Isles and denouncing various peoples who’ve settled the land along the way. After going through the Romanians, the Poles, the Huguenots, the Saxons, and so on, he finally got to the evolution of land-based animals: “They crawled out of the sea onto the land — OUR LAND!” Lee wound up his misanthropic speech with a thunderous denunciation of the Big Bang: “Remember the good old days? When you could leave your door unlocked? Because there was nothing there? Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a Big Bang!”

(I’d link to a video or transcript of this great monologue, but the only extant video I could find seems to no longer work, and nobody seems to have thought to transcribe it. The quotes I’ve furnished here are actually from memory and not verbatim.)

The typical objections people have to greater immigration are after all just as applicable to higher birth rates:

  • More people entering the labour market causes a rise in unemployment and lower wages
  • More people by definition means there will be more criminals, since criminals are people
    • And worse still, if lower-socioeconomic status people have higher birth or immigration rates, we would expect overall crime rates to go up disproportionately
  • More people by definition require larger state expenditures, both for the upkeep of public goods and services like roads, and also for benefits programmes
    • And again, if lower-socioeconomic status people have more children or immigrate more, then the economic burden on the state will increase disproportionately
  • More people create adjustment costs — someone, whether it is the public or private sector, will have to build more homes, open more schools, hire more nurses; the list goes on and on

If all these arguments are valid defences for strict border controls, why not have similar ones for birth controls? Would it not be a catastrophic risk to our society if lower-socioeconomic people began giving birth to more and more children? Co-blogger Johnny Roccia has blogged about this, and more recently guest blogger Bryan Caplan blogged about a hypothetical world of eugenics over at EconLog, After all, if you’re happy to advocate arbitrary and broad-reaching state power over people’s ability to move, because of all the attendant ill-effects of, you know, dealing with human beings, why stay silent about reproductive restrictions? Shouldn’t advocates of border controls who complain about population growth leading to more crime, more welfare payments, fewer jobs, and so on, be worried not just about immigrants but also newborns? Economist Daniel Lin makes light of this on his Twitter, but surely he has a point:


Now, there are some extreme environmentalists who advocate immigration restrictions as just one form of population control among many, but they are a fringe minority. Their minority status is thus puzzling: if people truly worry about where jobs will come from, or who will pay for the burgeoning benefits cheque, or how to manage a growing incidence of crime — to cite three of the most common ills associated with immigration, but also with population growth in general — why focus all energy on stopping immigration, and not consider devoting some effort to implementing a government-backed eugenics policy? Why not ban welfare recipients from having children? Why not sterilise all habitual violent criminals? Why not cap the number of “low-skilled” workers allowed to reproduce, lest the number of low-skilled people in the economy outpace its ability to create jobs for them?

Now, some people do bite the bullet and say “Yes, eugenics is a good idea and the government should be doing something there too.” To these people, I don’t have a lot to say; we will probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t see a compelling reason, except perhaps in extreme scenarios, for the state to regulate human reproduction. I don’t see an existential threat to our societies or the human race posed by our general lack of eugenics programmes.

But most people try to distinguish border controls from birth controls in some way. The argument is that it’s unjust and immoral for the state to restrict births, but it is not similarly unjust or immoral for the state to restrict human movement. People who argue that migration controls and birth controls should not be compared in this manner often take three tacks:

  1. International migration is an uncommon, unnatural desire, while reproduction is not;
  2. Birth rates are generally predictable, while international migration rates are not;
  3. Immigrants originate from different cultures, while natives give birth to and raise children from a common culture.

Even if you take all their premises for granted, all three are essentially arguments for violent and coercive social engineering by the state. The first argument assumes that the state has a right to quash “unnatural desires”, even if no individual can point to a specific wrong that was committed against them in the process of pursuing this “unnatural desire”. The second assumes that what social changes the state can predict and manage are tolerable, while social changes that the state cannot predict and may not be able to manage are intolerable. And of course the third gives the state explicit authority to use force (not just nudges or incentives) to micromanage the cultures of a society, which seems like the epitome of violent social engineering to me.

But even the premises of these arguments are questionable. To the first argument, UN economists already estimate there are about 250 million international migrants in the world, and another 800 million domestic migrants. This is what occurs even under highly restrictive border regimes; if migration policies were liberalised, we would expect the true numbers to be much higher. How many of those domestic migrants would choose to move internationally instead? These numbers exclude temporary migrants too; those people would also benefit significantly from open borders. If hundreds of millions of people want to move, and do move even under highly restrictive border regimes, in what sense is this desire unnatural or uncommon?

And to the second argument, yes, there is a natural, fixed limit to how many children a woman can bear, making childbearing rates somewhat more predictable than migration rates. But migration rates are hardly impossible to manage either; indeed, to a large degree they can be quite predictable. The main constraint hampering a state’s ability to predict free migration flows today is that we haven’t had open borders for so long that it is difficult to tell what migration flows might result. But that’s an argument at best for gradual opening of the borders; it’s not an argument for maintaining arbitrary border controls in perpetuity.

Finally to the third argument, most countries have plenty of heterogeneity even internally. If the state has a legitimate interest in taking coercive action to prevent the current mix of cultures from changing too much, should the state gear up for action if one cultural group’s birth rate falls behind another? Should the state force citizens from regions or ethnic communities with low birth rates to give birth at gunpoint? Should the state forcibly prevent the births of citizens in regions or ethnic communities where the birth rate seems out-of-whack with what the state believes is warranted or manageable? Shouldn’t Americans be concerned about plummeting birth rates in New England, the cradle of American institutions? Or worried about soaring fertility rates in culturally distinct states like Utah or Texas? Is there not a risk that New Englanders will literally die out, or that Texans will outbreed and therefore wipe out the rest of the American nation? At some point, cultural micromanagement implies not only a strong role for the government in border controls, but birth controls too.

Now, of course, there are plenty of other efficiency-based arguments for implementing either stricter reproductive controls, strict border controls, or both — ones that rest purely on the consequential or utilitarian outcomes of these policies. The eugenics analogy can’t by itself make a comprehensive case for open borders. But what it can do, as economist Scott Sumner’s argued, is really compel us to doubt the wisdom and justness of the typical arguments we use to defend arbitrary border controls.

Scott is not an open borders supporter, though he advocates significant liberalisation of immigration policies. But he found Bryan’s eugenics hypothetical to powerfully illuminate how the arguments we deploy for border controls are actually rooted in exactly the sort of injustice that we would immediately decry if manifested instead in advocacy for reproductive controls:

I’ve actually met academics that favor China’s one child policy. I’m pretty sure they’d be horrified by this story. They’d say it’s unfair to punish the innocent child for the sins of their parents. But is it really possible to have a clean, antiseptic one child policy that doesn’t punish the children?

Now ask yourself how many of those academics that supported the one child policy actually thought through what would happen to the millions of children born in violation to that policy? I’d guess not very many. Now let’s consider immigration restrictions. Is there a clean, antiseptic way to keep out illegal immigrants?

Bryan has not convinced me that 100% open borders are clearly the way to go. But he has convinced me that my objections to his arguments are not as reliable as I might have assumed. My reservations about open borders are actually pretty similar to the reservations that people in a eugenics society would have had to a proposal for an open birth policy.

The fact that superficially similar arguments against birth restrictions would have been rejected out of hand by a eugenic culture should, at the very least, make us do a bit of soul-searching.

Let’s face it, most people oppose open borders at the gut level, and then they search for logical reasons to support the position that had already formed in their reptilian brain.

None of this is to say that all border controls are bad, or that all birth controls are bad. In some cases, the state may have compelling reasons to restrict human reproduction, or human movement. (Forcible sterilisation and mandatory residence registration of sex offenders comes to mind.) There may be a human right to a family and a human right to migrate — but all the same, as long as we accept the authority of our governments, no right is truly unqualified.

But before our governments take coercive action against these rights, they are obligated to weigh the far-reaching implications of doing so, and comprehensively rule out more humane alternatives. The callous attitude towards human life implied by eugenics wrought untold horror and injustice throughout the 20th century, even in what we once thought to be “civilised” societies. Just because the government can micromanage our culture and society through birth controls does not mean it always ought to do so.

And the desire to have a family is just as strong and natural as the desire to move for a better life. We cannot exclude someone from our society and economy without just cause — just as we cannot forcibly sterilise someone, or coercively matchmake a couple, without just cause. Before we enact broad, far-reaching curbs on the exercise of these human rights, we need to be sure that strict controls are the only tolerable option we have to achieve the ends we have in mind. If we wouldn’t force innocent people to have sex at gunpoint to achieve this goal, it’s worth asking why we’d be all right pointing guns at innocent people to accomplish the exact same thing.