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Open Borders and International Migration Policy: Book Summary

This blog post summarizes the author’s October 2015 book Open Borders and International Migration Policy. The book is available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

Although political philosophers debate the morality of open borders, few social scientists have explored what would happen if immigration were no longer limited. This book looks at three historical examples of temporarily unrestricted migration into the United States, France, and Ireland: the arrival of Mariel Cubans in Miami (Florida) in 1980, the flight of Pied Noir and Harki refugees from Algeria to Marseille in 1962, and the migration of Poles and other new European Union ‘Accession 8’ citizens into Dublin in 2004. Based on personal interviews, archival research, and statistical analysis, the study finds that the effects of these population movements on the economics, politics, and social life of these cities were much less catastrophic than opponents of free immigration claim. Detailed chapters cover schools, crime, ethnic politics, unemployment and wages, public finances, housing, and racial violence.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on the Mariel boatlift.

Political philosophers Joseph Carens, Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, and Will Kymlicka have argued for the morality of an open-borders immigration policy, yet such other social theorists as Michael Walzer, Stephen Macedo, and John Isbister dismiss this approach because of the supposed harm that unrestricted immigration would cause to natives. After exploring the normative arguments for and against open borders, the first chapter concludes that the crux of many theoretical objections to unrestricted immigration is empirical. Unfortunately, however, many of the factual assumptions that immigration restrictionists make have not been fully or rigorously tested. This new book therefore aims to see if unregulated immigration actually hurt natives.

The following chapter replicates David Card’s 1990 now-classic, natural-experiment-based article demonstrating that the Mariel migrants had no significant immediate effect on native wages or unemployment rates in Miami. Chapter 2 extends Card’s findings to two European cities that experienced sudden waves of migration comparable to the Mariel Boatlift in south Florida: Marseille, France, which faced the influx of Pieds-Noirs and Harkis “repatriates” from Algeria in 1962; and Dublin, Ireland, which received thousands of new European-Union, “Accession 8” citizens from Eastern Europe beginning in 2004. Based on elite interviews, archival materials, and ARIMA regression models, this study of two additional natural experiments concludes that rapid, “uncontrolled” migration had no statistically significant effect on the native employment market in Marseille or Dublin. The analysis likewise finds that sudden immigration appears to have boosted overall wage rates both in Marseille’s total employment market and in Ireland’s construction sector. Theoretically, this investigation thus confirms Card’s optimistic conclusions about the economic effects of immigration. It also shows that his findings are robust across different Western, industrialized countries.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background pages on suppression of wages of natives and the US-specific version.

Chapter 3 focusses on public finances. Although popular rhetoric about “immigrants taking our jobs” or “reducing our wages” typically finds little or no support from rigorous empirical studies, such mainstream investigators as the National Research Council conclude that new immigrants sometimes represent a net fiscal burden, especially at the local level in the short run. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effect of various types of migrants on the finances of large cities in particular, this chapter analyzes over-time budgetary data from Miami, Marseille, and Dublin. Based on quantitative panel models, elite interviews, and archival documents, the study concludes that the overall fiscal impact on localities of rapid, “uncontrolled” migration was effectively nil in Miami and Marseille, but positive in Dublin. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible tax- and social-services-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the relevant literature on the differing fiscal influences of refugees versus economic migrants and high- versus low-skilled labor.

The fourth chapter looks at the housing market. Unless public authorities and the private real estate market immediately increase the number of available dwellings, a sudden wave of immigration may increase residential overcrowding. According to standard economic theory, greater demand for housing should likewise boost prices in the rental market, where most immigrants would initially seek shelter. In contrast, interpretations based on a dual housing market predict that immigration-caused demand will not be as likely to boost natives’ housing costs where newcomers are highly segregated. To test these two explanations, this chapter uses interviews with local economists and real estate agents, historical documents, and panel regression models for the three historical natural experiments. Quantitative data include official census statistics on the number of people per room and public or private estimates of changes in rents. Regression models suggest that increased overcrowding occurred in Miami but not in Marseille or Dublin. In contrast, the analysis shows a significant migration-caused rent increase in the normal housing market of only Marseille, the least-segregated city. Theoretically, this work thus tends to confirm the theory of dual housing markets for immigrants versus natives but only partially supports the standard economic model of housing.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See Nathan Smith’s post The great land value windfall from open borders.

Chapter 5 concerns itself with schools. Popular rhetoric claims that because of immigration, native schoolchildren have “no room to learn” and educational standards are being “dumbed down.” Yet relatively few empirical social scientists have examined whether immigration actually causes school overcrowding. A larger group of statistically oriented scholars has examined migration and academic achievement, but they tend to focus more on how well migrant students do in school than on whether immigration hurts native children in the same district. The smaller pool of investigators who have looked at this latter question usually aim to test the “peer effects” theory of immigration effects but often are confronted with the serious methodological problem of endogeneity via immigrant and native self-selection into particular districts. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the degree of overcrowding and academic achievement in secondary schools in large cities in particular, this chapter therefore analyzes official over-time classroom-density and test-score data from these three natural experiments where immigration is clearly exogenous to the choice of school district. Based on interviews with teachers and school officials, examination of archival materials from relevant institutions, and quantitative panel analysis of educational and census data, my study concludes that the rapid, unrestricteded migration of immigrant secondary-school students neither substantially increased classroom density nor affected the overall test scores in these districts. Theoretically and empirically, this investigation helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible education-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and disconfirms an immigration-based “peer effects” model of academic achievement. Massive immigration does not necessarily cause a decline in student learning, and it does not even seem to boost classroom overcrowding very much if at all.

Crime is the main topic in Chapter 6. Although xenophobic popular rhetoric about “foreign-born criminals” abounds, relatively few empirical social scientists have examined what, if any link, actually exists between immigration and crime. Those quantitatively oriented investigators who do look at this question, moreover, typically focus on a single country or region and tend to find little or no overall effect from migration. This chapter thus uses cross-national statistics to test the “strain” and “importation” models of migration and criminal deviance. To estimate the largest-possible immediate effects of various types of migrants on the level of violent or “serious” crime (i.e., homicide and burglary) in large cities in particular, I analyze official over-time crime data from the three cities. Elite interviews, archival materials, and quantitative panel models of police and census data indicate that the rapid, “uncontrolled” migration of working- or middle-class refugees or workers did increase burglary rates in all three cities. However, the sudden arrival of primarily low-skilled individuals—some of whom had already served prison time in Cuba—appears to have boosted the homicide rate in Miami only. This investigation therefore helps estimate the upper bounds of the possible crime-related effects of rapid, unrestricted immigration into an urban area and partly confirms the importation model of homicide and strain theory of burglary. Though massive immigration does not necessarily cause a large rise in all forms of urban crime in the host country, the entry of many poor migrants with few economic opportunities and/or with criminal backgrounds may.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our crime page, our backgrounder page on Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States, and Vipul Naik’s speculative post about crime in the US under open borders.

The last body chapter examines ethnic politics and racial violence. Although some scholars of “realistic group conflict” argue that immigration-related ethnic conflict usually increases with a sudden influx of foreign-born residents, Daniel J. Hopkins’ theory of “politicized places” suggests that the effect of immigrant flows may partly depend on “salient national rhetoric.” To help adjudicate between these two theoretical explanations cross-nationally, this chapter analyzes over-time, aggregate voting data and qualitative accounts of inter-ethnic violence from the three urban natural experiments. Relying on elite informants, archival materials, newspaper accounts, and Gary King’s method of ecologically inferring the degree of ethnic voting, the study generally confirms the “politicized places” interpretation. While rapid, “uncontrolled” migration fueled ethnic voting and violence in Miami, where the media and many elites blamed economic woes on the immigrants, migrant inflows had few such effects in Marseille and Dublin, where media treatment was relatively positive and most leaders welcomed the newcomers relatively early on. Theoretically, this investigation thus expands Hopkins’ theory to immigrant-rich urban settings in three different industrialized countries. The chapter might also guide local and national political leaders wishing to avoid a popular backlash against an unexpected wave of recent immigrants.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See our background page on nativist backlash.

Chapter 8 summarizes the book’s findings and discusses their implications. Overall, this study concludes that the empirical case against open borders is overstated. The analysis does find overcrowding of housing and a higher burglary rate for all three cities. In Miami only, migration also appears to have led to more homicides, racial violence, and ethnic voting. Residential overcrowding eventually dissipated over time, however, as municipalities built more apartments for the newcomers. Burglaries did increase, but many of the victims were probably the immigrants themselves. Ethnic scapegoating by political and media elites lies at the root of ethnic voting and racial violence, and the many additional murders in Miami arguably represent an atypical case of a sending country deliberately inducing the emigration of violent criminals. With the exception of crime, then, any significant effects from large-scale immigration seem manageable.

On the other side of the coin, what if anything good came of these three migrant streams? First, moving to the U.S., France, or Ireland was undoubtedly good for almost all of the immigrants themselves. Most Mariel Cubans were able to rejoin their families in Miami and eventually move up into the American middle class. Pieds Noirs in Marseille escaped near-certain death at the hands of the Algerian FLN and eventually were able to re-establish their cultural institutions and economically integrate into southern France. And Poles in Dublin found reasonably well-paying jobs, a compatible cultural environment, and a chance to perfect their English. Second, however, these newcomers also contributed greatly to their host societies. Mariel migrant Mirta Ojito grew up to become a journalism professor at Columbia University and win the Pulitzer Prize. The Jewish Pied Noir singer Enrico Macias (born Gaston Ghrenassia in what is today Constantine, Algeria) continues to charm French and global audiences with his Andalusian melodies. At least at the height of the attendant labor shortage, meanwhile, Irish employers eagerly hired Eastern-Europeans to help fuel the Republic’s “Celtic Tiger” economic expansion.

Of course, these three case studies do not constitute the most extreme scenarios of unrestricted immigration, where tens of millions of people might cross international borders suddenly. Within the North Atlantic communities, however, these three examples represent some of the most dramatic and highly concentrated migration flows in modern memory (the not-yet-concluded Syrian refugee crisis aside). A complete lack of enforcement on the southern borders of the E.U. or U.S. would of course encourage larger numbers of poorer migrants to attempt the journey and might cause more significant socio-economic effects on the receiving countries. Yet until such immigration actually occurs, we are reduced to speculating about the consequences. And the analysis of historic cases in this book would be a good place to start developing models of the short-term, localized results of such overwhelmingly large flows should they present themselves. For now, however, any estimation of the socio-economic effects of truly massive, hemisphere-wide open borders requires forecasting beyond historically available data.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also John Lee’s blog post How did we come to be so certain that closed borders are our salvation?

Perhaps the most morally defensible but cautious immigration policy politically imaginable would be the late economist Julian Simon’s recommendation to “increase the volume of total immigration in substantial steps [i.e., up to double the number of entrants per step] unless [or until?] there appear negative effects that are unknown at present.” As my book shows, actual harm from immigration is much harder to find than allegations of deleterious effects. If North Americans are to adopt immigration laws in keeping with their high professed ideals, they might profitably consider following the lead of the Europeans and South Americans–who have already adopted limited open-borders systems–instead of using racialized rhetoric to scapegoat men and women who desire nothing more than an opportunity to earn decent wages and live in peace.

Open Borders: The Case editorial note: See also Vipul Naik’s post Slippery slopes to open borders and John Lee’s post Constitutionally entrenching migration as a fundamental human right: Argentina and open borders.

Related reading

If you found this post interesting, you might want to buy the book on which this summary is based. It’s available both electronically and in print from Amazon, Google Books, and the publisher, Palgrave MacMillan.

The following Open Borders: The Case blog posts and pages might also be of interest.

The image featured in the header of this post is a photograph of Chinese immigrants en route to gold mines in Australia, circa 1900.

Swamping by Immigrants is Hardly Possible

Restrictionists often bring up a scenario where there are so many immigrants that natives become a tiny minority. In this post, I would like to show that under broad conditions this is not possible: immigrants will almost always remain a minority and will not even come close to becoming a majority. Even if they become a majority, it will not last long and that’s only if you make rather extreme assumptions. Actual swamping with a huge majority of immigrants presupposes even more outlandish assumptions. It is not impossible, but more of a theoretical possibility. If you are afraid of such a scenario you can avoid it with a rather modest restriction on the number of immigrants that for most purposes is not too far from open borders.

In the following discussion, I understand the terms “immigrant” and “native” rather literally: an immigrant is someone who immigrates to a country from another country where he grew up (and so he is an adult or at most an adolescent), and a native is someone who grew up in the country or will grow up there. Even more literally, you could understand this as the distinction between those who are foreign-born and those who are native-born. However, this is a rather technical definition. E.g. the current CEO of Daimler, Dieter Zetsche, was born in Istanbul, so you would have to classify him as an immigrant from Turkey in this sense although he has lived in Germany since he was three years old. Whether you view someone as an immigrant or a native should probably depend more on where someone grew up most of the time. Therefore, I will classify also those as natives who come to the country at a very young age even if they were born abroad. If you have ever seen how fast young children can pick up a new language, this is perhaps not unreasonable. Even if you disagree with me and go for the narrower definition, the results do not change a lot.

You could also have a different view because you think that children of immigrants and maybe even their grandchildren and so forth stay close to the culture their ancestors came from. You might assume persistence for some or all of their traits and that also the descendents of immigrants remain foreign (at least for some time and to a certain extent). I will address the implications of such a broader definition below. But for the moment I would like to stick with the narrower definition and define anyone as native who has lived in the country from age 10 on, and all others I will classify as immigrants.

Why is swamping such a convincing scenario for many people? My guess is that they run a naïve analysis as follows: Suppose you have 100 million people in a country, and each year 5 million immigrate. In the following, I assume no population growth for natives and immigrants to make things more transparent. Then after twenty years, there are 100 million immigrants. It would seem that the total population has risen to 200 million, of whom now natives are only 50%. One year down the road, natives apparently become a minority. After a century, you might think there will be a total of 500 million immigrants, so natives make up only one sixth of the total population then. This would be a situation that people probably have in mind, when they speak of the threat of swamping by immigrants.

The problem with this reasoning is that it is false. This is so because the naïve analysis ignores two separate effects.

The first effect is that although each year another 5 million immigrate, the total number of immigrants in the country will not rise indefinitely as a naïve analysis might suggest. If immigrants come at age 25 and have a life expectancy of 80 years, then after 55 years the initial immigrants will have died out on average. Surely, there will be new immigrants, but after a little more than half a century, they only replace immigrants who came earlier. Hence, with a fixed number of immigrants per year, the total number of immigrants in the country will eventually level off. It is a mistake to extrapolate from the growth you see in the beginning to indefinite growth. Here is what it looks like (I use the stylized assumptions from my previous post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations” for mortality, and I assume that immigrants come at age 25):

Immigrant Population over 100 years

The immigrant population grows linearly at first. But after about half a century, its growth slows down because previous immigrants die. After about 70 years, growth comes to a standstill, and the immigrant population stabilizes at about 288 million people (the exact number depends on my assumptions, my purpose here is only to demonstrate the effect, not its exact size in all situations).

The first effect is perhaps rather obvious once you have understood it, and it could easily be incorporated into the naïve analysis. So it would still seem as if natives end up in a minority of 1 to 2.88 or slightly more than a quarter of the total population. However, there is another effect that is even stronger and which starts to operate almost right away. And it is far less obvious. This second effect is the momentum effect that I have described in my previous post “Misinterpreting Growth of Immigrant Populations.” Feel free to read the post for further details. I will explain the effect anyway in a few words, so you can get the thrust of it even without this background.

The momentum effect in the above scenario works like this. The 5 million who arrive in one year are mostly young people who will soon start a family. With replacement fertility (my assumption to focus solely on the momentum effect to the exclusion of other effects), they will have about one child per immigrant (two per couple) over the next years. This means there are not only the 5 million immigrants, but also an additional 5 million children who are, by my narrow definition, natives (some of them were technically born abroad, but entered the country at age less than 10). When the children are old enough they again have children. With replacement fertility, those are another 5 million people who are also natives. Hence you have 2 to 1 natives per immigrant. Since a few of the initial immigrants have died by then, the ratio is a little lower (1.76 to 1 with the stylized assumptions in my previous post). Here is what it looks like (note that in my previous post I looked at immigration in one year whereas here I have a fixed number of immigrants each year, so this is an overlay of many such one-time cases):

Generations over 100 years

On the bottom you have immigrants (blue) as in the above graph (by assumption they come at age 25). The next two layers are their children (red), and their grandchildren (green). And the uppermost layer are all their further descendents (i.e. fourth and higher generations). As you can see, the first effect also applies to the second and third generations and for the same reasons, it only comes later. This becomes more obvious over 200 years:

Generations over 200 years

The uppermost layer keeps growing because there is a constant influx of immigrants. Each annual cohort grows into a population 2.76 times as large and then levels off. This means no people are lost, and because there are new immigrants each year, total population keeps growing (eventually by 2.76 times annual immigration per year).

Now, by assumption, there was also an initial native population of 100 million. I will add them to the uppermost layer (basically, this is the assumption that fourth and higher generation immigrants are natives in any sense). Here’s what you get:

Generations plus Natives

Per my narrow definition only the lowest layer consists of immigrants, all the other people are natives. Here is how the share of immigrants in the total population develops over time:

Share of Immigrants

At first, with more and more immigration, the share of immigrants rises. But after some time, their descendents start to expand the native population, so there is a deceleration until the immigrant share peaks slightly below 40%. Later, when the immigrant population stagnates and the population of their descendents keeps growing (plus the initial native population), the share of immigrants falls off again.

Now immigration of 5% of the initial population is very heavy. Why? As you can see in the above graph, total population grows to more than 12 times its initial size over a century. For a country like the US (circa 320 million in 2015), this would mean that population grows to about 4 billion over a century. Possible, but rather extreme as an assumption.

You might object that for smaller countries it could happen. It surely becomes easier. But take a country like Germany with currently some 81 million inhabitants. Its population would rise to one billion people with this level of immigration. But then population density might work as a limiting factor. Population in Germany is now at 226 per square kilometer (583 per square mile). If it went up by a factor of more than 12, then Germany would have an average population density as the most populated parts of Germany have right now. Or in other words: Germany would become one huge city. Possible, but again pretty extreme. And even then the share of immigrants in the total population would not exceed 40% ever. After a century it would even have fallen to below a quarter of total population. Compare this to the result from the naïve analysis how natives will be only one sixth of total population after a century.

Let’s see how the maximum share of immigrants comes out for other levels of annual immigration, and how far one has to go out to achieve a maximum of 50% at least at the peak. Here’s a graph with the number of immigrants per year in millions on the x-axis (reference population of 100 million), and the maximum share of immigrants on the y-axis:

Towards a Majority

Hence to reach a share of 50% immigrants in the total population (even if only for a short peak after which it falls off again), one would have to have 18 million immigrants each year for an initial population of 100 million. But that implies that total population (even with replacement fertility) will grow to about 45 times its initial size over a century. For the US, this would work out to a population of about 14 billion people, more than total world population according to most projections. And for Germany, it would amount to a population of more than 3.5 billion people. That’s not impossible, but looks rather outlandish as a scenario.

The conclusion from all this is: For all practical purposes, there will never be a majority of immigrants. (I will discuss a few exceptional cases in the appendix, but those do not apply for large countries like the US or Germany. Or you have to make assumptions that would be much worse than swamping .)

Even if you are scared that immigration could become so strong that for a short time immigrants become a majority, all you have to do is introduce a limit on immigration of less than 18 million for an initial population of 100 million. 50 million per year would do for the US, and 14 million for Germany which is orders of magnitude above current levels (below one percent of the population, maybe this year slightly above for Germany).

Now, one objection could be that my definition of immigrants is too narrow, that also second generation immigrants or maybe even third generation immigrants would have to count as immigrants because they stay (partly) foreign. Here is the peak for the share of immigrants, of immigrants + second generation, and of immigrants + second generation + third generation, depending on the number of immigrants per year in millions (reference population 100 million):

Towards Swamping

The blue line is the line I had above for immigrants alone. The red line is for the first two generations together, and the green line for the first three generations together (the peak occurs at a later point in time, so you do not have these shares at the same time). As for the first two generations: they become a majority for about 1.25 million immigrants per year (initial population of 100 million). As for the first three generations, they become a majority for annual immigration of slightly more than 0.6 million immigrants per year.

Of course, it becomes easier and easier to achieve a majority, the more inclusive the definition of “immigrants” becomes. However, it would still only mean a majority at the peak before it falls off again. While a majority for immigrants is almost impossible, it is conceivable for immigrants + second generation, and even more so, if you add the third generation in. Restrictionists are concerned that a majority could change the culture materially or take the country over via the political process. This may sound more plausible if you assume a vast majority of immigrants who are perhaps rather foreign (but also that they are homogeneous or can easily overcome coordination problems). However, that is hardly possible if you have to include the second or even the third generation. It could only happen if you assume very slow assimilation. I will not pursue this here, but will address this point in a further post.

I only discussed the lowest level of “swamping” so far, i.e. that there is a majority of immigrants at some point in time. To get real “swamping”, one would have to have a much higher share of immigrants. If swamping is something like a level of 80%, it is not possible for immigrants alone, or only under totally outlandish assumptions. It is still hard to achieve for the first two generations together because one would have to go to a level of at least 8.5 million immigrants per year (100 million reference population). And even for the first three generations together, one would have to assume 3.5 million immigrants each year for an initial population of 100 million.

As I already noted above: 5 million immigrants each year is a pretty extreme assumption, and even 3.5 million would still mean that total population grows to more than 9.5 times its initial size over a century. For the US, this would amount to more than three billion people. However, here is what the population structure at the peak after 65 years would look like: 31% immigrants, 33% second generation, 17% third generation, and 19% fourth and higher generations plus initial natives and their descendents. Even with moderate assimilation (e.g. a quarter per generation), the effective share of natives (natives in a narrow sense plus the assimilated part of the first three generations) would be a clear majority even in this scenario. As I said, I will leave a more thorough discussion to a further post. But maybe my conclusion is already clear: only with very low assimilation or even reverse assimilation (i.e. of natives to the immigrant culture) can such a swamping scenario play out with very high immigration. Cultural and political results would also presuppose that immigrants are very homogeneous or at least easy to coordinate.

Let me just sum up the main results of this post:

Under broad assumptions, serious swamping by immigrants is practically impossible. A slight majority at the peak presupposes very high levels of immigration and is also hardly possible. For the first two generations to achieve a majority, you still need rather extreme levels of immigration. Maybe you could see a majority for the first three generations together, but then you also have to make an assumption of very slow assimilation and rather homogeneous immigrants to find this concerning. Even moderate assimilation over three generations would mean that the effectively native part of the population remains a clear majority.

Appendix

As I noted above, there are some exceptional cases where something like “swamping” can come to pass. I would like to address them here and also why they are irrelevant for large countries like the US or Germany.

  •  You can have swamping for new settlers on uninhabitated land: there are simply no natives, so the settler culture will prevail by default. This can happen especially in agricultural societies with little need to cooperate with other settlers of a different origin. But then, such a case does not apply for the US or Germany now.
  • A similar case would be after ethnic cleansing: In a first step you drive away the previous population or kill them off, and then you resettle the new land. You can make such an assumption, but then you should be less concerned about swamping and more about  ethnic cleansing and even genocide. And you would have to explain how this is a realistic scenario.
  • Another variant is if immigration exceeds initial native population by orders of magnitude. E.g. there were a few million Native Americans in what it now the US, and then there was immigration of ten times as many people or so. In addition, there was hardly any incentive or opportunity to assimilate to native culture, so also all descendents remained foreign (as viewed by Native Americans). However, immigration of ten times the current population to the US would mean more than 3 billion immigrants. With the momentum effect, this would build up to an additional population of more than 7 billion. Or in other words: after two generations, everybody in the world would be in the US. Possible, but perhaps a little extreme as an assumption. And then there is no reason to believe there would be no incentive or opportunity to assimilate to American culture. Quite the opposite.
  • Small countries (more like city states or smaller) can have very high rates of immigration and hence a high share of immigrants, simply because they are so small and it does not take a lot of immigrants. Examples would be American Samoa (40,000 inhabitants and 71% immigrants) or the Carribean Netherlands (12,000 and 66%). However, note: for this to be sustainable you have to have very fast population growth. An example would be New York City where population in 1900 was more than 50 times population in 1800. But again, that cannot happen for large countries or countries which have some constraint for population density.
  • A funny example, and perhaps the only real example where “swamping” occurs is a country with fertility of 0 and regular immigration. The native population keeps dying out and is being replaced by immigrants. Actually, there is such a country: the Vatican which has 100% immigrants. Strangely enough, no one believes that the culture of the Vatican suffers from this “swamping.”
  • My argument relies on the momentum effect. If it does not apply or only to a lesser degree then the share of immigrants can become larger. There are several cases where this is possible: (1) The country is a destination for pensioners: they won’t have any children and their previous children might not want to join them. This case is similar to the Vatican. (2) Immigrants who are not allowed to bring in their families. This is the typical situation for the Gulf States where the share of immigrants can be very high: UAE with 84% immigrants, Qatar 74%, and Kuweit 70%. However, this is atypical because it depends on temporary immigration which makes concerns over cultural change or a political takeover a moot point. With permanent immigration the above arguments apply. (3) Immigration of the whole population pyramid including older generations. This can happen with refugees who are forced from their homes. An example of a country with a high share of immigrants because of refugees is Jordan with about 40% immigrants. In this case, there is no or only a mild momentum effect. But note: you also need a rather small country and the share will fall from there because it is hard to sustain the necessary levels of immigration over time. (4) A milder variant of this case is if immigrants come later in life or bring more of their older relatives in (but maybe not all of them). This attentuates the momentum effect and can lead to a higher share of immigrants. However, with a fixed absolute number it also means that effective immigration (people of reproductive age) is lower and the eventual level is lower.
  • If you exclude all exceptional cases with little import for large countries (thinly populated territories, city states with a hinterland that is not counted, the Gulf States regime) and focus on larger countries, the highest share for immigrants are in Switzerland with 29% immigrants and Australia with 28% immigrants. Although it might seem that those are rather low shares, according to the above analysis, the share of immigrants is already rather high. And a further increase hence presupposes much higher levels of immigration to approach 40% and 50%.
  • The share of immigrants can be higher with accelerating immigration, e.g. as a fixed percentage of a growing population. However, this means you get exponential growth for the total population instead of linear growth. This makes the situation even less sustainable.
  • You can have “swamping” by immigrants and all their descendents if there is no assimilation because their numbers keep growing and they remain foreign. With reverse assimilation (to the immigrant culture) the effect could be even stronger. An example would be the Roman Empire where there was a strong incentive for people in newly occupied territories to assimilate to the culture of the Roman “immigrants.” Here immigrants were simply conquerors and it was important for the native population to assimilate to their culture. If you assume that your country is occupied and “immigrants” exert a pull towards their culture because they are in positions of power and wealth, you should be concerned about a military occupation in the first place, not swamping.

Miscellaneous Remarks

 

  1. There seems to be something about Daimler and Turkey. Edzard Reuter, predecessor of Dieter Zetsche, was born in Berlin in 1928. Since his father was a well-known Social Democrat (mayor of Berlin from 1948 to 1953), the family had to flee Germany in 1935 and obtained asylum in Turkey where Edzard Reuter grew up from age 7 to 17. As far as I know he is fluent in Turkish. So you would have to count him as an immigrant from Turkey. Possibly that was his experience in 1945 although he, of course, also had a strong connection with Germany through his family.
  2. If you insist on the share of the foreign-born and not just immigrants who grew up elsewhere, you would have to include the children brought along by immigrants. With my standard assumptions, an immigrant at age 25 brings 0.22 children along. So you would have to increase all numbers by about 22%. But then your assumption is that someone’s birthplace has a deep influence on their development independent of where they grow up or who their parents are. If you think that the environment you grow up in is the most important aspect, then you would end up with my definition (up to small adjustments). And if you think that the important aspect is that parents influence their children, then you would have to look at immigrants and all their children, no matter where they were born. If you think both play a role, you have to take something in between. Classification as “foreign-born” has perhaps more to do with the fact that it is comparably easy to track someone’s birth place versus where they grew up most of the time or what group their parents belong to.
  3. “Swamping” is a vague concept, and it can mean different things to different people. One other sense might be that population in a country rises a lot, and that could have negative consequences. My arguments make such a scenario more probable because they show that immigration leads to more growth than the sheer number of immigrants alone. I can’t have it both ways: If open borders means that many people have a chance to move to rich countries, then the population in rich countries will have to rise. And if a transfer of many people is optimal, then population will have to rise considerably. Assimilation to rather low native fertility in rich countries, mostly below replacement, might mitigate the effect, though, but only over a longer timeframe.
  4. Impeding family reunion works somewhat like the immigration regime in the Gulf States: either children stay in the source country and so immigrants can become a larger share of the total population. Or children immigrate only after they have (partly) grown up in another country and so would have to count as immigrants, too. Keeping children out means that they will not grow up as natives. Since these are the same people, eventually numbers are the same, so such restrictions can only slow the initial build-up down, but do not change the end result. Likewise for bringing in parents and grandparents. They will not change the end result because they will not have an impact on further development.
  5. One assumption that might look like a trick is that I work with replacement fertility. Maybe this is counterintuitive for some, but higher fertility of immigrants makes it even harder for immigrants to become a majority, let alone “swamp” the native population. Since there are now more children and even more grandchildren, immigrants themselves make up a lower share. So if you are concerned about swamping you would have to applaud high fertility. It also tilts the distribution towards those who have been longer in the country and hence are more assimilated.
  6. One other conclusion from the discussion is that every new cohort of immigrants comes to a country that is overwhelmingly native in culture. There is also a strong incentive to assimilate. So there is hardly a chance that native culture will be replaced by some other culture. This is even more so because immigrants are not a homogenous population. Hence it is very plausible that native culture will serve as a lingua franca for various groups of immigrants. This contradicts Nathan Smith’s vision of a country where there are huge masses of people who are not part of native culture (apart from that, I think Nathan Smith also misses the momentum effect and hence his scenario is also implausible in other ways, I will get back to that).

Related reading

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

How Would a Billion Immigrants Change the American Polity?

[UPDATE: See the follow-up blog post A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation by Nathan Smith, where he responds to comments on and criticisms of this blog post. You may also be interested in the Open Borders Action Group discussion of this post, where Smith articulates some aspects of his views in more detail, and others offer criticism.]

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called “The American Polity Can Endure and Flourish Under Open Borders.” I would not write that post today. The American polity might endure and flourish under open borders, but I wouldn’t claim that confidently. What changed my mind? A greater familiarity with the theoretical models that are the basis for “double world GDP” as a claim about the global economic impact of open borders, especially my own. It turns out that these estimates depend on billions of people migrating internationally under open borders. Previously, my vague and tentative expectations about how much migration would occur under open borders were akin to Gallup poll estimates suggesting that 150 million or so would like to migrate to the USA. Others may disagree, but I was fairly confident at the time that the US polity was robust enough to absorb 150-200 million immigrants (over, say, a couple of decades) and retain its basic political character and structure. I do not think the US polity is robust enough to absorb 1 billion immigrants (even, say, over the course of fifty years) and retain its basic political character and structure.

For more educated guesswork about the number of migrants under open borders, see also our reference article on swamping; Joel Newman’s article “If Open Borders are Instituted Gradually, What Should be the Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?”, which, among other things, details how the threat of swamping gives open borders advocates like Joseph Carens and Michael Huemer pause, as well as Joel Newman’s latest post; and Vipul Naik’s explorations of whether the case for open borders can be combined with radical agnosticism about how many would migrate and whether the number of migrants under open borders would be “too high” or “too low” (e.g., by utilitarian-universalist criteria). In this post, I’ll argue that swamping probably will happen, and that open borders is the right thing to do anyway.

To the question of what kind of polity and society the US would become with a billion immigrants, I have only the vaguest and most speculative notions, but for this post to make sense at all, I’ll have to outline my guesses as best I can. I’m focusing on the US case because I’m most familiar with US institutions and they’re most well-known, but I’d expect other Western countries to have similar experiences. As an aid to intuition, think of the way Roman and British institutions evolved when they came to govern far more people (albeit due to territorial expansion rather than immigration). In both cases, the polity in question survived in the sense that a continuous thread of sovereign authority was maintained. But the character of the polity was transformed.

In the Roman case, the participatory institutions of the Republic gradually broke down. The family farmer, backbone of the old Republic, was crowded out by latifundia, large farms worked by slaves. The Roman populace was largely turned to a mob dependent on public handouts. Finally, the Republic gave way to a permanent dictatorship by the emperors, which, though the loss of the Republic was felt keenly by Rome’s aristocratic intellectuals, was not all bad. Historian Edward Gibbon, writing in the 18th century, celebrated the reigns of the “five good emperors” Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius (2nd century AD) as the happiest time in the history of mankind. The Senate still met, and Romans still called their state the “Republic,” but the real constitution had changed.

The British case is quite different in that the acquisition of a globe-girdling empire “on which the sun never set” didn’t influence the governance of the UK all that much. In four centuries of British empire, from the settlements at Jamestown and the Caribbean sugar islands to the relinquishing of Hong Kong, the British home constitution certainly underwent profound transformations, towards liberalism (the change took place from about 1750 to 1850), democracy (from about 1830 to 1910) and socialism (from the Liberal/Labor victory of 1906 to the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979), but these had far more to do with the influence of Enlightenment ideas and the Industrial Revolution, than with the empire. The empire, meanwhile, was never governed by the same liberal-democratic principles that prevailed in Britain. It was governed in a manner at once authoritarian and improvisational. Since London was so far away and could rarely understand local circumstances and difficulties, it tended to ratify what the “man on the spot” had done. Often, in effect, public power passed into private hands, as when the East India Company ended up governing India. Often, too, the British Empire was conservative, in the sense that British officialdom tried to co-opt and collaborate with local, traditional institutions. At the same time, a kind of ideology developed, according to which it was the British imperial mission to gradually foster liberal, democratic, representative institutions– not Christianity, interestingly: imperial institutions weren’t particularly friendly to missionary efforts– among the empire’s subject peoples. British political thought provided the templates for both the conservative (Edmund Burke; Winston Churchill) and the liberalizing (Locke; Adam Smith; J.S. Mill) strands in British imperial governance.

I would tentatively envision the US experience under open borders as resembling the British and Roman cases, inasmuch as the protocols and ideals of the US polity, as well as its merely ethnic characteristics, would persist in attenuated form, but governing a much larger population would necessitate improvisational and sometimes authoritarian expedients that would cumulatively transform the polity into something quite different, even as it claimed descent from the historic constitutional polity of the United States as we know it. The illusion of continuity would deceive the subjects of the new polity, native-born and immigrant, to a considerable extent, though on the other hand there would be a good deal of lamentation and triumphalism, and only after several generations would historians be able to look back and assess the bewildering transformation in a sober, balanced way.

Certain American ideals would die of their own increasing impracticality, e.g., “equality of opportunity,” the social safety net, one person, one vote, or non-discrimination in employment. Americans might continue to feel that these ideals were right long after they had ceased to be practiced, as the Romans seemed to feel that Rome ought to be governed by its Senate long after real governance had passed to the emperors. I don’t see how public schools could adapt to a far larger and more diverse student body. I think there would have to be a transition to some sort of vouchers combined with individual and/or community responsibility for education, e.g., the government pressures the Chinese neighborhoods to set up Chinese schools. Jefferson’s cry that “all men are created equal,” which today is sometimes mistaken, almost, for an enforceable policy rule, would retreat until wasn’t even an aspiration, but only a dream. Of course, open borders would actually mitigate global inequality, but American egalitarianism is a sheltered creed that needs the border as blindfold to retain its limited plausibility as an ideal.

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. This would put an end to majority rule, for a large fraction, likely a majority, of the resident population would lack votes. As it did in the British empire, minority governance would clash with democratic ideas to undermine the legitimacy of the regime, though not, I think, fatally. This could be a benefit, in that defenders of the regime would need to appeal, as Edmund Burke once did, more to the regime’s performance in fostering prosperity and adhering to objective norms of justice, than to crude majoritarian math (which in any case has long since been exposed as logically incoherent). The Republican and Democratic parties would be likely to maintain their duopoly, but their ideologies would go through a continual metamorphosis, not only to appeal to new immigrant voters, but perhaps even more, to adapt to the realigned interests of the natives, who would derive their incomes more from land, shareholding, and government subsidies, and less from wages.

Spontaneous Schelling segregation, even if not enforced by, or even if actively opposed by, the law (but I doubt the law would resist for long), would make neighborhoods and workplaces, and a fortiori churches and community organizations, far more homogeneous than the resident population as a whole. I have advocated legalizing and de-stigmatizing private discrimination against immigrants, but even if it remained illegal, I think private discrimination would be widely practiced, simply because statistical discrimination is efficient, and in the more complex and dynamic economy of an open-borders America those efficiencies would be more worth capturing than ever. Many natives would retreat into gated communities, not so much from fear of crime as simply from love of the familiar. There would be large immigrant neighborhoods dominated by particular ethnicities, where English was rarely spoken, yet English in the US would remain a lingua franca for all the immigrant groups and wouldn’t be threatened as the national language (though German in Germany, Dutch in the Netherlands, etc., might). Overall crime rates might or might not rise, but law enforcement would often be baffled by new and complex challenges. The overworked and puzzled courts would have to improvise and compromise and decline a lot of cases, and would end up leaving a lot of stuff in an emerging domain of private law. I’d expect gaps to emerge where representatives of the official courts feared to tread and a kind of anarcho-capitalist natural law would prevail, and these might be the most productive, innovative, prosperous places in the new, open-borders America. As in the Dark Ages, the Christian churches would likely be more effective than the government in reaching out to, serving, and cultivating a sense of community and identity in many immigrant populations. As in ancient Rome, native-born Americans would find themselves increasingly unable to govern a larger and more diverse subject population through traditional institutions of self-government– they might often find it expedient, as the British empire did, to let public power slip into private hands– but on the other hand, they could easily vote themselves increasing handouts from a burgeoning treasury.

There would probably be an increasing role for private security companies, both to supply protection to private firms that didn’t trust the police to handle the strange new situation, and as contractors for the government. I don’t think it would be too difficult for a regime claiming descent from the US Constitution to fend off open contestation of its sovereignty. Still, if you remember America’s national reaction to 9/11, it isn’t difficult to imagine that even intermittent, local stirrings of revolt would transform the American psyche enough to make weapons training in schools or even universal conscription into some sort of national police force attractive, in order to empower the citizenry physically to defend its sovereignty against a possible immigrant revolution. The vote and citizenship would likely be bestowed opportunistically on immigrant groups deemed especially loyal or effective, both for national security reasons, and for partisan advantage when Republicans or Democrats found themselves favored by some immigrant group.

The least tentative part of my forecast is that all this would take place amidst a continuous surge of booming economic growth, with fortunes being made galore, but this might take forms that some would find disturbing. We would see some modern latifundia, worked not by slaves this time but by voluntary immigrants, but working for pay rates that would strike native-born Americans as a form of slave labor. Meanwhile, we would likely see modern equivalents of the ancient Roman mob, privileged idlers demanding bread and circuses paid for by taxes collected from non-citizens. Entrepreneurs would thrive with so many new workers and customers. The Dow would rise, and rise, and rise. Landowners would see their assets appreciate rapidly and would face a bewildering variety of opportunities to put them to profitable use. Educators and medical personnel would enjoy an almost limitless demand for their services. Of today’s middle-class Americans, even many who failed to find ultra-productive niches in the new open-borders economy would find domestic servants suddenly affordable. The cruel dilemma now faced by educated women, career vs. children, would be greatly mitigated as live-in nannies would become abundant and cheap. American seniors, too, would flourish as the quantity and quality of eldercare workers rose sharply, and paid drivers became affordable to anyone with a little income over and above their Social Security check. But while two-income professional couples would find their domestic arrangements greatly eased, employment rates among native-born Americans would probably fall significantly, partly because lower wages for unskilled labor would make working too unremunerative to bother with for those without special skills, partly because many Americans would be able to live rather comfortably on dividends, land rentals, and government subsidies. For some, this comfortable rentier lifestyle would rankle, clashing as it does with Americans’ traditional disdain of parasitic aristocracies. People need to feel like they have a function. But some sort of general conscription into a national police force might help here. Americans cognitively or culturally ill-equipped to thrive in the dynamic new open-borders economy would be useful to their fellow citizens, and would justify the increasingly valuable privileges and subsidies to which citizenship entitled them, by serving as a kind of praetorian guard.

In short, I think the most wild-eyed predictions of the open borders optimists will come true, and to spare, but I think a lot of the forebodings of the grimmest open border pessimists will also prove more than justified.

All these forecasts are so tentative that I’m embarrassed to write them down at all, but they are necessary to help readers to understand what I mean when I doubt that the American polity can endure and flourish under open borders. It’s not that I’d expect a complete civilizational collapse, or a revolution. On the contrary, I’d expect superficial continuity. But an open-borders America of a billion people would, in substance, be as different a polity from the polity that the United States of America is today, as the Roman Empire of the 2nd century AD was from the Roman Republic of the 3rd century BC. At the end of this post, I’ll write a bit about whether the end of the American polity as we know it should be regretted or welcomed. But first, would billions really migrate under open borders?

It may seem foolish of me to have so much altered my view of what an open-borders future would look like, in response to a few mere economic models. To be sure, I certainly don’t believe that these models are anything like exact descriptions of an open borders future. The authors, including myself, make all sorts of simplifications, some of them obviously unrealistic, to create a platform from which to launch heroic feats of extrapolation. The wisest course, which Paul Collier for example seems to adopt, may seem to be to dismiss the guesses as unrealistic. But my former guesses had, and any other guesses I could now formulate without reference to the models would have, even less basis. I believe  the economic models of open borders, flawed and fallible as they are, represent the most rational estimates available of how many would migrate under open borders. I’ll try to anticipate and reply to a few objections in order to consolidate this point.

1. What about the Gallup polls? That’s easy. Gallup can’t take diaspora dynamics (also see Bryan Caplan and Paul Collier on this) into account. It can only find out how many people would now like to emigrate. But under open borders, after a little while, many people would be more willing to emigrate because there would be large communities of their fellow nationals abroad, including some of their loved ones.

2. What about Europe? Contemporary Europe stands as an apparent counter-example to claims that open borders would trigger an epic transformation of human geography. The European Union is said to have internal open borders, and though a glance at the relevant European Commission webpage suggests that EU citizens’ rights to live and work elsewhere in the EU are subject to some red tape, it surely comes close. And while this has led to many millions of internal EU migrants, the migrant share is an order of magnitude less than what the global economic models of open borders predict. I think there are several reasons for this. First, GDP per capita doesn’t vary that much within Europe, which not only mitigates the pressure to migrate but may prevent diaspora dynamics from achieving critical mass. Second, EU countries are among the world’s oldest, with most having a median age above 40, whereas young people are more inclined to migrate. Third, far more than any other region of the world, Europe has been carved into national homelands through centuries of cultural genius and military jostling, so that local ties are probably more important there than elsewhere. Fourth, EU “cohesion” policies deliberately subsidize the poorest European regions, mitigating pressure to migrate. Fifth, migration within the EU seems to be accelerating as a result of the economic crisis that began in 2008, so slow migration may turn out to have been a temporary anomaly. Puerto Rico, which has enjoyed open borders with the USA for a century, has experienced so much emigration that most (about 60%) people of Puerto Rican descent live on the US mainland, even though Puerto Rico isn’t all that poor, with a GDP about half that of the USA as a whole. Puerto Rico’s experience, or that of 19th-century Ireland, may be more predictive of an open borders future than contemporary Europe is. In that case, many billions would migrate, and the global economic models of open borders are getting the order of magnitude right.

3. It’s never happened before. Even in the 19th century golden age of open borders, the share of migrants in world population was well below 10 percent. Before and since, it’s been lower. And now we’re predicting a rise in the share of international migrants to around 50 percent of world population! But of course, just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t. The Roman Empire and its fall, the medieval cathedrals, the circumnavigation of the world, and the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened till they happened.

4. People are loyal to their homelands. Another reason for skepticism is that the models apparently leave out of account that people feel affection and love for their homelands, while foreign countries are scary and forbidding. That’s why international migration has always been something “exceptional people” do. But first, the models don’t actually leave this completely out of account. My estimates of global migration under open borders, for example, assume that everyone stays put unless (relative to the status quo) migration offers higher pay for raw labor and/or human capital. No one would emigrate from the USA, since both raw labor and human capital would be attracted to the USA. Yet a recent poll suggests that 1 in 3 Americans would like to emigrate if they could. Few can have a strong economic motive to do so, since the USA is one of the richest countries on Earth, so either weak economic motives suffice (do they want to earn Australia’s minimum wage? to enjoy the Swedish social safety net?) or else cultural preferences (the fun loving culture of Brazil? the ancient dignity of Japan? the beauty and charm of western European cities?) actually motivate them to leave rather than to stay. I agree that people’s attachment to their homelands, along with simple inertia, would probably keep migration down to hundreds of millions in the short run, but in the long run, e.g., over the course of a few decades, I think diaspora dynamics would overwhelm local ties. Also, the globalization of culture (see me and Bryan Caplan) has made migration (especially to the US, the chief source of the globalizing culture) much easier, and will continue to make it easier in future. (Language is one of the more quantifiable elements of this trend. This site estimates that there are almost 1 billion. The British Council expects two billion English speakers by 2020. Of course, you can also immigrate first and learn English later, or immigrate into a diaspora bubble and never learn English.)

5. Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn’t epic mass migrations be self-halting, because the desirable properties that make wealthy countries such attractive immigration destinations would be erased by mass migration? Don’t the economic models ignore this? Actually, no. In particular, my model allows for some total factor productivity (TFP) reduction in destination countries. Even if epic mass migrations degraded institutions (or whatever causes TFP) in rich countries, they’d still be attractive to billions.

6. Backlash. Paul Collier, in Exodus, contemptuously dismisses the economic models of open borders, but hardly pretends to give any reason why. To the extent that his implicit reason for dismissing them can be deduced from the book, it’s that he thinks there would be a huge nativist backlash. More recently, Ryan Cooper at The Week argued that “a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy” because “air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes.” But this begs the question. It’s certainly unlikely that open borders will be adopted by any country anytime soon, but the question is what would happen if it were.

My new doubts that the American polity could survive and flourish under open borders do not in the least undermine my support for open borders. For one thing, the American polity is too small a thing to have much weight in these scales, when the well-being of so many billions is at stake. But my estimation of the value of the American polity as an institution has also dwindled considerably of late. Daron Acemoglu’s thesis in Why Nations Fail, basically that the prosperity of the West depends mainly on its representative and democratic institutions, has quite a few adherents in contemporary development economics, but I attach little credence to it. I was actually surprised, in the data exercise undergirding my open borders forecasts, by how much of the wealth and poverty of nations seems explicable by human capital, broadly understood, so I’ve downgraded “institutions” (and “total factor productivity”) as explanatory factors in the wealth and poverty of nations. Even to the extent that institutions are important, I think democracy is less important than things like the thousand-year-old British common-law tradition, or norms of religious freedom and free speech, that predate and are quite separable from democracy. I don’t think the US polity, as it was founded in 1789, is or ever was the chief explanation of the enviable economic prosperity that the US has enjoyed throughout its history. But I do attach some value to what that polity was historically.

In particular, I see the US Constitution of 1789 as one of the wisest systems of government ever devised, albeit seriously marred by its tolerance for slavery. There followed almost 80 years of what may be called “Tocqueville’s America,” a time when a Jeffersonian political philosophy was in the ascendant, government was mostly small and local and highly participatory, and the way the Constitution was implemented in practice was reasonably conformable to its intended meaning. Then came the Civil War, which erased slavery, a magnificent achievement, while at the same time replacing the loose social contract among states with a powerful federal government from which there was no right of secession. Nonetheless, for a few more decades, the US still enjoyed a genuinely limited government, wherein elected officials really felt that the Constitution endowed them with limited powers, and they simply had no right to do more than it had authorized them to do. This limited, constitutional government was lost forever in the 1930s, when Roosevelt bullied the Supreme Court into elastic interpretations of the Constitution, especially the commerce clause, that rendered obsolete the enumerated powers strategy for restraining the federal government on which the founders had principally relied. From the 1930s onward, the federal government was still somewhat constrained by the Bill of Rights, but other than that, a kind of absolutist democracy was born, where elected majorities could do anything they liked, very high tax rates produced a substantial economic leveling of the population, and conscription fostered a sense of shared citizenship and made foreign policy much more participatory than it has been before or since. Meanwhile, the most distinctive and important feature of the American polity, religious freedom, traced its origins back before the 1789 Constitution to the original pious motives of the Puritans who settled Massachusetts, and the English-speaking peoples of North America maintained an almost unblemished record of respect for religious freedom through all the other changes that took place, until the past few years.

Starting with the school prayer decisions of the 1960s, this absolutist democracy was in its turn eviscerated by a creeping secularist coup d’etat emanating from the courts, which claimed a warrant from the Constitution. The courts were certainly mistaken in thinking the Constitution warranted a comprehensive secularization of American governance, but they seem to have been sincere. Later, as the rising imperial judiciary also became a key patron of the Sexual Revolution, the courts’ reasoning became so disgracefully inept that the possibility that the courts sincerely think they are doing anything other than arbitrarily legislating from the bench is hard to take seriously. Roe v. Wade was a brazen attack on democracy, and while it’s hard to say when the Rubicon was definitely crossed, in the wake of the Obergefell decree, I agree with Justice Scalia that “my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” A country whose Constitution can suddenly, poof!, take on a new meaning that no one can seriously doubt would have amazed and disgusted its authors, and thereby override many democratically-passed laws and rob the people of the ability to legislate according to the majority will on an absolutely crucial social question, is not aptly described as a democracy. It might be best described as a judicial oligarchy in which elected elements play the chief administrative and a subordinate legislative role.

I’m not so fond of democracy that my loyalty to a regime would depend very greatly on its democratic character, but I am very, very fond of telling the truth, and I can have no respect for, and no loyalty to, judges who, in decreeing gay marriage, pretend that they’re interpreting the Constitution. Modern constitutional law is a lot like the Catholic Church’s theology of indulgences in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It makes very little sense, and every critical thinker more or less feels that it’s a disgraceful travesty, but people are afraid to challenge it as aggressively as reason demands, because it underpins the order of society. Reams and libraries are dedicated to rationalizing it, precisely because it’s rationally indefensible, yet is a crucial currency of power. And yes, I’d like to see modern constitutional law immolated in a kind of Lutheran Reformation, and would gladly pay a high price in chaos to see the dragon slain. Thanks to my low opinion of the US constitutional regime as it currently exists is one reason, I can contemplate with very little distress the immigration of a billion or so people from all over the world, unschooled in the peculiar mythology of early 21st-century American democracy and its ever-more-irrational cult of equality.

It would be interesting to hear the reactions to the billion-immigrant scenario, of people with a more favorable view of the legitimacy and beneficence of the present US regime.

Editor’s note: You might be interested in reading Nathan Smith’s follow-up blog post to this piece, A Billion Immigrants: Continuing the Conversation, where he fleshes out some of the arguments outlined in this blog post, and responds to some comments and criticisms of it.

Related reading

In addition to the numerous inline links in the article, the following links are relevant. You are also strongly encouraged to check out our double world GDP page.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders

There are a prodigious number of moral arguments for open borders. Openborders.info lists libertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and other types of cases for open borders, with a number of arguments within each category.  What are my favorite arguments for open borders?

Before answering this question, it is important to consider what constitutes a strong argument for open borders. First, it should be logical. Second, it should not be overly complicated, requiring layers of explanation. Finally, it should, in the words of Fabio Rojas, appeal to “basic moral intuition;” it should resonate emotionally. While each of the following arguments may not contain all of these elements, they have at least some of them.

In descending order of strength, here are the three best arguments, in my opinion:

1. Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.

This argument is based on the unfairness that some people are born into poverty in countries that offer little opportunity for them to improve their situations (not to mention that in some of these countries human rights abuses and violent conflict are endemic), while in other countries people are born into relative wealth and have ample opportunities to improve their situations. (For example, the poorest 5% of Americans earn more than 60% of the world’s population. (p. 21) ) Hopefully currently disadvantaged countries will catch up with the advantaged ones, but in the meantime it is unjust to block citizens of disadvantaged countries, through immigration restrictions, from accessing the opportunities available to those born in advanced countries by moving to those advanced countries. Among other negative consequences, restrictions prevent would-be immigrants from benefiting from the place premium, which allows a person from a disadvantaged country to earn much more in an advanced country, even without an increase in the person’s skills. (See also here and here.) An open borders policy addresses the unfairness associated with place of birth, while immigration restrictions maintain it. (Openborders.info communicates the argument thusly: “open borders rectifies a glaring and morally problematic inequality of opportunity based on birthplace.”)

One measure of the argument’s potency is its use by many open borders advocates. Joseph Carens, who made the idea of open borders “intellectually respectable,” states that

In a world of relatively closed borders like ours, citizenship is an inherited status and a source of privilege. Being born a citizen of a rich country in North America or Europe is a lot like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages. It greatly enhances one’s life prospects (even if there are lesser and greater nobles). And being born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is a lot like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages. It greatly limits one’s life chances (even if there are some rich peasants and a few gain access to the nobility)… Is there some story that they [people in rich countries] can tell to the human beings on the other side of this rich-poor divide as to why these existing arrangements are fair? Would they think the arrangements were just if they were in the position of the excluded? I don’t think so.

Using the terms “geographical roulette,” Stephan Faris, author of Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration, likewise notes that “our system of passport controls, immigration restrictions, and closed borders has created a world in which few factors shape a child’s life as much as one she can do nothing about: the flag under which she was born.”  Bryan Caplan of George Mason University states that “when most people are on earth are dealt such a bad hand, to try to stop them from bettering their condition seems a very cruel thing to do to someone.” And R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”

I suggested that this argument is a powerful one in a previous post.  It is logical and simple. It also could appeal to the moral intuition of many, especially Americans, who oppose discrimination against others based on factors they cannot control. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, forbids discriminating against someone based on their skin color or gender, traits that people are born with. As Mr. Caplan asks, “What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else? So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

2. If before you were born you didn’t know where you would be born (and who your parents would be) but could choose what the laws would be, you would choose laws allowing open borders because they could be key to your well-being.

This argument was developed by Mr. Carens. In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” he uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255) Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate. In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

This argument is very logical and probably appeals to the moral intuition (or at least the self-interest) of many people by helping them achieve a global perspective. I have not seen the argument used frequently, however, probably because its logic is somewhat intricate. It was used by John Tierney almost a decade ago in an op-ed calling for expanding immigration to the U.S. Despite its infrequent use, it is a potent case for open borders.

3. Immigrants, like everybody else, have a right to not to be harmfully coerced, and implementation of immigration restrictions constitutes harmful coercion. (Or, in the words of Mr. Caplan, leave people alone so they can go and make something out of their lives.)

This argument was formulated by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”  he argues that unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434) Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures. Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ right not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

This argument is logical and straightforward. It is not necessarily morally intuitive, since some people see  government as being in the business of harmful coercion through taxation, regulation, and law enforcement, in order to serve the greater good. The hypothetical of “Starving Marvin” contained in Mr. Huemer’s paper humanizes the argument, however. In the hypothetical, Marvin, a potential immigrant in danger of starvation, seeks food by going to a seller in the U.S. The U.S. government, embodied in a person named Sam, forcibly prevents Marvin from reaching the U.S. Marvin then returns home and dies of starvation.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Mr. Carens and Mr. Huemer include caveats to their arguments indicating that extremely harmful swamping under open borders could override them. (Swamping refers to an immense migration flow in a short period of time.) Unfortunately, dispelling concerns about swamping is not as straightforward as presenting one of the three strong prima facie arguments enumerated in this post, since no one knows with certainty what migration flows might look like under open borders or what the effects of swamping would be, should it occur. Vipul has written posts which dispel concerns about swamping and suggest factors that would limit migration initially after implementing open borders, such as the availability of jobs, wage levels, connections in host countries, and moving arrangements. Declining birth rates in some countries, including Mexico, could be another limiting factor, as could strong ties to one’s home country, as Kevin Johnson suggests. (Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws, p. 27)

One can also look at situations where borders are currently open for clues about migration flows under worldwide open borders. Philippe Legrain, in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, observes that Britain hasn’t been deluged with East Europeans despite the ability of citizens from relatively poor East European countries to come and work there. (p. 328) Mr. Johnson has written that despite the fact that the mainland U.S. has a per capita GDP twice that of Puerto Rico, most Puerto Ricans do not leave (p. 29), although many nations are much poorer relative to the U.S. and about a third of the people born in Puerto Rico have moved to the mainland U.S., which is a significant proportion.

On the other hand, co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his recently published paper “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” writes that “Gallup polls have found that hundreds of millions of people worldwide would like to emigrate permanently. But economic models of open borders tend to predict that billions would actually emigrate.” Nathan suggests that these predictions, while uncertain, “deserve at least to be preferred to whatever casual assumptions may be harbored by untrained minds concerning the question.”

Assuming that billions migrate, Nathan’s research suggests, as does that of others, that world GDP would nearly double and that the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide would rise. The impact on Western countries that receive the bulk of the migration would be mixed, but generally positive: “… unskilled workers would see their wages driven down by competition from immigrants. There would be an enormous boom in investment, and elevated returns on capital for decades, as the world adapted to an enormously expanded effective labor supply.”  Nathan’s predictions about the impact on the U.S. political landscape in a forthcoming post similarly suggest significant changes, but not ones that should cause an open borders policy to be overriden.  Keyhole solutions would also be available to ameliorate the impact on receiving countries.

Uncertainty is always associated with radical policy changes, whether they be the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women. This uncertainty should not prevent doing the right thing, however. The three arguments in this post powerfully show that, in the context of immigration policy, implementing open borders is the right thing to do.

Related reading

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.”

The photograph featured at the top of this post is of West and East German border police confronting each other, moments after a woman successfully crossed the interior German border in Berlin, 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via the Google Cultural Institute.