Tag Archives: swamped

What I would like from Tyler Cowen

Economist Tyler Cowen’s recent post was ostensibly about the labor market effects of immigration and emigration from OECD countries, but the latter half was devoted to a critique of open borders. Cowen:

And no I do not favor open borders even though I do favor a big increase in immigration into the United States, both high- and low-skilled. The simplest argument against open borders is the political one. Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get. Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?

In my view the open borders advocates are doing the pro-immigration cause a disservice. The notion of fully open borders scares people, it should scare people, and it rubs against their risk-averse tendencies the wrong way. I am glad the United States had open borders when it did, but today there is too much global mobility and the institutions and infrastructure and social welfare policies of the United States are, unlike in 1910, already too geared toward higher per capita incomes than what truly free immigration would bring. Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs. (The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

The post seems to have generated a lot of buzz in the blogosphere (see here, here, here, here, and here for starters).

First off, although open borders advocates naturally concentrated on the latter half, it’s possible that Cowen actually intended to focus on the earlier half. The confusion about what Cowen intended to highlight is described in this comment by DJ10210:

Tyler’s strategy is interesting here. What’s the proper Straussian reading of this post? (A) Post is intended to be a critique of open borders proponents (e.g. Caplan), but opens with pro-immigration sentiment to signal that he is friendly to the cause he’s critiquing. (B) Post is intended to be a critique of immigration restrictionist, but closes with anti-open borders sentiments to signal that he understands that although he’s pro-immigration he’s not an extremist about it. (C) Both (A) and (B).

I lean toward (A) being the intended message.

I’m a great admirer of Cowen’s quality of thinking about empirical issues. In fact, right now, I’m reading his book, Average is Over, and I’m really liking it (I don’t have enough prior object-level intuition to have a strong view on the accuracy of Cowen’s predictions, but I find it plausible and well-argued). I felt that the post didn’t live up to the standard. So my first reaction to the post was to write something in between a criticism and a point-by-point response. However, after thinking it over, I see that there are a number of reasons why that would be misguided.

  • Cowen write about five posts a day, in addition to his teaching, research, administrative duties, and books. His high quantity of reasonably thoughtful output is one reason why he attracts so many readers. But this also means that many individual passages in his blog posts are not subject to the same careful scrutiny and analysis that some other bloggers (such as Bryan Caplan, or, I’d like to think, the Open Borders bloggers) give their own posts. So even though I feel that Cowen wrote these passages somewhat hastily, it’s part of the package one gets with Cowen, and nothing to complain about.
  • Cowen is in general skewed toward projecting an image of practicality and moderation, and that is part of what makes him influential as a blogger. This again is the package that his readers and those who choose to benefit from his wisdom sign on to.

With these in mind, I want to take a few minutes to note some possible messages people may take away from Cowen’s post, and why I believe these would be wrong. There is a subtext many people might be reading in Cowen’s text that open borders advocates are anti-empirical and careless and avoid obvious questions that anybody who thinks for a few minutes would come across. While I wouldn’t make generalizations about open borders advocates, I think that this site does not fit the stereotype. We have listed a wide variety of objections from both a restrictionist and a pro-immigration perspective, and attempted to address many of them — perhaps not to many people’s satisfaction, but I think it’d be fair to say that we haven’t ignored the issues. I think the menu options offer a reasonable summary (though doubtless the menu could be improved for better navigation, something that a co-blogger of mine will be working on). We have also discussed — more extensively than Cowen himself appears to have — the objections that Cowen raises in his post. If we haven’t covered a topic in sufficient depth, it is generally because (a) the existing literature and state of knowledge isn’t good enough, or (b) we simply haven’t gotten around it. We are very interested in the empirics of open borders — in understanding what might happen under borders that are open to various degrees. Let’s look at some of Cowen’s most remarkable claims.

Cowen writes:

Try to apply the idea to Cyprus, Taiwan, Israel, Switzerland, and Iceland and see how far you get. Big countries will manage the flow better than the small ones but suddenly the burden of proof is shifted to a new question: can we find any countries big enough (or undesirable enough) where truly open immigration might actually work?

A reader of this passage might believe that advocates of open borders are squarely disconnected from the empirical question of how many people would move under open borders, and that advocates of open borders seem to focus solely on open borders to large countries like the US. Neither assertion is true. Our world map for blog coverage shows how we cover migration-related issues around the world, including cases as diverse as Lebanon and Germany. Nor have we overlooked the significance of some countries being larger or having lower population densities than others. I made some very similar points about the dangers of extrapolating from existing data or historical experience in my blog post back in February 2013 titled open borders is a radical proposal. But for what it’s worth, the value of Cowen’s small country examples is unclear. For one, there does exist a large free movement zone — the Schengen Area, of which Switzerland is a part — and while there has been significant migration (enough to boost the case for the value of free movement) it has hardly been of cataclysmic or existentially threatening proportions. Or at least, that’s the way I interpret it. Does Cowen see things differently?

Cowen has much greater insight into the working of the world than I do, and possibly more than many of the other bloggers on this site. It’s possible that he has sound reasons for his intuition pertaining to Switzerland or Iceland or one of the other countries. It would be nice if he could elaborate more on these reasons.

Cowen also writes:

Plunking 500 million or a billion poor individuals in the United States most likely would destroy the goose laying the golden eggs.

How many would move under open borders? Cowen thinks the number is 500 million or a billion (and his language of “plunking” suggests that they’d all move more or less simultaneously and perhaps not even based on a conscious voluntary decision — but I’ll take that to be artistic license).

Now, I really like the fact that Cowen is providing a concrete estimate. It’s an important question, to be sure, because swamping is a major concern that moderate pro-immigrationers raise when faced with the prospect of open borders. And while there are many approaches (gradually increasing quotas, gradually lowering tariff rates to zero, gradually expanding a free movement zone, etc.) an answer to the abstract question “how many would move under complete open borders?” can be a useful analytical exercise in bounding the problem.

And it’s a question we have looked at repeatedly. We collected a number of links to polling data on migration — the best available data on the stated preferences of potential migrants (for what it’s worth, there are about 135 million people who want to move to the US if given the chance, and about 600-700 million people who want to move to a different country from where they currently are). I raised the “how many would move” question last July, and my co-blogger Chris followed up by asking a more specific question about open borders between Haiti and the US. These are the types of specific, concrete questions where somebody like Cowen can offer specific insight based on his deep understanding of the world — and elaborate on why he thinks open borders may be going too far. Offering the number is a great start. What I’d like from Cowen is an elaboration of how he’s getting at that number, what sort of timeframe he is talking about for the 500 million to 1 billion people, and how he thinks it might be a problem.

Cowen also talks about how open borders may be politically infeasible. We’ve asked this kind of question as well. For instance, this May, I blegged about whether open borders between the US and Canada might pass a referendum. And feasibility is certainly an important consideration when evaluating keyhole solutions.

Finally, the question of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs is an important one to us, and my co-blogger Nathan Smith views it as one of the potentially best arguments against open borders. Nathan wrote a three-part series (here, here, and here) attempting to defend open borders against this line of criticism. It’s one of the arguments we take more seriously on this website. Cowen probably has much to contribute to the discussion again, and I personally would really like to know more about what he sees as the biggest dangers to global innovation and technological progress that arise from moving in the direction of open borders, and how these might be mitigated.

Cowen has a cryptic parenthetical remark:

(The clever will note that this problem is smaller if all wealthy countries move to free immigration at the same time, but of course that is unlikely.)

The “of course that is unlikely” statement is puzzling. Of course, open borders is unlikely for the foreseeable future — whether for one country alone or for many countries together. The relevant question is not so much whether either is likely in absolute terms. The relevant question is about the relative likelihood of the US unilaterally opening its borders versus a number of countries opening borders together. I think history shows that the latter is more likely to happen — countries may form free migration zones, then gradually move to open borders for all. But I’m willing to stand corrected, since I don’t have strong knowledge here.

Perhaps Cowen’s concern is that open borders advocacy itself increases the relative likelihood of unilateral open borders relative to multilateral or universal open borders. I think that’s not the case at all. At least on the Open Borders site, we devote a fair amount of time to the immigration policy of countries around the world, including co-blogger John Lee talking about Malaysia. Does Cowen believe that the United States is uniquely susceptible to a few open borders ideologues promoting global open borders suddenly changing the minds of the powers-that-be? If so, that doesn’t square with what I believe, or what I think he believes, about the US political system. If the data on who favors open borders are any guide, the US is hardly in “danger” of any rapid shift towards open borders. The one rich country that may be in such “danger” is Sweden (also the first country to open its borders to Syrian refugees) but even Sweden has a fair degree of pushback against open borders. Note that, if anything, moderate pro-immigration advocacy tends to be much more rooted in country-specific rhetoric (such as “America is a nation of immigrants”) than the advocacy or discussion of open borders you’ll find on this site, and among other self-proclaimed advocates of open borders. (As a related aside, you might want to check our Carl Shulman’s post titled Open borders in (at least) one (developed) country on his personal blog, arguing that it might be better to attempt open borders in a single country with a relatively smaller population and then expand it to the world).

What I would like from Tyler Cowen is that, when he next discusses open borders, he gives the subject some of the same thought and attention that makes him such a great read on other subjects, and more importantly, that he share his reasoning (thereby avoiding the illusion of transparency and double illusion of transparency traps). Maybe there is a legitimate basis for his figure of 500 million to 1 billion. Perhaps Cowen has some interesting historical understanding that illuminates problems with open borders that we’ve overlooked. But we can only learn from his insight if he shares it.

A plausible response to the above is that it’s sufficient to rely on intuition here, because obviously what Cowen is saying is true. But it would be an inadequate response, given that Cowen himself is pushing back against the restrictionist intuitions expressed in his comment threads about immigrants stealing jobs from natives and turning their destination countries into economic basket cases. Intuition is a starting point, but to communicate and arrive at truths starting from one’s intuitions, it would be helpful to flesh out the rationales more explicitly.

If Open Borders Are Instituted Gradually, What Should Be The Initial Number of Immigrants Admitted?

In a recent post, Vipul wrote about the importance of better understanding the number of people who might migrate under policy changes in the direction of open borders.  One reason why he considers this important is to evaluate the legitimacy of concerns about “swamping:” “One of the main concerns of people ranging from hardcore restrictionists to moderate pro-immigrationers and even some who identify as being pro-open borders is that true open borders would lead to very large numbers of people moving over short time periods in a manner that would strain housing, electricity, water supplies, and other infrastructure in the countries receiving the immigrants.”

Whether receiving countries would be swamped if open borders were implemented, and what the swamping would actually be like, is pivotal to determining the morality of open borders.  That’s because, absent the possibility of a swamping that turns a receiving country into an economic and political basketcase similar to Haiti or Somalia, from a moral standpoint there are no obstacles to instituting open borders immediately.

In fact, two of the strongest moral arguments in favor of open borders include caveats in which extremely harmful swamping might override the arguments.  In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open BordersJoseph Carens 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.)

However, in “Migration and Morality: A Liberal Egalitarian Perspective,” Mr. Carens states that with open borders “… the number of those coming might overwhelm the capacity of the society to cope, leading to chaos and a breakdown of public order… A threat to public order could be used to justify restrictions on immigration… because the breakdown of public order makes everyone worse off in terms of both liberty and welfare.”  At the same time he writes that “the state is obliged to admit as many of those seeking entry as it can without jeopardizing national security, public order and the maintenance of liberal institutions.” (p. 30)

In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Michael Huemer argues that unless there are “extenuating circumstances,” people have a right “not to be subject to seriously harmful coercion.” (p. 432)  Therefore, 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’ rights not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

Nevertheless, the possibility of swamping gives Mr. Huemer pause.  He writes, “No one knows what the full effects of a policy of open borders would be, since it has been a very long time since U.S. borders have been open.”  Referring to Brian Barry, who predicts a billion immigrants coming to the U.S. with open borders and disastrous consequences, Mr. Huemer states that “Perhaps Barry is correct that the result would be disastrous for American society.  If so, this is the sort of extremely negative consequence that, it might be argued, outweighs the rights of potential immigrants to freedom of movement.” (pp. 453-454)

So would receiving countries be swamped with open borders, and would that swamping essentially destroy the economic and political systems that made those countries desireable destinations in the first place, thus overriding the moral imperative for open borders?  That is what Vipul is apparently exploring, but it seems that a clear answer will be elusive.

In apparent response to concerns about swamping, some, including Mr. Huemer (p. 454), have advocated for a gradual transition towards open borders.  This would involve increasing immigration levels over a period of time.  If receiving countries are not being severely swamped after each increase, then immigration levels would again be increased.  Politically, and perhaps morally, this approach may be warranted, although the suffering associated with restrictionism would persist.

At least the initial increase in immigrant numbers under a gradual transition could be substantial, without severe swamping of receiving countries, based on Israel’s experience with high levels of immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.  Philippe Legrain has highlighted this experience in his book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them.  This flow of people to Israel was, in Mr. Legrain’s words, “one of the most dramatic experiments in the history of immigration.” (p. 133)  Mr. Legrain notes that between 1990 and 1997 over seven hundred thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union arrived in Israel, a country with a population of about 4.6 million in 1989, and almost half of the immigrants entered in a two year period. (p. 134)  Mr. Legrain puts these numbers in perspective for America:  “Imagine, then, what would happen if over 15 million foreigners were suddenly to arrive in the U.S. over the next two years, rising to 29 million over eight years.  Twenty-nine million people who don’t speak English, don’t have jobs to go to and don’t even have any experience of working in a capitalist economy… Mass unemployment?  Riots in the streets?  Perhaps even the collapse of society?” (p.134)

Citing an Israeli economic expert on this impact, Mr. Legrain states that at first native Israelis’ wages fell by about 5 percent for men, and there was a sharp rise in interest rates.  However, “Israel’s economy seems to have absorbed a vast number of new workers without a rise in unemployment.”  Unemployment among native Israelis dropped during this period, and by 1997 the ex-Soviet employment rate was similar to that of native Israelis.  (p. 135)  In addition, by 1997, “natives’ wages had recovered to where they would have been without the mass immigration, and interest rates had fallen to their pre-immigration levels.”  Mr. Legrain concludes that “flexible advanced economies can absorb large numbers of immigrants without any cost to native workers if the inflows are reasonably predictable, and with only a short-term cost to them if they are unexpected.” (p. 135)

Some might counter that the ex-Soviet immigrants had higher levels of education than those who might immigrate to western countries from developing countries under an open borders policy.  However, Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh found that “… the Russian immigrants suffered from substantial occupational downgrading in Israel and thus did not increase the relative supply of skilled workers in Israel.” (p. 27) Many female immigrants, and presumably many male immigrants, ended up doing menial service jobs. This fits with Mr. Legrain’s explanation of how differences between native and immigrant workers limit competition between the two groups:  “… critics of immigration would be the first to argue that  immigrants and native workers are not identical.  The newcomers will almost certainly speak the local language less well, have fewer contacts and less knowledge of local practices… At most, then, they are imperfect substitutes for local workers, which implies that they only indirectly compete with them in the labour market—thus limiting any short-term harm they might cause natives.” (p. 137) Thus, despite their high education levels, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union should not be viewed differently from those who would enter developed countries under open borders.

The Israeli experience suggests an initial immigrant admissions level for the U.S., as part of a gradual move towards open borders, could be established that is much higher than current American admissions levels.  I don’t know how Mr. Legrain calculated the U.S. equivalent of 29 million people over eight years based on the Israeli experience, but my calculation is significantly higher.  First, there were over 820 thousand immigrants over the eight years, including immigration from other source countries in addition to that from the former Soviet Union.  Using the 1989 Israeli population of about 4.6 million and using a rounded down figure of eight hundred thousand immigrants between 1990 and 1997, there was about a 2.1% annual addition to the 1989 population over eight years.  A 2.1% addition to the current U.S. population of about 316 million yields more than 6.5 million new immigrants a year (52 million over eight years).  Therefore, a conservative recommendation would be to establish an initial immigration level to the U.S. of 6.5 million a year.  (By comparison, there have been about one million immigrants who have gained permanent legal status in the U.S. each of the last three years.  The undocumented population has been falling in recent years.)  The level would be raised regularly thereafter, assuming no devastating effects on the U.S. from previous levels.  Other receiving countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and those in Europe and East Asia could also set their initial immigration levels at 2.1 percent of their current populations.

Again, this gradual approach to open borders means that much of the suffering associated with immigration restrictions would continue for years to come.  I share Bryan Caplan’s concern that fears of swamping, which are unsubstantiated, stand in the way of open borders: “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because we know that free migration has very bad consequences” arguably overcomes the presumption in favor of open borders. “We’re trapping millions in Third World misery because there’s a small chance that free migration has very bad consequences” does not.”   While I am very uncomfortable with the gradualist approach to open borders, at least we have evidence showing a relatively high level at which receiving countries should begin their gradual implementation of open borders.

 

A reply to “Direct Economic Democracy”

Direct Economic Democracy has measured the open borders movement and found it wanting. I couldn’t find any biographical information on the blog other than that the author lives in the UK, so for now the author is just DED to me. Judging by the two posts, DED and I (and probably most advocates of open borders) have substantively different worldviews, but I think there is potentially some common ground. So in addressing our differences I’d like to keep an eye toward our shared aims as well. After all, DED’s tagline is “Everybody matters”, a statement probably every free migrationist would heartily endorse. We advocate open borders in most cases because we think it’s a good way to empower people in poor countries to escape poverty. Likewise, DED is not a committed adversary of open borders, but instead seems to think the world is not yet ready for open borders and demanding free migration too early may evade or worsen the fundamental causes of world poverty:

In principle I share the libertarian ideal of everyone being able to live wherever in the world they fancy. I think the way to go about realising that aim is to first address the issues that create the disparities between rich and poor countries. Once that is (even if only partially) achieved, then the vast bulk of people would no longer have any desire to migrate. A few people would because of personal reasons and for exchange of specialist expertise. However opening borders would then not be opening the floodgates to a torrent of people driven by macroeconomic forces. It is only the prospect of such a torrent that keeps the borders closed now. My total disagreement with the Open Borders campaign is that they advocate opening the borders to a torrent of migration as a first-line response to the disparities between rich and poor countries.

DED begins the (second) post by criticizing free migrationists for describing labor in the rich world as “more productive” than identical labor in the poor world.

To my mind it is grossly insulting to describe that as “less productive” than working in yet another New York restaurant where insufficient custom means the food largely ends up down the sluice. Yet, in terms of how much the workers earn, it is “less productive”. It is all down to the fact that diners in New York have massively more money to spend than diners in Dhaka.

I agree that “productivity” is an unfortunate phrase, especially among non-specialists. It’s important to note that productivity is value-neutral as a technical term. Discussions of productivity differences between rich and poor countries, or similarly between rural and urban environments, have nothing to do with moral character. Because of the potential for connotative misunderstanding though, I prefer not to discuss “worker productivity” but simply wages instead. The pertinent fact is that wages for similar labor and skill sets are higher, sometimes vastly so, in the rich world than in the poor world, and liberalizing migration is the quickest and most straightforward way to eliminate this form of wage discrimination, to the immediate benefit the global poor.

DED suggests this approach is misguided because it fails to address the root causes of global poverty and assumes that such poverty is the result of bad governance in poor countries.

It could be argued that those in the rich world have little capacity to eliminate poverty in foreign countries and so have a greater chance of benefiting the lives of poor people by opening borders to immigration. That argument hinges on the idea that poverty is due to bad governance abroad and that the only answer is for the population to vote with their feet and emigrate. Firstly, I don’t think it is actually true that the rich world is a mere passive observer of poverty abroad. From what I can see, much of the blame for that poverty lies with active policies conducted by the developed world.

[…]

Much of the Open Borders logic seems to stem from the idea that market finance already has an inbuilt characteristic that would always lead towards an optimal solution for the world’s problems if only meddling governments were to stand aside.

I agree that the rich world is not merely a passive observer, but actively enforces policies that inhibit effective development in much of the world. Such policies include the arbitrary borders imposed by Western colonialism, agricultural subsidies cosseting rich farmers and tariffs inflicted on poor farmers, and, I must include, the coercive restrictions on movement known as border controls. I do think that another culprit behind persistent poverty in the world is bad governance. It seems hard to deny that governance has at least some impact in a world that has supplied such natural experiments as the Korean peninsula and East/West Germany. Although too often even the fault of bad governance can be laid at Western feet: the governments of the rich world have exhibited a nasty habit of propping up authoritarian dictators who are friendly to Western interests, or at least the interests of insiders. Then again, it’s important to remember that the “natural state” of humanity is grim poverty and early graves.

My point is not to enumerate the causes of world poverty but only to demonstrate that advocating open borders is consistent with any number of causes of world poverty, including causes DED likely favors. DED rather unfairly implies that advocates of open borders believe that our favored policy is the one true Way to cure what ails the world. But nothing about our advocacy suggests that other complementary policies should not be pursued as well. “Complementary” here is, to some extent, to taste. DED and I will likely disagree on the most effective and most just package of policies to subdue world poverty, but I see no reason in principle why DED, who has no fundamental problem with the freedom to migrate, should not include the opening of borders among their favored policies. Simon Caney’s slate of proposals might be of interest to readers of DED’s ideological persuasion (unfortunately gated). If DED fears the effects of a “torrent” of immigrants, (see here and links therein for a discussion of how likely this is) then the appropriate response is to advocate a gradual opening of borders, rather than defending the status quo.

Even by DED’s own standards of wanting to “address the issues that create the disparities between rich and poor countries” and getting the money to go to where the people are, liberalizing migration is effective. Remittances sent by immigrants to their countries of origin move resources directly into the hands of the poor by magnitudes greater than current official aid from the rich world. Diasporas facilitate investment in the poor world by increasing information flows between agents in rich and poor countries and, importantly, providing economic links augmented by trust and long-term commitment that is absent from far-removed investors.

I have tried to be constructive and non-confrontational in this post because at the end of the day, someone with DED’s concerns and commitments is exactly whom I want to reach (I speak personally here, and not necessarily for my fellow bloggers). But I do want to address some distracting and unnecessary provocations in DED’s posts. Linking to a study relating migration to schizophrenia in a throwaway comment (first post) is insulting to migrants. Hopefully we can all agree that restricting the freedom of movement of people around the world is not an effective way to prevent schizophrenia. And the mention of the Highland Clearances was jarringly irrelevant. No advocate of open borders is proposing a forced relocation of anyone anywhere. It shouldn’t come as a shock that we would decry the Trail of Tears as a blight on American history as well. These were brutally coercive policies that have nothing to do with a liberal migration regime.

It’s reasonable to highlight the abuses that can occur when people migrate to places with minimal standards for human rights protections, as in DED’s link to the story of indentured labourers in Dubai. But I see this as an argument for nations more committed to human rights to open their borders to provide more and better options for the world’s inevitable migrants. This story “underlines a wider phenomenon of migrant workers being in a less assertive position to ensure that they receive a fair level of pay”, something advocates of open borders seek to correct by bringing migration into the formal, regulated economies of democratic societies.

I’ll just close by urging Direct Economic Democracy and their readers to reconsider open borders, or at least reform in that direction, as a policy that could bring substantial benefit to millions of people, even as other systemic maladies of our imperfect world continue to demand solutions.

A case for open borders that is radically agnostic about migrant count

In a previous post, I considered the considerable divergence, even among open borders advocates, about the raw count and selectivity of migrants under open borders. I argued that it is important to get more clarity on these questions, including understanding the source of disagreement and how different views regarding these can affect the other estimates (including economic growth estimates) related to open borders.

In this post, I attempt to sketch several arguments that could form building blocks of a case for open borders that is radically agnostic about how many people would move.

The right to migrate argument

This argument states, simply, that people have a right to migrate. Denial of this right is immoral. How many people would end up choosing to exercise that right is not of direct relevance. Migration restrictions are immoral because they prevent a large number of people who are in a position where they may wish to exercise the right from doing so. The human capabilities case for open borders is somewhat similar.

The lower bound argument

This argument states that even the lowest possible estimate of how many people would actually move under open borders (perhaps such estimates can be obtained by looking at the number of people who have moved under relatively modest migration liberalization regimes) is high enough to make open borders worthwhile. Whether we are talking of 10 million people over a decade or 200 million people over 2-3 years, open borders would have huge impact.

The “it anyway won’t happen immediately” argument

This argument views open borders as a goal we should set our sights on as we gradually work towards it. Thus, determining the numbers of people who’d migrate under complete open borders is at best an illuminative theoretical exercise and at worst a distraction from the more important goal of seeking marginal change that is far better understood. Some proponents of this argument many view open borders advocacy as a means for shifting the Overton window in a manner that makes immigration liberalization appear to be a more “moderate” position.

The “market forces will prevent swamping” argument

One of the concerns that critics of open borders have is that under open borders, countries (mostly rich countries) that are attractive targets for immigrants will get swamped with large numbers of migrants. This is part of the motivation behind the desire to estimate how many would move under open borders. Some open borders advocates believe that market forces, loosely defined, will take care of this concern. If too many immigrants are moving into the area, rents and other prices will rise and wages will fall to the level that it is no longer attractive to move to the destination. Other non-pecuniary negative feedback loops may also counter the swamping threat. Many people use phrases like “migration flows tend to be self-regulating” to describe this perceived phenomenon.

The “however much it takes to attain labor market convergence” argument

This argument states that migration will continue until there is (upward) labor market convergence between the sending and receiving countries. Convergence may not be complete, but may stop when the place premium between the two countries is a factor of 1.5 or less (i.e., there is only a ~50% wage gain from migrating). The point here is that we don’t know for sure how many people would need to move in order for this convergence to occur, because of countervailing factors: governments may begin instituting economic reforms once people start leaving en masse, emigrants may return to the country to set up new factories and business connected with other countries, etc. Or, this may not happen. Uncertainty about how things play out result in considerable agnosticism about the number of people who move, but relatively more certainty about the nature and desirability of the eventual outcome for humanity.

A Voice for Immigrants – Could it be Dan Mitchell?

I’m a big fan of Dan Mitchell. We agree on 95% of political issues (and since I’ve never met anyone who agrees with me 100%, that’s a high mark), he’s got a great sense of humor (both in the sense that he’s funny, and in the sense that he appreciates humor and can laugh at himself), and he’s clearly a man who isn’t afraid to be open about his beliefs, even unpopular ones. But while these are all great qualities in a person, none of them are the thing I like best about him.

The thing I like best about Dan Mitchell is that he’s tireless.

You see, Mitchell has a solid, consistent belief structure, and he’s been advocating for policy based on that structure for a long time. And while every once in a while he gets a win, it can often seem like people fighting for human rights and liberty are taking ten steps back for every one step forward. That kind of record would demoralize most people, but Dan Mitchell has been fighting that fight for years and years, and hasn’t given up yet. That’s why I admire him.

It’s also why I’m writing this. Dan Mitchell’s most recent “Question of the Week” was on the subject of immigration. Immigration reform might be the single policy issue about which I’m the most passionate, and if I could convince a tireless crusader like Dan Mitchell to add the plight of the would-be American Immigrant to his mental checklist of injustices to fight, I think I could go to sleep knowing I’d done many people around the world a huge service. So with that said, while I’d like many people to read this, it’s primarily addressed to Dan Mitchell. I’m going to lay out three reasons why I think he should support a policy of radically increased immigration allowance, or even open borders. In an ideal world I’d convince him – but at worst, hopefully I’ll give him a little extra evidence in favor of that position.

Reason #1: If Immigration Is Mostly Good With Some Bad, It’s Actually Easy To Eliminate Just The Bad

Dan Mitchell is a reasonable person. In his Question of the Week post, he says:

By the way, a senior staffer on Capitol Hill floated to me the idea of a new status that enables illegals to stay in the country, but bars them from citizenship unless they get in line and follow the rules. I’m definitely not familiar with the fault lines on these issues, but perhaps that could be a good compromise.

This is only a very small, single example of a “keyhole solution” – a solution specifically tailored to the problem at hand. To most people, the only three options that come to mind regarding immigration are “allow all of it,” “allow none of it,” or “allow some of it.” But those aren’t the only ways of addressing the issue. It’s very possible to get just the “good parts” of immigration, in the same way that if you like the taste of soda but don’t want the sugar you can have diet soda. Let’s discuss the possibilities of “diet immigration” by discussing what could be considered the “bad parts” of immigration, and how we can eliminate them while still allowing immigration itself.

One of Mitchell’s worries, shared by many free marketers, is political externalities: immigrants may vote for bad policies like increased taxation, wealth redistribution, and the like. But if you can craft an immigration law to any specifications you like (in particular, you have the leeway to keep people out completely and arbitrarily), you could easily craft a law that makes immigration and even permanent residency perfectly legal for anyone, but does not include citizenship. Then there’s no voting issue – the people can come, but they can’t drop a ballot in the box. Continue reading “A Voice for Immigrants – Could it be Dan Mitchell?” »