Tag Archives: territorialism

Bernie Sanders and open borders: OBAG highlights

United States 2016 Democratic Presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders was recently interviewed by wonk-cum-journalist Ezra Klein for Vox, a publication whose writers include open borders advocate Dylan Matthews and fellow-traveler Matt Yglesias. Matthews has frequently linked to Open Borders: The Case and did a lengthy open borders write-up based on an interview with Bryan Caplan. Klein, not himself an open borders supporter (to my knowledge) has likely been influenced by his colleagues to treat the position with more seriousness than most journalists do. So he asked Sanders about open borders. Below is the relevant excerpt from Ezra Klein’s interview of Bernie Sanders:

Ezra Klein

You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing …
Bernie Sanders

Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.
Ezra Klein

Really?
Bernie Sanders

Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …
Ezra Klein

But it would make …
Bernie Sanders

Excuse me …
Ezra Klein

It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?
Bernie Sanders

It would make everybody in America poorer —you’re doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don’t think there’s any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don’t believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today? If you’re a white high school graduate, it’s 33 percent, Hispanic 36 percent, African American 51 percent. You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?

I think from a moral responsibility we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty, but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.
Ezra Klein

Then what are the responsibilities that we have? Someone who is poor by US standards is quite well off by, say, Malaysian standards, so if the calculation goes so easily to the benefit of the person in the US, how do we think about that responsibility?

We have a nation-state structure. I agree on that. But philosophically, the question is how do you weight it? How do you think about what the foreign aid budget should be? How do you think about poverty abroad?
Bernie Sanders

I do weigh it. As a United States senator in Vermont, my first obligation is to make certain kids in my state and kids all over this country have the ability to go to college, which is why I am supporting tuition-free public colleges and universities. I believe we should create millions of jobs rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and ask the wealthiest people in this country to start paying their fair share of taxes. I believe we should raise the minimum wage to at least 15 bucks an hour so people in this county are not living in poverty. I think we end the disgrace of some 20 percent of our kids living in poverty in America. Now, how do you do that?

What you do is understand there’s been a huge redistribution of wealth in the last 30 years from the middle class to the top tenth of 1 percent. The other thing that you understand globally is a horrendous imbalance in terms of wealth in the world. As I mentioned earlier, the top 1 percent will own more than the bottom 99 percent in a year or so. That’s absurd. That takes you to programs like the IMF and so forth and so on.

But I think what we need to be doing as a global economy is making sure that people in poor countries have decent-paying jobs, have education, have health care, have nutrition for their people. That is a moral responsibility, but you don’t do that, as some would suggest, by lowering the standard of American workers, which has already gone down very significantly.

Although Open Borders: The Case the website played a very small role in the ensuing debate (it got linked to by Dylan Matthews for the double world GDP page and then by an unsympathetic AlterNet writer as a “Libertarian” website), the fact that this discussion happened at all, and the attention it got, reveals the increased recognition of “open borders” as a position worth considering and responding to. If the open borders movement didn’t exist, Matthews may not have been referencing “open borders” that frequently in his writing (even if he believed in it). And without Matthews constantly harping on it, Klein may not have chosen to bring up “open borders” — he might simply have asked a question about migration policy without positing open borders as an end state. Insofar as influencing politics goes, this is a small step that rounds down to zero. The biggest gains will happen when global public opinion turns to favoring open borders. But it’s a proof of concept that the fringe “open borders” movement can create ripples, however temporary, in mainstream political discourse.

Rather than review the details or go into my own opinions, I’m going to lay out the chronology by linking to and quoting comments form posts about the subject in the Open Borders Action Group.

First post by Nathan Goodman about the Vox interview

Nathan Goodman posted about Ezra Klein’s interview of Bernie Sanders on July 28, the day it was published. Goodman excerpted the part of the post that interested him most and offered his own summary:

“Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal… That’s a right-wing proposal, that says essentially there is no United States.” –Bernie Sanders

He then follows this with a bunch of economic ignorance, claiming open borders would make Americans drastically poorer.

The post was one of the most liked and commented, with 37 likes and 36 comments. Most liked (21 likes) was my own comment, that made a simple but important point:

I’m glad political candidates are being asked for their views on open borders!

This is an important accomplishment, because as Fabio Rojas wrote:

This may sound like a modest, even trivial, proposal. The opposite is true. Currently, the public has no idea that there are other people who even believe in the concept of open borders. Political debate focuses on whether a few lucky persons might get amnesty, not whether we should make our borders open. That indicates to me that the average person doesn’t appreciate that open borders is even a position that one might consider. That has to change.

Another popular comment was by John Lee, that noted the incongruity of Bernie Sanders viewing open borders as a right-wing position:

“That’s a right-wing proposal, that says essentially there is no United States.”

Apparently “imagine there’s no countries” is a right wing idea today.

After seeing the favorable response, John tweeted this from the @OpenBordersInfo Twitter account, where it was also well received:

A number of commenters noted that Sanders’ opposition to open borders was driven by his support from labor unions that represented the interests of organized labor, to whom immigration was a (real or perceived) threat. Another point noted was that the kind of welfare state that Sanders envisioned would not be feasible under open borders, and so his opposition to open borders was rational. Anthony Gregory:

I don’t think he would support [open borders] in any case. You can’t have open borders and the type of economic policies he wants.

Jameson Graber:

It is amusing that he calls open borders a “right wing” idea, because the right wing is overwhelmingly against it in almost every developed nation. Still, I think he’s being perfectly consistent, here. As a socialist he believes his first responsibility is to take care of the middle class “here at home,” where “home” is defined as the nation state. Socialism and open borders are fundamentally incompatible.

David Kraft:

Can’t say I’m surprised that someone who describes himself as socialist – and by implication seeking support from trade unions – advocates artificially restricting the supply of new labour in order to artificially strengthen the position of the representatives of the existing labour force.

Ben Smith noted that Sanders might be better than many other candidates:

In fairness, when it comes to political candidates, when working on radical reform like open borders, you have to pick the candidate that comes closest, and Bernie Sanders endorses policies closer to open borders more than any Republican candidate.

Second post by Carl Shulman on Sanders’ immigration views and the relation with territorialism

Carl Shulman posted a link to Bernie Sanders doesn’t easily fit either side of the immigration debate. Here’s why. by Dara Lind for Vox. He connected it to the idea of territorialism (the idea that the interests of those already present in the country matter, even if their presence is unauthorized, but those outside the country don’t matter). He also quoted two excerpt from the article:

“Sanders is specifically worried about guest-worker programs…For most politicians, what to do with the unauthorized is the trickiest part of the immigration debate. But for labor and business groups, the most important question is whether, and how, the immigration system should be changed for future legal immigration — what’s called “future flow.” Of course, labor and business have very different answers to that question.

Sanders also sees unauthorized immigrants and future flow as different issues, as he made clear to Jose Antonio Vargas during his town hall at Netroots Nation earlier this month…

Sanders is clearly worried that more immigration to the US is going to drive down wages for the native-born. In that respect, he is drawing a clear line: He cares a lot about the treatment of workers in the United States, whatever their legal status, and is not equally concerned with workers who aren’t yet living in the US.”

“If Bernie Sanders is going to be a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination, he’s going to have to do better than the single-digit support he’s currently attracting from Latino voters. And his immigration position isn’t a deal breaker. But it is a liability.

Latino voters are personally invested in immigration reform — but they’re especially invested in the fate of the unauthorized. While future flows matter to Latinos — many of whom have relatives stuck in years-long immigration backlogs — they’ll be affected much more by preserving and expanding family-based immigration than by what happens with employment-based immigration.

Sanders certainly isn’t winning over any Latino voters by talking about how more immigrants would drive down wages, and the rhetoric alone could be a turn-off. But there’s no reason it would have to be a deal breaker on its own. When it comes to the most important immigration issues to Latino voters, Sanders is saying all the right things.”

Andy Hallman responded with a perceptive comment:

Moderate pro-immigrant groups typically believe states have the right to control their border, unlike OB advocates and many libertarians. That means Bernie Sanders can appear pro-immigrant by saying things like “immigrants helped build this country” while also wanting to keep out those “helpful” immigrants.

I read Jorge Ramos’s book “La Otra Cara de America” (The Other Face of America), which is largely about Hispanics in the United States. Ramos, a journalist for Univision, said he didn’t mind immigration controls, he just thought a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment was racially motivated. I think that is the most common attitude among moderate pro-immigration voices.

Third post by Kirien Eyma on AlterNet’s defense of Sanders

Kirien Eyma posted a link to an AlterNet piece by Zaid Jilani titled How the Latest Smear Campaign Against Bernie Sanders Collapsed Before It Started. The Vermont senator’s words were completely twisted. Here’s what he actually said.

John Lee comments with a criticism of Sanders’ proposal:

So the article says it’s twisting Sanders’s words to say he opposes open borders and therefore actively disregards the interests of billions of lower-income people.

But then the article says Sanders does oppose open borders, he just supports slightly less-closed borders than most politicians. And its discussion of how his immigration proposals will help lower-income people focuses entirely on the ~12 million undocumented immigrants already present in the US, ignoring completely how his active opposition to looser immigration controls actively harms billions of lower-income people around the world.

To the extent that the article critiques the claim that looser immigration controls will empower low-income people outside the US, it predicates this on the outlandish assumption that the only reason people would ever want to migrate to the US is because free trade ruined their countries’ economies.

John Lee’s post on Ryan Cooper’s critique of open borders in The Week

John Lee posted a link to Why a massive wave of immigration is not a magic fix for the economy by Ryan Cooper in The Week, which cited nativist backlash as a reason to be skeptical of open borders. John excerpted and commented on it thus:

“What air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country would do, of course, is create the mother of all nativist backlashes.”

You know what else creates the mother of all bigoted backlashes? Freeing slaves, giving women equal rights, letting black people move into white neighbourhoods…

The most liked comment was by Charles W. Johnson:

Who in the world suggests “air-dropping a billion random foreigners into the country”? I advocate removing all barriers to individual migration. But of course, migrants don’t move *randomly*; they move with a purpose of their own and generally respond to economic incentives at least as well as anybody else does in dispersing towards or converging on available economic opportunities. I suppose if you just dumped a huge pile of random university graduates from around the U.S. on Silicon Valley, that wouldn’t do much to keep the tech industry running from day to day; but fortunately that’s not how mobile labor markets work in a rational society.

However, there was some pushback from others. Jameson Graber:

As much as I would like to just trash this article because of its conclusion, I think the author makes a fair point about the nation state: it really is the most reliable institution develop thus far for allowing large markets to exist. In Hayekian terms, I think this is a major victory in cultural evolution. Whereas ancient people were loyal mainly to their own tribe, modern people are capable of holding onto rather abstract notions of “nation,” and this allows for an amazing level of trust among large numbers of people who would be otherwise totally unrelated. However, moving beyond this to simply eliminating the nation state altogether is, I think, a utopian ideal. Perhaps one day (a long time from now) we might have some sort of global federation uniting all the peoples of the world….

In the meantime, I don’t think the author makes the case that open borders is actually a bad idea. But I do think that making the open borders case based on anti-statism is a bad idea. Better to make an argument rooted in the very traditions which have made great nation states great.

Omar Benmegdoul:

Sure, under open borders immigrants wouldn’t be randomly selected, but there would certainly be a lot more of them than there are now, which is really all there needs to be for a backlash. And I don’t think pointing out that the abolition of slavery and other such forms of progress also created backlash is going to be very convincing, even though it’s a good argument from our perspective.

As it stands, the Harms (theoretical) > “Nativist backlash” and “Culture clash” are pretty weak on counterarguments. We should probably have a keyhole solution at least (“increase immigration by 1% each year until all hell is about to break loose”).

Paul Crider’s post about Bernie Sanders’ response on his website

Paul Crider linked to “Open Borders”: A Gimmick, Not a Solution by Richard Eskow on Bernie Sanders’ official website. Crider wrote:

If only I had time to do a point-by-point response essay to this, it could provide for some interesting engagement …

Andy Hallman:

From the article:

“Open borders is a recipe for the further commodification of human beings. It treats people as economic inputs to be moved about the globe at the whim of global capital.”

If only the refugees knew that we were turning their boats back for their own good, to save them from a life of exploitation.

I’ve been reading about the Khmer Rouge lately, and this is the kind of thing its leaders believed, that nearly any sacrifice of human beings could be justified on the grounds you were saving them from the horrors of materialism.

Carl Shulman:

“Bier fails to consider a fundamental principle of economics: when the supply of labor increases, wages go down. A massive influx of foreign workers would lead to a steep plunge in those multiples. What’s more, there are often significant cost-of-living differences between the United States and these workers’ countries of origin.”

The paper DOES adjust for cost-of-living differences. Although it’s true that wages for migrants (who are substitutes for each other even if they complement natives) would fall with massive migration, and Clemens nods to that when estimating total benefits of open borders (at a lot less than ‘double world GDP’ though).

One fair complaint from the Sanders camp: why single out Sanders vs Clinton, who is probably no better or worse on the issue?

Admittedly, the questioning by Klein was opportunistic, but will Clinton manage to avoid answering any such question? Getting such questions into town halls or any other opportunity to bypass Clinton’s media screening might be helpful for furthering this conversation.

Nathan Goodman’s response:

The other issue is that people willing to adopt radical views look up to Bernie Sanders. If he successfully demonizes open borders for them, that’s a real harm.

Nathan Smith:

I wonder whether Bernie Sanders is sincere. It would almost certainly hurt any presidential candidate openly to support open borders. That’s a downside of asking presidential candidates about their position on this: if they secretly agree with us, we may be forcing them to lie.

Lant Pritchett:

Sanders just clarified that while he is a socialist he is a national socialist.

Other news and opinion pieces on Sanders’ remarks

The following pieces didn’t get directly discussed in OBAG, but received some attention and some of them were referenced in the pieces that got discussed on OBAG.

Related reading

The following material from our archives might be relevant:

The featured image is a public domain image of Bernie Sanders from the United States Congress photos. It was retrieved via Wikipedia.

Angela Merkel and the crying refugee, and the search for a human face of the costs of migration restrictions

A video showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel responding to a young Palestinian refugee has received a lot of attention in the press and in the social media last week. Reem Sahwil, a teenage girl whose family still faces the threat of deportation after four years in Germany, described her situation in some detail and eventually started crying on the air, prompting Ms Merkel to try to comfort her, all the while staying firm in her defense of the policies that have been causing Reem so much grief.

Most of the responses I’ve seen were critical of Angela Merkel, often describing her as cold hearted and her response as clumsy and insulting.

This sort of incident may be a strategic godsend for the cause of free(r) migration.  In the Open Borders Action Group on Facebook, Sam Dumitriu suggests that “More situations like this should be engineered to make the costs of closed borders salient.”

The largely critical response also seems encouraging. As Andy Hallman pointed out in another Facebook thread, it’s not far fetched to imagine how commenters could have instead been “flippant about the little girl’s suffering”.

The great news is that a much more commonly expressed response has been anger at the unjust treatment of this young girl. The not so great news is that a lot, if not most, of the criticism focuses not on the policies, but on morally trivial aspects of Ms Merkel’s interaction with Reem.

What happened

An 88 minute long program was filmed on the 15th of July, which shows Chancellor Merkel talking politics with 29 teenage students of a school in Rostock. At one point the moderator passed the microphone to Reem Sawhil, asking her to tell her story. Reem explained that she is a Palestinian who had moved to Germany from Lebanon four years ago. She has found it easy to assimilate as people have been nice to her at her school and she likes her new home, but she has recently become aware that other young refugees have a much harder time.

Ms Merkel complimented her for her flawless German, and Reem explained that she loves languages and has also greatly enjoyed learning English as well as some Swedish, and that she will take up French next year.

Reem then explained that her family still had not received a residence permit, and that her father remains banned from working in Germany. Probably in anticipation of Reem’s participation in the TV program, her family members had started asking why it is that foreigners aren’t allowed to work as easily as Germans, and Reem had tried and failed to find any answers.

She then explained that her family had recently gone through a rough time, as they had been on the verge of being deported. Reem said she had been feeling very bad and that her teachers and friends had all noticed. Ms Merkel asked what the current situation was, and Reem explained that they had received permission to stay for the time being after some bureaucratic hoop jumping, but were still waiting to hear back from the immigration authorities. She then said how much she misses her family members whom she has not been able to see in four years.

Ms Merkel explained that the policies in place require that the authorities examine whether refugees have a legitimate reason to want political asylum. She said that policy makers have recently been discussing the issue of refugees being found to have an insufficient claim to asylum only after having spent several years in Germany while waiting for the authorities to make a decision. Here she asked Reem whether she had come to Lebanon from Syria, which Reem said was not the case. She then explained that, while Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps were clearly not well off, many other people live in political circumstances that are even worse, especially people in war zones. She repeated that it is a serious problem that refugees in Germany often have to wait for a decision for such a long time, and stated that measures to make this procedure faster are now under way. She added that they would not let all refugees from Lebanon in since they have to prioritise for people who come directly from war zones.

Reem then said she has a great desire to study in university, and she finds it tough watching her friends enjoy their lives and prospects while the uncertainty about her future deprives her of such enjoyment.

Ms Merkel said she understands this, but that she cannot simply grant her wishes. Politics can be tough, she said. And while she happened to be face to face with Reem at that time, and Reem happens to be an extremely likable person, there were thousands upon thousands of other people in Lebanon and elsewhere, and that if “we” told those people they can all come, “we wouldn’t be able to handle it”. The only answer they can offer, she said, is to make sure the procedure does not take so long.  But, she repeated, many would have to go back, too.

The moderator then suggested to Ms Merkel that she remember Reem’s face and hold it in memory when making policy decisions on these issues. He asked her how quickly the authorities’ decision would be reached in the future, and Ms Merkel started telling him that she thinks the vast majority of cases that have been pending for more than two years would be processed within one year from now. I know this is what she went for saying because she stated it later in the program, but here she stopped mid sentence as she noticed Reem was crying.

She then walked up to her and stroked her back, telling her she had done great – suggesting, perhaps, that she took her crying to be from nervousness after having opened up on television. The moderator said he didn’t think it was about how well she’d done but about the toughness of her situation. Ms Merkel said she knew it was a tough situation, and that she nonetheless wanted to stroke her because “we” do not want to force people like Reem into such situations, and because Reem has it hard, but also because Reem had described so well, for very many other people, the sort of situation one can end up in.

What else happened

On the 10th of July (five days prior), a set of new laws had been passed, pursuant to which Reem will very likely be able to stay in Germany. These laws may not protect her parents from deportation, however, and also aim at deporting more refugees more quickly in the future. They also state that refugees can be incarcerated for up to four days prior to deportation.

As outraged responses started pouring through the web, a few articles stating that Reem was speaking up in defense of Ms Merkel appeared. They linked to a brief video in which Reem stated: “She listened to me, and she stated her opinion, and I think that’s fine.”

My comments

I think Ms Merkel has been unfairly accused, by very many commenters, of having been very harsh toward Reem in this encounter. And, in solidarity let’s say, I will begin my comments with some harshness of my own.

Obviously Reem is in a difficult situation, and I think the policies that put her in this situation are severely immoral. She has the right to live in any housing that a landowner agrees to rent or sell to her or her family, and her father has the right to work any job an employer or customer agrees to pay him to do (as does Reem, for that matter). Violating these rights without sufficient justification is wrong.

Yet, if we’re looking for a representative human face for the receiving side of the cruelty of migration restrictions, that face is not Reem’s. Reem is far too well off.

If you think to say this is to belittle the toughness of Reem’s situation, ask yourself whether you may be belittling the hardship of the many millions of people who have it far worse than her.

Hans Koss defended Ms Merkel against many of her recent critics in a similar vein:

The policies might be wrong in different ways, but I think that the idea to completely abolish any prioritization (currently Syria > L[e]banon > Albania) is more wrong; I believe that the capacities should be increased, but as long as the capacities are not unlimited (and that simply won’t happen – and if so, soon after that a party would be elected which drastically reduces it), prioritization is better than no prioritization. I believe that the debate is overemotionalized, which is bad for the refugees; I think it is remarkable how Merkel addresses the topic of prioritization in an honest way after having [made sure] that the girl is currently not in a desperate situation.

Many of the widely circulated criticisms of how Ms Merkel conducted herself strike me as blatantly unfair. E.g. the Daily Mail reports that

Jan Schnorrenberg, manager of the opposition Green party’s youth wing, wrote: ‘Explaining to a young girl on live camera that her fate doesn’t matter to you – just shameful.’

Ms Merkel did no such thing.

The guardian reports that

But she was forced to stop mid-sentence, and muttered “oh Gott”, on seeing that Reem was crying.

Did the author mishear? She did not mutter “oh Gott”.

But a much more important point about many such criticisms is that, even if they were fair, they would be unimportant. Had Ms Merkel actually lost her composure, or been particularly clumsy, or had she actually been cold or condescending toward Reem, even, those things would not be worth a fraction of the outrage so many have invested in these accusations.

Has Ms Merkel done anything wrong? Yes. She defended immoral policies. But note that these policies have been around for many decades. There’s no news here. Note, also, that these policies are overwhelmingly supported among the electorate.  They’re not exactly her doing. And when she says that “we wouldn’t be able to handle” a massive inflow of immigrants, that statement can be quite reasonably defended on the basis that so many natives might respond to this inflow in seriously disruptive ways. (E.g. see reports of arson attacks and shootings here and here.) Spare some blame for those less prestigious agents of representative democracy, too.

When billions of foreigners have been victimised by the restrictionist policies of (far) more tolerable countries for such a long time, why make such a big deal out of Reem? In many cases, the reasons may well involve territorialism: Foreigners enjoy a lot more sympathy with respect to their desire to immigrate once they’ve already settled in the receiving country, even if they did so illegally. That Reem has been living in Germany for four years is sure to win her a lot of support, even though it also makes her such a “lesser victim” of the policies. The fact that she’s clearly bright and academically ambitious should win her further support from the many people whose pro-immigrant sentiments extend only to highly skilled individuals.

John Lee wrote some great comments in an email replying to my request for thoughts for the present post:

One tension I observe in immigration policy is that a lot of people support harsh policies in principle, but when confronted with the human impacts of their actions, they waver and demand an exception for that specific instance of harshness they’ve encountered. This is especially common on the left — in the US, the left’s reaction to the child asylum-seeker influx was basically spineless, since they refused to meaningfully alter US immigration policy, but demanded lots of exceptions for the children. A somewhat similar response materialised from the compassionate right as well (where they didn’t demand policy changes but offered charitable aid for the children).

The upshot of it is that the most “effective” immigration policies are those which hide away the suffering and harshness. Some of the comments I saw about the Merkel video were to the effect of “Well yes obviously now that she’s integrated into German society they have to let her stay. But that’s why the compassionate thing would have been to prevent refugees like her from ever coming to Germany in the first place.”

He attached this cartoon from The Economist:

For all the problems with the many reactions to the video, I think it’s fabulous that many people at least recognise the cruelty of deportation, at least when it’s given a likable human face, at least when that face belongs to someone who’s already put down roots in the receiving country. I hope the video makes a lasting effect in this regard.

Related reading

Note: The featured image of Angela Merkel is from author Kuebi = Armin Kübelbeck on WikiMedia Commons and is licensed dually under Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA) and GFDL. You can get more details here.

Overview of the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on migration liberalisation

[A draft of this post was reviewed by Alexander Berger, Program Officer for US Policy at GiveWell, and a number of changes were made to it based on his comments and corrections.]

Charity evaluator GiveWell seeks to identify underfunded charities that can provide clear evidence of positive impact. Making their list of top charities therefore requires that one do good in sufficiently uncomplicated ways, ideally through a straightforward chain of cause and effect. Open borders activism does not fit this description. However, in early 2013, GiveWell (GW) broadened their focus to include less tractable causes through the Open Philanthropy Project, a joint project of GW and the philanthropic foundation Good Ventures (GV). Among a few dozen general causes including criminal justice reform and geoengineering research, “international labor mobility” was put on the agenda no later than in May 2013. This post will give an overview of the work the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP) has done in investigating and funding migration related efforts in the last two years.

A shallow overview of “labor mobility” was posted on GW’s homepage in May 2013. The page credits two specific sources with raising GW and GV researchers’ interest in this cause: Michael Clemens’s article “Economics and Emigration” (the origin of the “double world GDP” estimate), and the conversation that GW and GV staff held with Lant Pritchett in June 2012.

The Open Philanthropy Project’s assessment of free migration as a philanthropic cause

Since the inception of the OPP, the researchers’ stated position has been that labour mobility holds potential for very large gains, mainly in the form of large wage increases for workers who migrate from low-income-countries to high-income-countries. This is in line with Michael Clemens’s argumentation, although the OPP’s position is more guarded in its assessment of the magnitude of the gains, stating little confidence in the output of the relevant models. (Note that Open Borders bloggers have also argued for a lower estimate than Clemens’s.) A back-of-the envelope calculation provided on the GW website nonetheless states that it may be appropriate to consider the “importance” of labor mobility to be in the low trillions of $/year, based on the assumption of 10% as much migration as expected under full liberalisation in the models used by Michael Clemens. Efforts to facilitate legal migration through information sharing and coordination are estimated to hold potential corresponding to hundreds of millions of additional $/year, and the Senate Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill is estimated to represent a plausible US policy path that would carry benefits in the low hundreds of billions of $/year for future migrants (these gains would be realised in 2033 had the bill passed in 2013).

Characteristically concerned with room for more funding, the OPP’s assessment considers the extent to which the cause is already crowded by other philanthropic organisations. Policy work concerned with the treatment of undocumented immigrants in the US and with high-skilled labour for US businesses is seen as very crowded. Crucially, however, the OPP’s globalist humanitarian perspective sets it apart from the vast majority of active philanthropists working on US immigration policy, whose focus seems strongly influenced by citizenism and territorialism: The OPP’s focus is primarily on the interest of the immigrants, not on the interests of US employers in search of labour. And their priority lies with low-skilled immigrants, who have the most to gain from labour mobility. And here, the cause is everything but crowded.

The shallow assessment of labour mobility from May 2013 raises the possibility of important downsides of migration liberalisation as requiring research, and takes no position on this side of the issue. A post published in July 2014 states (citing a conversation with Michael Clemens and announcing a forthcoming writeup of the evidence)

our current understanding is that best evidence suggests that both lower- and higher-skill immigration are net beneficial for current residents, though they have somewhat different distributional effects.

On the 3rd of September 2014, Holden Karnofsky posted a draft writeup on the likely impact of increased immigration on current US residents’ wages, which the OPP had commissioned David Roodman to write, stating

We haven’t yet fully vetted this writeup (something we are planning to do), but we believe it gives a thorough and convincing picture of the literature, and provides some reason to believe that immigration is unlikely to result in substantially lower wages (particularly over the long run) for current residents.

(See also Open Borders’ reference page on the potential suppression of wages of natives.)

As for how highly they have prioritised this cause compared with the other philanthropic causes on their list:

An update on the Open Philanthropy Project posted on the GW blog on 26 September 2013 described “deep investigations” of 7 philanthropic causes as a crucial next step, involving proactive grantmaking. Labour mobility is on top of the list.

A much later post from 29 May 2014 on “Potential U.S. policy focus areas” groups labour mobility together with “macroeconomic policy” under the heading “Ambitious longshots: outstanding importance”, and places “deep investigation” of these two causes on top of the agenda, as investigation into the more time-sensitive “criminal justice reform” was being paused at that point in time.

A new Open Philanthropy Project update on US Policy related causes was posted on 10 March 2015. It states:

Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

A spreadsheet linked to from last week’s OPP update explicitly gives “labor mobility” the highest importance out of all OPP causes. (See the  “Importance” column.) Unfortunately, this importance is not reflected by a corresponding number of funding opportunities.

Taking action

Since many of the causes taken on in the Open Philanthropy Project call for policy changes, GW’s and GV’s researchers have investigated expected costs and benefits of policy reform strategies. Vipul has written an Open Borders post about the conversation they’ve held on the topic with Steve Teles, and they have also held two conversations with Mark Schmitt. A series of  blog posts from October and November 2013 outline some general conclusions on policy oriented philanthropy.

As previously mentioned, the “deep investigation” of the causes was to involve proactive grantmaking. A blog post from May 2014 describes how GW’s and GV’s researchers came to adopt this approach:

from observing the behavior of potential grantees and other funders, we came to believe that a funder must be highly prepared (and likely) to make grants in an area in order to find giving opportunities in that area. Many people will only make the relevant referrals, propose relevant ideas, etc. once they are convinced of a philanthropist’s serious interest in providing funding.

The term “Earning to give” is often used in the Effective Altruism community, and I imagine the parallel terminology here is intentional:

“Giving to learn” can mean multiple things. It can mean (a) funding research in order to gain specific knowledge; it can also mean (b) funding a project in order to learn from following the project’s progress. The dynamic laid out in the above bullet points represents perhaps the most counterintuitive meaning: “giving to learn” can mean (c) offering funding in order to learn from the process of finding grantees.

[Update: Alexander Berger tells me the parallelism is not intentional.]

Three grants and one potential top charity

 The Center for Global Development (CGD) was awarded a grant for $1,184,720 over 3 years in March 2014.

This is the nonprofit think tank that employs Michael Clemens. As mentioned above, his publications were important in bringing the issue of labour mobility to GW and GV researchers’ attention.

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Michael Clemens had advocated for making Haiti eligible for access to the H-2 temporary work visa program, as an outstandingly effective form of disaster relief. GW and GV researchers estimate that his efforts contributed significantly to the U.S. government’s decision to accept this proposal.

The grant will fund further research by Michael Clemens on “both marginal and more ambitious” changes to migration policy and its possible role in disaster relief. CGD will further use the grant money to launch a Working Group on Designing and Evaluating Bilateral Low-Skill Labor Mobility Agreements between high and low income countries. A Working Group on Creating a Migration-for Development Unit within the US Government will possibly also be launched.

While GW and GV are unsure of the marginal contribution the grant money will make to the CGD’s productivity in this area, they note that Michael Clemens’s work had very few sources of funding.

Follow-up is a crucial part of the  Open Philanthropy Project’s process. The writeup states that they “expect to have a conversation with Dr. Clemens every 3-6 months for the duration of the grant to learn about the status of his research and advocacy efforts, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.”

Notes on a conversation with Michael Clemens held on 21 January 2015 were published last week. Highlights:

Recently, most of Dr. Clemens’ time has been dedicated to three working groups and one study group:

  • A working group on a bilateral labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on creating a migration and development bureau within the U.S. government. This project has been funded by Good Ventures’ grant.

  • A working group on implementing global skill partnerships. This project is currently stalled, and it is unlikely that CGD will become involved in any global skill partnerships within the next year.

  • The Beyond the Fence study group, focused on the indirect effects of the drug war in the U.S., Mexico and Central America. This group’s work has been fairly light so far.

Some details on the first of those working groups:

The exact output that the working group will produce is itself a subject of discussion. It may decide to produce a document outlining particular features that a practical agreement would require and suggesting research needed. This could build upon current bilateral, interministerial cooperation happening between the U.S. and Mexico.

(…)

A primary goal of this group is to design a better system for pairing migrant workers with employers than the current H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. Employers perceive the H-2A program as an obstacle. The U.S. Department of Labor could potentially create a pilot of a program that is instead a useful service for employers, similar to New Zealand’s Recognized Seasonal Employer Work Policy or the work of CITA Independent Agricultural Workers Center.

The second half of the conversation notes provides a lot of detail on Michael Clemens’s numerous migration related research projects. The last section of the document states:

Dr. Clemens does not have a good metric for determining the influence of his work. His papers are frequently included in course syllabi, and two of his papers in particular, “Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?” and “The Place Premium,” seem to receive significant attention.

The U.S. Association for International Migration and the International Organization for Migration were awarded a grant for $1,490,500 over approximately 14 months in July 2014, for a jointly submitted proposal that will involve three further organisations. Among these is the Center for Global Development, which will conduct an evaluation of the program to assess its impact.

The grant will fund a pilot program to familiarise U.S. employers with Haitian lower skill workers, and ensure the legitimate uptake of available temporary H-2 working visas.

Potential upsides of the project include the continuation of the program after the pilot study, and policy changes in response to the results of the evaluation.

A December update reports that the first phase of this program has gone satisfactorily (one of the initial criteria for disbursing a second tranche of funding was waived, as it was recognised in hindsight as unrealistic), and announces the launch of its second phase.

The same document on the conversation with Michael Clemens on 21 January 2015 as cited above also includes two paragraphs giving further updates on this program:

Sarah Williamson (Protect the People) and her team have not yet finalized the employers who will participate in IOM’s program to bring Haitian workers into the U.S. via the H-2A program. IOM plans to take leaders of Haitian agricultural associations on a “study tour” of American farms, with the hope that farmers will put in orders for Haitian workers after meeting these leaders in person.

CGD is preparing to run a survey to measure the effects of the program. (…)

ImmigrationWorks was awarded a grant for $285,000 in July 2014.

Quotes from the writeup to ponder:

We were not able to find any advocacy organizations dedicated to making the case that more lower-skill workers should be allowed to migrate on humanitarian grounds, and experts generally told us that they felt that there was not a major constituency for such a message. The only groups we were able to find advocating for more lower-skill migrants represent business in some capacity, and they are relatively small or do not focus primarily on lower-skill immigrants (…)

Said groups numbered 3, counting ImmigrationWorks. Further:

our understanding is that ImmigrationWorks is the only one for which lower-skill immigration is the top priority, and that it is much smaller than the others.

ImmigrationWorks’ stated mission is to organise small employers of lower-skill immigrants, and mobilise them to advocate in Washington D.C. and across the U.S.

Their stated principles involve: bringing annual legal intake of foreign workers in line with “the country’s labor needs”, ensuring better enforcement of immigration laws, finding “a way to deal realistically with” existing illegal immigrants (which can be neither amnesty nor deportation, as those are both deemed “unacceptable”), and making sure that immigration policy is handled at the federal level.

The writeup acknowledges a (low) risk that ImmigrationWorks will use the grant to move policy in a direction that GW and GV would consider actively harmful.

Beyond closing the organisations projected funding gap for 2014, the proposed uses for the grant are:

  • Advocacy for immigration reform (…) that includes an ample less-skilled worker visa program, by mobilizing business to advocate to “business-minded Democrats and pro-immigration Republicans.”

  • Public opinion research (…) to try to determine which messages work to persuade people of the need for lower-skill immigrant workers

  • Building consensus around policy (…) with the business community

Conversations with IW founder Tamar Jacoby are expected “every 2-3 months over the course of the year-long grant.” No update has yet been published (which does not mean that no conversations were held, as notes are published only for a minority of conversations).

Migration within national borders

Domestic migration may not be of obvious concern to bloggers devoted to Open Borders, insofar as the obstacles faced by the migrants do not include any political borders. But the work on seasonal migration within low income countries that GW and GV researchers have been following and funding is quite relevant to Open Borders advocacy as well.

Bryan, Chowdhury, and Mobarak have run randomised controlled trials in  Rangpur, “a region of rural Bangladesh that persistently suffers from pre-harvest famines.” The trials were conducted over three years and involved 100 villages. This research finds that providing subsidies for seasonal migration can effectively increase migration and household consumption.

Evidence Action, the organisation that manages the GW Top Charity Deworm the World Initiative, is currently funding a 4,000 household study in northern Bangladesh “to explore further the potential of scaling up a migration subsidy program”.  The OPP has made a $250,000 grant to support this work in March 2014, with the stated aim of supporting the creation of future Top Charities.

A more specific goal of this research is to empirically investigate a number of questions on unintended consequences of migration – some of which are frequently discussed here on Open Borders:

  • Does sending many unskilled laborers to a single city change wages?

  • Does migration influence housing prices at destination cities?

  • What kinds of housing opportunities are migrants finding?

  • Does migration affect food prices in villages of origin?

  • Does migration change gender dynamics (e.g., what changes occur when women are left at home to manage home finances when men migrate)?

  • Are there are any unintended consequences for households who do not send a migrant?

Provided that the results of this research are encouraging with respect to scalability, Evidence Action intend to significantly scale up their seasonal migration support program. We can hope to see a funding proposal later this year.

Conclusion

I am very impressed with the Open Philanthropy Project’s work on labour mobility. It is exciting to read about the specific action undertaken, and I can imagine their sheer demonstration of initiative having considerable power to shift people’s thinking on migration.

The researchers’ careful evaluation both of the importance of the cause of migration liberalisation, and of the amount of effort currently invested in the cause, seem to me to strongly confirm the views generally held on these issues by Open Borders bloggers. To recap some relevant highlights:

  • The OPP come out prioritising the cause of free migration very highly. If other causes are currently prioritised more highly, the stated reason for this is always that they are able to identify more funding opportunities in these other domains. Thus, when it comes to launching additional efforts to further a cause, increasing freedom of migration between low-income and high-income countries seems to be a plausible candidate for “most high impact cause to take on”.
  • The OPP have found no political advocacy group in the U.S. that promotes immigration of low-skilled workers on humanitarian grounds.
  • The OPP have found only three political advocacy groups in the U.S. that promote immigration of low-skilled workers at all, and they all do so with the aim of “advancing the interests of U.S. businesses”.
  • In contrast, there is plenty of philanthropic engagement in immigration-related causes that are consistent with extreme citizenism (bringing in more high-skilled labour to advance U.S. economic interests) and territorialism (defending rights of existing immigrants, but not the right to immigrate).

Related reading

Some related reading from Open Borders: The Case and others:

Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions

A naive thinker about open borders might think of it as simply a continuum of possibilities: we can open the borders a bit, or a lot. This distinction is discussed on our moderate versus radical open borders page.

The idea of keyhole solutions has added more dimensions (in a very literal mathematical sense, in addition to the more metaphorical one) to the discussion. Rather than thinking simply of “how much more open should borders be?” the question shifts to “what sort of policy combinations can allow for us to get the most benefit out of migration, in the ways we care about?” The term “keyhole solutions” has come to represent the general idea of exploring a larger space of possibilities with respect to how migration can be expanded.

The purist in me isn’t too happy about this, because “keyhole solutions” as I believe the term originated had a more narrow meaning: to refer to narrow, targeted solutions that address the particular (real, perceived, or predicted) problem at the intersection of migration and whatever other domain is being considered, while trying to interfere as little as possible with the rest of the universe. But meaning is imbued by usage, and I’m okay with the meaning expanding and getting more fuzzy. In this post, however, I discuss some important distinctions between different approaches to “compromise” on open borders policy. There are a few additional subtleties that I’ll deliberately refrain from here, thereby meaning that my post is not reflective on my full thinking on the topic. I’m making that trade-off to keep the post simple.

A simple illustration of the distinction between true keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and (selective) blanket restriction

Consider the (abstract) problem that high levels of migration, along with current de facto rules for the rules for eligibility for welfare benefits, could lead to fiscal bankruptcy. Consider three potential “solutions” (note that these don’t even come close to exhausting the space of possible “solutions” — but they help to illustrate the distinction I’m trying to draw here):

  1. Improve the effectiveness with which immigrants (perhaps limited to the additional immigrants under migration liberalization) are walled off from the welfare state (this could involve changing the rules, or enforcing existing rules more effectively, or a combination).
  2. Reduce welfare benefits across the board for the whole population (see also our contraction of welfare state page).
  3. Forbid the migration of people for whom the probability of welfare benefit use, or the extent of such use (in expectation) exceeds a threshold.

In a loose sense, these are all “keyhole solutions” insofar as they attempt to address the (perceived or predicted) problem of migrant welfare benefit use.

However, they are all different in important ways:

  1. The first addresses the perceived problem at the intersection of migration status and welfare eligibility. Prima facie, this targets the problem most narrowly and is most deserving of the “keyhole solution” label. I’ll call this type of solution a true keyhole solution.
  2. The second addresses the problem but focuses on the broader issue of welfare use and welfare eligibility. Rather than focusing on migrants per se, it addresses a potential problem that is made more severe due to migration flow, but it addresses it in a way that does not per se discriminate on the basis of migration status. I’ll call this type of solution a complementary policy change.
  3. The third seeks to preserve the status quo as far as possible with respect to domestic policy, and addresses the potentially dangerous interaction with migration by forbidding the forms of migration perceived as risky. I’ll call this type of solution a blanket restriction. To emphasize that the blanket restrictions don’t apply to everybody, we might call it selective blanket restriction.

However, from another perspective, (2) and (3) are examples of keyhole solutions, insofar as they directly address problems created by migration. Whatever names you choose, I want to claim that there is an important conceptual distinction. Continue reading “Not-quite-open borders: keyhole solutions, complementary policies, and blanket restrictions” »

Joseph Carens on the ethics of immigration: part 1

In academic philosophical circles, Joseph Carens is well known as a proponent of open borders. His 1987 article Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders was included in our pro-open borders reading list since around the time of the site launch, and co-blogger Nathan blogged about the paper back in April 2012. We’ve referenced Carens quite a bit in subsequent blog posts.

I recently learned that Carens has given the philosophical issues surrounding migration the book-length treatment they deserve in the book The Ethics of Immigration (Oxford University Press, 2013). This is the first book-length treatment I’m aware of that deals with migration from a philosophical perspective and is written by a single author (UPDATE: As Paul Crider points out in the comments, Philosophies of Exclusion by Phillip Cole is an earlier book on the subject that I’d forgotten about. I haven’t read it, though). I was quite excited to hear about it, and read it with great eagerness. I found much food for thought in the book. In this blog post series (which may have two, three, or more parts, depending on the amount of material I end up wanting to write up) I will go over the parts of Carens’ book I found most interesting.

#1: Broad strategy followed by Carens

The book is not largely a defense of open borders. In fact, while the author does defend open borders, this is only a couple of chapters near the end of the book, and these chapters operate on somewhat different starting assumptions from the rest of the book. Rather, Carens spends the first ten chapters arguing within the status quo framework, i.e., assuming that it is just that the world is carved into nation-states and that states can exercise significant discretionary control over migration, but he also assumes that these are constrained by what he (inaptly?) terms “democratic principles” — more on that in #3. In the last four chapters, he critiques the status quo itself, and argues for open borders. He also defends himself against the charge of Trojan Horse-ing his way through. Chapters 1-8 come to many mainstream pro-migrant but migration policy-neutral conclusions, while Chapters 9-10 argue for for the right to family reunification and some rights for refugeees. Echoing Nathan’s view that a strong case for freer migration and more migrant rights can be made from communitarian premises, the bulk of Chapters 1-8 argues for migrant rights on communitarian grounds. This isn’t surprising, because communitarian grounds may be the only defensible framework that can simultaneously justify nation-states in the broad sense while still being compatible with moral egalitarian conditions. Roughly, the worldview Carens embraces is that everybody is equal, but many aspects of people’s rights are membership-specific (in relation to their communities) rather than universal moral claims, thereby permitting differential treatment (in some respects) by a state of tourists, temporary migrants, permanent residents, and citizens.

#2: Alleged target audience

Carens claims that his book is targeted at the median resident of the democracies of Europe and North America. This is an improvement over most migration-related books, that are often singularly focused on one specific country. However, I found Carens’ claim disingenuous in two ways:

  • I don’t see a good reason why universal moral arguments should not be applicable to people outside Europe or North America, and Carens’ limited targeting may be viewed as a version of the soft bigotry of low expectations — i.e., that people in India or Malaysia or Australia or Japan or Saudi Arabia or Singapore or Hong Kong or the UAE need to be held to a lower moral bar with respect to migration policy. Carens occasionally cites policies in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, UAE, etc. as policies that no sensible country devoted to “democratic principles” (more on that catchword later) would follow. Contra Carens, I believe not only that the case for open borders is universal, but also that any case that can be made for or against various migrant rights is universal.
  • Carens gives too much credit to the median resident of Europe or North America. The median resident doesn’t buy tracts from a university press that spend 300+ pages pondering over philosophical questions. About 15% of Americans are judged college-ready, and my guess is that the college-readiness benchmark would be a rough minimum to get through Carens’ book (you’d also need to be very interested in the subject). There’d of course be exceptions, but the percentage would overall be less than, not more than, 15%. This per se isn’t worrisome — authors often claim that their works have wider reach than they actually have — but it’s related to other things problematic about Carens’ logic.

#3: The “democratic principles” catchphrase

Carens uses the catchphrase “democratic principles” to describe beliefs that the median resident of Europe or North America might hold, but which seems to me to be (largely) shorthand for the ethical intuitions that people Carens interacts regularly with hold. To be clear, I’m no expert on the median person either, but a lot of the claims that Carens makes about how ordinary people think seem a bit off to me, judging by polling data I’ve seen. I feel like he’s slippery in roughly the same way Michael Huemer is when making claims about reasonable starting points for intuitions that most people hold.

For instance, Joseph Carens argues that it is obvious to any observer today (or at any rate, any observer who is faithful to “democratic principles”) that the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA) was wrong, because it is obviously wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality. While I agree that the CEA was wrong (see this lengthy blog post by co-blogger Chris Hendrix), it’s unclear to me that it’s significantly more “obvious” than open borders at large. If you embrace the principle that it’s wrong to discriminate on the basis of nationality to the point that the CEA is obviously wrong, haven’t you more or less embraced open borders (insofar as closed borders discriminate on the basis of nationality in a fairly fundamental way)? Further, to the extent that the CEA is condemnable on the grounds that it discriminated between different foreign nationalities, couldn’t the same be said of free movement within the EU (in that it discriminates between “other EU countries” and “non-EU countries” in its admissions policy)? Empirically, too, it’s unclear that people today have a strong view against the Chinese Exclusion Act. My impression is that the majority of Americans, if polled today, would be largely indifferent and consider it morally acceptable (even if unwise), rather than recoil in horror at the idea that such an act was passed a while back.

The remaining points are all arguments Carens makes presupposing the status quo framework, not necessarily ones he supports in reality, though every argument he makes moves in the “pro-migrant” and/or “open borders” direction once he takes off the hat of presupposing the status quo.

#4: Carens’ argument in favor of local legal equality

In a bow of sorts to territorialism and local inequality aversion, Carens argues that the same legal rules should apply to everybody within the physical territory, as opposed to a multi-tiered legal system. Carens does not propose an actual set of optimal policies, arguing that doing so would be outside the scope of the book. Rather, he uses a meta level argument. He argues that when a government (at a national or provincial level) chooses policies based on a balancing of considerations (e.g., choosing a minimum wage or labor regulation) the optimal policy that applies should be the same for natives as well as non-natives. Therefore, it makes no sense to have different labor regulations or policies for citizens and non-citizen permanent residents and temporary workers (a different policy for tourists is acceptable, because they’re not supposed to work). For instance, if minimum wage requirements are wrong, then they should not be applied to citizens either.

I see two objections to this, the first of which Carens anticipates to some extent, but the second he does not:

  • It can be argued that different subdivisions of the population based on citizenship/residency are statistically different, so the best balancing of interests would suggest different optima for them. This can be analogized to how the optimal labor regulation changes with time — changes with time change the nature of the labor work being done, or the skill level, and therefore change optimal labor regulation. Similarly, different segments of the labor force have different labor needs and different optimal laws.

    Carens addresses this (largely in implicit fashion). He argues that segmenting the force this way is not appropriate, any more than having different labor laws by race is appropriate. If different laws are needed, they should be based on the relevant criterion — occupation or skill level — rather than migration status. To the extent that natives and migrants have different optima, the best overall optimum should be considered.

    This, however, raises an interesting point that Carens does not acknowledge. To the extent that migration policy changes the composition of the labor force, it changes optimal labor policies for the whole labor force. If you’re having a single general minimum wage, and the value of the minimum wage depends on the skill level of the population as a whole, then if large number of people at low skill levels migrate, this could move the optimal minimum wage downward (for instance), for the population as a whole, including natives. Carens’ tone seems to suggest that the optimal policy can be determined just by looking at natives, and once non-natives are added to the mix, they just get subjected to the same policy. But if you’re insisting on one policy for everybody, it needs to take everybody into account. I don’t know if Carens would disagree, but he doesn’t really acknowledge the implications of this (so far) — the idea that changes may need to be made to regulation that move the First World in a potentially “Third World” direction to accommodate the changing composition of the labor force. This seems like the only reasonable alternative to having a two-tiered regulatory system. (As an interesting aside, opponents of expanded migration under the status quo, such as the otherwise pro-migrant Ron Unz, often support increased minimum wages as a way to deter migration).

  • Even if you believe that the optimal policy is independent of the population, the fact that the optimal policy for citizens is the same as the optimal policy for non-citizens doesn’t imply that the current policy for citizens (or for non-citizens for that matter) is close to that optimum. Therefore, moving the current policy for non-citizens in the direction of the current policy for citizens doesn’t make sense unless you already believe that that direction is the same as the direction of optimum. To take an example, suppose you believe that labor regulation X is bad (for everybody), but X applies to citizens currently. You have the opportunity to decide whether to support “not X” for non-citizens. Should you do that? (This also relates to the next point).

#5: Symbolic significance of reasonable measures undertaken in response to anti-immigration sentiment

Carens notes that there may be measures that are not wrong in substance but that have the symbolic significance of being anti-immigrant. He (tentatively) cites the UK’s tightening of birthright citizenship laws (to prevent tourists’ kids from getting such citizenship) as one example of such a measure. He doesn’t see the end result as morally wrong — he doesn’t think tourists’ kids prima facie deserve citizenship, but he believes that the move was in response to anti-immigrant sentiment.

To take another example (not provided by Carens), suppose you’re one of those who believes that “welfare creates a dependency trap that hurts its recipients more than it helps.” Would you vote for a ballot measure that sought to deny such welfare to some subclass of non-citizens? In your view, this denial would be in the non-citizens’ interest, but most likely the symbolic significance of it, and the perceived message, would be that the non-citizens are unwelcome.

#6: Against occupation-specific work visas

Carens offers an interesting argument against having occupation-specific work visas (i.e., work visas where the workers are restricted to a particular occupation). I don’t remember seeing the argument in that precise form before, though on this site we’ve obviously argued for a much more expansive vision of free movement than tying workers to a specific employer or occupation (see here for instance). I’ll take the liberty of paraphrasing Carens’ argument in a manner that will make both the argument and my subsequent critique of it clearer.

Consider these three types of prices of farm work:

  1. The price that farm work commands in the native labor market, without migration.
  2. The price that farm work would command if foreigners were free to migrate for work without being tied to an occupation.
  3. The price that farm work would command if foreigners could be hired to come on a visa restricted to farm work only.

Carens’ point is that (2) would be greater than (3), i.e., if workers had the option of competing on the entire labor market, they could probably command higher wages for farm work. Though Carens doesn’t explicitly say it, his language suggests that he thinks that (1) ~ (2), so that having occupation-restricted work visas distorts prices quite a bit, more than closed borders do. I think the point is theoretically interesting, and regardless of the empirics, is yet another reason to argue against occupation-restricted work visas (though they may still beat out closed borders). Going into the empirics would be too much of a distraction in the context of this post, but it would involve looking at the general issue of the impact that migration has on native wages. To a first approximation, wages are likely to fall in the sectors that experience heavier migration and rise in the other sectors. To the extent that workers are free to move between occupations, both as a matter of law and as a matter of skill level, this would ameliorate the sector-specific wage effects, so Carens’ point does seem to have prima facie merit. However, I still wouldn’t hinge the case for open borders on the general claim that (1) ~ (2), because it is quite possible that even with workers being legally free to move between occupations, wages for some sectors, such as farm work, do fall significantly.

This isn’t the end of my commentary on the book. I’ll be publishing part 2 of the commentary sometime in the next month.