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:
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 …
Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.
Of course. That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. …
But it would make …
Excuse me …
It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn’t it?
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.
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?
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
“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:
Apparently "imagine there's no countries" is a right-wing idea today. https://t.co/cQ0u79eY55
— Open Borders (@OpenBordersInfo) July 28, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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
If only I had time to do a point-by-point response essay to this, it could provide for some interesting engagement …
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.
“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.
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.
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.
- Bernie Sanders explodes a right-wing myth: ‘Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal’ by Travis Gettys in Raw Story, July 28.
- Bernie Sanders’s fear of immigrant labor is ugly — and wrongheaded by Dylan Matthews in Vox, July 29. This is the piece to which many other pieces, including the AlterNet piece, were responding.
- Bernie Sanders on Immigrants: Silly, Tribal and Economically Illiterate by Daniel Bier in Newsweek, July 30.
- Bernie Sanders criticizes ‘open borders’ at Hispanic Chamber of Commerce by David Weigel in the Washington Post, July 30.
The following material from our archives might be relevant:
- Rand Paul on Immigration by Andy Hallman, based on an exclusive interview with Rand Paul from May 2015.
- How do open borders meaningfully differ from mainstream immigration reform? by John Lee, February 28, 2014.
- The dearth of moderates’ critiques of open borders by Vipul Naik, September 3, 2014.
- Reparations are not a sound basis for making immigration policy by John Lee, August 6, 2014.
- Aviva Chomsky on open borders: weak on economics, stronger on politics and history by John Lee, November 24, 2012.
The featured image is a public domain image of Bernie Sanders from the United States Congress photos. It was retrieved via Wikipedia.