Tag Archives: Tyler Cowen

The dearth of moderates’ critique of open borders

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

Here are some facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of reasons

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

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

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

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

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.

Contra Tyler Cowen, closed borders should scare people

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution recently graced us with a pretty bracing set of criticisms:

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.)

Co-blogger Nathan Smith has already taken Tyler to task on the economics, asking Tyler specifically if keyhole solutions like immigration tariffs would address his concerns about the risks of open borders. Tyler issued a laconic response, which referred to Nathan’s suggestions as “surrender”, presumably because any sort of immigration restriction is inconsistent with open borders. Nathan has already  updated his post to address Tyler’s riposte. Since we have covered the economics around Tyler’s thinking fairly comprehensively already, I want to tackle something different: exploring what we mean by open borders, and why an open borders agenda (as opposed to some generic “liberal immigration policy”) matters.

But first off, as reasonable as Tyler’s critique may be, I find it strange in how it implies that restrictionist myths and urban legends deserve more credence than any economist would give them. The tone of Tyler’s criticisms about the risks of open borders strikes me as slightly reminiscent of Paul Krugman’s tone on macroeconomic policy: worded just so, to avoid falling afoul of the economics, without really dissuading people from mistaken beliefs about what the economics says. Paul Krugman hardly ever directly contradicts the mainstream economist consensus that monetary policy can be effective at the zero lower bound. But if you ask any layperson reading Krugman what Krugman believes about the efficacy of monetary policy when interest rates are low, I’d bet you the median layperson thinks Krugman believes monetary policy is totally ineffective, making fiscal policy the only game in town.

Likewise, if you ask him, Tyler is all for liberal immigration policies (as he said himself, right before launching into his critique). He doesn’t buy into the myths that immigrants are fatal drains on the welfare state, or deadly threats to the working class of the developed world. The prevalence of these two myths, in the face of all the economic evidence, is depressingly common; it is as if the lay person believed “all Chinese are opium addicts” or “deporting Jews will reduce the prevalence of poisoned wells”.  Like numerous other economists, Tyler has explicitly declared he repudiates the popular scaremongering myths about immigration’s economic effects. It is all the more surprising then that he declares “people should be scared” of open borders — when, as he’s said time and time again, the main reasons people fear immigration have nothing to do with fact.

To solidify his critique, Tyler says that he is in particular worried about a scenario where:

  • The US is the only country that opens its borders
  • The US opens its borders essentially overnight (i.e., from highly restrictive one day to highly liberal the next)

But other than as thought experiments, I daresay you won’t find any blogger on this site who would say “Yes, that’s a regime I’d be happy with and world that I’d gladly sign up to live in, because the risks are so obviously worth it!” There’s more than one way to skin a cat.  There are plenty of ways to gradually open the world’s borders while mitigating their risks. Here, the three most obvious options off the top of my head, with links to prior Open Borders posts where we’ve explored them (those posts are far from the final word, but they show just how untapped an intellectual well this area of thought is):

  1. Have a steadily increasing immigration quota
  2. Establish free movement unions or areas, similar to customs unions or free trade areas
  3. Abolish deportation as a form of punishment, except in extreme cases

All three options are eminently practical ways of achieving open borders which address the perennial question, “But what on earth would you do with 500 million new American residents tomorrow?” And there are plenty of other practical ways to open the borders; I see no reason to wed ourselves to a particular approach. Maybe some countries will only be able to open their borders via guest worker visa regimes. Maybe others will only be able to open their borders via immigration tariffs or surtaxes of some kind. Still others may be able to get away with true open borders. And I’m confident many countries are capable of mixing and matching. You can imagine a North American free movement union between Canada and the US (or perhaps even, as Barry Goldwater envisioned, such a zone that includes Mexico) which imposes a different regime on immigrants from other countries. The destruction of all conventional immigration policies on some longer timeframe than “within the next 24 hours” is something I’d be happy to see. But even that is only one possible means to the end of open borders.

At this point, you’re probably either scratching your head, or nodding it in agreement with Tyler’s point from earlier about surrender, because what I’ve just outlined may well strike you as utterly inconsistent with the label of “open borders”; after all, what is open borders if not a total rejection of conventional immigration policies? But I don’t define open borders as one particular policy regime or one particular set of immigration laws. I define open borders simply as the principle that, subject to clearly-defined (i.e., not wishy-washy, unclear, or opaque) necessary constraints, people are free to travel, live, and work wherever they want. I am happy to accept any policy regime that satisfies this principle.

Tyler’s critique focuses on an airy-fairy type of open borders which any reasonable person can see is not going to happen, and likely shouldn’t happen at all. So while we’re at it, we might as well criticise a single world government too, since that’s also going to be an absurdly impractical and unreasonable way to open the borders. Where I find Tyler’s critique goes astray is that it focuses on one particular means of opening the borders, instead of the end itself — thereby lending more credence to restrictionist myths about the evils of open borders.

Ultimately, open borders is an end; it is the freedom to author your own life story. It is about being able to sleep safe in your own home, with your family, amongst your community of friends, knowing the government doesn’t have the arbitrary and unchecked power to take you away from all of them tomorrow morning. It is about being safe in the knowledge that the job your employer hired you to do can’t be eliminated by government fiat tomorrow because you made the mistake of being born in the wrong country. All of these are rightful ends for anyone to aspire to. They may well be unattainable on some level, but that is no reason to reject open borders out of hand, any more than the infeasibility of economic “perfect competition” constitutes a reason to reject economic liberalisation. Rejecting open borders because you reject one possible open borders policy is an oddly narrow-minded approach unworthy of an economist or thinker of Tyler’s stature. Even mainstream immigration liberals who remain skeptical of open borders like Matt Yglesias find Tyler’s stance here bemusing.

I can imagine no better label for a world with freedom of movement than a world of open borders. What else captures the sentiment so concisely? If Tyler is so unhappy about calling the goal of free movement “open borders”, he’s free to propose a catchier title. But I really don’t think freedom of movement is something Tyler opposes. He may well have ideas about how to achieve open borders that don’t jive with mine. That’s fine. I’m happy to have a debate about how to achieve open borders. I think Tyler’s on the same page with me here, which is why he kicked off this debate about whether rhetorically, the open borders label is tactically useful.

But while Tyler’s gotten to that point, what concerns me more right now is how far the rest of the world is from reaching that point. Most people don’t give a second thought to the fact that people die every day thanks to the governments we elect and the taxes we pay.  We so blithely accept that the state has total, virtually unlimited power to abuse innocent and unarmed civilians. It’s one thing to disregard a destitute person living in, say, Zambia. None of us is responsible for giving that person a job, or for preventing that person from finding work in Zambia. But it’s a completely different thing to disregard how our tax-funded armed forces treat that person as a life-threatening enemy of the state, simply because he or she tried to find work in our country.

When it’s our money and our political authority being used to prevent that person from finding or holding down a job someone in our country is willing to hire them to do, I have a huge problem with that. The use of armed force against armed force is one thing. The use of armed force against civilian job-seekers or civilians seeking to be with their family is another; it is galling. We would never accept it against those born in our own country. Why do we so easily accept bringing tanks and gunships to bear against those innocents born outside our own country? Once we accept that this is a problem, we might still conclude that there’s no reasonable solution to the immigration problem, and that current policy to risk the lives of unarmed civilians is the best we can hope for. But most people, unlike Tyler, aren’t even willing to accept that this is a problem!

Given Tyler’s libertarian leanings, I imagine he won’t disagree much with me on these points. So it’s all the more puzzling to me then that he slips into the trap of encouraging popular fallacies used to justify the torture and slaughter of innocent immigrants. As Tyler points out, people fear the risks of more liberal immigration. But they will be fearful whether you call it “amnesty”, “comprehensive immigration reform”, or “open borders”. And their fears, in almost every single case, will be far more grounded in speculation and conjecture than any empirical fact. Tiny, statistically insignificant effects on a subsegment of the native working population will be blown up into “They took our jerbs!”-style paranoia. Economists quite bravely stuck their necks out for the cause of free trade, despite knowing the popular fears and risks. What keeps them from preaching the same consensus they’ve reached on immigration?

Putting modern economics aside, reasonable people in the US once feared letting blacks into the labour market (they had this “reasonable” fear that freed blacks would lynch them in retaliation for centuries of slavery — for what it’s worth, a more reasonable fear than the notion that Latin American immigration would turn the US political system into that of Chavez’s Venezuela). Pretty reasonable people once feared the impacts of letting women into the labour market. People fear any kind of change. Citing fears instead of facts is no way to make a reasonable policy argument.

It’s not news to anyone that the notion of open borders is scary. Dramatic policy changes should scare any reasonable person, because that’s only human. But scariness in of itself is not a plausible reason to come down firmly on one side or another. Many historical struggles for justice and human rights were shockingly frightening. Abolishing slavery or allowing women into the labour market constituted far more radical and scary reforms than would be dramatically liberalising immigration quotas, or dramatically halting most deportations. You tell me, what’s more dangerously untried and radical: allowing an illiterate, newly-freed black to buy his own land and farm his own crops in 1870; allowing a woman to build an aeroplane in 1940; or allowing a Pole to work on a UK construction site in 2010?

And on the flip side, it’s impossible to ignore how radically totalitarian is the immigration status quo. None of us can condone an immigration system that bans a woman from attending her daughter’s wedding because it suspects she’ll want to immigrate (never mind that, legally present or not, she won’t be eligible for most state entitlements). None of us can condone a legal system that gives government uncontrolled, unchecked, arbitrary power to destroy jobs, families, and homes in one fell swoop. I can’t see anyone signing up to defend a legal system that arbitrarily decides who you can love or who you can work for based on which emperor technically ruled the piece of dirt your ancestors happened to live on two centuries ago.

As the recent tragedy at Lampedusa, Italy illustrates, our legal systems often as good as murder people — people whose lives are so full of suffering that they willingly risk death to immigrate to our jails. We force people to choose between dying in sweatshops or dying at the hands of our border patrols. As some Syrians trying to flee chemical warfare are learning first-hand today, our ostensibly humane laws declare that it is better to force people to be gassed by a dictator than to let them try to make ends meet in our countries. How is any of this not radical? How is it not frightening that we supposedly have to resort to these measures to make the world safe for “civilisation”?

Are we truly happy and safe today because our border guards force Bangladeshis to die in sweatshops and Syrians to suffocate under clouds of sarin? Yes, inasmuch as today’s policies are inefficient and inhumane, the right solution isn’t tearing down every guard post and every border fence in the world within the next 24 hours. But beginning to think about a good alternative to closed borders consistent with both security and dignity is surely a moral imperative. I don’t think any of us want to live in a world that has to destroy human rights in order to preserve them. The problem with the traditional liberal approach towards immigration reform is that, implicitly or explicitly, it embraces closed borders. It might want to open them a little, but it has no sound reasoning (other than “this feels right, I guess”) for picking a trade off point between open and closed borders.

Open borders matters because it is the only paradigm that rejects the fallacious and unethical presumptions of closed borders, and the only paradigm that provides a sound moral basis for moving towards liberal immigration policies in the first place. Open borders presumes a right to move, one that can be overridden as necessary. Closed borders presumes a total ban on movement, one that can be overridden as necessary — a ban nevertheless so strong, it has to be enforced by punishments that destroy mutual employment, family, and community relationships; punishments that sometimes result in the taking of human life. Tyler may well draw a different line than I, or many others, do about what sorts of immigration restrictions are necessary. But I believe we are all on the same page: that people should be free to move, and that this right should only be denied when clearly necessary.

Defenders of the status quo ban essentially assert that a fascist totalitarian regime which kills unarmed civilians is the only way to preserve civilisation and safeguard people’s lives and property. Maybe they think our policies should kill slightly fewer people per year, but they otherwise are comfortable with the status quo as it is. Baldly saying ,”We need to open the borders”, forces a rethink of how readily we can accept the status quo. We know there’s a problem today, a problem that costs the human race thousands of lives and billions of dollars every year. Have we truly explored every possible alternative to the totalitarian border regime we have today?

Writing off open borders as an unattainable goal without exploring all avenues we have to get there I think amounts to saying “It is just and right that we force people to die under a cloud of poison gas or in a sweatshop’s fiery inferno, because that is an appropriate punishment for daring to be born in the wrong country.” Sure, that’s a strawman, since no reasonable person wants to sign on to that trade-off. But that trade-off is exactly the one our governments make in our name every damn day, and it’s a trade-off they’re making based far more on “scary” prejudices than it is on any evidence or fact. Opening the borders is the only way we can put an end to the unholy, inhumane slaughter of innocents — the slaughter of slightly less fortunate people who, same as you and me, just want a better life for themselves and their family. Before we reject open borders, and say there’s nothing we can do to stop the killing and dying, let’s at least be sure we’ve covered all our bases.

Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?

Here at Open Borders: The Case, we have devoted a large number of blog posts to critiquing citizenism. Some others on the open borders side have been critical of this resource allocation decision. One criticism is that by devoting so much attention to citizenism, we’re giving it more serious consideration than it deserves. This sentiment was echoed in a comment by Andy Hallman for instance.

Citizenism would deserve consideration if it were either plausible or popular. As Bryan Caplan writes:

As a rule, I do not respond to positions that are neither plausible nor popular.

So, is citizenism either plausible or popular? If we look at the explicit origins of citizenism, we might be tempted to think otherwise. The term “citizenism” has been coined by Steve Sailer, who, while doubtless considerably more widely read than Open Borders, is quite controversial himself, and hardly mainstream. The use of the term hasn’t caught on much outside a few select circles: Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers on the one hand, and a few other blogs such as Open Borders and EconLog on the other.

Even among Sailer’s ideological fellow travelers, consent to the term is far from unanimous. For instance, the very first commenter on one of Sailer’s posts on citizenism begins with “Citizenism deserves all the scorn it gets, no doubt about that.”

I believe that even though few people explicitly subscribe to the tenets of citizenism as formulated by Sailer, most restrictionist arguments, particularly those that refer to the harms to immigrant-receiving countries, implicitly make their normative claims using citizenist reasoning — they weigh the interests of natives/citizens much higher than that of non-citizens, and view this as a legitimate basis for immigration restrictions. Citizenism is an important undercurrent in the majority of restrictionist thinking and perhaps even in some mainstream pro-immigration circles.

A more general framing it is that a lot of people subscribe to the moral relevance of countries. But, the mere assertion that countries have considerable moral relevance could be interpreted and made more concrete through a number of different normative ethical perspective such as:

  • Citizenism, the idea that national governments and citizens should give primacy to the interests of current citizens (and their descendants). Citizenism may be justified by neocameralism or some variant thereof.
  • Territorialism, the idea that national governments should give primacy to the interests of people within the geographic area of the nation-state, regardless of their citizenship status.
  • Local inequality aversion, the idea that local inequality within national boundaries is an evil in and of itself, independent of global inequality.
  • Nation as family, a variant of citizenism which asserts that the family is a useful metaphor for the nation, and that the head of family is the nation-state’s government.
  • “Maximize the average” type views, where the goal is to maximize the average indicators of the nation as it is constituted in the future, through appropriate migration, deportation, and extermination policies.
  • Love for the physical land or specific cultural capital of the nation-state as a motivator for national government policy, independent of whether people are willing to pay to preserve these.
  • “Proposition nation” theories: Here, the goal is to preserve specific values or institutions associated with the nation, such as slavery, ethnic strife, democracy, free markets, or a large welfare state.

All of these are important and they interact in interesting ways, but I contend that citizenism is one of the more important formalizations of the moral relevance of countries. Later in the post, I will return to the question of why it isn’t more explicitly embraced or discussed in mainstream circles, and why it took a relatively heterodox figure like Steve Sailer to articulate it clearly.

Sophisticated citizenism among policy wonks and social scientists

A passage from a recent op-ed by Tyler Cowen (which has been praised by David Henderson on EconLog and many of my Facebook friends) notes and critiques the citizenistic underpinnings of many policy analyses relating to immigration:

“Imagine that it is your professional duty to report a cost-benefit analysis of liberalizing immigration policy. You wouldn’t dream of producing a study that counted “men only” or “whites only,” at least not without specific, clearly stated reasons for dividing the data. So why report cost-benefit results only for United States citizens or residents, as is sometimes done in analyses of both international trade and migration?”

For some other examples of citizenistic arguments from an unexpected quarter — leftists in the UK — see here and here (HT: co-blogger John Lee for both links). Here’s a relevant quote from the latter (emphasis added, not in original):

I would guess that it remains the common sense assumption of 90 per cent of British citizens that public policy should give preference to the interests of citizens before non-citizens should the two conflict: that does not mean you cannot be an internationalist, or believe that it is a valuable part of our tradition to offer a haven to refugees, or believe that all humans are of equal moral worth and if they are in British space are entitled to certain basic rights. But it does mean that the first call on our resources and sense of obligation begins with our fellow citizens.

And this should be a central principle underlying immigration policy that the authors do not spell out robustly enough: immigration policy must be designed to serve the interests of existing British citizens, especially poorer ones. [see also our master race page] It is true that it is not always easy to work out what those interests are. It is also true that Matt and Sarah do accept discrimination on grounds of nationality (and reject post-national arguments in favour of global social mobility) and understand that immigrants do not necessarily have the same entitlements as the settled population, but this is all rather tentative and overshadowed by a far more robust and often repeated commitment to a human rights ideology that too often overtly seeks to dissolve the precious distinction between citizen and non-citizen.

In a Facebook post, I posited three possible explanations for the implicit citizenism in policy analyses and policy wonk discussions. Continue reading “Is citizenism a commonly held belief system?” »