This is a guest post. Please see the author bio, editorial note, and related reading at the bottom for more context.
Inequality is big news. From Piketty’s bestseller to Oxfam’s reminder to Davos’ economic elites that by 2016, the richest 1% will own more than all the rest of us combined, we are newly concerned with the threat growing inequality poses to global stability. And in seeking to meet what US president Barack Obama has called ‘the defining challenge of our time’, many politicians have claimed that mass immigration is contributing to inequality and poverty at home: that the movement of people leads to lower wages, higher unemployment and greater dependency upon social security and the welfare state among displaced citizens.
Understood in these national terms, if inequality is the problem, the solution would seem to involve less migration and stronger borders. Yet for champions of global justice, the opposite is true. In 2009, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) determined that migrants who moved from a low-income to a high-income country saw, on average, a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of education enrollment rates and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality numbers. Framed like this, migration is no longer contributing to the problem of inequality. In fact, on a global scale, it’s the solution.
So who’s right? Is inequality really a zero-sum game, in which global justice comes at the expense of national equity? Do we have to choose between addressing inequality between citizenships, and inequality between citizens? And if this is the case, what are the implications for the Open Borders movement?
Of course in strict utilitarian terms, if more migration maximizes total benefit at a global level, national effects are secondary. But when it comes to politics, global justice arguments can’t simply trump national ones because – at an almost instinctive level – the vast majority of people would claim that nations – communities – are important, and effects of migration at a local level can’t simply be discounted.
It’s therefore important to recognize that the evidence for many claims made about the injurious effects of immigration upon locals is dubious. In the case of the UK, for instance – where anti-immigration rhetoric has proved popular in recent elections – economic data suggests that the effects of immigration on the labour market are minimal, and that immigrants make an unambiguous net fiscal contribution to the UK treasury, paying in much more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Yet even if the idea that immigration is bad for equality at home doesn’t hold up to close empirical scrutiny, we still need to ask why it continues to hold such sway when it comes to public opinion and political action.
So why do nations matter? Part of it undoubtedly is about culture and belonging. We are none of us ‘unencumbered individuals’, and national cultures play a role in shaping our identities. Yet in practice, national identity is often a chameleon: ask a San Franciscan and an Alabaman what it means to be an American, and the chances are you’d get very different answers. This means ‘national culture’, in and of itself, isn’t a justification for why we need nation-states – let alone why we should restrict migration.
Instead, arguably the most persuasive progressive case for national borders rests upon something more tangible: the promise of equality of opportunity that is a fundamental component of citizenship. In a modern state, that promise is usually articulated through the funding of a whole set of national institutions designed to close this gap – social security, healthcare, education. This is the nation-state not – in David Goodhart’s words – as a ‘mystical attachment’, but the institutional arrangement that can consistently deliver the democratic, welfare and psychological outcomes that ‘most people, when given a choice, seem to want’. Many in favour of tightly restricting migration argue that it’s these institutions that really make national citizenship meaningful. They also insist that such institutions can only function if borders be drawn somewhere, in order to turn a universal but vague commitment to equality of opportunity in principle into a limited but tangible effort to create more equality in practice.
Of course, in practice, equality of opportunity is still a fiction at a national level too. Outcome and opportunity cannot be so easily separated. In 2007, the richest 1% of Americans already owned 35% of the country’s wealth. In the UK, the wealthiest 1% is 215 times wealthier than the poorest 10% of Britons. But for advocates of tighter border controls, this is just further evidence that we should make good on national promises first, before turning to think about the greater challenges we face in tackling global inequality.
And at first glance, this seems reasonable: pragmatism legitimized by the bonds of community. After all, nearly all of us ultimately care more about our family members’ wellbeing than that of our acquaintances, especially when it comes to action rather than sentiment. Arguably, favouring locals over migrants is just an extension of this – a recognition that being part of a national community cements closer ties, so a fellow-citizen’s wellbeing matters more to us than that of a stranger. Follow this argument to its logical conclusion, and we have a justification for a bordered world, carefully tied to the measuring of fiscal contribution and social cohesion.
Yet we should also see the limits of this argument. Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.
For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.
Inequality, then, is largely determined at birth and tied to geography. This means there’s still a powerful moral case for using migration as a means to remedy the arbitrary inequalities of birthplace that we usually conveniently ignore. Norway, for instance, offers much more to all its citizens than Afghanistan can. The West’s citizens cannot possibly claim that the relative riches that derive from our citizenship are fair: they are above all a fortunate accident of birth. When it comes to justifying borders as a means of preserving some equality within – protection for the poorest citizens – this needs to be balanced against the risk that such borders aren’t about protection as much as they are about maintaining privilege.
So what does this mean when it comes to thinking about borders and inequality? First, it suggests that ‘protection, not privilege’ is a good maxim around which to build a ‘fair’ migration policy. Our fellow citizens should be protected from harm, the basic promises of the social contract met. However, providing this is done, international migrants should not be locked out. For at that point our interest in maintaining what are essentially inherited privileges – that 50% lifetime birthplace bonus – begins to look pretty selfish. At some point, borders are no longer self-preservation: they’re greed.
Principle, of course, is one thing: practice is another. This line of reasoning has at least two important political implications. First, if borders are to be defended as a protection against inequality, the justification rests first on demonstrating tangible progress in promoting equality between citizens, and then on showing such measures are being helped by restricting immigration. The evidence strongly suggests that states are currently unable to show either of these conditions holding true. In fact, immigration plays a crucial role in underpinning the current institutions and fiscal commitments that are intended to bridge the equality gaps between citizens too.
Second, if more migration is to be justified on the grounds that it helps to reduce global inequality, efforts to relax border controls and open up freedom of movement cannot focus only on the movement of elites: the highly-skilled and the highly-paid. This is directly counter to current policy trends. Increasing numbers of states are selling citizenship to the highest bidder: but in an age of elite hypermobility, fences are also being built to ensure the poor are kept in place.
There is thus a powerful case to be made that when it comes to inequality, the real fight isn’t between migrants and citizens: it’s between the elites and the ordinary. And if equality of opportunity is the end, then greater freedom of movement is one means by which such a goal can be achieved. This means that most immediately, there’s a need to counter the efforts being made to reduce immigration by many states, and to articulate the reasons why efforts at immigration reform in others should not focus only on securing visas for the wealthy, the highly educated, and corporate employees. And in the long-term, perhaps considering an alternative mantra – not “Open Borders”, but “Equal Borders” – might help to underline that if what we’re ultimately interested in is equality, greater freedom of movement is an important means of getting there – for migrants and citizens alike.
Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.
Katy Long is the author of The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality (Amazon/Thistle: 2014). Katy’s research and writings explore the causes and consequences of migration for migrants, citizens and communities. Katy is a Visiting Scholar at Stanford University and also teaches for the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.
Since completing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in 2009, she has held faculty positions at the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights and Repatriation, was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Katy is also the co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Katy has also worked extensively with policy-makers including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, she is engaged in furthering public understanding and engagement on migration issues, speaking and writing for a number of media outlets including the BBC World Service, ITV Tonight, The Conversation and openDemocracy. Follow Katy on Twitter at @mobilitymuse.
Related Open Borders: The Case links
The author of the post brought a different perspective to the issue than that typically espoused in Open Borders: The Case content and blog posts. To minimize disruption to the flow, we didn’t include links to related content from the site in the main post. However, the site does explore some questions related to the content. A brief list of related site content is below. There might be response blog posts by Open Borders: The Case bloggers responding to the author’s points. These links were curated by Open Borders: The Case editors and are not the author’s responsibility.
- Local inequality aversion: This page discusses the idea that local inequality is important in and of itself, and the tension between that and global inequality.
- We have a number of pages discussing parochial (as opposed to universalistic) moral perspectives. For instance, see our page on communitarianism (the standard term in philosophy for the idea of giving a central place in moral deliberation to communities), citizenism (the idea that policy should favor the interests of current citizens as opposed to foreigners, including migrants and potential migrants who may eventually become citizens), and territorialism (the idea that policy should favor the interests of people within the geographic territory of the nation, rather than those not currently in the territory).
- For more general background on egalitarian arguments for open borders, see our pages on the egalitarian case for open borders, Rawlsian arguments, and equal opportunity.
- We have collected the economic literature on the global economic impact of open borders, the effect on receiving country wages, and the gains people can realize very quickly simply by crossing borders.
- We have a lot of discussion on the site about the extent to which identifiable subsets of natives are likely to be hurt on net by free migration, and whether and how they should be compensated so that they are, at the very least, “held harmless” by changes to migration policy. Some good starting points are our keyhole solutions page, Nathan Smith’s Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It proposal, and Vipul Naik’s blog post on funding compensation for natives who lose out due to migration policy. At the same time, it’s important to note that the site does not blindly advocate any and all “keyhole” solutions, and many bloggers consider them a poor substitute for open borders. See, for instance, Paul Crider’s post against keyhole regimes.