“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I am no recent convert to the cause of open borders, but like others in the blogosphere, including Vipul himself, I have become increasingly convinced that this is the most important moral cause of our times. Vipul has kindly invited me to join this blog, and I consider it a great privilege. My convictions about immigration stem not only from intellectual pondering, but personal experience.

A bit about myself: my father is Chinese Malaysian and my mother is Filipino (with some Chinese heritage). My parents met during graduate school in Thailand. I was born while my father was completing further studies in Japan. I lived in Singapore for the first few years of my life, and grew up in Malaysia, a country I am proud to call home. I came to the United States for college, unexpectedly obtained a green card before graduation, and presently work in a major US retail bank. Along the way, I’ve studied abroad in the United Kingdom and held immigrant visas in both Australia and New Zealand (both rather long stories for another time there).

As a matter of nature, of genetics, I literally would not be here today without immigration. As a matter of nurture, of life experiences, I would not be who I am today without immigration. I’ve virtually lived the benefits of open borders. Being able to cross borders has taught me countless things about life and about humanity; it has given me countless acquaintances and friends; it has made my life immensely richer in ways you can never aspire to place a dollar value on. If we do talk dollar values, I earn much more in my current job than I would at the highest-paying similar alternative in Malaysia.

Yet I have enjoyed the benefits of immigration through blind luck: I have caught more than my fair share of lucky breaks. I had no say about being born into a relatively wealthy, well-educated and highly mobile family, the biggest lucky break of all. Nothing entitles me to the great blessings I have had, the same blessings which have largely been denied to, say, the children of farmers in Bangladesh.

For this reason, I find the Rawlsian veil of ignorance rather compelling. From a probabilistic standpoint, I should have been born to a poorer and less educated family. Even if all else about me was the same — my skills, my personality, my talent — it seems unlikely, to say the least, that I would have had the chance to realise my potential the way I have in fact had. We cannot do much about inequalities in wealth and education directly, but we certainly can make it easier for people to realise their full potential: we can make it easier for them to move to a more fulfilling environment.

I just need to look at my ancestors: my father’s grandfather, who came to Malaysia, was an illiterate labourer. He was hardly wealthy by anyone’s standards — like thousands of other Chinese and Indians, his family came to Malaysia looking for work because they couldn’t find any at home. In Malaysia they prospered, and here I am today.

Why was it possible for penniless manual labourers to cross borders at will then, but nearly impossible for penniless manual labourers to do the same today? You cannot tell me that in the modern day it is more expensive to travel internationally, or more difficult for someone to find gainful employment, than it was in the 1890s.

Worse, it is not simply penniless manual labourers who find it difficult to immigrate today. Take my mother, for instance: today she lives in the United States, because my own country, Malaysia, shamefully has refused to grant her permanent residency — in spite of her being the wife of a Malaysian, the mother of four Malaysians, and friend and supporter of many more Malaysians. Take any of the international students I met in college: how many would have liked to stay in the US, with the friends they have made, in the communities they have adopted, but were forced to leave by the law?

My moral intuitions about the question of immigration are thus rooted in who I am. But they have also been bolstered by the scholarship around immigration. I double majored in economics and history, out of interest in these fields; even though I have since left university, I continue to find the study of these subjects fascinating. In both fields, I find myself motivated by the very questions Robert Lucas has raised:

Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia’s or Egypt’s? If so, what exactly? If not, what is it about the “nature of India” that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

This led more or less directly to my concentration on public, labour, and development economics in my economics major: I wanted to learn how human institutions can lead to greater human welfare. Through a string of happy accidents, both my economics and history major culminating experiences focused on immigration, even though I wasn’t thinking too much about open borders at the time. I was convinced that in principle liberal immigration policies are a good idea, but the full magnitude of this had yet to dawn on me.

Much of the economic literature on immigration fails to explicitly call out the true implications of immigration for human welfare: most of the research I am familiar with attempts to estimate the impact of immigrants on native-born wages, the impact of immigrants on the public purse, or the impact of immigrants on crime. (In virtually all cases, the impact is either negligible or actually positive for natives.) It wasn’t until I stumbled on Michael Clemens’s lecture on “The Biggest Idea in Development that No One Really Tried”, which hinted at the immense benefits of immigration for immigrants themselves, that all the pieces of the open borders puzzle began to fit together for me.

Once one starts thinking about the consequences for human welfare implied by open borders, it is hard to think about anything else. The incremental net present value of microcredit over a Bangladeshi’s lifetime is equivalent to what that same Bangladeshi would earn in 2 months if he was magically transplanted to the US. There is absolutely no reason why this should be so, beyond American disgust at the idea of allowing more Bangladeshis to work in the US.

For this reason, I regard open borders — or more broadly, any liberalisation in immigration policy, anywhere — as the moral imperative of our time. Restrictions on immigration punish people for being born to the wrong family, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. They oppress millions of people who simply seek to escape a life of grinding poverty through honest work.

We agree today that slavery and racial segregation were some of the worst human institutions known to modern history. Yet what was the problem with these institutions? Merely that they kept certain people from living and working as they pleased, based purely on an accident of birth. A person’s choices in who they could interact with, where they could study, where they could work, and where they could go, depended entirely on a fate they had zero control over.

If that does not describe the immigration policy status quo, what does? The modern immigration regime is identical to and synonymous with apartheid. Modern immigration laws may be ever so slightly more malleable than the colour line, but it remains that the typical citizen of a developing country has a near-zero chance of ever living and working in a country where they can realise their full potential. The economic implications alone are staggering: immigration policies consign millions to lives of poverty based on nothing more than an accident of birth.

There is no moral justification for what we do today: in immigration, human civilisation has regressed tremendously since the 19th century. We purport that all human beings are created equal, and yet we arbitrarily agree that some human beings have more of a right to work and live in certain places than others. Whatever their other faults, when it comes to the basic human right of freedom of movement, our 19th century forefathers were right and we are wrong.

But we can make things right. We can restore to humanity the same opportunities our ancestors once enjoyed. And I believe we one day will, for the case against immigration restrictions is simply an extension of the case against slavery and the case against racial segregation. Quixotic as the cause of open borders may seem, I have faith that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. told Americans struggling against another iniquitous form of segregation: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The image featured at the top of this post is of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March on Washington, DC in 1963, from the US National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


7 thoughts on ““The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.””

  1. To me the case presented for open borders is insufficiently imperative. The author identifies himself with reference to nationalities as a slave would identify with his plantation. For someone with wealth there are no borders now. The greatest segregation occurs between those with wealth and those without, not physical national boundaries. I am not attempting to make a case against open borders for that is ideal but rather that we human beings are taught to segregate in whatever way necessary to protect from the loss of limited resources. There is no disgust for Bangladeshis. There is a disgust that people in this country are not given an opportunity to work. So keep up the good work wherever it takes you. The arc is long and it does bend toward justice when we help bend it.

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