The Ethics of Illegal Migration

Is it morally wrong, or morally permissible, to migrate to a country illegally?

The question matters, to those who have done it, to those who feel indignation at others who have done it, to those who profit by the labor of those who have done it, to the friends and neighbors and children of those who have done it, to those who are considering doing it, and to policymakers who must decide how to deal with those who have done it or may be tempted to do it in future. But above all, it matters to those who are faced with the choice: should I migrate illegally to a foreign country or not?

To be faced with this as a live option at all, a person must be in a position such that they want to migrate illegally. That is, considering all other factors, migrating illegally must seem to them better than their other options. In particular, (a) they think either they would be better off living in another country, even illegally with all the risks and inconveniences that entails, or that they can benefit others they care about by doing so, or both; and (b) they either cannot get permission to do so from the government of that country, or can do so only excessive cost and inconvenience. Usually, though, illegal migrants seem to be people who had no realistic option of migrating legally, even at great cost and inconvenience.

The question at hand is: If a person wants to migrate illegally (in the sense specified), should they not do so for specifically moralreasons? Presumably the answer is not an unqualified yes or no, since one can invent extraordinary cases in which the act of illegal migration is clearly morally right or morally wrong.  If a migrant’s goal is to commit a terrorist attack, or steal, or abandon a wife and family, or escape justice after committing a heinous crime, or avoid paying burdensome but quite affordable debts, then he is clearly in the wrong. If a migrant is being hotly pursued by a gang of killers and crosses an international frontier in a desperate effort to save his life, or if he has secret information about an imminent terrorist attack which, if he can only arrive at the spot in time, he can prevent, saving millions of lives, there can be little doubt that the act of illegal migration is justified. The real question is how much, and what kind, of moral weight the law has in determining whether particular acts of migration are right or wrong.

There seems to be a widespread feeling that, except in strange and extreme cases, it is simply wrong to disobey the law per se, as if anything “the government” (whatever that means) forbids (requires) magically becomes morally impermissible (obligatory) for all of “its” citizens/subjects. I have this feeling myself, but as I can’t justify it directly, I take it that the generalization “it is wrong to disobey the law” holds (usually) true for a variety of often overlapping reasons that, between them, cover most of the cases. Most, but of course, not all. I don’t think anyone really holds that it is always wrong to disobey the law. As a Christian, I am not at liberty to hold that view, since the prophet Daniel and many other Biblical heroes violated human laws that were contrary to the laws of God, and many, many Christian saints were martyred for refusing to obey the law by worshipping the Roman emperors.

Recently, I was discussing the duty of obeying the law with my father, a law professor, and he seemed to recall that in the past I had expressed strong scruples about disobeying the law as such. I told him, that had never been my position, and that my most general reason for obeying the law is to avoid the temptation to lie to escape detection. But afterwards, I wondered whether I really had held the position he remembered, and if so, what arguments I had for it, that I might have forgotten. In a way, I would like to hold that position, since my complex of arguments for obeying the law seems to differ a bit from the historic position of most Christian churches, as far as I am able to discern it. I have the sense that they felt obeying the law was wrong as such, except when conscience forbade it, as in the case of the prophet Daniel or the Christian martyrs, rather than that it is usually wrong for a variety of indirect reasons. But I can’t see a way of justifying the attitude that seems most typical of Christians in the past. Not that this threatens any crisis of faith. The best arguments I can offer get me close enough for comfort to what is in any case only a rather imprecise perception of what most of my fellow Christians have thought. But if I did at some point find reasons for advocating a more robust and inherent duty to obey the law, I’d be interested in what they were. Anyway, here’s what I have to offer right now.

One reason to obey human laws is that they may coincide with natural laws. Thus, one should not murder, regardless of whether the law forbids murder or not. But as human laws do seem invariably to prohibit murder, we assimilate our condemnation of murder into a general condemnation of “breaking the law.” Likewise, one should not steal, whether the laws protect property or not, but human laws reinforce this duty. However, while killing is an objective fact quite independent of any government definitions or decisions about it, I don’t think government can be made irrelevant to the business of defining property rights. Some property rights really are simply natural rights. If a man settles on wild land to which no one had a previous claim, and cultivates it to feed his family, his property rights to that land are natural in a simple and readily perceivable sense. (This insight is associated most famously with John Locke.) But in complex commercial societies, it is not practical to establish consensus about property right by tracing all of them to such elemental origins, and courts and laws and judges are indispensable aids in defining and agreeing upon who owns what. Still, the duty not to steal is part of natural law and would apply even in the absence of government, and the reason to respect property rights remains fundamental and pre-political even when political actors have helped to adjudicate who owns what.

A second, related reason to obey the law is that it serves as evidence of what the natural law is. Suppose that action A does not seem to me to violate the natural law, but the government of the country I live in has prohibited action A. Suppose further that I view the government of my country as generally just and reasonable. I may then judge that, if judges and legislators have seen fit to make action A illegal, they probably have some good reason for thinking action A is a violation of natural law, which I happen not to have understood. I should try to understand it, but meanwhile, I should obey the law, to reduce the risk of doing something wrong. Of course, this argument only applies inasmuch as the government is generally just and reasonable. If I live under a crazy, arbitrary, absolutist king or dictator, and the laws reflect his mere random whims, the law of the land ceases to be evidence about the content of natural law, and this reason for obeying it disappears.

Modern democracy presents an interesting case here, because modern democracies typically claim to be enforcing, not the natural law, but the “will of the people,” whose “sovereignty” consists in being able to make whatever laws they like. That I have moral reasons to obey the natural law is a tautology, since by the natural law I mean the moral law. But the “will of the people,” even if the concept itself were not naïve, has no power morally to command. A man ought to do what is right, not what his fellows approve of, unless he is fortunate enough that his fellow men are wise enough to want him to do what is right. We might conclude, then, that since under modern democracy, public officials do not even claim to govern according to natural law, no one should regard their judgments as evidence about right and wrong. But I would be inclined to give democratic laws more credit than this, because I don’t think democratic publics are so corrupt as to feel they have an arbitrary, “sovereign” right to make any laws they like. I think they know there are such things as unjust laws, and that democratic majorities have a duty not to make them. I also think that democratic majorities are reasonably good judges of what laws are just, reasonable, and appropriate, when they themselves are burdened with obeying those laws. The horror stories about the political ignorance of ordinary people miss an important point, namely, that the rule of “rational ignorance” about politics ceases to apply when a person is faced with the duty of complying with the law. Then they have an incentive to understand it, and think about it, and that makes them informed voters. But that qualification shows why the “wisdom of crowds” principle has no force when it comes to immigration laws. Voters are citizens and therefore they are not prospective immigrants, so they have little incentive or opportunity to see the law from a prospective immigrant’s point of view, in order to judge its reasonableness or lack thereof. And that is why democracies’ policies on immigration, ever since they got into their heads the baneful error that restricting it is okay, have always been wildly unreasonable.

A third reason one should obey man-made laws is because the government serves as a focal point for setting expectations, and thereby solving coordination problems. Thus, natural law has nothing to say about whether societies should make people drive on the right or the left side of the road, but it does say that whatever side others are driving on, one should do the same, for one ought not to needlessly jeopardize one’s own life or those of others. Society might be able to solve this problem in a decentralized fashion if it needed to, but surely if there is a government, there should be no objection to its taking the lead here.

The argument that one ought to obey the law because the law is serving the common good by solving a coordination problem is clearly valid here, but are there a significant number of similar cases? Daylight savings might be another example, except that it seems to have hardly any moral relevance. Money, I think, is another example. I think it is wrong to counterfeit money, though of course in a Lockean state of nature there would be no objection to making pieces of paper of a certain description, because (a) it is against the law, and (b) in this case the law is solving a coordination problem for the common good. Even some quite arbitrary and micromanaging regulations could be defended as solutions to coordination problems. For example, suppose the law regulates the size of oranges that can be sold in grocery stores. Natural law has nothing against selling very small oranges per se, but if the law has created a general expectation that oranges must be a certain size, then by selling smaller ones, I might mislead customers. But, you say, customers can see the size of oranges they are buying! All right, but what if someone is selling batteries with very little power, or appliances that emit fumes harmful to health, or building houses that have an unusually high risk of fire of collapse? Granted, some people might recognize the inferiority of these products and still buy them, but should societies not be able to opt out of at least some of the inconveniences of caveat emptor? While I would hesitate to affirm that such regulations can justify the use of coercion, certainly I think one moral reason to obey the law is that government is solving coordination problems for the common good, and you should help it to do so by following the rules.

A fourth reason to obey the law would be that one has agreed to do so through a social contract. If valid, this argument has great generality, but it depends on the social contract having some kind of reality. And it takes a heroic effort to maintain that the social contract has any reality in the face of the obvious fact that we never actually sign one. Yet I do tend to make somewhat reluctant and embarrassed attempts to argue this, because I think we need at least some legitimate government (albeit we could do just find with a good deal less of it than we have), and the social contract is the governed countries, do in fact morally will for there to be a government rather like the one they have. Even if their permission is never asked, they do give their permission through their intentions and attitudes and desires and states of mind. And the manner in which they occasionally ask for its assistance carries a sense of entitlement that reflects their real sense of duty to, and their intention to, uphold their end of the bargain. I might try to argue that many gratified Constitution, but some others too, have a historic warrant from some sort of old social contract. I would then try to argue that such commitments can be presumptively passed on from generation to generation, unless explicitly and conscientiously repudiated, since we owe so much to our parents and may be regarded as having a duty, in return, to uphold the commitments that they regarded as valuable and important, inasmuch as conscience permits us to do so. Probably the sum total of these arguments would still be a bit lame, but they might have a little bit of force, and what force they have favors obeying the law.

A fifth reason to obey the law is that to break the law may involve lying, or an intention or temptation to lie under certain circumstances. The penalties governments impose on lawbreakers are usually sufficient to make lawbreaking a bad plan, except for those who expect to escape detection. Detecting lawbreakers would be easy if everyone always told the whole truth. The government would only have to ask you whether you did it. Of course, there is a difference between telling the whole truth and not lying. It is not lying to refuse to answer an unwelcome question. Often, a lawbreaker is never asked whether he broke the law or not, so he does not have to lie, or even to refuse to answer. But he certainly might be asked, and he deserves little credit for not lying if he intended to do so at need, but simply never found it necessary. There is a danger, too, that without directly lying, one might deceive by allowing falsehoods to be assumed true. Depending on the circumstances, this might be almost as culpable as a direct lie. All this lends to lawbreaking a strong aura of dishonesty, and one’s duty to the truth is a strong reason to obey the law.

Civil disobedience stands out as a case where, far from being dishonest, breaking the law is uniquely and specially truthful. The whole point of civil disobedience is that one does not try to escape detection and punishment. On the contrary, civil disobedience tends to be deliberately public, and one submits willingly to whatever punishments the oppressor chooses to perpetrate, hoping that the moral burden of administering unjust punishments will break the oppressor’s will and cause him to repent. I don’t think civil disobedience has to be deliberately public, but I do think it has to be resolutely honest. One can be civilly disobedient without actually courting arrest, or advertising one’s lawbreaking. But one has to speak about it openly, and avoid any deceit.

A sixth reason to obey the law is simply that you should presumptively comply with any request that anyone makes of you, including if that anyone is a government. Of course, this presumption isn’t a very strong reason for action. If someone asks you to, say, give them a ride to work, you probably should if it’s no great inconvenience, but it doesn’t take much to override that. It may be no great sin to refuse even if your only reason is that you’re very tired, or your favorite TV show is about to come on. Still, one reason to pay taxes (for example) is just that the government says it needs the money, and it’s usually good to be obliging when someone requests something of you.

Now, how do all these reasons for obeying the law affect the ethics of undocumented immigration?

One reason that I’m unusually lenient in my attitudes towards migrating illegally is that I put a lot of weight on the social contract as a reason for obeying the law, and this argument doesn’t apply to foreigners. If it’s difficult to defend the claim that an American should obey US laws because they’re part of a social contract, to say that a foreigner should obey US laws because of a social contract is an obvious non-starter.

To save space, I’ll dismiss the first two arguments by saying that migrating illegally is not against the natural law, and that the judgments of democratic legislators on this point are of negligible value, because they are serving voters who are not subject to the immigration laws they vote for through their representatives. Of course, there’s more to be said, and I even think some vague and highly attenuated version of the “collective property rights” might have a little force, such that migrants might act unjustly if, after migrating, they made no effort to assimilate and effectively appropriated large and important parts of a nation’s territory in such a way that natives no longer felt safe and at home there. A weak duty to assimilate might also arise out of the coordination problems that occur when, say, ignorance of English becomes widespread. All such arguments seem hardly worthy of being put in the scales against the desperate economic needs of migrants who need to feed their families or earn the money to pay for essential medical care, but they may have a (very) little force.

The sixth argument, the argument that one ought presumptively to comply with any request, is obviously weak, but if it were really the case that no one in a country wanted you there, that might be a pretty good moral reason not to go. In practice, though, the people most directly concerned with an immigrant’s decision usually want him to immigrate. Thus, Mexican migrant workers are declared illegal by the government, but welcomed by the growers, and probably by landlords, grocers, and churches as well. So I don’t think the sixth reason to obey the law has any force in most cases.

By far the strongest reason not to migrate illegally comes from the duty not to lie. To that, I’ll return. But first, let me say that there do seem to be a few weak reasons why a migrant should obey the laws of a country he wants to migrate to, and if there is not at least something to put in the moral scales against them, I would hesitate to condone an act of illegal migration. Suppose, for example, that an affluent Bostonian has a perfectly satisfactory life in the US, but has a fancy to live in Toronto. Canada won’t give him a work visa, but he still wants to go, so he moves to Toronto and works on the black market. I can’t find it in myself to judge this hypothetical person. I rather like his spirit of adventure. But I probably would advise a person against taking the moral risk of breaking the law for so casual and non-compelling reason.

In more typical cases, illegal migration is motivated by real economic desperation. No jobs at home. A family to feed. Maybe fear of religious persecution, or gang warfare. Scanty earnings are channeled into remittances. Or parents make huge sacrifices, living in the shadows for decades, so that their children may have a better life. All such morally serious reasons for illegally migrating easily override the weak arguments against it, except for the argument from truth, to which we now turn.

If we accept the absolute duty never to lie (admittedly a controversial claim), does that rule out illegal migration? Is it possible for an illegal immigrant to live in truth? Can one navigate modern life in America, or Europe, or elsewhere, without legal status, and without lying?

It seems to me that it would be almost impossible to be an illegal immigrant without using falsehoods in various formal and bureaucratic contexts. For example, one might get work, or a driver’s license, using a fake Social Security card. The question is whether there is such a thing as a morally permissible legal fictionwhich can be used without lying. I hope there is, because I often use legal fictions myself. Case in point: If one engages in online commerce, one will often have to click boxes saying “I have read the terms and conditions,” in order to complete a transaction. In these cases, I usually don’t even click the hyperlink to glance at the terms and conditions. If I do, I never read them thoroughly. I don’t think I would be capable of doing so, written as they are in mind-numbing legalese. Boredom would overwhelm my powers of attention long before I got to the end of them. So, if lying to a form counts as lying, then I tell lies all the time. Is that a sin? Should I shun online commerce, on pain of being a liar?

I don’t think so. It would probably be a better world if our understandings of consent were modified such that the types of contracts we recognize as valid were calibrated to what people could reasonably be expected to understand. But our current institutions routinely make use of “I have read the terms and agreements” as a legal fiction, and we do not really expect people to do so. By the same token, it is well-known that fake Social Security cards are widely used in the economy, and I think there are some industries in which employers routinely accept fake Social Security cards. They may prefer not to be made explicitly aware that a given employee is illegal, to avoid culpability, but they would not be surprised to discover it, or consider themselves deceived. In these contexts, to present a Social Security card is not to assert, “I am such-and-such a person,” but simply to give an employer a means to clear a bureaucratic hurdle. It therefore does not qualify as lying, and is not inconsistent with the duty of living in truth. Of course, the bureaucrats to whom the Social Security number will be reported, and the politicians and voters who stand behind them, really do want to know the truth. But they are not morally present in the situation, because they are not available to be reasoned with. To have the right to be told the truth to, one must be available to listen to the whole truth. In the same way, if I were face-to-face with a representative of the companies I engage in online commerce with, I would say, “I can’t really read this agreement, you know. It’s exorbitantly long and I’m not a lawyer.” But a form is not a human being and doesn’t have the same right to be told the truth. The people behind the forms forfeit the right to be told the truth if they demand information in unreasonable ways, and are not available in person to be held accountable for their unreasonableness.

Even if it is sometimes morally permissible to use fake Social Security cards, the duty of telling the truth will doubtless involve extra risk and sacrifice for those who migrate illegally, over and above what they would face by being here without any scruples about lying. There may be jobs a person cannot conscientiously take, because conventions have not given the presentation of a Social Security card the nature of a legal fiction. One might have to tell such employers the card was fake, to avoid really deceiving the employer. Social relations might also involve special dangers. You never know who might be a tattle tale, but again, you can’t lie.

So, to someone who was considering migrating illegally, but was not sure whether this was a morally acceptable thing to do, I would advise them to examine themselves and make sure that they were really determined not to tell any lies in the process, with the tricky but important exception of legal fictions. I would advise them to think of themselves as engaged in conscientious civil disobedience, and to err on the side of telling more of the truth than honesty demands. I would ask them if they had the courage to tell the truth at great personal risk, and the magnanimity to face the injustices of the system, should they be arrested and deported, without rancor or bitterness, and in a spirit of love and forgiveness. If not, I would advise them not to migrate illegally.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

39 thoughts on “The Ethics of Illegal Migration”

  1. The essential idea of this website is simple:

    A magic fairy came down from heaven and made the first world rich and the third world poor. Ergo, citizens of the first world have a duty to let third world people flood across their border, even if the result is a lower standard of living for first world citizens.

    Can anyone tell me what is wrong with the above paragraph? What is wrong is that libertarian economic theories cannot explain why the third world is poor and the first world is rich. So they have to resort to a fairy to explain it.

    1. The United States—the biggest rich country and the richest big country—had open borders for its first century, which left it among the greatest industrial powers in the world and already one of the highest in per-capita income, and didn’t really clamp down on immigration until the 1920s, by which time its GDP was greater than the next two countries combined and Americans had surpassed the British to claim the highest per capita income in the world. The US became a world power with a world-class standard of living while famously attracting many of the poorest people of the Old World. And New York City, which absorbed more of those immigrants than any other city in the mid-19th century, became a world-class city!

      That the US could have become so rich while attracting so many poor people, millions upon millions who came to the US and sent for their families to join them, is not inconvenient to libertarian economists; they’re the ones constantly battling against the idea that free competition in trade is mostly harmful or negative-sum.

      Libertarian economists like Milton Friedman are the ones who credit the US’s unusually large degree of economic freedom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Libertarian economists are constantly talking about gains from specialization and trade, enabled by property rights and supporting institutions. What part of that strikes you as being equivalent to saying “a fairy did it”?

      1. Well, other countries inhabited by people of European heritage, like Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, ect, didn’t have much mass immigration and yet still are first world nations. So crediting immigration itself with Making America Great doesn’t make a lot of sense.

        You are on more defensible grounds when you talk about property rights and supporting institutions, of course if you have a communist country you are going to have economic misery no matter the people in it.(eg, North Korea) You could say with some justification that a big reason why the first world is richer than the third world is because of low levels of corruption and respect for property rights. Of course corruption is illegal everywhere, you see corruption in the third world not because of the institutions per se but because of the people who run them. And that question gets back to the fairy, why did the fairy make American officials much less corrupt than third world officials? It all ultimately comes back to the question of why America, Europe, East Asia, and the rest of the first world was able to make itself rich, and why the third world countries are unable to do that.

        1. You started with the suggestion that if First World citizens “let third world people flood across their border,” “the result is a lower standard of living for first world citizens.”

          I pointed out that the US leapfrogged past the (national and then per-capita) incomes of all other countries while it was admitting huge numbers of poor immigrants. So at very least, open borders did not prevent the US from increasing its standard of living at a faster pace than anywhere else, and it obviously contributed to the US being the most populous of the rich countries.

          So now that you’re falling back to saying that we can’t credit immigration with making America great because the Low Countries and a couple of Nordic countries are fairly well-off today, and ignoring what I said about gains from specialization and trade, I have to ask, what in principle would convince you that you’re wrong?

          It appears you’re saying the US jumped ahead of the rest of the world while drawing millions of poor immigrants because of “low levels of corruption,” not because of institutions but because of “the people who run them.”

          Setting aside for a moment that by “institutions” I don’t just mean the government, please show us evidence for your position; I’ll be very disappointed if you come in here mocking libertarians for believing in “fairies” and don’t have solid evidence of your own.

          1. I ignored the specialization and trade point, so let me ask, why did that benefit some countries much more than others? One of the reasons is that third world countries show an inability to train high intelligence specialized workers like scientists or engineers.

            In principle what would show me my position is wrong is if Nigeria, Tanzania, or some other African country became a first world economy and society, with first world levels of income, income equality, technological and scientific advancement, crime, corruption, ect. If Africans in America were to suddenly start performing at the same level as Whites I would also have to revise my views.(I would be asking “why did it take so long?)

            The evidence is the evidence that is abundantly evident to anyone who has ever analyzed the third world versus the first world. All the explanations are either wrong(“socialism,” compare per person welfare spending as a percentage of GDP in Europe versus the third world, or the strength of regulation, ect) or are themselves the symptoms.(Such as “corruption”) The explanation I have is that it is due to the people and culture or those regions. Libertarians have only the fairy, thus they simply do not address the issue.

            Let me ask you a question, what in principle would convince you that Open Borders is a bad idea?

            1. “I ignored the specialization and trade point, so let me ask, why did that benefit some countries much more than others?”
              Given the freedom to trade, greater availability of labor enables greater specialization and trade. Here are four examples:

              1.) Competitive advantage helps talented people: If you’re a talented engineer, but upkeep of your home and your several children takes up a lot of your time and energy, a domestic worker can free you up to spend more of your time doing engineering, which is where your competitive advantage lies. Maybe working an extra 10 hours a week at your high-income job allows you to pay for a domestic worker for 20 hours or more. Free immigration, by allowing highly talented people to draw from a larger pool of competing houseworkers, allows those talented people to specialize more. If four engineers are able to increase their hours from 40 to 50 hours per week, it’s like your economy gets a whole extra engineer just by bringing in a few uneducated domestic workers!

              2.) Competitive advantage helps low-skill domestic workers: Let’s say you’re a relatively uneducated guy doing yard work for engineers, but you do know English. Maybe you’d feel threatened when a lot of Spanish-speaking people are available to enter the country and do yard work. But that also creates an opportunity for you to specialize in a more language-based skill: you can pick up a few words of Spanish easier than all the engineers in town, then hire a bunch of lower-wage Spanish-speakers as your crew, and translate the homeowners’ very specific requests for the Spanish speakers to follow. Economists (and Southern California homeowners) observe this happening all the time.

              3.) Let’s take this to a higher level: let’s say an entrepreneur, Barry, wants to open up a furniture mill where there’s a good local supply of wood and water power. He has enough capital to build a mill that will require roughly 10 managers, 20 craftsmen, and 40 lower-skilled laborers to operate at full capacity.
              Let’s say Barry can only hire people from his community. If the local community has 10 managers but only 10 suitable craftsmen or 30 laborers, then Barry has to either operate at less than full capacity (which might not be profitable), wait for the local community to educate more craftsmen, and/or he has to pay more to induce people to leave other jobs, which slows him down and raises his costs, therefore making him less competitive.
              On the other hand, what if Barry can hire people from far and wide? Instead of being constrained by local scarcity, he can advertise for people far away to come and fill those roles so he can get his mill running at full capacity right away.

              4.) More immigrants mean more consumers with more varied needs and tastes. In larger markets, it’s easier to find a sufficient number of people who have a particular desire for what you’re selling. This is a big part of why economic activity tends to concentrate itself in time and space, like in cities.

              All right, on to your next points…

              “In principle what would show me my position is wrong is if Nigeria, Tanzania, or some other African country became a first world economy and society, with first world levels of income, income equality, technological and scientific advancement, crime, corruption, ect.”
              Wait, I’m not sure I do understand your position. It sounds like you think immigrants can’t improve a country unless their country of origin is already approximately at the level of the country of arrival. But as I was pointing out, immigrants coming to the US during the open-borders era weren’t already at the US’s level; many of them came from poor and corrupt places, and arrived with nothing in their pockets and no special skills. Many arrived as indentured servants, and many moved into slums when they got here and as soon as they got off the boat they were introduced to corrupt city political machines. The US still grew and thrived.

              “The evidence is the evidence that is abundantly evident to anyone who has ever analyzed the third world versus the first world.”
              Then please provide that abundant evidence.

              “Let me ask you a question, what in principle would convince you that Open Borders is a bad idea?”
              If gains from specialization and trade were not real, or if I thought that greater wealth and specialization in the short/medium term would be a net bad thing (e.g. climate change acceleration, or greater chance of existential threats like unfriendly AI), or if the evidence pointed to much greater security threats that offset the positives, or if I thought the political externalities would undermine the other gains in liberty.
              It would take a lot of evidence to get me to go against my strong presumption for greater liberty.

              1. Your point about the engineer and the domestic servant does make sense. But look at first world versus third world countries. Where are engineers more productive? The first world by far. Having a bunch of low paid poor people in India doesn’t make Indian or Mexican engineers more productive, it makes them a lot less productive. Why? Because poor people impose a lot of costs on the smart people. Smart people have to pay for the poor’s medical care, the schooling of their children, taking care of old or disabled poor people, policing the crime-prone poor, ect. Poor people also raise the costs of land not just by increasing demand(which by itself wouldn’t impose any costs on the smart/rich) but by making large neighborhoods and areas “no-go” zones because smart people do not want to live among the poor. The premium for living in an area away from the poor increases with the number of poor people. And letting in free immigration from the third world will inevitably lead to political movements demanding a redistribution of the wealth. Terrorists would immigrate from areas they currently live, the cost of war and terror hugely reduces the productivity of the smart people in areas like Iraq or Syria by obvious means, and imposes huge costs on the state that must fight it.(Israel) The fact that so much government money much go to the poor people directly and to pay for the costs they inevitably lead to(crime, terrorism), takes away money that can go to helping the smart people. Less money will be invested in basic research or in universities.

                And that all is why while your point about specialization does make sense the actual real world examples of nations with a lot of low paid unskilled labor and simultaneously low paid engineers seems to refute it.

                I don’t think I need to provide evidence of why the third world is worse off than the first world. YOU need to provide evidence of WHY the third world is worse off than the first world.

                1. “Your point about the engineer and the domestic servant does make sense. But look at first world versus third world countries. Where are engineers more productive? The first world by far. Having a bunch of low paid poor people in India doesn’t make Indian or Mexican engineers more productive, it makes them a lot less productive. Why? Because poor people impose a lot of costs on the smart people.”
                  Stating confidently that it’s the poor people who keep talented people down just gets us back to the question of how countries with tons of poor people, like the US in the 19th century, ever got rich in the first place. Which is also to ask how the Industrial Revolution ever took place at all, given that every country used to be poor.

                  I can think of many plausible reasons why engineers in the First World would be more productive than those in the Third World. Engineers in the developed world have much greater access to capital through deep financial markets; they live in places that over time have developed a critical mass of other educated people (often through immigration!), so that they can cluster together in places like Silicon Valley or the Research Triangle; and they tend to live in countries with more freedom that push smart people to succeed by being useful to other people rather than by dominating other people.

                  Why should I accept your hypothesis that it’s the distance from poor people that really makes the difference? Wal-Mart is #1 on the Fortune 500; would it be more successful if it wasn’t so close to so many relatively poor people?

                  “And letting in free immigration from the third world will inevitably lead to political movements demanding a redistribution of the wealth.”
                  Why is that inevitable? We have reason to believe that natives, who have a much greater propensity to vote and lobby the government, are less likely to support redistribution if the wealth is being redistributed to anybody who can get a ticket to get here, rather than redistributing to fellow natives.
                  Perhaps that helps explain why the US didn’t develop a welfare state until after it abandoned open borders.
                  At any rate, I invite you to check out the evidence and arguments at the Open Borders page on political externalities.

                  “Terrorists would immigrate from areas they currently live…”
                  Some would no doubt try. But here’s something for you to consider: when you have a flood of peaceable people (just looking for a job, trying to keep their head down) and a few really dangerous ones crossing the border and neither group presents themselves for documentation and security checks, it’s hard to tell the peaceable ones from the dangerous ones. The peaceable ones are even helping to subsidize the smuggling economy.

                  What would happen if the peaceable ones knew that they could just go through official border crossings, get their proper documentation and a security check, and that this would allow them to go about the country without being harassed? That would mean the only people trying to sneak in would be people who had reason to believe they would be flagged as a security threat. They’d stick out like a sore thumb.

                  “I don’t think I need to provide evidence of why the third world is worse off than the first world. YOU need to provide evidence of WHY the third world is worse off than the first world.”
                  Here’s where I call bullshit. We both need to have evidence for why we believe what we believe; it’s irrational to make assertions and demand that people prove you wrong before you’ll change your mind.
                  I’m not the one who thinks that immigrants can only benefit the country they enter if they come from a country that’s roughly at the same level of development. When I look at per-capita income in the US by country of birth or by ancestry, sure, there are a bunch of already-wealthy countries near the top of those lists, but they’re mixed in with some very backward, poor, corrupt, repressed or unstable countries.

                  And I expect that as a developed country opened its borders, it would be the people with more talent, grit, education, and other advantages who would find it easiest to successfully move there and compete with all the other strivers. Others would try, and not make it, and return to their home countries, as did many people in the 19th century, when transport was less pleasant and cheap than it is today. Strivers don’t have much patience for moochers and layabouts.

                  1. Is there less freedom in the third world, and if so why? Corruption plays a big part in it.

                    It might be true that when you have mass immigration you are less likely to have an extensive welfare state, at first. An elite class of people is more likely to support redistribution of wealth if the redistribution is going to their fellow co-ethnics. But the non-natives WILL demand that the wealth of wealthy natives is redistributed to them. This is especially true in our age of literacy and education. In a democracy they would vote for more socialistic policies. This is what you see pretty much everywhere wherever poor immigrants come into a land in which they are not already the dominant ethnicity.

                    Some have suggested simply not letting the immigrants vote. In that case it would be a South-Africa like situation of a huge, mostly non-White helot class with no political rights, and you would probably have a violent resistance movement develop just as you did in South Africa.

                    You seem to think that the government knows exacly who the “terrorists” are and that if Mohamed Al Bassisi ben Rakbad goes through the “legal channels” our omnipresent government will be able to to sort them out. Hey, it worked for Dokhar Tsarnev. It worked for the 9/11 hijackers.

                    Talent, grit, and education are not necessary to flip burgers at Mcdonalds or pick vegetables in a filp for 2 dollars an hour.

                    1. The reasons there is less freedom in the Third World are manifold. I doubt anyone really knows all the reasons. You say, without providing any evidence, that “corruption plays a big part,” but given that immigrants from poor and corrupt countries seem to be able to succeed quite well here along with immigrants from rich, lawful countries, why should I care?

                      “But the non-natives WILL demand that the wealth of wealthy natives is redistributed to them.”
                      Have you read any of the items on the political externalities page I linked to? When I combine the GSS data on immigrants, their children, and their grandchildren with the effect on natives, my worries on that score are muted.

                      I share your skepticism of the idea of allowing immigration but denying voting rights, at least in the US and in the long term. This country does, after all, have a particular aversion to taxation without representation. I think most immigrants could be denied citizenship temporarily, but not for more than 5 or 10 years. During that time, I think the government should focus on assimilation: try to get immigrants connected to native communities, teach them English and civics, encourage military service and volunteering and settling down. I’m sure it’s easier said than done, but so is “securing the border.”

                      “You seem to think that the government knows exacly who the ‘terrorists’ are”
                      The government does know who a lot of them are. It turns out that most of these wannabe terrorists aren’t very good at covering their tracks. But some do slip through.

                      Still, I think there are better ways of responding to the Tsarnaevs (or, for that matter, McVeigh and Nichols) than making ourselves (and potential immigrants) less free and prosperous than we have to be.
                      My big-picture view is that closing a society just makes it more brittle; we should instead aim to be robust.

                      “Talent, grit, and education are not necessary to flip burgers at Mcdonalds or pick vegetables in a filp for 2 dollars an hour.
                      You need a lot more of those things (and no doubt some amount of luck) when you’re really competing with anyone who has the heart to get here. As in other kinds of competition, barriers to entry create breathing room for those who do get over the hump.

                      I mean, you could have picked any stereotypical immigrant job to illustrate a lack of grit, and you name one that requires bent-over manual labor exposed to the elements. Are you really confident that you know the talent and grit needed to make it when you’re competing with other desperate people for work?
                      And since when do Americans not respect and revere people who rise up from humble beginnings? Cornelius Vanderbilt quit school at 11 to work on a ferry and ended up one of the richest men in American history. Do you trust bureaucrats to separate the Vanderbilts from the losers?

      1. I’m not sure if your comment was supposed to be serious, but assuming it was, see this link:

        Marvin is starving, why? We don’t know, but we are simply told he is starving. We are supposed to think of him as a third world African child, no thought is given to WHY he is starving in Africa, and why the people on the other side of the big fence are not. Note also the piece assumes that Marvin, a starving child in Africa, has a supply of U.S. dollars he can use to buy food if only he was allowed in the U.S. This is a good example of libertarian refusal to deal in reality. In reality Marvin, a child, would have no money to buy food with and would either work illegally(bring back child labor!) or burden the welfare system.

        1. Um, nowhere in Huemer’s Starving Marvin analogy does he mention that Marvin is a child. In fact where Huemer uses the word “child”, he is discussing the obligations parents have to their children.

          In general if you’re looking for discussions of potential interactions that population growth or free migration might have with institutions or culture, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the Moral Case section of our site.

          The primary economic impacts of free migration would come from reductions in the place premium (the economist jargon for this is factor price equalisation; the social activist jargon is “equal pay for equal work”):

          Available evidence suggests the economic efficiency gains of this factor price equalisation are extremely large, because closed borders have artificially inflated the place premium. This is the point Bryan makes above. See too:

          One can argue that cultural and/or institutional effects of immigration will reduce the place premium primarily by making developed economies less productive, not by achieving factor price equalisation. But I’m not aware of evidence suggesting this to be the case.

          1. Starving Marvin is an allusion to an episode of South Park where Marvin is a starving child in Africa.

            1. Yes, we mention that allusion in our page discussing the analogy. My point is that Huemer never alludes in any way to Marvin being a child. For that matter, he never suggests that the Marvin he means is identical to the one from South Park in any or all traits beyond the obvious shared name. Marvin’s being an African child is entirely irrelevant to the analogy; Huemer’s analysis intentionally does not rely on Marvin being African in origin or being a minor.

              Of course you can argue that for a pop culture-aware audience Huemer must have meant to evoke the “starving African child” connotation as a cheap rhetorical trick. But the point I’m making is that his entire analogy is substantively identical even if you change his theoretical person’s name to something completely different, like John Smith or “the man on the Clapham omnibus”. If your only criticism is of the character’s name, then fine, change the name. What then of the analogy? Does it no longer work when it’s John Smith who’s starving instead of Marvin?

              1. My main point is that the analogy doesn’t address the question of why Marvin is starving. He just is. My point is simple, part of the reason why Africa looks like Africa is due to Africans. And if you let them immigrate freely, they will spread that into our countries. And we can’t have that, can we?

                Suppose a tornado recked your town and someone shortly thereafter put up a fence preventing you from moving? That is a good analogy to Huemer’s analogy. It seems supremely irrational to, after a natural disaster, prevent someone from seeking refuge in another area. But that’s not what Africa is. We all know it.

                During the Bengal famine other states in British-ruled India prohibited the export of rice into Bengal, and a million Bengali people eventually died. That’s another thing comparable to Huemer’s analogy. But that famine was temporary. Africa’s suffering seems like a permanent affair.

                1. I would direct you to chapter 2 of Lant Pritchett’s book Let Their People Come, which discusses the very question of Africa’s suffering:

                  It concludes:

                  “One force for increased population mobility is that many countries in the world have experienced large negative shocks, such that, even with the best possible responses in policies and institutions, the optimal population has fallen significantly. In the current international system, these people are trapped.

                  “A helpful way of thinking about desired populations is the following: There are 10 million people in the Sahelian country of Niger; if there were globally free labor mobility and only 1 million lived in Niger now, how many people would move there? Though some people might say that this creates a case for more aid or freer trade, it is hard to believe that if people moved out of Kansas because farming was no longer an attractive opportunity, then the best that can be done for the people of Niger or Chad is that they get slightly more assistance and slightly better prices for the items they grow.”

                  I would add that I am skeptical of the “People are genetically-inclined to carry poverty like a disease, and infect our societies if we let them come here” type of argument. I’m aware of the IQ-based evidence, but as far as I can tell it is in no way strong enough to justify strict border controls against certain populations just because of their IQs. There’s also all kinds of controverting evidence, such as this:

                  I find the “culture of poverty” argument more compelling; but culture is very far from immutable. (German-, Irish- and Italian-Americans today are a far cry from their ancestors.) To me the culture/assimilation argument at best justifies some cap on immigration and/or gradual phasing in of open borders; it doesn’t justify maintaining the status quo.

                  I’d also add that Pritchett’s argument has extra force from clear empirical examples, such as the Lebanese diaspora:

                  1. You’re free to believe that “[the IQ-based evidence] is in no way strong enough to justify strict border controls against certain populations”. An appropriate way to act on that belief is to encourage countries with citizen majorities sharing your belief to act more boldly (and, ideally, move to such a place yourself, though life circumstances may interfere with that); that’s an ethical, “skin in the game” approach.

                    In contrast, it’s generally unethical to try to force people who disagree with you to pay the price when you’re wrong; this is doubly true when there isn’t even any meaningful potential upside for them (they don’t tend to share your xenophilic preferences), and they’re not stopping you from satisfying your preferences independently. Most open borders advocacy to date has been of the unethical variety, but this site has been better than average.

                    1. “it’s generally unethical to try to force people who disagree with you to pay the price when you’re wrong”

                      Restrictionists are forcing us all to pay the price: not just being unable to indulge some of our “xenophilic preferences” (yes, I wish I could get good Mexican food in the DC area) but reducing economic opportunities for us all. Those who own real estate are denied millions of potential buyers and renters; businesses and potential businesses and households who could use assistance are denied the freedom to hire whom they will; domestic sellers of goods and services lose out on tons of potential customers.

                      Restrictionists make not only potential immigrants but also their own countrymen less free, using force to prevent them from transacting with whom they will.

                    2. @Bryan Pick:

                      You’re totally wrong, at least in America’s case.

                      Americans have great freedom to transact with foreigners. Consider Bill Gates, who spends *billions* of dollars of his own money working to improve conditions in Africa. From e.g. a “white nationalist” perspective, this behavior is absolutely flabbergasting. But you know what? Americans, including most restrictionists, generally cheer him on. They have nothing against helping foreigners, no matter how large the scale it is done on; they just have a problem with costs being forced on them against their will. If you internalize the costs and benefits, no problem. There are numerous other examples of this.

                      As for “cheap Mexican food in the DC area”, you realize that example actually undermines your own position, right? It’s not like there’s a shortage of Mexican-Americans in the US at this point; instead, you can only get an outcome like that via restrictive zoning laws and the like. What drives such laws? That’s right, explicit desires by DC area citizens to keep out such people even in the face of a massive population increase. You can easily find that “cheap Mexican food” *elsewhere in the US* (including very wealthy places like the SF Bay Area), not to mention foreign countries that you’re free to settle down in without giving up your US citizenship. Your beef obviously shouldn’t be with national migration policy, it should be with the political preferences of your immediate neighbors, and your current “solution” of transforming the entire nation just to spite them deserves all the ridicule it can get.

                    3. “Americans have great freedom to transact with foreigners.”
                      Who do you think you’re kidding? If Congress passed a law saying Americans had to leave the country to buy and use a gun, and couldn’t bring it back into the US with them (or maybe you can pay a big tax, or only a small percentage of those demanded guns could be re-imported), would you object that it’s “totally wrong” to say that this law made Americans less free?

                      If you were exporting goods to a willing buyer in another country, and that country’s government instituted a protectionist quota that prevented you from continuing to sell to that buyer unless you moved there or he moved to your country, would that not make you and that buyer less free?

                      The fact that you won’t bite this bullet tells me it’s very uncomfortable for you to face the simple fact that restrictionism means real, huge limits on your countrymen’s freedom.

                      So I’ll make it as hard for you to deny as possible with simple examples.
                      If you own real estate, there are many people who would like to buy or rent that real estate. Immigration restrictions say to the domestic real estate owner, “You may not sell or rent to this group of many millions of people who say they’d be interested.” Property is the exclusive right to use and dispose of things, so immigration restrictions are restrictions on property rights.
                      If you own a business, or are thinking of starting a business, or if you need some help around the house or taking care of your kids, there are many millions of qualified people who would like to be hired at a competitive wage. Immigration restrictions say to established business owners, entrepreneurs, and the heads of families, “You may not hire any of those millions of people.” This too is a restriction on your property.
                      If you sell a good or service at a domestic facility – like running a restaurant or movie theater, or selling groceries, or performing plumbing services – there are many people who could be potential customers who you will never be able to serve because there are gigantic legal barriers keeping them out of your market, very much like that protectionist quota above.

                      If you deny the validity of any of the examples above, just imagine that a law prohibited renting to people from a less pleasant part of the country, or hiring poor people, or selling groceries to people until they had lived in town for five years. Would those laws not make one less free? Would one not be “paying the price” for that use of force?

                      “As for ‘cheap Mexican food in the DC area’, you realize that example actually undermines your own position, right? It’s not like there’s a shortage of Mexican-Americans in the US at this point; instead, you can only get an outcome like that via restrictive zoning laws and the like.”
                      First, I didn’t say “cheap Mexican food,” which I can get here; I said “good Mexican food.”

                      And creating good restaurants that satisfy every demand isn’t so easy and natural that it happens whenever the zoning laws allow it; as you say, even San Francisco, which has extremely heavy zoning restrictions, has some good Mexican food, but while there are many restaurants in the DC area, including some excellent ethnic food (including Vietnamese and Somalian), its Mexican restaurants leave something to be desired.
                      What I think the area Mexican restaurant market needs is more experimentation, and this may require more Mexicans – to serve as a critical mass of people who demand authentic Mexican food, and to try their hand at meeting that demand. I’m sure immigration laws alone aren’t at fault, but they make things harder.

                      At any rate, my Mexican restaurant example was just a light-hearted response to “xenophilic preferences,” but it does make me a little less happy than I could be, and it’s flippant for you to act like your preferred restrictions on other people’s freedom are okay as long as the preferences you don’t share could theoretically be met somewhere in the country.

                    4. @Bryan Pick, 3:50pm:

                      The original point of the Second Amendment was to protect the ability of citizens to stand up to their own government. That required some right to use weapons specifically on American soil. In contrast, there’s nothing about “transacting with foreigners” that requires permanent importation of said foreigners (and there are more than two billion foreigners in India and China alone who have benefited greatly from arms-length American transactions with them).

                      As for property rights, what matters is *predictability* of restrictions. Yes, “no restrictions at all” is one way to achieve that, but most Americans prefer to live in places where they and their neighbors are bound by some collective rules. You’re perfectly free to reject such rules, but the ethical way to do that is to buy property unconstrained by the rules you don’t like. Not to buy restricted property, unilaterally violate the restrictions, and force your neighbors to deal with consequences they never signed up for. Or if you think an existing restriction is counterproductive (e.g. “[prohibit] selling groceries to people until they had lived in town for five years”), you can try to persuade the relevant stakeholders to remove it; when reason is on your side, you’re likely to succeed.

                      “At any rate, my Mexican restaurant example was just a light-hearted response to ‘xenophilic preferences,’ but it does make me a little less happy than I could be, and it’s flippant for you to act like your preferred restrictions on other people’s freedom are okay as long as the preferences you don’t share could theoretically be met somewhere in the country.”

                      Apologies for getting “cheap” and “good” mixed up. However, my point stands. The primary reason you don’t have better Mexican food relates to conflicts between your preferences and those of your neighbors. If you add the necessary Mexican-Americans to the area, either you have more traffic and public service costs, or you have less of some other subpopulation or… everyone has to make little compromises on such preferences when they choose a place to live. Again, forcing *the entire nation* to have much higher population density just to force your DC area neighbors to accept a compromise closer to your preference, when there already are higher density places in the US, is ridiculous.

                    5. Christopher, nothing could illustrate the bankruptcy of your position better than your strained evasions of your own standard that “it’s generally unethical to try to force people who disagree with you to pay the price when you’re wrong”.

                      Suddenly it seems you’re okay with forcing people who disagree with you to pay the price when you’re wrong, provided that the restrictions are “predictable” and if you have a problem with them, just try to get them overturned.

                      “there’s nothing about ‘transacting with foreigners’ that requires permanent importation of said foreigners”
                      Right, just like there’s nothing about “selling groceries” that requires the store be within 100 miles of where people live.
                      And nothing about “hiring a houseworker or landscaper or childcare professional” that actually requires them to get to your house on a regular basis.
                      And nothing about “hiring farmhands” that requires them to get to your farm.
                      And nothing “hiring a construction worker” that requires them to get to your construction site.
                      And nothing about “selling or renting out a house” that requires the buyer to be able to reach the house and live there.

                      Yes indeed, location is so unimportant, one wonders why anyone ever migrates – or moves, or opens locations closer to the customers – at all!

                      You’re grasping at straws, and you’d know it if someone tried the same type of arguments on the freedoms for which you have affection.

                      Face it: immigration restrictions are huge restrictions on the freedom of your countrymen.

                      You talk about me “forcing” the nation to do this or “forcing” my neighbors to do that, but I’m only advocating a reduction in force. If the US returned to an open-borders policy and there still wasn’t any good Mexican food in DC, I’d be surprised and disappointed, but I’d accept that. What I don’t accept is when restrictionists force a lot of those free-market options off the table.

                    6. @Bryan Pick, 5:32pm:

                      When there is a political conflict, the most that the winning side can usually do for the losing side(s) is to maximize their freedom to satisfy their preferences elsewhere.

                      Most American immigration restrictionists are happy to do this for open borders folks. If you’re correct about open borders being a big win, you only have to pay an *unavoidable* (given the existence of political conflict) one-time moving cost to e.g. Sweden, and then you gain all the relevant benefits if you’re correct, while the restrictionists back in America lose.

                      In contrast, you’re not interested in giving any quarter to the other side. You want to strip away their right to enforce the contracts they want, *everywhere*. If you’re wrong, *they* suffer most. My point obviously stands.

                      There’s no need for me to bother with any further discussion with you unless you concede this.

                    7. I think the questions raised here are applicable to any social change. Take the existential risk of climate change or the existential risk of artificial intelligence. If people opposed to climate change-remedial policies or the robophiles are wrong, and it turns out rising sea levels or intelligent robots kill us all, we all bear the cost of these people being wrong. But what if they’re right, and yet we didn’t heed them? Who would suffer then? Would it be ok (or less bad) because, “Well most of the people who would suffer if we’re wrong *aren’t* our countrymen”?

                      Pointing to the fact that “X people will suffer if you are wrong” is of course meaningful, but it’s just one side of the question.

                      Now of course there’s the concomitant “skin in the game” issue. I’ve mentioned at times the comparable issue of housing segregation (which Christopher also brings up here in the context of zoning laws). Northern US liberals were happy to denounce the South for its segregation laws, but when it came time to reform their own housing segregation laws — to put their own skin in the game — they not only balked, but violently turned on the desegregationists:

                      The ultimate end is that American housing laws were not reformed, and that although housing desegregation is a continuing process, it is continuing far far slower than the desegregationists ever envisioned. Now, I actually think housing segregation laws are an important component of the open borders issue, similar to other domestic barriers to movement such as China’s hukou. But what then of putting skin in the game?

                      Well, one can just look at the various people who advocate “urbanist” liberalisation of housing laws in the US. Almost all of them live in major urban areas — New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Chicago — which have a long legacy of exclusionist and segregationist housing laws, perpetuated even until this day via facially non-discriminatory zoning laws. Is it fair of them to demand zoning reforms, when they could all just move to a city in Texas like Houston or Dallas which is much more liberal in its housing laws? Do they really have skin in the game?

                      I think the answer here is that a lot of these people are:

                      1. Compelled by the justice of the issue, taking their moral impulses seriously; *and*
                      2. Believe their community ought to act justly — that it is not enough to run to a community which may be less unjust, and wash one’s hands of the issue.

                      Now I don’t doubt that among some of these advocates, there are some motivated by “elite” hostility to the people who might be harmed by their preferred policies (although the most eloquent anti-zoning advocates I’ve seen tend to note their opponents are actually wealthy elite landlords who turn their elite noses up at mere “renters”) — or that there are some who are just utterly insincere (in immigration, this is particularly evinced by how many moderate reform advocates seem reluctant to accept that their preferred arguments actually demand open borders, not just the moderately closed borders they campaign for). But I haven’t seen any reason to suggest that there aren’t genuine advocates who are troubled by the injustices of their communities’ laws, and who would, rather than evade this injustice, would seek to fight it and improve their own community.

                      I personally place myself in the latter camp, so it is of course unsurprising that I advocate for liberal migration policies in both Malaysia (my country of citizenship) and the US (my country of residence). It does not sit well with me that the communities I belong to unjustly exclude other people. It of course could be reasonable to just up and leave in protest. But if I love these communities and see myself as part of them, why would I want to leave? Why would I not want to struggle for justice in my own community?

                    8. “In contrast, you’re not interested in giving any quarter to the other side. You want to strip away their right to enforce the contracts they want, *everywhere*.”
                      I’m arguing for the individual right (shared by my opponents) to contract with whomever one pleases. You’re arguing that the government should be able to void most contracts between your countrymen and the whole rest of the world.

                      If you want an analogy, it’s like I’m arguing for the right to free speech and a free press, and you’re casting that as “stripping away the other side’s right to enforce the censorship laws they want, *everywhere*.” Imagine my shame at not giving the censors any quarter.

                      ” If you’re correct about open borders being a big win, you only have to pay an *unavoidable* (given the existence of political conflict) one-time moving cost to e.g. Sweden”
                      First, despite Sweden’s relatively high percentage of people favoring immigration, Sweden does not have an open-borders policy.
                      Second, it would be a massive cost for me to move to Sweden. My whole family and almost all of my friends are in the US. I’d basically have to completely retrain myself to work in Sweden.
                      Third, and though I am repeating myself, you would not accept this argument if it was applied to any freedom that appeals to you. “If you’re correct about [freedom to do X] being a big win, all you have to do is move halfway around the world to a new country and culture and job market where their policy allows that.” It’s hogwash and you’d never accept it from your opponents.

                      Likewise with this: “When there is a political conflict, the most that the winning side can usually do for the losing side(s) is to maximize their freedom to satisfy their preferences elsewhere.”
                      Please apply this argument to any individual right you consider important and see if you still agree with it. Very soon you’ll come around to the idea that even if the majority dislikes what you do with that freedom, they owe it to you to respect your rights where you stand. Are you really going to stand with those who “win” against freedom?

                      “There’s no need for me to bother with any further discussion with you unless you concede this.”
                      Don’t let yourself off easy. If you really believe that “it’s generally unethical to try to force people who disagree with you to pay the price when you’re wrong” then harmonize your political positions with your ethics. Don’t flinch from that duty to yourself.

                    9. @John:

                      If you’re that concerned about foreigners’ suffering, then go ahead and help them in their home countries, like Bill Gates and many others have done. Again, American law does *not* interfere with that; certainly not in the way that e.g. Soviet restrictions on travel did. US-led trade, foreign investment, and technology transfer have already lifted more people out of poverty in the last 50 years than any mass immigration policy plausibly could in the next 50, despite the higher world population now.

                      As for staying behind and “[seeking] to fight it and improve their own community”, that’s a legitimate approach too. But if you do that, *you must defer to current community opinion*, even as you seek to change it in the future. None of this “heads I win, tails you lose” nonsense of insisting change is obligatory even after the ~70% supermajority opposed to your views holds steady in the face of decades of media propaganda favoring your side. I’ve seen no evidence that anyone on your side has the necessary patience. That might be okay–I’m not the most patient guy in the world, either–but if you don’t systematically compensate for your bias toward demanding premature US political action, and you find that many Americans are never, ever willing to trust you or your allies, don’t say you weren’t warned.

                      @Bryan Pick:

                      You ARE free to contract with just about anyone you please; you just can’t always do it in ways that shift costs onto other citizens without their consent. Live with it, or don’t, it’s up to you. I’m just one of thousands of messengers telling you what your fellow Americans will, and will not, put up with.

                      And you ask what cost I’m willing to pay to exercise my own freedoms in the face of domestic dissent? Well, guess what. I *did* move overseas for several years for exactly that reason, taking a large pay cut in the process, and multiple bloggers here are aware of that. I’m asking for NOTHING that I, and others I know, haven’t been willing to do themselves. So, yes, I have every right to dismiss people like you who are unwilling to put a similar amount of skin in the game.

                    10. “You ARE free to contract with just about anyone you please; you just can’t always do it in ways that shift costs onto other citizens without their consent.”
                      First, to be clear, you’re saying your countrymen are free to contract with anyone they please except for any activity that requires proximity—meaning the overwhelming majority of life. As I said, you’re arguing that the government should be able to void most contracts between your countrymen and the whole rest of the world.

                      Second, you think it’s just “shifting costs” that our immigration laws are designed to stop? That’s a very charitable view of them. The US, a country of 318 million, allocates fewer than 120,000 visas for highly-skilled, professionally trained, and college-educated people each year because they’ll “shift costs onto other citizens”? If being useful and successful and paying taxes is “shifting costs onto other citizens” then who isn’t guilty?

                      Third, I know more than a few highly-skilled people who are able to do more well-compensated work (and thus pay more taxes) because of low-skilled laborers who help take care of their kids and houses. Gains from specialization and trade should be taken into account when we estimate just how many “costs” are being “shifted.”

                      But if externalities are the real objection, then prohibiting the vast majority of transactions between your countrymen and the rest of the world is still far from the obvious answer. Set a fee or require insurance that covers these costs, like we do for so many other activities with negative externalities.

                      Just stop pretending restrictionism doesn’t restrict the freedom of your countrymen or impose costs on them. Big, life-changing costs.

                      “I’m just one of thousands of messengers telling you what your fellow Americans will, and will not, put up with.”
                      If you believe in the message and try to justify it, you’re not just a messenger.

                      “And you ask what cost I’m willing to pay to exercise my own freedoms in the face of domestic dissent?”
                      No, I didn’t ask that, but I see you wanted to answer that question anyway.

                      If you moved to a different country at great personal cost because of a policy disagreement, I’m glad there was a country that not only respects the freedom of those who live there but also allowed you to move there to enjoy that greater freedom. Most people aren’t so fortunate, and it would be particularly unreasonable to demand that of them while also arguing that freer countries should turn them away.

                      “So, yes, I have every right to dismiss people like you who are unwilling to put a similar amount of skin in the game.”
                      Walking away from a problem is pretty much the opposite of “putting your skin in the game.”

                      While no one would dispute your right to ignore anyone on the web, you can’t rationally dismiss an argument that way. If you can’t defeat an argument on its merits, you should weigh what that means for your beliefs, not look for reasons to ignore the person who made the argument.

                    11. @Bryan Pick, 7/7 9:52am:

                      * The US government, unlike e.g. the old Soviet government, doesn’t stop you from moving to almost any foreign country for years to engage in as much physically proximate business as you want with locals. This really isn’t much different from having to move to San Francisco if you want to do lots of business with San Franciscans; I’ve done both (and by the way, it’s San Francisco that’s more expensive). And you *are* allowed to invite foreigners to the US in a wide range of situations; you just can’t do it in an unrestricted manner.

                      * The US doesn’t exactly have a shortage of low-skilled laborers. Anyone who wants help can pay the market price. I’ve stated elsewhere that I’m fine with Singapore/UAE-style guest worker programs, which lower the relevant market prices in a global welfare-increasing manner (i.e. I agree with you re: the use of well-targeted mechanisms for dealing with negative externalities), but unfortunately such a program is not practical in the US.

                      * You shouldn’t have much trouble finding thousands of other Americans who are “not just messengers” just in Eric Cantor’s home district. Opposition to your views runs very, very deep.

                      * In scenarios with complete information, such as judging the validity of a mathematical proof, you are correct that there is no need to fall back on heuristics such as “skin in the game”. But public policy is a different animal.

                      An analogy can be made to someone claiming to have effectively harnessed energy in a new way (e.g. cold fusion). Given the long history of fraudulent or erroneous claims of this nature, it would be insane to even consider a new one unless it’s backed by both sound theory and a working demonstration; and the demonstration needs to be vetted carefully for alternate sources of power. In the case of open borders, the “alternate source of power” for apparent welfare gains is negative externalities foisted on an outraged citizen majority; and an obvious control is a country like Sweden where the citizens actually consent to what’s going on (its policy may not amount to true open borders, but it’s closer than just about every other Western country right now).

                    12. “The US government, unlike e.g. the old Soviet government, doesn’t stop you from moving to almost any foreign country for years to engage in as much physically proximate business as you want with locals. This really isn’t much different from having to move to San Francisco if you want to do lots of business with San Franciscans”
                      It’s far less common for people far from San Francisco to “want to do lots of business with San Franciscans” than to want to hire a few people who can do a job, and know that most of the people who qualify come from various other parts of the world (including maybe a few from San Francisco). Or to want to stay in your kids’ school district and hire someone to take care of them for a few hours after school. Or to hire people to help with your farm or construction site or local restaurant.

                      Since I’ve mentioned these examples repeatedly now, you ought to be aware of them, and in none of these common examples does it help that you could theoretically uproot your whole life – your family, your small business, and all the things they’re connected to locally – to relocate where some of your desired employees come from.

                      How long can you keep denying that these restrictions are really quite restrictive? Restrictive immigration laws foreclose opportunities for the vast majority of people, for the vast majority of purposes.

                      “The US doesn’t exactly have a shortage of low-skilled laborers. Anyone who wants help can pay the market price.”
                      Well, there are absolute shortages (people have intended uses for the resource, but unexpectedly there’s nothing available), and then there are the vastly more common shortages caused by an inability to match up willing parties to a transaction: workers unwilling to move, or unwilling to perform a dirty job, or with the wrong mix of low-level skills, or with the wrong temperament for a job, or unwilling to work weekends or evenings, or with health issues that make them unfit to do manual labor. Or, as you’re aware, an unwillingness to accept the wage that their labor is worth on the market. In which case, no, “anyone who wants help” can not “pay the market price” (for that artificially constrained market) because that would transform competitive and value-creating projects into unprofitable ones, as evidenced by the fact that they are not hiring that help.

                      “unfortunately [a guest worker] program is not practical in the US”
                      If so many people can do it illegally, I don’t see why they can’t do it aboveboard. Do you have any objections to doing experiments with such programs?

                      The theory about gains from specialization and trade isn’t controversial among economists.
                      And as for a working demonstration, the US did pretty well with open borders for a long time, and without strict quotas until the 1920s. You might argue that the economy has changed since then, that cheap transport has changed the nature of immigration, or something like that, but I don’t think those are really serious obstacles to ensuring that an open-borders policy is positive-sum.

                      “You shouldn’t have much trouble finding thousands of other Americans who are ‘not just messengers’ just in Eric Cantor’s home district. Opposition to your views runs very, very deep.”
                      This website wouldn’t exist if open-borders policy was already popular, but I don’t find the polling on US immigration to be all that daunting.

                      I think that the most common fears are unfounded, indefensible, or potentially mitigated with relatively straightforward policies. I hope the people who favor restrictions are persuaded to change their views, like they are changing their views on other policies they deeply opposed not so long ago, like gay marriage and marijuana. Hell, approval of mixed-race marriages didn’t reach a majority until the 1990s. Opinions change.

                    13. * The polls show that US citizens tend to want a bit less, not more, immigration. That’s not very promising for an advocate of *unrestricted* immigration. There’s definitely a desire for immigration reform, but the kind of reform wanted by typical citizens is a switch to something like Australia or Canada’s policy. (I think they’d actually accept a higher absolute level of immigration as part of such a reform; but that’s irrelevant since anything like Australia or Canada’s policy has been systematically kept off the table by our political overlords for decades.)

                      * It’s totally logical for a country to become more picky w.r.t. immigrants after it no longer has a frontier. For the US, that transition happened around the 1890s, and the subsequent three decades is indeed when a large number of restrictions were introduced in response to public demand.

                      * The Singapore and UAE guest worker programs control externalities by, among other things, not offering citizenship to kids of guest workers. In the US, this would require repeal of the 14th Amendment. If you think the Democrats would both allow that to happen and then actually enforce such a provision, I have a bridge to sell you.

                      Again, I’m in favor of guest worker programs in countries where they can be properly implemented, but the US is not one of those countries.

                      * Yes, restrictions are restrictive. But the ones present in American law are designed to protect various things your fellow Americans want. Sorry, but when you’re in a small minority and your desires conflict with what the majority wants, you can’t expect to get your way all the time. You can insist all you want that your policy proposals will make everyone happy, but it’s up to them to decide whether or not to believe you, and it doesn’t look like they’ll believe you anytime soon. Deal with it.

                    14. Open-borders advocates aren’t expecting an overwhelming policy victory tomorrow. If you were expecting “open borders policy is currently unpopular” to be your trump card, everyone here already priced that in. The point is to persuade, obviously.

                      And again, I don’t find current US polls to be all that daunting. There are apparently contradictory attitudes in the polls, but I don’t see a deep and abiding hostility to immigrants or immigration, but rather a lot of people who don’t care that much and mostly will agree with anything that sounds “tough but fair.” That’s a pretty good start. Movements have faced much stronger headwinds and prevailed.

                    15. If you’re prepared to wait 50+ years while most of the real work advancing open borders happens elsewhere, sure, that’s a viable plan; I’ve previously expressed optimism about what’s achievable in the US on that timescale. If you’re not capable of waiting that long, though, you might want to reconsider your strategy.

          1. I addressed many of those ideas in my other comment. The essential idea: poor people impose costs on smart, wealthy people. Here are some problems:

            If segregating high-IQ people accelerates their production of ideas, it would make sense within rich countries as well to segregate the high-IQ people from the low-IQ ones. But wait a minute… we already do that! We segregate them in highly selective universities and workplaces, through non-coercive voluntary arrangements. Why wouldn’t that work just as well under open borders? The country is certainly big enough to accommodate the huddled masses and still have room for faculty lounges and think tanks!

            It’s very simple, the price of living away from poor people increases if there are more poor people you must avoid.

            If coercion is justified as a means of segregating people by IQ, immigration restrictions are hardly the most logical way to go about it. What we should do is (a) banish low-IQ people from the US, and (b) allow in, or if they refuse to come buy/draft, high-IQ people from abroad. Any decent person’s horror at these suggestions expresses the conscience’s recognition of the fact that segregation by IQ is not an acceptable reason to use coercion.

            And If rational self interest is justified as a personal economic behavior, what’s to prevent me from kidnapping the children of a wealthy man and threatening to kill them if he does not pay ransom?

            The argument about labor saving machinery is an interesting one. I’m agnostic on the issue, it’s something I don’t think there’s enough evidence to conclude one way or another. There are parallels with another idea, the benefits of basic research. When scientists cannot patent what they discover they can benefit a huge number of people, with no direct benefit to themselves.

  2. It’s easier said than done Nathan Smith. To say “I would advise them not to migrate illegally” when you haven’t been confronted with the deplorable conditions, civil unrest, famine, injustice, and persecution etc.. that immigrants face in their native country. Only when you’ve worked in someone’s shoe’s can you really understand why illegal immigration was the only option. You’ve lived in America and have no idea what these people face so consider yourself lucky. Having some empathy and compassion instead of being judgmental is more humane.

  3. In theory, anyone has the natural right to go anywhere, to the frozen artic, to the middle of the ocean, to airless space, to your residence uninvited. But everyone, man or beast, also has a natural right to defend their personal space, residence and yes, their territory, just as native Americans defended their lands from invading settlers. The only reality is the natural ethic, that those who have the will and the ability to defend themselves and their territory will do so, and those who don’t are doomed to be dispossessed of their lives and lands.

    Leftists want everyone to surrender their natural right to defend their territory, their residence, and even their own lives. They must be resisted and they must be defeated, for the sake of our own lives and the lives of our descendants.

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