The inconsistent social engineers: why do we have border controls, but no birth controls?

I’m not sure who first observed this, but a lot of arguments against allowing people to move freely are based on a set of premises that boil down to: “People are bad. Immigration brings more people ‘here’. Therefore free immigration is bad.” In March this year, British comedian Stewart Lee did a fantastic monologue about this, stepping back through the history of the British Isles and denouncing various peoples who’ve settled the land along the way. After going through the Romanians, the Poles, the Huguenots, the Saxons, and so on, he finally got to the evolution of land-based animals: “They crawled out of the sea onto the land — OUR LAND!” Lee wound up his misanthropic speech with a thunderous denunciation of the Big Bang: “Remember the good old days? When you could leave your door unlocked? Because there was nothing there? Nobody ever asked me if I wanted a Big Bang!”

(I’d link to a video or transcript of this great monologue, but the only extant video I could find seems to no longer work, and nobody seems to have thought to transcribe it. The quotes I’ve furnished here are actually from memory and not verbatim.)

The typical objections people have to greater immigration are after all just as applicable to higher birth rates:

  • More people entering the labour market causes a rise in unemployment and lower wages
  • More people by definition means there will be more criminals, since criminals are people
    • And worse still, if lower-socioeconomic status people have higher birth or immigration rates, we would expect overall crime rates to go up disproportionately
  • More people by definition require larger state expenditures, both for the upkeep of public goods and services like roads, and also for benefits programmes
    • And again, if lower-socioeconomic status people have more children or immigrate more, then the economic burden on the state will increase disproportionately
  • More people create adjustment costs — someone, whether it is the public or private sector, will have to build more homes, open more schools, hire more nurses; the list goes on and on

If all these arguments are valid defences for strict border controls, why not have similar ones for birth controls? Would it not be a catastrophic risk to our society if lower-socioeconomic people began giving birth to more and more children? Co-blogger Johnny Roccia has blogged about this, and more recently guest blogger Bryan Caplan blogged about a hypothetical world of eugenics over at EconLog, After all, if you’re happy to advocate arbitrary and broad-reaching state power over people’s ability to move, because of all the attendant ill-effects of, you know, dealing with human beings, why stay silent about reproductive restrictions? Shouldn’t advocates of border controls who complain about population growth leading to more crime, more welfare payments, fewer jobs, and so on, be worried not just about immigrants but also newborns? Economist Daniel Lin makes light of this on his Twitter, but surely he has a point:

Now, there are some extreme environmentalists who advocate immigration restrictions as just one form of population control among many, but they are a fringe minority. Their minority status is thus puzzling: if people truly worry about where jobs will come from, or who will pay for the burgeoning benefits cheque, or how to manage a growing incidence of crime — to cite three of the most common ills associated with immigration, but also with population growth in general — why focus all energy on stopping immigration, and not consider devoting some effort to implementing a government-backed eugenics policy? Why not ban welfare recipients from having children? Why not sterilise all habitual violent criminals? Why not cap the number of “low-skilled” workers allowed to reproduce, lest the number of low-skilled people in the economy outpace its ability to create jobs for them?

Now, some people do bite the bullet and say “Yes, eugenics is a good idea and the government should be doing something there too.” To these people, I don’t have a lot to say; we will probably just have to agree to disagree. I don’t see a compelling reason, except perhaps in extreme scenarios, for the state to regulate human reproduction. I don’t see an existential threat to our societies or the human race posed by our general lack of eugenics programmes.

But most people try to distinguish border controls from birth controls in some way. The argument is that it’s unjust and immoral for the state to restrict births, but it is not similarly unjust or immoral for the state to restrict human movement. People who argue that migration controls and birth controls should not be compared in this manner often take three tacks:

  1. International migration is an uncommon, unnatural desire, while reproduction is not;
  2. Birth rates are generally predictable, while international migration rates are not;
  3. Immigrants originate from different cultures, while natives give birth to and raise children from a common culture.

Even if you take all their premises for granted, all three are essentially arguments for violent and coercive social engineering by the state. The first argument assumes that the state has a right to quash “unnatural desires”, even if no individual can point to a specific wrong that was committed against them in the process of pursuing this “unnatural desire”. The second assumes that what social changes the state can predict and manage are tolerable, while social changes that the state cannot predict and may not be able to manage are intolerable. And of course the third gives the state explicit authority to use force (not just nudges or incentives) to micromanage the cultures of a society, which seems like the epitome of violent social engineering to me.

But even the premises of these arguments are questionable. To the first argument, UN economists already estimate there are about 250 million international migrants in the world, and another 800 million domestic migrants. This is what occurs even under highly restrictive border regimes; if migration policies were liberalised, we would expect the true numbers to be much higher. How many of those domestic migrants would choose to move internationally instead? These numbers exclude temporary migrants too; those people would also benefit significantly from open borders. If hundreds of millions of people want to move, and do move even under highly restrictive border regimes, in what sense is this desire unnatural or uncommon?

And to the second argument, yes, there is a natural, fixed limit to how many children a woman can bear, making childbearing rates somewhat more predictable than migration rates. But migration rates are hardly impossible to manage either; indeed, to a large degree they can be quite predictable. The main constraint hampering a state’s ability to predict free migration flows today is that we haven’t had open borders for so long that it is difficult to tell what migration flows might result. But that’s an argument at best for gradual opening of the borders; it’s not an argument for maintaining arbitrary border controls in perpetuity.

Finally to the third argument, most countries have plenty of heterogeneity even internally. If the state has a legitimate interest in taking coercive action to prevent the current mix of cultures from changing too much, should the state gear up for action if one cultural group’s birth rate falls behind another? Should the state force citizens from regions or ethnic communities with low birth rates to give birth at gunpoint? Should the state forcibly prevent the births of citizens in regions or ethnic communities where the birth rate seems out-of-whack with what the state believes is warranted or manageable? Shouldn’t Americans be concerned about plummeting birth rates in New England, the cradle of American institutions? Or worried about soaring fertility rates in culturally distinct states like Utah or Texas? Is there not a risk that New Englanders will literally die out, or that Texans will outbreed and therefore wipe out the rest of the American nation? At some point, cultural micromanagement implies not only a strong role for the government in border controls, but birth controls too.

Now, of course, there are plenty of other efficiency-based arguments for implementing either stricter reproductive controls, strict border controls, or both — ones that rest purely on the consequential or utilitarian outcomes of these policies. The eugenics analogy can’t by itself make a comprehensive case for open borders. But what it can do, as economist Scott Sumner’s argued, is really compel us to doubt the wisdom and justness of the typical arguments we use to defend arbitrary border controls.

Scott is not an open borders supporter, though he advocates significant liberalisation of immigration policies. But he found Bryan’s eugenics hypothetical to powerfully illuminate how the arguments we deploy for border controls are actually rooted in exactly the sort of injustice that we would immediately decry if manifested instead in advocacy for reproductive controls:

I’ve actually met academics that favor China’s one child policy. I’m pretty sure they’d be horrified by this story. They’d say it’s unfair to punish the innocent child for the sins of their parents. But is it really possible to have a clean, antiseptic one child policy that doesn’t punish the children?

Now ask yourself how many of those academics that supported the one child policy actually thought through what would happen to the millions of children born in violation to that policy? I’d guess not very many. Now let’s consider immigration restrictions. Is there a clean, antiseptic way to keep out illegal immigrants?

Bryan has not convinced me that 100% open borders are clearly the way to go. But he has convinced me that my objections to his arguments are not as reliable as I might have assumed. My reservations about open borders are actually pretty similar to the reservations that people in a eugenics society would have had to a proposal for an open birth policy.

The fact that superficially similar arguments against birth restrictions would have been rejected out of hand by a eugenic culture should, at the very least, make us do a bit of soul-searching.

Let’s face it, most people oppose open borders at the gut level, and then they search for logical reasons to support the position that had already formed in their reptilian brain.

None of this is to say that all border controls are bad, or that all birth controls are bad. In some cases, the state may have compelling reasons to restrict human reproduction, or human movement. (Forcible sterilisation and mandatory residence registration of sex offenders comes to mind.) There may be a human right to a family and a human right to migrate — but all the same, as long as we accept the authority of our governments, no right is truly unqualified.

But before our governments take coercive action against these rights, they are obligated to weigh the far-reaching implications of doing so, and comprehensively rule out more humane alternatives. The callous attitude towards human life implied by eugenics wrought untold horror and injustice throughout the 20th century, even in what we once thought to be “civilised” societies. Just because the government can micromanage our culture and society through birth controls does not mean it always ought to do so.

And the desire to have a family is just as strong and natural as the desire to move for a better life. We cannot exclude someone from our society and economy without just cause — just as we cannot forcibly sterilise someone, or coercively matchmake a couple, without just cause. Before we enact broad, far-reaching curbs on the exercise of these human rights, we need to be sure that strict controls are the only tolerable option we have to achieve the ends we have in mind. If we wouldn’t force innocent people to have sex at gunpoint to achieve this goal, it’s worth asking why we’d be all right pointing guns at innocent people to accomplish the exact same thing.

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.


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