The Open Borders Morality Play

Last week Rumplestatskin, at the Australian outfit Macrobusiness, criticized Alex Tabarrok’s moral appeal for open borders as a “morality play of the 1%”. He quotes Tabarrok’s (open borders boilerplate) rhetorical question “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?” But he adds his own spin:

How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in towns and suburbs where their financial and geographic constraints prevent them from making a living?

That open borders within countries does not automatically eliminate poverty reminds us be skeptical of claims that opening borders between them will reduce poverty automatically.

This is an interesting point, but there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, what do we mean by “poor”? Poverty in the rich world is a very different beast from poverty in the poor world. The poorest five percent in America still make $3 – 4000 per year, putting them in the 60th percentile of global income. (Milanovic 2012, see figure below) This doesn’t mean that rich world poverty isn’t a problem. But even if migration opportunities only help people in, say, the 50th global income percentile and above, that means helping people we would normally think of as poor without qualification if only they already lived in the rich world. So, yes, opening borders will pretty much automatically reduce poverty, even if it doesn’t eliminate poverty.


This point can be turned around the other way. Would we be richer if we had less mobility in the rich world? As Lant Pritchett has discussed, mobility allows people to escape the traps of ghost towns and dying industries. Would we even ponder restricting the out-migration of West Virginians to the rest of the US or Tasmanians to the rest of Australia as a strategy to improve the lives of the poorest in those regions? In the dying towns and sleepy suburbs of the rich world, it is also the poorest who will have the greatest difficulty taking advantage of their freedom to move away. But no one suggests imprisoning less disadvantaged people in their dying towns to be fair to the most disadvantaged.

Open borders is merely the logical outcome of any type of ‘natural rights’ moral reasoning. People should have the opportunity to flourish irrespective of the patch of Earth they were born.[sic] Yet the idea boils down to being the policy you support when you want to help the world’s poor but don’t support actually giving them money.

This seems a bit ad hominem to me. Open borders is merely a libertarian idea, pushed by rich folks and their shills who want to reap the status benefits of advocating a policy that would allegedly benefit the poor without having to actually fork over any cash. I’ve wondered before why it is so commonly thought that a policy of open borders must be at odds with a policy of global redistribution of wealth. I see no reason why an earnest leftist couldn’t support allowing everyone in the world freedom of movement and at the same time support redistribution from the rich to the global poor. There’s no inconsistency, and no readily apparent reason why the two policies would conflict.

In many ways open borders is the type of policy you support to display street cred in the company of the economically rational, particularly when discussions turn to inequality and, god forbid, redistribution. Making the poor richer is as simple as giving them money and therefore access to resources, whether they are fellow citizens of your country, or your planet.

Well, this certainly sounds simple. Simply handing cash to the poor is a good idea, and we should all do a good deal more of it. (On this note I can’t resist observing–anecdotally–that many of the people I know in the open borders movement are also very interested in “effective altruism“, including direct cash disbursements). The reasons why global poverty is not actually this simple illuminate why, despite what I said above about compatibility, I personally think tax-based redistribution is a bad idea. It’s perfectly consistent to hold this view along with a preference for free movement, but it’s a view I don’t actually endorse.

There is a strong case to be made that simply handing cash to the wretched of the earth is one of the best ways to get the most bang out of your altruistic buck. It allows the poor to make one-time life-improving investments (a metal roof, a bicycle, etc) that can ease the immediate pangs of poverty. But it isn’t at all clear that this can be scaled up without the cash becoming yet another resource to be diverted to and exploited by the same local kleptocratic elites that already impoverish poor societies. I am presuming of course that Rumplestatskin envisions ramping up aid going through official channels.

Control of the aid spigot can also become a source of conflict, just like oil fields and diamond mines. And like oil and diamonds, foreign aid can potentially inflict a resource curse on an imbalanced economy. This isn’t to say that foreign aid is always bad. The evidence to my knowledge suggests that foreign aid contributes weakly to economic growth and can improve non-economic outcomes. But it is neither simple nor without danger. These considerations should give even the committed redistributionist pause.

Finally, there is the coercive nature of global redistribution. Such redistribution involves levying taxes on individuals in rich countries in order to transfer funds to people they have never met and know very little about, through murky and what are likely to be perceived as illegitimate channels, with little guarantee that the funds won’t be compromised by the problems above. Of course, all taxation involves coercion with no guarantees of efficiency. But these are the qualities that make tax rates and redistributive policies so contentious even within domestic politics. The justification requirements only increase with international transfers. These aren’t necessarily insurmountable hurdles. The severity of global poverty is significant enough to override most aversions to higher taxes–including my own–but only if the rich world taxpayers can be sure those taxes will do some good.

Contrast this with liberalizing immigration to the rich world, which removes coercion from current policy. One can argue about economic effects on the poorest individuals in both the sending and receiving countries, and one can make vague arguments about changing national character. But for the individuals directly affected, open borders reduces coercion and expands opportunities.

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