As the name implies, Openborders.info aims to discuss the ins and outs and the pros and cons of open borders, honestly and with an open mind, while also advocating open borders, or at least policy movement in the direction of open borders. But the hardworking and underpaid writers themselves come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so that in some cases “movement toward open borders” is the rare, narrow sliver of convergence. We don’t agree on everything. With this in mind, I’m taking the opportunity in this post to push back against the “keyhole solutions” mentioned so often on the site. These come in many flavors but can be summarized as follows: for a criticism or fear of open borders, X, one can often posit a keyhole solution, K(X), which mitigates or removes the (perceived) problem of X while still retaining freedom of movement across national borders. A common example is, for the contention that immigrants will drain the host nation’s welfare resources, a keyhole solution would be to allow migration but legally bar immigrants from collecting welfare benefits.
At the outset I want to acknowledge that the keyhole policies proposed usually move in the direction of open borders as advertised and so, if I were forced to vote on such policies, I would usually vote yea. But keyhole policies often have serious philosophical and rhetorical drawbacks, potentially significant enough to call into question whether they really would move us in the direction of open borders. In addition, I want to argue that keyhole regimes do not represent optimal policy in the broad sense of “optimal”.
One rhetorical problem of keyhole solutions is they can generate confusion as to what it is advocates of open borders are really advocating. This became apparent in the friendly skirmish between Tyler Cowen and us earlier this year. Nathan Smith responded to a surprise broadside from Cowen with a post heavy on the benefits of taxing immigration and denying immigrants entitlements that are standard for natives.
Cowen is smart enough to figure all this out for himself. The communication failure occurs because we mean different thing by “open borders.” I mean simply that immigrants will be allowed to enter the country physically, and allowed to work. Not that they will reside there on equal terms with citizens, subject to the same tax rules for example. Certainly not that they will have access to the vote, which is a separate issue, or to welfare benefits, which I would strongly object to. Perhaps he would favor the DRITI approach to open borders, I don’t know. It seems as if taxing immigration, and keyhole solutions generally, are not on Cowen’s radar screen.
Cowen retorted that the post was a surrender, that what Nathan considers open borders is not really open borders. I can’t blame Cowen for his assessment. In this post I’m defending honest-to-goodness open borders.
Another rhetorical issue is that too much enthusiasm poured into the case for keyhole regimes could backfire, especially when it’s a keyhole cocktail on the menu. “Let’s tax immigration and redistribute the proceeds to unskilled natives so they don’t lose out! Let’s deny immigrants the right to vote so they don’t destroy our institutions! Let’s deny immigrants public services such as welfare and unemployment insurance and public schools so they don’t drain the public coffer! Let’s deport immigrants for misdemeanors so our cities are not overrun with crime!” There is a keyhole solution for every fevered imagining of the paranoid nativist. But, just possibly, it might be a bad idea to market open borders to this group. Molly the Moderate might look at the laundry list of “problems” that a proffered keyhole proposal purports to solve and come away thinking “Gee, if immigrants really come with all those problems, wouldn’t it be more straightforward just to restrict immigration like we’re already doing?”
Rhetoric aside, keyhole policies clearly have a real dark side. Nathan highlighted this in his recent post The Dark Side of DRITI (DRITI–“Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It”–being a keyhole regime of Nathan’s devising that includes a surtax for immigrants and a ban on their use of social safety net options that are available to citizens).
Regressive transfers from poor immigrants to better-off natives. DRITI immigrants wouldn’t be earning much, yet a substantial share of their small earnings would be taken away in taxes. The proceeds would be used to pay transfers to natives. It would probably be very common for two people to work side-by-side, one a DRITI immigrant the other a native, doing the same job and earning the same wage, yet the native would enjoy a much higher standard of living than the immigrant, because the native would be receive transfers from the government, while the DRITI immigrant would be paying extra taxes to the government. Quite affluent people, too, would receive transfers financed by taxes on poor DRITI workers.
Taxation without representation. DRITI immigrants would be paying a lot of taxes, yet they wouldn’t have the right to vote. In fact, in the numerical example above, we would end up with a situation where 1/3 of the adult resident population of the US couldn’t vote. Is that a violation of democratic principles? (Not really. Democracy is about consent of the governed, and DRITI immigrants would have explicitly consented. But that’s a subtle point, and people would doubtless feel unease at the abrogation of the “one person, one vote” principle.)
The DRITI scheme would indeed be Pareto-improving in that it would improve or leave unchanged the lots of every native and every immigrant. But Nathan also describes this as both the sophisticated case for open borders and the best immigration policy yet proposed. This assumes that “Pareto-optimal” is the same as socially optimal or ethically optimal. DRITI is morally problematic for precisely the reasons he highlights. Charging immigrants special taxes just because they are immigrants is discriminatory, violating the principle of equality before the law. It also ignores the common sense principle that, where possible, you should tax bads instead of goods. Immigration is not a bad.
Some fairly odious policies can be Pareto-improving. Consider a slavery regime where a new law is passed that would allow a slave to purchase her freedom from her owner under a legislated, generously above-market price at which the owner would be compelled to sell. Slaves would be better off with the new capability to purchase their freedom and slave owners would be better off every time they sold a slave into freedom. The policy would make everyone better off, even though morality requires censure and punishment for slave owners and a great deal of compensation and apology for former slaves.
This is an extreme case, but it differs mainly in magnitude rather than qualitative difference from a system of closed borders where some people are coerced by violence and threats of violence to live where they are told by those who wield political power over them. Where there is great injustice, there is ample room for Pareto improvement. Keyhole policies are often offered to compensate losers from a proposal, but in the case of opening borders, the “losers” are merely losing unfair advantages accruing to the unjust status quo of closed borders. In his essay, the Case for Open Immigration (found in this volume, ungated here), Chandran Kukathas discusses closed borders in terms of the rents they provide to native workers.
While it is true that the burdens and benefits of immigration do not fall evenly or equitably on all members of a host society, open borders are defensible nonetheless for a number of reasons. First, it has to be asked why it must be assumed that locals are entitled to the benefits they enjoy as people who have immediate access to particular markets. As residents or citizens, these people enjoy the rents they secure by virtue of an arrangement that excludes others from entering a particular market. Such arrangements are commonplace in every society, and indeed in the world as whole. Often those who find a resource to exploit, or a demand which they are particularly able to fulfill, are unable to resist the temptation to ensure that they enjoy the gains to be had in exploiting that resource or fulfilling that demand by preventing others from doing the same. Yet it is unclear that there is any principle that can justify granting to some persons privileged access to such rents. To be sure, many of the most egregious examples of rent-seeking (and rent-protecting) behavior are to be found in the activities of capitalist firms and industries. But this does not make such activity defensible, since it serves simply to protect the well-off from having to share the wealth into which they have tapped with those who would like to secure a little of that same wealth for themselves.
Open borders diluted by surtaxes and fines levied to further swaddle citizens of rich countries in protectionism are better than closed borders, but they do not constitute optimal policy. Advocates of open borders should acknowledge that keyhole policies are essentially bribes offered to political gatekeepers. Keyhole policies are tunable along a continuum, so without acknowledging that keyhole policies are compromises of principle, it’s possible to slip from reasonable keyhole solutions to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Consider Nathan’s taxation-without-representation example above. DRITI admirably includes a pathway to citizenship, which would extend voting rights to citizens in a reasonable amount of time. I find a few years waiting period for citizenship unobjectionable, as temporary migrants have little at stake politically. But the keyhole condition could be extended. David Henderson has proposed a twenty year waiting period before immigrants can become citizens and vote. Long before twenty years are up, an immigrant will have established deep roots in his community, perhaps with children in school, ties to a church or other community organization, deep knowledge of the local culture and customs, as well as an understanding of the political issues of the day, many of which will pertain to him. Restricting an immigrant from voting for this long is too high a price to pay for misguided fears that immigrants will vote the “wrong way”. (Incidentally, I have never seen a restrictionist concerned about deleterious immigrant voting suggest that we focus instead on increasing the voter turnout among citizens, a goal which seems more consistent with the democratic values they presumably aim to protect from immigrants.)
But voting is not the only way of affecting politics, and arguably it’s one of the least important. By keyhole logic, a more effective “solution” to destructive political influence by immigrants would be to bar them from political speech and participation in political advocacy groups or groups known to lobby politicians. A keyhole policy curtailing migrants’ civil liberties this drastically would put core freedoms on the political table, undermining the values of the very system restrictionists claim to want to protect. Perhaps a government database system similar to E-Verify could be devised to ensure that only full citizens could join political advocacy organizations, which would of course need to be registered.
In a thought-provoking post, John Roccia considered the possibility that immigrants should swallow their pride and debase themselves if it makes them more palatable as immigrants to the intended host country.
Blaming a woman for getting raped, a black man for getting wrongfully arrested, or a foreigner for not being allowed to immigrate and you’re seen as uncompassionate at best, hateful and bigoted at worst. But isn’t that just the sin of pride all over again? What if there really was something that the woman could have done to avoid her fate, the black man to avoid the arrest, and the foreigner to make immigration easier? Is it wrong to theorize about what the victim might do differently, if the end result is fewer rapes, fewer wrongful arrests, and more immigration?
I’ll avoid the specifics on the other example topics, but what if there was something that foreigners could do to make allowing them to immigrate more politically viable? Even if it was something humiliating or demeaning, something that would infuriate anyone with even an ounce of pride? Just as a hypothetical: Imagine that there was a small town in a third-world country where almost everyone wanted to emigrate to America. And imagine that as part of their campaign for acceptance, they turned their whole town into a mock-suburbia; they wore American-style clothes, ate American-style food, baked apple pie and played baseball, spoke English exclusively and maybe even learned to fake a Midwestern drawl. Imagine that they renamed their streets after American presidents, got rid of all of their religious materials (except Christian, of course), said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and even wore makeup to disguise their skin tone.
John calls this victim blaming and spares no expense in assuring readers he finds the idea appalling. The danger of this line of thinking is that it implicitly reinforces the idea that foreigners have no right to immigrate, that their presence is a privilege granted at the whim of natives. I know that’s not the intention of the post. The intention is to illustrate that the gains from immigration for the immigrants are potentially so huge that it is worth it to try to satisfy the unsavory demands of natives, who effectively do control the ability of foreigners to immigrate. As a thought experiment in how far one is willing to take consequentialism, the point is taken. But as advice for the way forward, I believe it misses the mark. Immigrants themselves do have a role to play in changing migration policy, but that role involves exercising their rights by civil disobedience, not meekly prostrating themselves before the natives who loathe them.
A related point is that an extensive keyhole regime, where certain rights and entitlements due other individuals are withheld or acknowledged only contingently, creates conditions of exploitation. Following Matt Zwolinski, I define exploitation as “taking advantage of another person in a way that is unfair or degrading,” usually involving “a person in a position of power interacting with a person in a position of vulnerability, and using that power differential to benefit himself at the expense of his victim.” I would add that exploitation is made possible when the victim has only a very limited number of options.
If an immigrant’s legal right to live in a host country is limited by the keyhole condition that he must be vouched for by an employer and must maintain continuous employment, then the employer wields greater power over the immigrant than over native workers. Likewise, an immigrant is ripe for exploitation if his admittance or continued legal right to reside in the host country depends on the discretion of consular officers, although in the US at least this situation seems to result in arbitrary visa denials rather than extraction of bribes or the like. In a keyhole regime like DRITI that includes heavy tariffs or surtaxes, an immigrant is not just in danger of exploitation: the immigrant is in fact exploited. The host state takes advantage of the immigrant in a way that is unfair compared to the treatment of natives; the host state can do this given its position of extraordinary power over the immigrant, who is made vulnerable by his extremely limited options of either continuing to live in a poor country with few realistic opportunities for advancing attractive life goals or else migrating somewhere there are higher wages and better quality of life, albeit under the caprices of a state with few incentives to treat him with human decency. It is still exploitation even though the immigrant is made better off. Zwolinski again (with his own italics),
Classical liberals can and should, however, take pain to distinguish between two forms of exploitation: exploitation that is mutually beneficial, and exploitation that is harmful. Both involve someone taking unfair advantage of another. But in one case, both parties come away from the transaction better off than they would have been without it. In the other, the exploiting party comes away with more, the exploited with less.
An exchange can be mutually beneficial and yet unfair or degrading. If you are drowning in a lake, and I row by on the only canoe in sight, it is morally wrong of me to make my rescue of you contingent upon your signing over the deed to your house. Granted, you would be better off taking my deal than passing it up. But it’s wrong for me to offer it nevertheless. I should – and I suspect most of you would – perform the rescue for free.
The closed borders of the world represent the lake in which the global poor are left to drown. Keyhole policies are the exploitative conditions offered for rescue. Of course, the analogy as is doesn’t quite fit, because migrants are perfectly capable of rescuing themselves. Immigration restrictions instead are the violent obstruction of the migrants’ self-rescue. So it doesn’t matter that immigrants stand to gain from keyhole policies; the policies are still exploitative, and therefore still immoral.
This ethical evaluation stands apart from the utilitarian question of whether “open” borders plus keyhole policies are better than closed borders (they probably are for all but the most sadistic keyhole policies). The point is rather to caution against believing that keyhole border regimes are in some way socially optimal. Real open borders, where an individual, regardless of where she happened to be born, can choose where in the world she wants to live, is the only moral border regime. Keyhole policies are at best ethical compromises. Compromises, even ethical compromises, are often necessary in political matters, but we should mince no words in naming them what they are.
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