The open borders wing of the open borders movement; or, Against keyhole regimes

As the name implies, 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.

Open Borders editorial note: As described on our general blog and comments policies page: “The moral and intellectual responsibility for each blog post also lies with the individual author. Other bloggers are not responsible for the views expressed by any author in any individual blog post, and the views of bloggers expressed in individual blog posts should not be construed as views of the site per se.” The author of this post brings a perspective quite different from, though still overlapping significantly with, the perspectives espoused and discussed on the site.

10 thoughts on “The open borders wing of the open borders movement; or, Against keyhole regimes”

  1. Excellent post. I always like coverage of DRITI, including (partly) negative coverage. And it’s fun to continue the Open Borders: The Case tradition of frankness and critical thinking.

    My main response to this post is: Well, if you reject DRITI, what are you going to do about suppression of wages of natives? Doesn’t the welfare state/fiscal burden objection concern you? Isn’t there some danger that we’ll kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

    It’s true that there’s not much evidence that immigration suppresses natives’ wages SO FAR. But that’s under the status quo, where immigration is not only heavily restricted, but heavily restricted by governments who are specially concerned to protect the wages of middle-class natives. This leads to an immigration policy that’s quite lousy for developing countries. Brain drain probably doesn’t make emigration a net harm for many countries, but certainly immigration would be better for developing countries if rich countries let the broad masses come and raise their earnings, rather than trying to poach the best and brightest. But in that case, a general equilibrium analysis strongly suggests that natives’ wages would fall, probably a lot. I think the effect on native workers wouldn’t be as bad as the models suggest, because general equilibrium greatly underestimates the potential for economies of scale, internal and external to firms… (long story)… but I would be very surprised if open borders did not lead to a sharp fall in the wages of tens of millions of Americans.

    If you say, “I don’t care, they’re lucky to have been born in America and speak native English, let them count their blessings,” that’s very plausible. I might even agree. Both DRITI and pure open borders are so far outside the realm of what’s feasible in the near future that it hardly seems worthwhile to have an opinion on which to prefer. But while Pareto-optimality is a technical artifact of welfare theory, I think there’s a closely related moral truth. Phrases like “Burkean conservatism” or “the precautionary principle” might get at the same idea, but I’d call it the principle of not giving people unpleasant surprises. If someone has been brought up to expect something, to feel they deserve it, then even if that’s hard to justify, I attach a lot of moral importance to letting them down easy. It’s difficult to discern, let alone agree on, what people’s rights really are. I strongly prefer to take a gentle, gradualist approach to rearranging people’s rights.

    And yet there are some things we are just not permitted to do for the sake of gradualism and good order. I like to call these “moral side-constraints.” For me, one of these is: NO DEPORTATION. You just can’t seize a person who’s done nothing wrong (nothing *really* wrong; illegally immigrating doesn’t count) and forcibly transport them to who-knows-where. That’s a crime, a violation of the moral law, and we have to stop it. Same with physically detaining people at the border, though it’s a bit less morally urgent. Yet we can’t stop deporting people and physically detaining people at the border, without creating large incentives for people to come, and I do think that will create major disruption, at any rate in the form of lower wages for low-skilled Americans. How can we minimize that disruption? That’s what leads me to DRITI.

    You seem to feel there are other moral side-constraints, such as “equality before the law.” But I don’t think that phrase stands up to philosophical scrutiny, though as a slogan it has sometimes served good causes. If we are equal before the law, and you have a right to drive your Ferrari, don’t I have a right to drive your Ferrari? If we are equal before the law, and you have a right to practice medicine (having completed med school and residency), don’t I have a right to practice medicine? Of course, you could say those examples are naïve, and offer clarifications, and I could look for *reductio ad absurdums* of the principle even given your clarifications, but in the end I think you’d be forced to clarify away any substantive principle. “Tax similarly situated people in the same way” is a crude rule of thumb, not a real principle of policy, still less a requirement of justice. That said, I am a little bit morally uneasy about tax discrimination of a very overt kind. But I don’t think it would be a huge black mark on our society even if it lasted a few generations.

    Again, you seem to think there’s a moral side-constraint to the effect that it’s not permissible to govern a person for, say, a couple of decades, without letting them vote? Why? I realize that’s a widely held “democratic” principle, but that’s not good enough for me. Widely held democratic principles are presumptively discredited in my eyes by the fact that democracies have been restricting immigration for a century.

    I’m not a thoroughgoing consequentialist, as my discussion of moral side-constraints will already have shown, but I do think it’s important to think about the consequences of actions and policy choices. How do you see full open borders playing out, if it were adopted tomorrow? How many would come? How would it affect wages? How would it affect American politics? And how confident are you? What’s the worst that could happen, and how likely is it?

    1. As I hinted in the post, I’m not overly concerned with the plight of low-skilled rich country natives. I believe it’s necessary to let people down easy when government-promised explicit entitlements are going to be reformed away, as could one day happen with social security or medicare in the US. But wage diminution by immigration liberalization is something else. It’s more similar to deregulation leading to rapid adoption of new technologies, to the detriment of the previously protected firms. It is just allowing creative destruction to do its work, where before it was prohibited. I don’t think morality demands buying off the losers of every new innovation. And to the extent that that is what you want, redistributing from the new blood to the old blood is not the right tool. If you want to soften the vicissitudes of the market, general social safety nets are better tools for the job.

      I sympathize with the general thrust of the precautionary principle/Burkean conservatism (I’m actually most familiar with the notion via Hayek), but it is very vague in practice. At the end of the day it can seem to be just a bullying tactic by privileged elites, their last refuge where they can pull their ladders up behind them and shout down threats at the plebs. The precautionary principle could have been (and probably was) deployed by slave owners against emancipation. A version of it is used today all around the world by monarchs and dictators to squash popular uprising (both democratic and undemocratic, to be fair). A version could be used against drug legalization and prison reform. “Crime has fallen in the past couple decades while we’ve been locking away one in every hundred adults in cages. We don’t know what will happen if we just let a lot of them loose and radically remove the laws most responsible for putting them there. We should thus be very, very scared.” You may disagree with these examples, but for me each of them makes moral out-of-bounds steps, violating what you call moral side constraints. The language we adopt could be the same, but I am far more liberal with my use of moral side constraints.

      The other thing about the precautionary principle is that it is singularly focused on devastating consequences of social change. But at root, it is just an acknowledgment of the existence of unknown unknowns, some of which could be awesomely positive. The negative focus jives with our tendency to suffer and fear loss far more than we enjoy gain. So, while letting in too many of the riff-raff could just possibly kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, suppose that’s not what happens. Suppose instead open borders rapidly engendered world peace. The mechanism could be as follows: opening the borders of the rich world to the global poor would vastly expand the exit options for those suffering tyranny or military conflict. Once a conflict got going, people start swarming for the door, hollowing out conflict regions and reducing the spoils over which the thugs and tyrants were fighting, effectively suffocating mass violence. This would increase the populations and geopolitical clout of liberal democracies (where everyone goes when violence starts erupting in the origin countries). This leads to more democracy, which correlates negatively with violent conflict. The reason this mechanism never played out in earlier periods of relatively open borders was because various necessary thresholds were not then met. Those thresholds could be A) a critical mass of liberal democracies already existing, B) cheaper and safer travel, C) widespread Internet and mobile phone communications, D) greater wealth generally, and E) greater adoption of liberal values of ethnic and religious tolerance, non-violence, and commercialism. This may sound far-fetched. I certainly don’t believe it. But I find it roughly as plausible as the fear that the wretched refuse on our teeming shores will destroy our institutions.

      There is a large body of common legal understanding capable of handily differentiating the protection of property rights from state-sponsored discrimination. I wouldn’t even know where to start with your Ferrari problem …

      I’m no democratic cheerleader myself, so I can’t muster much bother to argue for thoroughly egalitarian democratic rights.

      All of the above said, I want to stress that my essay was largely about clarifying the ethical principles. Honestly my post doesn’t have much to say about practical matters. I certainly don’t want it to appear that I oppose incrementalism. I don’t. But as we engage in incremental reform, I want *real* open borders to be our North Star. Practically speaking, if it were on the ballot, I would vote for DRITI over the status quo. *But*, as soon as I voted for it I would immediately start chipping away at it by advocating for fairer treatment of immigrants along all the dimensions I complained about above: lower their taxes, give them greater access to public goods to the point of equality with natives, and grant them the franchise earlier.

  2. re: “It also ignores the common sense principle that, where possible, you should tax bads instead of goods. Immigration is not a bad.”

    But the problem is that there aren’t enough bads in the world to finance everything we want the public sector to do by only taxing bads. Entrepreneurship is a good thing, by and large, but if you engage in successful entrepreneurship, you’ll pay taxes. Earning income is a good, but income is taxed. Investing is a good, yet capital gains are taxed. We tax smoking and CO2 emissions and whatnot a little more, to be sure, because we not only want revenue, we actually want to discourage those things. But most of our revenue comes from taxing things that we actually approve of, because we think the perverse incentives thus created are a price worth paying for something else we want to do with the revenue. So here.

  3. By the way, if the government uses taxes and transfers to hold natives harmless, natives are still free to use the windfalls they get to help immigrants *voluntarily.* I’m all in favor of that. If your house, or your stocks, soar in value because of an influx of low-paid immigrants, and you feel guilty for “exploitation” and want to give something back, by creating scholarships or schools for immigrant children, or soup kitchens for DRITI migrants who are down on their luck, or grants for DRITI migrants who want to go back home but haven’t saved enough to make that feasible, etc., that’s great. For that matter, if your standard of living would have fallen but for DRITI taxes and transfers, and you decide maybe it SHOULD fall, for why should you be richer than your neighbors who do similar work, so you’re generous with what you now see to be extra cash, that’s wonderful, too. What I’m reluctant to do is to cause people to suffer a large *involuntary* drop in their living standards, even if it’s for the sake of what can plausibly be regarded as a more just world.

  4. Historical example to consider: Russia vs. China.

    Russia overturned communism in a sudden, rather revolutionary way. The revolution was fairly bloodless but there was a transformation of society that didn’t attempt to hold everyone harmless. This led to chaos, a deep economic slump, a new system that lacked broad-based legitimacy, and ultimately reversion to a kind of populist dictatorship under a KGB ruling class.

    China is a great example of (roughly) Pareto-optimizing reform. State enterprises remained in place, filling orders at fixed prices as before, but a new economy was allowed to grow up in the interstices of the old. There was no democracy. China became capitalist, without going through a deep economic slump along the way. On the contrary, spectacular economic growth eased the transition for everyone.

    I expect DRITI to be just as successful.

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