The stability of excluding migrants from the franchise: part 1

One of the main concerns surrounding open borders, or radical immigration liberalization in general, is political externalities: migrants may vote in ways that destroy the prosperity-creating institutions of their destination countries. This would be bad not merely from a citizenist point of view, but could also entail killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, thus leading to an overall decline in global utility. To minimize this (potential) danger, a keyhole solution that has been advocated is to significantly increase the length and complexity of the path to citizenship.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued that open borders can be separated from open citizenship both in theory and practice. My co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his DRITI proposal for migration to the United States, has suggested that migrants have some fraction of their income be stored in a mandatory savings account, and once the amount in the account crosses a threshold, they can become citizens, if they are willing to forfeit the amount to the state. This creates a de facto waiting period as well as what amounts to a citizenship tariff.

Stability and other dimensions

In a previous blog post, I had written that any proposed keyhole solution needs to be evaluated along four dimensions:

  • Moral permissibility
  • Desirability
  • Feasibility
  • Stability

The purpose of this post is to consider the keyhole solution of an extended (or, in the limit, an infinite) waiting period for migrants to obtain citizenship (and hence access to the franchise) along the fourth of these dimensions, namely stability. In other words, I’m asking the question: suppose a political compromise were somehow worked out where a new visa class were created whereby it would be very easy to migrate — temporarily or permanently — but very difficult, or almost impossible, to obtain citizenship, and therefore, to vote. Would such a compromise be stable?

Before I begin discussing this, a few brief words about the first three dimensions. Each of these dimensions is very tricky:

  • Moral permissibility is something that many people would disagree on. Is a society where a large fraction of the resident population is disenfranchised morally permissible? I think it is, for similar reasons as those that John Lee offers in his blog post. But it’s a difficult and contentious issue, as Nathan has noted in the past. So I’ll duck the question entirely in this post. Obviously, one would need to seriously consider moral permissibility before actually advocating or lobbying for such a proposal, but the goal of this post is more limited: let’s first figure out if the solution can be stable! I do think that the keyhole solution is, at any rate, not so obviously morally impermissible as to make it pointless to even study it along the other dimensions.
  • Desirability would depend crucially on what we understand of the research on political externalities and the arguments that free migration might kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. My co-blogger Paul Crider recently argued that a lengthy path to citizenship was undesirable, contra co-blogger Nathan. To say something intelligent about this would require a lot of space. Suffice it to say that concerns about political externalities are sufficiently plausible that one can make at least a prima facie case that keyhole solutions should be investigated.
  • Feasibility would be something that depends heavily on the current political climate and the specific country where the proposal is being considered. It’s a topic worth exploring in its own right. I believe it makes sense to investigate stability before investigating feasibility, because one of the arguments for infeasibility is that people (whom one would need to get on board for feasibility) are concerned that the solution (of delaying or denying citizenship) isn’t stable.

Stability and the political tug-of-war

My ultimate goal will be to examine historical instances of disenfranchised segments of the resident population and when, if ever, these segments of the population got to vote. Prior to doing that, I’d like to explore a theoretical framework intended to address the question. The framework begins with the observation that decisions about enfranchisement and disenfranchisement are controlled by the elected governments, and the politicians here are concerned about getting re-elected. Although it is not the only motive, one major constraint affecting what politicians can afford to support is the effect it has on their electoral prospects.

A year ago, I had blegged for which of four possible positions on immigration and US politics readers found most plausible:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

One can consider a similar story with respect to excluding migrants from the franchise. I’ll form the story more generally, since the purpose here is to consider historical examples around the world, not to study modern-day politics. Consider a country with a de facto two-party system where the parties are A and B. Consider the following possibilities for what might happen if migrants excluded from the franchise (under a keyhole solution compromise) were given the franchise:

  1. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party A, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  2. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of party B, regardless of whether party A or party B plays they key role in granting them the franchise.
  3. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as taking the lead, or being more actively involved, in giving them the franchise.
  4. This would significantly improve the electoral prospects of whichever party were seen as less enthusiastic, or more opposed, to giving them the franchise. One possible story for this is nativist backlash against whichever party is seen to be championing migrants.

In the earlier discussion of Democrats and Republicans, (3) was the ideal position from the pro-immigration perspective, and (4) was the ideal position from the restrictionist perspective. In some sense, the story is flipped now: when trying to judge the stability of the keyhole solution, (3) is the worst possibility (both sides have incentives to compete for granting migrants the franchise), and (4) is the best (each side wants to avoid being seen as friendly to the idea of extending the franchise to migrants). (1) and (2) are intermediate: if it is known in advance that one specific party would benefit by granting the franchise, then the other party would oppose it. If decisions to grant the franchise require supermajorities in the legislatures, and political power is approximately evenly distributed in the legislature, the existing arrangement of denying the franchise would be relatively politically stable.

Although (3) is in some ways the worst for stability, it is plausible to imagine the keyhole solution being stable even if (3) were true, as long as one party had accumulated a huge lead over the other in terms of being seen as friendly to the idea of the migrant franchise. In this case, the other party would need to either expend a lot of effort overtaking its competitor in terms of how friendly it appears to the migrant franchise, or it could just block the legislation to grant migrants the franchise. The latter course of action might well prevail for a fair length of time, if for no other reason than status quo bias.

Stability and feasibility: it’s relative

One plausible argument is that if a keyhole solution were sufficiently feasible as to actually get implemented, it would also be stable. In this view, then, stability is not something to be worried about per se, and all our energies should be focused on the question of feasibility. However, this is not completely satisfactory particularly in the context of the franchise because of the incentives (for members who agree to the original compromise) to later defect and enfranchise the migrants, particularly if (3) is the most valid.

The relevant question (that we will consider for each example we explore) is what, historically, has been relatively easier: liberalizing migration, or enfranchising existing migrants?

Short versus long run: a brief note

The answer to the question of whether a particular electoral arrangement is stable depends to a considerable extent on the timeframe over which the arrangement is considered (as some of the historical examples below, that I’ll discuss in my next blog post, shall clarify). One can critique practically any arrangement by arguing that it will not be stable over the next 100 or 200 years. But such a critique, to be taken seriously, would need to be clarified in at least two ways.

  1. The critique should point out to specific features of the proposed arrangement that make it more unstable relative to other arrangements. It is not enough to point out that the arrangement will be unstable. Even the status quo isn’t particularly stable over a sufficiently long time frame. The world in 2013 looks different — very different — from the world in 1913.
  2. The critique should elaborate on whether the factors that make the arrangement unstable over the long run also affect our assessment of its desirability over the longer run. In other words: does the keyhole solution self-destroy because the problem to which it was a solution became irrelevant? To the extent that this is the case, the long-term instability of the keyhole solution is not a problem. Let’s say, for instance, that a concern is that if migrants are given a quick path to citizenship, then they will vote badly. Somebody proposes a keyhole solution of a lengthy path to citizenship. One might critique such a keyhole solution on the grounds that in a century, most people will be very loath to make any distinctions based on nationality of origin or length of stay in granting citizenship, due to a shift in global values surrounding human rights and the relationship between people and political institutions. This is plausible, but one would simultaneously need to consider whether this changed relationship also nullifies, or at any rate, weakens, the original political externalities concern. On the other hand, if the instability of the keyhole solution arises from factors that make the underlying problem worse (for instance, a world war or large-scale ethnic conflict) then indeed this is a problem.

As Nick Beckstead and Carl Shulman explained, the long run is very important, if we care about humanity without much bias for the present. And the long-run effects of open borders and/or keyhole solutions are very important. To the extent that we can speculate intelligently about these, or even better, make guesstimates, such speculation and guesstimates have considerable value. Nonetheless, we should be wary of the risk of making the future a Rorschach test for whatever we prefer to believe about the world, a point that Will Wilkinson eloquently made in a related context.

What historical examples are useful for understanding the question?

Any arrangement that has persisted for a reasonable length of time in the real world can safely be called stable, concerns of tipping points notwithstanding. There may well be other stable arrangements that have not yet existed in the real world, so this is just a starting point. The most direct evidence in this regard would be historical examples of large non-citizen populations that arose as a result of guest worker programs or illegal immigration, and the extent to which there were pressures to grant citizenship and the franchise to the large numbers of non-citizens that accumulated as a result of these programs.

In my next post, I will look at the following historical examples.

  • In the United States, slavery was ended after the Civil War of 1861-1865. However, blacks (including freed slaves) were de jure and de facto barred from political participation on a significant scale via Jim Crow-era voter literacy tests, until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (there were admittedly a number of smaller civil rights acts in the years leading up to that). The arrangement appears to have been stable for a considerable length of time, and does not seem to have attracted any vocal political opposition until the end of World War II, although there were unsuccessful legal attempts to overturn other parts of Jim Crow-era legislation such as enforced segregation. In private conversation, Ilya Somin cited this as an example of how excluding people from the franchise can be stable for considerable lengths of time, and my co-blogger Chris Hendrix cited the same example in an EconLog comment. Is that a justified inference to draw? What other lessons can we draw from this historical fact? (Note that the purpose here is to assess stability, not to discuss the moral permissibility or desirability of the exclusion from the franchise).
  • In relative terms, have pushes for granting citizenship (and hence the franchise) to existing non-citizen residents (including both legal and illegal immigrants) been more powerful than pushes for expanding migration, or less? The answer is not clear-cut, and a reasonable case could be made either way. In the United States, for instance, a typical “comprehensive immigration reform” proposal typically focuses on (a) creating a path to citizenship for existing residents (the pro-immigration side), (b) more resources for enforcement and border security (the restrictionist side). This is what is considered a reasonable compromise. Even expanding high-skilled immigration gets low priority in comprehensive immigration reform bills, and guest worker programs are opposed by both the territorialist left and citizenist right (loosely speaking). On the other hand, “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals rarely make headway anyway (the only major amnesty in the US was in 1986, though Europe seems to have had amnesties on a more regular basis). Expansions of legal migration opportunities have happened in small steps, but more steadily. The evidence is decidedly mixed.
  • Germany has had a large Gastarbeiter (guest worker) program and it has been argued that, for a considerable period of time, there was no political pressure to grant citizenship to these guest workers (a large number of them from Turkey), despite their forming a large mass of possible voters. How true is this? This question is worthy of further investigation.
  • Other examples worth looking at might be: how did the Reform Act of 1867 (enfranchising the British working class and lower middle class), championed by Benjamin Disraeli, affect the electoral landscape in Britain? How did the 19th amendment to the United States constitution (granting women the right to vote), favored mainly by the Democratic Party, affect US electoral politics? How sensitive were the votes of Jews to the perceived anti-Semitism of European parties?

2 thoughts on “The stability of excluding migrants from the franchise: part 1”

  1. I wonder how much can be inferred from the examples of post-slavery American treatment of blacks or women’s suffrage or if those should be seen as singular events. Blacks were treated as property, not fully human. Their rights to vote were obstructed because of this status and the lingering resentment of southern whites.

    Women’s suffrage was delayed for so long similarly because women were not seen as fully autonomous entities. They were a part of the household, but giving them the vote in the 18th century perspective made as much sense as giving young children the vote.

    In both cases, I think there was a misunderstanding (I’m being charitable) that the individuals in question *could* be free and equal in the sense that citizens are. That seems different from the case of foreigners today. All but the most ridiculously racist restrictionist will acknowledge that, say, Guatemalans are fully autonomous and capable of participating in democracy. It should just be *their* democracy.

Leave a Reply to Paul Crider Cancel reply