Why I’m sticking with open borders, or, plucking the not-so-low-hanging fruit

I started Open Borders: The Case about 2.5 years ago, in March 2012 (you can read the site story, my personal statement for the site, and some general background for my involvement with open borders). My active involvement with the site has reduced a lot since summer 2013, but it’s still the biggest single topic on which I semi-regularly write stuff for the general public. I have considered switching my attention to other topics such as drug policy (both recreational and medical), organ trading, economic freedom broadly construed, existential risks, cause prioritization in effective altruism, and animal welfare. However, I’ve decided to stick with open borders. This includes participation at the Open Borders Action Group, more blogging here, and other miscellaneous work. In this post, I’ll describe my reasons.


My reasons in summary form:

  1. My estimates for the value of open borders, or the extent to which we can realistically move to open borders, haven’t changed much.
  2. There are two countervailing, roughly canceling effects in terms of the extent of marginal impact of open borders advocacy, so on net that hasn’t changed much either.
  3. I am still well-positioned to help take Open Borders: The Case to the next level.
  4. Other causes, including the most promising ones, seem less promising than open borders.
  5. There is value to personal specialization. I’ve already acquired experience with thinking and writing about open borders, so I can do more by sticking to it.

Never give up
Cartoon showing the importance of not giving up. Source Moving Forwards Seminars

A quick review of the Drake equation

Before delving into the reasons, I’ll recall a framework I developed a while back in my Drake equation post. I wrote there:

$latex \text{Utility of a particular form of open borders advocacy} = Wxyz$


  • $latex W$ is the naive estimate of the gains from complete open borders (using, for instance, the double world GDP ballpark).
  • $latex x$ is a fudge factor to represent the idea that “things rarely turn out as well as we expect them to.” If we set $latex x = 0.1$, for instance, that’s tantamount to saying that, due to all the numerous problems that our naive models fail to account for, the actual gains from open borders would be only 10% of the advertised gains. The product so far, namely $latex Wx$, describes what we really expect the gains from open borders to be.
  • $latex y$ is the fraction to which the world can realistically move in the direction of open borders. The product $latex Wxy$ is total expected gain from however far one can realistically move in the open borders direction.
  • $latex z$ is the extent to which a particular effort at advocacy or discussions moves the world toward open borders, as a fraction of what is realistically possible. For instance, setting $latex z = 10^{-4}$ for Open Borders the website would mean that the creation of the website, and work on the website, has moved the world 1/10,000 of the way it feasibly could in the direction of open borders.

#1: My estimates for $latex W, x, y$ haven’t changed much

After a few years of reading, thinking about, and discussing open borders, my broad estimates of the gains from complete open borders, the fudge factor, and the extent to which we can realistically move in the direction haven’t changed. To some extent, my estimate for $latex W$ has fallen somewhat, but this is compensated for by an increase in $latex x$. I’ve moved in the direction of embracing lower estimates of the GDP gains from open borders, but also reduced my probability estimate of open borders being a total dud or having net negative consequences, so the fudge factor $latex x$ improves correspondingly. Open borders feels like a somewhat more known quantity. Moreover, the degree of uncertainty regarding consequences reduces further considering that we aren’t going to have complete open borders. Overall, I continue to believe that the product $latex Wxy$ falls somewhere between 500 million and 500 billion dollars, as I’d stated in my Drake equation post.

For a different take on the numbers, see Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations (that I excerpted in an Open Borders Action Group post). Berger’s summary estimate for the gains from open borders (included in an earlier table in that doc) offer the range $300 million – $3 trillion per year (middle estimate $150 billion) for what seems like the analogue of $latex Wxy$. This closely accords with my numbers, though Berger’s methodology is a little different and arguably more concrete and object-level.

#2: Two countervailing effects on $latex z$ approximately cancel each other

How has the $latex z$ value for Open Borders: The Case, and affiliated efforts, changed over time? There are two countervailing considerations:

  • Open Borders: The Case has exhausted some of the very low-hanging fruit. We now play a defining role on the subject: since at least the middle of 2014, and possibly earlier, we’ve topped web searches for open borders. In some ways, we’ve reached our asymptotic potential, and in many other ways, we’re at diminishing returns: even if additional effort yields positive returns, they’re not as high as the initial returns. One could argue that my very first 25 hours of work on the site, which led to this, had the highest return per unit time.
  • On the other hand, now that we’ve done the basic work of building out the case and collecting a community interested in debating the issue, each new post generates more discussion and can more quickly lead to better ideas. When I started blogging, there were only a couple other bloggers and a few commenters with whom we’d go back and forth. Just a year ago, we had about 900 likes on Facebook. Now we have over 1800, or about twice that number. The Open Borders Action Group launched in February 2014, and now has over 600 members and 20+ fairly active participants. Thus, we can quickly have discussions with 5-10 active participants without somebody needing to spend a couple of hours researching a post. And both our active participants and our readers include a fair number of people who might be able to influence the implementation of actual migration policies in different places in the world.

#3: Open Borders: The Case will survive without me, but I can still contribute a lot to taking it to the next level

I was very active in the first 1.5 years of the site, and my job back then was to help grow the community and build the site and blog to the point where it could continue to run and grow without me. I worked hard to recruit people to the site who’d be willing and able to write great stuff (I’ve written a very long Quora answer on this). I think I’ve succeeded. I can have a busy week where I barely check in on the site, and there are still new blog posts and new draft posts, many new discussions on OBAG, and lots of site visitors. I could completely stop my involvement with the site and it wouldn’t collapse.

At the same time, there is so much more to do on this front. The world is still very far from open borders (this circles back to #2). Open Borders: The Case has established a niche that, while close to pre-existing libertarian-leaning blogging on the issue, is sufficiently distinctive. As John Lee wrote in an interview with Lis Wiehl:

The main thing which I think differentiates Open Borders from many other immigration advocacy groups is that we are the only ones who really take global freedom of movement seriously. It’s not merely that we champion it; it’s that we honestly ponder the question of how the world might be different — both for better and for worse — if people could freely choose where to travel, where to settle, and where to work or study.


Our mission is to offer a rational assessment of what the world would look like under open borders, and to articulate the case of why our governments and societies must respect the right to migrate (except in those extreme cases where infringement might be justified — just the same as with any other right).

The way things are going, we are establishing and solidifying our position as the premier place for philosophical analysis of the case for freedom of movement. Continued growth on this front would not be a laughing matter. But to actually get the world to open borders, so much more needs to be done. If we just keep posting and publishing stuff similar to what we’ve been publishing, we might continue to gain more adherents and grow traffic, but at the core, there won’t be progress.

Co-blogger Michelangelo recently asked about next steps for the open borders movement, and suggested we move in the direction of coming up with concrete actionable policy proposals, perhaps setting up a think tank to do so. In another recent post, I talked of the distinction between philosophers, wonks, and entrepreneurs and reframed Michelangelo’s suggestion as moving from a philosopher focus to a wonk focus.

Personally, I think a move in the wonk/entrepreneur direction is warranted, though I think of it a little differently. I think Open Borders: The Case should offer something so unique, so distinctive, that people feel wowed by it, and inspired to consider and work towards a world of open borders. We need to break new ground content-wise, combining in-depth exploration of the current realities of the world with our pro-open borders ideals, and coming up with stuff that’s captivating to read, whether it’s co-blogger Nathan’s lessons from slavery, co-blogger John’s takedown of the international refugee system, or my recent post on snakeheads as high-impact entrepreneurs. But there’s a lot more to do. It’s possible that such an evolution would occur even without me (some of my co-bloggers have done a great job with writing compelling material that breaks new ground, with no prompting on my part). But I do think that I could significantly accelerate the process, simply by being focused on it and pushing harder for it.

#4: The relative value of other causes

An affirmative decision to continue with open borders is also a decision against pursuing other causes, at least in the short term. A full evaluation would compare open borders with these other causes. And indeed, I think that open borders offers a lot more value than the other top contenders (this comports with Alexander Berger’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, where open borders has the largest upside by a huge margin and also the largest median case gain, though it’s tied for that status with other options).

I think the case for focusing on open borders over drug policy liberalization, free organ trading, economic freedom, and free trade is relatively clear. One might argue that now that a site on open borders has been created, there’s more low-hanging fruit in the other domains. This circles back to my point #2 and (to a lesser extent) point #1, so I won’t go in depth here. Moreover, I also think that, given its high potential, open borders continues to be relatively neglected (relative to drug policy, for instance). For instance, it’s relatively neglected among libertarians, as I’d discussed in these two posts.

The one economic freedom-related cause that I think offers high value and is relatively neglected is the economic freedom-related cause of allowing freer foreign direct investment. I’m mainly going by Bryan Caplan’s assessment of this cause as the most promising after open borders (see also this blog post by him). This is something I hope to investigate at greater depth. If its tractability proves extremely high, I might switch attention to it (i.e., it might have higher $latex x, y,z$ values to compensate for the lower $latex W$ value). Until then, I’ll stick to open borders.

#5: The value of personal specialization

When I first started Open Borders: The Case, my knowledge of migration-related matters was fairly shallow. Over the last few years, I’ve learned many things. Nonetheless, there still remains a lot to learn. If I start a website on a new topic, I’ll have to learn a lot about that topic. If, on the other hand, I continue working on Open Borders: The Case, I can build on the knowledge I’ve already acquired and be even more effective.

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