Wielding Power

In the third issue of Wielding Power, the winning essay in response to the question “Should Nations Restrict Immigration?” is written by me. Open Bordersreaders, an intelligent lot as far as I can tell, might consider submitting to future competitions. The editor, Ryan K. Johnson, who blogs here, is an astute reader and critic, open-minded, and a lover of good arguments, who skillfully outlines the arguments of contributors in the margins. Interestingly, all three winners favored open borders! But Ryan Johnson himself doesn’t.

In a blog post introducing the issue and inviting further debate, Johnson offered me this challenge:

Nathan- I’m curious what you think about the risk of political instability or nativist backlash from open borders. Why do you think those aren’t serious concerns?

I wouldn’t say they “aren’t serious concerns,” I’d say that these arguments against open borders are overwhelmed by the case in favor. But it’s worth explaining why I give them limited weight.

“Nativist backlash” might mean different things, ranging from scattered grumbling to ferocious ethnic violence. Grumbling is of minor importance. People grumble about high gas prices and the inconvenience of complying with the tax code, but those are minor problems. Violence, of course, would be a dire concern, but first, I doubt it would come to that, and second, it’s ethically undesirable to reward violence-prone natives by giving them what they want.

My other response to the “nativist backlash” concern is that, as I explain in the article itself, I advocate taxing migration, and using the proceeds to compensate natives, and I think this would be quite effective in defusing nativist backlash. To the complaint, “They’re taking our jobs,” would come the answer, “Yes, but we’re getting checks in the mail from the IRS, financed by their taxes. Some of us may be earning less, but just about everybody’s living standards are higher.” I don’t think that would completely eliminate nativist backlash. Some would just hate to see the streets cluttered by impoverished foreigners. Maybe some would feel that a certain dignity associated with self-reliance had been lost, and that they’d prefer a lower living standard from one’s own wages to a higher living standard financed by foreigners via the government. On the other hand, one would hope that there would be at least some public understanding of the absolutely enormous power of open borders to raise global income and alleviate world poverty, and some pride in being part of that. All in all, if you could get over the huge hurdle of passing open borders (with migration taxes) in the first place, I doubt there would be all that much backlash afterwards.

Political stability is related to nativist backlash, but in some respects a distinct concern. Even if natives were wholly welcoming, on principle, or because they liked getting immigration-financed checks from the government, immigration might lead to political instability because immigrants would make public opinion more fragmented and multipolar, or because they were more prone to extremism, or tolerant of corruption. And since immigrants to a country like the US would be, on average, much poorer than natives at first, they might have an incentive to vote for distribution.

Except that they wouldn’t have the vote for a while. I advocate a rather long-drawn-out path to citizenship, involving mandatory savings which must be accumulated and then forfeited in return for becoming an American. Immigrants under this visa would have an attractive alternative to staying in America: return home, with a good deal of money to start a new life. Those who don’t especially like America, those unwilling or unable to learn the language and assimilate, and those whose economic prospects in America are poor, would probably find it in their best interest to sojourn in America for a few years, then return home to a life of comparative affluence on the money they were forced to save in the US. Those who chose to stay would likely have an economic profile closer to that of natives. How they would vote, I can only speculate; but I doubt they would deviate from natives in a radical or destabilizing way.

Of course, immigrants could destabilize the American polity through street activism or violence. Violence, I consider unlikely. Even if immigrants under open borders numbered well over 100 million, as Gallup has suggested they might (and I agree), they would still be outnumbered by natives, and more importantly, any immigrant group, e.g. based on ethnicity or nationality, would be vastly outnumbered by natives plus other immigrants, who would likely side with natives against violent activism. Fundamentally, immigrants would have agreed to come into the US under certain policies, and while not all of them would continue to accept the legitimacy of those policies, I think most would. People’s promises do generally mean something to them. But if systematic, political violence from immigrants were a clear and present danger, that would be a ground for restricting immigration by the groups most inclined to foment it. As for street activism, that wouldn’t matter much as long as natives are unpersuaded by their protest slogans. If crowds of immigrants march through the streets demanding equal taxes and voting rights, natives can just shrug and say, “Whatever. When you came, you agreed yourself to pay extra taxes and not have the right to vote. You’re a lot better off than you were in Bangladesh. Get over it.”

In his response to my essay in the issue itself, Johnson writes:

Is there no value in the group and its culture?

The short answer here is “Of course there is… but what does that have to do with anything?” I have a network of friends, family, and acquaintances that I value so much, that without them, life would lose much, perhaps most, of its meaning and value. But to suggest that that’s a reason to exclude immigrants is prima facie a complete nonsequitur. How do the immigrants impair my enjoyment of this network of friends at all, let alone significantly? Would they somehow clog the channels of communication, so that I couldn’t send my friends text messages or e-mails? Would they create so much traffic on the roads that I couldn’t visit my friends?

Yet it may the case– here, see Robert Putnam’s work on social capital and immigration— that immigration dilutes the population of people who are enough “like me” to have valuable interactions. Maybe there’s a lot of value in just being able to walk down the street and start socializing with the first person you meet, having enough in common with them to make this feasible and worthwhile. Let in lots of immigrants, and you have to start picking and choosing who to interact with, if you want to avoid the labor of constantly trying to bridge large cultural gaps. Maybe.

But my experience suggests otherwise. There just don’t seem to be many occasions where significant, valuable actions occur that aren’t filtered by some social setting. Thus, I make friends among colleagues, that is, among people selected for profession and institutional affiliation to resemble me. I make friends at my church, that is, I make friends with people self-selected for a highly specific set of beliefs and values. I have friends from grad school, that is, from a selective educational institution which we both attended. Etc.

I have a feeling that fifty years ago, the US was less fissiparous and fragmented, and that a kind of grass-roots solidarity with the neighbors was more of a reality than it is today. We may have paid a high price for that in conformism and the suppression of creativity and authenticity, and a kind of cultural liberation has taken place which has been at once exhilarating and alienating. That may be the reason for my impression that mere neighborhoods are no longer an important kind of community, and the kinds of community that do matter are immune to geographical dispersion. Whether immigration restrictions would be justifiable if neighborhood solidarity were a more important form of community is a large too large a question for me to deal with just now. (But I think not.)

Meanwhile, never forget that immigration restrictions separate groups as well as binding them together (if they actually do the latter at all). Many people are separated from loved ones by borders.


Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “Wielding Power”

  1. “On the other hand, one would hope that there would be at least some public understanding of the absolutely enormous power of open borders to raise global income and alleviate world poverty, and some pride in being part of that.”

    You seem to fancy that global inequality is caused by regional differences. As if the Congo is a worse country to live in than Korea because of the differences in physical geography and natural resources. (In the 70s economists, based on resource theory, predicted that the economic situation of these two countries would be, by the 21st century, reverse.) And yet all evidence indicates that the problem is largely with the people. Were you to repopulate Korea with (Negroid) Congolese and the Congo with (Mongoloid) Koreans, after a few generations the situation would simply reverse, To the extent that open borders “works” it does so by (a) leading to cultural/genetic homogenization and (b) undercutting population level multiplier effects. The benefit of (a) is a mirage — I hope we agree. The real benefit is with (b). Now, I have no doubt that there are such effects. The magnitude of the international differences clearly is not proportional to the magnitude of aggregate individual level capital differences. The average Congolese is not awarded the standard of life that a Korean with the same level of human capital is. I agree that this situation could be construed to be a problem. The situation is far more morally complex then you imagine it, though — even from your perspective. From mine, inequality is good — insofar as it is a productive creative force; the logic applies just as well on the group, family, and individual level. I don’t wish to get into the economics of the matter, though. Granting your goal of reducing global inequality (which may or may not coincide with increasing global prosperity, our economic model depending — bear in mind that most models don’t take into account evolutionary factors), it’s not clear to me that your anti-borders method is the best to minimize these effects. I would suggest instead: elite transfer.

    Instead of trying to move — or trying to lay the groundwork for this move — a large fraction of the poorer world to the richer one, lay the groundwork to move a substantial but small fraction — a chunk of the richer world’s smart fraction, which is, after all, the productive fraction (see: Rindermann et al. 2009) — to the poorer regions. This seems to be an obvious alternative, unnoticed because of the mistaken emphasis on geography and not human capital as the causal factor behind global differences. In many ways, this proposal is more egalitarian than yours since, under this, the people that count — the brilliant — are more equally redistributed. Under your model, the (e.g., 75% of the Congo) that don’t make it out continue to have to suffer under a backwards elite. And if a portion of that elite itself migrated (i.e., brain drain), all the worse.

    Some note that home population benefit from remittance and this is true on average. But remittance is far from equally distributed people being as they are. Under the elite transfer model poorer nations would benefit as a whole. The only people that might not would be the relocated smart fraction. (The wealthy nations, of course, can always regenerate a new smart class.) But in compensation, this transplanted elite gains the pride in being a part of the effort to reduce global inequality. While this might not be enough, luckily a nontrivial portion of this fraction is already on board with the equality project — indeed many of them already argue for relocation, they just don’t see how it should effectively be done. One way or another, I imagine that they can be encouraged.

    The question then is: Is elite transfer a preferable method (to anti-borders)?

    Open borders is probably only sustainable if it’s relative globally accepted. Otherwise one runs into derivations of the free rider problem. One can just imagine some countries unloading their burdensome class onto others. As such, open borders largely must be anti-borders. This position is problematic for a number of reasons.

    (a) As you concede, global cultural, national, and ethnic diversity is an inherent good; it is also an engine of creativity on the inter-national level. From an economic perspective, while, in the short run, homogenization can reduce some transaction costs, global national diversity buffers against systematic failure — and so makes up for short to medium term transaction costs in the long run.. Moreover a non-trivial number of individuals see it, for various reasons, some evolutionarily conditioned, as a good. In short, global cultural, national, and ethnic diversity is good on numerous levels.

    (b) Most grant that self determination is a fundamental moral-legal principle. National groups have a right to control their own fates. Border choice is simply an exercise of this right — one which makes sense especially in the case of illiberal democracies. You can say that it’s illiberal for example to have a “Jewish state”, where particular cultural practices and customs are state sanctioned an enforced — and it undeniably is but allowing for these types of nation-states is consistent with the principle of self determination. It’s obvious to see why for illiberal — I use that term neutrally — democratic states border control is useful to necessary. The anti-borders position must then fundamentally be anti- self determination.

    Relatedly, border choice is consistent with propertarian libertarianism, at least insofar as collective ownership is recognized; it’s not clear how one can, with intellectual consistency, square forced open borders with this genre of libertarianism. This above make morally problematic the anti-borders position but not so the elite transfer one, since no one need force an advisory elite on a country.

    (c) Forced open borders clearly won’t be beneficial, economically or otherwise, for some nations and people therein. It precludes their ability to select — as corporations do with employees– migrants that best fits the nation’s institutional goals. (Caplan’s silly corporation argument fails because nations themselves can be seen as massive corporations which are simply unable to fire employees (and their descendants) after hired). As we have said, though, elite transfer — which can be seen as a sort of tribute sent to the poorer world, is compatible with border choice.

    I could continue, but I will not.

    Your argument in defense of anti-borders is that (a) it decreases global inequality and (b) it leads to increased global prosperity. You reason that the benefits greatly outweigh the cost. I would dispute (b) but doing so is far beyond the scope of this passing comment — to do this effectively I would have to model different possibilities given various background assumptions, since most economic research on the matter is based on the flawed standard social science model and is somewhat myopic. For now I merely draw the distinction between (a) and (b) and grant that (a), specifically (a) due to multiplicative effects can validly been seen as a problem. However, I offered a simple — and I would argue more effective — alternative to deal with this which doesn’t run into the same moral, social, philosophical problems as does the anti-borders position — that is, which is compatible with borders choice.

    To be clear, I don’t see a philosophical problem with open borders — just with mandatory ones i.e., with anti-borders. In fact, the most ideal system would be a mixed model — regulated borders nations surrounded by open borders post nations. That way, the former could deport into the open lands (open borders) agitators; and those who saw open borders as the best way could freely migrate to such regions.

    Let me know what problems you see with the elite transfer proposal.

    1. Hi Chuck,

      your ‘elite transfer proposal’ is interesting.

      But I’m not sure if I quite understand it. I can’t tell whether you are proposing forcibly moving the elite or not. Nor can I tell whether you’d allow these elite to decide where to transfer. It seems clear that some elites wouldn’t want to transfer and that most elites wouldn’t be indifferent about where they ended up. So it seems like it would only have a shot of getting started by forcibly scattering elites via random draw. I think you could imagine why people would object to that.

      Moreover, I’m not sure how you see the ‘elite transfer proposal’ working. It almost sounds a touch like colonialism to me. Would the elites you’ve transferred get put in charge of the reigns of government?

      If so- how is that fair and consistent with self-determination?

      If not- why do you think the elites new nation would listen to them? Why wouldn’t the culture and society reject these new elites as ‘not one of them’? Or, it is often said that the culture and people you have around you strongly determines who you are. So, while the elites might bring up some of the surrounding culture, why wouldn’t the surrounding culture bring down the elites?

      Or, for a more extreme example- if you aren’t putting the elites in charge of the reigns of government, what happens if you drop them into monarchy or tyranny or civil war? Their best efforts would simply be ignored/squashed as dangerous meddling.

      On a separate note, I do agree with your point about self-determination and your argument for border choice. I encourage you to read my essay: http://www.wieldingpowerpublishing.com/shop/should-nations-restrict-immigration/

      1. rkj,

        The theoretical basis for the proposal is the human capital model of global inequality taken in conjunction with smart fraction theory. (If you are interested in reading up, you can try Rindermann, et al (2009). The impact of smart fractions, cognitive ability of politicians and average competence of peoples on social development; Rindermann (2012). Intellectual classes, technological progress and economic development: The rise of cognitive capitalism.) The models are robust and imply that a substantial portion of global differences are conditioned by the differences in the cognitive capabilities of nation’s intelligentsia. This suggests that an effective way to raise the quality of life of poorer nations would be for the intelligentsia of richer nations to advise, if not govern, the poorer. To some extent the former is done via NGOs and the UN. Unfortunately, there is reticence to being explicit about the underlying problem and so this advising and governing is done in a rather round about, and not very effective, manner.

        For background: global differences in ‘life quality’ are largely explainable in terms of cognitive capital differences. What I mean is that I can explain a large chunk of the variance in e.g., the Legatum Prosperity Index using measures of cognitive ability e.g., national test scores, contemporaneous and from e.g., the 1800s. These ability differences are highly stable across time and they partially transfer with migration. There is no evidence that the ability differences can easily be totally eliminated. This said, the between individual between nation life quality differences are much larger than the differences between individuals within nations given comparable levels of cognitive/human capital. In short, there is a population level effect, resulting from the amplification of individual level differences. The result is that, for example, the half of the Suriname population that lives in the Netherlands lives significantly better than that half the remains in Suriname; Dutch Surinamians, across generations, have lower quality of life than native Dutch, partly due to cognitive/human capital differences, but this quality of life differences is a fraction of that between Dutch Surinamians and Surinam Surinamians.

        Were you to redistribute individuals around the world you would eliminate this population level effect, at least its international manifestation. The logic is principally the same as that behind de(defacto)segregation programs in the contemporaneous U.S.: if not the wealth, spread the people.

        I agree with Nathan and others here that if the goal is to minimize “life quality” differences by eliminating population effects people redistribution, in some form, is the way to do it. Direct wealth/technology transference will do little good in the long run. As noted, it not clear to me that reducing the global inequality through population transfer would actually increase global productivity – unfortunately issue is complex and the macroeconomic research doesn’t well address it. Also, the benefit would be less than Nathan and Co. imagine since increased immigration of the poor to the rich nations would lead to convergence both ways. For example, in the mainland U.S. we have large Mexican and Puerto Rican populations. Going into the fourth generation these populations have lower life qualities than Non-Hispanic Whites and Orientals; this is largely attributable to rather stable cognitive capital differences, which can be traced back to the regions of origin. To some extent, these populations over time have a deleterious effect on the overall quality of life in the U.S. — at least relative to the effect that immigrants from higher capital regions or capital selected immigrants from the same regions have. This then results in convergence; the benefits of migration diminishes with increased migration — though, we should try to quantify the effect.

        To address some of your specific points:

        You said: “So it seems like it would only have a shot of getting started by forcibly scattering elites via random draw. I think you could imagine why people would object to that.”

        When I implied force, I wasn’t being entirely serious. I would no more advocate coercion than would the anti-borders advocates. I don’t see a substantial philosophical difference between convincing populaces to accommodate immigration so to reduce global inequality and convincing a significant fraction of the intelligence from richer nations to migrate for the same reason. So, granting that these are our choices, the question is: Which method would be more effective? I think that the emprics are on my side. I am open to being convinced otherwise,

        Would the smart fraction refuse? Maybe — why bear any burden when you can distribute it to the your country’s populace, many of whom don’t have the capacity to evade unwanted effects — why especially when you don’t identify with them? But I think that this is an overly cynical perspective.

        You said: Moreover, I’m not sure how you see the ‘elite transfer proposal’ working. It almost sounds a touch like colonialism to me. Would the elites you’ve transferred get put in charge of the reigns of government? If so- how is that fair and consistent with self-determination?

        Elite transfer would fit into the borders choice frame. If poor countries did not want to accept intelligentsia — embodied human capital — from the wealthy they would not be coerced to. These countries would effectively be offered an resource for reducing poverty — a smart fraction from the international smart fraction — if they wished not to take the offer, so be it. (Of course, this isn’t how, rhetorically, the proposal ought to be made — but here I am interested in the concept.)

        You said: If not- why do you think the elites new nation would listen to them? Why wouldn’t the culture and society reject these new elites as ‘not one of them’? So, while the elites might bring up some of the surrounding culture, why wouldn’t the surrounding culture bring down the elites?

        As for the last point, I’m not much of a “culturalist”, as typically understood. As Clark showed in “The Son also Rises”, social mobility on the individual level is low. Even if the intergenerational transfer of status/ability is conditioned by “cultural” factors, these factors are not the very malleable type. As such, there is every reason to believe that if you transplanted an elite, it will retain its capabilities for generations on end.

        You said: Or, for a more extreme example- if you aren’t putting the elites in charge of the reigns of government, what happens if you drop them into monarchy or tyranny or civil war? Their best efforts would simply be ignored/squashed as dangerous meddling.

        Insofar as migrants, elite or otherwise, are visibly different, ethnic conflict becomes a not unlikely possibility. We could take the example of Han Chinese throughout S.E. Asia. The Han diaspora by no means represents a Han human capital elite, yet they have some type of advantage over the indigenous population which allows them to dominant the marker and disproportionately contribute to the economy. (“Human capital” is a vaguer term than “cognitive capital” — I purposely use it when I am unsure about the psychometric source of the advantage.) The relative success of this diaspora has been met with resentment — and at times there have been violent ethnic conflicts e.g., in Indonesia. But such is a general problem for multi-ethnic societies in which there are substantial capital and resulting outcomes differences between visibly different groups. The alternative proposed by Nathan and friends is not, on this account, better.

        The anti-border crowd — from their perspective “border abolitionists” — is overwhelmingly motivated by the desire for outcome equality. While the idea of such equality does not move me as they, they clearly express a human disposition (that varies individually in strength). Like you, I enjoy global diversity. I enjoy traveling abroad to relatively exotic regions with their own particular looks, sounds, and way. I am also particularistic, philosophically and otherwise. So I weight things much differently then they. But I recognize the powerful pathos that moves them. This needs to be negotiated with. A plausible alternative for addressing the main concern needs to be offered.

  2. (This has been cross-posted here:http://reflectionsfromrkj.blogspot.com/2014/04/should-nations-restrict-immigration.html)


    Thanks for your in-depth response. One of the most interesting things about political arguments is how our personal political beliefs color how we view everything. Our beliefs color both what we think is likely and (more critically) what we think is important.

    Your well-argued, prize-winning essay eloquently stakes out your beliefs. And your response here echoes that. So I know that my odds of changing your view is close to zero. But you raise many interesting points, and the only way to get closer to truth on matters like these is through continual, thoughtful discussion. Both of us could be wrong, but by carefully explaining our reasons, we’ll both greatly sharpen our thinking. And we may enable someone else to get even closer to the truth.

    Allow me to briefly sketch your reasons before I respond to them. That way we’re on the same page.

    1. Nativist Backlash

    First, you think the risk of violence is too small to worry about. And you think it’s wrong to pander to that concern. Second, you think that discontent that doesn’t rise to violence is a minor concern. Third, you think that taxing immigrants and redistributing would effectively diffuse this risk.

    2. Political Stability

    First, you describe a drawn-out path to citizenship with forced savings that I don’t recall from your essay. You describe how this would weed out those who ‘fit’ the least well. Second, you consider violence unlikely and street activism unimportant/ineffective.

    3. Value of the Group and its Culture

    First, you interpret this issue as referring to family and friends and call it a nonsequitur. Second, you say, “mere neighborhoods are no longer an important kind of community, and the kinds of community that do matter are immune to geographical dispersion.”

    That’s a lot of interesting points, and I can’t hope to cover them all. Instead, I’ll focus on the point I think is most important: the Value of the Group and its Culture.

    As I detail in my essay, I think this is where the heart of the matter lies. And the way you responded is very telling. You automatically assumed I was speaking of friends and family and dismissed that out of hand. But for many people, including myself, the nation itself has value. I love America, and Americans. Many (though certainly not all) soldiers join the military to defend their country. People take pride in their nation, what it stands for, and its culture. It helps form a vital collective identity.

    Now, it’s obvious that that notion doesn’t mean that much to you, and to the extent you acknowledge it, you probably view it as a defect of human psychology that needs to be overcome for the sake of morality. And that’s your deeply held political belief, which is great. You are doing a wonderful thing by trying to convert others to your belief. In some sense, that’s the best humans can do for morality- a constant debate over ethical and political beliefs.

    But it is important to recognize that many others hold equally strong and opposite beliefs. I, for example, believe nations and national cultures are profoundly important, and the idea of blending them all into a grey slurry by opening the world’s borders strikes me as wrong and unethical. We could choose to point fingers at each other and decry each other as immoral. But I prefer an honest, open discussion. Like I said earlier, we probably can’t convince each other. And at least one of us (and probably both of us) are wrong about this question.

    For what it’s worth, my bet is that in 500 or 1000 years, if humans have survived the onslaught of technology, your view will be the dominant one. My guess is that the technological and corresponding economic progress will link the world together so tightly that a world-government will be seen as necessary and inevitable to smooth the ‘barbaric free-for-all’ between individual states. One world government will be required to oversee and ‘regulate’ the one world market and powerful technology. Just as happened with the United States, in time people will shift from viewing themselves as citizens of their country first and citizens of the world second, to being citizens of the world first and citizens of their country second. And so, countries will stick around and function much like US states do today. People will come and go between countries freely, and view the current order of things as backwards. But that day has not yet come, and it isn’t really a future that I’d cheer on.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful reply.

  3. Let’s look at it this way. Who benefits by your egalitarian solution?

    a. immigrants (who, these days, more often than not are people with above (region of origin) average capital, human or material*)

    b. non-immigrating families of immigrant (“”””””)

    c. the business class in the destination nations

    d. natives in destination countries who are politically empowered by immigrants (who tend to be better off than average)

    Who does not or does so minimally?

    a. non-immigrants without immigrating families (who, these days, more often than not are people with less than (region of origin) average capital, human or material*)

    b. people in destination countries who are not politically empowered by immigrants

    c. the native working class in the destination nations

    Unsurprisingly, the wealthy and empowered more than not tend to support this solution. The idea that they should substantially burden themselves on the account of their own ideal — beyond haranguing others, of course — is an idea not worth thinking through.

    *The people most likely to migrate are those whose skills are mismatched with rewards. Presently, there are much larger returns for high human capital in industrialized countries than in developing. On average, this tends to result in brain drain from less industrialized countries.

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