Zen and the Art of Opening Borders

One of the biggest challenges in trying to present the case for open borders to those who don’t agree is choosing the right mix of logic, evidence, and appeal to emotion. When people talk about the moral case for open borders, it often seems that what they are referring to is moral logic. That is, they are discussing the logical consequences of certain moral propositions.

In my experience, people are usually not convinced by logic. While they might tend to agree with a statement like “we should not discriminate based on arbitrary factors over which people have no control”, if you extend that principle to conclude that they should afford non-citizens the exact same treatment as citizens they will feel trapped by the logic and seek to find a way out. The logic didn’t address all of their concerns, so it feels like a trick.

However, I do think logic plays a major role in understanding how people feel, and in trying to frame arguments in a way that will make sense to them. With that in mind, here is my candidate for an argument in favor of open borders that attempts to balance these concerns:

Proposition 1: As Americans (or citizens of another wealthy western nation) we benefit from a valuable cultural and institutional heritage.

Proposition 2: We have a duty both to protect this heritage and to share it with as many people as we can.

Proposition 3: One of the most best ways to share our heritage with others is to allow them to live and work within our national borders.

This line of argument explicitly acknowledges the importance national identity. Most Americans identify as Americans, and they think that means something special. I agree.

It also acknowledges that we have a duty to protect our heritage. This means that we need to take seriously the question of whether allowing too many immigrants into the country will undermine what makes the country special. It is okay to admit that at some point, enough unrestricted immigration can have negative consequences. I personally think that the optimal level is probably an order of magnitude or so higher than what we currently have, but trying to protect our national culture and institutions is a legitimate concern.

Finally, the argument puts open borders in a category of other useful things that we can do to share our heritage that a lot of other people agree with, such as providing support for emerging democracies and encouraging forms of economic integration that allow people from poor countries to participate in our economy without moving here. (I am a big fan of the web based work sourcing site Odesk. Look it up if you haven’t heard of it.)

What this argument does not do is try to gain a lot of ground by reasoning about whether we have a right to close our borders, or whether closing them should be considered refusing to help or actively doing harm.  These are interesting philosophical questions, but I don’t think they are effective for making public arguments.

The three propositions are quite general, and there are many details to be specified. For example, what exactly is it about our heritage that is so valuable? In some cases we can measure the impact of institutional differences. For example, there is evidence that countries with a legal system that developed based on English common law experience faster economic growth. Other aspects of our culture are not so easily quantified. How valuable is the widespread expectation that the government will not censor the media?

Another important question is once we accept that we need to protect our national heritage what is the best way to do it? Does it require limiting the number of immigrants to a certain quota? If every citizen were instantly replaced by someone from a different cultural background, our heritage would probably be lost. But this is not really how immigration works. When large numbers of immigrants enter the country it takes time before they begin to occupy the most culturally influential positions in society. That is, our judges, journalists, teachers, congressmen, and artists would be largely the same until the new groups began to assimilate

So I personally don’t think  a quota would be necessary if we implemented some of the keyhole solutions discussed here. A student of mine whose family entered the country illegally from Mexico claims that a good coyote can cost up to $25,000 per head these days (Although the average cost is probably much lower). Charging each immigrant a one time fee of $10,000-$20,000 would spare them the risks associated with crossing illegally and mitigate any strain strain they place on the education and welfare systems. It would also create a more flexible constraint on the number of immigrants that enter the country.

These propositions are not meant to specify a certain policy , but rather as a rhetorical framework for discussing the issues. They are meant as a way to put the arguments for open borders in language that makes more sense to people outside the open borders community. I would be very interested to know whether other advocates of open borders find them acceptable.

13 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Opening Borders”

  1. Unfortunately, Michael Carey makes no sense whatsoever with his illogical presentation. If we opened up America’s borders, no less than 1 billion to 2 billion people would find their way to our shores. Those numbers cannot be supported. They cannot be tolerated by Mother Nature. They cannot be fed, watered, housed and provided jobs. You people writing for open borders lack any understanding of the “exponential growth factor.” You need to educate yourselves before you write such balderdash. Frosty Wooldridge, 6 continent world bicycle traveler. These quotes may inject some reality and common sense into your specious presentation for open borders:

    If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity – and will leave a ravaged world. ~Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendall

    “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people, but to poor ideology and land-use management is sophistic.” Harvard scholar and biologist E.O. Wilson

    “Unlimited population growth cannot be sustained; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources. No species can overrun the carrying capacity of a finite land mass. This Law cannot be repealed and is not negotiable.” Dr. Albert Bartlett, http://www.albartlett.org , University of Colorado, USA.

    “Most Western elites continue urging the wealthy West not to stem the migrant tide [that adds 80 million net gain annually to the planet], but to absorb our global brothers and sisters until their horrid ordeal has been endured and shared by all—ten billion humans packed onto an ecologically devastated planet.” Dr. Otis Graham, Unguarded Gates

    Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0 Saving Civilization said, “The world has set in motion environmental trends that are threatening civilization itself. We are crossing environmental thresholds and violating deadlines set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.”

    “Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal.” David Suzuki

  2. interesting post mike. as a supporter of open borders, one of the most fundamental questions for me is how do we convince a critical mass that this is a good policy?

    logic is one way to convince people–but logic alone isn’t enough for most people. i am hesitant to make any broad generalizations about the way people think based on their sex–but in my experience–most women’s ideas about how things should be are based on a mixture of logic and feelings (fears, personal experiences etc).

    one way to make inroads with women (or anyone whose opinions about this issue are based on feelings) would be to take concerns about the potential negative consequences of this policy seriously. we do that by acknowledging that the concerns are legitimate (even if we personally don’t find them compelling reasons not to have open boarders) and suggesting ways to minimize them.

  3. Frosty, I agree that 1-2 billion new immigrants in a short period of time would overwhelm many of our institutions. An interesting question is what institutions would break first? Is there a “canary in the coal mine” we can look to for signs that our society is undergoing too much immigration stress?

    Also, it is not clear to me that the problems associated with overpopulation should make one less inclined to support open borders. Is your idea that sparsely populated areas (such as the American West) should avoid letting immigrants in so we can restrict overpopulation to India and Africa? Certainly closing our borders won’t stop overpopulation in those places, but opening them a bit might give some people a way to escape the consequences of too much growth there.

    1. Michael,
      Thank you for responding. First of all, it’s not about space; it’s about carrying capacity. A finite amount of land possess only so much water, energy, arable soil and resources used for human needs. If it was space, you could add 500 million to Australia, but they run 95 percent desert that lacks water or arable land. They can barely survive on their limited water with 24 million in 2013. Here in the USA, we already suffer 7 states with water shortages. We face Peak Oil and we import 7 of 10 barrels of oil. We are already in Overshoot and cannot support the population we possess in the USA today. We can’t stop overpopulation in all those places, but we can stop it in our own civilization. Remember that humans create an added 80 million starving people annually so there is no end of the line. Your home can only hold, feed, toilet and water a limited amount of people. You don’t allow your home to have 100 family members visit over the weekend. You would be trashed. Everything demands limits: planes, pools, movie theaters, etc. You cannot defy the laws of Nature. We cannot continue to immigrate endless humanity into Western countries because those countries will, one way or the other, sooner or later, be forced to come to terms with stabilizing their populations. Otherwise, Mother Nature will do it for them. FW

  4. Frosty, let me address the issue of water specifically. I understand your point. We here in Utah are currently engaging in a pretty big political fight with Nevada over water rights from a region that borders both states.

    I definitely agree that the growing population in the Southwest is creating a strain on our water supplies. But I do not think we are near the maximal population for a few reasons. First, a large portion of our water goes for agricultural purposes. Farmers here tend to have a good deal of political power that allows them to get water at subsidized prices. As the population grows, the political power of agricultural groups tends to decline and the degree of subsidy decreases. The result is that more water goes to cities and suburbs, and local farmers have a harder time competing. It ultimately means higher food prices.

    But there are a lot of other things affecting food prices, such as ethanol subsidies, the availability of fertilizer, and agricultural technology. As it is, food consumes a very small portion of income in America. I believe that when we come closer to the natural limit for how many people the land can support we will see food prices start to take up a higher percentage of our budget. For now, the ratio is still falling. I am sure we will undergo a number of difficult changes in how we consume water, but I don’t think we are close to the maximum population just yet.

    You also make a good point that eventually populations will have to stabilize. I expect that in a world with limited immigration you will have some countries that explode in population and then experience famines and major disruption.Restrictions on population movement will exacerbate the problem. About a million Irish died during the great potato famine, but the population fell from 8 million to 4 million. If no one had been able to emigrate, the casualty rate could have been much higher, perhaps double or triple. Since famine doesn’t tend to happen everywhere at once, allowing people to migrate during famines is one of the best way to mitigate the effects and make the transition from an exploding world population to a stable one more smooth.

  5. re: “What this argument does not do is try to gain a lot of ground by reasoning about whether we have a right to close our borders, or whether closing them should be considered refusing to help or actively doing harm. These are interesting philosophical questions, but I don’t think they are effective for making public arguments.”

    I’m not at all sure this is true. Certainly people are sometimes just unable to comprehend how the absolute authority of the state to have the say-so about the residence, or not, of every single person in its territory, could be questioned. But in other cases, people do seem to come round, saying, “Yeah, why DOES the government get to decide that? There doesn’t seem to be a good reason…”

    In any case, one can’t usually evade the issue. If people ask you, “But don’t we need to secure the borders?” you can say, “Yes, but…” and advocate some aspect of open borders policy, or “Well, maybe, but let’s put that question to one side for now,” or “No, because…” To say “Yes, but…” is not necessarily inconsistent with open borders– you might say, yes, “we” have the right to keep out immigrants, but we shouldn’t– and it may sometimes be the most persuasive, because it allays fears that you’re some kind of anarchist. But, IS IT TRUE? If not, it’s wrong to say it for persuasive effect, even if it’s persuasively effective. And I think that it’s not true.

    I like the three-proposition argument as far as it goes. It seems patriotic and wholesome. Still, when you say “we have a duty to protect our heritage,” what other policies do you think we have that are motivated by this goal? In an age of multiculturalism and gay marriage, my sense is that the main thrust of policy seeks actively to undermine our heritage, and that this justification is brought in in ad hoc fashion to justify migration restrictions that are in fact motivated by labor protectionism. Doubtless some people are suckered into supporting migration restrictions for that reason, but if we really wanted to protect our heritage, there are far more effective ways to do it. Should we have more patriotic parades? Should we reorganize the school curriculum to encourage youngsters to admire our national heroes more? Should we give churches more latitude to introduce Christian imagery into the public square? Should we regulate pornography, and provide public funding for patriotic artwork, music, and films? If we won’t do that, I’m skeptical about whether “protecting our heritage” is a legitimate argument for us to make.

  6. By the way, the environmental arguments of Frosty have no validity. Mike is right that the United States is FAR from its carrying capacity, as should be beyond obvious since all of Western Europe and Japan, let alone Singapore and Hong Kong, have population densities far higher than those of the US, yet maintain very high standards of living. Environmentally speaking, the US could double its population, or more, with minor lifestyle adjustments, but even if migration did start putting a strain on local natural resources, this would be reflected in rising prices of the relevant natural resources, which would induce technological innovation and lifestyle changes, or, failing that, would simply discourage further migration.

    1. Nathan,
      You simply do not know what you are talking about, period! The USA exceeded its carrying capacity in 1970 when it began importing the 7 out of 10 barrels of oil it needs to run this civilization in 2013. I don’t mind commenting on these realities, but to show your ignorance by make such false and erroneous statements show me that you stand eyeball deep in denial. I wrote a book on what we face: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans. My book with another dozen books show that the USA cannot sustain its current population let alone the projected added 138 million brought about by mass immigration in the next 37 years. You need to go back to school and learn simple math and the “exponential equation.” Until then, you simply do not know what you’re talking about. FW

  7. “you might say, yes, “we” have the right to keep out immigrants, but we shouldn’t– and it may sometimes be the most persuasive, because it allays fears that you’re some kind of anarchist. But, IS IT TRUE? If not, it’s wrong to say it for persuasive effect, even if it’s persuasively effective. And I think that it’s not true.”

    This gets at the heart of the discussion that I think we ought to be having as supporters of open borders.

    From a natural rights perspective, there may not really be that much daylight between saying that we have a right to do something and saying that it is morally correct. How can we have a right to do something that is wrong?

    I prefer to use the word right in a positive law sense — that we have the power to do it (sort of), and more importantly, there is a long history of people thinking it is acceptable for governments to do it. Sure, there is also a history of open borders, but right now we live in a time when the default view is that this is a legitimate exercise of government power.

    If you agree with this, the difference is mostly semantic. In that case, I would argue it is better to accept that the government has the right to close borders because I think it is less confusing for most people and in my opinion doesn’t conjure as much immediate opposition to what we want to argue.

    When you say a moral proposition is true you have a double burden. First, you have to argue that moral propositions can be true and false, and then you have to show that your particular proposition is true according to some mutually acceptable criteria. I think the first argument is tangential to the case for open borders so I think it should be avoided.

    I personally believe that there are a wide variety of moral frameworks within which a convincing case for open borders can be made, and many of them use pretty much the same evidence. If you know that someone comes from a particular moral background, then it is probably better to adopt their framework when you want to convince them. If not, I see no use in trying to convince them of a natural rights framework (or any other) before proceeding.

    I personally am probably some mix of moral nihilist, relativist, and pragmatist, but I don’t think it matters much. I can still change my opinions based on moral arguments even if I don’t believe they are true in the absolute sense.

    1. I think this is a conversation Nathan and Vipul have actually had before (a couple months ago, I can’t find the relevant posts/comments right now). I think all of us on this blog agree that a variety of moral views lead one to conclude that open borders is morally right. I also think that as a result we are pretty close on our views as far as governments’ ability and right to open or close borders.

      I and Nathan to a degree have argued explicitly before that government has a right to close the borders. Our position is simply that the government does not have the right to arbitrarily close the borders. Presently immigration law in most (if not all) countries allows the executive branch near unlimited discretion to arbitrarily restrict the entry of people seeking to do so in good faith. We argue that governments have this discretion, but it is not unlimited and it cannot be on the basis of arbitrary criteria. If government thinks immigration level X is the right level, then it should say so, and pursue policies that achieve that. Modern governments don’t see a need to justify their immigration policies to anyone.

      Vipul was previously the one suggesting that we shouldn’t reject “no borders” and the view that all immigration restrictions are unjust so easily. I think that’s right. But at the same time I (and I think Nathan) agree with you that we need to emphasise, one can easily believe in the importance of national borders and sovereignty while also believing that the way border enforcement currently works is fundamentally wrong, and an open borders policy is the only ultimate right answer.

      Going back to Nathan’s point, I think the reason we went down this rabbit hole is because Nathan wanted to emphasise that it’s probably a bad idea to say “Yes, we should secure the border,” because that statement reinforces the status quo view of how border enforcement ought to work. What I would prefer to say is “Yes, the border is important, but that doesn’t mean national borders ought to be prison walls.”

  8. I enjoyed the post Michael! I am in favor of sharing opportunities to work and integrate into whatever country one wishes. I am not so excited if an open border were to strain the already underfunded social programs like Social Security, Medicare, ACA, etc.

    Is there any good data on the overall costs/benefits of immigration, including participation in what I see as currently unsustainable, underfunded social programs? I recall a Harvard cost/benefit analysis of illegal immigration you previously blogged about. It said the costs and benefits of illegal immigration were roughly even. But I think it may not have included the cost of participation in these major programs (it did factor in public services, schools, etc).

  9. “Is there any good data on the overall costs/benefits of immigration, including participation in what I see as currently unsustainable, underfunded social programs?”

    Here is one take on the situation:


    I agree that a lot of our social programs are underfunded. This will take some political compromises going forward. I think the main cause for this is that our society is aging, and I view immigration as a partial solution to the problem.

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