Bryan Caplan  

Would a World Plebiscite Lead to Open Borders?

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People occasionally say that "Democracy and open borders are incompatible."  If they're talking about national democracy, they're right. 

But suppose we actually lived up to the democratic "one man, one vote ideal" by having a world plebiscite on open borders.  Would it pass?  Or would First World countries somehow persuade Third World voters that some migration restrictions are a good idea?



COMMENTS (21 to date)
Pierre writes:

I have a suspicion that the pebiscite would produce a series of policies that look like:
- people from developing countries can move to developed countries;
- people from developed countries cannot move to developing countries.

Pierre

Ken B writes:

This is a misleading contrast of nationaland world for tendentious reasons. They would be voting on logically different questions. National voters would be voting on opening the borders of that nation. Not other nations, or other groups of nations. The world analog would be a vote on opening Earth to Martians.

Finch writes:

I think it would fail. The actual fraction of people wanting to emigrate is presumably quite low - throughout history emigration rates have rarely been high, presumably because moving country means leaving behind everyone and everything you know.

So the vote would be dominated by people who were considering "Should we let our doctors leave?" and "Should we accept immigrants from [whatever is just down the quality-of-life ladder and nearby]?" A vote would value one emigrant as one vote, and 99 people accepting an immigrant as 99. So it would be dominated by the perceived value of immigrants, which is surely quite low if not negative. The people in Botswana would want to keep out the people from Sierra Leone, presumably. Immigrants wouldn't get the extra weight applied to them in some arguments just because their gain is quite high.

To win, backers would need to make the case that accepting immigrants was in everybody's best interest, which is obviously hard.

Sonic Charmer writes:

Would a world plebiscite say Yea or Nay to 'Resolved: Non-Americans can take all Americans' stuff'?

Equally interesting/relevant question.

Also puzzling that you treat 'national democracy' as if it's anything other than a synonym for 'democracy', and imply that 'one man, one vote' somehow ever meant 'for everyone in the world' in some context. Pray tell when/where has there ever been such a thing as..supranational democracy (?).

Asking us to consider a hypothetical involving a 'world plebiscite' as a better/purer form of 'democracy' is the same thing as setting up a hypothetical with a one-world-nation. Which is fine, of course, but a far different intellectual exercise than the one you claim to put forth (answer: yes of course if there were one world nation, its citizens would probably vote for free movement - just like we have in this nation - so what?)

John David Galt writes:

Assume that we were able to get honest responses everywhere (as opposed to reality, where poll and vote results from places like Egypt and Iran tend to be very pro-authority simply because those who don't support it don't dare say so).

Then I would expect what Pierre said: let the poor majority move where they wish, but don't let rich people move into poor countries.

This is not just because underdeveloped country residents fear the rich (or remember colonial rule). It also reflects the unfortunate fact that many of the existing borders of poor countries were drawn by past colonial rulers and have no relation to where the "national" groups in those regions really live.

I can't think of a good solution to this problem that doesn't involve allowing a war to take place. This is probably the biggest down side of colonialism per se.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

There is some polling on fraction of people wanting to emigrate eg http://www.gallup.com/poll/108325/onequarter-worlds-population-may-wish-migrate.aspx how that would correlate with voting for ending international apartheid is an interesting question.

It's easy to make the case that accepting immigrants/allowing emigration is a huge net positive eg http://www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1425376 but hard in the sense most people aren't amenable to welfare arguments, no matter how knock-down winning.

I'd expect the plebiscite to fail, but if re-run over the years, eventually succeed. Maybe. Probably swamped by unpredictable changes.

Bob Montgomery writes:

My best guess, and I confess it seems obvious to me, is that open emigration would pass overwhelmingly and closed immigration would also pass overwhelmingly.

And if it was all or nothing, closed borders would pass overwhelmingly.

Fralupo writes:

I'm sure that the voters in country X would vote to allow people from country Y to move to country Z.

And a global plebiscite about opening the US' borders would pass almost assuredly.

But if the vote affected the home nation though...

How many people in, say Egypt, would vote to let any Israeli cross the border and live in Egypt? Zimbabwe's done a good job making it very clear that descendants of European settlers are unwelcome - would they vote to give them the right to return forever? What about Cyprus or Kashmir?

Multiply that by every country where some people don't like foreigners and it would be hard to show how open borders would win a global vote.

Richard A. writes:

"Democracy and open borders are incompatible."
Democracy and illiteracy are incompatible. Democracy and open borders for educated immigrants are not necessarily incompatible.

Jeff writes:

Democracy and homo sapiens are incompatible.

MikeP writes:

Ken B:
National voters would be voting on opening the borders of that nation. Not other nations, or other groups of nations.

Sonic Charmer:
Pray tell when/where has there ever been such a thing as..supranational democracy (?).

These comments are mind-bogglingly parochial. The United States, after all, was formed by a supranational republican process where everyone from every state knew they were opening up their own borders as well as every other state's borders. In fact, they knew they were opening up a lot more to each other.

Why is the hypothetical of the original post at all odd?

MikeP writes:

Why is the hypothetical of the original post at all odd?

By the way, I'm not saying that it's at all conceivable that such a plebiscite could happen. And it is true that each nation would control whether the global outcome of such a plebiscite would actually change its own policies.

I just find the reactionary flight to the boundaries of democracy telling.

Sonic Charmer writes:

MikeP,

These comments are mind-bogglingly parochial. The United States, after all, was formed by a supranational republican process where [...]

Sigh. Ok yes. I should have said pan-national.

...knew they were opening up their own borders as well as every other state's borders. In fact, they knew they were opening up a lot more to each other.

Yes, but I don't think they gave, like, the Zulus or the Chuvash equal say on the whole deal...

As it stands, the formation of the U.S. was a rare enough event that one could almost cite it as an exception that proves the rule.

Jody writes:

It depends on what's on the ballot.

If the vote is on the question "should all borders are open?", then it will fail dramatically. (See China / NK, Mexico / Guatemala, India / Pakistan...)

If it's on the question "should the US's borders be open?", then the world-wide vote will succeed dramatically.

AMW writes:

I'm with Bob. People can't understand why other countries won't let them in, but it's perfectly obvious why their country should exclude those lazy/job-stealing foreigners.

The Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

This is why rational people in industrialized countries would not favor open borders.

And don't reflexively blame leftism, either. This particular problem/group predates redistributionism-- predates the industrial revolution, in fact, and with average IQ in the 70s plus intense endogamy may never experience it (the industrial revolution, that is).

Leftists make the problem worse by letting gypsies in and then refusing to deport them, but leftists didn't invent the gypsies, they just use them to harrow their domestic political opponents.

dha writes:

It's more likely the World Congress would first vote to tax the American rich (the 100%) for >90% of their income, and give it to the poorer countries. This wouldn't make them much richer because it would still be employed corruptly or incompetently.

Then they would pass laws making the entire world roughly like Latin America: not the absolute ash heap, but mildly impoverished and dysfunctional at best.

There would no longer be any reason to move to the US because it would be just as poor as the rest of the world.

If limiting their powers to just that one question, it seems to miss the point.

Shane L writes:

Am I being cynical in thinking that people in developing countries would be first worried that open borders would cause an invasion of some ethnic enemy next door?

Evan writes:
Am I being cynical in thinking that people in developing countries would be first worried that open borders would cause an invasion of some ethnic enemy next door?
I don't think so. If the only question on the ballot is "should every country on Earth open its borders?" such fears, rational or not, would probably play a large role in the election.

I'm skeptical about the feasibility of getting such an invasion together when the potential invaders have the option of moving to first world countries and getting high-paying jobs. Ethnic hatred only has so much power in the face of economic self interest. But the objective likelihood of an event happening is not the criteria most voters use to let it influence them.

Ken B writes:

@Mike P: I made a careful and clear logical distinction between the two different questions BC is conflating. You do not dispute the distinction. Instead you simply assert making it, and by extension, applying careful reasoning, is parochial. What a parochial viewpoint.

PS I am not an American.

Ken B writes:

@Shane L: Whenever I hear a defence of unrestricted immigration I point out it has happened before. Denmark experienced unrestricted German immigration in 1940 for example.

I will hear howls but note the word 'unrestricted'. I am not picking nits. If you say you are for unrestricted immigration you are taking a principled stand, you are above the petty concerns the rest of us sqwalk about. If however you favour restrictions then you must debate the details with the rest of us. One cannot have it both ways.

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