Bryan Caplan  

Vipul Naik and the Priority of Open Borders

Goodwin's Economix: A Graphic ... Can Progressive Taxation Survi...
Vipul Naik of Open Borders has started a thought-provoking series of posts on libertarians and immigration:
I aim to consider three aspects to this issue in three separate blog posts. In the current blog post, I consider the extent to which libertarians do advocate for open borders, relative to many other libertarian causes (my conclusion: not much). In the next blog post, I will consider how much energy I think libertarians should devote to open borders (my conclusion: probably more than they currently do). In my third blog post, I will consider the reasons behind what I perceive as the under-supply of open borders advocacy from libertarians.
He begins by putting me personally under the microscope:

The bloggers and writers in the pro-open borders people list are some of the most prolific writers on the subject of open borders. It would be reasonable to assume that the proportion of their writing efforts that they devote to open borders is an upper bound on the proportion devoted by libertarian bloggers and writers in general.

Let's begin by looking at Bryan Caplan. I took a look at Caplan's most recent posts. Of his posts so far in September (about 25 of them so far) none is about immigration. In August (about 30 posts), there doesn't seem to be any post devoted to immigration issues or open borders either... So, a better idea might be obtained by looking at the proportion of posts that Caplan has written about immigration in his lifetime. My guesstimate, based on the list of Caplan's open borders writings, is that about 150 blog posts by Caplan are about immigration (the list includes about 40 Caplan blog posts, but there are many others that are more tangentially related to immigration that don't make it to the list), plus may be another 150 that mention immigration as a side note. Caplan's been blogging for seven years, and posts about 25-35 times a month, so a guesstimate lower bound for his total number of blog posts is about 2000. With these generous guesstimates, about 8% of Caplan's blog posts are about immigration, and another 8% tangentially reference immigration issues and open borders. I suspect the actual percentages are somewhat lower since these guesstimates have been made generously.

Vipul's overview seems quite fair.  My only quibble is that I have probably blogged more about immigration than other any policy issue.  Still, the sense that I should focus more on immigration has weighed on me for some time.  Part of me thinks that I should devote my entire life to this issue - to transform myself into the William Lloyd Garrison of immigration. 

My main excuses: (a) I already blog virtually all of the novel thoughts I have about immigration; (b) I'd be too miserable banging my head against the wall of public opinion and academic apathy if I devoted myself entirely to immigration; and (c) I probably don't have the right personality or charisma to be a William Lloyd Garrison.  It's also possible that I would actually lose readers and influence if I deliberately became a one-trick pony.

But what about other libertarians?  Vipul makes a rather damning case:

Caplan has gone on record calling immigration the "most important issue of our time" (here and here). So it would be reasonable to assume that most other pro-open borders bloggers and writers devote an even lower proportion of their writings to immigration. This, roughly, seems to be the case, with a few exceptions: Nathan Smith's blogging on the Open Borders website (though not his earlier writings) and Alex Nowrasteh's writings. Alex is a full-time immigration policy analyst, so it's natural he devotes most of his energies to the topic -- that's part of his job description...

What if we look at the proportion of effort devoted to discussing immigration spent by libertarian writers who are not focused on immigration advocacy? The proportions are even lower. For instance, Students for Liberty, a mostly US-focused organization (though with some international activities and outreach efforts) that serves as an umbrella group for college campus student libertarian groups, has a blog with about 1300-1500 blog posts. Of these, there are four blog posts with the immigration tag. Two of these four posts simply include a link or video embed of an immigration-related topic, plus other stuff not directly related to immigration. Thus, there seems to be a grand total of only two blog posts devoted to immigration (this one about Obama's de facto DREAM Act and this one about how freedom to travel can enhance support for libertarian ideals).

What's going on?  You might conclude that many libertarians favor immigration restrictions.  But if that were so, our blogs should feature lots of lively debates on the topic rather than the sound of chirping crickets. 

The real reason, I suspect, is that most libertarians view immigration restrictions the way I used to: yet another bad thing governments do.  To truly appreciate the horror of these laws, you need to not just know but dwell upon the basic empirics about (a) how badly people live in the Third World; (b) how much Third Worlders can improve their condition by working in the First World; and (c) how flimsy the objections to immigration are.  Most of us can't reach this level of enlightenment unless we personally get to know some illegal immigrants.  Until we do, my analogy between Jim Crow and the status quo sounds like hyperbole.

The awful truth, though, is that the Jim Crow analogy is spot on.  First World governments deny people from the Third World the basic human right to sell their labor to willing First World buyers.  It's easy for those of us born in the First World to neglect this fact.  But that's why anyone serious about human liberty should regularly shout it from the rooftops.

P.S. Stay tuned for the rest of Vipul's series.  I know I will.

COMMENTS (51 to date)
Foobarista writes:

Frankly, in the 1000 things that the government should change to be more libertarian, open borders is number 750 at best. And doing it too early could kill other libertarian initiatives by drawing in foreigners who'll vote anti-libertarian, and unless you buy "increase the contradictions"-style logic from Communist revolutionaries (which surprisingly large numbers of libertarians do buy into), you may be more interested in "libertarianism in one country" versus "transnational" libertarianism (to pursue the Communist analogy of libertarian nationalist "Stalinists" versus the transnational "Trotskyites").

Also, politics matters, and radical open-borders positions aren't exactly political winners, particularly if the economy isn't perfect. If you're interested in at least occasionally winning votes instead of just arguments, you have to consider this angle.

Jeff writes:

The problem is that most people (including me) don't find objections to mass immigration flimsy. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In light of this, I think it would best if libertarians spent more time advocating for charter cities rather than unfettered immigration. Most people have already made up their minds about what the right level of immigration is. Conversely, most people, I'd wager, are unfamiliar with the concept of charter cities and thus have no preconceived notions about them at all, in which case if you can make a solid, convincing case for why they're important/good, people might just take it and run with it. So that's my advice: to make a positive impact, talk more Paul Romer, less Elian Gonzalez.

Bostonian writes:

"First World governments deny people from the Third World the basic human right to sell their labor to willing First World buyers."

Because those Third World people, once they are here, will consume a lot of social services and vote for ever-higher income taxes on me, thus infringing on *my* right to sell my labor. Romney would have a better chance of being elected if the Hispanic share of the electorate were smaller.

I am surprised by some libertarians' self-righteousness about open borders.

Thrica writes:

The political-consequentialist argument against immigration proves far too much – horrifyingly so. Your logic does not lead to closing the borders; it leads to deporting all Democrats.

If you want lower redistribution, fight that battle. Don't treat immigrants like weapons.

ThomasL writes:

I think your case would be stronger if you would add to it one of these two things:

1) Explain why your line of argument does not, as a side-effect, do away with the entire rational basis for nation-states and citizenship.

2) If you cannot do (1), explain why the concepts of nation-state and citizenship are bad in themselves, and should be done away with.

The obvious consequences of "denationalization" that are consequent in your previous arguments for the illegitimacy of restrictions on immigration present a high bar to jump over--nothing less than the eradication of nations as currently understood--without making the case that nations, borders, citizenship, voting, etc, are bad things anyway.

ThomasL writes:

Editing error...

"The obvious consequences of "denationalization" that are consequent in your"

Should read:

"The obvious "denationalization" that is consequent in your..."

Anyway, I am actually open to the argument you might make. I am not sold on the concept of nation-states, and they are a fairly recent experiment in history. But they are here now, and if you intended to do away with them--or pursue a course that necessarily entails doing away with them--you need to explain why.

MG writes:

Elevating the fight for Open Borders to number one on the agenda strikes me as more moral narcissim than pragmatism. It is not as if the other 749 causes (to cite, say, @Foobaristra) for which we could be fighting are such slam dunks that the crusade for Opens Borders is the only cause worth of the mega Libertarian Brain (and Heart?). Let's win the fight for global free trade in goods (and capital), and many of the benefits of Open Borders would be delivered. Let's win the fight for reducing the size of government and of government dependency, and the contributions of even the poorest of immigrants will be more widely appreciated and their arrival better received.

C writes:

I think Bryan does himself (and us) a huge service by not focusing on his open borders arguments. Judging by the comments above and my prior reading of his posts, his arguments are extremely flimsy (e.g., ignoring the basis of the nation-state or evidence of the impact of levels of immigration, dismissing what political economy would tell us about the impact of importing more social service recipients into a country with an entitlements problem, not researching actual immigration laws (e.g., family migration), etc.) and overall detract from his hard earned image as a public intellectual. After all, most people have made up their mind on immigration and I doubt he could get even majority of immigrants like myself to agree with him that the US shouldn't emulate Australia or Canada and have a much stricter system.

Instead, he should focus on his education arguments which are truly innovative and have the potential to undermine conventional wisdom.

Bob Murphy writes:

I think it's worse when the US government blows up foreigners with missiles fired from flying robots, rather than preventing them from selling their labor here. So I think antiwar activism is more important than immigration policy.

In Bryan's defense, he talks about pacifism a lot too.

sieben writes:

I feel like the commenters aren't really familiar with Caplan on immigration. They write things like:

"Because those Third World people, once they are here, will consume a lot of social services and vote for ever-higher income taxes on me, thus infringing on *my* right to sell my labor."

"Explain why your line of argument does not, as a side-effect, do away with the entire rational basis for nation-states and citizenship."

"Judging by the comments above and my prior reading of his posts, his arguments are extremely flimsy (e.g., ignoring the basis of the nation-state or evidence of the impact of levels of immigration, dismissing what political economy would tell us about the impact of importing more social service recipients into a country with an entitlements problem, not researching actual immigration laws (e.g., family migration), etc.)"

Yeah you guys. You totally got Bryan outmaneuvered.

It's not worth starting an argument over the specifics here, but if you're going to react defensively over the word "flimsy", you may as well read the PDF it links.

Swimmy writes:

Bryan, you have all the evidence in front of you that you should blog about immigration more, right in this very comment section. To wit, people are completely ignoring that you've already proposed more humane, pro-immigration alternatives to strict bans that would address most or all of the immigration negatives they point out. And some readers seem to think that we'll gain most of the benefits to immigration by getting rid of tariffs, even though you've already shown that economists' estimates of the deadweight losses from capital and goods restrictions are massively dwarfed, over 10 times, by restrictions to immigration.

Worse still, your readers still seem to think that the standard arguments against immigration have substantial relevance in light of this fact, when in fact they need to show not only that immigration has negative qualities but that those negative qualities collectively outweigh DOUBLE WORLD GDP!

If you have to repeat yourself, so be it. This is the single most important issue in economics, and it needs more exposure! To start, how about a post on emotional saliency versus empirical relevancy? That would be a nice place to point people who think immigration could possibly be as low as 750th on a list of government policy outrages.

(However, I agree with Bob Murphy that anti-war activism is probably the more important political cause.)

Brian Holtz writes:

Caplan's PDF merely hand-waves at the best argument against unrestricted immigration.

sieben writes:


That hyperlink is a joke.

"Open borders between America and the rest of the world will only be feasible when the differences between America and the world are as small as, say, the differences between America and Canada, or between Alabama and Florida."

I mean, aside from the lack of proof,

Also, Caplan doesn't "handwave" this away. It falls under the cultural argument (I think, TK is vague on what he means by "different").

"If hordes of poor immigrants would cause an intolerable expense for public charity"

Yeah Caplan didn't address this either. /Sarcasm

"then they would cause a similar expense for private charity. To the extent that private charity doesn't replace public, it will result in massive downward pressure on unskilled wages and levels of mass squalor unseen outside the Third World."

Right, because people would keep immigrating even if their life in America would be the same as their life in Haiti. The poorest people on earth would spend thousands of dollars on a ticket to nothing.

"It's just not intellectually credible to maintain that conditions and policies on opposite sides of a border could never vary so widely as to make unrestricted immigration infeasible."

Well, good thing no one is hinging their immigration argument on that.

sieben writes:

I got cut off for some reason. When I wrote:

"I mean, aside from the lack of proof,"

I appended that US immigration had historically been from very "different" countries. Kuwait's immigrants are very "different". Etc etc..

Adrian Tschoegl writes:

Given irrational voters' anti-foreign and anti-market bias (see Caplan), it is hard enough to try and get support for freer trade in goods, let alone freer movement of people. Notice that both candidates for President are pointing out how tough they are/will be on foreign goods. Both also state they are tough on illegal migration, while not particularly proposing much in the way of eased legal migration. (I could be wrong here; I tend to avoid exposure to political ads.)

John writes:


Tell me, please, how importing a horde of people who are genetically dissimular to me and have significantly higher fertility than my ethnic group could possibly be good for me in an evolutionary sense?

Evolutionary arguments always trump made-up ridiculous universalist moral system who are only a rationalization of the writer's sentiment. They also tend to ensure the survival of the group that embraces them. Evidently, most libertarian bloggers of European (or quasi-European, as is the case here) descent are not among the groups that will survive.

Steve Z writes:

I, for one, have come to agree with Caplan's open borders plans, on the condition that new immigrants don't receive welfare benefits, social security, voting rights, etc., nor do their descendants for three generations. Furthermore, conviction for a commonlaw felony (e.g. rape, arson, mayhem) should result in an automatic deportation and/or execution, with no statutory habeas corpus available.

ThomasL writes:


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

Extra credit if you can guess whom I am quoting.

ThomasL writes:


The problem with all of Bryan's "pro-immigration alternatives to strict bans" is that they are inconsistent with his philosophical case for the right of unrestricted immigration.

I prefer to concentrate on his arguments rather than his plans, because they have a better (if inadequate) foundation.

R. Jones writes:

If you believe in a corporation's right to exclude people (freedom of association), then why not a nation's right to do the same?

I'm generally in favor of high skilled immigration (importing job creators), but a straight-up "open-borders" policy strikes me as disastrous, given the way it would inevitably change American society into a less desirable place to live.

I don't recall Bryan attempting to answer the question of how mass immigration would change the social/cultural atmosphere, or that he even acknowledges it as an issue.

MingoV writes:

I'm as solidly libertarian as anyone I know, but open borders is not among my highest priorities. My top concerns are paring back our massive national government and restoring our rights and liberties. Opening our borders before paring back government would give longer life to Social Security and Medicare by adding more workers who will be forced to pay into those Ponzi schemes.

johnleemk writes:

sieben and Swimmy have made the slam dunk case for Caplan's existing coverage of the open borders case being plainly inadequate.

The notion that "Let's win the fight for global free trade in goods (and capital), and many of the benefits of Open Borders would be delivered" is palpably laughable. Restrictions on human movement are by far the most universal restriction on human liberty that's socially acceptable today. Even moving the Overton window here slightly would have huge wins, far bigger than anything free trade in goods or capital could deliver.

The empirics aren't really up in question. Here's a summary of the literature:

Looking across the literature, the most optimistic estimates of the benefits of eliminating all barriers to free trade in goods and capital combined yield an incremental 5.8% in world GDP. The most pessimistic estimate of the benefit of open borders to world GDP is an incremental 67%. Even if you think these numbers are wrong, it's hard to see how one or both of them could be off by an entire order of magnitude.

Let's say the case for libertarians to support immigration restrictions is open and shut. Let's say immigrants consume more in social services than they contribute in tax revenues (something that studies in the US and UK have found little evidence of), commit more crime (most studies in the US find the converse), and support anti-libertarian political causes (let's concede this one purely for the sake of argument, even though any libertarian who argued for the oppression of non-libertarians on any other issue would generally be seen as a hypocrite).

Isn't the logical implication then that libertarians should be trying to figure out a way to reduce the number of Americans who meet these criteria, up to and including deportation? Or is it coincidentally just so that the US has about the right amount of immigration (or maybe it is slightly too much, but a slight reduction would do the trick)?

From a purely moral standpoint, it seems ridiculous to be adamant that one would never permit these kinds of people to reside in one's country, let alone take up citizenship -- but at the same time insist that once they are in somehow, magically all is hunky dory. (Not to mention, it remains unclear why this entails strong support of laws that would arbitrarily restrict the liberty of people who meet the converse of all these criteria: economic "makers" as opposed to "takers", law-abiding libertarians.)

Yes, citizenship is magical. But there's no reason it should be. Historically, race was once magical. (Look at the political consensus pre-1865 that it was impossible for African-Americans and white Americans to live side by side as citizens in the same country.) The draft was once magical, a responsibility of good citizens. Libertarians, or perhaps I should say even more broadly liberals (in the all-encompassing sense of the term, not just left liberals) fought until these magical ideas didn't seem so magical any more. There is absolutely every reason for libertarians like Caplan, who do believe in open borders, to keep pushing on this. There's nothing more magical about citizenship or the nation state than there is about race or the draft.

johnleemk writes:

Bob Murphy:

Almost as if in direct response, Nathan Smith has a new post on the Open Borders blog arguing that open borders will contribute to world peace:

Sieben writes:


"Extra credit if you can guess whom I am quoting."

Like I can't google.

Jonathan Goff writes:

Interesting. My blog is almost entirely space technology, space business, and space policy focused, but when I let my libertarian show, I think most of my non-space policy posts are about immigration...


Mark Crankshaw writes:

I've read your paper summarizing the arguments against open borders ( and your counter-arguments against them. Your argument is persuasive. However, in the back of my mind, I fear that I can still see open borders going very wrong.

My fear of open borders doesn't center on the immigrants per se, but with the anti-libertarian forces native to the US. Would not these non-libertarian groups attempt to co-opt immigrants and use them to subvert libertarian ideals?

The current presidential election appears, at least to me, that left liberals are able to co-opt recent immigrants much more readily than libertarians. Immigrants may not vote much, and may tend towards the status quo, but it appears that the status quo they lean heavily towards is the anti-libertarian left liberal status quo. Take away the African American vote and the votes of recent immigrants and Obama loses in a humiliating landslide. Does anyone really believe that if Romney were not the candidate opposing Obama, but that the opponent were a libertarian, that these recent immigrants would be voting libertarian? Or would they remain firmly supporting left liberals?

James A. Donald writes:

Feeling sorry for the third worlders isn't exactly on the agenda of the typical American (and why should it be), but paying lip service to the plight of the third worlders is very much up the alley of progressives.

Whenever I hear an argument that appeals to utilitarianism I observe that whosoever says he would hold a child in the fire to end malaria, will hold a child's face in the fire and entirely forget he was trying to end malaria, a prediction amply confirmed by experience.

Utilitarianism is not within the human potential, not part of human nature.

Which leads me to predict that whosoever proposes to destroy America to the benefit of third worlders, will destroy America and forget he intended to benefit third worlders.

Why is the third world third world? By and large, it is because at one time or another they voted for third world type governments - usually with the result that was the last election for some considerable time.

johnleemk writes:

To all those advocating continued oppression of people not from your country because you believe they pose a threat to your liberty, I have two questions:

1. Which is the more basic freedom: to have ten cents taxed out of every dollar you earn -- as opposed to twenty or thirty cents -- for the government to spend; or to be free to live, work, and play where you choose?

2. What are you doing to suppress the voting rights and/or other liberties of your fellow citizens who you believe pose a threat to your liberty by advocating non-libertarian policies?

MikeP writes:

Explain why your line of argument does not, as a side-effect, do away with the entire rational basis for nation-states and citizenship.

Open borders does not at all do away with the rational basis for nation-states or citizenship.

Nation-states are simply the sovereign entities that claim territories. And all that sovereignty means is that the state has exclusive control over the laws on its side of the border. That is neither violated nor eliminated by having one of those laws recognize the individual rights of migration, residence, and labor of people regardless of where they were born.

And citizenship is nothing more than the mechanism by which a government entitles people to elect itself and hold office in itself. Allowing people to live and work where they choose regardless of where they were born does not violate or eliminate citizenship. In particular, states can have wide open borders without having wide open naturalization.

Seriously, open borders was the worldwide norm prior to World War I. And yet nation states and citizenship both survived just fine. Why wouldn't they?

Mark Crankshaw writes:

@ johnleemk

I'll take a crack at your two questions.

1. Clearly, being free to live, work, and play where you choose is the more basic freedom.

I don't oppose immigration. But I do have, in my mind, a legitimate fear. I can easily see open borders (and the demographic trends that surely would accompany it) leading to a worst-case scenario: I have fifty, sixty or seventy cents taxed out of each dollar by a leftist government that denies me the freedom to live, work, and play as I choose. Could the US turn into Venezuela? I don't consider that a remote possibility, but considering current demographic, fiscal, and monetary trends, a very likely possibility...

I think open borders is a gamble that could pay off big, but more likely it could blow up to such an extent that I will have to leave the US someday as an economic refugee myself. The left liberals are winning the hearts and minds of the recent immigrants and the Left is quite willing, eager and effortlessly able to use fear and demagoguery to stifle and eviscerate libertarians and libertarianism.

2. I do nothing to suppress the voting rights and/or other liberties of fellow citizens. Full stop. Do I believe that my fellow citizens who advocate non-libertarian policies would suppress my voting rights and/or other liberties? Absolutely, given even the slightest of chances...

Mark Crankshaw writes:


In particular, states can have wide open borders without having wide open naturalization.

I think the disconnect involves the distinction between what states can do as opposed to what states are likely to do.

The Democratic Party in the US is chomping on the bit to convert Hispanics into as reliable and reflexive Democrat voters as African Americans. They may soon succeed. The option to have a large pool of potential Democrat voters inhabit, work, and pay taxes in the US without being given voting rights will be fought tooth and nail by the Democratic Party.

We "could" open borders without giving full citizenship, but there is clearly a powerful political will that would make sure we couldn't. It's not a real option.

David W writes:

Brian, I'm one of those who fears increased immigration's effects. I don't think you'll be able to convince me with studies, either, or arguments about the moral nature of closed borders. My position is that immigration restrictions are a lesser evil, not that they're good.

But! What could convince me to change my vote is serious change in the institutions I fear immigrants would strengthen. If assimilation could be sped up (perhaps starting by assimilating America's black population, who've been citizens for ~50 years now). If the various federal redistribution schemes were reduced. If the economic drain of excessive regulations was reduced, and the economy started growing again. In short, if America's political climate shifted in such a way that I couldn't imagine immigrants doing me harm via political means, my opposition would evaporate. If our political climate shifted so that I couldn't imagine statists even wanting to move here, that'd be even better.

Ultimately, I think that's the only method that would convince me - no amount of preaching directly on the subject will do it. Which means, if you want my support on this topic, the best way to get it is to spend your energy on other libertarian causes. Take away my fear, and I'll be happy to welcome new neighbors.

Prakash writes:

Would it be fair to say that pro-immigration advocates don't see the political animal in immigrants and anti-immigrant advocates don't see the economic animal in immigrants?

Chris H writes:

Well some of these comments are rather depressing from a blog that should be attracting people interested in individualism, freedom, and economics. Others have made the case for open borders pretty well though so I'll instead focus on what libertarians should be focused on.

@johnleemk, I agree that opening borders would help create more peace, but it's worth remembering that's not a panacea. Prior to the First World War after all there were no passports and a lot of immigration across national borders. That hardly stopped what was up to that time one of the most destructive wars in history. So, while I think open borders ought to be a very high priority among libertarians, I still have to rate peace first.

But we do have a coherent libertarian foreign policy here that perhaps we could distill down to a catchy phrase. Something like: free trade, free borders, and peace (feel free to improve upon it if the spirit so moves you). The first two issues are actually inseparable from each other for anyone with an understanding of economics while the third is a necessary condition for the previous ones. Therefore this libertarian foreign policy of which open borders is an inseparable part is really what we should be pushing. And I'd argue we should push it more than the average domestic issue because bad foreign policy is the standard way that government grabs an excuse to expand it's power. So long as we are intent upon violating the fundamental rights of individuals in other nations there will be no security for our individual rights at home.

CFin writes:

How about talking about the injustice of attempting to punish the parents by going after their children. Growing up here their entire life, but not being able to enter the legal labor market doesn't just hurt their income. It destroys their dignity and self esteem. At least it did in the case I'm most familiar with.

Philo writes:

I recall that in the early 80s, when the South African government was under heavy international pressure to end apartheid, its propaganda response was (in part) that the U.S. was pursuing its own apartheid (“separate development”) vis-à-vis Mexicans. That seemed like a valid point to me, but for some reason it gained very little traction (perhaps because immigration restrictions are not *explicitly* racist). Apartheid finally was ended, while we in the U.S. are no closer to letting Mexicans (Canadians, etc.) freely enter the U.S.

Markus Bjoerkheim writes:

1 possible reason libertarians and libertarian oriented politicians don't focus more on free borders

  • the right generally oppose immigration and feels strongly about this. By voicing open borders libertarians are likely to offend(in lack of a better word) those very same groups of voters and politicians they usually have lots of common ground with.

    Any thoughts?

ThomasL writes:

@MarkC & MikeP

MarkC is right that as a matter of political will. Even more importantly, it is difficult to justify under the rights basis of the argument used for free immigration and used for democracy. Why shouldn't they have a say in the laws that govern their lives? How can we justify creating, as others suggested, penalties which apply more harshly to them than other residents?

The traditional rationale is that they are guests in a foreign country, but that rationale fails under Bryan's "world democracy."

PS, I was quoting Bryan Caplan in my earlier comment on the incompatibility of open borders with national democracy, so I think he understands and accepts the implications.

Vipul Naik writes:

Philo, I'd like to know if you have a reference or link for your interesting claim that "in the early 80s, when the South African government was under heavy international pressure to end apartheid, its propaganda response was (in part) that the U.S. was pursuing its own apartheid (“separate development”) vis-à-vis Mexicans." If so, I could probably include it under the global apartheid page of the Open Borders website. Thanks!

Sieben writes:

"I was quoting Bryan Caplan in my earlier comment on the incompatibility of open borders with national democracy, so I think he understands and accepts the implications."

Bryan doesn't take democracy seriously.

MikeP writes:


it is difficult to justify under the rights basis of the argument used for free immigration and used for democracy.

Rights are largely orthogonal to democracy. Democracy may be the best way to guarantee rights, but there is no unalienable right to vote. In contrast, there are unalienable rights to travel, residence, labor, and association -- rights that are being abrogated by democracy in the US today.

How can we justify creating, as others suggested, penalties which apply more harshly to them than other residents?

I disagree with those proposals. But immigrants do face a much harsher penalty than citizens face: deportation.

I was quoting Bryan Caplan in my earlier comment on the incompatibility of open borders with national democracy...

Really? Got a link?

Ted Levy writes:

Well, Bryan, if you wanted to spend more time correcting economic idiocies from the anti-immigrant crowd, it is obviously the case there is much work to be done. See Ilya Somin's latest post on Volokh Conspiracy (a fine post) and the many ridiculous comments that followed:

Most of these were presumably written by intelligent people with a law degree. So, as I say, there is yet much work to be done.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

Why are people arguing the question as an American political one?
In other words, why is the question argued as whether the proposal is beneficial for the citizens of the US? Surely the academic question is whether it will be beneficial for the world or not. I don't see any reason why a neutral academic analysis of a policy should put more importance on the welfare of US passport holders than others. I understand that an American politician would speak to his electorate and would discuss just the effect of the policy on citizens. But surely this is a higher level of discourse. I hope this is an academic discussion, and the importance of all individuals involved is equal. If you want to argue here that immigration restriction is "a good thing", then I think you have to make the case that the world, and not just the US are better off because of it.

Simon Cranshaw writes:

I agree completely that this is "most important issue of our time". It is also one of the hardest subjects about which to persuade people to change their views. Ending substance prohibition is something that many people can be persuaded about given time to hear all the arguments. I have had little success though, persuading people that we should have more open borders. I am a foreigner living in Japan, and even speaking to other foreigners enjoying the privilege of working there, I find it hard to persuade them that more people should be allowed to do likewise. So I don't know how effective more effort on the topic would be. I do think Bryan's case is a great contribution and the most persuasive summary I have seen.

shecky writes:

It never ceases to surprise me how little faith self described libertarians have in free markets, especially when it comes to a free market in labor. It seems to expose everyone from the closeted Republican, who can't actually bring himself to believe that free markets are a good thing, to the outright racists, who feel immigrants are genetically incapable of not leeching off society's makers.

This is one reason libertarians are taken seriously by nearly nobody outside the movement. When it comes down to the bottom line, "libertarian" is all too often code word for, at best, "closeted conservative".

ThomasL writes:


It is direct quote, just use the search function.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Actually, Brian's arguments for open borders have been absolutely crushed in the comments to his earlier posts on the subject (read them from the links in the side column).

Fundamentally, the problem is that Brian and other open-borders advocates are relentlessly anti-empirical on this question, which I think a "libertarian economist" should be ashamed of. Brian's writings about immigration resemble sophomore Marxism more than anything else.

First, the propagandistic appeal to pure emotion-- Brian asks us to act out of empathy, not rational considerations, based on how we fantasize that foreigners feel about immigration restrictions. A true student of Josef Goebels, Brian starts his essays by asking readers to imagine themselves or their kin forced into exile-- expelled from their homes, a very emotional matter-- rather than cooly considering the actual question, which is whether the US should tell low-quality would-be immigrants-- foreigners with no connection to or positive claim on the US-- to just stay home or go somewhere else because the US doesn't want them. (To Robert Murphy's point, I think it is absolutely wrong for the US to attack foreigners in their homes, but that really is qualitatively different than simply leaving them alone there-- good fences make good neighbors.)

Second, his oft-repeated and empirically-wrong assumption that all humans are the same, their behavior simply molded by the nearly-immutable "institutions" which happen to govern society in one geographic place or another. This too, is crudely Marxist. Brian claims that immigration to the US would have no effect on US "institutions," therefore no effect on the society which current Americans have built and enjoy, apart from driving down wages for a small segment of the population. This is nearly insane. "Institutions" are produced by the people who live under them. If you alter the people you alter the institutions. All the analyses showing that world GDP would double or whatever if there were no restrictions on migration are based on the idiotic assumption that advanced societies can instantly absorb all the world's low-productivity people while maintaining constant marginal productivity. Such analyses are much less intellectually defensible than the "static analysis" of effects of changes in Income tax rates (raising rates will raise revenue without affecting behavior) which libertarian economists always deride when American leftists proffer them.

If "institutions" were really independent of the people expected to implement and embody them, then libertarian economists ought to have found a way of replicating "good institutions" from groups that have them to groups that don't. They haven't and never will until they recognize the evolved bases of human behavior. A small number of low-IQ/low-future-time-orientation/high-violence people can be encysted and managed by the force of "institutions" maintained and embodied by a large population of more intelligent, better behaved people. But a large population of low-productivity people can be well-managed by a smaller group of high-productivity people only if the latter use great force-- quite against libertarian principles. Historical examples are usually indexed under "colonial oppressor regimes." If, like proper libertarians, we abjure the initiation of coercion, we must wait for natural selection to alter the gene pool of low-productivity populations to the point that they adopt "good institutions" on their own.

Open immigration would destroy the "good institutions" of the US, so libertarian calls for open immigration are basically suicidal. How long would the average American libertarian last in, say, Pakistan? Few Americans want to move to Pakistan--why should they want Pakistan to pack its bags and move to America? More to the point, why should they even permit such a horrible thing? Immigration restrictions are really perfectly Libertarian: they are simply self-defense by cooperating individuals. (E.g., should you have to wait until Eastern European Gypsies squat on your farm? Shouldn't you and your neighbors just keep them out of the country altogether? Sure, that is statistical reasoning. Of course it is; statistical reasoning is the basis of economic productivity, the hallmark of the rational animal, the foundation of science. When a libertarian economist tells you to eschew statistical reasoning he surrenders his own claim to the mantle of "Reason.")

Third, intellectual dishonesty (or at best, wilful blindness). Like his hero Julian Simon, Brian favors "lying with statistics." He's happy to average Sergey Brin and George Soros in with Haitian boat people and Guatemalan vegetable pickers to claim that the "average immigrant" pays more in taxes than he collects in social spending. That is tantamount to a lie because the distribution is severely bimodal. Brian and his friends tell us third-world immigrants are less criminal on average than natives. That is perfectly true and perfectly misleading, becase the average child and grandchild and great-grandchild of that third world immigrant is much more criminal than the average native. Brian's incomplete claim is tantamount to a lie because he neglects basic statistics-- reversion toward the mean-- individual immigrants are highly selected, but their offspring revert toward the average for their parents' populations of origin. Not so much Brian (he's been taught better by commenters) but his cheering section keeps claiming that immigrants don't absorb social spending funded by taxes on natives (and inflation which destroys natives' savings). It is tiresome to keep refuting these claims, which are sustained by mendacity only, such as the falsehood that immigrants are "not eligible" for welfare (they are, based on their childrens' eligibility, and individual immigrants are often eligible for programs less famous than TANF), or omitting to count public spending on immigrant's children (including public schools, free breakfasts and lunches, etc. "Free" means to the immigrant, not to taxpayers). Immigration boosters always trumpet that immigrants pay payroll taxes, but rarely discount the refundable EITC payments they obtain. Finally, immigration boosters lie by misdirection, constantly talking about the rare immigrant from some low-IQ hellhole who graduates from Columbia and becomes a heart surgeon, who is in fact a 3- or 4-sigma outlier.

In the real world, as opposed to the purely hypothetical world of libertarian ethics so rarefied that they sound almost Marxist, immigration is a phenomenon with externalities going far beyond the narrow formula of a willing worker for a willing employer. Those externalities harm others in proportion to the number of immigrants and the groups from which they come (for example, white refugees from Rhodesia and South Africa have assimilated into the prosperous segment of US society-- there is virtually no chance that people from the more numerous ethnic groups in those countries would do so).

The externalities imposed by immigrants are so severe that they justify defensive action against immigration. Libertarians who worry that immigration restrictions constitute "aggression" against foreigners should relax-- unwanted immigration constitutes aggression against the native population, and restrictions, even based as they may be on statistical inference rather than individual consideration, are defensive and therefore morally acceptable even for libertarians. A political philosophy should not be a suicide pact, and any philosophy which seems to demand complete self-abnegation-- such as Brian's demand for open borders-- has obviously got a fatal flaw somewhere inside.

MikeP writes:


Ah, so you mean this. And here I thought you had found Bryan stating some existential truth rather than the lead in to world plebiscite that Bryan was getting to.

Clearly it is not an existential truth that open borders are incompatible with national democracy since every democracy prior to World War I had essentially open borders.

Or do you also want to claim that a free market in health care, or the legality of consuming any drug you want, or unilateral free trade are also inconsistent with national democracy? These are frankly uninteresting statements.

ThomasL writes:


It isn't enough to point to examples when immigration was more open.

Bryan's argument for immigration as a right forceloses the ability of a country to prohibit immigration even in principle.

That has definite implications on the understanding of borders and national sovereignty that are not present simply by pointing to times when immigration was more or less open.

Bryan does seem to allude to such difficulties, but that I have seen never addresses them.

MikeP writes:


And Thomas Jefferson's argument for owning one's own labor as a right forecloses the ability of a country to entitle slavery even in principle.

National sovereignty is simply the positive fact that no other state will prevent a state doing as it pleases in the territory it claims. When the state finally chooses to secure some right of those under its dominion rather than abrogate it -- whether it be the right of free migration or the right not to be enslaved -- that in no way threatens its sovereignty.

And when some individual argues that the state should secure the rights of those under its dominion rather than abrogate them, that too in no way threatens the state's sovereignty. The state will do what the state will do.

If, as it appears, you are arguing that national sovereignty trumps individual rights, you are not only denying the Declaration of Independence and the whole American experiment, you are implicitly arguing in support of a lot of bad behavior by of a lot of very very obnoxious but sovereign governments.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Ghost of Christmas Past,

Thanks for the most illuminative and cogent summary of the economically literate arguments against open borders. I have a question, though. You write about the "double world GDP" estimates that:

All the analyses showing that world GDP would double or whatever if there were no restrictions on migration are based on the idiotic assumption that advanced societies can instantly absorb all the world's low-productivity people while maintaining constant marginal productivity. Such analyses are much less intellectually defensible than the "static analysis" of effects of changes in Income tax rates (raising rates will raise revenue without affecting behavior) which libertarian economists always deride when American leftists proffer them.

When I was working on preparing the double world GDP page for the open borders website, I suspected that some people would have written methodological criticisms of the kind you outline. I looked in the literature and I looked on various restrictionist websites, and couldn't find any criticism, or even discussion, of these estimates. If you are aware of a critique, whether in a paper or published online anywhere, that elaborates on the arguments you made, I'd be happy to link to it on the double world GDP page.

A lot of open borders advocates are particularly moved by the "double world GDP" type estimates, so a convincing demonstration that these estimates are grossly overstated would be a significant contribution to the debate. [Personally, I would still support open borders, but my belief about their *relative importance* would be affected by a convincing critique of "double world GDP" type estimates]

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