Bryan Caplan  

The Rights of the World's Poor

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Over at Cato Unbound, philosopher Nicole Hassoun prompted me to sketch the main argument I plan to make in Part II of Poverty: Who To Blame.  Namely: We should view people in the Third World as victims of First World immigration policy, not charity chases. 

I begin by pointing out that if Americans actively stole food from Haitians, taxed them, or imposed a naval blockade, almost everyone would morally blame Americans for Haitian poverty.  My next move: 
Now consider a slightly different policy:
4. The U.S. government forbids trade between Americans and Haitians.
Such a policy would elicit less moral condemnation than [a naval blockade]. But how different are [a naval blockade] and #4, really? In both cases, the U.S. government violates Haitians' (and Americans') right to trade their stuff with willing partners. American X wants to buy a painting from Haitian Y, yet the U.S. government brands them as criminals. If, as a result, Y dies of hunger, there is every reason to say that the U.S. government killed Y by violating his negative rights.

This is not idle philosophizing:

You might object that, in the post-colonial era, these hypotheticals are irrelevant for global poverty. Isn't the entire problem that the world's poor have little of value to sell on the world market? The answer, surprisingly, is no. The world's poor have a very valuable good to sell: their labor. Though Third World workers often earn a dollar or two a day, even unskilled labor is worth $10-$15,000 per year on the world market.

There's just one problem: First World governments' immigration policies effectively forbid international trade in labor.  The world's poor cannot legally work in a First World country without that government's permission. For most current residents of the Third World, this permission is almost impossible to obtain.


If First World governments simply respected everyone's right to accept job offers from willing employers, most of the world's poor wouldn't need charity. They could take care of themselves. Any able-bodied person living in poverty would be free to sell his labor to the highest bidder in the world. Instead of paying years of income to coyotes, the global poor could migrate for the cost of a bus or boat ticket. Instead of crossing the border in fear to compete for illegal jobs, the global poor could cross the border openly to compete for any job they're qualified to do.
I go on to argue that people like Hassoun who appeal to positive rights are doing the global poor a disservice.  "You're aggressing against total stranger X, so stop" is a much stronger moral argument that "Total stranger X needs lots of help, and you're morally obliged to help total strangers if they're needy, so donate lots of money."

One point I didn't make, but could have: In the real world, positive rights are a major rationale for disrespecting the negative rights of poor foreigners.  Philosophers may be convinced that all people have a positive right to a decent standard of living.  But most non-philosophers can only be convinced that fellow citizens have this right.*  As a result, non-philosophers often self-righteously violate foreigners' negative rights in order to fulfill their perceived moral obligation to take care of their fellow citizens.

* To be more precise, most non-philosophers can only be convinced that citizens of country X are morally required to provide a decent standard of living for fellow citizens of X.  Frenchmen are obliged to give all Frenchmen a decent standard of living, Americans are obliged to give all Americans a decent standard of living, etc.

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Carl writes:

When will Bryan ever engage with substantive arguments against open borders? This is just moral posturing and speculative blue sky thinking that would be appropriate for a group of pot smoking undergrads in a dorm room.

finley writes:

When will you make a substantive argument against open borders instead of ad hominems?

Filip Spagnoli writes:

Bryan, do you know the work of Thomas Pogge? Your argument is eerily similar to his: So you should, I think, engage with/credit/modify/etc. Pogge.

Steve Sailer writes:

So, Bryan, you are going to have a chapter condemning the effective Israeli response to immigration, such as calling them "illegal infiltrators," building much better fences than America has built, an informal pogrom in Tel-Aviv, and bullying Ethiopian immigrants into getting Depo-Provera shots?

Michael writes:

This thought experiment needs to be carried a little further. What happens to our country when millions of $3/hr workers come here? What happens to the poverty rate? The crime rate? The wages of the locals who now have to compete with people willing to live 10 to a one bedroom apartment?

This is just the next step in the race to the bottom.

Brian H. writes:

Bryan, you act as though the cause of Haiti's poverty is some kind of geographic curse. Like there is some kind of external, magical reason Haitians are poor.

In reality, Haitians have rich, fertile soil, multiple deep water ports ideal for fishing and trade, gorgeous beaches and ideal tropical weather....

The reason Haitians are poor has to do with the qualities of Haitians themselves. When 3rd-worlders move to 1st world countries, they bring their 3rd worldliness with them. If they come too quickly to assimilate (if they ever assimilate) the country they immigrate to will also become 3rd world by importing their dysfunction.

Even noted libertarian Tyler Cowen noted this problem recently, which is why he supports keeping most people out (but allowing more people in than currently are allowed in). I certainly think there is an interesting debate to be had about how high or low the level of immigration should be, but arguing for open-borders via the negative right to go anywhere you please is a non-starter.

Most people don't feel they have a right to go wherever they want. If I can't get permission to enter Japan, I don't feel I've been robbed in some sense. It's their country, and they can do as they please with it. It seems a severe form of hubris to declare that I have a right to go anywhere in the world without limits....

Ted Levy writes:

Bryan, based on one of your provided links above, your 3 book and 1 article "to do" list was going to keep you busy for "6 years minimum." I note we approach later this year the half way point. Care to update us?

Steve Z writes:

Without the government monopoly on violence, the poor could simply take what they needed from the rich. There would be no need for charity or redistribution programs; the needy would take what they needed, when they needed it.

Jeff writes:

Unemployment is near ten percent in immigrant rich California. The idea that there are millions of 3rd world workers being done a grave injustice by not being able to move to first world countries seems at best vastly overstated. Demand for labor simply isn't that strong, and it will likely only get worse as technology replaces more and more workers. God knows how many immigrant cab drivers Google's self driving cars will put out of work in the next twenty or thirty years, just to use an obvious example. What then, one wonders?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The substantial argument against open borders is that they amount to the denial that nations exist. The libertarian hopes to convince his co-nationals that the nation itself is an artifact that should not exist.

So he has imagined a right that nobody ever heard of thought of: a right to accept job offers from willing employers.

Does this right exist in US Constitution?. He first needs to demonstrate that such a right exists somewhere and that to without denying the existence of nations.

Brian writes:


Let me repeat what I said on David's immigration post.

"Arguing for open immigration based on some supposedly "moral" position, such as the opportunity costs for the immigrants themselves, is a non-starter."

If, as a matter of liberty, I have the right to exclude others from my land, AND I have the right to make agreements with others, I am well within my rights to agree with all other citizens of my nation to exclude unwanted people from my/our property. But since the whole of the nation is either privately owned or held in common, the citizens can choose to exclude others from the nation. It's not logical to argue otherwise.

The only logically consistent argument that can be made for open borders has to be based on the marginal benefit of the nation letting the immigrants in. If letting them in enhances the common good OF THE NATION, let them in. Otherwise, keep them out.

The argument shouldn't be too hard to make. People who are eager to better their lives? People who are willing to risk losing everything to start a new life in a new nation? People who are bringing diverse, new perspectives? People who are adding to the overall population, thereby increasing opportunities for interaction and economic growth? How could letting in such people NOT offer a net gain to the common good?

THAT'S the argument for open borders, once the details are filled in.

James writes:

Open borders is ideal for a prosperous economy. But it cannot work if you have a safety net. Milton Friedman explained this in the 70s.

johnleemk writes:


Economists are pretty certain that higher levels of immigration are economically beneficial. A ballpark estimate of the benefits of full labour mobility (albeit one that does not put any dollar value on less tangible benefits such as cultural cohesion or estimate second order effects from things like "political externalities") is that open borders would double world GDP:

George Borjas is about the only leading labour economist who really argues against higher levels of immigration to the developed world, and even he doesn't deny its immense benefit to the poor of the developing world. His argument is predicated on immigration being harmful to the relatively-poor of the developed world, and implicitly assumes that these people's welfare should be weighted more than those of foreigners.

Steve Sailer writes:

Jeff writes:
Economists are pretty certain that higher levels of immigration are economically beneficial.

Economists were pretty certain about the benefits of the $700 billion+ ARRA, which look pretty thin in retrospect, so that argument from authority falls pretty flat with me. I have no doubts that certain kinds of immigrants provide very tangible and very substantial economic benefits, but others clearly don't. Bryan notes that unskilled labor is worth $10-15k, annually, in first world labor markets. Great. What is the dollar amount of public assistance that people earning 10-15k (assuming they're here legally) and their children would be eligible for? I'd imagine it would be greater than 10-15k, although I can't say I know that for sure (I'm sure it varies from state to state, and probably city by city, also).

For a family of three, income of $19,530 is the federal poverity threshold in the lower 48 states. Being below the poverty line qualifies one for a host of benefits. Using Bryan's numbers, a married couple with a single child and both parents working would probably just be over that limit. Many would probably be under.

Problems I see with this:

1. How many low-wage immigrants actually get married and have both spouses working full time time and only have one kid? People lower in the socio-economic strata hardly get married at all anymore, as Bryan, I'm sure, being a Charles Murray fan, knows quite well. Instead, you get a lot of single mothers (aka poverty) or, if by chance there is a married couple, typically more than one child, in which case, their odds of being in poverty probably go up.

2. Unskilled labor might go for 10-15k annually today. As I alluded to in my earlier comment, how about 20-30 years from now?

Jeff writes:

Third one that I forgot:

Unskilled labor might be worth 10-15k right now, under our terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad restrictionist immigration policies. How much is it going to be worth once the supply is drastically increased under the Caplanian open borders policy? Probably not that much more than what it's currently worth in their home countries. The difference, again, will be that their children, at the very least, will be eligible for a whole host of generous benefits that their home countries do not/cannot provide.

Doug writes:

Steve Sailer: What is the point of your link ? Some Mexicans are fat, so therefore I should not be allowed to contract with any to mow my lawn?

Brian H:
Ridiculous to equate the "right to go wherever you want" with my right to allow a Haitian to come on my property and work for me.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Unemployment is near ten percent in immigrant rich California

Good thing we aren't letting those dang Californian's emigrate to Texas!

Oh wait, we are.

By the way, Texas has a 6.3% unemployment rate. Last time I checked, it too was an immigrant rich state...

Matt writes:

What about the rights of the world's poor to live in countries that don't lose the top 10% of each year's intellectual cohort to emigration? Haiti might be a very different place if the smartest, healthiest, most driven Hatians weren't leaving for other places.

Why does the 1st world have a right to the talents of the rest of the world's best and brightest? And mightn't they be able to close the gap considerably if they stayed home?

The fundamental question is whether or not the existence of nation-states can be justified. If it is, then immigration restrictions are as well. If someone is going to suggest that it isn't, then they'd better be prepared to answer a lot of tough questions about how to provide justice and security for everybody, bearing in mind that these are not market goods in the conventional sense.

David Friedman writes:

Jeff writes:

"Economists were pretty certain about the benefits of the $700 billion+ ARRA, which look pretty thin in retrospect,"

Do you mean "Obama said that economists were pretty certain about ...?"

Thomas Sargent, who is rather more of an authority on the state of macro than Obama, commented publicly that the President had been misled.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

There exists no right to invite a non-citizen into one's private property. Clearly, any private property exists within the laws and the territory of a State. You talk about your right to invite a stranger into your property when you are defending your property with your own arms.

You do depend upon the State to defend your property against all violators. Against domestic violators, you are defended by the courts of law; against foreign violators, it is the national army that defends your property.

The deliberate failure of the economists to take into account the actual existence of nations and states invites suspicion about their agenda.

Steve Sailer writes:

"The deliberate failure of the economists to take into account the actual existence of nations and states invites suspicion about their agenda."

As the life of Harry Dexter White demonstrates, economists have a spotless track record of transparency about their agendas.

Hugh writes:
Though Third World workers often earn a dollar or two a day, even unskilled labor is worth $10-$15,000 per year on the world market.

By "world market" I assume you mean the USA.

Here in Romania where I live (I am a British immigrant to Romania) unskilled labour brings in more like $3,000 per year.

Another point: Romanian doctors make around $8,000 per year in the State system, and are now massively emigrating to countries where they can earn 5-10 times as much in better conditions. How is this fair on the Romanians left behind? Many hospitals have fallen into abandon over the last few years, and many more are mere shadow of their former selves.

Jeff writes:


Misled by whom, exactly? Were Christina Romer and Jared Bernstein just making things up as they went along back in 2008 and '09? I assume their work had some basis in well-established theory. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Regardless, my point was that "economists," writ large, are hardly an infallible bunch, as has often been documented on this very blog, so forgive me if the idea that the statement "economists are pretty certain about X" doesn't strike me as sufficient to end debate on whatever X happens to be.

Mike Rulle writes:

It is surprising so many readers of this website have a seeming knee jerk reaction against immigration. The term "open borders" is used in an undefined way. The implication of the term is we some how would give up our sovereignty. But there can always be legal conditions for immigration. California suffers from illegal immigration. Also, our minimum wage laws over price the value of certain labor.

I do believe each country does have a right to limit immigrants---otherwise we are not a country. But I have a utilitarian view (which has moral elements) rather than a natural rights view on this issue. Off the cuff, I would quadruple our immigration limits now. I would NOT limit it to those who are engineers, technicians, doctors, etc..

I could easily imagine recruiters going to different countries to hire people under visa laws of some kind. It certainly does not take much imagination to do this. Immigrants as a group become cultural Americans within a generation in most cases. This is a great comparative advantage we have.

Fears of welfare mongers are ill-placed. Human nature will make almost any one take something for free if we can get it. How many people who inherit money give it away? How many people who win lotto give it away? Human nature is not changing. But our laws could. Confusing the bad incentives we create with people's willingness to work is just ridiculous.

Ken B writes:

When the first world was poor, not so very long ago, who was to blame?

If I invent a simple cure for cancer am I suddenly to blame for all the cancers I don't cure?

Ken B writes:

@Mike Rulle
You have identified one of the banes of thes threads. Bryan means open borders as in no restrictions. So your position, which seems like mine (pro immigration but against open borders) is not Bryan's.

I think BC's insistence on ideological purity works against achieving his ostensible goals.

guthrie writes:

No one is really addressing the issue here, IMO

The point is thus: if the question is ‘poverty’, what is the most efficient answer?

Is it forcing them to stay where they are and then try to ‘improve’ the 3rd world state they find themselves forced to live in? Or would it be to allow individuals to freely move wherever they might find their own best option (which may or may not be in another country)?

Bryan’s point is that it’s wrong for anyone, including (and especially) States, to restrict this movement, so long as it is peaceful. That it’s wrong for States to restrict peaceful exchange between willing parties. He’s saying the State, like the Law, ought to be blind to who a person is, and where they’re born. If they behave peacefully and contract willingly, where is the real harm?

He’s not arguing there won’t be effects on the receiving country. He’s arguing that those effects are a better outcome than a human being starving to death. He’s arguing that the improvement in one person’s life is worth the *possible* externalities in the place that person is living.

He’s not ‘denying nations exist’. He’s all too aware of that fact. He is denying the moral ground of those States to restrict free movement and peaceful exchange, which is reasonable. It is unreasonable and irrational to keep someone out just because of an accident of birth.

He’s challenging detractors to answer the moral charge. To weigh the life of a peaceful human being against [insert standard welfare/security counter argument here]. No one has done that yet.

Ken B, it may not be the most winning tack, but I’m not sure he’s going after the nominal citizen. I think he does recognize there’s no amount of logic that will overcome the average person’s irrational aversion to immigration. He’s challenging those who would attempt to justify that irrationality with their own logic. I believe it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

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