Bryan Caplan  

Diasporas, Swamping, and Open Borders Abolitionism

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Paul Collier's Exodus makes one great obvious-once-you-think-about-it point: diasporas matter.
The third big thing we know [about immigration] is that the costs of migration are greatly eased by the presence in the host country of a diaspora from the country of origin.  The costs of migration fall as the size of the network of immigrants who are already settled increases.  So the rate of migration is determined by the width of the [income] gap, the level of income in countries of origin, and the size of the diaspora.  The relationship is not additive but multiplicative: a wide gap but a small diaspora, and a small gap with with a large diaspora, will both only generate a trickle of migration.  Big flows depend upon a wide gap interacting with a large diaspora and an adequate level of income in countries of origin.
Diasporas scare Collier.  Why?  Because diasporas have the potential to snowball.  In economic jargon, there "may be no equilibrium."
For a given income gap, migration would only cease to accelerate if the diaspora stopped growing.  Since migration is constantly adding to the diaspora, it will only cease to grow if there is some offsetting process reducing the size of the diaspora.
Since Collier is a nationalist at heart, the prospect of snowballing diasporas horrifies him.  If everyone in Sudan moves to the U.S., it dilutes American identity - and eventually destroys Sudanese identity.

If you're a pragmatic cosmopolitan, however, Collier's diaspora story makes open borders abolitionism suddenly look reasonable.  If immigration were based solely on income gaps, any country that opened its borders would be swiftly swamped by hundreds of millions of migrants.  The cost of adhering strictly to the principle of free migration could be high for the native population.  Maybe everything will be fine in the long run.  But in the short run, there will be shantytowns, begging, poor sanitation, and much ugliness.

On Collier's account, in contrast, flinging the borders wide open wouldn't lead to a mass exodus.  Instead, migration would start small, then gradually accelerate to very high levels.  First a few adventurous Sudanese come.  Then they write home, attracting a larger second wave.  This in turn gives courage to a still larger third wave.  Eventually, most of Sudan migrates; diasporas feed on themselves.  But the process takes decades, giving U.S. business plenty of time to prepare for all the new customers and employees.  In the end, the migrants' remittances and repatriates turn their depopulated Old Country into a quaint tourist and retirement community like Puerto Rico.

Nationalists will rankle at this picture.  Nations die in slow motion, and open borders abolitionists rejoice?  But I fail to see the problem.  "Nations dying" is merely a metaphor.  People living - and dying - in wretched poverty is a harsh reality.  Open borders saves the people and lets the metaphors fend for themselves.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Hugh writes:

The motion isn't that slow. Out of Romania's population of 22MM about 4MM (18%) now live outside the country. This emigration has happened in the 25 years since the fall of communism.

If we assume that there are 2,000MM poor people in the world then 18% = 360MM might emigrate to the US in 25 years: 14MM per year.

Pajser writes:

Caplan: "Open borders saves the people and lets the metaphors fend for themselves."

I'm afraid the main problem with open borders is exactly that it hurts the poorest people in the poor countries. For instance, if Tanzanian physician leave his patients and start assisting plastic lips surgeries in USA, it could cause the death of large number of people in Tanzania. (World GDP can be increased if plastic lips in USA are worth more than child life in Tanzania.)

Caplan: "Instead, migration would start small, then gradually accelerate to very high levels. "

Maybe large and populous USA is able to amortize large migration and stay significantly more civilized than Haiti or Rwanda. I'm not sure. It is even less obvious that countries like, Malta, small but already overpopulous country and target of the large immigration can. I can easily imagine this country turning into new Haiti after weeks, maybe even days of completely open immigration policy. Open borders are worthy goal but simple and radical solutions are rarely the best choice.

Chris Stucchio writes:

Bryan, as always you ignore the possibility that "nations dying" may also result in the prosperity that encourages migration dying. For example, as millions of Indians arrive to the US, the culture may become more tolerant of corruption and intolerant of independent women.

Could you explain why you believe this will not occur? Or do you simply not care?

nl7 writes:

Hugh - As explained in the post, every country has different factors leading to emigration, so it's difficult to generalize from one country. And the immigration will happen across many different countries, not all the the US.

Pajser - Increasing the returns to education will increase the number of people pursuing education. Some of those people will emigrate and remit, some will repatriate, and others will change their plans and stay - all of which provides benefits to people who remain in the emigrant country. Prohibiting educated people from going to Europe or the US or wherever to become doctors or engineers decreases the incentives to pursue formal education.

Also, the US and other developed countries are full of established culture and laws, with tons of people already well established and practicing both. It's unlikely that a mass of people with little or no wealth could immigrate into a developed country and, without access to publishing or entertainment channels and without elected officials or the right to vote, suddenly overwhelm either the laws or wider consumer culture. More likely, they would bring their language and some other traditions (e.g. food, religion) and undergo assimilation but find it difficult to overwhelm outside of migrant areas. If the Germans, Irish, and Italians could not overwhelm and completely redefine the the culture a century ago, when migrants were less poor relative to the native population and the culture was not easily distributed by electric media, then what chance do poor Haitians have of doing it? Surely they will bring their culture with them, but swamping the existing culture nationwide or even Florida-wide, even with a decade to do it, is completely unrealistic.

Stucchio - Should the focus be on preserving existing national cultures at the expense of improving human well being? It sounds like you're arguing that it would be better for overall well being to be lower, if it meant that you lived in a region that was separated from some social problems - not that social problems should be reduced, just that they should be well segregated. It seems most likely that overall corruption and intolerance in the world would be reduced by people leaving countries where those are common for countries where they are not common. Maybe they bring some preferences with them, maybe the emigrants are less likely to carry those preferences (which is why they migrate), but it seems at least as likely that contact with a more tolerant culture will rub off on them than vice versa. And to the extent they visit home or repatriate, they bring a bit of those developed country preferences back with them.

If you like honesty and tolerance, then you should root for more people to live in places that practice both, rather than condemning them as infected carriers to live in quarantine zones of corruption and intolerance.

AS writes:

If a nation "dies" because people flee it, how is that a problem? No one owes it to any nation to keep it "alive" if that nation fails to satisfy that person as well as some other nation. That's how evolution and free markets work: failures die and successes grow. If failures don't die, the successes can't grow, and economies stagnate.

RPLong writes:

@Chris Stucchio - I find your example of India an odd one, considering the evidence for that particular example goes in exactly the opposite direction. Two days ago, I watched an Indian movie called Student of the Year, a film about an economically diverse group of friends who compete with each other for an academic award. One of the main characters is shown talking to another character with a copy of The Fountainhead in her hands. (Please note: her hands.)

Spend any amount of time talking to Indians from India or partaking of their rich artistic exports such as Bollywood films, and it becomes readily evident that the "Westernization" of South Asian culture imported from the expatriate diaspora has resulted in an explosion of tolerance, free market ideology, rugged individualism, and anti-corruption.

Your claim to the contrary is a tough sell for me.

Hugh writes:


I have seen opinion polls showing that up to 40% of people in poor countries "would like to emigrate". That doesn't mean much by itself, but combine it with the observation that 18% of a country has emigrated, and you begin to understand that the number of potential immigrants to a USA with open borders is very high indeed - in the order of millions per year.

Mark Brophy writes:

The Irish in Boston overwhelmed and completely redefined the culture 80 years ago. More recently, Mexicans redefined California culture. Massachusetts and California are overwhelmingly and hopelessly Democratic in politics. Republicans fear that more states will follow this pattern. Many Democrats have migrated from New York and California have migrated to Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, and have contributed to Democratic victories in these states.

Republicans fear more defeats from allowing more immigration. These fears probably will not be dispelled unless the Constitution is amended to deny immigrants the right to vote.

Dave Anthony writes:

I support open immigration only from countries with awesome cuisine. Every Mexican, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and Persian who wants to come here should be automatically be allowed. I might even be willing to accept some French.

Joking aside...

I don't find the argument about physicians very interesting -- most standard medical care can be provided by people with a much more rudimentary education than what we require in the United States. The fact that we require an insanely long education just so someone can prescribe antibiotics and pain killers all day while collecting a 6 figure salary isn't really relevant to a poor third world country.

Oh, and also, anyone who is a doctor in another country actually has a harder time moving here and getting certification under current AMA rules than someone starting from scratch as a pre-med student. I don't have a source for that but it was a story on NPR a few months ago (framed as a recommendation that we make it easier for foreign doctors to move here and be allowed to practice medicine).

Pajser writes:

nl7: Undeveloped countries do not lack candidates for students. They lack money needed for education. For instance, USA has about 2 times more newborn children than Tanzania, but it spends some 750 times more money on education.

"Open borders" -- Are the borders open to foreign military marching in?

This is a yes or no question. Every time I ask it of "open borders" proponents, I get slimed. May I please just have a yes or no answer? Not a complicated question.

Because if the answer is no, you are not proposing open borders. You are merely proposing significantly easier immigration. Which is a no brainer.

Why then with the "open borders" slogan are you inviting a foreign military invasion?

NZ writes:

Bryan, you said:

But the process takes decades, giving U.S. business plenty of time to prepare for all the new customers and employees.
Assuming it's true that the process takes decades, what makes you so confident that U.S. businesses will adjust rationally, given that they must also navigate many irrational obstacles including government hyper-regulation and various instruments of political correctness enforcement?
In the end, the migrants' remittances and repatriates turn their depopulated Old Country into a quaint tourist and retirement community like Puerto Rico.
Contrary to your plan, Puerto Rican immigration to the US continues to rise (it can be counted in the scores of thousands) while repatriation continues to fall (down under 20,000 per year by now). Outside of the resorts, it's riddled with crime, poverty, and corruption, and the island is very much dependent upon Federal support. Puerto Rico attracts some tourists and a few retirees, but from what I know its depopulation is far from resulting in a "quaint tourist and retirement community."

Puerto Rican Migration Continues at Record Pace

The scary thing about Puerto Rico’s population: It’s leaving the island for good

NZ writes:

@Krzysztof Ostaszewski:

I apologize for making the slippery slope argument here, but if we shouldn't let in foreign militaries, I'm guessing you'd also agree we shouldn't let in foreign guerilla fighters and terrorist groups, right?

What about members of foreign crime syndicates such as the "drug cartels"?

How about lone foreign criminals--you know, murderers, rapists, thieves, vandals?

Should we let in foreigners with dangerous habits like driving drunk or shooting guns off in residential neighborhoods?

What about foreigners who don't think much of bribing government officials (or foreigners who are government officials who don't think much of taking a bribe)?

Should we open our borders to foreigners who litter, destroy nature, and don't respect public space?

For that matter, what about foreigners who don't understand the concept of property values and let their homes and neighborhoods deteriorate into eyesores? Surely you won't deny these negative externalities?

Should we let in foreigners who make a habit of making foolish investments and not repaying loans? Enough of these can cause quite a financial crisis, after all.

How do you feel about letting in foreigners with a history of agitation--ones who tend to make angry irrational demands and threaten violence if they don't get their way?

Like you, I am eager to hear open borders advocates answer these questions in a straightforward way.

Luke writes:

FWIW, I doubt migration with free borders would be as great as people hope/fear. There is a huge Irish diaspora in the UK, and there have never been any immigration restrictions
at all. It's not a long way to travel. Until recently (20 yrs?), there was a big wage difference. Still plenty of people in Ireland.

Yes, there was mass migration following the famine, but I'm talking post independence.

MingoV writes:

If we opened our borders, we would have ten million poor and unskilled Mexican and Central American immigrants within a year. They already have a massive network comprised of legal and illegal immigrants (who would have been granted immunity). This immigration would be a big drain on the USA until the second generation of educated, English-speaking people enter the work force.

johnleemk writes:


The answer to your questions is simple: hold foreigners to the same bar we would hold citizens. We don't let criminally dangerous citizens travel; we might not let citizens carrying contagious deadly diseases travel; so on and so forth. We certainly don't let citizen militias who openly proclaim they intend to overthrow the government by force free rein.

If your problem is with the label "open borders", I have a question of my own for you: do you oppose free trade because you worry it might lead to uncontrolled importation of biohazards, nuclear waste, or AK-47s?

MikeP writes:

Yeah, this problem with the term "open borders" is fascinating.

"Open borders" generally means treating immigration like it was at Ellis Island, with a 98% acceptance rate of poor immigrants, rather than like it is today, with a 2% acceptance rate of poor immigrants. That's a difference in kind, not in degree, even if virtually no one wants the acceptance rate to be 100%.

To avoid the confusion that, indeed, government can legitimately refuse entry to specific individuals for specific causes in the compelling public interest, I will often use the term "quota-free immigration". That's the essence of open borders: an individual cannot legitimately be denied entry, passage, or work solely because the quota for his type of person has been filled.

Chris Stucchio writes:

@NL7 I'm generally a utilitarian, and I want to be sympathetic to open borders. But my worry is that open borders might simply result in reducing living standards *everywhere*.

@RPLong My opinions about India are formed from living here (note: I'm in India right now), not from movies. The attitudes of people who *didn't* emigrate are very different.

Whenever I do something touristic and see the "no eve-teasing" signs, it just brings home the point that these signs are only found at tourist spots. Everywhere else it's just a fact of life.

Similarly, the upper middle class folks who emigrate to the US are very strongly against corruption. Most other people are not - witness how many corrupt people get elected after their crimes are revealed.

As for discussing the Fountainhead, do you understand the cultural context that makes Rand popular here? It's her anti-oppressive-family views, not her anti-government views.

Open borders might solve these problems everywhere. Or it might cause these problems to spread.

(Incidentally, I don't mean to come across as an India-hater. I'm not - I like it here. The only reason I single out India is because I know it well.)

Jameson writes:

Krzysztof Ostaszewski wrote:
"Because if the answer is no, you are not proposing open borders. You are merely proposing significantly easier immigration. Which is a no brainer."

Except that it isn't a no brainer. It's exactly what most people oppose.

The answer to the question behind your question is that yes, "Open Borders" is merely a slogan meant to inspire. If enough intellectuals and idealists profess to support open borders, eventually it seems more and more normal to want more liberal immigration policy.

NZ writes:


The answer to your questions is simple: hold foreigners to the same bar we would hold citizens.
But that answer begs the question. Examples:

We don't deport American politicians caught taking bribes. Should we allow immigration of foreign politicians who have taken bribes?

We don't deport Americans who drive drunk. Should we import foreigners who drive drunk?

MikeP's elaboration is more helpful: foreigners may be turned away, but it won't be because their quota has already been filled. In this sense, open borders theoretically could include adding enough other restrictions and criteria that the total number of legal immigrants actually goes down and their demographics change significantly.

(Though, obviously if there was the political will to eradicate quotas then it's doubtful that criteria would be added/tightened as well.)

RPLong writes:

@Chris Stucchio - You can't have lived there for very long; the cultural and economic changes India has been through since the 1970s are undeniable. If you believe India's culture is still as conservative as it was back then, you are in the minority opinion.

The mere presence of eve-teasing signs indicate a change, as do the public outcries against recent cases and the tragic gang-rape cases. Gang-rape, of course, is something that occurs and makes the news in the States, too, so this works against the hypothesis that it is solely a product of conservative India.

I concede your point about Rand because it underscores mine quite well. Rand is popular. She's popular for reasons that pertain to a rejection of conservatism. I think you minimize the popularity of her free market views there, but even if we ignore that aspect, you're still agreeing with me.

Daublin writes:

I like "quota-free immigration". People who favor "open borders" typically mean that they want to increase the *numbers* that are immigrating, not the *kinds* that are immigrating.

MikeP writes:

Those who favor open borders don't want to increase the kinds that are immigrating to include foreign armies, soldiers, or agents, or terrorists, violent felons, or carriers of contagion.

johnleemk has the correct line of thought: If the government has legitimate cause to stop and detain an individual at a state border, then it has legitimate cause to refuse entry to that individual at the national border. If not, then it doesn't.

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