Bryan Caplan  

Ebola and Open Borders

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A Stigler Story... Housing and poverty...
Opponents of immigration almost instantly latched onto Ebola (see here, here and here for starters).  Isn't this horrific disease the "killer argument" showing that open borders is a naively deadly proposal?  The Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian swiftly coined the Twitter hashtag #LibertariansForEbola to drive the argument home.

Some libertarians downplay the risk of Ebola, even comparing it to statistically microscopic dangers like terrorism.  While I agree that Americans now overestimate their risk of Ebola infection, this plague nevertheless deserves our full attention.  Throughout history, contagious disease has killed billions.  Even today, contagious disease causes 16% of all global deaths.  Contagious disease is at least a thousand times as deadly as terrorism.  And as I have said many times, the moral presumption in favor of open borders is only that - a presumption.  If open borders in the face of Ebola had awful overall consequences, and there were no cheaper and more humane remedy than immigration restrictions, some restrictions would be morally justified and I would support them.  The key question, then, is: Would open borders in the face of Ebola have awful consequences?

From a long-term perspective, the effect of open borders on Ebola is anything but awful.  Open borders is the greatest remedy for poverty ever discovered.  Ebola is a classic disease of poverty - highly contagious in a poor society, but only slightly contagious in a rich society.  In poor societies, untrained laymen unsanitarily care for the severely ill, dispose of the dead, and prepare meat.  In rich societies, specialized experts perform all these tasks.  And as the World Health Organization explains, unsanitary treatment of the living, the dead, and meat account for almost all Ebola contagion.  If you want to eliminate serious contagious diseases like Ebola during the next few decades, open borders is probably the best way to do it.

From a short-term perspective, however, the effects of open borders on Ebola are admittedly less clear.  Risks are miniscule under current U.S. conditions.  The only at-risk population inside the U.S. seems to be health workers who care for Ebola patients.  Even the Texas family who lived with Liberian Ebola victim Thomas Duncan look fine; they're nearly out of quarantine.  

Under full open borders, however, West Africans could enter the U.S. as easily as Virginians enter Maryland.  There is every reason to think that hundreds of thousands of people from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone would jump at the opportunity.  And while most would be healthy, a sizable minority would be infected - possibly so many that existing U.S. health facilities would be unable to safely isolate them.  Health workers' risk of catching Ebola from their patients amplifies this scarcity - for every doctor or nurse who catches Ebola, how many others will refuse to expose themselves to the disease?

Fortunately, only mild departures from full open borders are necessary to avert this scary scenario.  The obvious keyhole solution: Instead of freely admitting everyone from affected countries, freely admit everyone from affected countries who provides a clean bill of health and accepts a standard 21-day quarantine.  

On balance, then, horrible contagious diseases like Ebola make open borders look better, not worse.   In the short-run, token restrictions are enough to prevent spreading Ebola from the Third World to the First.  And in the long-run, open borders is the quickest, surest way to make diseases of poverty history.

Parting thought for all you citizenists out there: As long as the Third World remains poor, it will remain fertile breeding ground for horrible contagious diseases.  Some of these diseases are likely to be far more contagious than Ebola - too contagious for the most draconian border controls to keep out.  A re-run of the 1918 flu would kill two million Americans.  Eradicating poverty in the Third World is therefore clearly in the interests of your countrymen, present and future.  If you've got a quicker cure for Third World poverty than open borders, I'd like to hear it.




COMMENTS (17 to date)
good luck 'chan writes:

>Some of these diseases are likely to be far more contagious than Ebola - too contagious for the most draconian border controls to keep out

Another reason to abolish the statist CDC.

Matt H writes:
Ebola is a classic disease of poverty - highly contagious in a poor society, but only slightly contagious in a rich society.

Brian, This is an assumption, and one that increasingly looks incorrect. At an average American hospital the rate of transmission, r=2, meaning exponential growth. There are very few hospitals with the training and equipment to deal with this disease, and how many beds do they have. Additionally our hospital system isn't designed to deal with an epidemics. How many ebola patients do we expect to reasonably be able treat safely in the US?

Aside from the patients, one thing that makes ebola less contagious in a rich country than a poor country is our ability to track contacts, and isolate people. However the difficulty of this task rises exponentially, as the number of cases rise.

All the things that make this tolerable in a rich country won't work if cases reach some level beyond our ability to control. Open borders makes it more likely that will happen.

Jameson writes:

This is a good post, and it reminds me once again how frustrating it is that none of your opponents seem to pay attention to any of your proposed "keyhole solutions."

MikeDC writes:

1. I favor keyhole solutions as a means of increasing immigration, but folks don't pay attention to them because they're political non-starters.

And, events like a Liberian entering the US and then lying at the ER (he claimed he had not come into direct contact with someone with ebola when apparently he had) suggest that the keyholes might need to be smaller than Bryan suggests.

2. Above all, what concerns me most, and what's concerning about Bryan's post is the overriding sense of confidence that particular steps could effectively be imposed and effective.

By that, I mean that we (Americans) are overconfident. If we understood this disease well enough and were imposing the right controls, nurses wouldn't be getting sick with it. People point to the low risks here, but the costs are catastrophically high, which suggests an abundance of caution is in order.

Foseti writes:

So open immigration isn't a universal human right after all? If the door is open for restricting immigration for Ebola, surely it's open for some other thing?

It's almost like we're starting to think like economists on this issue

Joe Teicher writes:

>If you've got a quicker cure for Third World poverty than open borders, I'd like to hear it.

Nuclear weapons.

MikeP writes:

So open immigration isn't a universal human right after all?

Of course it is. But I assure you that if Virginia was epidemic with Ebola while Maryland was not, there would be screening to get into Maryland.

That observation does not mean migration is not an inalienable right, any more than putting convicted criminals in prison means that liberty is not an inalienable right. It only means that there are times that the compelling public interest requires the abrogation of rights.

If the door is open for restricting immigration for Ebola, surely it's open for some other thing?

Certainly. Examples of legitimate cause to deny entry are listed by open borders advocates often enough -- being a terrorist, agent of a foreign power, violent felon, or carrier of contagion -- causes applied individually against specific persons to protect the population from actual threats.

Note that "exceeding the quota of people who were born where you were born" is not a legitimate cause.

Bostonian writes:

"Instead of freely admitting everyone from affected countries, freely admit everyone from affected countries who provides a clean bill of health and accepts a standard 21-day quarantine."

Many people would not trust the government to enforce these policies. The government is not enforcing the immigration laws currently on the books, with the support of the Open Borders advocates.

Jeff writes:
If you've got a quicker cure for Third World poverty than open borders, I'd like to hear it.

Give West Africa back to the French and the Belgians. Or somebody. The crimes of King Leopold and the Force Publique in the late 1800's are not to be pushed aside lightly, but keep in mind that afterwards the Belgians also did this:

The development of education and health care in the Belgian Congo was impressive. The educational system was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and, in some rare cases, Protestant churches, and the curricula reflected Christian and Western values. Even in 1948, 99.6% of educational facilities were run by Christian missions. Indigenous schooling was mainly religious and vocational. Children received basic education such as learning how to read, write and some mathematics. The Belgian Congo was one of the few African colonies in which local languages (Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba and Swahili) were taught at primary school. ... In 1940 the schooling rates of children between 6 and 14 years old was 12%, reaching 37% in 1954, one of the highest rates in the whole of black Africa.

...

Health care, too, was largely supported by the missions, although the colonial state took an increasing interest. Endemic diseases, such as sleeping sickness, were all but eliminated through large-scale and persistent campaigns.[31] In 1925, medical missionary Dr. Arthur Lewis Piper was the first person to use and bring tryparsamide, the Rockefeller Foundation’s drug to cure sleeping sickness, to the Congo.[32] The health care infrastructure expanded steadily throughout the colonial period, with a comparatively high availability of hospital beds relative to the population and with dispensaries set up in the most remote regions.


LD Bottorff writes:

The government is not enforcing the immigration laws currently on the books...

Why is that? Is it because both Republican and Democratic administrations just hate enforcing immigration laws? Or, are the existing laws just really hard to enforce? Wouldn't it be better to allow anyone seeking work to come in, but focus on keeping the terrorists, criminals, and contagious folks out?

I think that MikeP explained it well.

MikeDC writes:

The rub lies in keeping terrorists, criminals and contagious folks out.

Currently, it amounts to basically asking "are you a terrorist, criminal, or contagious".

What additional steps, which might actually prove effective, do immigration advocates recommend in exchange for removing other limits?

The problem is reminiscent of domestic violence to me. We know statistically that most individuals who report domestic violence do not want to follow through and prosecute the crime. They have an interest (ranging from comfort to extreme duress) that leads them to not prosecute.

As a solution, the criminal justice system should typically err on the side of over-prosecution in order to get the incentives right.

Immigration control presents a similar problem. Obviously terrorists won't reveal themselves, just as a coerced victim of domestic abuse will seek to have the charges dropped. The solution is enhanced enforcement. For immigration, that means additional controls to offset the likelihood that voluntary reporting isn't going to be effective.

Sorge Diaz writes:

"Statistically microscopic dangers like terrorism."

Terrorism is a small danger because it is fought. You cannot compare terrorism, which is a conspiracy, with deaths by, say, automobile accident, which is the sum of the individual actions of hundreds of millions of drivers.

If you stop spending on anti-terrorism, it would get much worse--exponentially so. No so with automobile deaths, where there are feedback mechanisms that contain the problem without governmental action.

MikeP writes:

Currently, it amounts to basically asking "are you a terrorist, criminal, or contagious".

No it doesn't. Currently prospective immigrants go through years of background check, including inquisitions on economic and personal motives that have nothing to do with threats to the population of the country.

If the background check is limited to actual threats, it should take no more than a few days with good records from an immigrant's home government and a few weeks with bad records, usually accomplished at embassies and consulates but able to be done at the border if need be.

For immigration, that means additional controls to offset the likelihood that voluntary reporting isn't going to be effective.

Indeed, the presumption of denying someone entry due to their potential threat is not "beyond a reasonable doubt" and can even be looser than "a preponderance of the evidence". The border authorities are already willing to abrogate someone's inalienable rights if the need arises: they and their handlers just need to recognize whether the cause they are applying is worth that cost.

"He might take a job" or "he likes tacos" are not worth that cost.

MikeDC writes:

@MikeP

Currently prospective immigrants go through years of background check, including inquisitions on economic and personal motives that have nothing to do with threats to the population of the country.

Some do. My wife for example. But a very sizeable proportion (a majority by some accounts) do not. They enter the country by evading the CBP, lying to them, and then skipping out on the hearings if they're caught.

So while in theory I agree that background checks for legal immigrants are currently too onerous, I think in practice your complaint is at odds with the facts.

What's more, "If the background check is limited to actual threats..." sort of misses the point that the background check is there to deduce who's a threat and who's not.

So what I conclude is that while you pay lip service to the legitimacy of these causes to deny entry to an immigrant, in practice you would argue against any practical attempt to validate immigrants based on these grounds.

If the background check is limited to actual threats, it should take no more than a few days with good records from an immigrant's home government and a few weeks with bad records, usually accomplished at embassies and consulates but able to be done at the border if need be.

A few points.
1. Without a background check, everyone is a kid seeking to escape poverty and work hard and no one is a member of MS-13 or ISIS. Because you're not doing anything more than asking them. So there must be some sort of check nearly across the board.

2. Do you really think it's a strong libertarian argument? Basically what you're saying is that we need only make the bureaucracy a bit more efficient (both here and in a variety of 3rd world countries with low quality governments) and everything will be fine.

Well, the standard libertarian position that I understand is that bureaucracy is what it is. And what it is is a chainsaw and not a scalpel. So while I'm all in favor of what you suggest (streamlining and improving the background check process in order to reach a point where all immigrants are sufficiently checked and most are not over-burdened), I think the practical solutions amount to little more than hand-waving away the realities of the situation.

MikeP writes:

They enter the country by evading the CBP, lying to them, and then skipping out on the hearings if they're caught.

As LD Bottorff notes, the problem is that when you close the gates, people try to climb over the fence. If you open the gates and require no more than clearing a background check to enter, then people who still climb over the fence are much more likely to be actual threats to the population and less likely to be trying to earn money to send home.

What's more, "If the background check is limited to actual threats..." sort of misses the point that the background check is there to deduce who's a threat and who's not.

My "actual threats" doesn't mean "actually threatening people": it means "terrorism, conspiracy, felony, and contagion". If you check for those rather than worrying whether someone may overstay their K-1 visa, it takes a lot less time and effort.

So while I'm all in favor of what you suggest (streamlining and improving the background check process in order to reach a point where all immigrants are sufficiently checked and most are not over-burdened), I think the practical solutions amount to little more than hand-waving away the realities of the situation.

This argument is much like saying that because the CDC spends two-thirds of its budget on non-public-health non-control of non-contagious non-diseases, it shouldn't do anything about Ebola.

Bureaucracies should be cut down to their essential public good services. For the CDC that's protecting the population from the threat of contagious disease. For the CBP that's protecting the population from the threat of harmful immigrants. It can only work better when it does actually essential work.

MikeDC writes:

This argument is much like saying that because the CDC spends two-thirds of its budget on non-public-health non-control of non-contagious non-diseases, it shouldn't do anything about Ebola.

No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that, unfortunately, we shouldn't expect efficiency or effectiveness from a government agency.

The CDC should absolutely do everything it can about ebola. However, my guess is that about the best we can expect is a government agency that spends 2/3 of its budget on non-essential stuff (and likewise 2/3 is probably a best case for wasted effort vs. effective effort).

It's the cost of doing business. Thus...

Bureaucracies should be cut down to their essential public good services. For the CDC that's protecting the population from the threat of contagious disease. For the CBP that's protecting the population from the threat of harmful immigrants. It can only work better when it does actually essential work.

... I agree with everything you're saying. But my years of studying public choice and working closely with government agencies suggests this is likely not possible with the current "government production function" we've got.

Colm Barry writes:

"... contagious disease has killed billions ..." I don't think the "b" is justified here (I assume you refer to humans?). Only in recent decades have billions walked the planet and all millennia combined before, say, the advent of the 20th century did not see the "billions" living consecutively down all ages! On the other hand, quarantining returning service men and women for 21 days while screening all passengers (only) on arrival and only for fever which they might still develop just after leaving the airport and boarding a train e.g. to New York seems equally out of proportion. If, and it still is an if, there are just a few cases of active Ebola that came into contact with, say, just a few hundred people, even the US' health system would collapse under the strain for on-existing quarantine facilities.

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