Bryan Caplan  

The Prohibition of Evacuation

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When disaster looms, governments routinely evacuate their citizens.  At minimum, they urge them to leave the danger zone.  They normally supplement this cheap talk with stronger nudges like the Emergency Alert System and official door-to-door warnings.  Governments occasionally even require their citizens to get out of Dodge.

Evacuation policy blends humanitarian and pragmatic motives.  If you care about people, getting them out of harm's way is common sense.  But even when governments feel little sympathy for disaster victims, they try to evacuate them anyway.  As long as you're under pressure to "do something" in the face of disaster, it's vastly cheaper to prevent people from becoming disaster victims than it is to rescue them after they've already become disaster victims.  Better still, evacuees foot most of their own rescue bill; the government installs the "Evacuation Route" signs, but the population flees in their own cars with their own gas.  People who stay and lose everything, in contrast, are in no position to practice self-help. 
On reflection, the moral and practical logic of evacuation doesn't stop at national borders.  (Logic rarely does).  From a humanitarian point of view, letting people leave dangerous countries is only common sense.  The fewer people who experience a disaster, the better.  From a pragmatic point of view, moreover, allowing an anxious foreigner to emigrate at his own expense is far cheaper than bailing him out after tragic events leave him a desperate refugee.  Better for the international community to let people save themselves from minor tragedy than rescue them from major tragedy.

In practice, of course, the world's governments brutally discourage cross-national evacuation.  Suppose you foresee natural or social disaster for your country.  If you wisely try to get out Dodge, the world's immigration restrictions dog you at every turn.  Once disaster hits, you might be able to apply for refugee status.  But as we've seen, that's a long shot.  The safe countries may eventually take you in if the mood strikes them.  But it's an uphill political battle.  Whatever you think about immigration in general, desperate refugees look like a big burden on taxpayers. 

The root problem, of course, is that governments spurn the logic of international evacuation.  Instead of encouraging non-citizens to leave dangerous countries post-haste, they impose deadly bureaucratic delays.  And when a refugee crisis emerges, safe countries are shocked - shocked! - by the horror.  Their complicity - the fact that their own immigration restrictions prevented the refugees from saving themselves back when there was still time - never enters their minds. 

My point, as usual, is that open borders is justice, not charity.  Saving perfect strangers may be a matter of charity.  But letting strangers save themselves with the willing assistance of people other than yourself is a matter a justice

COMMENTS (20 to date)
E. Harding writes:

The problem: some of the evacuees may be the perpetrators, direct or indirect, of some of those social disasters. And we wouldn't want the social disasters to spread here, now, would we?

Fabio Rojas writes:

Excellent post. The right of evacuation is simply a more specific example of the right of self-preservation. If any right exists, it is surely the right to save oneself from bodily harm.

E. Harding above asks about perpetrators, yet he does not follow the logic of his own argument. Would we prevent residents of inner city neighborhoods from leaving just because a few might be violent? Of course not. Do we ban movement from poor regions of the country, like Appalachia, to wealthy places like New York? Again, no. There is a sudden interest in moral purity when it comes to non-citizens that we don't apply to ourselves.

Thomas writes:

"Open borders" sounds nice, but what does it mean in practice? "Migrants" -- the new happy-talk word for illegal immigrants -- don't just cross borders. Many of them cross borders expecting the governments of the countries they enter to support them. Which means, in practice, that many citizens of those countries are forced (through taxation and other means) to support people with whom they would prefer not to associate. How is that align with libertarianism? Or have you appointed yourself as the conscience of humanity?

E. Harding writes:

-If the inner cities became 100% sovereign city-states, I wouldn't mind at all. Having a state is much more than having control of territorial borders.

Ken Robinson writes:

Evacuations within nations due to natural disasters are temporary, and the evacuees return to their homes to rebuild after the danger has passed.

Refugees fleeing wars are much more likely to become permanent residents in the countries that they reach. This is the primary source of popular and political resistance to the flow of refugees.

I'm not making a moral commentary on either, simply pointing out the difference.

MikeDC writes:
E. Harding above asks about perpetrators, yet he does not follow the logic of his own argument. Would we prevent residents of inner city neighborhoods from leaving just because a few might be violent? Of course not. Do we ban movement from poor regions of the country, like Appalachia, to wealthy places like New York? Again, no. There is a sudden interest in moral purity when it comes to non-citizens that we don't apply to ourselves.

Well, no. If a person migrates internally, they are already subject to and clear of the nation's criminal justice system.

The US states generally have reciprocal probationary agreements in which states may reject the migration of a criminal into its jurisdiction.

That is, the US does have internal migration controls to prevent the migration of criminals.

Hence, it's not at all hypocritical to check people at the border, people who have not been subject to our laws, and to treat them differently from citizens who not only are subject to our laws but, as citizens, are party to making them.

In any case, the point here doesn't make much sense to me. The refugees in the news have escaped any conceivable zone of immediate danger when they got to Turkey, Italy, Greece, Cypress etc.

ThomasH writes:

I largely agree, but taking into consideration that some few nefarious people could enter under cover of refugees/economic emigrants has to temper a strictly "open" border. And I think the economic case for immigration while valid on the margin may not work for non-marginal numbers.

Still, these are quibbles only about the outer limits of open borders. The margin for more immigrants is very large.

ZC writes:

How many Syrian refugees are currently staying at your house Dr. Caplan? Championing 'open borders' from the ivory tower is one thing, actually allowing foreigners with entirely different world views free access to your resources is another.

Colombo writes:

My gut tells me that there are Muslims who want an oportunity to reform their religion and remove from their culture all that "killing the infidels" crap that the Christian culture already left behind.

Having open borders is justice for those who want to save themselves, but the open borders solution can also be charity toward ourselves.

Many libertarians do not want charity or justice. In Spain, people otherwise well-informed are almost in a panic attack because Syrians may collapse the welfare system. But this is precisely what we want, a collapse of the welfare system, so that a window of oportunity may open to a freer market and, finally, some real prosperity. Dismantling the State bit by bit seems impossible.

People are fed up with politicians, but do not want to see politicians with a huge new problem, so that normal people may use to catch some economic breath.

_NL writes:

ZC - Free access to resources? Being able to buy housing, food and clothing in the US is not the same thing as letting a stranger stay in your house, eat your food, and wear the shirt off your back.

Open borders only says that a foreigner can come to the US, rent a place, get a job, and support themselves. It does not require you to support them or house them. In no sense are you personally supporting all the people who shop at your local stores or work in your local business district.

"Entirely different world views" describes freedom of belief, religion, and speech. Should the Puritans have executed all the Quakers? Should Republicans exterminate all the Democrats?

There's no "world view" test in the Constitution, thank goodness, and no basis to believe that in the future YOUR particular worldview won't be the one getting you thrown up against the wall.

Swami writes:

Building off ZC's comment I think personal sponsorship of migrants is one part of the solution. Citizens should be allowed to adopt a family and sponsor them within their own household. One family per household, with responsibilities on both parties -- the sponsor and the immigrant. The sponsoring family would need to help support them. Details can be worked out.

This takes the state out of the issue. The extent of immigration is entirely a factor of families willing to help them along. My assumption is that if this idea was tested and proven workable that it could lead to responsible, manageable immigration.

Fabio Rojas writes:

MikeDC: You are incorrect. People can live as fugitives, skip on bail, be a dead beat dad and have all sort of run in with the law. They do so all the time. People are not "clear" within the US. There are no border guards, no screening for criminal records.

When it comes to internal migration, we have a very sensible policy - open borders. For the few criminals, we have other mechanisms, such as extradition.

NZ writes:


I've seen that argument before: that overloading the welfare system, emergency rooms, schools etc. is good because it means the public will rise up to privatize it in response. that really what will happen? Isn't there a pretty solid precedent that Americans--especially American policymakers and opinion-setters--often DON'T learn from their mistakes? And what about the problem of Oprahfication, where the heart-wrenching visuals created by an issue (e.g. poor brown families sitting in line for food stamps) spur people to do things that make it worse, like decide "We need higher taxes to fund food stamps!"

Kurt Droffe writes:

I have already once commented on the issue here:, so forgive me for simply referring to it.
Just a few additions: At the moment the german state is giving quite generous payments and services to anyone coming here and asking for asylum. It may not seem too much, but it is more than many people in poor countries will get there by working - here you get it simply for "having made it to Germany"' and our governement just told the whole world that everyone is welcome. That's madness, pure and simple.
In my view there are two options: keep the old fashioned social democratic welfare state as it is (I am not too happy with it), then you need a certan level of homogenity in the population (language, skills, culture, work ethic) and keep the borders firmly under control so that the system is sustainable. Or abolish this welfare state, trim the benefits to almost zero and let everyone in and try their luck. Alas, at the moment many seem to believe you can have it both: keep the system and let everybody in. That won't work. It will lead to confiscatory taxation and other features to such a degree (forced leasing of empty office buildings and houses was already mooted) that people will wipe out the parties responsible.

MikeDC writes:

Fabio: This is a strange argument you're making. What you seem to be saying is there are no internal migration control because people frequently ignore or break these laws and because they are seldom enforced.

I guess that means we have an open international border too :)

Seriously though, there is all sorts of screening for criminal records and it's patently illegal, if you're on probation, to migrate from one state to another without the approval of both. Do it and things like getting a driver's license, voting, or taking anything but the most menial of jobs becomes an invitation to get thrown in jail.

Point is, it's the 21st century. A literal lack of border guards and checkpoints doesn't mean it's legal and ok.

Rather, the state says, "Go ahead and be an outlaw and your punishment will be to become a permanent part of the underclass". Which is, actually, a pretty substantial penalty.

Given that reality, open borders and migration (internationally) would actually give preferential treatment to anyone who showed up from another country over anyone on probation within the country.

Osama from Syria? Hacks off the heads of non-believers and shows women their proper place? Come on in, no questions asked. Here, have a driver's license.

Jose from Mexico? Sells Walter White's meth? Come on in, no questions asked. Here, have a driver's license.

Joe Blow from Idaho, got probation for shoplifting and a mile long trail of speeding tickets. Moves to another state and knows better than to go get a new license. Gets popped for driving without one, then gets popped harder for not informing his probation officer he was moving. Ends up in jail.

I mean, I'm actually for easier immigration, but within the current context of the US (and most other countries) it only makes things more ridiculous, not less. In a more rational world, we could have more immigration. But more immigration on top of a pre-existing mish-mash of cultural animosity, welfare state and police state is a recipe for absurdity and further trouble.

[Comment edited with commenter's permission--Econlib Ed.]

Chandran writes:

The 1951 UN Refugee Convention (with 1967 Protocols) defines a refugee as someone who, "owing to wel-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

Under these terms almost none of the people fleeing Syria are not refugees; they cannot apply for refugee status unless they are in fear of their lives for reasons of "persecution" -- and persecution ONLY for the specified reasons. Simply fleeing a war zone to escape being murdered or bombed will not cut it.

Bryan is quite right to emphasise that you MIGHT be able to apply for refugee status after disaster hits. It would be more accurate to say that you would be UNLIKELY to be able to do so. The UN Convention, and the legal structures that uphold it, do not permit application for refugee status on the grounds of evacuation from disaster.

Colombo writes:


It is not policymakers and opinion-setters the ones who have to learn from their mistakes, but the people, who have fed the monster.

There are two kinds of bleeding-hearts: those who only want to help the poor, and those who only want to use the poor to gain power. One of those can become libertarian, with adequate explanations by real economists, like Walter Williams. The others already understand the free market, and they don't like it, because it makes them smaller.

Normal people (who are not lobbyists, nor social justice Knights) have to learn to distinguish between reality and fraud. As long as the welfare state exists, fraud will abound. If the system collapses, people will have to learn from their mistakes.

Eric writes:

Syrians got themselves into this mess. Not just now, but over the decades leading up to it. Why should we deal with it? Clearly they don't care about their homes enough to fight for them on any side.

Ali Bertarian writes:

My point, as usual, is that open borders is justice, not charity.

"Open borders" is not a libertarian position. We don't have a libertarian society. We live in a communal democracy in which everyone's freedom and property are subject to popular vote. That is not just.

Immigrants to the US since 1970 have been voting for Democrats by an 8 to 2 ratio. Barring entry to those who are likely to take that freedom and property in the voting booth is simply self defense.

Why would a real libertarian cede the only real power that he has to protect his individual rights by freely allowing more people to have the opportunity to take his property and control his person from the voting booth?

RHT writes:

What is your opinion about refugees in Europe at the moment? They will have decent amount of allowances, and it will cost for the states, and they will not work. Also, integration is becoming a problem. What do you think about that?

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