Bryan Caplan  

Open Borders Philanthropy Bleg

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Question from a reader.  Any fruitful ideas?

Dear Prof. Caplan,

I've long been intuitively in favor of open borders, but it is only recently that I have spent a bit of time reading the literature both for and against this case.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I've found a couple of your papers particularly persuasive both morally and empirically.

My question is, what now?  I'm currently in a situation where I have more free time than free cash flow, and I've been looking for opportunities to volunteer for a cause that I am passionate for, but also one where I can have a tangible impact.  Which is surprisingly hard to find.

As a long-time advocate of open borders I thought you might have some ideas of organizations that are doing good work in this area and need volunteers?  I'm based in New York City, and would be happy to do work that was local, but also happy to help online if that's what is needed.

Appreciate any information or advice that you are willing to share.


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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Mark writes:

Would love to know the same information for any organisations based in the UK (London in particular).

Javier writes:

I've thought about this question and I don't think there are great options. There are definitely pro-immigrant groups you could volunteer for, but there are few open borders groups that take volunteers.

To be honest, probably one of the best pro-immigrant groups is the Catholic church, particularly Catholic refugee services. You can volunteer in helping new refugees get adjusted to the United States and helping them to learn English. Obviously, if you're not Catholic, then this may not be your thing. And, while pro-immigrant, the Catholic church does not explicitly endorse open borders.

Groups that require money rather than time include Migrant Offshore Aid Station, which rescues refugees in the Mediterranean. There are of course the ideological organizations that do promote broadly open immigration, such as CATO. But, again, they don't need volunteers as far as I know.

You should take a look at the book Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill, which has a short section on how to promote more immigration.

Up The Irons writes:

Research better ways to assimilate immigrants to local values and cultural norms. If this could be done effectively in a way that did not raise SJW hackles, it would assuage the (well-grounded, IMO) fears of restrictionists, or increase the number of immigrants a given nation had the capacity to accept.

I consider restrictionist fears well-grounded because it seems like the economic productivity of different regions varies vastly more by its stock of human capital than its geographical features or formally encoded laws. Thought experiment: a fleet of helicopters picks up the entire nation of Syria and drops it where Montana is currently located. Do Syria's problems magically go away because of the weather in Montana? I doubt it. Does having Syria as a formal territory of the United States, subject to US federal laws and governing institutions, magically solve its problems? Again, I doubt it--Iraq and Afghanistan were formally occupied by the US and still have plenty of problems.

Democracy seems to consistently just not work in the Middle East, and this is because of people, not geography. Why do we think bringing folks from the Middle East in to our democracy on a large scale is going to work better than helping them build democracies in their nations?

I expect that transferring a fraction of the Syrian population will have fractional effects, e.g. if 1% of Syria's population were to immigrate to the US, I'd guess this would get you about 1% of the result of the entire nation being airlifted to Montana. It's true that previous cultures like the Irish and Italians have assimilated in a sense, but I'd argue that the US did just as much to assimilate to them. Do you think the term "white trash" would remotely apply to the folks who were part of Ben Franklin's Junto in Philadelphia? Do you think that the Italian cast of Jersey Shore would be stars in a nation of people who considered a curious inventor and entrepreneur "First American" and national hero?

Successful one-way assimilation, where a group of immigrants adopts the norms of a high-trust culture, seems like the plausible means for immigration to generate value on net. But it seems to me like the assimilation process is not that well understood. I'm pessimistic because as Brian points out here, means by which assimilation could be achieved effectively are socially undesirable to advocate: http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2016/06/immigration_the.html

And this doesn't even get in to questions of behavioral genetics, e.g. HBD Chick's clannishness research. Like early communists, open borders advocates strike me as nice but naive.

The US has a large fraction of critical global resources like nuclear weapons and top universities, but it's governed democratically. I think it's in the world's long term best interest for us to manage those resources responsibly, and to be frank, the average voter is plenty dumb already. (Another topic Brian & I agree on!)

ThaomasH writes:

Immediately, I'd think that volunteering in the campaign of a House or Senate candidate who supports more immigration would help.

maynard thomson writes:

I favor open borders in theory. However, I recall Milton Friedman said something to the effect that we can have open borders, or a welfare state, but not both (I've lost the cite.) I assume he meant that the availability of public benefits distorts the labor markets and therefore draws labor that otherwise wouldn't come, depressing the wages of those already here. Any thoughts or sources addressing this?

Thomas Strenge writes:

Start working for Uber. Meet people, be productive, talk about freedom, keep copies of M. Friedman, Bastiat and Hayek for the passengers to collect.

John Alcorn writes:

@ maynard thompson,

Re: Milton Friedman on immigration & the welfare state. Below are three key quotations:

“Immigration is a particularly difficult subject. There is no doubt that free and open immigration is the right policy in a libertarian state, but in a welfare state it is a different story: the supply of immigrants will become infinite. Your proposal that someone only be able to come for employment is a good one but it would not solve the problem completely. The real hitch is in denying social benefits to the immigrants who are here. That is very hard to do, much harder than you would think as we have found out in California.”
—Milton Friedman, email to Henryk A. Kowalczyk, October 16, 2006

Q: “Instead of a green card [resident alien status], can the USA issue a blue card which does not give welfare?”
A [Milton Friedman]: “If you could do that, that would be fine. But I don't believe you can do that. It's not only that it is not politically feasible, I don't think that it is desirable to have two classes of citizens in a society.”
—Milton Friedman, Q&A session, ISIL Conference (1999)

“Look, for example, at the obvious, immediate, practical example of illegal Mexican immigration. Now, that Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country. But, it’s only good so long as it’s illegal.”
—Milton Friedman, Public lecture, date? (Quoted at Classically Liberal blog, February 5, 2008).

JK Brown writes:

If the goal is to actually accomplish open borders (or free trade) then the best solution is to go after the underlying causes of the resistance. And that is the highly interventionist government regulations of labor and businesses that inhibits business/job creation and innovation. If you open up the business creation, you will do a lot to degrade the opposition to more labor (or trade).

See this list on the regulatory categories that just inhibit hiring and wages from Coyote Blog.

If politicians want to know why lower-skilled laborers struggle to find employment, they need to look past imports from China and Mexican immigration and look at their own policies that are making it more and more expensive for businesses to hire people in this country. I have written about this many times before, but some of the most prominent include:

So if you really want to support open immigration, the best way is to work to push back the job-killing regulations.

I recommend this article from 1908 on the immigration problem. It gives perspective devoid of the idealization the history teachers have applied. But the author, the Chief Clerk of the US Census Office, also foresees when open immigration will become a problem as it is now framed.


It is unlikely that our portals, thus far ever open to the aliens of all Europe, will be closed to them until it has been conclusively shown that the existence of the nation is imperilled by their coming, or until large numbers of worthy and industrious American citizens are obviously deprived of their means of livelihood by the arriving throngs of foreigners. At the present time there is nothing which points to the realization of these conditions; and, until there is, discussion concerning the restriction is in reality idle. Therefore let us be practical, nursing no delusions, and face conditions as they are. We have always needed the immigrant to aid us in amassing wealth, and we shall need him in the future, for the United States has now become the great labor mart of the world.

In the years to come, the increasing effect of immigration will doubtless appear in changed customs, realignment of religious beliefs, and some variation in national and political ideals-- in fact, in the establishment of a new and composite civilization.

MikeP writes:

John Alcorn,

Thanks for the quotes. Nice compilation.

[Milton Friedman]: “If you could do that, that would be fine. But I don't believe you can do that. It's not only that it is not politically feasible, I don't think that it is desirable to have two classes of citizens in a society.”

For a great response to this answer by Friedman, you can take a look at Lant Pritchett:

Reason: You then create a division between first- and second-class citizens. Isn't that worrisome?

Pritchett: The world now is divided into first-class citizens of the world and fifth-class citizens of the world. The idea that we wouldn't help a peasant trying to eke out a living on a side of a mountain in Nepal by letting him work in the United States, just because we have to, if he comes to the United States, endow him with all the rights of U.S. citizens-I think that moral calculus is backward.

So the first answer is: Milton Friedman is wrong. It's not incompatible with a welfare state; it's incompatible with a welfare state that doesn't differentiate between people within its territory.

Boen writes:

Why is the American electorate obligated to open their markets to anyone?

MikeP writes:

Why are the markets an American may participate in circumscribed by the electorate?

JohnnyB writes:

In NYC I'd recommend Atlas:DIY. They work with undocumented immigrant children and help them through social events, safe spaces, legal aid, tutoring, etc.

Most of the kids have walked through hell, either by virtue of the brutal discrimination and poverty they've faced (for basically their whole lives) or because they were trafficked, abandoned, victims of crime, etc.

Not exactly open borders advocacy, but at least you're offsetting the effects of closed border policies. And seeing just how brutal said policies are up close.

At a minimum, you could do a fundraiser for them.


Dylan writes:

Thank you all for the suggestions and comments. I'm looking into Atlas:DIY, the Catholic Relief Services and a few others. Also listened last night to the EconTalk podcast with Will MacAskill which I'd missed earlier. Very illuminating and I plan on ordering the book and checking out some of the resources he mentioned.

Boen writes:

@MikeP They aren't; foreign states control that.

John Alcorn writes:

@ MikeP,

Thank you for posting the link to the wide-ranging, insightful interview of Lant Pritchett by Kerry Howley at Reason magazine.

A question or quibble: Prof. Pritchett states, "citizens have a property right to their country." Is the concept of a property right to a country intelligible, apt, useful? Does actual policy-making about immigration closely resemble something like an exercise of a property right by citizens?

MikeP writes:

John Alcorn,

I concur with your quibble and disagree with Pritchett's stated notion that citizens have a property right to their country.

Citizens have a property right to citizenship, can limit it, can limit the control of it (i.e., the franchise), can limit particular entitlements to it (e.g., welfare), etc. But the country itself is governed by the government or citizenry: it is not owned.

To take the hard and fast position that citizens have a property right to the country is a terrible start to any policy making -- placing the property rights of every citizen and resident under the pleasure of the government -- much less immigration policy making.

Boen writes:

@ MikeP What is the meaningful difference between those two in this case?

MikeP writes:

The meaningful difference is that government has no legitimate authority beyond compelling public interest to abrogate individual rights of travel, residence, employment, and association by restricting free migration. It is legitimate to prohibit entry of those who are provably a threat to the public, namely terrorists, foreign agents, violent felons, or carriers of contagion. But restricting immigration by quota, duration, employment permissions, or the like is an act of abrogating individual rights rather than securing them.

In contrast, government does have the legitimate authority to mediate citizenship by, for example, restricting naturalization, limiting voting, walling off welfare, etc., of anyone it wishes.

The bottom line is that migration, travel, contract, association, etc., are unalienable rights that precede and supersede government powers. Citizenship, on the other hand, is an artifact and construct of government that wouldn't exist without government: it is not an unalienable right.

MikeP writes:

They aren't; foreign states control that.

?

When the US makes it illegal for an individual to purchase a product from China or applies a punitive tariff on the individual to purchase a product from China, that control is not coming from a foreign state.

Bob Murphy writes:

Javier wrote:

There are definitely pro-immigrant groups you could volunteer for, but there are few open borders groups that take volunteers.

Not sure I follow. Surely no open borders group can exclude people from entering?

Up The Irons writes:

No one wants to respond to my manifesto? :( Is there a refutation of my line of reasoning available to read somewhere?

Lauren writes:

Bryan, for your reader who is looking to volunteer:

Consider volunteering with a program that teaches English as a Second Language, or with a program that helps settle new immigrants. Some of these programs are run by local religious groups; but there are also non-religious groups such as Literacy Volunteers or private or public schools that offer services which help new immigrants, family by family.

Or, volunteer with a culturally-oriented annual street festival or parade. Make it a point to go to dance or music presentations by international groups looking to preserve or show their national heritages. Often these are inexpensive local performances, and they can be great places to meet and network with others.

Sometimes starting small--say, just helping just a few immigrants get settled and integrate in American life--can give you new connections and ideas for practical ways to do more.

I admit that I'm partial. I run a program teaching English as a Second Language, free of charge, upstate. But, I suggest that expanding your horizons to help existing immigrants and getting to know the details of their complex struggles may be the exact key to figuring out how you can do more about whatever aims you choose to pursue.

An anecdote: Where I went to grad school in Chicago, there was a cheap dive restaurant hangout loftily called The Valois. If you wanted to eat there, you picked up a tray and went through the line, with all the food visible and with the cooks visible just behind that. On the rundown brick side of their building, they had a big painted logo that read, "See Your Food." The logo was simultaneously understood as a reality in advertising for the poorest clientele--which frankly, we grad students often were!--and as a pithily ironic admonition amongst the grad students who occasionally ate there. If you are studying something, if you want to make a contribution, you cannot do better than to start by knowing every iota about what you are studying: the details, the data, where and what everything is from the ground up. See your food.

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