Bryan Caplan  

All Roads Lead to Open Borders: An Advance Look

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allroads.jpg At Wednesday's Public Choice Seminar, I'm giving a sneak peak at my next next book, All Roads Lead to Open Borders: The Ethics and Social Science of Immigration (co-authored with Zach Weinersmith, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal). 

This work in progress is a non-fiction graphic novel.  If you have no idea what that is, never fear.  My talk opens with an introduction to the genre, then presents the substance of the book.  I'll also share some of my favorite drawn pages at every stage of development: from previsualizations to pencils, inks, and colors. 

The seminar is open to the public, as always.




COMMENTS (12 to date)
TMC writes:

Life is not good in rich countries because of the country, but the people and their customs. The rest is easy to figure out and certainly is NOT an argument for open borders.

RPLong writes:

At some point, i'd like to learn how the two of you came to work on a book together. Perhaps fodder for a future blog post?

mbka writes:
Life is not good in rich countries because of the country, but the people and their customs.

That's a common misconception and easily refuted. North and South Korea, East and West Germany were nice natural experiments to the effect. Same people, same "customs", same culture at start, different countries, different opportunities, different life chances for very similar people after just a few years.

And yes, "customs" as in cultural mores, as opposed to more formal political systems, might have something to do with economic development, but which "customs" exactly have which effect is fraught with problematic explanations. There are many theories of economic development, each one is plagued by prominent exceptions to its favorite explanations. Economic development has happened in countries that were clearly undemocratic, had murky property rights, unequal access to rule of law, vastly diverse cultural backgrounds etc. Some of the most successful economies of today were regarded as economic basket cases just as the industrial revolution boomed . etc.

But one fact of the matter remains: a person walking over the border from Mexico to the US or getting from Nigeria to the UK will, just by merely changing country, see their incomes for the exact same job vastly improve, and their chances in life too - and they're still the same person with the same qualifications.

Likewise, if you put the average American in a poor country and make him a national, losing his original passport and savings - I doubt he'll fare very well. He'll start living, and behaving, and earning, quite similarly to any other in that country with the same education.

Scott writes:
But one fact of the matter remains: a person walking over the border from Mexico to the US or getting from Nigeria to the UK will, just by merely changing country, see their incomes for the exact same job vastly improve, and their chances in life too - and they're still the same person with the same qualifications.

Sure, but so what? A country is a homeland, not an employment center that exists to uplift poor people from economically underdeveloped countries. Maybe you don't feel a strong attachment to your homeland, but other people do and a completely borderless world would make a lot of people feel like strangers in their own land (i.e. more than just the incomes of poor people would change). People value their culture more than they value giving Nigerians higher paying jobs. Why the hell should Welshmen care if Nigerians make more money in Wales than they would in Nigeria?

This response ignores why poor countries are poor to begin with. They are poor because their labor pools aren't a productive as the labor pools in first-world countries. But why is this? At some level, it has to come down to the choices people in those societies make. If the problem is largely institutional, then people are choosing that environment. Why don't Nigerians exploit the physical and human capital that is available in first-world countries to raise their standard of living? The Japanese did this. The Japanese didn't move en masse to other countries and get jobs. They invested in physical capital.

Every country was poor at some point. The UK was not wealthy 2000 years ago (yes, I know it was not the entity that it is now, but the point is that the Celtic tribes living there were not rich). Therefore, someone at some point had to produce that wealth. That means people had to save and invest. That means people had ideas and other people had the funds to finance those ideas. The UK did not get rich by immigrating to other countries _that had established first-world living standards_ so they could get better paying jobs. That would not have done anything to help the UK out. Even if the Celtic tribes had moved to Rome and become bricklayers, their wealth could only exist in Rome. A Celt in ancient Britannia with hundreds of Roman gold coins would not have been rich, because there would have been nothing to spend them on. It would be like moving to the North Sentinel Islands today with a million dollars. So this is an ass-backwards way of making poor people economically better off. It's an admission that Nigerians and other third-worlders need people in the first-world to develop economies to uplift them. It's basically the libertarian version of the White Man's Burden.

Thaomas writes:

This is a non-marginal argument. The question should be, is it ethical/desirable for more people from poor countries to move to rich countries?

Jon Murphy writes:

I will, unfortunately, be unable to make the seminar, but I look forward to the book!

MHJ writes:

Let's ask those hundreds of women in Germany and Sweden who were groped by recent immigrants a couple of New Years Eves ago what they think. Or the Jews who are abandoning Malmo and Marseilles.

This may be a nice theoretical argument among economists, but in the real world there are a lot of other considerations and economics is only one small part.

mbka writes:
This response ignores why poor countries are poor to begin with. They are poor because their labor pools aren't a productive as the labor pools in first-world countries. But why is this? At some level, it has to come down to the choices people in those societies make.

You didn't read my comment, or you didn't understand it. Precisely, choices of individual people have little to do with it, because society co-determines which choices people have to begin with. For example, an unstable country with chaotic daily life leads to an astronomic discount rate. There is no point in saving and investing if returns are completely unpredictable, for example, if marauding soldiers can and will take whatever you have at will and random chance. Here it makes perfect rational sense to live for the day only. And so forth. But that's not the whole truth, just an example to illustrate the economic development isn't such a clear cut moralistic story where some heroic people's "choices" reign supreme. You were lucky to be born where you were, at the time that you were, and so was I. Others were not so lucky.

E. Harding writes:

"North and South Korea, East and West Germany were nice natural experiments to the effect."

You're not comparing democracy to democracy, dictatorship to dictatorship, Communist Party-run state to Communist Party-run state. Once you make those adjustments, the importance of the people and their customs becomes obvious. East Germany in the late 1980s was clearly richer than South Africa, North Korea clearly richer than Haiti (or even the Philippines).

jtgw writes:

@mbka

But then why are those countries so unstable? Is it not possible some of their social and political problems arise from the kind of people who live there? And if that is the case, does it not make sense to be discriminating about how many of them to admit to your own country?

Case in point: uptick in sexual assaults in Sweden over the past two years according to self-reporting survey (i.e. not subject to changing legal definitions of crimes). Coincides with large influx of "refugees" (scare quotes since I doubt many or most of them are genuine refugees from conflict with the intent of returning home after the conflict is over).

To a certain extent, you could retort that the migration process is self-selecting for the "good" sort of immigrant. I generally agree, as long as we're talking free market conditions and a private property society. Once you add welfare state and welfare incentives to the mix, though, you might expect more of the "bad" sort. And I think it's interesting that open borders libertarians are so willing to admit antisocial effects of welfare itself while not admitting antisocial effects of immigration to a welfare state.

Anyway, I don't see open borders making much political headway without demonstrating that most natives are better off with it. Marijuana policy changed once most people began to realize it was not a very dangerous drug. Legalizing harder drugs like heroin and crack will be difficult because the harm is pretty evident and there you have to focus on the greater harm caused by prohibition. As long as the middle class here are held down by all the other government distortions of the market, asking them to shoulder another burden of subsidizing immigrants to take their jobs is just not going to work.

IVV writes:

"a completely borderless world would make a lot of people feel like strangers in their own land"

Yeah, so? A lot of people already feel like strangers in their own land, and it's not the result of moving. If you can't get used to the idea that you'll need to survive when in conditions other than what you strive for, you'll fail just like a poor society. You've got to be able to succeed while being a stranger in whatever land you're in, whether it's your homeland or not. Getting in the way of that, that's, well, adopting a society that results in people being poor.

mbka writes:

@jtgw

your expression "kinds of people" implies some form of unchangeable, genetic reason for bad living conditions in a country. Then when these "kinds of people" move somewhere else, in your wording, they somehow bring that "badness" with them. The same argument has been made in the past about the Irish and the Italians re: immigration into the US. Not to mention that immigration from East Asia was very strongly curtailed by the US very early on, for cultural reasons too. Fast forward a century, now everyone is holding up East Asians as the model of hard working productivity.

Conditions that countries find themselves in have many complex causes and no one has found a comprehensive theory to explain why some countries developed and some didn't. Many theories capture some essential features to development, that turn out to be non-essential after analysis of counterexamples. Conclusion, there appears to be not a single factor that is essential to development. Not ethnicity, not religion, not geography, not social system, not democracy, not stable property rights. My best analogy is this, socio economic conditions are like self organizing dynamical systems. They develop in a complex chain of cause and effect, not dominated by single specific causes and effects, but with synergies (self organization) that are hard to impossible to predict. Some countries have found fairly stable and agreeable attractors this way. An attractor is a set of possible conditions that the country meanders around. The idea of attractor doesn't mean it all stays the same, but it stays roughly the same. Example, the US has been in a strong democracy attractor for a long time, and in spite of civil war, slavery before that, segregation after that, presidential assassinations, Nixon, and now Trump, the US has remained in this attractor. It may at some point leave it, but this won't have a single pinpoint cause either - rather a string of concomitant self reinforcing tendencies. Either way - sometimes there is no attractor, or it is not strong. In that case, the country is unstable. Finally, some countries may be stuck in stable but unpleasant attractors. The key to understanding the attractor concept is that yes, the people etc, do contribute to reaching the attractor, but so does everything else including history, neighbors and what have you. The same people somewhere else or with some boundary conditions or some history changed, can easily be in a different and much better attractor.

To keep with the analogy - I actually agree that it would be a bad idea to open borders in an uncontrolled way because this may indeed endanger the attractor that the host country finds itself in. Too many changes, too fast. But I do argue that the "goodness"of the people has comparatively little to do with it, and that the only morally justified end state of the world should be one of no borders, or open borders if you keep countries as administrative units. In other words the whole world would look a bit like the aptly called United States of America as it appears to its citizens: different states, with their borders, governments etc, but free trade and free movement between them.

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