Open borders: A morality play by the 1%

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Alex Tabarrok, who I rarely agree with, has recently argued his moral position on open borders here. There is no doubt that most moral frameworks also support his position. As do I in the mere theoretical sense. As Tabarrok argues

How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?

I have argued before that redistribution of wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest should be at the top of the policy agenda for any economist who believes in the utilitarian foundations of their discipline. Open borders is an indirect method for pursuing similar goals of increasing wellbeing for the poorest, and usually promoted by those who fall on Mankiw’s side of the political spectrum; by those who typically argue that the rich ‘deserve’ their wealth (counterargument here).

Open borders is merely the logical outcome of any type of ‘natural rights’ moral reasoning. People should have the opportunity to flourish irrespective of the patch of Earth they were born. Yet the idea boils down to being the policy you support when you want to help the world’s poor but don’t support actually giving them money. Tabarrok’s argument equally applies within borders between the rich and poor, and I paraphrase his comment to make this point. “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in towns and suburbs where their financial and geographic constraints prevent them from making a living?”.

That open borders within countries does not automatically eliminate poverty reminds us be skeptical of claims that opening borders between them will reduce poverty automatically.

It helps to identify the potential winners and losers from opening borders in order to better understand the motivations it its proponents. If open borders works, and large scale migration occurs, the net effect is that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would have their wages reduced due to competition for unskilled jobs. By contrast, the richest individuals in rich countries, whose incomes are derived mostly from owning capital, would increase due to the greater demand for their domestic assets (such as land) following high levels of immigration.

Even the wildest proponents of open borders agree that

…open borders could not on its own eliminate poverty and that international migration could only help the relatively better off among the global poor

The rich get richer; that we know with some degree of confidence. The poor get, well, we don’t know. Probably poorer in relative terms, maybe richer in absolute terms. We just don’t know. But we can be fairly certain that the poorest in the world are unlikely to walk away from their homes and straight into the most exclusive enclaves of New York and London. Indeed, one suspects that the most highly educated from the poorest countries will be the first to leave (as they often are now).

Open borders in a global sense is therefore likely to be a game that benefits the richest from the poorest countries and still leaves the poorest with few options to improve their economic fortunes. 

Putting this raw economic analysis to one side for a moment, one question seems completely overlooked by proponents of open borders. Why do borders exist in the first place? If we can’t satisfactorily answer that question we won’t get far understanding the many important social issues that would accompany open borders.

A very brief and abstract story of borders is as follows. National borders typically exist as a result of previous wars, or the negotiations that took place between competing interests under the threat of war. These borders now serve as moral boundaries, whereby we see those within our border as part of our tribe. Tribes reinforce their internal cohesion through social signals, customs and rituals which foster stability. This process, however, can distance them from other tribes (countries).

It is these tribal and moral values of borders that make integrating tribes quite difficult. Immigration is always contentious not because of the existence of a line on a map, but because of these deeper social customs, norms and rituals are often in conflict. It takes a mighty will for immigrants to adapt to their new countries, and for citizens of destination countries to patiently accept new people with often conflicting customs and beliefs in their towns and suburbs. I generalise here probably a little too much, but the point I hope to make is that social integration is not automatic and is an extremely complex issue that needs to be properly considered in arguments for open borders.

While I don’t have a disagreement with open borders on moral principles, I disagree on practical grounds they should be promoted as a first-best way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest. Any economic success from such a fantastical global open borders policy would come at cost of social challenges arising from what I’ve described as ‘tribal integration’. The greater the economic benefits to the, the higher the social costs at both source and destination countries.

In many ways open borders is the type of policy you support to display street cred in the company of the economically rational, particularly when discussions turn to inequality and, god forbid, redistribution. Making the poor richer is as simple as giving them money and therefore access to resources, whether they are fellow citizens of your country, or your planet.

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Comments

  1. Many of these arguments are blind to “culture” and its influence on social and economic outcomes.

    Nations, like all levels of government, are a means of different approaches being tested and best practice determined.

    Trans-nationalism is no different to amalgamations of local governments and an absence of healthy competition between different models of governance at the local level.

    The USA had the right idea when it processed migrants through Ellis Island. If you want to share in the enlightenment project, you are welcome to move from your busted-arse country. If you want to bring your busted-arse culture with you, forget it.

    • If you want to bring your busted-arse culture with you, forget it.

      +100

      Assimilate or get out!

      Globalisation and mass immigration has ruined what was great and unique about so many countries…

  2. “…..Open borders in a global sense is therefore likely to be a game that benefits the richest from the poorest countries and still leaves the poorest with few options to improve their economic fortunes……”

    Yes indeed; and there is a similar effect in urban ghettoes where anyone who is at all able and has initiative has got out, leaving no role models or natural leaders for good; only the hopeless remain.

      • Thanks heaps for that. Not only does that guy not deserve to be criticised for his perceived harshness, he deserves to be famous and his presentation watched by everyone.

        Modern political correctness is all about “being a good person” regardless of how futile, pointless and even destructive, not about confronting reality.

  3. I don’t support open borders. We can already see some of the ill effects of excessive immigration in Australia – worse standard of living for the majority of pre-existing locals, and lazy landowners and business owners grow richer through high population growth without having to improve their land or business in any way.

  4. Some parts of the world are misery factories. If we just accept that the most able/determined people from those misery factories can escape and call it good, then we have failed utterly, because the misery factories will continue to produce more misery. Open borders won’t fix that. (And, yes, the recent trend in the West from multi-ethnicity to multi-culturalism can tend to import misery production.)

    It has been said that the kleptocracy that runs Mexico is delighted to have a porous border with the US because it is a pressure valve that allows the escape of the smarter, more determined people who, were they unable to escape, would stay and cause trouble for the kleptocracy. Open borders can enable misery factories by removing those people who want a better way of life. On a more practical level, think of all the medical staff from the third world who are here, rather than were they were born, thus depriving those lands of the human capital those places so desperately need.

    • Another example.

      The kleptocrats and gombeen men ruining the Irish state for the past 92 years, have only survived because of the porous border with the UK

      Every time they f*ck up, the accountability reckoning never happens because those of us who can, leave.

  5. I largely agree, open borders will just ruin the quality of life for people in the destination countries without making any difference in the source countries.

    However the real tragedy of open borders and a lot of the refugee issues is it takes attention away from fixing the cause of the problems and instead squanders it on treating the symptoms. In most of these countries the population is either increasing faster than the economy could hope to (you can put Aus in that category too) or the size of the population has already greatly exceeded the capacity of the land to support it. It will take a lot of money and effort to build sustainable populations and economies in these countries when the world is just starting to push up against resource constraints.

  6. arescarti42MEMBER

    “I have argued before that redistribution of wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest should be at the top of the policy agenda for any economist who believes in the utilitarian foundations of their discipline.”

    Since when does economics have anything to say about the moral and social problem that is distribution of wealth?

    Fundamentally economics is all about efficient allocation of resources, not equitable allocation.

  7. “If open borders works, and large scale migration occurs, the net effect is that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would have their wages reduced due to competition for unskilled jobs. By contrast, the richest individuals in rich countries, whose incomes are derived mostly from owning capital, would increase due to the greater demand for their domestic assets (such as land) following high levels of immigration.”

    You’ve just described the Big Australia policy in a nutshell. Are you listening, Bill Shorten?

  8. Globalisation and multinationals have been achieving the same effect as open borders for some people in some countries, notably China and the Brics. The other side is unemployment in the developed world.

    Maybe there just aren’t enough resources on earth for everyone to have a developed country middle class lifestyle. We’d need 14 planets for the current 7 billion. How many will we need at 9 billion.

    Perpetual compound growth is impossible in a finite world.

    • The resource economist Colin Clark, in his 1967 book “Population Growth and Land Use”, estimates the potential global population capacity as 47 billion people. And he was arguing against Communist economists at the time who were saying it was 80 billion.

      The absurd figure of “several planets needed” is only arrived at by assuming catastrophic effects of CO2 that not even the IPCC figures support, and assuming the necessary forest coverage to absorb all of it.

      CO2 greenhouse effect reaches saturation at around 450 ppm and adding more has no effect after that.

  9. While the article is presumably talking about global opening of borders, surely we can look to smaller-scale examples from history to get some idea of likely outcomes. Eg: The formation of the USA or, more recently, European countries forming the EU.

    How did the USA and EU change after forming their unions and how would they be different today if their internal borders were still closed? Is the Aus-NZ arrangement another example that’s closer to home?

    • Good points. I had a section about the EU and opening borders but decided it made the post far too long.

      I decided this comment was sufficient

      “That open borders within countries does not automatically eliminate poverty reminds us be skeptical of claims that opening borders between them will reduce poverty automatically.”

      Further, when we get down to studying historical examples we have to look very closely at the political arrangements. If we create a global mega-state, then by definition we wouldn’t have open borders, we would have a single state with common laws. This is more like the Australian/US experience.

      Open borders is specifically about a call to improve the lives of the world’s poorest without requiring the even more politically unlikely mega-state (of course fully open borders are also politically almost impossible).

      It merely involves in reality a few rich countries allowing in everyone who gets to their borders.

      But my point here was that this is NOT the easy way to reduce global poverty. Giving the poor money and resources is the easy way.

  10. Why it takes so long time for people to understand reality?

    “Exchange value excludes no utility value; i.e. includes no particular kind of consumption etc., of intercourse etc. as absolute condition; and likewise every degree of the development of the social forces of production, of intercourse, of knowledge etc. appears to it only as a barrier which it strives to overpower. “

  11. rob barrattMEMBER

    ”Immigration is always contentious not because of the existence of a line on a map, but because of these deeper social customs, norms and rituals are often in conflict”. Yes. For example, though everyone carefully ignores the elephant in the room regarding religious beliefs here, there are very serious consequences when you import groups whose base beliefs are incompatible with the host country. It’s not the generation who immigrate who cause the problems, they’re generally very happy to get out of their native countries. It’s their children. Disaffected youth turning to extremism. In the West, apart from rare terrorist groups who act purely out of ideology, extremism occurs for one of two reasons:
    A tribe, ethnicity or religious group is discriminated against (Northern Ireland was a case in point); or
    Poor economic conditions for youth lead to extreme views where their religion does not support the idea of a democracy.

    Reasonable democratic government can minimise the former. The latter is much harder to prevent. Australia may yet hear the loud effects of the latter.

  12. Interesting that you post this article today Rumples – kinda ties in with discussion on the Foreign Ownership Alters Social Fabric post.

    I am a fan of Tyler Cowen and concur with his rather than Alex’s view on open borders (although Alex’s has much appeal). Tribalistic leanings arise and there probably is a limit to the level of immigration societies are prepared to accept ( look at the resentment directed toward a segment of property purchasers in Sydney detailed above – imagine the scenario under an open borders policy ). Hence Tyler’s recognition for some moderation based on societal preparedness to absorb is wise.

    • “moderation based on societal preparedness to absorb is wise.”

      So, “change” in the social fabric is not necessarily, automatically, “interesting and vibrant” in a good and beneficial way after all?

      Seems to contradict the simplistic position you expressed in the other thread.

      • It remains interesting and vibrant – I do not fear it. There is no contradiction.

        Cowen would suggest (and support) change over time – I guess it a question of velocity.

        Hamilton above stokes the fires of fear. Cowen is cognizant of this propensity and advises a natural evolution in terms of immigration as opposed to outright open borders. I agree.

      • Logic fail. Just because you do not fear it, does not follow that there is no contradiction between your view expressed here, and in the other thread.

        “a natural evolution”

        What exactly is a “natural evolution” viz. immigration?

  13. I’m also really skeptical about the Open Borders idea and I also thought that emigration leads to damaging feedback effects where land prices fall in places where people are leaving and boom where people move to and that property boom attracts more people and so on. I also had a go posting about it:
    http://directeconomicdemocracy.wordpress.com/2013/08/02/more-on-open-borders/

    “In principle I share the libertarian ideal of everyone being able to live wherever in the world they fancy. I think the way to go about realising that aim is to first address the issues that create the disparities between rich and poor countries. Once that is (even if only partially) achieved, then the vast bulk of people would no longer have any desire to migrate. A few people would because of personal reasons and for exchange of specialist expertise. However opening borders would then not be opening the floodgates to a torrent of people driven by macroeconomic forces. It is only the prospect of such a torrent that keeps the borders closed now. My total disagreement with the Open Borders campaign is that they advocate opening the borders to a torrent of migration as a first-line response to the disparities between rich and poor countries.”