While our left-wing colleagues are up in arms over an executive order that is unlikely to have a significant impact on immigration to the US, it may be worth reflecting on the philosophical case for open borders. From a right-wing perspective, the best case probably has been made by libertarians such as Michael Huemer and Jason Brennan. Below I respond to five arguments against restrictions on immigration that the latter has provided in a recorded seminar. (A somewhat similar list of arguments can be found here.)
- Restricted immigration is a form of economic protectionism.
True, but note that even Adam Smith was not against all forms of economic protectionism. In particular, Smith favored protectionism when the defense of the nation is at stake (in book 4 of his Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations). According to opponents of open borders, this is exactly what is at stake.
Moreover, we should be careful when we interpret the economic gains promised by proponents of open borders such as Brennan. As labor economist George Borjas warns in his recent book, it is worth asking such questions as the following:
- Who gains, and who loses?
- Could the economic gain for a particular country be offset by the increased cost of social welfare?
- Does the calculation of the gain take into account the long-term cultural and political consequences of having citizens who “bring the institutional, cultural, and political baggage that may have hampered development in the poor countries” (p. 144)?
- Has the calculation of gains and losses been made to fit a certain ideological narrative?
The third question is worth taking seriously in light of the fact that a very large portion of those who immigrate to the West come from countries plagued by corruption, religious intolerance, and dysfunctional socialist policies. The fourth question is taken very seriously by Borjas himself, and it should be taken seriously by anyone who knows what has happened recently in another area of social science, social psychology (see, for example, my previous post). In other words, great caution is called for, not just because of the ideological forces at work in social science, but also because mass immigration is almost impossible to reverse.
- Restricted immigration makes some people worse off.
True, but this is true of practically any government policy. As always, the losses need to be compared to the gains, especially in the long term. Some of the gains of having closed borders are discussed below.
- Having more immigrants does not lead to an increase in crime.
Studies allegedly supporting this thesis usually control for factors such as “individual, family and neighborhood background” (for example, Samson 2008, which Brennan cites). This may look fair, but what if immigrants are more likely than the native population to have a background associated with criminal behavior? Moreover, what if certain groups of immigrants (say, Muslims and Blacks) are much more likely to have such a background? Consider, for example, the following table:
|Muslims as % of prison population||Muslims as % of total population|
|Australia (New South Wales)||9.3%||3.2%
(University of South Australia)
These numbers are merely supposed to give a rough impression (they come from different, but politically unsuspected, center to left-wing sources). Still, there is a clear pattern: Muslims are significantly overrepresented in the prison population. The same is true of Blacks. As a result, the “argument from crime” against open borders still applies to these two groups.
Moreover, at least one of the two studies cited by Brennan in the seminar interprets “immigrant” strictly, as “someone who was born abroad”, but of course, the effects of immigration extend far beyond the first generation. Immigration policies, like other government policies, should not be based on an assessment of short-term effects alone.
- Restricting immigration at the country-level is arbitrary. Why not restrict it at the level of states or provinces?
There is again some truth to this objection, but notice that legal boundaries do not have to be natural boundaries. For legal and, more generally, practical purposes, we have to draw the line somewhere; for example, when we fix a threshold for drunk driving, or the legal age for voting. Moreover, cultural differences within developed countries (say, between French-speaking and German-speaking Switzerland) tend to be smaller than cultural differences between developed and developing countries (say, between Switzerland and Nigeria). This fact, too, supports a country-level restriction on immigration.
- Immigration does not have a pernicious effect on culture; on the contrary, it leads to cultural innovation.
In some cases, immigration did lead to cultural innovation. But so did war, conquest and colonial governance. Moreover, allowing restricted immigration (say, a capped level of immigration from countries that are culturally close) is not the same as having open borders. Finally, there is considerable evidence to support the claim that ethnic and cultural diversity diminishes trust, and even leads to civil war (think of all the ethnic conflicts that have occurred in just the past 50 years). The tension that we are currently witnessing in Europe as a result of mass immigration from Muslim countries probably is something between diminished trust and civil war. The tension is there, not just because Muslim immigrants are associated with crime (including, of course, terrorism), sexual harassment, unemployment, and left-wing politics, but also because they are changing the way native people conduct their daily lives: the products they find in neighborhood stores, the security measures they have to undertake or undergo, the things they can say or write in public, the clothes they feel comfortable wearing on the street or on the beach, and so on.