Against Open Borders

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.)

  1. 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:

  1. Who gains, and who loses?
  2. Could the economic gain for a particular country be offset by the increased cost of social welfare?
  3. 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)?
  4. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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
United States



(PEW, Huffington Post)






(Washington Post)






(The Guardian)



Belgium 35%




Australia (New South Wales) 9.3%

(University of South Australia)


(University of South Australia)

Canada 6%

(Government of Canada)



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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur is a professional philosopher who enjoys the finer things in life, but who is afraid that his opinions about politically sensitive topics are becoming unaffordable. Hence, he has decided to go underground.

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    • In which case wouldn’t this line of argument, at least with respect to immigration to American by folks from the Middle East, be undermined? At least, you’re not showing the right stats here.

    • And aren’t black Americans arrested at similar rates to whites for many offenses, but jailed much more often as a result and for disproportionately longer sentences? There sure is an awful lot of “just so” reasoning on this blog. Keep up the great work.

    • -“Isn’t it likely that most of the Muslims in American prisons are black American men, and not folks from the Middle East?”
      My piece does not suggest otherwise.

      -“In which case wouldn’t this line of argument, at least with respect to immigration to American by folks from the Middle East, be undermined?”
      It does not follow logically. Moreover, if the overrepresentation of Muslims in prison is explained by ethnicity, not religion, then that’s still bad news for an advocate of open borders who denies that there is a relation between immigration and crime.

      -“And aren’t black Americans arrested at similar rates to whites for many offenses, but jailed much more often as a result and for disproportionately longer sentences?”
      There is significant evidence to the contrary. See, for example, Heather Mac Donald’s The War on Cops (chapter 19).

  1. Yes, your piece did suggest otherwise. It’s a piece about open borders in the abstract, you say. But you couch this in a discussion of the recent executive action. Suggestion by way of conversational implicature, I’d say. Good that you agree with me: it’s probably likely that very few Muslims in American prisons come from the countries affected by the executive order your article uses as a backdrop.

    No, it doesn’t follow logically. It could be that lots of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East are getting away with crimes, that’s not ruled out logically. (An uninterestingly obvious point about logic.) But my point is that the stats you present don’t indicate that this Muslim immigrants from Middle East are criminals. If you didn’t mean to suggest that, then I’m not sure what these stats were supposed to have to do with the executive order you mention at the outset of your article. (Remember, suggest =/= assert. Read your Grice.)

    Great, cite an obviously biased source. I’ll do the same. What about the drug sentencing disparities do you wish to dispute?

    Your article is garbage by the standards of an intro critical thinking course. It’s small wonder you wish to remain anonymous here on poorly considered.

    • You seem to take Grice’s theory as a permit to engage in free association. To any ordinary reader it must be clear that my incarceration argument is a response to one of Brennan’s claims. But suppose it was a defense of the executive order: why would such a defense have to assume that “most” Muslims in US prisons are from the Middle East? In a similar vein, you misidentify the logical gap in your original argument. If you hadn’t called my piece garbage I would have been happy to explain this in more detail.
      Finally, if you had taken a quick look, you would have seen that Mac Donald deals in detail with the drug offense story.

    • Bob, I’m sorry for the bit of ad hominem there. I didn’t assert that you were garbage. Just that the article’s reasoning was. That’s not ad hominem in itself. But maybe it does suggest a bit: namely, that you don’t have to intellectual ability/integrity to recognize an obvious mistake and write a better article. I don’t know that that’s true, and so I should’ve avoided the suggestion.

      (Note: Ad hominem is never good. But I do think it’s odd that you’re willing to shut down a conversation due to a mild instance thereof. By golly, have you read these comment threads? They’re full of apostrophic ad hominem directed at faceless liberals (versions of “they would believe that, libtards” abound). In this (increasingly faint) echo chamber, you rarely have the chance to engage an actual left-leaning poster. It would be odd if you condoned apostrophic ad hominem, but were appalled by the personally directed kind. That would be like preferring people who criticize others behind their backs!)

      But I do take your response to indicate that you have difficulty being charitable to your critics. So let me explain why, despite appearances, I don’t take Grice’s theory to permit me to engage in “free association.”

      If you were being charitable, you might have at least attempted to reconstruct the kind of Gricean reasoning I have in mind. It’s really not much of a stretch.

      “The author is writing an article against open borders. That’s clear from the title and several explicit statements in the article. He’s now responding to arguments in favor of open borders, namely, that having more immigrants in your country doesn’t lead to more crime. Now, in trying to debunk that argument, he cites a statistic. Specifically, that as many as 15% of the Muslims in America are in prison, despite the fact that less than 1% of Americans are Muslim. Remember, we’re arguing against open borders, and here in particular against the idea that crime doesn’t increase along with number of immigrants. By the maxim of relevance, it’s reasonable to take the author to be presenting this statistic as if it were *relevant to this argument about whether increased immigration leads to increased crime*. [Indeed, not that it would be conversationally perverse for me *not* to conclude as much.] Indeed, the author states that he mean these statistics to support the idea that certain groups of people (eg, Muslims) might be more inclined to commit crimes. And this is all in the context of a discussion of an EO concerning Muslims from the Middle East. Gee wiz, the current civic conversation in which the whole post is set is about whether Muslim immigrants to America are especially dangerous. The matter was just aired in a federal court. Conway is trying to push this line along with the rest of the WH all over tv.So it’s reasonable to conclude that the post’s author intends for me to come to believe that Muslim immigrants in American commit crimes at higher rates.”

      Granted, it’s maybe (*maybe*) not what we call a strong implicature. Maybe it’s a weak one. Grice draws such a distinction. Weak implicatures sometimes border on free association. But in this case the inference was throughout *guided* by specific considerations of relevance. Hence, not “free.”

      And that implicature you’ve left open to your reader must result either from (a) an uncritical assumption (probably contrary to fact, as you pretty much conceded earlier) that the incarcerated Muslims in America are immigrants, or (b) a desire to convince your readers that Muslim immigrants in America commit crimes at disproportionately high rates. What the hell do American-born black Americans have to do with open borders (ie, the point of your post? The idea seems to be something like “blacks commit more crimes.” But you’re citing statistics about Muslims. The Muslims in American prisons are mostly black Americans. The Muslims in France are from North Africa and the Middle East. To place these two stats together in the context of this article is to suggest (in a pretty direct way) that Muslims in America are violent. But again, that fact *about America* is misleading in this context: incarcerated American Muslims have nothing to do with open borders if my suspicions are correct (again, a possibility you conceded).

      So you’re either not being critical, or you’re trying to pull wool over your readers’ eyes. In either case, you’re doing rightwing philosophers no bloody good. But gee, I do suppose that sophistry really may just be one of the finer things in life. Do you ever consider the possibility that your unwillingness to publicly air your political ideas might have less to do with the critical reception you’d find among your peers, and more to do with your inability to maintain the intellectual virtues of clarity, rigor in responding to such criticisms? Honestly, I’m not a troll. This is second comment on an article in about a decade. I expected you to acknowledge the obvious mistake, and offer a decent response that would allow you to make your point. Instead, I’m told I’m not worth the time required for a response because I hurt your feelings with a touch of ad hominem. *ON THIS BLOG, REALLY??*

      Academics on the right often rightly make the point that their leftist opponents are uncritical in accepting party dogma and in responding to right-leaning opponents. Alas, the criticism is true in both directions, as you make very clear here.

      Sorry, Bob, for the long post. But I felt it was my duty to Grice to do your job and offer a better construal of what I had in mind when I invoked him than you were able to muster. I’m now receding to my role as cringing observer of this blog. (Hopefully not much longer—activity seems to be decreasing quite a lot since a brief Leiter- and Trump-win-driven boost a few months ago, perhaps as a result of the increasingly poor quality of these posts.)

    • Oh, one more thing. Fair enough about the MacDonald. I’ll take a look. But my point about the over-incarceration of black Americans is entirely independent of the above.

  2. This blog, although I disagree with the HBD hypothesis, has done phenomenal research on immigration, especially on immigrants and crime. I highly recommend checking it out and following the links to its other posts.

  3. “In this (increasingly faint) echo chamber, you rarely have the chance to engage an actual left-leaning poster. It would be odd if you condoned apostrophic ad hominem, but were appalled by the personally directed kind. That would be like preferring people who criticize others behind their backs!)”

    Yes, I wonder why that might be. Plenty of reasons abound, one is that few have much that they can say. Another is that they, like most people, are more comfortable around people and ideas with which they agree. And, please, if you have a bit of common sense (not much of that going around in philosophy departments these days) you would know that almost everyone is more offended by the personally directed kind and for good reason. You say you are not a troll. Riiiiiiiiight.

    “Hopefully not much longer—activity seems to be decreasing quite a lot since a brief Leiter- and Trump-win-driven boost a few months ago, perhaps as a result of the increasingly poor quality of these posts”

    Exactly! It is terrible, isn’t it, having an alternative voice in the philosophical blogosphere. Real political philosophy is engaging in hairsplitting only within the dogmatic enclave of leftist philosophy.

  4. Talking about crime rates, the economy, intelligence, or other HBD related topics is all fine, but I think the most important questions regarding open borders relate to the very identity of Western Civilization and the United States. Western Civilization is going through an identity crisis.

    For example, the Japanese people may be very intelligent, commit little crime and run successful businesses, but that in of itself is not reason for massive Japanese immigration. Japan has its own unique culture and identity that differs from Western Civilization and the United States. This is even more so with Islam, which is completely at odds with Western Civilization.

    • Although this is for consideration, you are still speaking quite broadly. Making broad stroke claims are unclear.The Japanese tend to integrate and assimilate spectacularly in to every western society they join. Every single one, Meanwhile Eastern Europeans struggle more so to do the same in Western European societies, Europeans struggle more so in American societies. How could this be?

      The point is that this whole idea of Western Civilisation is just far too vague to account for this. Western Civilisation struggle to move around amongst themselves compared to one outside, but its the one outside that we should be weary of the most?

      All I am saying is that its far to vague to account for the problems and explain the successes. It needs to be narrower. For example, most people who immigrate anywhere go to major cities. They don’t go to the country, they go to New York, or they go to London, or Paris, etc. The major cities of the West are almost like isolated countries on their own. The rural population probably share barely anything in common with city folk, as can be seen by the vast differences in voting behaviour. How definite can the identity of Western Civilisation be when the US election and, say, Brexit was so incredibly divided?

    • Billy Collins,

      Well, sure there were assimilation issues — but this does you no favors if you want to make a general pro-immigration case. Eventually even the unruly Italians and Irish came into the fold. Nor did the crime and strife from those groups exactly compare to the recent carnage of Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin. They still had enough commonality not to despise their new home for being what it was and thereby slaughter the natives for it.

      And this comparing and contrasting of Eastern Europeans, European and Japanese seems entirely too vague itself and unqualified, if not completely unjustified. Germans, to pick a group, assimilated well in the Midwestern United States.

      Fine, if you want more specifics for what constitutes Western Civilization, here are some:

      1) Separation of church and state
      2) Religious tolerance
      3) Equal rights for women
      4) Freedom of expression

      There’s a noticeable dearth of these in the Islamic world precisely because it IS Islamic. So the importing of large amounts of Muslims and expecting everyone to hold hands and sing “it’s a small world…” is the height of folly. We don’t mix and haven’t done so ever since Islam violently burst on 7th century scene from the Arabian peninsula.

    • The point is that this whole idea of Western Civilisation is just far too vague to account for this.

      I don’t think Western Civilization is as vague as you claim. It is generally understood what it means, but I’m not going to give it a mathematically precise definition, if that is what you are looking for. Western Civilization consist of our Greco-Roman heritage, the European people, Christianity and some Enlightement additions.

      There is a population threshold for successful integration. The fact that some Japanese assimilate relatively well doesn’t mean this will continue as their numbers grow. What we see in the United States is the hyphenated American, which is to say large groups with competing identities, unique cultures and histories. It isn’t leftist ideology pushing identity politics. Identity politics is the result of different groups sharing competing identities. A nation has the right to defend its people, culture and traditions. In other words, no one has a right to immigrate to the United States.

  5. No reason is given for thinking “Prison Islam” has a significant relationship to immigration. Meanwhile for all I know from your stats immigrant Muslims make up .8 of the population and .4 of the prison population…

    • Conversion in prison probably plays a role. It’s hard to find reliable data about the US. One British report (2010) interviewed 164 Muslim inmates, and 30% of those (mostly black inmates) had converted in prison. If you discount 30% as “Prison Islam”, you still get significant overrepresentation. Moreover, there are other relevant statistics suggesting a link between the Muslim prison population and immigration. For example, 30% of Muslim prisoners in the UK are estimated to be non-British, and 15% of prisoners in Dutch prisons have at least one parent who was born in Morocco or Turkey. I could go on…

  6. Thanks for your reply and that is somewhat helpful, though one naturally wonders if those figures are transportable to the US context. A reason for thinking they might not be would be that the source nations differ: many muslim immigrants in Western Europe are probably from NA, whereas in the US (I am supposing) a huge proportion are from Iran. Is being an Iranian muslim in the US correlated with more criminality? I bet you a sandwich the answer if “no.”

    • Mediocrates,

      Could you elaborate on why you think national identity of the Muslim migrant has anything to do with increased criminality? North African countries like Morocco are supposed to be more moderate than Iran. Therefore, shouldn’t we expect expect the inverse of what you suggest? That, Iranian Muslims migrants are more prone to criminality than say the moderate North Africans?

      I’m puzzled. The common denominator here is Islam, as in Muslim migrant. All this pedantic splicing of the percentages listed by Bob is ad hoc and avoids the point. There’s a clear correlation between increased criminality and Muslims within the West. So why would it be prudent to take more of the latter, especially given the atrocious nature of some of the crimes, e.g., Charlie Hebdo, Rotherham child sex trafficking and the Cologne New Year’s sexual assaults?

  7. My impression–and I seriously doubt I am off base, is that Iranian immigrants in the US are generally very well-educated, often quite cosmopolitan and successful in business, medicine, the academy, etc… Iran as a nation state is not well thought of here, but so what? The Iranians here probably left for a reason. And I don’t think there is *any* stereotype of individual Iranian hooliganism comparable to what you are seeing in places like France and Germany. Actually, your puzzlement is puzzling: It’s hardly “pedantic” to look deeper into apparent correlations for a better understanding of underlying causal factors. If being e.g. an Iranian Muslim favors being a productive law-abiding citizen, then we need to rethink claims about Islam as a common denominator. This doesn’t fit the narrative, but so what? Admittedly we have gotten away from an assessment of Brennan’s grandstanding, but this is more important.

    • It may well be that Iranian Muslims in the US behave very well. (Indeed, they constitute a large portion of Muslim immigrants to the US, though not more than 31% because that was the total for MENA in 2012.) Is this because of their ethnicity, or because of how they have been selected under the current borders policy (for example, from the higher classes)? Even if it’s just for the first reason, and the overrepresentation of Muslims in prison masks huge disparities among various ethnic groups, then that still poses a problem for an open borders advocate who prefers to see no link between immigration and crime.

    • But are these “well-educated, often quite cosmopolitan and successful in business, medicine, the academy, etc” Iranians coming en masse or by a trickle? It still seem like ad hoc reasoning based on the dubious assumption that these qualities are indicative of Iranians, as a whole, and almost any Iranian who wanted to relocate to the West. Taking the elite of a country, as a matter of policy, isn’t comparable to laying out the welcome mat for anyone and everyone from that country. The former implies a form of funneling or weeding out based on class and education. Nor does it in itself falsify the claim that Islam, in large doses, is incompatible with the West. And doesn’t the left take the opposing position in the immigration debate? That, Islam and its practitioners are no different than anyone else, and therefore there is no rational reason to exclude Muslims from entry into this country?

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