Monday, February 17, 2014

Open borders: A morality play by the 1%

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’ approach to 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 of 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 that 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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1 comment:

  1. Hi Cameron,
    A thoughtful essay, but omits two vital issues:
    a) any consideration of population growth, as a source of poverty differentials between countries driving net migration, and as an impact of open borders which threatens the viability of the recipient country. Population pressure, through oversupply of labour and over-demand for limited, 'rentable' assets, is the primary source of inequality, and inequality can't be lessened by facilitating population growth. Letting any pressure point simply flow out to anywhere which has been sensible enough to stabilise its population only ensures that everyone gets overpopulated, most get impoverished and nature gets trashed.
    b) any consideration of democracy, in terms of who 'the people' are who can exercise their collective preferences over governance, and whether they have any right to avoid being 'branch-stacked' by people with a different agenda. Is it at all likely that voluntary restraint of materialism and conservation of nature would survive in such a society, when a vastly greater number of people would see those resources as a means to improve their lifestyle?
    I'm guessing those 'economically rational' people whose street cred you crave would also be out celebrating 'invasion day' and acknowledging the original custodians of the land on which we meet. Indignation at that invasion, yet indignation at any current objection to being invaded.
    Good fences make good neighbours. Societal betterment depends on people exercising autonomy in reshaping their culture and institutions for the better. This is impossible if they are not identifiable as a society or have no set of common understandings from which to negotiate the change.