No Panaceas Libertarian Challenges To Open Borders


Traditionally, libertarianism has welcomed a plurality of views on the immigration question. While nearly all free market proponents agree that current government policies restricting freedom of movement around the world are riddled with problems, we lack a consensus on what exactly these problems are and what should be done to solve them. However, it seems that a growing segment of (mostly young) libertarians are becoming more vocal in their view that unequivocal support for open borders should be *the* libertarian position on immigration. These libertarians tend to emphasize the moral case for open borders, though folks like Bryan Caplan have done a good job of presenting the economic benefits as well.

Unfortunately, advocates of open borders almost always fail to acknowledge important and fundamental tradeoffs when it comes to immigration. As Gene Callahan has written recently, it is strange that libertarian economists, who are usually eager to point out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, “treat immigration as if it were immune to this principle, and argue as if unlimited immigration is simply an unalloyed bundle of benefits with no associated costs.” Advocates of open borders should recognize that not all opposing arguments are veiled conservative prejudices rooted in xenophobic hysteria and that there are practical downsides worthy of consideration. Here, I will discuss some of these legitimate challenges to open immigration. But first, a few disclaimers on what I will not be arguing.

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I will not be arguing that the potential costs of open borders necessarily outweigh the potential benefits. I suspect there isn’t enough evidence to make a compelling case either way and I’m certainly not informed enough to adopt a strong position on the subject. Ultimately, I think that some level of immigration fosters innovation and the exchange of ideas and I have no doubts that the majority of immigrants are hard-working, honorable people who just want the opportunity to create a better life for their families. Nor will I be arguing that the practical challenges of open borders should necessarily drown out the moral arguments, which I generally find compelling. In fact, my path to becoming a libertarian began when I was exposed to the corrupt and unfeeling actions of several bureaucrats towards Haitian immigrants in a congressional office where I interned during high school.

However, I am very skeptical of what appears to me to be an emerging tendency to institute a libertarian litmus test around open borders and a reluctance to engage in a conversation about the many tradeoffs of such a policy stance. I would like to push back against the tendency of open borders advocates to frame the conversation as if immigration is a zero sum game. A writer at SpawkTalk has criticized Bryan Caplan for such framing:

He [Caplan] analyzes whether immigrants on the whole depress native wages, or whether immigrants as a whole use a lot of welfare, etc. It seems to not occur to him that there may be a good case for restricting immigration even if immigrants as a whole do no net harm. After all, some subset of immigrants might do harm in these various areas even if immigrants on the whole do not. And so it would make sense to ban this subset of immigrants from immigrating to your country. Just about no one actually advocated banning all immigration. And yet this is the position that Caplan’s analysis directly argues against. In so doing it fails to address the vast majority of proposals for immigration restriction actually in existence.

It’s especially worth lingering on the point that virtually no one is calling for a ban on immigration across the board. In fact, there is probably no other policy position more implicitly excluded from mainstream debate than immigration restriction. Nearly everyone is against it, from Brookings to Karl Rove to the ideological left to libertarians — and most have self-interested reasons for doing so; the business right wants cheap wages, the left wants more voters, and so on. Advocating for open borders isn’t as radical of a position as many libertarians make it out to be.

Similarly, Thomas Sowell has critiqued the broader immigration debate for discussing immigrants as if they are a monolithic group, or “abstract people in an abstract world.” By invoking Milton Friedman’s old line, “the best is the enemy of the good,” Sowell has cautioned us against failing to achieve good possible outcomes in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. Immigration shouldn’t be abstracted into a simple rights-based argument; proposed solutions (which very well may differ from ideal positions or principles) should take into account the potentially disastrous consequences of an open borders policy. Namely, the dilution or destruction of cultures that have a historical track record of leading to economic prosperity and social stability; the incompatibility of open borders with democracy and limited government; and the damaging effects of human capital flight on developing countries.

I’m always disheartened when I observe proponents of open borders flippantly dismiss skeptics of free immigration who argue that such policies could disrupt or destroy native cultures. For example, Jason Brennan has responded to the culture argument by stating, “Perhaps there is some value in maintaining a distinctive French culture and identity, but it is not valuable enough to justify forcing millions to starve.” This is true if you trivialize culture as little more than people’s subjective preferences for a certain type of food or music. However, if you aren’t a cultural relativist and you acknowledge the Hayekian insight that traditions passed down through cultural institutions are invaluable in crafting peaceful and prosperous societies, you will recognize that preserving certain cultures can also be a matter of life or death in the long run.

As Gene Callahan has noted, “A key contribution of the libertarian economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek was to stress the importance of local knowledge in making our social life workable … Thus, it is somewhat surprising that libertarian advocates of open borders have paid so little attention to the effects of mass immigration on the local knowledge base.” Disrupting these institutions by introducing a drastic demographic change could put our dispersed cultural knowledge in peril, thereby threatening social stability and economic growth. Before dismissing this as conservative paranoia, consider the data.

A large body of reputable research has found that increased ethnic heterogeneity in a region is correlated with lower levels of social capital, even when controlling for variables such as age, poverty, and crime. Social capital can simply be defined as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.” People in ethnically fragmented communities have lower levels of interpersonal trust; lower levels of civic, social, and charitable engagement; less efficient provision of public goods; more sluggish economic growth; and lower levels of happiness and general satisfaction. It seems that the more diversity we experience, the lower our quality of life is. As political scientist Robert Putnam has stated, in places with higher levels of social capital “children grow up healthier, safer, and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better.”

This finding is not likely to resonate well with most people since it contradicts the “diversity is strength” mantra that permeates American culture. So long as the mainstream position is that diversity is an unqualified good (emphasis on unqualified), it’s unlikely that libertarians will see the value in openly weighing the costs and benefits of immigration. As a movement that is already labeled racist and is frequently criticized for a lack of diversity, recognizing such unwelcomed evidence would further damage our image, which increasingly seems to carry more weight than intellectual honesty.

There is good reason to believe that in addition to disrupting valuable cultural institutions, open immigration could have a disastrous effect on political systems, since some groups of immigrants are likely to vote in large numbers against economic freedom. For example, polling data for the Hispanic population in the United States demonstrates that unlike the general population, Hispanics tend to prefer a big government which provides more services to a small one providing fewer services. They are also twice as likely to support the statement that “government should increase the standard of living of the poor and guarantee a job” and are closer to Democrats than Republicans when it comes to healthcare and public education. Tino Sanandaji, a PhD student in Public Policy at the University of Chicago notes that these findings are unsurprising considering that countries like Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela have a long history of leftist populism when it comes to economic policy. I’m sure many libertarians will reject this evidence as collectivist generalizations but the reality is that when you’re assessing the possible effects of a substantial demographic shift, you have to actually analyze those demographics.

Advocates of open borders usually claim that this problem could be solved quite simply by denying immigrants the right to vote. This is problematic for several reasons. First, this position neglects the fact that immigrants have higher birthrates than the general population and that immigrant children and their children’s children tend to vote like their parents. Not long from now, the Hispanic population will have the numbers to decide elections. Latinos have been reliably Democratic voters for decades and given that Hispanics currently earn about half as much as white people, it seems unlikely that they will become free market advocates any time soon. Second, as Sanandaji has pointed out, no minority in America today is denied equal rights for very long.

The notion of large swaths of immigrants moving to another country and gaining the right to vote should be considered problematic to minarchists and general proponents of democracy because democracy can only function (put that in scare quotes, if you will) with a limited citizenship. This is best illustrated if you imagine voting rights over decisions about the allocation of collective assets as a form of property. Sanandaji put it best in saying, “Limits on free migration is not just an arbitrary state construct, it is necessary to uphold ownership rights imposed by owners (citizens), just as a fence is necessary to uphold private property…If you accept this premise, abolishing borders in a modern welfare state is a form of socialism, just as abolishing fences would be.” Anarchists won’t find this compelling but they aren’t totally off the hook, either. The right to exclusion is of paramount importance in any free society, arguably even more so in an anarchist arrangement. Private property rights will always limit freedom of movement and in a stateless society, institutions akin to homeowner’s associations, which rely on limited membership to provide public goods, would abound in far greater numbers than we see today and would heavily rely on the right to exlusion.

Proponents of open borders also frequently dismiss the argument that open borders are incompatible with and will further the growth of the welfare state as conservative posturing. Nevermind the fact that the three most influential libertarian intellectuals in the twentieth century all held this position. Hayek’s support for a social safety net for the least well-off in society necessitated “certain limitations on the free movement across frontiers” and Friedman famously stated, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” In an interview towards the end of his life, Nozick likewise commented, “Why do we not have completely free immigration everywhere? One reason is the welfare state.” But I digress. What does the data show?

Caplan has cited a literature review which presents data from seven studies on the rate at which immigrants use welfare. The majority of these studies found that immigrants were more likely to use welfare than natives. For example, studies on the United States found that immigrants were 10-15 percent more likely to use welfare than natives and another study found that the average immigrant family uses about $5.7k (in 1989 dollars) more in welfare than the average native family over their lifetime. Caplan has argued that this difference is negligible since it amounts to only a few dollars more per person per month.

On the other hand, these small amounts add up. If you use the 5.7K number to estimate that if borders were opened up and half of the people around the world who want to move to the United States were able to do so (75 million people), there would be an added trillion dollars of welfare spending over these immigrants’ lifetimes. Caplan fails to consider that second and third generation Hispanic immigrants also use welfare at a greater rate than natives do, so increased welfare costs would likely be much higher. Finally, under an open borders policy, immigrant populations would be even poorer than current immigrants to the United States and would be more likely to use that much more welfare.

Some will argue that I’m focusing too much on how Western countries might be harmed by open borders and not enough on the dire circumstances potential immigrants in developing countries face and how much they stand to benefit. But the costs to wealthy nations deserves a high level of attention considering the soberingly enormous demand among poor people to move to Western countries. Indeed, in the world’s richest 18 countries, immigrants constitute 16 percent of the population and by 2050, an astounding 39 percent of people under the age of 18 in the United States will have immigrant parents. Regardless, some of the most compelling arguments against open borders are that such policies could lead to brain drain (human capital flight makes poor countries even poorer) and delayed political reform in developing countries. If people can just leave, there will be less incentive for people to stay and reform institutions from the inside.

Finally, I fear that the benefits of migrating to countries like the United States are overstated. The sad reality is that current immigrants simply don’t share the same prospects for success as immigrants of the past, as Gregory Clark has noted.While many immigrant groups (though certainly not all) have historically achieved income, education, and wealth equality within one or two generations, modern day social mobility rates are extremely low. In fact, today, seven to ten generations are required before the descendants of low status families reach average status. And government policies that try to accelerate that transition have all failed. Tragically, “immigrant groups tend to retain the social status they arrive with,” as Clark points out. The immigrant groups who have been able to climb to average social status or higher in the United States were already from the upper classes of their native countries (China, India, South Korea, Iran, etc.) whereas groups like the Hmong and Latinos who came with lower social status have failed to achieve similar rates of upward mobility. As Clark notes:

The United States seems to cherish an image of itself as a country of opportunity for all, a country that invites in the world’s tired, its poor, and its huddled masses. But the United States is not exceptional in its rates of social mobility. It can perform no special alchemy on the disadvantaged populations of any society in order to transform their life opportunities. The truth is that the American Dream was always an illusion. Blindly pursuing that dream now will only lead to a future with dire social challenges.

In summary, the libertarian discussion surrounding immigration shouldn’t be viewed as an all or nothing proposition and as Sanandaji has argued, it should take real world empirical patterns into account rather than assume away voting, the public sector, and social externalities. Libertarians should adopt the same skeptical economist’s view they apply to all other subjects when weighing questions about immigration to determine if we can actually affect the changes we would like to make.

It is perfectly acceptable for libertarians to disagree on such a complex subject and to hold opinions in favor of more marginal change. There are plenty of modest ways libertarians can criticize the existing immigration system without being in favor of open borders. These libertarians shouldn’t be vilified for their humility and prudence. There is no academic consensus on the subject and the issue is too complex and contextual for there to be a clear-cut libertarian position. The burden of proof lies on advocates of open borders to engage these criticisms

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