Open Borders

By Lorenzo

Uberblogger Matt Yglesias recently posted on why an open borders policy for the US–possibly using an auction system to regulate the rate of flow–is a reasonable option, basing his claim on comparative population densities and history:

But the United States ran an open borders regime throughout the 19th century and we weren’t worse off for it. On the contrary, it laid the foundations for American greatness. Shifting back in that direction—with exceptions for dangerous criminals and other select problem types—over time seems perfectly feasible to me and would substantially increase overall human welfare.

Winners and losers
An obvious response is, “who is this we, white man?” Amerindians would have a distinct view on whether they were better off for said open border policy and the land hunger it fuelled. Though Yglesias is correct in that overall human welfare was improved, just as he is correct in suggesting that overall human welfare would be improved if all the 150 million adults who polls indicate would  like to migrate to the US did. Nor does raising US population density to 135 people per square mile seem over-crowded–not when you compare it, as he does, to other developed countries:

France has 303 people per square mile and Germany has 593. Japan has 873. The Dutch have 1,287!

But even leaving aside the dispossession of the Amerindians–settler land hunger was, after all, one of the grievances that led to the American Revolution; the commitment of the British Crown to its treaties with the Amerindians and the block that posed to settler land-hunger was one of those decisions-without-representation that the American colonists were aggrieved about–the effect of mass migration on the existing settler-and-descendants population was mixed, to  say the least.

In his Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, (which I review here) Nobel memorial Laureate Robert Fogel quantifies how high immigration led to drops in the average height and life expectancy of native-born American workers.

The exceptional health of native-born Northerners during the late eighteenth century is revealed by new time series on stature and life expectation … They show that by the end of Washington’s administration, native-born American white males were more than 68 inches tall (which was 2 to 4 inches taller than the typical Englishman and had an average life expectations of at age 10 of close to 57 years (about 10 years longer than the English). However, both life expectation and stature began to decline early in the nineteenth century. The most rapid period of deterioration was between 1830 and 1860. By the eve of the Civil War life expectation was 10 years less than it had been just before the turn of the century and males born in 1860 reached final heights that were about 1.5 inches less than those  born in the early 1830s (p.360).

High immigration advantages new migrants (if they survive the passage) since they benefit from increased opportunities. It advantages owners of capital, whether land (since rents and land prices go up), manufacturing (downward pressure is put on wages while product demand increases), or intellectual (since the migrants are unlikely to compete and demand for their services goes up)

In the case of intellectual capital, the contemporary tendency of the owners of intellectual capital to attempt to form cartels excluding those with competing ideas increases this effect, since support for immigration is a marker for cartel membership. The effect is increased further by encourage cultural diversity in immigration, which decreases intellectual competition from newcomers.That academics in particular live in transnational labour markets also increases their likely comfort with open borders.

Contemporary net migration flows: more from the tropics and more to the temperate zones

High immigration disadvantages resident sellers of labour, through downward pressure on wages, upward pressure on rents and land prices, crowding effects, increased crime from decreased social trust (even though many migrant groups are less likely to be imprisoned for crime than locals) and increased disease exposure. The combination of these factors can outweigh increased demand for labour’s products in an expanded domestic economy and far outdid so in C19th America (when disease control and sanitation were much worse and rates of immigration extraordinarily high). Hence the falling average height and life expectancy.

Migration politics
One of the great themes of politics in settler societies in the C19th was that there were temperate zone migration flows and tropical zone migration flows; working class politics in settler societies was particularly concerned that tropical labour flows not spread into the temperate settler societies. This was far from a irrational concern on their part.

You could say that C19th native-born American workers suffered a milder version of what the preceding (by several millennia) indigenous settlers had suffered from the arrival of a mass of newcomers. Which is not to deny that the US gained both power and dynamism from immigration. (Or, that, for example, the great restriction of US immigration from 1923 was not a major tragedy.)

He found a way to deal with the politics of open borders

In his Without Consent or Contract, Fogel sets out how the anti-slavery campaign forged a victorious political coalition (the Republican Party) on the back of directing worker-resentment away from manifesting as nativist xenophobia (a political dead-end, with so many voters being recent migrants) to anti-slavery and resentment of Southern ‘Slave Power’. There are some contemporary parallels for such political dynamics.

An example of contemporary Lincolnesque political ju-jitsu was one John Winston Howard. John Howard’s politics of a sense of control (border enforcement), endorsement (“battler” aspirations) and security (family policy, external threat) were not so different from Lincoln’s: Lincoln finessed nativism, Howard finessed general anti-immigration sentiment. He did this while running a high immigration policy and Australia’s least Eurocentric immigration policy up to that time. Lincoln and co saw off the nativist xenophobia of the Know Nothings, Howard saw off Pauline Hauline. And the jihadis are real enemies.

The differing interests and perspectives on migration create very different attitudes to illegal immigration. If one likes open borders, illegal immigration is a positive. If one does not, enforcement of immigration policy is the only way you can have an effective say on the matter. Since so much of what is at stake is that sense of control, the more visible the illegal immigration, the more politically salient it is. Arriving boats or organised border-crossing are going to figure rather more than visa over-stayers.

How compatible open borders are with how extensive a welfare state is an open question too. While belief that the welfare state channels taxpayer funds to illegal immigrants is a recurring sore-point. Provision of welfare extends the club good nature of the state.

If one looks at the issue from the comfortable heights of intellectual eminence, the gains from open borders seem obvious. They are rather less so to sellers of labour living in suburbs where neither infrastructure nor services keep up with demand.


  1. Yobbo
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    There are 3 things that I consider are incompatible with open borders that didn’t exist in Lincoln’s time.

    1. Welfare State
    2. Minimum Wage
    3. Islamic Jihad

    With the welfare state, it’s not really the problem of “channeling money to immigrants”, but simply that the Welfare state is just not economically feasible even in its current state. Specifically age pensions, which are becoming less generous all the time as we realise that taxes can’t keep funding pensions for people that are living increasingly longer. There’s also the fact that many people don’t even start paying tax until their mid 20’s due to compulsory education to the age of 17 and free education and welfare for those that want to keep studying even longer than that.

    That entire system is just not working, and adding more people (especially considering a lot of them might already be in their advanced years) will only make it worse.

    The minimum wage means that immigration that previously might have depressed wages will now simply result in higher unemployment, which is an even bigger problem.

    And I don’t think there’s any need to elaborate on the risks of accepting immigrants who genuinely believe that the world belongs to 1 particular religious faith.

    Immigration can be a net positive, but only if it’s set up in a way designed to yield positive results.

  2. Posted February 7, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Yobbo @1: Hammer meet Nail!

  3. kvd
    Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Yobbo, the concept of ‘state welfare’ existed long before Lincoln’s time. A political decision to make sure the masses were just happy enough, and/or fed enough, to not rebel. I don’t think he coined the term ‘bread and circuses’ for instance. And ‘Islamic jihad’ also has a fairly long history, I think.

    But I would be interested in your proposed alternative to a minimum wage – given that immigration per se is and will remain a fact of life?

  4. Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    If the USA sold permanent residency rights for $50,000 USD I’d be down at the bank tomorrow to arrange a loan. Or I’d save for a while and buy it outright. And it’d be a bargain.

    The US is still the welded-on centre of the universe for my industry. No other country comes within a cooee.

  5. Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Though as an Australian, I have the next-best thing: access to the E-3 visa program. It’s only available to Australians and the quota has yet to be exceeded.

    Basically it’s a H-1B minus the suck.

  6. Adrien
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Howard finessed general anti-immigration sentiment. He did this while running a high immigration policy and Australia’s least Eurocentric immigration policy up to that time.

    His immigration record is one of those ironies of the political career. And I’m sure it inspired him to dabble in socialism with the pop-a-kid grant.

    Malcolm Fraser had a whinge about his inferences toward Hansonite sentiment. he worked with the guy, Howard was not deceptive in his inferences. At the same time Fraser’s observations, from what vantage I wouldn’t know, of a resurgence of Australian racialist beefs laid the blame at the door of such as Howard, Alan Jones etc. From my vantage these beefs are not resurgent.

    They’re there as always amongst the above 60s and new beefs have been added that more resemble those of large immigration towns of America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

    They also hark back to the complaints of ‘native’ Germans about Jews in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Surfeit of the same phenomena.

  7. Yobbo
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    “But I would be interested in your proposed alternative to a minimum wage”

    A negative income tax.

  8. Ralph Bennett
    Posted February 8, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Open borders is a fascinating topic.

    An open borders auction system favours the rich and has no environmental limitations .

    There goes even more wildlife habitat .
    The other species are just not on the radar.

    Time for the USA to stabilise numbers.



One Trackback

  1. By Skepticlawyer » What’s left out on February 19, 2013 at 10:24 am

    […] If one is trying to be persuasive, taking Palestinian refugee status seriously while completely ignoring the refugee origins of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel is not a clever move. If, however, one is trying to establish one’s moral superiority, pushing buttons in such a way will more or less guarantee a hostile response, which can be great for playing status games. We also see this ignoring of inconvenient interests and experience to play status games in much progressivist commentary on immigration. […]

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