Book Review: Open Borders

Bryan Caplan is an economist at George Mason University and all-around interesting guy who is known for his out-there views about various social and political issues (especially education). Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration is his latest book, which argues for an end to all restrictions on migration and is in the format of a graphic novel illustrated by Zach Weinersmith of SMBC fame. The first thing I would say about this book is that the graphic novel format works really well. The art style is cute and I think graphic novels are heavily underrated. Realistically, most people are not going to read a regular book about the economics of immigration. But this way Caplan can lure us in with fun cartoons! The next thing I would say is that the book makes an important argument on an issue where people have particularly poorly thought-out opinions. The data are pretty clear that immigration is massively more beneficial than most people realise – certainly economically, and perhaps socially too. However, upon reflection there are serious objections to open borders, and the arguments in the book have a number of omissions.

The argument

Caplan really does believe that there should be no restrictions on immigration whatsoever, and that’s exactly what his cartoon representation in this book argues for. The basic argument goes like this: people should, in general, be allowed to make decisions that they think will improve their lives, assuming they’re not hurting anyone. Moving to a new country is exactly such a decision. Since immigrants often move in search of work, moving is associated with a massive increase in economic prosperity: by moving to the US and receiving no additional training or education, the average citizen of a developing country can expect their income to increase fivefold; for countries like Nigeria, the figure is tenfold. This is because developed countries are safer, more prosperous and have better quality institutions, so immigrants are more productive in them. The gains are so vast that a standard estimate is that open borders would double world GDP. And yet rich countries continue to restrict immigration, sometimes through formal caps, and sometimes through complicated bureaucracy and paperwork which at best dissuades people from entering and at worst makes it literally impossible (like rejecting you for not filling out the middle name section on a form when you don’t have a middle name). Some of the arguments against immigration are xenophobic or racist, but many are legitimate concerns bought up in good faith. However, most (all?) of these are simply not borne out by careful consideration of the evidence. The consensus among economists is that immigration does not generally decrease natives’ wages. Nor does it lead to an increase in poverty, crime, or a significant strain on the welfare state and social services. While the data about this is more unclear, immigrants seem to be barely different from natives in their political views and they adopt a lot of the cultural values of their destination country. Hence, the contrary considerations are not enough to overwhelm our initial presumption in favour of allowing people to move and massively improve their standard of living, and so we should have open borders.

The objections  

1: Parochialism

Open Borders is an extremely US-centric book. As someone from the land of ‘not America’, this is something that frustrates me about a lot of non-fiction. Caplan justifies his focus on the US by saying that his audience is mostly Americans and that that’s where the highest quality data exists for. But in this case, the book makes a way narrower argument than is set out in the book’s intro. By focusing primarily on America, the case is made stronger than it otherwise would be. For instance, immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Europeans but fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Immigrants to the US also seem to assimilate unusually well (although some people say this is just because European countries are more regulated, and in their infinite wisdom make decisions like forbidding refugees from getting jobs).

Focusing so much on the US is bizarre because the European Union has open borders between its member states! Surely analysing whether this has gone well should be the most convincing piece of evidence about open borders. Ireland is 17% foreign-born, a significantly higher proportion than the US, and from eyeballing the data is looks like the immigration rate to Ireland has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years. This would seem like a major success story of immigration. Meanwhile, Caplan only talks about the EU for a few panels toward the end of the book. The considerations above don’t seem to justify anywhere near this level of parochialism.

Until the 1920s, the US had de facto open borders, and this is another thing that I wish Caplan had dug into more. It certainly seems like America benefited a lot from immigration at this time (or, at the very least, that immigrant groups like the Irish did) but have people studied what the effects of open borders actually were?

2: Humility

Open borders would be the largest social transformation possibly ever, and there isn’t even that much research about it. We should in general be extremely humble about the prospects that our views about complex topics are completely right, and the downsides from open borders, if we are wrong, could be quite significant.

Caplan is unusually scrupulous at making sure his claims are backed up by the data. His book The Case Against Education is one of the most meticulously researched books I have ever read. So, it was a bit disappointing that there weren’t more margins of error attached to his claims. How confident are we that open borders would really double world GDP? 10%? 50%? 90%? Even with such error bars, after reading about the replication problems in economics and the colourful uses of statistics to get one’s desired conclusion, I don’t find these kinds of projections very convincing compared to natural experiments and case studies, and I mentioned that the EU, the most compelling such example, is not talked about much.

3: Environment

Unless I’m mistaken, at no point does Caplan address the environmental harms of open borders. Moving people from low-emitting poor countries to high-emitting rich countries would lead to a pretty dramatic acceleration in global CO2 emissions. Admittedly, “keep most of the world poor” is a terrible climate change strategy, but there are some climate problems you might want to solve first before advocating for open borders. A world with open borders would be much richer, and so would have a lot more money to throw at the problem of climate change, but how much more would it throw? If the case for open borders were airtight, it would have to address this. I’m confident that Caplan has reflected and come to the conclusion that there are no climate problems that we can solve in a short-enough period of time to justify the harm caused by delaying open borders, but he doesn’t show his work.

Sometimes, climate change gets used as an excuse for opposing almost any societal progress. This is unfortunate. But “open borders would create this gigantic problem, namely massively accelerated climate change, but the benefits outweigh the harms” was not the argument I got from the book. “Open borders are so good, and the objections are not that significant” was the argument I took away from the book.

There are considerations I can think of that would make the environmental objection less serious. Immigration would probably accelerate the trend of urbanisation, and cities are better for the environment (smaller houses, more use of public transportation, etc.). People would also be able to move away from the regions that are worst affected.

I’m also seriously concerned about the animal suffering that would be induced by open borders. I think that we should give a high degree of moral consideration to complex animals like cows and pigs, and that globally, eating meat, 90% of which comes from factory farms, creates an almost unimaginable level of suffering. There are a couple of reasons why open borders would make this worse: the Western diet is more meat-heavy than diets from other places, and richer people in general consume more animal protein. Some people talk about the meat-eater problem: many interventions in global development look much less cost-effective if you give moral concern to animals (since, if the interventions save human lives or make people better off, they lead to greater meat consumption). The high demand may further entrench factory farming as the default way meat is produced. This is not a consideration that most people have when thinking about open borders, but the premises are relatively uncontroversial. Virtually everyone agrees that animals are worthy of moral concern, and many (most?) people see some problem with eating factory-farmed meat, even if they do not act on their discomfort.

4: Culture

Caplan has a section where he addresses the political effects of immigrants, largely drawing on data from Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute finding that immigrants are a tiny bit more liberal than the general population but that their kids and grandkids regress to the political mainstream. Immigrants and natives didn’t have a partisan difference until the 1980s, and the partisan difference comes from immigrants being more likely to identify as independent, not from being more likely to identify as Democrat (although maybe after a while immigrants become acclimated and realise that third-parties never win…). This is interesting but doesn’t address the tail risk of immigration leading to a Trump/Brexit dysfunctional level of polarisation or backlash (admittedly, that would be very speculative). It may be the case that the biggest harms from immigration come from people irrationally freaking out about immigration, but, uh, people are in fact irrational.

Here’s Michael Huemer, in one of the most well-known philosophical defences of open borders, on the effects of immigration on culture:

“Empirically, it is doubtful whether apprehensions about the demise of American culture are warranted. Around the world, American culture, and Western culture more generally, have shown a robustness that prompts more concern about the ability of other cultures to survive influence from the West than vice versa. For example, Coca-Cola now sells its products in over 200 countries around the world, with the average human being on Earth drinking 4.8 gallons of Coke per year. McDonald’s operates more than 32,000 restaurants in over 100 countries.”

This seems to kind of sidestep the objection. Mass migration to the US is not a concern because Coca-Cola will go out of business; it’s a concern because democracy, freedom of speech, and the rights of women and homosexuals are deeply unpopular in much of the world. Importing millions of people from autocracies and societies that are otherwise deeply illiberal may well have adverse effects on democracy. This makes the case for having long waiting times for citizenship pretty good.

The selection effects right now for immigration to the US are really strong, but we have every reason to believe that they would decline under open borders. If immigration restrictions were lifted, the average quality of immigrant would almost certainly drop. This is something Caplan admits to, but the response to it didn’t feel convincing. Just how much selection bias is there in who gets admitted and who doesn’t?

5: Inequality

Caplan is an economist, so I can’t really argue with his reasoning about the economics of immigration. While the book is pretty convincing in arguing that immigration is the best tool we have for reducing poverty in an absolute sense, I’m less clear about the effects on poverty in a relative sense. Poor Americans still have it great by global standards, but they certainly don’t feel that way, and the point of all this prosperity is presumably to make people subjectively better off. Defeating bona fide poverty – the type where people can’t feed their kids – is priority number one, but still!

Currently, the people who move from poor countries to rich countries are self-selected for being hard-working, intelligent, and conscientiousness. But what happens when the really unmotivated ne’er-do-well’s start coming too? Under the current regime, these people would be relegated to the fringes of society. Could open borders even make some immigrants worse off, even if their pay cheque triples?

Caplan also doesn’t really consider the extent to which racism and xenophobia might flare up in response to immigration (though he does have a great section covering the effects on social trust). The countries that are the closest to having open borders are the gulf states; they have many migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. On one level, this is great: Qatar benefits from cheap infrastructure, the Sri Lankans benefits by getting higher-paid jobs. But I do also fear that this will lead to a kind of racially segregated dystopia.

In fact, immigrant groups would be largely stratified based on how wealthy they were to begin with. African immigrants would likely be deeply poor, followed by not-as-poor Indians, then richer Chinese, and so on. What happens to the politics and culture of a society that is that racially stratified? This is of course also a problem now, but I wonder what it might mean to scale it up so much. The fact that levels of education and training correlate with immigrants’ ethnicity vis-à-vis the differences in wealth among countries would lead to a problematic level of statistical discrimination, at the very least.

I initially was very sympathetic to the view – defended by some philosophers – that wealth inequality is not a problem per se; poverty is. But the more I think about it, the more this feels like squabbles over semantics. Yes, the distribution of resources is not intrinsically morally significant, but the mere fact that poor people don’t have very much money isn’t morally significant either. Conducting research about this is hard, and take the literature with a grain of salt, but, holding poverty constant, inequality seems to have lots of negative effects on all sorts of outcomes, including crime. So, given that it has negative outcomes, and is frequently caused by unjust social conditions, inequality – which would be increased within countries by open borders – is worth worrying about!

(Finally, regarding the welfare state, because I didn’t know what section to put it in. One of the more sophisticated considerations contra redistribution is that excessive transfer payments aren’t really compatible with high levels of immigration (unless you want to go bankrupt), and we know with a high degree of certainty that immigration is better at reducing poverty than government programs. But does this actually happen? Do places that grow their welfare state subsequently shrink their level of immigration, or shift it toward higher-skilled immigrants? Is there something funky going on such that support for immigration and welfare became tightly correlated beliefs?)  


Toward the end of the book Caplan discusses whether it’s a good idea to be advocating for open borders, or whether the idea is so radical that it will turn people off immigration even more. He comes to the conclusion that discussing open borders shifts the Overton window toward increasing immigration. I’m not so sure. For how important it is to convince people about things, I’ve seen remarkably little empirical research as to how you do it. Putting group polarisation aside, is it a good idea to give someone a stronger case or a weaker case to convince them to move their views in the direction of the argument?

This book made me think about what low-hanging fruit might exist in the space of increasing immigration. As I mentioned, immigration in many countries is not formally capped but is de facto limited by being confusing and costly. Have people tried to start companies to fill this niche of streamlining immigration? Are there any foundations willing to run this kind of thing as a non-profit? Google turns up surprisingly few results.   

All in all, I recommend this book. The thing it changed my mind the most about is the extent to which wealth is a function of where you are, not who you are. One estimate is that 60-70% of the global wealth disparity is explained by location alone. You could fix the institutions of poor countries from the ground up – but we don’t know how to do this, it would take a long time, and it’s unclear to what extent their problems arise from geography, so wouldn’t get fixed by better policies anyway. Hence, the case for more immigration still looks pretty watertight. I hope to see these arguments developed further!

One response to “Book Review: Open Borders”

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