Migration and Human Rights (41): What Will Happen When We Open Our Borders?

Regular readers know that I often advocate an open border policy on this blog. I do so because most of the arguments in favor of immigration restrictions don’t survive a confrontation with the data, but also, more positively, because I think there are four important reasons to favor open borders:

  1. Allowing immigration means respecting certain human rights, such as the right to free movement and the right of free association (most people migrate because they want to associate with employers elsewhere). Closed borders on the other hand result in various rights violations: illegal immigrants incur physical risks while traveling, and exploitation upon arrival (because they have diminished bargaining power and because they live with the constant fear of apprehension). Furthermore, they are almost permanently separated from their families and friends back home etc. That’s a heavy burden of rights violations.
  2. Immigration reduces poverty. Strictly speaking this is not conceptually different from the previous reason, since poverty is a human rights violation, but it’s worth mentioning separately because many fail to see this point.
  3. Third, allowing immigration is a matter of justice because monopolizing a piece of the earth goes against the principle of the common ownership of the earth, and because nobody deserves to be born in a certain place.
  4. Fourth, immigration restrictions are inefficient because they require resources that can better be spent elsewhere, and because efficient economic activity requires a high degree of freedom of movement for workers as well as goods. Moreover, aging populations in developed countries will need more immigrants to keep their economies going.

I agree that these arguments don’t necessarily establish the soundness of an open border policy. They do, however, make it harder to argue in favor of restrictions and they put the burden of proof on those arguing in favor of restrictions.

I can imagine that many of those people aren’t convinced by the rather abstract arguments given above. Hence it may be useful to try to estimate the consequences of a significantly higher number of immigrants in wealthy countries. I’ll assume that this increase won’t be sudden, because restrictions can be removed gradually. Hence we can discount the “shock” of increased migration as a possible negative consequence.

Wouldn’t massive immigration strain the domestic economy and possibly destroy it? I never quite understood that argument. For one thing, if that would happen, I guess the immigrants would decide to just go back home; immigrants are drawn to economic opportunity and typically return when opportunities become rare. But it won’t happen, because immigrants produce and consume. The “destruction argument” sounds ridiculously zero-sum, as if the presence of immigrants in a country is similar to leeches draining the blood from a healthy body. Immigrants generally come to work, to produce and to consume. Some of them may be a net loss for the native economy, but it’s silly to claim that most of them are or will be. In fact, in the U.S. most immigrants currently use welfare at lower rates than natives and have higher rates of labor force participation. Even if massive immigration brings in a lot more slackers their numbers will be swamped by the even larger number of productive immigrants.

So I don’t think we should compensate an open borders policy with a denial of welfare for immigrants. Most immigrant won’t come for welfare, and if you allow a whole lot of new immigrants, most of those will work and pay taxes (also because they won’t be illegal) and will thereby contribute to the funding of the welfare system rather than be a drain on it.

Perhaps the arrival of a lot of immigrants won’t destroy the destination economy or the welfare state, but maybe it will hurt certain groups of people, for example low-skilled native workers with whom the immigrants will compete for jobs. Again, that’s too much of a zero-sum focus. Immigrants are usually complementary to native workers and don’t necessarily have to replace native workers. And when they are not complementary, they can allow the latter to move to different and often better paying occupations.

To the extent that massive immigration will drive down wages in some sectors and skill levels, I would ask the following: if an immigrant is willing to work for a lower wage, why should the rights of relatively more wealthy native workers (“relatively more wealthy” because they earn a higher wage) trump the rights of the immigrant? If rights have any meaning it is that they protect the weaker against the stronger, not vice versa. From a cosmopolitan point of view it’s more important to help poorest people find a better job than to protect the jobs of the relatively less poor.

What about higher rents and house prices? Surely massive immigration would price almost everyone out of the housing market. And then what? I would guess that this will be self-correcting: huge housing prices will reduce the inflow of immigrants or increase the supply of houses. In the latter case, demand for labor – including native labor – would increase. Again, let’s drop the zero-sum thinking: why should we assume a constant supply of housing with an increasing demand for it?

What about security issues? Will open borders policies flood us with criminal immigrants? Immigrants with contagious diseases? What about the smuggling of drugs? Or terrorists moving freely into the country? Well, open borders as it’s understood here means free immigration, not the absence of borders or border controls. Allowing massive immigration doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep track of who or what is coming in and is going out. And we have domestic criminals, whom we don’t systematically banish. Let us also not forget that immigrants are on average less likely to be involved in crime (see here and here).

The fact that open borders doesn’t equal “no borders” should also calm certain fears about sovereignty, “nationhood”, national culture, community and national solidarity.

The same is true for the fact that an open borders policy doesn’t equal “free citizenship“. Obviously access to citizenship would not be possible for all immigrants at the moment of arrival, otherwise an open border policy would undermine the very notion of citizenship. That restriction includes voting rights.

What about the consequences for the origin countries which will lose a lot of highly skilled professionals? That’s difficult to tell but if we extrapolate from the current state of affairs, this might not be a problem. There’s already a huge brain drain going on from developing countries to developed ones, but the pernicious effects of this brain drain are heavily overstated, and compensated by the gains from remittances. Of course, this compensation effect depends on the number of people involved. Drastically higher numbers of migrants may provide a different outcome, or maybe not. And there’s also some evidence of other beneficial effects of the brain drain, unrelated to remittances.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (49): Brain Drain?

People with socially useful skills – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – often desire to leave their poor native countries and migrate to the West. A higher wage and the chance of escaping some of the world’s most dysfunctional societies trumps national and social attachments.

However, some argue that this “brain drain” is detrimental to the prosperity of developing countries: not only do they lose their best and brightest – emigration of skilled citizens makes it more difficult to prepare younger generations for their role in society (teachers leave, and governments faced with the risk of brain drain are less eager to invest in education – and even if they are eager they will have a smaller income from taxes necessary to fund education).

And indeed, the better educated citizens of poor countries are more likely to emigrate. You need some money and know-how to move to the West, and you have to expect some value-added. A poor farmer in Africa doesn’t have the money to leave, and his chances of finding a socially useful role in Europe or America, compared to his fellow-citizens who are doctors or engineers, are small.

However, when assessing the economic impact of the brain drain, one has to take all effects into account. For example, criticism of the brain drain often fails to mention the clear benefits for those who decide to leave their countries. More counter-intuitively, those who stay behind may also gain rather than lose: people who spend time abroad often return home with socially valuable skills and savings, and while they’re abroad they send home remittances. Also, the possibility of leaving a country incites many people to improve their skills and education, even if ultimately they stay home. And when they stay home, their higher education is a net social gain. Governments of developing countries may also benefit: perhaps they’ll lose some money when people leave after finishing their government subsidized education, but they gain money when the families that stayed behind spend their remittances, or when they don’t have to pay unemployment benefits to those who leave – some of those would have been unemployed had they stayed home.

It seems that the brain drain is no more than a catchy phrase, and certainly not an important cause of poverty in developing countries.

More posts in this series are here.