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.

What is Democracy? (46): The Boundary Problem

Most discussions about democracy take one thing for granted: that the composition of the group of people who (have to) govern themselves democratically is already fixed. The topics discussed are:

  • how can these people govern themselves democratically, or more democratically?
  • which procedures, institutions or voting systems should be used to guarantee the highest level of democracy?
  • is representative democracy best, or should there be some kind of <a href="http://direct democracy?
  • which are the prerequisites for an adequate or perfect democracy (education, free speech etc.)?
  • what happens to the minorities within this group of people?
  • etc.

What is forgotten in all such discussions is that the composition of the group of people governing themselves democratically has an enormous importance. This composition is of course established by boundaries or borders. These boundaries are prerequisites for any democratic decision: before such a decision is possible or even conceivable, there has to be a prior decision on who the “demos” is, on who is included in and excluded from the group that is supposed to govern itself democratically.

There is no problem when the democratic decisions of the group are strictly self-regarding; the “boundary problem” arises when the groups takes democratic decisions that affect outsiders, those who have been excluded from the demos by the initial boundary decision. And that happens quite often. Groups then take decisions that have consequences for other people who have had no say in the matter. Sometimes this happens inadvertently, but other times the boundary decision has been made precisely in such a manner that the outsiders have been excluded on purpose. An example of the former case is the decision by a democratic country to exploit its rainforest for wood exports, impacting the global climate. An example of the latter is the disenfranchisement of felons and the subsequent democratic decision to impose forced labor on prisoners.

This last example already indicates that the boundary problem isn’t limited to national frontiers. These national frontiers obviously raise important problems (and not only when they are contested, as in the case of the occupied territories in Palestine where the excluded Palestinians have to live with the decision of democratic Israel), but other, less material boundaries do so as well. In many cases, the prior boundary decision effectively determines (and in some cases is meant to determine) the consequent democratic decisions. When blacks were disenfranchised under the apartheid regime in South Africa, then this determined – and was intended to determine – the nature of the democratic decisions taken by non-blacks.

As is clear from these examples, the boundary problems arises when the decision-makers don’t include all those who are affected by the decisions. The boundary problem therefore violates a basic democratic principle, namely self-government and self-control. The purpose of democracy is precisely the avoidance of heteronomy, the political subjection of a community to the rule of another power or to an external law. The boundary problem can mean the reintroduction of – intended or unintended – heteronomy. Boundaries are obviously necessary for the creation of democracy – no democracy without a fixed demos, and no demos with boundaries, exclusion and inclusion – but they can also undo it, namely when they exclude people who are affected by the decisions of those who are included.

The rule that we should try to include in the demos all those who are affected by democratic decisions sounds good in theory but raises problems of its own. For example, it’s never clear beforehand who will be affected by a decision, and hence it’s impossible to include all those who may be affected. In addition, the affected population is extremely different from one decision to another, meaning that the rule would force us to radically reconsider and alter the demos for each decision. That seems practically impossible. And finally, the affected population may be very far away, physically, or may cover the entire world population, including those not yet born. Again, difficult if not impossible to solve this in practice.

Bob Goodin, who has thought about this a lot more than me,  states that we may perhaps not be able to always include all those affected by all decisions, but there is less and more. He states that over-inclusiveness is less of a problem than under-inclusiveness, and proposes some practical ways in which to promote inclusiveness.

Another way to solve the boundary problem is international democracy – i.e. the creation of democratically governed cooperative inter-state institutions. This can solve the problem of negative externalities imposed by the democratic decisions of one state on other states.

We can also do something about the boundary problem by granting immigrants some degree of voting rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees typically have no voting rights, even in the most democratic of countries. This is exacerbated by the often very restrictive citizenship application rules. And, finally, issues of global justice are also instances of the boundary problem. Decisions by rich countries regarding import quotas, free trade arrangements etc. obviously impact the poor in other parts of the world.

There is also another problem, similar to the boundary problem. People may not be de iure excluded from the demos, but de facto. I’m thinking here of so-called permanent minorities. Permanent minorities are groups of people who, although not officially disenfranchised, are always subject to the decisions of majorities.  Federalism would allow those permanent minorities that are regionally concentrated, to have self-government. When they are allowed, in a federal system, to make their own self-regarding decisions, they will no longer be affected by national decisions over which they have almost no influence, not because of a lack of voting rights, but because of a lack of voting weight. Federalism can solve the problem of a minority negatively affected by the decisions of a majority, not because it is disenfranchised but because it is a permanent minority.

Migration and Human Rights (7)

Citizens typically enjoy the best human rights protection of anyone in the territory of a country, relatively speaking. Even in badly governed states or dictatorships they are better off than immigrants, legal or illegal. And also in perfect democracies do citizens enjoy more rights than legal immigrants: the former have political rights, the latter do not. See this post for more information about this difference.

However, in a perfect democracy, legal immigrants and citizens enjoy the same level of protection with regard to all other types of rights, non-political rights such as freedom rights. This is called the principle of constitutional universality.

Illegal immigrants of course have a much harder time, even in perfect democracies. As they live in the “dark” they will find it difficult to come forward to complain about rights violations or to go to the police or the judge. Doing so will reveal their illegal status and will result in forcible return to their country of origin.

Asylum seekers or refugees have an even harder time because they are usually imprisoned for the duration of their asylum application. And as they are imprisoned, they usually find it difficult to escape into illegality when their application is denied. Compared to normal illegal immigrants, the government knows where they are – in prison – and hence can easily return them to their own country.

The worst off are the modern slaves. Many of them end up in slavery as a consequence of migration and trafficking, but not all. Many modern slaves are normal citizens.

Since citizens generally enjoy the best rights protection, it is a good strategy for non-citizens to try to become citizens. Traditionally, only legal immigrants can apply for citizenship (when some conditions are fulfilled). Asylum seekers, when their application is accepted, become legal immigrants and then they can, in the next step, try to apply for citizenship. If their asylum application is rejected, they are either send back or disappear into illegality. Together with other illegal immigrants, they first have to become legal immigrants (for example through some kind of amnesty measure) before they can hope to apply for citizenship.

What Are Human Rights? (14): Rights of Citizens

Political rights are rights that guarantee participation, directly and through freely chosen representatives, in the affairs of government (mainly legislation). These rights are legitimately reserved for citizens only. A state should guarantee the freedom rights of all persons within its territory, irrespective of their nationality or citizenship, so including the citizens (those people having acquired the nationality of the state by birth, naturalization etc.), immigrants, refugees, stateless people, visitors, tourists etc.

However, political rights may be excluded from this rule because otherwise these rights would become unworkable. This means that people only have political rights in the state of which they are citizens. This in no way limits the universality of political rights. Everybody has political rights, but not everywhere. Furthermore, it must be possible to grant citizenship and the political rights connected to it in a selective way, so as not to empty the meaning of the restriction of political rights to citizens. And this is also what happens in reality. I think there are four good reasons for doing so:

  1. A definition of citizenship purely based on the physical presence within a territory would be too vague. People would enter and leave the community of citizens all of the time and this would create permanent modifications in the image and identity of the political unity (or the political community). This would endanger the stability and the permanence of the state and would allow passing residents to use political rights in order to shape the future of people with whom they have nothing in common. It would therefore be contrary to the democratic ideal of self-control and self-government, an ideal which is the basis of political rights and which I believe to be universally accepted (even tyrannies justify many of their actions on the self-determination of their peoples).
  2. Political rights and citizenship cannot be exercised effectively if the people do not speak a common language (not necessarily their native language). There is no persuasion without mutual understanding and there is no common will without persuasion. On top of that, the effective use of political rights requires that the participants in political life know the political system and the political culture in which they participate. There is even a case to be made for knowledge of general cultural customs as a requirement for granting political rights. All these conditions for the effective use of political rights and hence for citizenship and nationality, seem to imply a further condition, namely a certain stability of residence. It is therefore normal to decide a request for naturalization on the basis of these conditions. However, these conditions do not imply the rejection of multiculturalism. The common language does not have to be the native language and it is possible, in many cases, to know and practice other political and cultural customs without denying your own customs.
  3. Non-citizens usually do not pay taxes. As political decisions often deal with the way in which tax-money should be spent, it seems fair to exclude those who do not contribute to that sum of money. Why should you be allowed to decide what is done with someone else’s money? Let alone spend it for your own purposes?
  4. If a country allows too many people to become its citizens, it can endanger its economic prosperity, especially when the majority of these people are poor and unskilled. This is not egoism. Economic ruin does not help anybody.

Because everybody is not always or cannot always be in his or her own state, and because political rights embody very important human values such as self-government – which means the values of non-citizens as well – we should try to limit the conditions for the enjoyment of these rights by non-citizens to what is absolutely necessary. Foreigners who know the language, the political system and the general culture, who pay taxes and who have lived a certain time in the country should be allowed to enjoy political rights, even when they are not yet citizens in the sense of having acquired the nationality of the country. Not doing so would be discrimination, would lead to frustration and resentment, and would lead to the very problems the first point mentioned above is framed to avoid.

Only freedom rights are universal and come with no strings attached. Citizens and non-citizens alike should have freedom rights everywhere. Freedom rights are the rights of everybody in all places. Political rights are to some extent national rights or rights of citizens only. This does not contradict the principle of the universality of human rights because everybody is a citizen somewhere. Or better, everybody has a right to be a citizen of his or her own state and has a right to be a citizen of a state which protects all the rights of its citizens. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

1. Everyone has the right to a nationality. 2. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.