Friday, April 11, 2014

Should Nations Restrict Immigration?

Wielding Power has published its second issue: Should Nations Restrict Immigration?

Congratulations to the winner and finalists!
Winner: Nathan Smith
Finalist: Ethan Deitrich
Finalist: Alexander Celesius

Please use the comments to continue the conversation. What do you think the answer is? What are your thoughts on the essays in the issue?

As long as there aren't too many comments, I will try to respond to them. The winner and finalists may also stop by from time to time this month.

[A few points of order.

First, please be respectful. Imagine this is a conversation after dinner among friends. We're all trying to get to truth together. We want your true, honest thoughts, but ugliness can sometimes emerge when people hide behind computer screens. That has no place here. This is not the place for ad hominem attacks or nasty takedowns. These are controversial, and sometimes emotionally charged, questions, so we're not all going to agree. But respectful disagreement can be profoundly illuminating.

Second, feel free to use a pseudonym if you'd prefer. If you do, please pick a name that's distinguishable (like 'squirrel'). If we have several people called 'anonymous', it's harder to follow the conversation.]


  1. Nathan- I'm curious what you think about the risk of political instability or natavist backlash from open borders. Why do you think those aren't serious concerns?

  2. Ethan - Similarly, I'd like to hear more about why immigration doesn't cause social problems. Why wouldn't open borders cause natives to get angry at the foreigners who come live in their cities and take their jobs by being willing to do the same work for much less?

    1. RKJ-

      That's a great question, and it shows just how much an issue like immigration restriction can be affected by the particular state of affairs in the country at hand.

      I'm no economic expert, nor would I advocate a 100% open immigration policy, but it seems to me that the disparity in the price of labor that has motivated the "outsourcing" trend is so extreme precisely because jobs are outsourced across borders. An Indian worker is willing to work at an American call center in India for half the salary of an American worker in the US because the exchange rate is favorable. The company pays less dollars, but the number of rupees those dollars translate to is a larger percentage of a living wage than it would be in the US. I would argue that for the most part-- certainly not entirely-- the effect would be negated if those Indian workers moved to the US to do the same job. They would find that they simply could not live in the US on the wage paid to them in India.

      The shock of a sudden influx of immigrants, not that it would or should be allowed to happen that way, would increase competition in the job market faster than it could expand to accommodate them, and, as a result, could drive wages down before the system corrects itself. This is why a freer immigration policy must be executed in a controlled, gradual way.

      The real issue, though, is the social tension. Whether the negative effects of immigration exist or not, the public perception of immigrants will be the motive behind native anger. This is why California's Prop 187 was the nightmare that it was; it took latent public misgivings about the incoming Latino population and ramped up a political campaign based on them. The public's discomfort was magnified into anger by the provocative pamphlets and TV spots.

      So, my argument is this:
      Latent tensions and the prospect of temporary economic difficulties may exist as immigrants enter a country. We can respond in two ways.
      First, we can propose to restrict immigration. This preserves the status quo inside the country, but also preserves the global economic disparity occurring across borders. The homogenizing force, diffusion of prosperity, if you will, is stopped cold. Also, garnering political support for restriction bills naturally fosters an "us vs. them" mentality and, even if it is not explicit, intensifies stereotypes and buried racism.

      Or, we could adopt an immigration policy which aims to be freer and more open in a controlled way. If we gradually open immigration, we can minimize-- but not eliminate-- the economic and social shock. I would argue that this has long-term benefits for global society, and it reminds me of desegregation in the United States. Separate and distinct groups of people are brought together not from the slow shift of public opinion, but by one decision: "This is the right thing to do." Will there be social tensions, will there be a new economic landscape, will things be different? Yes, of course, but only for a while. Social diffusion occurs, and over time, you develop a society of equals, with each member considering one another as equals. If we waited for the mindset of equality to spread through the public before we desegregated, we would have waited forever, because the mindset was because of segregation. Opening borders, whether they be social or political, is never easy, but if we commit to it for the goal of equality in the future, we can ride out the hardships as we watch things get better.


    2. Ethan-

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

      You say, "Latent tensions and the prospect of temporary economic difficulties may exist as immigrants enter a country. We can respond in two ways." And then you describe that we can either choose to restrict immigration or make it more open.

      But I'm not sure if we have the luxury of deciding how to respond. Each individual person will respond based on their own beliefs, prejudices, and experiences. Some people, like yourself, will respond by opening their arms to more immigrants. But others won't. The people who do want to restrict immigration will inevitably call for it's restriction. They will protest, call into radio stations, write editorials, or far worse. Politicians interested in their vote will pander to their natavist demands. Or politicians will rise to power who truly desire to restrict immigration. And then the scenario you fear will play out, with the ugliness proportional to the size of the immigration.

      So, I think it's a nice sentiment to say, "we should all hold hands and welcome immigrants", but I think the social forces make the problem inevitable, not one we can choose to avoid.

      Do you disagree?


    3. I suppose by "we," I meant that each individual person, rather than the collective state, can adopt one stance or another.

      The difficulty that you raise is on-point, and it will apply to any matter of public opinion in a democratic society. The road to putting a particular policy into practice is a long one, and the real battle takes place, as you said, in public displays, radio station calls, and editorials.

      It would be nice, indeed, to all hold hands and welcome immigrants, if we could hold hands at all. However, even though we lack unanimity, that does not mean that shifting public opinion is a lost cause.

      That being said, I think it is helpful to think of the political climate as having "inertia." The public policy of a state rides the rails of the status quo, and those who are committed and passionate about differing ideals face the daunting task of overcoming the inertia to steer it in another direction. Just because there will be resistance and objectors doesn't mean it shouldn't be done! Any political movement that has risen from the ground up to "overtake" the public has successfully overcome the existing political inertia. We are seeing this in the present day with policy decisions on marijuana legalization and recognition of same-sex marriage. There was a time when virtually all politicians stood in opposition to these, and now support of them is pushing the majority.

      An ideological movement such as these is a somewhat mysterious sociological phenomenon, to be sure. They begin as fringe opinions, only seeing light on obscure media outlets. The more exposure they get, the more people they convince, and slowly, with the help of "public awareness"-type displays, consideration from scholars and public figures, and possibly, in this era, social media, until someone lands an interview spot on cable news, and it's off and running. The dominoes fall as the major media outlets note the shift in the tides, and sooner or later, a few politicians become convinced, and a major political party may feel compelled to take an official stance.

      So, in short, public policy is hard-won. The problem, as in the collective ideological struggle over immigration, cannot be avoided. In order to attempt to change policy, those with political commitments have to engage the public dialectic and prepare themselves for the long fight, which, I think, no matter what one's commitments are, is worth having for the sake of social progress.


    4. Ethan-

      Thanks. So are you suggesting something that looks like: first, win the ideological battle and sway public opinion very strongly in favor of immigration, and only then, start to really open up the borders? So that when the inevitable back-lash comes, it's from a smaller, already marginalized group that the majority will just ignore as backwards and immoral?

      That's very interesting. Some places like Sweden have succeeded in marginalizing the anti-immigrant point of view, but for a variety of reasons assimilation has been difficult, and high crime rates and high unemployment among immigrants have created a lot of social tension.

      As a result, the anti-immigration party, while still marginalized, has grown considerably in the past few years. And that, of course, just further worsens the assimilation difficulties. It seems that while Sweden is publicly in favor of immigration, privately many native Swedes still continue to see the immigrants as a dangerous 'other' that they don't want to interact with.

      I wonder if that shows a limit to winning the 'moral' battle here. You can get to the point where anyone who opposes immigration publicly is labeled as a bigot, but if you don't have the citizens' private embrace of immigration, it might be something of a hollow victory, where your prize is a fractured society. Human nature and the pull to be surrounded by like-minded people is very strong- people seem to always have cared about 'their' group. My guess is that it is hard to override that.


  3. Alexander- I'm curious to hear more about your argument. Why, for example, shouldn't other states close off their borders to Californians to prevent their states from turning into California?

  4. This is Nathan Smith (the Name/URL option under "Comment as..." isn't working for me). This is cross-posted at:

    In the third issue of Wielding Power, the winning essay in response to the question "Should Nations Restrict Immigration?" is written by me. Open Bordersreaders, an intelligent lot as far as I can tell, might consider submitting to future competitions. The editor, Ryan K. Johnson, who blogs here, is an astute reader and critic, open-minded, and a lover of good arguments, who skillfully outlines the arguments of contributors in the margins. Interestingly, all three winners favored open borders! But Ryan Johnson himself doesn't.

    In a blog post introducing the issue and inviting further debate, Johnson offered me this challenge:

    Nathan- I'm curious what you think about the risk of political instability or nativist backlash from open borders. Why do you think those aren't serious concerns?

    I wouldn't say they "aren't serious concerns," I'd say that these arguments against open borders are overwhelmed by the case in favor. But it's worth explaining why I give them limited weight.

    "Nativist backlash" might mean different things, ranging from scattered grumbling to ferocious ethnic violence. Grumbling is of minor importance. People grumble about high gas prices and the inconvenience of complying with the tax code, but those are minor problems. Violence, of course, would be a dire concern, but first, I doubt it would come to that, and second, it's ethically undesirable to reward violence-prone natives by giving them what they want.

  5. My other response to the "nativist backlash" concern is that, as I explain in the article itself, I advocate taxing migration, and using the proceeds to compensate natives, and I think this would be quite effective in defusing nativist backlash. To the complaint, "They're taking our jobs," would come the answer, "Yes, but we're getting checks in the mail from the IRS, financed by their taxes. Some of us may be earning less, but just about everybody's living standards are higher." I don't think that would completely eliminate nativist backlash. Some would just hate to see the streets cluttered by impoverished foreigners. Maybe some would feel that a certain dignity associated with self-reliance had been lost, and that they'd prefer a lower living standard from one's own wages to a higher living standard financed by foreigners via the government. On the other hand, one would hope that there would be at least some public understanding of the absolutely enormous power of open borders to raise global income and alleviate world poverty, and some pride in being part of that. All in all, if you could get over the huge hurdle of passing open borders (with migration taxes) in the first place, I doubt there would be all that much backlash afterwards.

    Political stability is related to nativist backlash, but in some respects a distinct concern. Even if natives were wholly welcoming, on principle, or because they liked getting immigration-financed checks from the government, immigration might lead to political instability because immigrants would make public opinion more fragmented and multipolar, or because they were more prone to extremism, or tolerant of corruption. And since immigrants to a country like the US would be, on average, much poorer than natives at first, they might have an incentive to vote for distribution.

    Except that they wouldn't have the vote for a while. I advocate a rather long-drawn-out path to citizenship, involving mandatory savings which must be accumulated and then forfeited in return for becoming an American. Immigrants under this visa would have an attractive alternative to staying in America: return home, with a good deal of money to start a new life. Those who don't especially like America, those unwilling or unable to learn the language and assimilate, and those whose economic prospects in America are poor, would probably find it in their best interest to sojourn in America for a few years, then return home to a life of comparative affluence on the money they were forced to save in the US. Those who chose to stay would likely have an economic profile closer to that of natives. How they would vote, I can only speculate; but I doubt they would deviate from natives in a radical or destabilizing way.

  6. Of course, immigrants could destabilize the American polity through street activism or violence. Violence, I consider unlikely. Even if immigrants under open borders numbered well over 100 million, as Gallup has suggested they might (and I agree), they would still be outnumbered by natives, and more importantly, any immigrant group, e.g. based on ethnicity or nationality, would be vastly outnumbered by natives plus other immigrants, who would likely side with natives against violent activism. Fundamentally, immigrants would have agreed to come into the US under certain policies, and while not all of them would continue to accept the legitimacy of those policies, I think most would. People's promises do generally mean something to them. But if systematic, political violence from immigrants were a clear and present danger, that would be a ground for restricting immigration by the groups most inclined to foment it. As for street activism, that wouldn't matter much as long as natives are unpersuaded by their protest slogans. If crowds of immigrants march through the streets demanding equal taxes and voting rights, natives can just shrug and say, "Whatever. When you came, you agreed yourself to pay extra taxes and not have the right to vote. You're a lot better off than you were in Bangladesh. Get over it."

    In his response to my essay in the issue itself, Johnson writes:

    Is there no value in the group and its culture?

  7. The short answer here is "Of course there is... but what does that have to do with anything?" I have a network of friends, family, and acquaintances that I value so much, that without them, life would lose much, perhaps most, of its meaning and value. But to suggest that that's a reason to exclude immigrants is prima facie a complete nonsequitur. How do the immigrants impair my enjoyment of this network of friends at all, let alone significantly? Would they somehow clog the channels of communication, so that I couldn't send my friends text messages or e-mails? Would they create so much traffic on the roads that I couldn't visit my friends?

    Yet it may the case-- here, see Robert Putnam's work on social capital and immigration-- that immigration dilutes the population of people who are enough "like me" to have valuable interactions. Maybe there's a lot of value in just being able to walk down the street and start socializing with the first person you meet, having enough in common with them to make this feasible and worthwhile. Let in lots of immigrants, and you have to start picking and choosing who to interact with, if you want to avoid the labor of constantly trying to bridge large cultural gaps. Maybe.

    But my experience suggests otherwise. There just don't seem to be many occasions where significant, valuable actions occur that aren't filtered by some social setting. Thus, I make friends among colleagues, that is, among people selected for profession and institutional affiliation to resemble me. I make friends at my church, that is, I make friends with people self-selected for a highly specific set of beliefs and values. I have friends from grad school, that is, from a selective educational institution which we both attended. Etc.

    I have a feeling that fifty years ago, the US was less fissiparous and fragmented, and that a kind of grass-roots solidarity with the neighbors was more of a reality than it is today. We may have paid a high price for that in conformism and the suppression of creativity and authenticity, and a kind of cultural liberation has taken place which has been at once exhilarating and alienating. That may be the reason for my impression that mere neighborhoods are no longer an important kind of community, and the kinds of community that do matter are immune to geographical dispersion. Whether immigration restrictions would be justifiable if neighborhood solidarity were a more important form of community is a large too large a question for me to deal with just now. (But I think not.)

    Meanwhile, never forget that immigration restrictions separate groups as well as binding them together (if they actually do the latter at all). Many people are separated from loved ones by borders.

  8. (This has been cross-posted here:


    Thanks for your in depth response. One of the most interesting things about political arguments is how our personal political beliefs color how we view everything. Our beliefs color both what we think is likely and (more critically) what we think is important.

    Your well-argued, prize-winning essay eloquently stakes out your beliefs. And your response here echoes that. So I know that my odds of changing your view is close to zero. But you raise many interesting points, and the only way to get closer to truth on matters like these is through continual, thoughtful discussion. Both of us could be wrong, but by carefully explaining our reasons, we'll both greatly sharpen our thinking. And we may enable someone else to get even closer to the truth.

    Allow me to briefly sketch your reasons before I respond to them. That way we're on the same page.

    1. Nativist Backlash

    First, you think the risk of violence is too small to worry about. And you think it's wrong to pander to that concern. Second, you think that discontent that doesn't rise to violence is a minor concern. Third, you think that taxing immigrants and redistributing would effectively diffuse this risk.

    2. Political Stability

    First, you describe a drawn-out path to citizenship with forced savings that I don't recall from your essay. You describe how this would weed out those who 'fit' the least well. Second, you consider violence unlikely and street activism unimportant/ineffective.

    3. Value of the Group and its Culture

    First, you interpret this issue as referring to family and friends and call it a nonsequitur. Second, you say, "mere neighborhoods are no longer an important kind of community, and the kinds of community that do matter are immune to geographical dispersion."

  9. That's a lot of interesting points, and I can't hope to cover them all. Instead, I'll focus on the point I think is most important: the Value of the Group and its Culture.

    As I detail in my essay, I think this is where the heart of the matter lies. And the way you responded is very telling. You automatically assumed I was speaking of friends and family and dismissed that out of hand. But for many people, including myself, the nation itself has value. I love America, and Americans. Many (though certainly not all) soldiers join the military to defend their country. People take pride in their nation, what it stands for, and its culture. It helps form a vital collective identity.

    Now, it's obvious that that notion doesn't mean much to you, and to the extent you acknowledge it, you probably view it as a defect of human psychology that needs to be overcome for the sake of morality. And that's your deeply held political belief, which is great. You are doing a wonderful thing by trying to convert others to your belief. In some sense, that's the best humans can do for morality- a constant debate over ethical and political beliefs.

    But it is important to recognize that many others hold equally strong and opposite beliefs. I, for example, believe nations and national cultures are profoundly important, and the idea of blending them all into a grey slurry by opening the world's borders strikes me as wrong and unethical. We could choose to point fingers at each other and decry each other as immoral. But I prefer an honest, open discussion. Like I said earlier, we probably can't convince each other. And at least one of us (and probably both of us) are wrong about this question.

    For what it's worth, my bet is that in 500 or 1000 years, if humans have survived the onslaught of technology, your view will be the dominant one. My guess is that the technological and corresponding economic progress will link the world together so tightly that a world-government will be seen as necessary and inevitable to smooth the 'barbaric free-for-all' between individual states. One world government will be required to oversee and 'regulate' the one world market and powerful technology. Just as happened with the United States, in time people will shift from viewing themselves as citizens of their country first and citizens of the world second, to being citizens of the world first and citizens of their country second. And so, countries will stick around and function much like US states do today. People will come and go between countries freely, and view the current order of things as backwards. But that day has not yet come, and it isn't really a future that I'd cheer on.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful reply.