Guest post: What an Enlightened Immigration Policy Would Look Like (Nathan Smith)

Guest post: What an Enlightened Immigration Policy Would Look Like

-By Nathan Smith

Lars suggested that I follow up on my guest post about the global economic impact of open borders, with some policy advice about what advanced nations ought to be doing. Maybe that sounds like a short post blog. Mustn’t an open borders advocate’s advice on immigration policy be simply… “Do nothing”? Send the employees of ICE and USCIS home. Stop checking passports at the airport. Lay off the State Department’s consular officers. Fire the Border Patrol. Laissez faire.

Well, no, it’s not quite that simple. Being a sort of Burkean conservative, I prefer, even when justice ultimately demands a radical departure from the status quo, to arrive at justice by a path of gradualism and compromise. I prefer to leave traditional privileges intact as much as possible, and not to make anyone worse off than he is accustomed to be. That said, the moral law prohibits certain actions, and governments today do many things in the name of immigration enforcement that are morally impermissible, things which have the moral character of crime. For example, the US government separated an estimated 1 million family members by deportation in 1997-2007. Governments must recognize that absolute control over who resides in their territory, which the hubris of the 20th-century state has claimed as part of “sovereignty,” cannot be achieved by morally permissible means, and must be abdicated.

But first, what would an efficient immigration policy look like? The slogan Don’t restrict immigration, tax it (DRITI) expresses the core of my answer to this question, and I use “DRITI” as the umbrella term for policy proposals in Chapter 9 of my book (also see here).

It was in 2006 that I first published the idea of taxing rather than restricting migration. For an economist, it is rather obvious. The standard prescription in trade policy is to embrace free trade, and if you’re concerned about the fate of people in import-competing industries, tax the winners to compensate the losers. This works even better in the case of migration, because one major group of winners—the immigrants themselves—is easily identifiable and has a distinctive legal status. Many, including Richard Vedder and Gary Becker, have proposed replacing arbitrary bureaucratic discretion with an explicit pricing mechanism as a means of regulating migration. An economist cannot but be appalled at seeing decisions highly consequential for individuals’ lives being made on the basis of meaningless criteria such as (to quote USCIS) whether “there are insufficient available, qualified, and willing U.S. workers to fill [a given] position at the prevailing wage.” Other advanced nations, too, try to tailor migration to meet specific labor market needs, as if they were Gosplan. Some sort of price mechanism is obviously the rational substitute. I compared these proposals in an Open Borders: The Case blog post, “Auctions, Tariffs, and Taxes,” but I am convinced that Vedder’s and Becker’s proposals are suboptimal and mine is the best approach.

I plan at some point to estimate numerically the economic consequences of adopting DRITI in the US or the UK, but for the moment, I can only offer back-of-the-envelope calculations. Suppose the USA adopts DRITI, and 200 million immigrants arrive. They pay an average $10,000 of migration taxes per annum. The US government receives $2 trillion annually in migration tax revenue, enough to finance an average transfer of about $7,000 per US citizen. Since the 2012 poverty line for a family of four (in the 48 contiguous states and DC) was $23,050, DRITI could, under this scenario, eliminate “poverty,” in the official sense of that word, among US natives. For the UK, a Gallup poll finds that at least 45 million want to emigrate there. If they came, and paid an average of ₤6,000 per person per year in migration taxes, these revenues could finance an average of ₤4,500 in extra transfers, tax cuts, and public services per British citizen.

In addition to migration taxes and transfers to natives, my plan would have a forced saving aspect to it. Money would be deducted from migrants’ paychecks, and deposited in savings accounts, from which it could only be withdrawn, by the migrant, on the physical territory of his or her home country. If not withdrawn, these savings would accumulate up to a certain threshold, say $50,000 or ₤30,000, at which point the migrant could apply for citizenship, at the cost of forfeiting their forced savings.

Migrant savings accounts serve two purposes. First, they would channel more of the gains from freedom of migration into lifting poor countries out of poverty, by encouraging many migrants to go home, bringing with them the skills, savings, connections, and new social norms and values they’ll gain as sojourners in more advanced countries. Second, it should help to allay rich countries’ fears about their institutions being “swamped.” Migrants would only vote after first showing their value to the host country by earning money in it, then showing by a financial sacrifice the value they place on citizenship in it. The new citizens could be expected to be disproportionately skilled, productive, and patriotic for their new homelands.

The world is too complex and random for a criterion like “Pareto improvement” ever strictly to apply, but in rough terms, DRITI would be a Pareto improvement over the status quo. Many natives in rich countries, especially the unskilled, would earn less under DRITI due to competition from immigrants. But lost earnings would be offset by government transfers. Immigrants would presumably be better off, despite the taxes and forced savings, else they would not come. Those who stayed behind in poor countries would benefit from reduced wage competition and the beneficent impact of return migrants and diasporas on capital formation, institutions, and technological diffusion.

But is it just? Under DRITI, citizens and immigrants would be treated unequally. Why should a person receive transfers from the government just because they had the good luck to be born in the US or western Europe? Why should a person have to pay special taxes just because they were born abroad? While that may not be fair, DRITI is clearly fairer than the current system, which excludes most potential migrants altogether. Enormous differences in one’s access to the good life based on the accident of where one was born are one of the most appalling and indefensible features of global capitalism today. DRITI would not eliminate that inequality, but all its impact would be in the direction of mitigating it.

If DRITI is such a good idea, why isn’t it already the law of the land? Why would anyone oppose a policy Pareto-superior to the status quo? For one thing, I believe people are addicted to the border as blindfold. They want the government to keep poverty out of their field of vision so that they can be prosperous in a world full of dire poverty, while feeling morally upright. To mention this motive is to discredit it.

Many also seem to have an odd notion that a nation’s people are morally obligated to take care of people who happen to be physically located on the national territory, but not otherwise, so they can exclude people physically, in order to avoid incurring moral obligations to give them material aid. At Open Borders: The Case, we call this fallacy “territorialism.” I don’t know how to argue against it, since I am not aware of any argument in its favor against which to direct my fire. I regard its falsity as self-evident. But I tried to argue against it indirectly in my 2010 book Principles of a Free Society, by re-exploring the moral and historical foundations of political freedom.

There would be a national security exception to the principle of open borders—terrorist suspects and career criminals may legitimately be excluded, for citizens’ safety—and maybe for carriers of contagious diseases. It is also important to insulate the welfare state from immigration, by making immigrants ineligible for welfare and perhaps various other government benefits. If Milton Friedman really said that you can’t have open borders and a welfare state, it was an uncharacteristic blunder on this part. You can have a welfare state for natives and freedom of migration for foreigners who want to come and work for a living, or possess independent means. But to make open borders fiscally sustainable, rich countries’ governments would probably have to target taxpayer-funded benefits to natives and a few naturalized citizens, and have ways to deny them to most resident foreigners. My DRITI proposal requires immigrants, upon receiving a visa, to make a deposit sufficient to pay for the cost of sending them home if they become destitute.

Under DRITI, deportation would be abolished. Minor exceptions aside, foreigners would have a right to be on US soil, and illegal immigrants would breach the law only by failure to pay the deposit. The logical penalty would therefore be a fine. Since it’s much cheaper, pleasanter, and safer to come to the US legally on a bus or plane, than in a shipping container or on foot through the Arizona desert, making a legal option generally available could be expected to render illegal immigration a negligible phenomenon. So DRITI would restore the rule of law, which has proven so elusive under the status quo.

Some deny that I’m an open borders advocate, because they don’t think a universal DRITI regime would qualify as “open borders.” I think it would, because people would be allowed to move anywhere, even if they wouldn’t necessarily be treated “equally” (whatever, if anything, that means) with the locals everywhere they went. Semantics aside, I would rather see a universal DRITI regime established than “pure” open borders (with no migration taxes), at least in the short run, in order to safeguard social institutions and prevent a negative economic shock to the Western working class. Yet DRITI is still rather a rather radical reform, and I might favor gradualist approaches even to this compromise policy, but human rights considerations give me pause.

Human rights is a difficult subject, but too important to neglect. In discussing them, I am partly handicapped, but perhaps partly helped, too, by my lack of legal training. Legal knowledge would help me to think clearly and foresee the ramifications of rights-claims, but what one most needs to discern human rights is a conscience, and conscience is blunted in some lawyers by the habit of flattering the powerful and defending any and every party that might hire them.

I see the history of human rights—formerly called “natural rights” or (by Adam Smith) “natural liberty”—as a tug-of-war between (a) a growing appreciation of what human beings need, in order to flourish and realize the potentialities of their nature, persistently fostered by art, philosophy, religion, and civil society, and woven into the scruples and sensibilities of classes and nations, and (b) many factors, including moral laxity, coarse cynicism, corruption, tyranny, religious or revolutionary enthusiasm, the exigencies of war, the envy of the poor, and the acquisitiveness of the rich, which induce people to wrong their fellow human beings. Moral progress must perpetually struggle against backsliding, and often has a reactionary character. We codify and sanctify human rights when we are determined to say “never again” to a French Revolution or a Nazi genocide.

Indeed, while mankind really has made moral progress in the course of history—the abolition of slavery and polygamy, and the establishment of freedoms of religion and speech, are the most important advances—the assumption that moral progress is natural and inevitable is dangerous and corrupting. People often slip into feelings of complacent superiority to ancestors who were better than themselves. They may also commit terrible crimes for the sake of a misguided vision of moral progress, as in the case of the Soviets, who would have perpetrated such great evils had they not had before their eyes a lofty vision of socialist utopia. The most durable advances of human rights are made in a spirit of reclamation and restoration, not revolution. The slaveless world for which William Wilberforce and the abolitionists strove had already been a solid societal fact in the European Middle Ages, still largely intact on the European continent itself, though betrayed in the new European dominions of the New World. Open borders advocates, too, do not champion something new, but rather, seek to reverse disastrous innovations by the 20th-century state. We want little more than to restore freedom of migration as it existed in the Victorian era.

An example of the kind of anxieties that can give rise to moral progress is furnished by the contemporary United States, where a feeling has grown in recent years that it is unacceptable to deport people who, though never authorized by the government to live in the USA, came here as children and have no other home. Obama’s DACA policy, though legally anomalous, seems to be driven by the moral necessity of halting the deportation of innocent child migrants. But by appearing to recognize a right of minors to stay in the US, DACA has probably helped to trigger the “unaccompanied child” crisis at the border. When Americans see thousands of children being held by force in detention camps along the border, they feel that it is wrong, but why exactly? What moral principles are being trespassed? What ought we to do? Such efforts to understand what conscience is demanding of us can enrich our understandings of human rights, and lead to moral progress.

Civil disobedience is often the midwife of insights about human rights. A person like Martin Luther King in the civil rights era, or Jose Antonio Vargas and my co-blogger Michelangelo Landgrave in our times, openly does what is against the law, but is not morally wrong, and thereby becomes a walking, talking reductio ad absurdum of the law, a proof that the law and the right have parted company, and the law is therefore illegitimate. But to understand why the law is illegitimate, and how it must change to recover its legitimacy, involves an inquiry into human rights.

Now, I have sometimes written of a “right to migrate,” but, strictly speaking, I do not assert a general right to migrate across international frontiers just because one wishes to. (I assert rather that there is a liberty of international migration, using a distinction between rights and liberties which I learned from Anthony de Jasay, because there is generally no one with a proper right to use force to prevent it… but I won’t venture into those subtleties here.) However, conscience compels me to assert a human right to international in certain cases.

First, I believe the human rights consensus has come to recognize a right to emigrate, yet even as the international community condemns regimes that prohibit emigration, it fails to guarantee the right to emigrate by ensuring that everyone has somewhere to go. How can it be a human rights violation when Soviet Russia, or Communist China, or North Korea, forces citizens to stay home, but not when the rest of the world conspires to force people to stay home by denying them visas? Countries that, by refusing to accept people as immigrants, force them to live under regimes that oppress and persecute them, are serving as jailors for those regimes, and share in their guilt. This ought to change.

Second, families have a right to be together. Attachments to spouse and children often are, and should in any case be presumed to be, as central to a person’s identity and needs as the integrity of the body itself. To deprive a mother of her children, even for a short time, might be a crueler form of torture than severe physical pain, and other family separations can also cause extreme distress. Governments whose migration restrictions prevent parents and children, brothers and sisters, spouses, or those desiring to marry, from being together, violate human rights. People’s mutual needs for one another’s society may extend beyond family to friends and communities, such that governments wrong such people by forcibly separating them.

Third, the right to use and develop one’s own personality and property may sometimes entail a right to invite certain people. For example, a community chorus might need to recruit a pianist from Korea, a farmer to recruit harvesters for his crops from Mexico, or a parish to recruit a priest from Russia or Africa. Governments that prevent migration by force in such cases wrongfully interfere with hospitality and the flourishing of their subjects.

Now, a universal DRITI scheme would satisfy both the desideratum of efficiency, and that of respecting human rights. But, if I am told that DRITI is too radical, and that I must compromise further, or if I am asked to propose intermediate steps by which the world might establish a universal DRITI scheme by gradual steps, I would split my advice between measures to achieve efficiency by partially implementing DRITI, and measures to bring policy into line with the urgent moral imperative to respect human rights. On the one hand, I would reserve welfare benefits to natives, introduce migration taxes, implement DRITI through bilateral and multilateral deals, perhaps among relatively close or similar countries like the USA and Great Britain, and curtailing bureaucratic discretion in migration control wherever possible. On the other hand, I would call for a worldwide archipelago of passport-free charter cities, in order to make the right to emigrate a global reality, even if many continued to be denied access to the developed democracies. I would call for a major expansion of citizens’ rights to invite and sponsor international visitors. I would call for family reunification to be recognized as a natural, prepolitical entitlement that states must accommodate without delays and discretionary obstacles. I would demand a complete, permanent, and global prohibition on the forcible separation of families by deportation. I would demand that long-term residency in a country, and especially residency that starts during childhood, be recognized as conferring permanent residency and a right to work, though not to citizenship or political representation. But as this human rights agenda would make comprehensive migration restrictions even more unenforceable than they already are, the destination of the changes could only be open borders.

Ultimately, the efficiency case for open borders and the human rights case for open borders converge and supplement one another, a little like the Good Cop and the Bad Cop in police movies. The Utilitarian Advocate shows why we should want to open the world’s borders to migration, the Human Rights Advocate shows why we must. The Utilitarian Advocate lures us on with glittering promises of prosperity. The Human Rights Advocate goads us forward with the whip of a guilty conscience.

The intelligent restrictionist says: “I can see that it seems very wrong when deportation forcibly separates families, or when children are deported who grew up here and have no other home. But suppose we let them stay. Amnesty sets a precedent. If we let these ones stay, others will want to come, in order to benefit from the next amnesty. You’ll make the same objections to deporting those people as you do to deporting these. Then, if we listen to you, and let those people stay too, the precedent will be reinforced, and people will expect the next amnesty all the more confidently. In the end, we’ll lose control of the border altogether. What will that lead to?”

Here the Utilitarian Advocate answers: “Well, at most, it will lead to open borders, and that’s probably a good thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty here, but as best we can guess, open borders will roughly double world GDP, with the benefits falling disproportionately to the poorest members of mankind. Human geography will be transformed forever, as billions of people will migrate in search of a better life, and find it. In the West, investors and landowners, and probably some skilled workers too, will see big gains. It’s true that a lot of people in the Western middle and working classes will face a difficult transition and may end up worse off than before. But for mankind as a whole, open borders will be very beneficial.”

To this, the intelligent restrictionist replies: “All right, fair enough. I know you have reason to think open borders will be good for the world. But the best that can be said for these projections is that they’re the best on offer right now. They’re still very tenuous, simplistic, and even jejune. Surely one runs at least a slight risk of societal collapse, by adopting policies that, according to you, will triple the West’s population, and make Westerners minorities in their own countries. Open borders could fray the social fabric beyond repair. There are risks of crime, of terrorism, of contagious disease, of class alienation, of new and dangerous ideologies spreading, of revolution. Democratic norms could be undermined, with incalculable effects on the legitimacy of governments and the maintenance of civil peace. We in the West have built a remarkably peaceful and prosperous society, and our peace and prosperity seem to be spreading to the rest of the world, if more slowly than one might wish. Are we supposed to gamble all that solid good for the sake of your castle in the clouds?”

And here the Human Rights Advocate answers: “And to appease these vague fears of yours, you would seize innocent children, and send them to countries they hardly know? You would separate families by force? You would lay waste to verdant agricultural landscapes, so that in a world not free from hunger, good fruit will rot upon the ground for lack of harvesters? You would deny people living in terror under totalitarian tyrants the chance to escape from living nightmares? It would be easier to forgive these cruel and destructive actions, if you did them in the face of some dire, immediate peril. But while you speak of crime, crime has been plummeting in your country, so that on the vast majority of your streets one may walk without fear, not only in broad daylight, but in the middle of the night. You speak of threats to civil peace, but there has hardly been a country in the history of the world where the civil peace is as secure as it is in yours today. You speak of contagious diseases when modern medicine has vaccinated you against the great plagues of the past, and few of you have suffered a contagious disease much worse than the flu. You speak of the social fabric being frayed, but what does that mean? Do you mean that in a world of open borders, you might be less likely to invite the neighbors over for a beer and the Saturday night football game? Aren’t you ashamed even to suggest that such a minor harm could be set in the balance, when the alternative includes people being forced to live in terror under totalitarian tyrants, parents being separated indefinitely from their young children, and destitute people being denied the chance to earn their daily bread? You speak of class alienation as a danger to be avoided, yet today, a favored fifth of humanity is born to privilege in wealthy countries, while billions around the world are born to lifelong poverty, political repression, and/or fear of violence, which your migration restrictions make it difficult or impossible for them to escape. What moral evil can you possibly see in any class-stratified society that might emerge in the West, which is not exceeded ten-fold by the injustices of our current system of global apartheid?

“By all means, let us be vigilant for any sign of the dangers you fear. If we see such signs, let us consider what precautions to take. If at some time in the future, there really is strong evidence that we are on the brink of catastrophe, we might even condone desperate measures, such as the forcible separation of families, the ruination of valuable property, and the exile of innocent people to countries they hardly know. But you are carrying out these extreme measures when you are well-fed, well-housed, and in no fear of violence, from a mere ideological obsession, unrelated to any real, solid, substantive human good, with ‘sovereignty.’ Come to your senses now, and do the right thing. It may not prove so difficult and dangerous in reality, as you have painted it in your dark daydreams.”