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My open borders debate with Ben Southwood from the ASI

    Ben has published his post-mortem from our debate yesterday on “open borders” at the Bristol Freedom Society. I thought it might be worth delineating what my argument actually was, so it’s clear to anyone reading Ben’s post:

    I started by explaining that I’m not anti-immigration – in fact, I’m fairly liberal in my policy prescriptions:

    “I’m not a libertarian, but consider myself a classical liberal conservative. I am in favour of a fairly liberal immigration regime, particularly for high skilled workers. I accept evidence on immigration we’ve seen in recent years showing it is likely to have positive fiscal effects for a country like the UK. I accept that there is little evidence that the immigration that has been observed so far has had large effects on workers’ wages or employment, though believe for low skilled workers and people in certain regions there have been negatives. I accept that like trade, immigration can probably raise the productivity growth of the economy by a small amount. I recognise that it can be greatly beneficial for the immigrants themselves. I think immigration has done plenty to enrich our culture – I live in London after all. And I remain unconvinced that the Government’s crude cap on immigration is the way to go about “dealing with” perceived problems. So, I am not anti-immigration – far from it. However, we are not here to debate whether immigration is broadly a good thing or broadly not. Instead, we are here to ask the question: should we support “open borders” – that, to me, seems to be to the idea that it is a right for someone, anyone to move to another country as they so wish – or in the case of the UK, for anybody to be able to come here. It’s a huge leap of faith to do as Ben has done, and use the benefits from existing immigration to extrapolate assuming all institution factors are unchanged in order to justify a completely open border ”

    I made three key lines of argument in suggesting that open borders would be a disastrous policy prescription:

    1.       First I sought to outline that Ben himself didn’t seem committed to open borders as a great rights issue, because he suggested that he would be willing to impose sanctions or conditions in the form of immigrant bonds, restricted civil rights and ability to claim welfare etc. as keyhole solutions to problems that large-scale immigration would throw up. These themselves are restrictions on immigration, albeit as money payments or restrictions of civil rights, rather than quotas or bureaucratic processes, I suggested. “Open borders would imply a right that is absoluteand inalienable”. In reality, I pointed out that the work of Martin Ruhs at Oxford has shown the countries with more porous borders tend to have lower rights for migrants, and those with more restricted borders tend to have more equal rights with existing citizens. This throws up a dilemma for classical liberals and libertarians, and upsets people in the UN. It’s a clash of two of your principles: equality under the law and individual liberty to go into any country. Ben emphasises the second, but it’s not immediately clear why this should trump the first. You either have open borders, or you have restricted migration: whether through bureacuracy, quotas or controlling price (i.e. charging etc).

    2.       I explained that “libertarians, particularly people like Hayek and Friedman, understood that the essence of a free society was founded in its institutions –its laws and customs, the rule of law, the degree to which government was constrained etc. You need a particular set of these institutions in order to make a free society work. More than that, the essence of a successful market economy depends on trust, and institutional cohesion. It is self-evident from looking around the world that there are many people, when given choices, who do not choose the sorts of institutions which make a free society and free economy possible. It therefore becomes extremely dangerous, particularly for a country like the UK where we do not have constitutionally limited government, to completely open your borders to people that do not believe in the same institutions or values that make a free society possible… That’s why I accept the need for restrictions to open border immigration and why I think steps to improve assimilation and control the numbers of immigrants are necessary.” I suggested that many cultures around the world don’t share the values of religious tolerance, for example, and furthermore that in many others people assume that the welfare of individuals is the responsibility of the state. Thus, opening borders completely when lots of huge push and pull factors still exist risks undermining over time the very institutions that make a free economy possible – institutions don’t fall man from heaven, I suggested, but are embedded in the attitudes of the people. Values shape institutions rather than institutions shaping values, hence why it is so difficult to export institutions like-for-like to developing countries.

    3.       Thirdly, I sought to take on the libertarian idea that the perceived problems of immigration were really perceived problems of the welfare state and other existing policies. I suggested that nation states exist and are important – and that differences between countries will always exist countries all the while we have democratic processes. The inevitable consequence of open borders is then that governments can never plan effectively for public goods and services that they have to provide. This creates two competing tensions that are real threats to freedom: first, populations become anti-immigrant and anti-competition. They see unexpected pressure on local services and resent that “our people” are not getting the attention they deserve. Second, it creates a pressure from those who reject the concept of national identity to level the playing field and create harmonised government at a supranational level. The logical end point of this is to create a one world government applying exactly the same regimes of taxes, benefits, regulation, policing services etc. and providing the same levels of health care, education, law and order services etc. But this trend towards a global Leviathan is a deadly threat to freedom in all respects because it remorselessly concentrates power rather than diminishes it. It also means that one of the real escape routes from oppression, the right to emigrate, will have been foregone – because we’d all be ruled in the same way.

    Therefore, on balance I thought immigration had to be managed to a degree, and that the pull factors meant it was far better to have a high-skilled immigration policy than a low-skilled immigration policy. I’d therefore reluctantly accept a restrictive immigration system in order to protect the very institutions that enable a free(ish) society. Instead we should focus on realising gains from free trade and trying to improve institutions in developing countries.

    The discussion afterwards was interesting:

    • Ben sought persistently to try to get me to put a number on how many immigrants and from where it would take before the erosion of institutions I’d alluded to took place. I explained that I didn’t know, but that I did know that the push for more supranational government at an EU level was occurring already often as a result of desire for harmonisation for EU citizens, and that – for example – this undermined Parliamentary sovereignty. Anti-immigrant feeling had also arisen as a result of more open-door like immigration under the last government. I asked Ben why he was sanguine about institutions remaining exactly the same when it was evident that people around the world choose completely different institutions, and that there would be clear pull factors for large numbers to move to Britain.
    • I said that Ben was wrong to extrapolate the benefits of existing restricted immigration for an open door approach. Just because high-skilled immigrants who are let in now are entrepreneurial doesn’t mean all immigrants in an open borders world would be more entrepreneurial than native Britons, I suggested.
    • We fundamentally disagreed on the appropriate level of governing. Ben was extremely relaxed about global government “if it had the right policies”. I consider one world government, and the concentrated power that brings, just about the biggest threat to freedom imaginable.
    • We also profoundly disagreed on the role of government. Ben admitted that he considered it appropriate for governments to seek to maximise global welfare. I suggested that it was evident that most people disagreed with him, including all existing governments, whose policies only direct a small fraction of resources to global non-British citizens.

    All in all, it was a fun debate. Ben won by one vote, after three people had left before the count. But it was clear the room was pretty evenly divided. Given it was a libertarian society I was expecting a drubbing, so I was quite pleased with the overall result!


    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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    Anonymous - About 2568 days ago

    "Given it was a libertarian society I was expecting a drubbing, so I was quite pleased with the overall result!"

    Seriously? I happen to broadly agree with your views on this issue - that's not really the point. It's just that many (most?) "libertarians" are really just people who don't like paying taxes that go to support poor people. Or they dislike regulations that harm their business. Letting poor people live where they want is not part of the "libertarian" agenda.

    I am astonished that you lost. The only explanation I can think of is that voters knew no one was taking any notice, and that the chances of the vote resulting in unrestrained immigration were zero.

    I have no problem with people who believe in a small state - it can be out of selfishness, genuine intellectual belief, enlightened self -interest, and doubtless other motives. My irritation is with so-called "libertarians" whose "libertarianism" does not extend beyond low taxes and light regulation on business. I will grant that Bryan Caplan is actually a libertarian - see his interesting blog post on a similar debate.

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    Anonymous - About 2079 days ago

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