Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons by Herman Daly

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point in discussing it is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Some allow many legal immigrants. Other countries (China and Japan, for example) allow very few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database, “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.” 

Herman Daly

Herman Daly

Questions of how many immigrants are consistent with the welfare of the receiving community, and which prospective immigrants should get priority, are legitimate, and are answered differently in different countries. There are political arguments in every country for more or for less immigration, and for different selection criteria. There are also arguments about freedom to emigrate—what are the obligations of emigrants to the community that educated and invested in them (e.g. the brain drain)?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves rational discussion. It seems that neither expectation is adequately fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works with today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require a metabolic flow of resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The U.S. is indeed a country of immigrants; but it is also a country of law. Within the rule of law there is a wide range of legitimate opinion about what limits and priorities best balance the interests of the sending and receiving communities, and of the individual migrants. In the US most population growth is due to net immigration, so population stabilization absolutely requires immigration limits. To advocate population stability while refusing to accept limits to immigration is self-contradictory. Some open-borders advocates argue that because population at a global level is the result only of birth and death rates (migration is irrelevant since the Earth does not receive people from other planets)—that therefore nations should not be concerned with immigration as a cause of their own population growth, but only with their own natural rate of increase. This is a non sequitur. With open borders, why would any country any longer try to limit its birth rate, if it is (a) possible to export its excess population, and, (b) impossible to limit its population, given unlimited immigration? Evading an issue by “globalizing” it is a cop-out.

In addition we have in the U.S. a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the U.S. is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. This class division is more important than racial issues, which nevertheless receive more attention because racial discrimination is rightly illegal, whereas class exploitation is often legal, protected by laws that need to be democratically changed—just have a look at the U.S. tax code, or the Citizens United ruling of the Supreme Court.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. has a large population of citizens whose recent ancestors were forcefully brought over as slaves (involuntary immigrants). Many Americans, including me, think that Black American heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races still living in poverty. Other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor—another way of saying lots of poor people! Nevertheless, I would favor temporary legal immigration at about half of the current level of one million per year, but diminishing gradually every year to a level consistent with population stability. Population stability means that births plus immigrants equal deaths plus emigrants.

What immigration policy would critics of U.S. immigration limits advocate for other countries? Say for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

Outside the rule of law there is of course illegal immigration that renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. Again, there are legitimate questions about how best to enforce immigration laws, making the punishment fit the crime, etc. But it is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago.

Some people propose quite a drastic change in immigration law. They advocate a policy of open borders, which at a stroke would do away with illegal immigration and enforcement problems. This is at least a more honest position than just refusing to enforce democratically enacted laws. It is attractive to anarchists, if there are any left, and to libertarians, their modern descendants. Libertarians are mainly found today among neoclassical economists, whose view is that of atomistic individualism. Only the individual is real. The community is just an aggregate of individuals, nothing more. Their focus is on individuals maximizing their own welfare. Since the community is not considered real they commonly neglect effects of mass immigration, both positive and negative, on both the sending and receiving community. They see the world as one big free market, which of course entails free mobility of labor, as well as goods and capital—a globally integrated economy all guided by a global invisible hand—deregulation taken to the limit! In developed countries they are especially interested in opening their borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap- retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected to continue indefinitely.

Even some environmentally-minded economists seem to favor open borders. They  have swallowed the basic atomistic individualism of neoclassical economics while opposing other aspects of the paradigm. Nevertheless, people are in fact not atomistic individuals but persons-in-community—both social and biophysical community. Our very identity as persons is constituted by internal relations in community—with family, friends, and place, including one’s ties to country, biome, customs, religion, language, and history. Community is real and important to the welfare of real persons—it is not just an aggregate of externally related, atomistic, interchangeable individuals—of “economic men” running all over the world in mass numbers seeking their own utility maximization.

Within limits individual freedom to migrate is certainly a value to be protected—including against its own self-defeating extreme of open borders. To make political progress toward consensus on immigration policy we should first clear the air with a “referendum” on the policy of open borders. If that policy is rejected then we can talk seriously about the total number of immigrants and the selection criteria that best balance the needs of all people. If the open-borders policy is adopted then one must forget about controlling the movement of people across national boundaries.

Indeed, open borders eliminates or at least diminishes control of the border crossings of goods and capital as well—something consistently advocated by neoclassical economists under the banner of “free trade” and “globalization”. National boundaries are in effect erased, and without national boundaries there need be no border patrol, indeed no military to defend those former borders—just one big happy “world without borders” in the words of the song. After two world wars the abolition of the nation state admittedly has its appeal—but a “world without borders” is an expression of sentimentality, not reason. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move to one that doesn’t. That is the “world without borders” —and without community either!

Global community must be a “community of communities”, a federation of nations cooperating for a limited number of important global purposes. Erasure of national boundaries would mean that there are no communities left to federate. The invisible hand of the free global market (along with unrestrained global corporations) will unleash growth in global GDP (unhindered by national policies of cost internalization). The population of atomistic cosmopolitan individuals, free from national laws and constraints, will grow with renewed pace. External costs, if recognized at all, will presumably fall on the “non-existent” community, and to the extent that some fall on real individuals, they can be escaped by freely migrating somewhere else.

Realistically however, a policy of open borders obviously invites the tragedy of the open access commons. It is its own reductio ad absurdum, as indicated in the previous paragraph. Probably that is why, in the full world of today, no country practices it, and few people advocate it. Nevertheless, it should be fairly discussed, because some people certainly do advocate it. In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction right-wing economists. The politically correct reflexively label any limits on immigration as thinly disguised “racism”, apparently the only evil they can recognize. The libertarian neoclassicals label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion”, their single cardinal sin. Both consider themselves advanced cosmopolitans, morally superior to the national populists whose “provincial” concern is first for the poor in their own community. This surprising agreement between opposite political extremes in support of open borders is evidence that ideologues of both types have difficulty thinking clearly. Unfortunately, lack of clear thinking—aided by moralistic pretension, ethnic politics, and class interest—is often a political advantage.

 

Herman E. Daly is one of the world’s foremost ecological economists. He is Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. From 1988 to 1994 he was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank. His interest in economic development, population, resources, and environment has resulted in over a hundred articles in professional journals and anthologies, as well as numerous books, including Toward a Steady-State Economy. He is co-author with theologian John B. Cobb, Jr. of For the Common Good which received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order. Over his career, Herman has taken a courageous stance, swimming upstream against the currents of conventional economic thought. Printed with permission.

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Filed under Culture, Ethics, Human Rights, Immigration

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