morals of migration

Goods move quickly and freely across the globe and it is difficult to say exactly why we endow commodities with this dignity when surely human beings should afford greater liberties than an inert object.

One of the basic issues against immigration is fear. Fear that migrants will take our jobs and marry our daughters. It is a threat to the opportunity that we think we should have and an obstacle to our well being.

Alexander Tabarrok, a George Mason University economist, thinks that we should remove all borders completely and allow people to roam freely, which to me also represents a Utopian ideal – something I don’t shy away from but also something I do not hold against anyone who disagrees. It is perhaps a fault of this article that I don’t investigate the practical aspects that could make more immigration a reality without also stirring up racial conflict and further stratifying society — I’m restricting my scope to what should and should not be.

It is lamentable, that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind. – Voltaire

The American Conservative posted a response to Alexander Tabarrok’s article in the Atlantic and the rebuttal’s best argument is that a country should be no different than property rights. If an individual can deny a person entry into his home, Gene Callahan argues, then a nation ought to also have the right to turn away a person at its borders. This is, runs the argument, because someone’s home is like a small government and because all social groups have the right to turn away whom they choose. Now, Callahan admits that “nation-states are not families, or economics departments, or businesses.” But he is a little less clear on what those differences are and suggests that if we have open borders, then Bill Gates should allow anyone, including homeless people, to come and live in and enjoy his $147M house.

The difference between a nation and property rights is first of all that property-rights are based on the family as a social unit, which in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is listed as “the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.” The family unit has a higher level of autonomy than a country, which as a meta-structure is based on shared interests; the laws that govern an atom aren’t the laws that govern a molecule because often a molecule is more than the sum of its parts. The second difference is that Callahan’s analogy would be more complete if Bill Gates willingly rented out rooms in his mansion, which would constitute an exchange, which is fundamentally what property rights enable us to do – it increases our ability to reallocate resources. A more apt analogy might be to consider a borderless nation like an apartment building, where no resident in the apartment building, not even collectively, has the right to turn away a rent-seeking applicant based on distinctions of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, birth or any other status. In an apartment building, the applicant is evaluated based on objective measures such as credit worthiness and income. When an immigrant is absorbed into a country, they are also evaluated based on objective measures, which determine whether the immigrant is able to secure a job and or housing, and this turns the discussion away from morality into an issue of economics, which we shall visit in a moment.

Veil of Ignorance

As I’m thinking about the morality of immigration I’m reminded of Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance, which is a framework used in establishing morally just rules. The idea behind it is to imagine being blind-folded or veiled behind some wall which prevents you from knowing in advance where you will end up in a game, system, or society. In other words, imagine that you were responsible for creating the rules of the game and then that you were randomly assigned to a particular social class, race, and country, then what rules would you establish? Given that there was a high probability of ending up in a poor country, would you create rules that would limit your mobility? The spirit of the thought experiment is similar to asking an older brother to split a chocolate bar anyway he likes and then to give his younger sibling a choice between the two pieces; he will quickly realize that in order to maximize his share he will need to split the bar evenly. I believe that most people would choose not to limit mobility because doing so would give the fortunate few an unfair advantage but that argument depends on the economic costs to society that come from mobility, which we now address.

Economics of Migration

A sensible economic argument is that wages should fall as the supply of labor increases. As migrants move from one country to another, the supply of labor falls in the country that they are moving away from and rises in the country that they are moving towards. For example, if a migrant is moving from Mexico to the United States, migration should cause an upward pressure on wages in Mexico, and downward pressure on wages in the US.


Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development shows that the downward price pressure in the US is much lower and is actually close to zero and is much higher in Mexico. And why might this be? Clemens elaborates:

when people leave a country, they tend to be pretty good substitutes for the other workers in that country. But workers that arrive in a country tend to be very different from the workers that surround them. Often they have much lower — or much higher — education levels, for example, and tend to complement workers in the workforce. That’s just one of the reasons why the overall effect on wages of workers in the countries that migrants go to is very low, and typically measured around zero.

A similar thing happened in the 1950’s and 1960’s when millions of women entered the workforce for the first time. Because they weren’t exactly identical to men, they complemented rather than competed with men, leading to modest downward pressure on wages. Moreover, both women and migrants spend money they make on goods and services made by other people, which recycles the benefit through the economic machine. Some argue that migrants should leave the workforce, yet would you also say that the US would be better off by banning women from the workforce?

A Stunning Figure

The consensus of economic research is that tens of trillions of dollars is left on the table partly because of our immediate fears that we might be losing our precious low-skilled jobs to immigrants. The graph below shows a range of Economist’s estimates and also that the effect of removing trade barriers to goods (not of people) might increase the global economy’s GDP by only 1.7%. But allowing people to roam freely on our planet could double the global GDP, leading to an increase of about 108 percent.

For labor mobility barriers, the estimated gains are often in the range of 50-150 percent of world GDP.

This is of course an extreme case because it assumes people are completely free to move, but even a very moderate increase in labor mobility could be hugely beneficial. F.ex. if only 5% of the population could roam freely, then Michael Clemens argues that this would add trillions of dollars to the world economy.

In a survey of 15 European countries, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that for every 1 per cent increase in a country’s population caused by immigration, its GDP grew between 1.25 and 1.5 per cent.

The Welfare System

It is often presumed that immigrants put a strain on benefit systems. This is also not borne out by the evidence. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which represents 34 of the world’s wealthiest nations, calculates that its immigrants on average pay as much in taxes as they take in benefits. In a comprehensive article by The New Scientist, it is moreover reported that EU workers in the UK take less from the benefits system than native Brits do.

How can we feel closer?

First of all, Nationalism is what makes us feel separate, so it helps to understand what it means. As shown below, all countries consistently pay particular attention to language as the foremost nationalistic expression and Western European countries like Britain and the Netherlands place a particularly huge premium on it. Language is the national collective glue and it is also one of the main barriers towards global unity and the birth of the “global citizen”. Fortunately, language is something we can learn and is much easier to change than one’s place of birth. The best way to graduate out of our socioeconomic-centered sense of identity and to expand out of a fixation on national boundaries, laws, and material achievement is to consciously and actively promote a universal language – any one of them (English if that is the easiest).


The Age Gap

It might also be worth noting that the resistance to immigration is in part driven by age differences. Below is a chart, which shows the percentage of people who strongly oppose immigration by age group. So, one thing that will automatically continue to bring us closer is time and patience as the younger generation comes to replace and fill the shoes of the older generation who is more likely to hold on to values centered around maintaining the status quo, security, and a local sense of brotherhood. A future where we are “the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch” awaits us and we either adapt to that future or forever resist in conflict and consternation.



About Esotariq

Quantitative Finance Professional with a passion for happy living, self-improvement, nutrition, and minimalist running over maximalist distances.