Strong opinions, weakly held

Thinking abstractly about immigration

The other day I was reading a web page about Jane Jacobs’ theories of cities. There was something on it that made me think about immigration:

Thinking in terms of national economies smears over the economic facts. Once we take off these lenses, we can see that the world consists not of developed and poor nations, but of dynamic and poor regions. One of the great advantages of this point of view, in fact, is that we become aware of the backward regions in the First World, and realize that they follow the same dynamics as the Third World. These days they may be comfortable enough due to transfer payments from richer regions, but they are economically passive nonetheless.

In this country, we allow people to migrate freely from one part of the country to another. If you are born in a fading town in Kansas and want to move to Chicago to seek employment, there are no barriers to doing so. If you want to move from a state with poor schools and a low level of social services to one with excellent schools and more generous policies, you are free to do so. By the same token, someone who’s made millions of dollars in Hollywood can move to Montana and live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. No states have collapsed economically or threatened to secede as a result.

The obvious question to me, is, shouldn’t this be our goal on a global basis as well? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if it were practical to let people live wherever they like? I’m not saying that every nation should just open its borders tomorrow, but I think that it would make sense to pursue policies that get us closer to this ideal, both in terms of immigration and in terms of economic policy.

The European Union has not collapsed in spite of opening up its immigration laws so that citizens of any EU country can work in any other. What would it take to enable us to have open borders with Canada and Mexico, for starters?

I realize that there is a large group of people who think that there’s something special about nationhood, and that the idea of relegating national borders to a status more like that of state borders, county borders, and city lines is utter insanity, but I find their position absurd.


  1. Rafe, you are beginning to sound more and more like a libertarian 🙂

    I agree with you with regards to open immigration. A free and open economy needs free and open immigration.

    There are two main challenges to open immigration. Foremost is our government’s generosity. Does being in this country guarantee a person the right to free healthcare, a free education, free food stamps, etc? If it does, we will attact the type of people we DO NOT want in this country. The second challenge is national secuirty. Of course, we do a poor job securing our borders right now, so open immigration wouldn’t make this worse. However, it is still an issue that needs to be tackled. We should know who we let into this country, how long and where they plan to stay and the nature of their visit.

    My $0.02 worth, inflation sucks! You just don’t get much for your money anymore 🙂

  2. Jeff: Does being in this country guarantee a person the right to free healthcare, a free education, free food stamps, etc?

    I’ve been in this country my whole life and I have yet to see any of this free healthcare, education and food stamps you mention. Where are they? I’m tired of paying $600/month for jakey healthcare!

    We should know who we let into this country, how long and where they plan to stay and the nature of their visit.

    That hasn’t been an issue in the 230 years of this country’s existence. One might claim that 9/11 changed everything, but take the example of the various nutjobs we grew here right at home: “Anthrax terrorist(s)”—as yet uncaught—and Timothy McVeigh/Terry Nichols, Jim Jones, Son of Sam, Richard Rodriguez, David Koresh (maybe), etc. All of these individuals caused extensive loss of life/terror, and no amount of border controls would have stopped them.

    Personally, I’d rather take the funds we’re going to throw at the problem (with dubious results) and actualy invest it in ourselves, either via better schools or healthcare.

  3. If you are born in a fading town in Kansas and want to move to Chicago to seek employment, there are no barriers to doing so.

    is this really true? what about if you share a truck with your whole family and have no other means of transportation (let alone money to fly)? what if your shack lifestyle in Arkansas is built around subsistance farming and a barter economy, and you have no way to house or feed yourself in a new town until employment appears? I think we’re pretty far from having true portability, especially from the places most worth escaping. (look at how many people stuck around in New Orleans waiting for Katrina because they had a dog or no car or . . .)

  4. Sorry, I meant no legal barriers. Obviously there are logistical barriers, but that’s true of moving from one country to another as well.

  5. Excellent and concise anlysis. I just wanted to make the point that allowing inmigrants to stay in the country doesn’t mean providing free healthcare, etc to them. Most illegal inmigrants have jobs and many of them pay taxes which entitles them in my opinion to some type of benefit. The point is, with legalization, those who don’t pay taxes now will be more likely to do so and this will be an big advantage over the status quo.


  6. What’s absurd is your willingness to disregard the entire aparatus of government and the fundamental social contract upon which it rests – consent of the governed.

    What is the benefit of just wishing away national laws and the national interest? You’re saying essentially, that our court system should apply its own set of rule to anyone arbitrarily. With no national borders, you essentially give license to an unlimited aegis of US laws, politicians, judges, legistures.. essentially the whole of government.

    Better yet, think Microsoft. They want to be the borg. Why shouldn’t their OS rules apply arbitrarily everywhere? Why not just say GPL every piece of code.. I mean why disturb Turing’s law.. everything is universal right?

    The reason you don’t, in case you haven’t figured it out, is because of the consent of the governed. We voluntarily pay into the system because it conforms to our desires. We meaning citizens with a vested interest. Those of us who pay into the system and agree to be bound by its rules have something to gain or lose by being arbitrary with borders. In either case you can’t just wish away the convention of nations, national laws and national borders. So long as we are nations with constitutions as organizing documents, the system works.

    Now I have enjoyed the fanciful speculations of ‘The Diamond Age’ as much as anyone. When and if you become a member of a phile which can support and protect its membership as well as a nation can, I’ll readily join. But I have a very difficult time believing that the guidelines for any manifesto of such an organization will have been so thoroughly debugged and fieldtested at the Constitution of the United States of America. In this regard, if you can find a Linus Torvalds of phile kernel building, I’ll wait until it’s way way outta beta. Until then, I’m keeping my passport American.

  7. Very happy to read your post. My solution for immigration? Open the gates. Of course, it is a politcal no-no. Or, like time-share condos, time-share countires. Or just out and out trades. You want to leave Mexico and come to USA? OK, let’s trade countries, you come here, we’ll go there. I have been living in India, sort of outsourcing the outsourcing, and it is great, but difficult to be legal, and I am damn happy that the gate was open, to whatever degree. It is one world, one neighborhood, nationalism is a disease, but that will get me NO votes!

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