Saturday, 14 March 2015

Open All Borders

This house would open all borders.

An interesting moot, no? It's also not one that I would personally like to have to support because I disagree with it. That's not necessarily a disadvantage, but it is when you're dealing with a topic you have an opinion on rather than one you're actively interested in. Why? Because when you take an interest in a topic, you're aware of the wider discussion and arguments around it. As a result, you become aware of both perceived weaknesses in your own position (which you're now opposed to) and you do think through your own reasoning a bit more (which helps with rebuttal). When you don't take an active interest, you're quite possibly dealing with a topic where your opinion comes from your gut: coming up with arguments for the other side requires thinking like someone you're not. That's not necessarily easy, and it makes you glad that debating is a team exercise. But this isn't a debate, it's an almost unread blog... so I'm just going to write a few thoughts about this idea down.

Opening All Borders

I take this to mean complete freedom of movement. In other words, the only thing that would stop me from moving to North Korea, if I had the desire to (which I don't), would be the fact I cannot afford to. In some cases, being able to afford to may not necessarily be a problem. For instance, it's not inconceivable that someone living in North Korea could find odd jobs as they trekked across Asia and into Europe before reaching their end destination (say, the Nou Camp). Alternatively, the dirt poor could construct a ramshackle craft of sorts and hope they reach their destination without drowning (probably unlikely, that they wouldn't drown that is... to an extent, it happens now). But, you get the point: if borders were totally open, only practical constraints would prevent travel from any A to any B.

What would Happen?

Well, we can't be 100% sure but we know that migration is a universal constant in the human experience (and, indeed, it's the only reason why people aren't confined to East Africa, as a species). We also know, broadly, why people migrate. There are push factors (i.e. things like Civil War or famine, those forces that make staying put less desirable than moving elsewhere) and there are pull factors (for instance, the promise of jobs in cities or anything else that draws people in). We also know that some areas of the world are, on the face of it, much more desirable than others (for instance, you'd rather live in NZ than the US and you'd rather live in the US than Pakistan and you'd rather live in Pakistan than Syria... assuming that you are an average human being without any emotional connection to any of these places). We can also see that there are places that are not only relatively less attractive to live but are also just plain unattractive due to conditions within those countries (which arise from all sorts of scenarios, war's a common one).

All up, I think it's fair to say that were people able to move anywhere they wanted, at least in theory (see discussion on constraints), people actually would. This could look like US to NZ travel. That is, movement from one well off country to another well off country, that speaks the same language. These are, furthermore, people who are more likely to be able to afford to move, and they would have the motivations, in many cases. For instance, at uni the other day and American woman described her and her husband's mutual desire to shift here more permanently. In most cases, though, we're probably likely to see people who are looking for major improvements in their quality of life shifting. Migrating isn't a decision one makes on a whim... it involves a lot of costs and a lot of loss. And, then, when you arrive you're often met by the Winston Peters of the world, or worse: i.e. bigots who don't want you around. Many migrants also have to deal with culture and/or language shocks. In some sense, migrants can be classed in two categories. On one hand, you have someone who chooses to move and on the other you have someone who is forced to move.

But, really, the big question is: how many people are we talking about here? Personally, I think that open borders would, because of the above, lead to the first truly global migration of humanity: a migration millions strong. There's another big question: the world's a pretty big place, how will this be distributed? Well, again, I can just make educated guesses. Places surrounded by pretty rough seas that aren't close to anywhere? They'll probably attract only people who can fly in. Places that are closer to anywhere but still have rough seas? They'll attract people who are desperate, as they do now, provided they're desirable places to move to, and they'll probably get a lot more. Places that are connected by land and are desirable? They'll probably get a lot of migrants. In some sense, we'd probably see some form of this:

Net Migration Rates, 2011, from Wikipedia

That is to say, we'll probably see a more extreme version of current trends. Why? Because the same conditions that pull people in and push people out will still exist, at least in the short term.

But, what does that mean?

It is never just enough to have an idea of what would happen: one must know what that actually represents: 3% growth in Real GDP is a what, increased standards of living is, theoretically, a meaning. So, what would this mean?

Infrastructure & Housing

This is the big reason why opening all borders is, for me, a bad idea. By restricting immigration rates, countries are able to avoid sudden population increases that existing infrastructure doesn't have the capacity to handle. Take Auckland. Right now our transport infrastructure is not far from reaching capacity, and has little room to improve due to idiots in Wellington now (i.e. the current govt.) and idiots from all over in the past. If we were to experience a sizeable population increase this would be extremely problematic. The simple reality is, that when the demands placed on infrastructure and housing exceed their capacity people will be worse off. Sewage, water, electricity, transport networks etc. etc. will all be unable to cope. We'll also have too many people floating around, many of whom will be unable to move on. We'll, in short, probably have something like this happen:

Photo / Leon Woods / Flame Pig; taken from the NZ Herald website
Note, I'm not sure what happened to all the concrete in that part of Domain, but you get the idea and I am rather lucky that I stumbled across the Herald's piece on a World Vision humanitarian campaign, in hindsight. This is, of course, the reality that many people under our scenario are trying to get away from. It's possibly a bit extreme but there's nothing good from placing huge demands on a system that won't be able to change in the short run.

Further note, if you don't have a permanent home there isn't too much difference between not having a permanent home but having some means of getting to another country and being in that other country and not having a permanent home. The question such a situation would force one to confront is whether or not being in the other country is a better place to be of no fixed abode than the one one is in.


I'll be brief here. Being able to control who comes into a country, even there are flaws with the system (i.e. absence of total control), means that the vast majority of people who enter a country do so with a) permission and b) oversight. If anyone can enter the country there are only practical reasons ensuring that people enter in a manner that can be monitored. I just can't reconcile the concept of "open borders" with any method of monitoring who comes in. I don't understand any rationale for that and, as such, see it as actually being entirely arbitrary. Maybe there are models of open borders that would allow this, but with the conception I outlined earlier? That can't work here... the dude that washed up on that beach has as much right to be in a place as that dude who came through three "random" bomb checks at the airport. You get the picture. It also make it difficult to extradite anyone...

Social Opinion

Yes, it's not right that bigots should decided whether or not a country pursues a particular policy but it is worth pointing out that any animosity towards immigrants that exists now, will only get worse in places that hit capacity.

Net Exporters

Sudden arrivals in large numbers are bad. Sudden departures of large numbers? Also bad. And very difficult to reverse. I mean, for one, think of all the lost tax revenue. For two, think of the dramatic drop in people. That necessarily has to lead to declining demand. Which means what? Yeah, recession.

The Picture

The picture I am trying to build here is one of a world where everywhere and everyone ends up worse off. O mean, the countries where people will mostly want to move, won't exist in the form that we know today as a result of substantial, rapid population increase. The places that experience significant declines in population won't get better either. In fact, they'd just get worse. And they'd get worse in a way that makes correcting their current problems even harder. In the short run, from a utilitarian perspective or doing the most good and minimising harm, open borders are terrible. From a moral perspective, I'd argue the same thing.


A clever reader may have noticed that I used the term "short run" a couple of times in this post. And there's a reason for that. I think, personally, that globally open borders would be extremely rough in the short term. In the long term? Well, there's room for hope. All the new people create more demand. Initially, that's bad. We saw that with the infrastructure piece but more demand increases the demand for jobs (which is why it is known as derived demand for labour). Provided that immigrants arrived and had some means of spending, this would happen. In some sense, then, we could expect, after at least a few terrible years, some sort of equilibrium establishing itself. The flow of people leaving would eventually reach a reasonably constant rate* (and constant means that you can allow for it), and with more demand and job supply in an economy you could, possibly, bring the world back up, roughly, to where it is now in only a few decades or so. Once you're there? Well, you'd arguably be better off because you'd have free movement. This would make it difficult for oppressive govt.'s to stay in place (because refugees would always be able to end up somewhere else), but, more significantly, you'd have a truer free market of labour out there. Matching needs with people would be easier. In this sense, you see why utilitarianism is a bad idea... the end is better if you choose to open borders but the way you get there just plain sucks.

*And that would happen because even with open borders, there are those practical constraints I mentioned.

To End It

This moot was blatantly lifted from the debate I watched the University of Auckland's Debating Society put on. It was good as a show debate but, personally, the really funny debaters that made previous show debates I've seen, seem to have left. The way I chose to discuss the issue was different to the more moral arguments presented by the affirmative, but reasonably similar to that of the negative. If you ever go to study at Auckland uni, readers, do join us. Very reasonable joining fees and much value for money.

Oh, and yeah. The infrastructure thing is why I am not keen on open borders. To my mind it is a trump card that proponents of open borders cannot overcome... and, in some sense, a moral argument as presented by the affirmative would struggle with the "Net Exporters" section. But, certainly, I do agree with myself when it comes to which option should, theoretically, be better in the long run, and I definitely agree with myself in saying that the ends don't justify the means.

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