citizenship, economics, international relations, poverty, work

Migration and Human Rights (42): The Labor Cost Argument Against Open Borders


I’ve argued many times before against the popular view that increased immigration is detrimental to native employment and income. The simple argument about an increase in supply of cheap labor driving down wages and forcing expensive native workers out of the job market is just that: simple, too simple. There’s even evidence that the opposite is true: immigration increases native wages (because it allows native workers to move up the pay scale). But even if immigration did impose a cost on the host country, that wouldn’t be the final argument against immigration, since such a cost could be seen as a form of global redistribution and global justice: improving the lot of the poorest of the world surely justifies imposing a burden on those who have more wealth and who had the good fortune of being born in the “right” part of the world. True, this burden shouldn’t fall on the poorest members of the “right” countries, but if it does that can be corrected by national redistribution.

Still, let’s return to the labor cost argument against immigration. Here’s another piece of evidence that tips the scales yet a bit further against the view that the extremely low cost of immigrant labor results in displacement of low-level native labor. The evidence I want to cite is about internal migration in China, but it’s perfectly possible to use it against arguments favoring restrictions on international migration:

Hundreds of millions of rural migrants have moved into Chinese cities since the early 1990s contributing greatly to economic growth, yet, they are often blamed for reducing urban ‘native’ workers’ employment opportunities, suppressing their wages and increasing pressure on infrastructure and other public facilities. This paper examines the causal relationship between rural-urban migration and urban native workers’ labour market outcomes in Chinese cities. After controlling for the endogeneity problem our results show that rural migrants in urban China have modest positive or zero effects on the average employment and insignificant impact on earnings of urban workers. When we examine the impact on unskilled labours we once again find it to be positive and insignificant. We conjecture that the reason for the lack of adverse effects is due partially to the labour market segregation between the migrants and urban natives, and partially due to the complementarities between the two groups of workers. Further investigation reveals that the increase in migrant inflow is related to the demand expansion and that if the economic growth continues, elimination of labour market segregation may not necessarily lead to an adverse impact of migration on urban native labour market outcomes. (source, source)

More posts about arguments against open borders are here, here and here. More posts in this blog series are here.

citizenship, economics, globalization, international relations, trade, work

Migration and Human Rights (40): The Economic Efficiency Argument for Open Borders

immigration cartoon by Angel Boligan

immigration cartoon by Angel Boligan


Immigration restrictions are often defended on the basis of economic arguments. I’ve repeated often enough why these arguments won’t work (see here, here, here and here for example). What I want to do now is spell out one of the strongest economic arguments against immigration restrictions and in favor of open borders, and I mean completely open borders (which doesn’t mean that completely open borders are necessarily the right thing to do; there may be other arguments against completely open borders that override the economic ones in favor).

Restraining the movement of people between national territories creates the same inefficiencies as restraining the movement of goods and services. Free international trade in goods and services increases overall wealth and prosperity, as I’ve argued herehere and here. Trade enhances specialization and the use of comparative advantage. It’s easier to grow bananas in the tropics and then trade them, than to make every country grow its own bananas. Similarly, free movement of people makes it possible to make better use of people’s talents. Just as it was an inefficient waste to relegate women to the household – not to mention a gross violation of their rights – we are now depriving the world of good workers in all fields of life because of immigration restrictions. Potential immigrants have a hard time going to other countries in order to develop their talents, and can’t move freely around the world to use their talents. Those of you who worry about the effects of a so-called brain drain should read this.

More on open borders is here.

causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, philosophy

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (33): Nefarious Political Metaphors


(source unknown)

I want to go out on a limb here and argue that most if not all human rights violations as they have occurred throughout human history can be explained and have been directly caused by the persistent and widespread use of metaphors. (Which doesn’t mean that there are no other causes).

But before I list some of the metaphors I have in mind, a few general words that may help to explain why I think simple metaphors can do so much damage. The fact that we constantly use metaphors in language and thought may buttress the thesis that they have some effect on our actions. The same is true for the fact that metaphors are not just figures of speech but are cognitively important as well: by claiming that some things are alike – metaphors are descriptions of one thing as something else – they help us understand things.

For example, if we say that compound interest is like a snowball rolling off a snowy mountain side, we use something we already understand – the snowball – in order to understand something else that looked and sounded strange before the application of the metaphor – compound interest. And when we then understand things in a certain way, we act according to our understanding of things – in our example, we put our money in a savings account that offers compound interest rather than in one that just offers a fixed interest on the basic sum.

Or let’s use another, more appropriate example (one which I will return to below): if we have difficulties assessing the impact of immigration on our own society and culture, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave of immigration” can help us to “understand” this impact and to do something about it (stop the wave, for instance). Immigration is like a wave because it’s equally overwhelming and harmful. It’s clear from this example that the word “understanding” should not be understood (pun intended) in an epistemological sense: the point is not that understanding produces correct knowledge about the world, but simply that we believe it does. In this case, I personally think the wave metaphor does not help us to understand the phenomenon of immigration (on the contrary), but many people believe it does and it inspires their actions.

If all this has convinced you that metaphors can indeed cause political actions, then it’s now time to list what I believe have been and to some extent still are some of the most destructive political metaphors in history. (Do tell me in comments if you think of other examples).

Moral Balance

Wall Painting in a Jain Monastery, Sravanabelagola

Wall Painting in a Jain Monastery, Sravanabelagola

This metaphor is most clearly expressed in lex talionis – an eye for an eye – which is a form of criminal justice that claims to balance crime and retribution. A softer version is proportionality: even if people shouldn’t be punished in a manner that strictly balances out their criminal acts, they should get what they deserve and they deserve tougher sentences when their crimes are worse. There may also be a deeper metaphor at work here, one in which there is some kind of cosmic moral balance that shouldn’t be disturbed and that should be corrected when people do disturb it. Failure to correct it leaves moral imbalances intact, and that is damaging in some unspecified and metaphysical way.

Many people agree that the moral balance metaphor has done a lot of harm in the case of capital punishment, but I argue that it poisons our entire criminal justice system. We shouldn’t incarcerate people in order to punish those who deserve some amount of incarceration proportional to their crime. If we have to incarcerate, it’s because that’s the only way to protect other people’s rights. And this rule would drastically reduce the number of inmates currently in prisons all over the world. It’s fashionable to say that we have come a long way since the time of medieval criminal punishment, but I believe our current judicial practices – even those in “developed countries” – are still among the worst human rights violations in the world.


Von Munchhausen bootstrapping

Von Munchhausen bootstrapping

This metaphor is most harmful when it blocks assistance to the poor (and poverty is a human rights violation). It promotes an “understanding” of the phenomenon of poverty that paints the poor as lazy, self-destructive and undeserving people who only have themselves to blame and who could easily save themselves were they willing to invest the necessary effort. This “understanding” obscures many other and often more important causes of poverty and therefore perpetuates it.


nazi propaganda jewish dirt

nazi propaganda about "jewish dirt"

Genocide, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity are made easier when the target group is persuasively depicted as some sort of “dirt”, “cockroaches“, “vermin” or any other dehumanized entity. The best way to violate human rights is to deny people’s humanity. However, dehumanization also occurs on a much smaller and seemingly harmless scale, in advertising, gender stereotypes, popular culture etc.

The dirt example shows that people often don’t even realize that they are acting on the basis of a metaphor and actually view what is supposed to be a similarity as being an identity. Many Rwandan Hutus implicated in the genocide probably believed that Tutsis and cockroaches were quasi-identical.

The Family


a family

The metaphor of the family of fellow citizens is often used to justify differential treatment of citizens and non-citizens. For example, social security offers protection to fellow-citizens who are nationally the worst off but who are nevertheless relatively wealthy when compared to the poorest in other countries. And development aid is usually much less generous than social security. I would argue for a more cosmopolitan stance as a better means to protect the equal human rights of all human beings.

The same metaphor is used to justify excessive patriotism and the wars that seem an inevitable result of it, as well as authoritarian government by a father figure or by people who think they know better.

The Wave

Hokusai great wave off kanagawa early 1830s

Hokusai great wave off kanagawa, early 1830s

As mentioned earlier, this metaphor is used to counter immigration, when in fact increased immigration could do an enormous amount of good, not only for millions of poor people all over the world, but also for the populations in the more wealthy destination countries.

The metaphor does some more damage when it’s used in overpopulation discourse. Horrible population control policies are supposedly justified by the “wave” of overpopulation, and as if these policies aren’t harmful enough by themselves, they have disastrous side effects such as gendercide.

The Child

Jackie Coogan (the kid)

Jackie Coogan in Chaplin's "The Kid"

This metaphor has often been used to subjugate women, those supposedly childlike creatures unable to control their emotions or to marshal the forces – physical or mental – necessary for many social roles. Slaves and colonized peoples as well were often viewed as childlike beings in need of the White Man’s guidance.


So, what can we take away from this? It would seem that we can’t do much about human rights violations: metaphors are notoriously hard to weed out and if they caused rights violations in the past they will continue to do so. But that’s not entirely true. While we may not be able to remove certain metaphors from common language, we may reduce their impact on real life events and their salience in certain circumstances. We can chip away at their nefarious role in rights violations, and that’s exactly what we already did in the past.

For example, the child metaphor used to be an important conduit in the submission of blacks, but that’s no longer the case today. The metaphor is still there and is still doing damage (in criminal justice for instance, as an analogy for punishment based on a supposed lack of self-control), but its range has been curtailed. Curtailment of harmful metaphors often means dismissing the similarity between things that a metaphor has tried to establish. For example, if we can show that immigration doesn’t do the same damage to a society as a “tidal wave” but actually has a lot of benefits, then the metaphor of the “tidal wave” can be curtailed.

Other posts in this series are here. More on the effect of language on human rights is here.

citizenship, data, human rights maps, international relations, work

Human Rights Maps (164): Largest Chinese and Indian Immigrant Communities

More than 60 million Chinese and more than 20 million Indians live abroad. If all of the world’s migrants from all nationalities would form a separate nation, it would be the world’s fifth-largest.

Largest Chinese and Indian Immigrant Communities

Largest Chinese and Indian immigrant communities


Another version, only for China:

chinese diaspora map

(interactive version here)

Within the US, this is the distribution of the Chinese population:

Percent Chinese Population by County map

Percent Chinese population by US county

(source, the same map for the Indian population is here)

Also interesting, but without information about the origin of the migrants:

cities with population of more than 25 percent foreign born residents

Amsterdam Netherlands
Auckland New Zealand
Brussels Belgium
Dubai United Arab Emirates
Frankfurt Germany
Hong Kong China
Jerusalem Israel
Jiddah Saudi Arabia
London United Kingdom
Los Angeles USA
Medina Saudi Arabia
Melbourne Australia
Miami USA
Muscat Oman
New York USA
Perth Australia
Riyadh Saudi Arabia
San Francisco USA
San Jose USA
Singapore Singapore
Sydney Australia
Tbilisi Georgia
Tel Aviv Israel
Toronto Canada
Vancouver Canada

If you’re wondering in what sense immigration is a human rights issue, go here, here and here. More maps on immigration are here. More human rights maps in general are here.

citizenship, data, human rights maps, international relations

Human Rights Maps (162): Apprehensions of Illegal Immigrants at the US-Mexico Border

A combination of better law enforcement and an economic recession has resulted in a steep decline of illegal immigration from Mexico to the US. One way to measure illegal immigration is to extrapolate on the basis of the number of Border Patrol apprehensions. These went down fast, as is shown by this map:

border apprehensions US-Mexico


Here are the total numbers:

illegal immigrant apprehensions US-Mexico border


I personally regret this since I’m in favor of open borders (see here). If it’s the recession that drives down illegal immigration, then that means an increase in poverty or at least an absence of a decrease. And if it’s border apprehensions that drive it down, then that means a violation of people’s freedom of movement, freedom of association etc.

More about the recession and immigration here and here. More immigration maps and statistics. Something on the measurement of the number of illegal immigrants here. More human rights maps here.

citizenship, data, globalization, human rights maps, international relations, law, poverty, work

Human Rights Maps (144): The “Criminal Immigrant” Stereotype

I’ve argued many times before that the link between immigration and crime is a particularly nasty piece of political cynicism and populism, completely fact-free but unfortunately not devoid of harmful consequences. Three different groups suffer these consequences:

  • potential migrants who have beneficial opportunities taken away from them
  • existing migrants who are unfairly targeted by law enforcement
  • and the native populations who also can’t benefit from increased immigration.

Here’s one sickening cartoon in map form, claiming that Mexico, following the example of Colombia, is drowning in blood, and that the blood is spilling across the border, when in fact immigration reduces crime rates:

cartoon criminal immigrant stereotype map mexico US


More maps on migration are here. More human rights maps in general are here.

causes of poverty, economics, education, globalization, international relations, poverty, work

The Causes of Poverty (49): Brain Drain?


People with socially useful skills – such as nurses, doctors and teachers – often desire to leave their poor native countries and migrate to the West. A higher wage and the chance of escaping some of the world’s most dysfunctional societies trumps national and social attachments.

However, some argue that this “brain drain” is detrimental to the prosperity of developing countries: not only do they lose their best and brightest – emigration of skilled citizens makes it more difficult to prepare younger generations for their role in society (teachers leave, and governments faced with the risk of brain drain are less eager to invest in education – and even if they are eager they will have a smaller income from taxes necessary to fund education).

And indeed, the better educated citizens of poor countries are more likely to emigrate. You need some money and know-how to move to the West, and you have to expect some value-added. A poor farmer in Africa doesn’t have the money to leave, and his chances of finding a socially useful role in Europe or America, compared to his fellow-citizens who are doctors or engineers, are small.

However, when assessing the economic impact of the brain drain, one has to take all effects into account. For example, criticism of the brain drain often fails to mention the clear benefits for those who decide to leave their countries. More counter-intuitively, those who stay behind may also gain rather than lose: people who spend time abroad often return home with socially valuable skills and savings, and while they’re abroad they send home remittances. Also, the possibility of leaving a country incites many people to improve their skills and education, even if ultimately they stay home. And when they stay home, their higher education is a net social gain. Governments of developing countries may also benefit: perhaps they’ll lose some money when people leave after finishing their government subsidized education, but they gain money when the families that stayed behind spend their remittances, or when they don’t have to pay unemployment benefits to those who leave – some of those would have been unemployed had they stayed home.

It seems that the brain drain is no more than a catchy phrase, and certainly not an important cause of poverty in developing countries.

More posts in this series are here.

citizenship, data, international relations, law, measuring human rights, statistics, work

Measuring Human Rights (14): Numbers of Illegal Immigrants

illegal immigrants caution sign at border crossing

caution sign depicting running illegal immigrants at a border crossing

Calculating a reliable number for a segment of the population that generally wants to hide from officials is very difficult, but it’s politically very important to know more or less how many illegal immigrants there are, and whether their number is increasing or decreasing. There’s a whole lot of populist rhetoric floating around, especially regarding jobs and crime, and passions are often inflamed. Knowing how many illegal immigrants there are – more or less – allows us to quantify the real effects on employment and crime, and to deflate some of the rhetoric.

Immigration is a human rights issue in several respects. Immigration is often a way for people to escape human rights violations (such as poverty or persecution). And upon arrival, immigrants – especially illegal immigrants – often face other human rights violations (invasion of privacy, searches, labor exploitation etc.). The native population may also fear – rightly or wrongly – that the presence of large groups of immigrants will lower their standard of living or threaten their physical security. Illegal immigrants especially are often accused of pulling down wages and labor conditions and of creating native unemployment. If we want to disprove such accusations, we need data on the numbers of immigrants.

illegal immigration in the US after the recession

So how do we count the number of illegal immigrants? Obviously there’s nothing in census data. The Census Bureau doesn’t ask people about their immigration status, in part because such questions may drive down overall response rates. Maybe in some cases the census data of other countries can help. Other countries may ask their residents how many family members have gone abroad to find a job.

anchor babyAnother possible source are the numbers of births included in hospital data. If you assume a certain number of births per resident, and compare that to the total number of births, you may be able to deduce the number of births among illegal immigrants (disparagingly called “anchor babies“), which in turn may give you an idea about the total number of illegal immigrants.

Fluctuations in the amounts of remittances - money sent back home by immigrants – may also indicate trends in illegal immigration, although remittances are of course sent by both legal and illegal immigrants. Furthermore, it’s not because remittances go down that immigrants leave. It might just be a temporary drop following an economic recession, and immigrants decide to sweat it out (possibly supported by reverse remittances for the time of the recession). Conversely, an increase in remittances may simply reflect technological improvements in international payment systems.

Perhaps a better indicator are the numbers of apprehensions by border-patrol units. However, fluctuations in these numbers may not be due to fluctuations in immigration. Better or worse performance by border-patrol officers or tighter border security may be the real reasons.

So, it’s really not easy to count illegal immigrants, and that means that all rhetoric about illegal immigration – both positive and negative – should be taken with a grain of salt.

More posts on this series are here.

citizenship, democracy, equality, international relations

Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

last U-turn to USA

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

Michael Walzer

Michael Walzer

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.


2010, Homefront and Worldfront

On the “home front”, 2010 was a good year. In our third year of blogging (we started this blog in April 2008), we had more than 1,8 million pageviews (up from 1 million in 2009 and 193.000 in 2008). That’s an average of 5000 a day. The most popular posts in 2010 were:

We also, finally, finished tinkering with the blog’s layout, something which may lower frustration levels here and there. (If there’s still something bothering you, about the layout or anything else, tell us). Perhaps you’ve also noticed the little “satisfaction survey” we have at the bottom of each page (maybe you’ve even voted, in which case, thanks). We’ll keep it there, since there’s a steady stream of new readers who may also want to express their satisfaction/dissatisfaction/opinions. The current state of opinion regarding this blog is as follows:

Pretty positive, I would say. Of course, we should add all of those who believe the blog is so bad that it’s really not worth scrolling all the way down in order to vote. Personally, I blame the relatively high number of votes for “this blog sucks” not on the general suckiness of the blog but on juvenile excitement about finding some bloggers who actually allow you to say that they suck. But I may be wrong. The “other” category yielded answers such as: “biased”, “informative”, “fucking sucks” (sic), “offensive”, “much appreciated”, “too long”, “useful”, “well written but incorrect” etc.

Also good in 2010 was the publication of my latest book.

However, looking at the world beyond this blog, it’s pretty hard to say whether or not it’s been a good year. If we limit ourselves to the topic we’re dealing with here, it’s a disgrace that we still can’t say if respect for human rights has increased or not compared to 2009. We’ll keep asking for progress in human rights measurement.

Looking at individual human rights, the record is mixed. There has been progress in the fight against capital punishment, poverty, government secrecy and discrimination, for instance. But in other areas, things have probably gotten worse: immigration, torture, privacy, hunger, criminal justice etc. You do your own math. And while I know it’s useless to make other people’s new year’s resolutions for them, I would suggest that there’s probably some inspiration to be found in human rights.