the welfare objection to open borders: i don’t buy it

In discussion of open borders and free migration, you often hear the following: Wouldn’t open borders undermine the welfare state because natives would stop voting for social programs to prevent immigrants from getting benefits?

Let me start with a point of agreement. Yes, it is true that some people will become skeptical toward social welfare programs. A famous example: When Representative Joe Wilson screamed “You lie!” at Obama during a State of the Union address, he was protesting Obama’s claim that health benefits would not go to undocumented immigrants.

However, the objection is odd from a number of perspectives. First, many conservatives and libertarians are welfare state skeptics. Thus, you would think they would celebrate immigration because it would help reduce the welfare state!

Second, the academic research on welfare program utilization tends to show that immigrants use social programs at the same as rate as natives in most cases once you account for standard socio-demographic characteristics (e.g., see this articial Hao and Kawano in Demogaphy). Thus, it is correct when people correctly point out that immigrants have higher rates of social service use, but it is also true the effect disappears when you account for wealth. Immigration per se is not associated with increased welfare state use. Poverty is.

Third, there is an ethical issue – why should people’s voting patterns determine whether someone can live in my neighborhood? To clarify the issue, let us consider the following statement:

We should not allow African Americans to come into my school because then some people won’t like schools anymore.

Most of us would rightfully say, “That is not the problem of Black people. We won’t keep them out of society just because some people will feel bad.” Similarly, we don’t let people’s discomfort determine whether someone from another country can go to my school or live in my neighborhood. The immaturity of others does not determine what is right and wrong.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 23, 2018 at 5:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. It’s difficult to assemble a moral case against open borders per se. But a pertinent question is, how do we get to open borders while preserving and, in the case of the United States (in particular) expanding the welfare provisions which characterise developed nations. The case for open borders would be decidedly less attractive were open borders to generate a level of inequality within developed nations that is currently seen between developed and poor nations. Western European countries, Scandinavian countries, in particular, are islands of equality within a sea of inequality, and there seems to be a case to preserve them, as such. As I understand it, the political science argument is well-established that ethnic diversity and migration account for much of the difference between the provision of welfare in Western Europe vis-a-vis the United States. Willingness to pay taxes to help others is in part a function of their perceived similarity and worthiness. This is an unfortunate social fact, but surely not an immutable one. Historical sociologists have shown that our moral horizons have expanded massively over the course of the past few centuries; can this process be accelerated by policy? How might sociology inform such policy?

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    January 25, 2018 at 12:07 am

  2. For the political science literature, see the classic article by Gary Freeman (1986) and a more recent review by him (2011):



    January 25, 2018 at 12:10 am

  3. Many libertarians (in fact, all of them that I know or follow – eg, Bryan Caplan) are the strongest supporters of open borders.

    Milton Friedman posited that open borders were, as a practical matter, incompatible with a generous welfare state. However, as you posit, he strongly supported open borders against the welfare state.

    Friedman also observed that, from a normative welfare-economics perspective, *illegal* immigration (in which the immigrant would ineligible for welfare benefits) was the best immigration for the host country.

    The biggest gain from immigration, of course, is from the worst countries to OECD countries. There’s very little welfare gain in moving a PhD engineer from Norway to the US. But moving a laborer from Bangladesh to the OECD is a huge welfare gain, not only for the worker, but for the world.

    In my experience, libertarians cut the Gordian knot by favoring open borders while denying, limiting or deferring immigrants’ access to social welfare programs.

    On the other hand, your paragraph “Second” is bizarre. Poor immigrants consume welfare benefits to the same extent as poor non-immigrants? That’s exactly the argument against letting in more poor immigrants.


    Family Values Lesbian

    January 26, 2018 at 6:28 pm

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