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Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly“Open borders” refers to a policy of unlimited or free immigration. I argue here that it is a bad policy. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move (or at least move your money) to one that doesn’t. Thus safety nets, and public goods in general, disappear as they become both overloaded and underfunded. That is the “world without borders,” and without community. That is the tragedy of open access commons.

Some will think that I am attacking a straw man, because, they will say, no sensible person really advocates open borders. They simply advocate, it will be said, “more generous levels of immigration, and a reasonable amnesty for existing illegal immigrants.” I agree that some form of strictly conditional amnesty is indeed necessary as the lesser evil, given the impasse created by past non-enforcement of our immigration laws. Deporting 12 million long-settled residents is too drastic and would create more injustices than it would rectify. But unless we enforce immigration laws in the future there will soon be need for another amnesty (the first, often forgotten, was in 1986), and then another — a de facto open-borders policy. Nevertheless, the policy of open borders should be fairly discussed, not only because some people explicitly advocate it, but also because many others implicitly accept it by virtue of their unwillingness to face the alternative.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point to begin a discussion is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Emigration is often considered a human right, but immigration requires the permission of the receiving country. Some countries allow many legal immigrants. Others allow few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database:

The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.

There are also arguments about the emigration side of open borders — even if emigration is a human right, is it unconditional? Might “brain-drain” emigrants have some obligation to contribute something to the community that educated and invested in them, before they emigrate to greener pastures?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves reasoned discussion in the public interest. It seems that neither expectation is fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works in today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people, the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require not only space but also a metabolic flow of natural resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The US is indeed a “country of immigrants,” although for American Indians this frequent refrain reflects a less positive historical experience than it does for European settlers. Nor does the term resonate positively with those African Americans whose recent ancestors were brought here as involuntary immigrants. Many Americans, including me, think that heirs of slavery deserve priority in the US job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races living in poverty. Some other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor, guaranteed by unemployment.

We have in the US a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the US is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. Class division is more basic than the racial and ethnic divide in current US immigration politics, although the latter is not absent. Progressives in the US, with their admirable historical focus on racial justice, have been slow to see the increasing dominance of the class issue in immigration. The Wall Street Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, and big corporations in general, do not mind seeing the class question submerged by racial and ethnic politics favoring easy immigration as a cheap-labor supplement to off-shoring. It feeds the myth that we are a classless society, even as it contributes to increasing income inequality. Also, given the closeness of recent elections, a bit of ethnic pandering can be politically decisive.

The US is also a country of law, or at least strives to be. Illegal immigration falls outside the rule of law, and renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. It is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago. We have judges to deal with difficult cases, as well as statutes of limitation regarding the time period within which certain laws must be enforced, and this principle could be applied to immigration laws.

Which democratically enacted laws will the open-borders lobby not enforce next? How about laws against financial fraud? We have apparently already quit enforcing those, partly abetted by globalization and foreign tax havens as well as too big to fail or jail banks. Acceptance of illegal immigration is only one part of the broader trend toward impunity, and while impunity for banksters is arguably worse than for illegal immigrants and their employers, the latter still plays a part in undermining the general respect for law.

Map of Bhutan

What would an “open borders” policy mean for Bhutan, sandwiched between the world’s two most populous nations?

Surely our immigration laws could be improved. Indeed, the 1995 US Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, made a good start, but was ignored for reasons already suggested. Her commission called for lower legal immigration quotas, stricter family reunification criteria, and enhanced border control, as well as stricter sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants. The last embraced the caveat that ethnic profiling would likely result without a secure national identification system, since employers are not able to adjudicate false documents. A secure identification system would of course make it easier to identify illegal immigrants and is often opposed by open-borders advocates and libertarians. The present Congress should build on the good work of the Jordan Commission, but they seem to have forgotten it.

Would open borders be good for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

In developed countries immigration boosters are especially interested in opening borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower natural population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap-retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected, indeed required, to continue indefinitely.

In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction of right-wing economists. The former consider any limits on total number of immigrants as “thinly disguised racism.” All evil is reduced to racism, often “in disguise.” The libertarian economists label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion,” their synonym for regulation. We already have open borders for capital (as well as goods), so that open borders for labor would complete the global integration agenda — deregulation taken to the limit. This is not “free trade” or reasonable recognition of interdependence among many separate trading economies, as embodied in the 1945 Bretton Woods Treaty. Rather it is a single global economy tightly integrated on the principle of absolute, not comparative, advantage. It is being imposed top-down by transnational corporations via the undemocratic World Trade Organization.

Net immigration is the overwhelming cause of US population growth. How big should the US population be? We are currently the third most populous country in the world. Do we aspire to overtake China and India? What numbers define a “more generous immigration policy,” and exactly who is being generous to whom, and at whose expense? Our elite is being generous to itself at the expense of both the US working class and of immigrants.

Any limitation of the number of new immigrants still requires selectivity and enforcement of immigration laws. It requires saying “no” to many worthy applicants, which is difficult, and is why some humanitarians are tempted to favor open borders. It is easier to pretend that unlimited “economic” growth can support an unlimited population, including immigrants. Never mind that growth in the US has, at the margin, become uneconomic, increasing social and environmental costs faster than benefits. The idea of a steady-state economy goes out the window, and customary growth-mania is reaffirmed.

If the US could just set an example of how a country can live justly and sustainably within its ecological limits (i.e., in a steady-state economy), that would be a splendid contribution to the rest of the world. We are far from setting such an example — indeed we are not even trying.

Aristotle in Connecticut

by Eric Zencey

Eric_ZenceyAs I tried to comprehend the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, my thoughts were with the victims and their families. The horror I feel is nothing compared to what they have been required to experience and absorb. Understanding what happened seems impossible — but attempt to understand it we must, if we are to reduce the occurrence of these devastating shooting tragedies in the future. As I wondered along with the rest of America how this could happen, my thoughts turned to ancient philosophy — specifically, to the teachings of Aristotle and what he said about causation.

Any act that has a cause, he said, actually has four different kinds of causes: material, efficient, final, formal.

The efficient cause of gun violence is a shooter who intends to kill. The material cause of gun violence is the gun. If you want to prevent school shootings, it makes sense to keep shooters and guns from coming together anywhere near a school. Focusing on these easy-to-see causes leads to calls for more thorough background checks before gun ownership, for other forms of gun control, for profiling of potential mass murderers, for pre-emptive arrests, metal detectors, and locked-down schools as prisons for kids — not to keep students in, but to keep violence out. And these are the kinds of solutions that some people are going to say — and are already saying — we need.

But we’re not going to solve the problem of gun violence until we get at the deeper causes that Aristotle called final and formal. The search for final causes leads us to ask questions like, “what was the shooter’s motivation? What could he possibly have hoped to accomplish?” The search for formal causes has us ask “what were the social dynamics, the social context, that shaped this event?”

The United States has the highest level of gun violence among supposedly developed nations in the world, a rate exceeded only by some impoverished countries and some that are host to rival factions that are at war. Mother Jones reports that “Since 1982, there have been at least 62 mass murders carried out with firearms across the country, with the killings unfolding in 30 states from Massachusetts to Hawaii.” (The report counts as mass murder incidents in which a shooter takes the lives of four or more people.) We need to ask why “going postal” and “school shooting” have become such common terms in America. What are the deeper causes that give our culture tragedy after tragedy of this kind?

The answer to that question will no doubt be complex; final and formal causes are many and varied and difficult to sort out. But one avenue of causation might be found in this correlation: besides having the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world, the United States also has the world’s fullest expression of free-market consumerist ideology. Thinking about Aristotle’s categories, I suspect that there may be a connection.

Free-market consumerist ideology, supported by billions of dollars of advertising, has given us a society in which people are too often disconnected individuals who think that their satisfactions and the means of obtaining them are completely their own. We’ve been encouraged to think of ourselves first and foremost as consumers — not as citizens, as neighbors, as family members — and to think that as consumers we deserve to be satisfied. It’s a fairly small step from there to thinking that if we aren’t satisfied then we must have a grievance against someone who’s preventing it. The U.S. has become the richest, most commodious, and most powerful nation the earth has ever seen. In such a bountiful place, it’s all too easy for someone who is unsatisfied with their life to think that the reason must be that someone else has done or is doing something to block the way.

Taking bold action to satisfy personal grievance is perfectly in keeping with our All-American emphasis on individual empowerment and responsibility. Guns symbolize both. Guns are literally empowering: historically, the invention and dissemination of cheap firearms played a significant role in the spread of egalitarian, democratic systems. In Shogunate Japan, rulers declined to adopt the firearms that Westerners offered them in trade precisely because they brought about an unacceptable equality: an untrained musketeer could kill a highly trained Samurai warrior, a result that made no cultural sense whatsoever to the Japanese.

Most Americans accept that with our right to keep and bear arms come certain civic responsibilities, including the responsibility to respect the rights and prerogatives of others. In the traditional version of the American Dream, people are led by their longings and dissatisfactions to work harder to get what they need and want, and that’s good, as long as “working harder” doesn’t also mean “cranking through the planet’s finite resources faster and faster in order to have more and more stuff.” Few Americans stop to reflect that their longings and dissatisfactions have been shaped by a private enterprise system in which corporations profit by creating unhappiness and then by offering us the chance to assuage that unhappiness through consumption — consumption that has to grow to survive, which means it has to use the finite resources of the planet at ever-increasing rates.

Some Americans are perpetually disheartened by the gap between what they’ve been encouraged to want and what they can actually have; they find solace wherever they can. Some get so enraged by that gap that they lose track of the civic responsibility part of the equation. They begin to see other people as impediments that stand in the way of achieving their ambitions — impediments that must be outmaneuvered, defeated, “neutralized” or removed. And if you’ve been raised on a steady diet of first-person-shooter video games and have had your neurological wiring affected by continual doses of violence-as-titillation in movies and sports, you just might fetch up on violent action as a way to deal with your problems.

Still, I think that these causal factors alone are not sufficient. Aristotle, were he alive today, might point to another underlying cause of gun violence in America: cheap gas and the automobile. Far more than other nations, America has been shaped by both. Together they’ve given us an atomized society that contributes to this tendency to solve individual dissatisfactions with outbursts of violence.

When you’re in a car, your fellow citizens aren’t fellow citizens anymore, they’re people who get in your way, annoying you and making it harder to do what you want to do. And when you live in a landscape that’s been shaped by car culture, the networks of family and neighborly connection that grow naturally among people in communities aren’t as strong as they could be; they’re weaker than they are in communities with historical roots that reach deeper than the Age of Oil. (Finland has a per-capita rate of gun ownership about half that of the U.S., but its rate of death by gun violence is far less than half of ours.) Neighborhood networks of trust, mutual aid and common courtesy help restrain individual actors, keeping them more thoroughly embedded in social reality (which includes the basic principles that other people deserve to live and breathe and that schools should be the safest of places).

People living in such neighborhoods are also better positioned to identify community members who are so disturbed that they would perpetrate a tragedy like the one in Newtown. That part of Connecticut retains a sense of village life — Newtown has a vestigial grazing commons, and at the main intersection in one of its village centers, cars make an awkward left turn around an aged flagpole. But like elsewhere in America, it hosts shopping centers and modern suburban sprawl. No place in America can remain aloof from the individualist culture of consumerism, a culture in which true community is increasingly difficult to find. If there’s no true community, there can be no sturdy web of community relations that functions to integrate estranged individuals and either guide them toward positive expression of their urges or toward getting the help they need to deal with their sorrows and grievances.

To prevent future Newtowns and Columbines, I personally think that yes, we’ll need to address the efficient and material causes of gun violence. We’ll need to make it harder for shooters to get hold of assault weapons and make it harder for them to walk unopposed into our civic and public spaces — our schools, our movie theaters and shopping malls. Others will of course disagree, but I think action on these fronts is long overdue.

But we also need to get at the final and formal causes. That means rebuilding the sustainable communities that once held Americans in their supportive embrace, communities that were spun apart by cheap energy and the ease of automotive transport. We can recover them by demanding walkable neighborhoods; by refusing to participate in the infinite-planet economy of Mall and Sprawl America with its big boxes and anonymous spaces; by choosing instead to live, think, breathe, laugh, love, shop, own, create, recreate, educate, and be politically active locally, with people we know and can see face to face. Ultimately it’s impossible to take care of each other, our public spaces, our landscapes and our children on any other scale.

Re-localizing our lives in these ways won’t solve every problem and it’s unlikely to eliminate gun violence completely. There are always going to be people whose mental imbalances make them a challenge to society and sometimes a danger to others. But regrounding our collective lives in post-petroleum, sustainable neighborhoods opens one avenue of positive change, a change we must make if we are to reduce our levels of interpersonal violence to those in other industrialized nations.

This much seems clear: cheap energy and a physical and social world designed for cars and consumers aren’t ecologically sustainable. Neither is the perpetual-growth economy that produced them. We seem to be discovering that they aren’t socially sustainable either.

Regular contributor Eric Zencey is the author, most recently, of The Other Road to Serfdom and the Path to Sustainable Democracy and Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State.

Happy (Oil) Independence Day!

by Rob Dietz

I had an amazing fourth of July, a truly outstanding American experience. I feel fortunate to live where I do, in a place where I can retreat from the broader cares of the world and have a happy day. And here’s a dirty little secret: I didn’t burn an ounce of oil while doing it. You could call it a steady state celebration.

The day’s events centered around community, family, friends, music and merrymaking. It all started on the central pathway of our cohousing community, CoHo Ecovillage in Corvallis, Oregon. A gathering of bikes formed a little before ten in the morning. My mom is visiting from out of town, and she doesn’t ride a bike anymore, so I piloted a pedicab that a neighbor

CoHo Ecovillage in Corvallis, Oregon

has bequeathed to the community. That’s certainly one of the perks of our community – the ability to share tools and other useful items that would be impractical for one person or one family to own. The pedicab was also perfect for toting a guitar, my instrument of choice for the CoHo marching band’s performance in The All American Everyone-Can-Join Fabulous Fantastic 4th of July Parade.

From five years old to fifty-five years old, our peloton pedaled the pleasant path to the endpoint of the parade route at the confluence of the Marys and Willamette Rivers. From there we walked the rest of the way to the kickoff point alongside Central Park, a satisfying stroll on a sun-saturated street.

As the parade got underway, we began our medley of You’re a Grand Old Flag, Yankee Doodle, and When Johnny Comes Marching Home. The kids cruised along carrying outsized flags, and our band pumped up the crowd lining the parade route. With a trumpet, a flute, a fiddle, two guitars, a snare drum, a mid tom from a drum kit, cymbals, a tambourine, and a vuvuzela, we made some noise! I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way. Maybe next year we can add some homemade bagpipes and a chorus of kazoos.

During the parade we passed by a street fair that ran for several blocks. The kids were keen to hit that scene after we finished marching, so we headed back up the parade route. Some of us split off from the main group for a few minutes to stash our musical instruments. On our way back from dropping them at a secure location, we were walking past Block 15, one of the best local brew pubs in the world. Perhaps pangs of patriotism could be blamed, but some unseen spirit overtook us and guided us to the outdoor tables that flank the pub. We plopped down to enjoy some tasty local ales (and a fun round of juvenile conversation among friends) before rejoining the rest of our troop.

At the street fair we met our local police officers and paramedics. We sampled a selection of fair foods and listened to the Irish band hammering away on the stage. We wound down by the fountain park that overlooks the Willamette River. This is the spot where you can always find happy kids splashing about during the Corvallis farmer’s market on summer Saturdays. From there, we hiked back to our bikes and pedaled home.

The United States is an incredibly diverse nation, and we the people celebrate our independence in incredibly diverse ways. We watch fireworks on the National Mall in Washington, DC. We barbeque in the backyard with Uncle Cletus and Aunt Mae. We eat melons and cherries from fantastic farms. We reminisce about the good old days with our buddies on the beach. I am certain that Americans know how to throw a party. And I’m equally certain that we can have our fun without a mess of spillover effects. In fact, we can lead happy and fulfilling lives without burning fossil fuels. We can live our values (liberty and justice for all) and conserve the features of this great nation (spacious skies, amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties, and fruited plains). We just have to decide on it. We have to arrange our communities, our towns, our lives, and our economies to meet our needs sustainably.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to grab my guitar, find some friends, and arrange an impromptu beer and music meeting.