Adam Tebble is a Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at King’s College London. The following interview is based on his article “More Open Borders and Deep Structural Transformation” published in Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy in January 2019. For more insights, you can also check out our conversation with Adam Tebble on the Governance Podcast.

The Interview

1) Adam, you’re currently working on the philosophical debate about open borders, a question which originated in your research program on epistemic liberalism.  What is epistemic liberalism?  What was your original argument?

Epistemic liberalism is a tradition of thought that places questions about knowledge, complexity and social learning at the heart of debates in political philosophy, initially with regard to debates about economic organisation and distributive justice.  Key thinkers in this tradition are Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi and of course Austrian School economists such as Friedrich Hayek, although there is also something to be said for including David Hume and John Stuart Mill on the list, given what they have to say about justice in extended or ‘large’ societies and about our liberty to engage in ‘experiments of living’ respectively.

I pick up where these authors, and particularly Hayek, leave off by claiming that epistemic considerations are not just crucial to debates about distributive justice, but also to more fundamental questions about the status of the background norms and conceptions of the good that inform the economic choices that we, either as self-interested individuals or as other-regarding pursuers of collective projects, may make. Thus, in Epistemic liberalism: a defence I seek to build upon Hayek’s claim about the existence of an economic knowledge problem – where the knowledge relevant to our deciding what to do with resources is for a variety of reasons uncentralisable – to claim that there also exists a more profound cultural knowledge problem.

Here it is the knowledge relevant to deciding which ways of life and their constituent practices are most appropriate, rather than to deciding what to do with resources, that is uncentralisable.  Finally, and to paraphrase what is a rather complex argument, the result of taking this problem seriously is a liberal endorsement of equal individual liberty and a presumptive stance of legal silence on the part of the state with regard to culture and cultural practice.

“There also exists a more profound cultural knowledge problem.”

2) In your latest work, you make a philosophical defense of open borders.  What is new about your argument?

In contrast to much of the literature on migration and justice, and especially in contrast to that which defends a more liberal position, the argument I make in favour of more open borders focuses not upon the interests of immigrants or of the already-resident, but upon those whom migrants leave behind in their countries of origin.  In this sense my argument represents something of a breakthrough, for it seeks to claim the interests of those left behind for those arguing in favour of the more liberal approach, rather than leaving them to be appealed to in arguments against it, most notably by writers on brain-drain.  My argument, then, can be read as a response to brain-drain critiques of more open borders and to scepticism about freedom of movement in general.

3) You mentioned that migrants remit not only money, but values.  Is this wishful thinking?  What are the empirics on this? 

There is some very interesting work in this area, particularly on social remittances and their effects by authors such as Kathleen Newland and Peggy Levitt.  Both their work and studies by others in development economics do show how, through visits home, via regular communication, or both, immigrants also remit the values of their adopted nations to those they have left behind.  Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that not only the relatives of immigrants, but those who live near to them, are also impacted by this phenomenon.

Of course, one must also accept, as these authors do, that at least in a liberal democratic society one may remit whatever values one likes back home, including non-liberal values.  So the point of my argument is not to claim some kind of liberal slam dunk for more open borders.  Rather, and so long as we discount sanctions and, in extremis, invasion as ineffective and/or unacceptably coercive methods of norm transmission, it is to claim that having more open borders makes the transmission of liberal norms more likely and that this should be sufficient reason for us to endorse them.

“The argument I make is not just intended to make the case for more open borders attractive to those who are already sympathetic to them”

4) Proponents of open borders will likely appreciate your arguments.  What about modern populist leaders?  Aren’t they the ones who need convincing?

Yes they are and increasingly so if recent elections are anything to go by – but offering arguments to accomplish this is I hope the second major advance of my work in this area. The argument I make is not just intended to make the case for more open borders attractive to those who are already sympathetic to them, albeit for different reasons and from different philosophical perspectives to mine. It is also intended to show that even those who are sceptical of more open borders nonetheless have reason to endorse them.

Central here is the idea that those who believe in migration controls – either of exit or of entry – also tend to concede at least some obligations of justice to the world’s poor that should be met either by the governments of developing countries to their own citizens, by wealthier countries to what are called ‘global strangers’ in the literature, or by both.  But conceding as much also means that governments need to avail themselves of some means by which they can identify and discharge these obligations as effectively as possible and it is here where epistemic considerations again become relevant.  In brief, more open borders not only enable migrants to assist those left behind in ways that alternative cross border resource transfer mechanisms cannot, but also assist governments to do the same, via a process of what I call ‘state signalling’.

5) That’s intriguing.  Is your argument that migrants can actually help governments in their home countries get better at governing?

Yes, certainly with regard to poverty alleviation governments can deploy ‘big data’ techniques such as geospatial predictive modelling to track migration and remittance flows, as well as remittance consumption patterns, in order to make their own foreign aid or national development strategies more effective.  But perhaps most importantly, as your earlier question about value remittance suggests, this is not the only effect of more open borders that we can anticipate.  There is also the question of the role of norm and value remittance in improving governance.

I have learned much in this regard from the work on utopianism and political activism by authors such as Erik Olin Wright.  Wright distinguishes between two kinds of ‘bottom up’ transformative process that take place away from the formal structures of the state such as parliaments and bureaucracies.  The first – ‘transformative strategies’ – are typically what we have in mind when thinking of political activism.  These are activisms designed with specific goals in mind – think Occupy Wall Street, think Femen – but which eschew mainstream modes and sites of political practice.  The second are what Wright refers to as ‘transformative processes’ and here, in echoes of Adam Smith on the invisible hand and, indeed, of Hayek on spontaneous order, he gives the example of the unintended, but no less revolutionary, transformation of feudal relations of production by urban artisans and merchants.  The important point is that these actors were not seeking to transform the system per se but merely seeking to increase their opportunities to trade.

“Governance improvement becomes an emergent result of the actions of many individuals”

Thus, similarly to the case of the economically transformative effects of remittances, governance improvement becomes an emergent result of the actions of many individuals, who are more concerned with the welfare of their loved ones and those nearest to them, but who nonetheless induce a gradual change in attitudes and expectations as they remit their experiences and newly-adopted norms and values back home.  Across a range of different indicators the transmission of newly acquired values from immigrants to those they leave behind has an impact on the performance of poorer states, even if this is not expressly a part of anybody’s intention.  Thus, the transmission of newly acquired expectations about governance has been shown to lead to reductions in corruption, whilst other studies have shown increased election turnouts amongst populations who live near immigrant returnees from developed democracies.

Perhaps most strikingly of all, the same studies have shown 1) that this is not due to explicit, or in Wright’s terms, ‘strategic’ instruction from immigrants, but rather to the imitation of them by those left behind, and 2) that the imitation in question was found to be undertaken by those often considered hardest to reach by activists and campaigners: returnees’ least well-educated neighbours.  And, of course, once it is established that such bottom-up processes do take place under a more open borders regime, it is but a short step to imagining more radical activist communities in countries of origin also learning about and making self-conscious use of remitted norms and values to set up their own ‘political experiments of living’ where different forms of governance and relations of authority are concretely realised and eventually more widely adopted, up to – and including – by their own states.

6) How flexible is your position?  Can we say that open borders are philosophically preferable but still close them because of national security concerns?  (If so, can we always de-prioritize liberty in favour of security?)

Yes, I am clear that the set of epistemic liberal arguments that I make in favour of more open borders must find their place in wider debates about migration where a whole host of other considerations typically come into play.  There are not just economic or national security concerns at stake in debates about freedom of movement, but also questions of cultural cohesion and public health, to name just some of the other factors that policymakers would need to take into consideration.

“I tend to let others worry about impact, whilst I am happy to worry about truth”

7) Ideas tend to trickle out of the academy very slowly before we realize their impact on the world.  As a philosopher, what kind of “impact” do you hope to have on policy, especially one where millions of livelihoods are actually at stake?

Being a firm believer in the intellectual division of labour I tend to let others worry about impact, whilst I am happy to worry about truth.  Indeed, I recall that somebody once asked me, in connection with another paper, what I was going to do, politically, with my conclusions – to which I responded that my job tends to end, rather than start, with conclusions!  That said, it would be nice to think that my arguments would make the more liberal approach a more powerful and persuasive one in the public sphere.

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