(note: I have been thinking about this essay for several months; I did not realize it would turn out to be so timely).

Many people in the rationality community and adjacent corners of the intellectual world are sympathetic to the idea of Open Borders. This concept can be explained easily. People in the developing world are suffering because of poverty and government oppression. When a migrant moves from a country like Guatemala to a country like the US, her economic prospects brighten dramatically. At the same time, according to OB proponents, she does not substantially reduce the well-being of the previous inhabitants of her adopted country, and may actually improve it. Even if the net benefit to the current inhabitants is zero, the fact that the immigrants accrue so much benefit, should be enough to persaude most fair-minded people that immigration is good - and in fact most people are in favor of modest immigration. The OB position takes this logic far further than most people are comfortable with, but the rationale is clear.

Unfortunately, most people won't accept "scaled-up" economic arguments. If the evidence shows that immigration is mostly good, normal people will accept a modest level of immigration, but not the complete abolition of immigration restrictions. In recent times this issue has become politically polarized, but it wasn't always a clear-cut Left vs Right battle - here's Bernie Sanders deriding Open Borders as a Koch brothers proposal. Depending on your own views, you might regard the mainstream attitude as sensible, or you might regard it as cold-hearted and self-destructive. Either way, it's clear that full Open Borders isn't politically feasible in the near term.

I believe there is a policy that is more likely to be politically acceptable, while also capturing many of the ethical benefits of Open Borders. That policy is Vacation - the US should vacate small strips of territory to make a space where refugee and migrant populations can construct independent city-states. A key piece of the argument is the fact that small nations are in fact quite viable, so let me talk about Singapore for a moment.

The Singaporean Miracle

Singapore is a city-state in Southeast Asia. Formerly a part of Malaysia, SG was expelled from the mother country in 1965, largely due to ethnic strife between the Chinese and Malays. Under the pragmatic - and somewhat authoritarian - leadership of the great Lee Kuan Yew, SG rose fast. Starting far behind most Western countries, SG is now far ahead. It's PPP-adjusted GDP per capita is an astonishing 100K. It's life expectancy is 83.2 years, as far above the US (77.6) as the US is above Egypt (71.8). SG comes in a solid 11th in the Human Development Index, losing slightly to countries like Norway, Switzerland and Australia. But if you dig into the HDI equations a bit, you'll notice that one of the factors is years of education, so they get a boost from all their professional students who spend decades accumulating degrees of questionable utility. A more concrete measurement of educational attainment is the PISA ratings which puts SG at the absolute top, unless you accept China's weird cherry-picking of a few top-performing cities instead of their national averages. SG has fewer homicides per capita than Japan (0.16 vs 0.26 per 100k per year), and 30x fewer than the US (4.96).

Okay, so, you get the idea - Singapore is a prosperous, safe, 1st-world country. What's important for this essay is that SG achieved all of this with an absolutely tiny geographic footprint. Though it has a substantial population of 5.6 million, SG's land area is only 730 km2. Rhode Island, the smallest US state, has an area of 2700 km2, into which it fits about 1 million people. Nevada extends to 287,000 km2, or 390x the size of Singapore, but with a population of just 3.1 million, has fewer people. The federal Bureau of Land Management is responsible for just under 1 million km2 of territory, more than 1300 times the area of SG.

A Difficult Conversation

With those statistics in your mind, I want you to imagine you are on a road trip in Nevada, with your young daughter, who is very smart and sensitive and likes to ask pointed questions. A few days ago, she happened to watch a television news report that showed some heart-rending scenes of suffering people. Perhaps the report was about how 13% of children in Venezuela are stunted because of hunger. Or maybe it was about how Syrian refugees are freezing to death because they don't have enough shelter. She didn't say much at the time, but apparently those images have remained in her inner world, because during the road trip she suddenly starts asking questions:

C: Daddy! Mommy! Remember the people on the news the other day? The people who were hungry and sick?

P: Yes, honey.

C: What happened to them? Why can't they have enough food like us?

P: (sigh) well, kiddo, they live in a country with a bad government. You know how some people think the police are really mean and bad? Well, the police in their country are even meaner and badder than the ones we have here.

C: But why don't they just leave?

P: The thing is, they don't have anywhere to go. Other countries won't take them.

C: (points out the window at the endless Nevada landscape full of nothing) Why can't they just come here?

Empty Nevada landscape

Greed for Gold, Greed for Slaves, Greed for Land

The history of European colonization of the Western hemisphere can be summed up in one word: greed. During this era in history, Europe's economy and technology had jumped forward to an incredible degree, but European morality was still governed by medieval principles. According to those principles, it was reasonable to just take as much as you could get your hands on, because the people you took it from didn't count. If the natives had some gold, you just took it from them. If you could capture some Africans, you could take their freedom. If you defeated another nation in war, you took their land.

In hindsight, this greed was not just ethically despicable, but also pragmatically foolish, because the resources the Europeans grabbed didn't really help them very much. It's likely that a major cause of the fall of Spain as a global power was the economic turmoil and inflation caused by a massive influx of gold from the New World. As any fan of Warren Buffett knows, gold doesn't actually do anything, it justs sits there inert, and you have to pay people to guard it.

Slaves might seem a bit more profitable. After all, if you whip someone enough, you can probably get him to do some work for you. But some early economists, including Adam Smith, thought that slavery was actually less efficient than free labor, because the slave had no incentive to do any more work than was absolutely necessary. In comparison, a free man would want to work hard to increase his income, thereby maximizing the productivity of the land. You might not believe Smith's theory, but there's no doubt that the economy of the industrial North developed much faster than the agricultural South, and this was a major factor in the South's defeat in the Civil War.

Early American greed for land illustrates a similar failure of vision. American presidents grabbed as much land as they could, by purchasing it from Napoleon, waging war against Mexico, and evicting the native American tribes. The desire for land is a holdover of medieval thinking, where land was the main source of wealth, since agriculture was the most important sector of the economy. In our post-agricultural economy, most land is not very profitable. Wealth is created by technology, trade, science, industry, marketing, education, and finance - activities that generally happen in cities, where most wealthy people live. Rural areas are plagued by obesity, opiate addiction, poverty, and lack of education.

If the trend in the early history of Europeans in America was greed, then perhaps the trend of the recent history is an unwinding of that greed. People are no longer obsessed with gold, realizing that heavy, soft, shiny metals do not actually produce wealth. Slavery has been abolished, and there is talk of reparations for the descendents of slaves. That leaves the third part of the triangle - land. Our forefathers were greedy, so our government now controls vast swaths of territory, but it doesn't benefit us very much. Surely we could find a spare 700 square kilometers that nobody really needs.

Principles of Vacation

America has tremendous political inertia: it's incredibly difficult to get enough bipartisan political support for an idea to actually implement it. These principles are intended to placate the more stubborn elements of the body politic, while reducing the costs and mitigating the fallout if the new city fails.

No Citizenship Benefits to Migrants. The refugees and migrants who come to inhabit the new city-state are neither citizens nor residents of the host country, and receive no benefits that are reserved for those categories. Individuals who attempt to immigrate illegally into the host country may be subject to criminal penalties, including deportation to their country of origin.

Commitments of Host Country. The host country is expected to administer a provisional government in the early years of vacation. The main task of this government is to maintain law and order, and to develop the economy of the new city. Food and medical supplies shall be provided by an international coalition.

Path to Independence. In the long run, the new city is expected to become self-governing and independent. The host country may determine an appropriate schedule for transferring power.

Free Trade with Host Country. It is expected that the new city will be economically integrated with the host country. There shall be no obstacles erected to commerce between the host country and the new city. It is expected that some economic benefit will accrue to businesses and individuals of the host country; this benefit can be viewed as compensation for the territory that is granted to the city.

Minimal Taxes and Regulation in Initial Stage. During the early years of vacation, the goal of the provisional government must be to develop the economy. In pursuit of that goal, taxes and regulation must be kept to a minimum. When the new city becomes fully independent, the choice of taxation and regulation will be determined by the new government.

Controlled Scale-Up. it is expected that the population of the new city will eventually be on the order of several million, but in the early years of vacation, the host country may determine the rate at which newcomers are permitted to enter the new city. This principle is intended as a safeguard against a collapse in public safety or sanitation, which might lead to the failure of the city. In the long term, the city government may decide its own immigration policy.

Potential Objections

The US is terrible at nation-building. In recent decades, the US does not have a very good track record of setting up new governments. While we did well enough in Japan and West Germany, we failed utterly in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it's unlikely that we will succeed in setting up a new government in the vacated territory. I think this objection is fair, but misses a key point. In the Middle East, the US was viewed as a foreign occupier, and hated for that reason. But the fact that we are giving up territory in order to help foreigners will give us a decisive moral advantage in this case. Furthermore, the hardliner anti-American elements will likely decide to remain in their home country and take their chances there, rather than move to the new city.

Failure of City and Refugee Influx. Building on the above objection, if the new city simply collapses because of bad government, then we will now have a big refugee problem right on our border. The scale-up principle is partially intended to address this objection. If it looks like the new city is failing, the US can limit the number of new arrivals who are accepted, thereby limiting the scale of the resulting refugee crisis. But in general, I consider this outcome to be an acceptable risk. The US has absorbed millions of immigrants, legal and otherwise, over its history. If we try to build a new city, but fail and therefore have to absorb another half a million people, it is hardly the end of the world.

Territory is Abundant, but Good Territory is Not. Some objectors might say that while the US has vast swaths of territory, most of this territory is not suitable for a new city. In particular, a new city-state should be on the coastline, to facilitate trade, and good coastal locations are already being used. I think this concern can be assuaged by studying a map of the US and observing the sizes of the territories involved. There is a place in the Florida panhandle called the Apalachicola National Forest, which extends over 2500 km2 of land, more than 3x bigger than Singapore. On the west coast of Oregon is the Siuslaw National Forest, which is also 2500 km2. As far as I can tell, the entire west coast of the US, north of San Francisco, is very sparsely settled.

Environmental Concerns. Some of the territory that might be vacated to make room for the new city may currently be designated as parkland or wildlife refuge. Furthermore, when the new city achieves full independence, its government might not be very concerned with environmental protection. I see this as a valid concern, but modest compared in ethical magnitude compared to the benefit of creating a safe and prosperous life for millions of people who are now harshly oppressed. Also, the new city will be highly dependent on trade with the host country for its economic well-being. The US government can therefore apply a lot of pressure on the city to be environmentally friendly, by threatening sanctions.

What about the Next Crisis? Another potential concern is that if the city does succeed at some level, then when the next refugee crisis occurs, the US will have to give away another block of territory, and then another, and another, so eventually we will have lost a huge amount of territory. If this issue becomes a concern, it will be a good problem to have, because it will mean that the initial vacations were successful. Refugee crises don't happen so often that we will lose substantial amounts of territory in any kind of near-term time frame. Also, if the early US vacations work out well, we should be able to convince other large countries like Canada, Mexico, and Australia to implement similar policies.

Conclusion: Have We Surrendered to Zombie Institutions?

In the minds of everyday people, immigration is good but also comes at a social cost. This cost includes an increased burden on social services, depressed wages of native-born workers, and an increase in crime. Now, these costs may be imaginary, but that is irrelevant to the calculus of political feasibility. Whether or not it is true, the commonly held belief that immigration is costly limits the number of immigrants that the US can accept.

In my view, Vacation offers a way to help a far greater number of migrants at a cost that is smaller in both the real and imaginary dimensions. I think most Americans will understand that the social cost of Vacation is small, because the migrants do not receive social services or other citizenship benefits.

However, I do think there is an obstacle to Vacation that is probably insurmountable, which is its novelty. As far as I can tell, our political institutions are now essentially zombies. They are creatures with no inner intellectual or ethical life. They do not respond to ideas, however well-reasoned, nor do they have any interest in carrying out the will of the people. Instead they merely shamble along, following their broken bureaucratic procedures, regardless of the cost in human lives or public trust. According to this gloomy perspective, there is no chance that our zombie institutions could carry out a modestly complex maneuver like Vacation, even if it were widely supported by the public. Furthermore, it appears that the American people have surrendered to the zombies. No matter how badly the institutions fail, they will continue to wield power and exert their baleful influence on our society.

Even though I believe we are governed by zombies, I decided it was worthwhile to write this essay, because of an expected-value calculation. I think a well-executed Vacation could substantially improve the lives of more than a million people. If it only has one chance in a million of being implemented, then this essay has, in expectation, helped one person. Thanks for reading it.


22 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:35 AM
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I think one key reason this can't be done is the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics - once you've interacted with the problem by allowing people to settle in your (former) land, people will now blame you for anything that happens, including the fact that they don't have all your country's nice citizenship benefits (even though they didn't have those benefits back home either).

An unrelated issue is that the incentives might be built wrong: if failure means absorption into the host country, why bother succeeding?

Building a country on vacant land requires a lot of capital per person, but refugees don't have much capital. Where will it come from?

Most plausibly, a mixture of private charity or investment and/or some sort of loan or "donation" by the host country.

Let's put some numbers on it. The average US worker is backed by tens of thousands of dollars in physical capital, there's no other way to achieve high productivity. Multiply that by the number of people in the proposed country, and you'll get a sum that even a government won't spend willy nilly. It's a far cry from "let's donate our vacant land to refugees, they will become highly productive for free". A better analogy would be "let's build a vacant city - housing, roads, power, water, stores, warehouses, factories and all the rest, for a million people - and invite a million refugees to fill it".

When you put it like that the city sounds like state-built housing for the poor which is notorious for being an awful place to live.

Why do you think that refugees will be capable of creating better institutions than those that failed them in theis county of origin? Could it be that a small (relatively speaking) number of refugees can benefit from better institutions of their new country, without diluting the locals so much that the implicit institutional knowledge is lost, but a larger influx of immigrants would just import their "bad" institutions with them?

I have a similar objection. Not particularly because they are Refugees, but instead because they are Foreigners.

I actually quite liked the presented idea, but I think it is very heavily slanted towards ideas that are oriented on the political left (which I generally favor if I were forced to choose). Still, some concepts from the political right are important here, particularly those of culture, and personal responsibility.

Summarized very briefly (and therefore certainly wrong)

Culture, according to the left is something that is imposed from above, and can be exchanged like a pair of socks, while the right thinks that culture is a shared consensus, that depends on all the participants (and particularly on their relative number. An example would be the "culture" of burning cars in Sweden, which is a quite new occurrence)

With personal responsibility on the other hand I mean that you certainly bias your sample of immigrants depending on how you select them. Are all of them people looking for handouts? Or are they people that want to actively change their surroundings (In the latter case, it may be possible that they stubbornly reject leaving their own country for example. The opposite might just as well be true, if they define "their surroundings" to be limited to their close family, kids etc.)


In any case, I think these ideas at least have to be taken into account, otherwise this all sounds like some unfinished idea of a utopian fairytale.

Yes, this. Moreover there is another aspect. Refugees are people rejected by their home country. Yes, many countries have insular in groups and arbitrary and capricious decision-making. So not every individual rejected 'deserves' it. But it's like trying to found a company and only accepting fired or laid off employees of other companies. The same argument applies - companies can for non merit based or random reasons fire or lay off someone. But if you measured the average capabilities or performance of this 'reject' pool, odds are it will underperform compared to the greater population.

Programs like L1/H1B are the inverse. The top workers of a source country are more likely to be the ones offered these deals.

Really enjoyed this. I’m skeptical, because (1) a huge number of things have to go right, and (2) some of them depend on the goodwill of people who are disincentivized to help

Most likely: the Vacated Territory flounders, much like Birobidzhan (Which is a really fun story, by the way. In the 1930’s, the Soviet Union created a mostly-autonomous colony for its Jews in Siberia. Macha Gessen tells the story here)

Best case:

In September 2021, the first 10,000 Siuslaw Syrians touched down in Siuslaw National Forest, land that was previously part of Oregon.

It was an auspicious start. The US and state governments had happily passed all necessary laws, amendments, and regulations. Likewise, the locals were friendly. Those already living on the Suislaw River happily gave up their homes in exchange for government compensation.

Their new President, Abdul Ali, dreamt of a shining city-state, which would attracted the best of the Syrian diaspora. The US government and various NGOs offered all sorts of goods and hands-on assistance, but Ali declined everything except cash. Ali received $20,000 per person for the first year, giving him an initial budget of $200M. Donations per person decreased by about 10% per year.

The land wasn’t great for farming, but the fishing was excellent. Ali’s new Exclusive Economic Zone had previously been a marine mammal sanctuary. The Siuslaw Syrians bought used commercial fishing boats (and, in the early days, hired some of their crew). Ali managed the fishery with an iron fist, and the fish population remained high for many years.

In the first year, Ali invested a full 25% of his budget in an Islamic University. He believed the key to success would be attracting the best and brightest of the diaspora – especially those of working age. Ali marketed his vision widely, and it worked. His population grew like wildfire.

One day, someone was caught smuggling Fentanyl into the United States through Siuslaw. Ali saw how this could harm relations with the US, so he caused the drug traffickers to be publicly beaten and put to death. Siuslaw continued this harsh regime, and the US never saw Siuslaw as a security threat.

Ali had hoped to thrive as a city-state, but he just didn’t have the advantages of Singapore – a massive port at the crossroads of the world’s shipping. He’s also not receiving as much external cash that Israel received at a similar point in its development. So he makes two moves:

First, to keep his population growth high, Ali invested in making Siuslaw the “authentic Syrian culture.” Most of the diaspora believes they would feel more at home in Siuslaw than in Syria. It was a geniunely good place to live, striking the balance between devout and modern. Siuslaw reached 1M people by 2030.

Second, he built semiconductors. Initially, poor quality ones. But Siuslaw’s skilled manufacturing sector eventually developed. 

In the early days, Ali tried to accept a Chinese team’s investment and on-the-ground assistance with a semiconductor plant. The US threatened to cut off all aid and close its border with Siuslaw. Ali backed down. Later, he met similar pressure when trying to purchase military equipment from Russia for his police force. Ali learned that the US would have a quiet veto power on his foreign policy. Outside of foreign policy, Ali jealously – and successfully – guarded his independence.

By 2040, Siuslaw has reached a population of 2 million and matches the United States’ GDP per capita. 

The Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey have now been operating for 28 years, and their population has actually increased. Ali makes generous public gestures, but only those who are young, healthy, productive, or smart are allowed to immigrate. Siuslaw has no plans to solve the refugee problem. Nevertheless, everyone agrees: the Vacated Territories Project was a success.

Thanks for the positive feedback and interesting scenario. I'd never heard of Birobidzhan.

The history of European colonization of the Western hemisphere can be summed up in one word: greed.

I don't think that's a fair characterization. Realistically, conquest, pillaging and slave trade predated the US colonization by millenia, and were widespread on every continent. The true uniqueness of Europeans seems to have been universalism, which came from entrenched monotheism. The idea that the same rules (divine rules, and by analogy rules of Nature, social rules) apply everywhere, even where you've never set foot, was universally (ironically) unintuitive and absurd before. So, the Europeans had a knack for sailing seas and making colonies because everywhere was equivalent to them. If the locals did not uphold strict territory boundaries, they saw it as a license to seize land because then by default their (in their heads) universal law applied. I think we can still see this way of thinking in action nowadays specifically in Western geopolitics.

Yes I think it's more accurate to say that Europeans were greedy but no greedier than any other culture at the time. And in fact they were the first group that decreased their greed and created the modern ethical understanding that taking can be wrong.

Singapore's two main sources of wealth are it's port and it's banking system. In both cases the wealth gets produced outside of Singapore and then Singapore profits from that. 

It's unlikely that creating a big new port would be economically feasible. As far as banking goes, it's not in the interest of host countries to create tax shelter that allow capital to leave into the tax shelter. The same goes for having a low taxation area. If you create a low taxation area in the US to get businesses to create jobs inside that area other areas of the US will have less jobs. 

US citizens likely don't want a city that produces a lot of drugs because it has low regulation either within the US territory.

This is just blue-tribe signalling. I apologise for being rude, but I don't know which is more absurd - the implication that only Europeans cared about gold/land/slaves (I think all non-tribal civilisation cared about the first two, and most cared about the third), or the idea that land has no value. I wonder what history would look like if the US had not expanded west? I think the most obvious change is that Germany and/or Japan would have won WWII. The US would have had little oil (as the Texan oil fields were not part of the initial colonies) no pacific naval bases, no empty land to test nuclear bombs on etc. Going further back in history, if no-one cared about land then we would all still be hunter-gathers.

Similarly the idea that Spain collapsed due to having too much gold sounds like nonsense - Spain traded with other countries, so any inflation caused wouldn't just affect Spain. 

The reason why immigrants often are beneficial to the host country is because barriers to immigration provide a very strong selective effect. But this does not apply to open borders or refugees, and also this brain drain is not sustainable.


Upvoted for serious idea about a difficult problem, but I would bet against this happening, and against it working if tried in the US or EU.  

The answer to the 6 year old's question about Nevada is simple: There's not enough water to make this survivable for any significant density of people.  I'd argue that there are similar reasons for any other large areas that don't have a city near them already - some resource is constrained enough that it can't support the density.

The thought experiment which proves it is: if the land is good and unused, why haven't we opened it for use by impoverished/struggling citizens (or by rich people who can pay a lot to improve the lives of those citizens)?

A similar model is a "refugee city", using a charter city model.  The Charter Cities Institute has talked about this, but rather than vacating developed country land it's about an intermediary (developing country) host vacating land and someone else (e.g. CCI) providing the governance and security.

I'm not convinced at all and I can think of many reasons why something like this would be a horrendous idea and will never materialize.  And yet, I think it is original and refreshing, so I am strong upvoting it. 

Economic security is probably far more important than physical security, and much more difficult to obtain. The reason we don't already see wealthy refugee cities in deserts and other remote areas is that the thing everyone is looking for, a stable income, is simply not available there, and constructing all the required infrastructure and local economy from scratch is a difficult task even for developed nations. Simply put, in the choice between moving to a deserted area of Nevada versus say LA or NY, most if not all would choose the big cities due to the far greater economic opportunities on offer there.

This sounds like nation building but instead of doing it there we're doing it here. So when it goes wrong as it almost always does we'll have a haven of terrorists in Nevada instead of western asia. I know this is scathing but really, what is the benefit to doing it here instead of doing it there and why would it be more likely to succeed?

What's the basis for your assumption that this proposal would be more politically palatable than open borders? That seems nigh-inconceivable to me. ACX has written a few posts on charter cities, including on their role in the U.S., and I did not get the idea that they would be remotely politically feasible there.

If a group capable people does not want to struggle for better institutions in their home country, no one has the obligation to open a piece of their land to them.

If someone is trying to catch a fish with very old, rusty fishing rod, getting them a new rod will probably feed a person who is self-sufficient. If people of a certain country wants to build a better society but lacks funds, we can help them.

But you can not help people who does not want to help themselves. 

[+][comment deleted]10mo 1