The Case for Open Borders

I’ve recently finished Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan’s excellent book, “In Defense of Openness: Why Global Freedom Is the Humane Solution to Global Poverty.” Among other things, the book advances the case for open borders. Very roughly, here is how the positive case for that position goes.

First, immigration restrictions seem deeply unjust on the face of it. They interfere with people’s freedom—especially the freedom of poor people—to move where they want to, and these restrictions on freedom consign huge chunks of the world population to misery and poverty.

Second, there is a strong and obvious economic case for open borders. Restrictions on immigration ensure that the productive power of much of the world’s population cannot be harnessed. Van der Vossen and Brennan cite economic analyses that suggest an enormous amount of wealth is “left on the table” in virtue of immigration restrictions.

These considerations build a strong, presumptive case for open borders. If you want to defend immigration restrictions, then, it seems that the onus is on you. As Van der Vossen and Brennan point out, arguments for immigration restrictions typically work by pointing out that open borders would lead to some bad thing. To evaluate such arguments, then, you have to ask two questions. First, would open borders in fact lead to the relevant bad thing? Second, even if it would, is this cost sufficient to override the enormous benefits associated with open borders?

When you look at most of the arguments against open borders, they do not stand up very well. Here are three of the most influential.

  1. Immigration depresses the wages of domestic workers in rich countries.

Here the bad thing is as follows: if one allows immigration, immigrants will compete with domestic workers for jobs, thereby driving domestic wages down.

The first question, then, is whether this claim is true. It seems that the answer is no. According to Van der Vossen and Brennan, most economic analyses of the effects of immigration find that the negative effects on wages are either small or non-existent. When such effects occur at all, they are temporary and limited to a small subset of unskilled domestic workers.

Suppose it were true, though. Still, it is difficult to see how this could override the presumptive case against immigration restrictions. Immigration benefits immigrants enormously (hence why they immigrate) and in the long run leads to a much greater level of wealth creation. The fact that the wages of a subset of domestic workers are depressed in the short run does not seem a very persuasive argument for restricting immigration, then, unless one arbitrarily privileges the value of those workers over both immigrants and the rest of the domestic population.

  1. Open borders are inconsistent with maintaining a welfare state.

Here the alleged bad thing is that open borders would lead to people from very poor countries entering rich countries in droves, thereby bankrupting them through their use of their comparatively generous welfare states.

Once more, is this claim true? Again, it seems that the answer is no. Studies of the fiscal impacts of immigration almost all show a net impact that ranges from neutral to positive.

Even if it were true, however, it still wouldn’t be a good argument. The reason is that there would seem to be superior alternatives to blocking immigration. An obvious alternative would be to allow immigration but deny access—or at least immediate access—to welfare. If that seems unfair, you’re right. But—crucially—it is much less unfair than closing borders to ensure that people can’t come in at all. After all, many people from poor countries would leap at the chance to come to rich countries in the absence of welfare. They would see a massive increase in wages, and it is not like they would be abandoning welfare from their home countries.

  1. Open borders would lead to such negative outcomes as the “strange death of Europe” (to quote the title of an extremely popular book in the UK).

Here the alleged bad thing is that people from other countries would corrupt the cultures of rich liberal democracies with their different—presumably inferior—cultures, thereby undermining liberal institutions, Western culture, etc., etc..

First, then, is it true? Here it is slightly more difficult to evaluate in terms of social science because the worry is vague and extremely speculative. In general, however, it is worth noting that—inductively—this argument has always been made in the past, and it seems to have always been mistaken in the past. Consider the USA: this argument was made repeatedly about Irish, Italian, Chinese, etc., immigrants who are now fully integrated into “US culture”—which, of course, they helped to create. Further, most of those who make arguments of this kind typically rely on fear-mongering and selective anecdotes anyway, not serious empirical enquiry or analysis.

Moreover, even if the claim were true, it still wouldn’t be a very good argument. Suppose that mass immigration to the UK, say, would undermine the culture of the UK, however one understands this claim. Well, it is difficult to see how that cost would outweigh the enormous benefits of immigration. In addition, at best this argument would support restrictions on immigration from allegedly troublesome cultures. Unless one wants to defend the ridiculous claim that this includes all the world’s countries, this argument therefore only supports a limited form of borders—one that is far more limited than what we currently have.

From considerations such as these, Van der Vossen and Brennan conclude that there is a powerful case for open borders. I generally found their arguments compelling. Nevertheless, there is one different kind of argument against open borders that they do not consider, which strikes me as more persuasive.

Here the alleged bad thing is as follows: if there are open borders, people in many countries will massively resent it, leading them to support politicians on the far right who demonize and scapegoat immigrants, leading in turn to even worse outcomes than those we currently experience.

Note that the argument here is not that open borders would directly cause a bad thing. Rather, the claim is that—given what we know about our species (i.e. our irrationality, close-mindedness, tribalism, etc., etc.)—people would nevertheless inevitably come to believe that it has caused a bad thing, and that would have negative consequences.

Of course, that is not an argument for closing off all immigration. It is just an argument for ensuring that the rate of change brought about by removing immigration restrictions does not end up undermining immigration itself, by lending support to those on the far right who are already enjoying an alarming surge in popularity throughout much of the world.

I don’t know whether this argument is persuasive. Given how much concern there currently is concerning immigration among people in wealthy countries that have relatively little of it, however, I wish that Van der Vossen and Brennan had considered it.

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