open borders – a simplified argument

Here’s how I would present the basic arguments for open borders:

  1. Closed borders are immoral: Imagine if I stood in front of the local Olive Garden and built an electric fence because I didn’t want some people to get jobs washing dishes there. Sounds crazy, right? It’s equally crazy to ask the government to do the same with a fence at the Mexican border.
  2. Immigration may be a problem in theory, but not in practice: Theoretically, I can present all kinds problems. Maybe people won’t assimilate. Maybe they’ll bankrupt the state with demands for welfare. Maybe they’ll drive down wages and we’ll all starve. Most academic research shows that in practice, these concerns are way, way out of proportion. In economics, for example, most studies find that immigration doesn’t destroy the economy. Some studies find no effect on wages (here for a recent representative example). The most pessimistic study finds small short term negative effects (e.g., see here for a discussion).
  3. Immigration is the policy implied by most political ideologies: For example, liberals are worried about inequality. Immigration is one of the few policies that immediately decreases inequality by letting extremely poor people move to a place with better jobs. Conservatives extol the virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. Immigration is the way that people find better jobs and become self-sufficient. Why should we prevent people from supporting their families by finding better jobs?

Open borders are ethical and practical.

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Written by fabiorojas

July 18, 2013 at 12:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio

8 Responses

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  1. Doesn’t Rory McVeigh’s book argue that perceived power devaluation by whites is one factor in right-wing mobilization? So on point (2) it’s less about actual problems and more about perceived threats which garners anti-immigrant sentiment.



    July 18, 2013 at 12:10 am

  2. open (geographical) borders is only part of the answer; if one is truly interested in “inequality”, they should endeavor to remove the protective (professional) barriers for doctors, lawyers, and professors. Some receive rents far in excess of their skills by modulating supply of new comers into the market. if you are for open (geographical) borders, the open (professional) border argument makes similar sense.



    July 18, 2013 at 12:54 am

  3. @alex – Yes, it’s about perceived threat, but when going into an argument I go in with the truth,

    @erik – If you are concerned about inequality, of course, immigration is only one part of the picture but it is a disproportionate part of the picture. Sure, if we abolished professional barriers, we’d likely see some distribution. But that would be small compared to the doubling or tripling of income that occurs when you simply move to a developed nation.



    July 18, 2013 at 3:18 am

  4. On the interstate in Wisconsin, I saw a trooper zap a guy with Illinois plates for doing nothing other than having Illinois plates, ostensibly to gove him an attitude adjustment. When I pitched the story to Mom as an example of how ridiculous police are, she defended the trooper by citing “those people” (this is a hardened anti-discrimination, public school educator talking). I argued that Illinois drivers get a bad rep only because the driving norms are very slightly different in Illinois, but she insisted that it was a product of personal arrogance and disrespect for Wisconsin drivers — begging for attitude adjustments.

    In a world where artificial legal distinctions create institutional borders sufficient to engender that level of xenophobia for people who are on any other dimension indistinguishable, I don’t see a lot of hope for open borders.

    I’m fully for the libertarian positions Rojas and erik are emphasizing, but it strikes me that immigration law and the American Medical Association are both just particularly pernicious manifestations of an otherwise functional and ubiquitous process of homophillic network clustering and organizational boundary maintinence. The jury is out on whether I should be indignant about something that may be inevitable and usually beneficial (public good privision for club, in-group, nation, etc members).



    July 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

  5. @grahamalam: It’s a good question about whether to be optimistic or pessimistic. But in my short life time, I’ve seen mind blowing social change – the fall of communism, the Arab Spring, the rise of the Internet, and so forth.Someone just a few years older has seen the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s rights movement.

    The only question is whether proponents of open borders will be seated at the table and how hard they want to try.



    July 18, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  6. While I like the idea of open borders and it accords with my values, I worry that some of the justifications rest on an implicit neo-liberal logic–‘people need jobs, let them move around until they find them wherever they are’ isn’t that different from a free market mentality.



    July 18, 2013 at 6:44 pm

  7. cwalken: I suggest that you tell poor people in Haiti that they can’t move to an industrialized nation with clean water because such a move would indicate a neo-liberal view of things. At a certain point, we have to set priorities. Movement is the simplest, easiest, and most humane way to help people out of extreme and dire poverty. Don’t let our views on other issues cloud this basic and profound insight.



    July 18, 2013 at 6:47 pm

  8. cwalken: you bet it’s a neoliberal position, insofar as you can attribute a huge chunk of the diffuse category of “neoliberal” ideas to 20th century libertarianism. Economic growth is the best thing to have happened to the poor in 10,000 years of civilized history. That was in no small part predicated on the abatement of labor market restrictions that guilds and other anti-innovation organizations enforced.

    Professor Rojas: I share the same hopes, but a smaller and less restrictive government isn’t something I see on the horizon.



    July 18, 2013 at 10:18 pm

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