i am a new abolitionist

A few years ago, Tyler Cowen remarked that open borders activists were too reckless, similar to abolitionists of the past. A fervent passion for migration would trigger backlash. In response, his co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, responded by saying that history goes to the passionate. The great changes in history are driven by groups of people who were not interested in marginal change but instead pushed for radical change:

When in 1787 Thomas Clarkson founded The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade a majority of the world’s people were held in slavery or serfdom and slavery was considered by almost everyone as normal, as it had been considered for thousands of years and across many nations and cultures. Slavery was also immensely profitable and woven into the fabric of the times. Yet within Clarkson’s lifetime slavery would be abolished within the British Empire. Whatever one may say about this revolution one can certainly say that it was not brought about by a “synthetic and marginalist” approach. If instead of abolition, Clarkson had settled on the goal of providing for better living conditions for slaves on the voyage from Africa it seems quite possible that slavery would still be with us today.

This leads me to our situation today. We face a modern form of domination, the system of prisons and detention centers. This system is responsible for imprisoning and deporting millions of people. Like the abolitionists of the 19th century, we have to ask whether there is any justice to this system. When I ask myself if there is there any ethical difference between a “patrol” that picks people up based on their race and a border patrol that deports people from the wrong nation, I say no. It is simply a system of violence leveraged against disliked groups. Confronted with this conclusion, I recognize that abolitionism is the answer. It is the only ethical answer.

So that brings me to Tyler’s point. Yes, the advocates of open borders are the new abolitionists but open borders advocates should be proud to belong to a longer tradition of freedom. If that makes people feel uncomfortable, that’s fine with me. I’m on the right side of history.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 13, 2017 at 12:29 am

8 Responses

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  1. Fabio,

    I am with you on this account. The right to move freely is and should be a basic human right. The whole idea of border control is to grant privilege to some while discriminating others, and it totally falls into a category similar to racial and class segregation. But here is a quick comment about the prediction or description that you tossed out a while ago that the US is at least post-racist. It turns out to be VERY not true, unfortunately.



    March 13, 2017 at 1:29 am


    The UN forecasts that by 2050, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa will have grown to over 2 billion.
    Europe will be at 630 million. The US, 375 million.
    Guess what’s going to happen if there are open borders. Then guess what will happen to innovation, productivity, education, crime, freedom of speech, etc in those countries that have open borders.


    They were crazy enough to try communism, but no one was crazy enough to try open borders

    March 13, 2017 at 2:52 am

  3. When comment number 2 proves comment number 1.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 13, 2017 at 4:22 am

  4. I can understand all the concerns that Comment 2 raised, but I would in principle challenge anyone who would disagree that moving freely is a basic human right, net of all other factors. Why just can’t I, as a human being, say moving from Moscow to Washington DC for travel, work, or any other purpose? No, I can’t find a good reason.



    March 13, 2017 at 1:55 pm

  5. But certainly not people from the third world country, right?



    March 13, 2017 at 1:57 pm

  6. “Guess what’s going to happen if there are open borders. Then guess what will happen to innovation, productivity, education, crime, freedom of speech, etc in those countries that have open borders.”

    Except that open borders have been tried before (see for example the European Union) and there is no indication that it had any negative effects on any of those variables. Quite the contrary, in fact.



    March 13, 2017 at 4:33 pm

  7. As a social movements researcher, do you have ideas about how to make open borders more politically viable? Immigration policy in the United States seems to be stuck for the foreseeable future given the country’s leadership. Heck, when Marco Rubio tried to propose merely moderate immigration reform in 2013, his party revolted against him. Even in Europe, open borders seems to occupy increasingly tenuous political ground given the rise of far right parties.


    Curious reader

    March 15, 2017 at 3:40 pm

  8. i think considering open borders from a polanyian framework would be useful. right now we are in an era of a very strong protective (counter)movement. they tried to free the market again (aka, neoliberal globalization, etc.), capital has begun to tilt the playing field w/ automation, and labor is feeling the crunch. ethnonationalism is on the rise in industrialized democracies across the world and even where it isn’t concern is palpable. no one quite knows what the next economy is going to look like. in that environment open borders are a political non-starter. they become more viable when society feels less susceptible to market threats. this could happen for a variety of reasons – liberal democracy proves compatible with the next economy and some sort of redistributive state helps to create stable living standards, economic institutions are innovated that allow for states to recede in importance without simultaneously creating power vacuums exploitable by power-hungry non-state actors, who knows. it’s hard to say for sure without knowing what labor looks like when 47% of jobs are threatened by automation in the near term and we keep on waiting for the green revolution to happen. i don’t think keynesian spending on infrastructure bills is going to get us there. all i know for sure is that open borders are possible only when society feels secure enough to lower protective barriers. in this way, i think social movements are less important than the underlying institutions of political economy that influence people’s living standards and perceptions of risk.



    March 15, 2017 at 4:31 pm

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