Bryan Caplan  

Open Borders in The Atlantic

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The Atlantic profiles Vipul Naik, Michael Clemens, Michael Huemer, and other champions of free migration.  Highlights:

What if there was a program that would cost nothing, improve the lives of millions of people from poorer nations, and double world GDP? At least one economist says that increased mobility of people is by far the biggest missed opportunity in development. And an informally aligned group of advocates is doing its best to make the world aware of the "open borders" movement, which suggests that individuals should be able to move between countries at will.

Vipul Naik is the face, or at least the voice, of open borders on the Internet. In March 2012, he launched Open Borders: The Case, a website dedicated to the idea. Naik, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, is striving for "a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances." Naik and his two primary co-writers, Nathan Smith and John Lee, parse research into immigration impacts, answering claims by those they call "restrictionists"--people who argue against open borders--and deconstructing writings on migration by economists, politicians, journalists, and philosophers.


According to Clemens, we are all victims of an epic intuition fail. "Development is about people, not places," he has said many times over, and often the best way to make a person richer is by allowing them to move to another place. We don't really care about helping poverty-stricken Liberia, we care about helping poverty-stricken Liberians. It sounds almost too simple at first: A very large percentage of people who have gone from extreme poverty to relative financial stability have done so by moving across borders. So why don't we just let more people move?

In 2008, Clemens and his frequent co-writer, Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, came up with a new statistic called "income per natural." Their goal was to show "the mean annual income of persons born in a given country, regardless of where that person now resides." They found that large percentages of people from Haiti, Mexico, and India who live above international poverty lines don't actually reside in their home countries. "For example, among Haitians who live either in the United States or Haiti and live on more than $10 per day--about a third of the U.S. 'poverty' line--four out of five live in the United States," Clemens wrote.
Don't miss John Lee's appeal to Mark Zuckerberg:
I asked John Lee, a regular contributor to the Open Borders site, what someone with unlimited money should do if they want to convince people to support open borders. Mark Zuckerberg, for example. "The four words, 'I favor open borders,'" Lee told me. "That would be the biggest thing he can do. You really need to de-radicalize the idea."

COMMENTS (18 to date)
8 writes:

Too bad these guys weren't alive in 1920 or 1945. At that time, either Britain or the U.S. could have colonized the entire globe and put in under Anglo-American domination. There would be no borders today; we would all be Americans.

V writes:

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Delphin writes:

Zuckerberg has a financial stake in open borders. "What's good for Facebook is good for America!"

Thomas DeMeo writes:

Expecting problematic nations to adopt a position like this is a little like advocating world peace, isn't it?

So how would this play out if a number of prosperous countries welcomed everyone? The problem areas of the world wouldn't just let everyone go. They would be drained of their most intelligent and resourceful citizens, while those without the means to escape would be still trapped.

It would help millions but probably leave the remainder in even worse circumstances.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Consider a radical result:

the transfer of large "colonies" from particular Muslim communities and societies with the specific purpose of establishing cells for the purposes of conducting hostilities against the established societies into which they are inserted; thereby displacing (or attempting to displace) the existing social order and the individuals who comprise it with a "New Order."

To some degree, the existing freedoms of entry, without effective assimilation processes, are providing sample incidences of the broader aspects of radical population movement proposals.

Thucydides writes:

Bryan, you have such an extreme position on this that you really need to read Samuel Huntington's Who Are We?

The relatively open liberal culture here that you cherish simply would not survive (and it's in deep trouble already) your preferred immigration policies.

Another point in favour of open borders is that it would force poorly governed nations to improve their institutions to compete for citizens. By restricting the ability of people from a poor country to emigrate to rich countries, we are enabling local autocrats to extract rents from the population at low cost. If we had open borders, local autocrats would have to either build a fence to keep their citizens in, or improve institutions to entice them to stay. As things stand, we are building their fences for them.

rapscallion writes:

I'm curious how many would support unilateral open borders for the U.S. That is, how many would vote in favor of the U.S. opening its borders regardless of any other nation's policies. How many would likely come here and what would be the likely short-term effects. I see little discussion of this specific question.

MingoV writes:
What if there was a program that would cost nothing, improve the lives of millions of people from poorer nations, and double world GDP?

What if our fairy godmothers left each of us one million dollars? This conjecture is just as valid as the one quoted.

I have read multiple claims that a nation that fully opens immigration does not have governmental spending increases. I don't believe those claims.

Let's assume that we open immigration to all. Let's further assume that half of the immigrants arrive with little more than their clothes. For the latter group, who will pay for their short term needs (food and shelter)? Who will pay for helping them find work? Who will pay for transporting them to their place of work? Who will pay for helping them get settled in their new location? With fully open immigration, it is unlikely that charitable organizations will have enough funding to cover all those costs for all indigent immigrants. Thus, the costs will fall on national, state, or local governments.

It's possible that, over time, taxes on the immigrants will exceed those initial government expenditures. But, that doesn't mean open immigration costs nothing.

Todd Kuipers writes:

Thucydides - "The relatively open liberal culture here that you cherish simply would not survive (and it's in deep trouble already) your preferred immigration policies." ... This has been a "problem" suggested since colonies in North America were established. Through that time, radicalism of that small minority gets subsumed pretty quickly within the liberal pot.

The same problem with inter-national mobility exists intra-nationally in places like Canada (and the US). With home-ownership subsidization, transfer payments to poorer parts of the country, a mishmash of inter-provincial trade and licensing conflicts - all work well to help people stay put regardless of the opportunities elsewhere.

Particularly, open borders, without a shut down of the licensing apparatus that stifles opportunity and innovation, will generate significant improvement. But more will take a passing generation, after hotel-cleaning BScs and lab-assistant PhDs get their kids "correct" capability signalling (read: education).

brian h. writes:

This is a fairly likely scenario: A tiny class of capital owners would see massive increases in wealth, meanwhile the bottom 90-95% of developed world people would see their real wages collapse under a flood of cheap labor and skyrocketing costs for housing, education, and health care. Law enforcement would be overwhelmed by the massive increase in crime, especially tribal gang warfare between the thousands of ethnic groups which hate each other by default but suddenly live next door to each other.

The new global underclass quickly grows to despise the tiny overclass which controls vast wealth and pays typical workers 2-3 dollars per hour. They elect authoritarian politicians who reestablish authoritarian socialism or begin ethnic cleansing to reverse the global immigration disaster.

However you would have really cheap gardeners for a while, so there is an upside as well.

Jeff writes:

One of the things I find interesting is that Caplan has made the argument in the past that high levels of immigration won't increase government spending per capita because racial/ethnic diversification leads people to feel less altruistic towards their neighbors and less inclined to favor government policies that redistribute resources to people who aren't like them. In other words, he's counting on ethnic tension or mistrust to restrain the growth of the welfare state. Two questions spring to mind:

1. What happens if the ethnic tensions don't persist?

2. If they do persist, are lower-trust, higher-tension nations nicer to live in than higher-trust, low-tension one's? No. So what will be the costs of moving from a higher to lower trust state? I suppose if everyone were to construct an adequately secure "bubble," as Bryan brags of doing, you can avoid any big problems, but I'd point out that the more fragmented society becomes, the tighter and smaller everyone's bubble needs to be. And the people who'd prefer not to live in a bubble at all are probably SOL.

I am not at all indifferent to the plight of people trapped in the third world. Truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but Paul Romer's charter cities and some form of neo-colonialism seem like clearly better options to improve living conditions for these folks than to just bring them all to North America/Canada/Western Europe.

nzgsw writes:

Following on Jeff's comment, I've yet to see any of the open borders crowd seriously tackle the political reality that we see in America today.

To those of us concerned with a mass influx of immigrants increasing usage of and eventually voting to increase the size and scope of the welfare state, the open borders crowd coos: "Well, the solution is to get rid of the welfare state."

Unfortunately, I've seen nothing to imply that this will actually happen. Recent trends in my home state of California in fact demonstrate the opposite: Politicians rationally calculate that by expandng and giving recent immigrants access to the welfare state, the immigrants (who will eventually be legalized via amnesty, about once very 30 years or so) and their children will return the favor by continuing to vote for those candidates.

I'd love to agree with the open borders crowd. Unfortunately, their theories don't seem to be constrained by the current political reality, where large numbers of immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are seen as a means to secure an electoral majority.

Christian writes:

Open borders has been tried and is a rousing success. Test number 1, it is illegal for US states to prohibit movement from one state to another. Despite that, not everyone from Arkansas has moved to CA. Test numer 2, all immigration restrictions were removed in the EU. Despite that, not everyone in Poland moved to France.

Ken B writes:


all immigration restrictions were removed in the EU

I do not believe this. Anyone from Mexico, India, or Canada can immigrate anywhere in the EU with no restrictions?

johnleemk writes:

Ken B:

Anyone who is legally present in the Schengen zone is allowed to go anywhere in the Schengen zone. And any EU citizen is allowed to go anywhere in the EU (though they sometimes still must pass through border controls, since some EU countries like the UK are not part of the Schengen zone).

Ken B writes:

@johnleemk: Thank you. Neither rule is remotely close to open borders.

johnleemk writes:

Ken B,

I think the disconnect is that that is not Christian's point. He was specifically looking at open borders within a sub-global region (i.e. within the US or within the EU/Schengen zone). People who fear being swamped by all Indians or all Africans are ignoring that even despite vast income gaps within open borders regions like the EU or the US, no such swamping has occurred.

This doesn't mean nobody will migrate or that there won't be significantly more migration than there is now. It does mean that people who act as if all of the developing world will be on the developed world's doorstep tomorrow if open borders happened tonight are being disingenuous. There is absolutely no evidence that such a situation has ever occurred.

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