Bryan Caplan  

Would (Our) Open Borders Lead to (Their) Closed Borders?

The Legacy of Milton Friedman... Keynes for limited government?...
My Facebook friend Anna Krupitsky asks a great question:
Let's imagine: if United Stated today opened its borders, how many countries and how soon would close theirs for people leaving?
There's ample evidence that ending emigration restrictions leads to more immigration restrictions.  Most notably: As long as Communist border guards eagerly shot anyone trying to leave their Workers' Paradises, the U.S. tended to welcome anyone who got out alive - like my wife's family who escaped Romania in the 70s.  Once Communist governments opened their borders, however, the U.S. swiftly changed course.  The new policy was to minimize the exodus from behind the former Iron Curtain - even if the successor governments remained deeply oppressive.  It's almost as if U.S. policy were motivated more by Cold War public relations than a deep-seated commitment to human liberty.

Anna's question, though, is whether liberalizing immigration restrictions would lead to emigration restrictions.  In countries that already restrict emigration, this scenario is easy to believe.  But what about the vast majority of countries that don't currently restrict emigration?  Would liberalization really lead more than a handful to this desperate and humiliating measure?  Think of the most unanswerable words a Kennedy ever spoke: "Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

Your thoughts?  Please show your work.

COMMENTS (25 to date)
matt writes:

So this all makes me think of Capital Controls. I don't know enough to answer what would happen. But I have an idea that this is a story that has played out before, and history can be instructive.

Prakash writes:

If the emigrating countries get a tax treaty with the US and get their cut, then maybe not. But will the IRS really start tracking down indian or pakistani tax cheats? Doubtful about the credibility of something like that.

A possibility is that brain drain laws may get a lot harsher. The closure of the borders beginning right at the top, with lower and lower emigration restrictions for lower and lower skilled people.

How open are the borders going to be? If the US opens the borders to the productive worker with the job as well as his entire family, then the sending nation will not receive any remittances. That scenario that will be resisted.

If the borders are open only to the productive worker and not to the family, then the sending nation receives remittances and may actually encourage it, like kerala or the phillipines.

Shane L writes:

Here in Ireland there is a long history of massive-scale emigration and a brief and recent history of immigration.

Net emigration returned since the economic crisis after 2008 and this has been seen as a tragedy and disgrace, but a disgrace on Ireland and the Irish political system, not on the recipient countries. I see no bitterness towards Australia or UK for admitting Irish emigrants. Thus I would expect the emphasis, were net emigration to remain significant in the future, to be placed on improving the Irish economy to coax back migrants rather than hindering their exit. Far from sealing the borders, the present taoiseach (prime minister) was encouraging Obama just days ago to make it easier for undocumented Irish migrants in the United States:

Perhaps in other countries it would be different but in developed liberal democracies I would expect more carrot than stick. Governments would likely try to make internal conditions better - or bribe special groups (like doctors or scientists) to stay with various favours. I gather the Romanian government has been downplaying British fears of mass-migration of Romanians to UK recently too; it suggests that the Romanian government is comfortable enough with seeing many citizens migrate to UK.

Alex Viladot writes:

Emigrants are often the most entrepreneurial, intelligent and hard working people from a particular country. They try to seek opportunities to use their intelligence, skills and work force abroad, opportunities that are often denied at home due to incompetent and/or corrupt governments.

Such brain and muscle drain might mean for those left behind in the home country and their rulers, that there is much less taxable wealth from which to seek rents. I can imagine those same rent seekers imposing emigration restrictions once they realize that the goose that lays the golden eggs is flying away.

Thomas Boyle writes:

We already have a wall: lifetime global taxation of US citizens.

You can "check out" anytime you like, but economically, you can never leave.

Pajser writes:

Closing the borders from inside is unpopular, almost desperate measure and Leninists were willing to pull such measure in attempt to accomplish their long term plan - the world communist revolution. Modern governments have no such goals any more. They'll suffer the losses and wait for eventual GDP/capita equalization.

It is up to citizens of wealthy country to chose immigration policy that helps citizens of the poor countries. It appears that libertarians do not ask "what is the most efficient immigration policy if the goal is to help poor people." Why don't you ask that question?

patrick k writes:

A while back there was a poll in Mexico where the 73% of the respondents said they would immigrate to the US if they could. Let's pretend that we opened our borders and that actually happened. Mexico gets hollowed out and we get 60 million Mexicans. Do open border advocates think this is a good thing?

In actual terms do we have a responsibility to Mexico/Latin America for the 40 million of their youngest and strongest that we let through the border to date. Providing an outlet as we do, do we prevent these countries from making the necessary changes in their social/economic policies? I get that the folks that are here have better lives but what of those left behind? The empty towns, desolation, etc.

Philo writes:

@ Thomas Boyle

I believe the U.S. Does not yet charge its citizens a fee for the privilege of *renouncing their citizenship*. I wonder how much longer that will be true.

RPLong writes:

One thought not previously covered: Maintaining a large and growing population seems to be an important way that some countries keep their welfare states sustainable. Canada immediately comes to mind.

Canadians already have lots of experience immigrating to the US (or elsewhere) during their working years and coming back to Canada when they are in greater need of "free" healthcare. And of course it's a lot more "free" if you're already retired.

So a potential result is a country that would export its working-age population to the USA and import its retirees. That's obviously not fiscally sustainable. Such a country would be forced to either open its own borders or bar people from emigrating. Canada would likely choose the former, but less cosmopolitan countries would not.

zc writes:


Incorrect. The US already has an 'exit tax''s complicated, like the rest of the tax code, but can cost high-income/high-net worth individuals a not-insubstantial sum.

Chris Hendrix writes:


I suspect you're right about the unpopularity of preventing people from leaving. Thus I think most democratic countries will not attempt to stop emigration to any significant extent.

That said authoritarian governments may still do so, but I would think they'd need two additional conditions to manage such a policy. First, they need enough strength and authority to actually be able to control their borders. A number of African countries for instance have little control over their borders and thus would have a limited ability to stop any outflow.

The second thing that I think would be needed would be poor economic prospects. Countries that are already rapidly growing will likely be able to retain a lot of high skill people thus lessening concerns about "brain drain" issues (I'm thinking China in particular for this example). This means poorly performing, authoritarian countries with strong governments will be the most likely to close emigration (examples for this are countries like Myanmar, Algeria, and Egypt if they wind up restabilizing some). And further I agree with Prakash that high skill emigration is more likely to be shut down first than low skill (though I do think low skill will have to be curtailed as well or else people might do things like fail to get university educations in their home countries so they can get around the restrictions).

What this means for open borders is that you should lower your expectations of benefits and harms depending on how these emigration restrictions are put in place and by many places put these restrictions on. I can see a number of mid-size population countries putting on these restrictions, starting with high skill and working down to low as needed to prevent circumvention. I don't foresee the biggest countries having the will or the ability to do this though. To the extent that the restricting countries have some of the most authoritarian political cultures, and to the extent that these political cultures will be carried by immigrants and threaten western political cultures (not a threat I think is very serious, but that's another matter), these emigration restrictions should lower your perception of open borders' harm somewhat especially if I am correct and low-skill emigration blocks are put in place as well. To the extent that you believe high-skill immigrants are more valuable than low-skill to developed economies (probably true, though I contend the low skill have net positive value as well) then to the extent that restrictions are targeted to high skill people the benefits of open borders should be somewhat muted.

Overall I think this possibility is real, and would have a noticeable effect, but not nearly enough to lower the predicted GDP gains from open borders by more than maybe a fourth (which still leaves gigantic gains to be had).

Finch writes:

> It's almost as if U.S. policy were motivated more
> by the interests of Americans than a deep-seated
> commitment to human liberty.

Fixed it for you.

MikeP writes:


You accidentally left out "protectionist" in front of either "interests" or "Americans". Unless you accidentally left out "nativist" or "nationalist" instead.

Finch writes:


Defectors were useful in a way immigrants are not. I'm not saying immigrants are not useful. I'm saying defectors were compellingly more useful.

Knowledge of goings on behind the wall was in extremely short supply. This is no longer the case.

Calling it PR is dismissing the very real threat communism was to Americans, and the role defectors had in mitigating that threat.

Finch writes:

Even if taking in defectors was bad PR, we still would have done it eagerly and at every opportunity.

MikeP writes:

Fair point. Yes, it was strategic to get what limited info the US could from behind the Iron Curtain.

I was going after the greater immigration policy readable in your correction rather than the limited Cold War one.

Finch writes:

For what it's worth, I do think these decisions are made almost entirely in the interest of current Americans and without any considerable regard to the interest of potential Americans. I say that without passing judgement on whether or not that's proper. I think that's just the way people vote.

I'm generally pro-immigration, but I'm not in the open borders camp. I shouldn't have to specify that to get a fair read.

MikeP writes:

Well now you've walked your way right back to the general statement that I meant to critique.

Current immigration law is not in my interest as an American. It is only in the interest of particular Americans -- even if a majority -- described by those or other adjectives.

nl7 writes:

I think the possibility of remittances or back-migration probably makes it a net win for most developing countries to allow emigration. I disagree slightly with prakash, above, and point out that many cultures will strongly encourage remittances to members of extended families (cousins, grandparents, etc.) and other cultures will encourage male emigration but not family emigration. In fact, the majority of the US immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century went back to Europe with their earnings (personally delivered remittance treasure troves).

LD Bottorff writes:

Patrick K,
The Mexican immigrants I have observed have been good neighbors and hard workers. Why wouldn't I want more of them?
It is tempting to say "Let them come" but I am doubtful that anywhere near 73% of Mexicans would actually attempt to come to the United States if we removed all restrictions.
Consider me a skeptic. Answering a survey is easy. Moving to another country that speaks a different language is difficult.

Finch writes:

I'm not sure I have. I made an observation - I didn't say this was morally superior.

MikeP writes:

I'm not arguing morality, only correctness.

It's almost as if U.S. policy were motivated more by the interests of Americans...

US policy is obviously not motivated by the interests of all Americans. So it is either motivated by the interests of some Americans -- described by adjectives such as I enumerated -- or by the perceived interests of Americans.

I agree with these modified statements, by the way. They are completely true.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Patrick K writes: "Providing an outlet as we do, do we prevent these countries from making the necessary changes in their social/economic policies? I get that the folks that are here have better lives but what of those left behind? The empty towns, desolation, etc."

That sounds a lot like Detroit! Maybe we should have put a wall up around that city?

Ted Levy writes:

"Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us."

Well, that WAS a half century ago. Now the wall is going up. Now it's just a matter of CLAIMING it's not to prevent us from leaving...

Prakash writes:

@Chris Hendrix,

Deciding to do university abroad instead of within the country as a counter to the high skilled barrier - That's brilliant, pretty obvious in retrospect. This may be seen by the people putting up the barriers or it may require a few rounds for them to realise it happening. To further counter, there could be minimum years spent after education as a criteria or keeping family as hostage or other such ghastly possibilities. Mises was wise. Once you walk down the interventionist path, there is truly no way back.

@nl7 , valid point about the extended family, but once you have truly open borders, you can pull in extended family. What stops you from getting your grand parents or cousins to the US? First, the male worker goes, as soon as he saves enough for a plane ticket, the wife goes. They both work. As soon as they save for 2 plane tickets, the parents follow. The remittance money is not used in a significant way in the local economy, it remains saved up for a plane ticket.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top