Bryan Caplan  

America Should Open Its Borders: My Opening Statement for the Reason Immigration Debate

We aren't very Victorian, are ... Robert Solow on Piketty...
Last night's immigration debate with Mark Krikorian and Alex Nowrasteh was... interesting.  Reflections forthcoming.  For now, here's my opening statement.

America Should Open its Borders

Under current U.S. law, it is illegal for a foreigner to work for a willing American employer or rent from a willing American landlord without government permission.  For most foreigners, this permission is impossible to obtain.  As a result, hundreds of millions who want to move here are stuck in their birth countries.  Most would-be immigrants are desperately poor, but could easily work their way out of poverty if they were here. 

I say America should open its borders to them all.  Every other country should do the same.  But given America's illustrious open borders tradition, it is fitting that we lead the way.  My case for open borders comes down to two claims: One moral, one empirical. 

The moral claim: Immigration restrictions are unjust.  Letting people work for willing employers and rent from willing landlords is not charity.  It's basic decency.  And even though foreigners wickedly chose the wrong parents, they're clearly people. 

The empirical claim: Being just to foreigners would cost us less than nothing.  When people immigrate here to work, they simultaneously enrich themselves and us.  Though a high-skilled worker enriches us more than a low-skilled worker, the typical low-skilled worker is far better than nothing - and there's plenty of room for everyone.

Let's start with our laws' injustice.  Imagine the U.S. made it illegal for blacks, women, or Jews to take certain jobs or live in certain neighborhoods.  You wouldn't merely object.  You'd be appalled.  Whatever your specific moral views, you know it's wrong to prohibit a black, woman, or Jew from accepting a job or renting a home. 

My question: How is mandatory discrimination against foreigners against less wrong than mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews?  The leading rationale is that "we should take care of our own first."  That might be a good argument against sending foreigners welfare checks.  But it's an Orwellian argument for stopping immigrants from working or renting here.  Minding your own business when two strangers trade with each other is not a form of charity. 

This is not a weird libertarian point.  The fact that I never put Krazy Glue in the locks of the Center for Immigration Studies does not make me one of its donors.

Friends of immigration restrictions often compare nations to families.  I'll accept their analogy.  I love my children more than I love the rest of you put together.  This is a good reason to worry that I'll treat you unjustly if there's ever a conflict of interest.  But it's no excuse for me to treat you unjustly.  "I want my beloved son to get this job" does not justify slashing rival candidates' tires the morning of the final interview.  The same goes for immigration policy.  Your love for Americans may tempt you to treat foreigners unjustly, but it's no excuse for treating them unjustly.

We should refrain from unjust actions even if they're in our self-interest.  In the zombie apocalypse, you shouldn't eat me because you're hungry and I'm wimpy.  Yet in the real world, fortunately, justice usually pays.  Becoming a violent criminal is a poor path to prosperity.  So were Jim Crow laws.  What about immigration laws?

This brings me to my second big claim: Being just to foreigners would cost us less than nothing.  Everyone has his problems.  Opponents of immigration spend most of their time staring at foreigners to find fault.  But if you pick a random would-be immigrant - even a random illiterate peasant - and calmly weigh his positives and negatives for us, the sum is positive. 

To see why, you need a little labor economics.  Hard fact: Immigration laws trap people in countries where workers produce far below their potential.  When Haitians move to the United States, their wages easily increase twenty-fold.  That's not +20%.  It's plus +2000%.  The reason isn't that American employers are nicer than Haitian employers.  The reason is that Haitians produce vastly more in America than they do in Haiti.  Think about how little you could contribute to the world economy if you were stuck in Haiti.

How much would total production rise under open borders?  Every economist who asks the question reaches an astronomical answer.  A typical estimate is that global free migration would double global production.  If the U.S. alone opened its borders, the global effect would naturally be smaller, but the national effect would be even larger.

How is vastly higher production in your self-interest?  The obvious reason: More stuff produced means more stuff consumed.  This is not trickle-down economics; it is Niagara Falls economics.  Production is what distinguishes the rich world of today from the wretched world of the past.  If half the workforce suddenly retired, it would be bad for you.

Production always has its naysayers.  When driverless cars arrive, you can count on people to complain that they're putting truck-drivers out of work.  But by this logic, we'd be richer if law-makers in the 19th-century banned the tractor.  The fundamental truth of economic growth: While innovation often hurts immediate competitors, it is the fountainhead of rising prosperity.

Doesn't immigration hurt workers by increasing the supply of labor?  It's complicated, because immigration also increases labor demand.  After all, workers buy stuff.  To grasp immigration's full effect, keep both eyes on production.  Trapping Mexican farm workers on primitive Mexican farms starves them and us.  It's far better if they move here and enrich themselves by putting better and cheaper food on our tables.

Like driverless cars, immigration can impoverish some Americans while enriching the rest.  As a native-born research professor, I ought to know.  Thanks to an immigration loophole, about half the people in my occupation are foreign-born.  Closing that loophole would give my career a big shot in the arm.  Most labor economists similarly find that lower immigration helps native high school dropouts.

How can I concede this yet insist that illiterate foreigners are far better than nothing?  Because unlike Mark, I don't look at a would-be immigrant and ask, "Is there any possible downside?"  Instead, I ask, "Is his net effect positive?"  Every innovation is bad for someone, but innovation is still a good thing.  Every immigrant is bad for someone, but immigrants are still good thing.

Why must I be so radical?  In part, because this is a matter of basic human rights.  We don't have to give foreigners welfare or let them vote.  But treating fellow human beings like criminals for working without government permission is unconscionable. 

What cements my radicalism, though, is that doing the right thing would cost us less than nothing.  If you think production leads to poverty, open borders should terrify you.  Otherwise, the sooner America opens its borders, the better.

COMMENTS (18 to date)
sieben writes:


First, my sincerest gratitude and support for your promotion of open borders. I know you get a lot of flak for this position but there are many of us who are behind you 110%!

My main criticism of your opener is that if you're going to pre-address peoples' objections to open borders, you should talk about their core objections that they will retreat to even if they could be convinced that immigration would boost global GDP or something.

If we open our borders, people are imagining that the streets in every city will be filled with hundreds of thousands of poor non-English speaking foreigners begging for food. And frankly, you kind of have to admit that if we did open our borders, it wouldn't be strictly better in every way at every point in time than the status quo. There probably would be a lot of perceived problems. If the number of homeless people increases even 20%, there will be sensationalist news stories talking about how "thousands of homeless added to the streets because of open borders".

These kinds of reactions really miss the point though, and this is why I am such a big fan of the approach you use in your "Immigration Restrictions: A Solution in Search of a Problem", because you can just absorb all of the tired criticisms.

I'm not suggesting that you go back to that exact line, but I think you'll have more success if you meet your opponents' worst fears head on than if you make lofty appeals to authority along the lines of "... well a bunch of economists who have studied this think it's awesome for global GDP!". People who oppose immigration aren't GDP maximizers.

ted writes:

I don't find your argument persuasive because it's based on economics alone. All you say may well be true, but there's a lot missing. People aren't just cogs in the economy machine. They bring a whole culture and way of life with them.

Why wouldn't Pakistan become as rich and nice place to live as Switzerland? If the Pakistanis would decide that doing their job as earneastly as possible, being honest and respectful wih one another, observing rules, embracing Western liberalism etc. is the way to achieve prosperity - as it probably is, I am convinced that in 10-20 years you'd see a fundamentally better country. After all, they have access to virtually all technoloy, scientific research and innovation available in the world.

Instead, they built a hell-hole.

There is no reason to believe that if Pakistan would move to your back yard they'd wish for an American middle class life, and far more reason to believe they'd wish to replicate the hell-hole they came from. Because it's their culture, their beliefs, their way of living their life.

I cannot see how open borders would produce anything else but mass conflict and destroy our prosperity and way of life.

Eli writes:

Fear is the reason most people don't like open borders. The thought of a million Haitians inhabiting New York City if frightening. I'd do more to reassure them that their worst nightmares won't come true.

Pajser writes:

Immigration restrictions are unjust. True, but frequently, on the other side is some other, greater evil. Not addressing it is 'white lie.'

Being just to foreigners would cost us less than nothing. It is false. Realistic outcome of open borders is increased crime, fall of the GDP/capita, increased poverty of American working class, worse and more corrupted police and courts. Political consequences could be surprising. All that may be acceptable sacrifice, but it is certainly 'more than nothing.'

RohanV writes:

"We don't have to give foreigners [the] vote."

The thing is that this is totally false. If you can't see that the USA will inevitably give foreign immigrants the vote, it makes me very uncertain that the rest of your argument is solid.

One of the founding myths of the USA is "no taxation without representation". If you are in the states legally and can't vote, it is either temporary, or you are on the path to voting, or you have declined the opportunity to vote (eligible for citizenship, but haven't taken it).

The US guarantees that its permanent legal residents can eventually participate in the political process. This cannot change without fundamentally changing the way Americans view themselves.

Second, one party stands to gain more votes from extending the franchise than the other. That means that party will do everything in its power to extend the franchise, including making the very reasonable arguments above.

The upshot of these two factors is even if you make not being able to vote a condition of this reform, that condition will be gone within a decade.

Pithlord writes:

Haitians are more productive in the US than in Haiti because the US has institutions better designed for productivity than Haiti does.

So the question you have to answer is whether the US would retain that institutional advantage if its demographics radically and rapidly shifted.

I doubt it, which is why I am in favour of more immigration but not open borders.

Proud "Discriminator" writes:
Imagine the U.S. made it illegal for blacks, women, or Jews to take certain jobs or live in certain neighborhoods. You wouldn't merely object. You'd be appalled.

Imagine instead that the US made it illegal for blacks, women, Jews (or anyone else) to take certain goods- or simply valuable opportunities- from their neighbors. You wouldn't merely agree, you would be appalled at any suggestion to the contrary. Provided, of course, you could stop chuckling long enough to actually put together a response.

That might be a good argument against sending foreigners welfare checks. But it's an Orwellian argument for stopping immigrants from working or renting here.

If an open borders advocate could credibly argue that the latter allowance is the sum total of benefits that recent immigrants would receive, this might be an interesting response. But if an open borders advocate attempts to actually argue that such is the sum total of benefits that will be extended (particularly in view of exiting evidence that such claim is laughably false) it would be very difficult for him to regain his credibility and he would serve to substantially impair the position he wishes to advance.

I'm happy to let people trade as they wish. I'm embarrassed to see a reasonable person attempt to pretend that immigrants will receive nothing more than such. To be candid, unless I'm misreading your argument, I have a very hard time believing you actually believe that the limitations you are proposing are even remotely conceivable in the contemporary political milieu.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good point. So how much more immigration would you allow per year?

Pithlord writes:

@David R. Henderson,

American (and Canadian) institutions seem pretty resilient to current levels of immigration and to the levels between 1890 and 1925. So that's a data point on the lower bound.

Data points on the higher bound are hard to come by, so I would (a) move incrementally and (b) prefer immigrants with high levels of human capital and/or close cultural ties to the existing population.

Whatever the absolute level, I would support giving every citizen a tradeable quota that they could either save up to let someone in, or sell to businesses or charities that want to let someone in for their own reasons.

J writes:

I think that it is worth noting that Singapore (arguably one of the countries with the most open borders) has effectively no restrictions on skilled workers, and limits unskilled workers so that the ratios do not dramatically change.

Also, worst case scenario of open borders: >100M poor come to the USA in a short time period, there are not enough jobs, housing, etc. to support them. Followed by mass rioting in the major cities. What happens to the USA's GDP if violent riots engulf the largest cities.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Note there are already 1/2 million foreign-born Haitians living in the US, but only 136,000 in New York (data as of 2010).

MingoV writes:

@Ted: "I don't find your argument persuasive because it's based on economics alone."

And the economics are wrong. He tries to scale up from an example of one immigrant to millions of immigrants. This is so blatantly incorrect that I fail to see how any economist misses it.

If we have open borders, I expect ten million immigrants the first year, mostly from Mexico and Central America. Let's say I'm off by a large amount and it's only four million. These four million arrive in CA, AZ, NM, and TX. Most have little money. Most do not have nearby relatives. Most do not have a job lined up. Most do not speak English. Most have less than a sixth grade education. They all will need food, shelter, clothes, transportation, a communications system to help find jobs, medical care, schooling for the kids, and ESL lessons. None of this is free. Charities will not provide enough money to cover one-tenth of the costs. The rest will come from taxpayers. Since the immigrants who find work are unlikely to pay federal income taxes, it will take more than a generation to recover the costs. Claiming that millions of immigrants will be an economic benefit to society is unrealistic. That will be deferred to the second generation.

ted writes:


Clearly. Some immigration (unclear how much, although I agree with Mr Caplan's assertion about skilled migrants) is beneficial.

Unrestricted, open borders, would be a disaster today. There's no filtering mechanism any more - the original US immigrants where people who endured quite a lot to come and start from scratch (so there was a rigorous selection), but today it's really simple to just get on a plane.

We have no proof - in fact, it is wholly unreasonably to expect it - that all, or even an overwhelming majority of 3rd world immigrants would neatly integrate in a liberal democracy. If they would, they'd do it in their home countries.

I find no fundamental reason why poor countries remain poor except as a consequence to lifestyle choices made by the majority population. Look at South Korea for an example, they made better choices and went from poor to rich in a fairly short time. There's no reason to believe that open immigration would "cure" these lifestyle choices. We'd just import them, at our peril.

Drew writes:

Will there be a video of the debate?

1. The Earth's human population cannot grow without limit.
2. The Earth's maximum possible instantaneous human population exceeds its maximum possible sustainable human population.
3. The Earth's maximum possible sustainable human population leaves little room for wilderness or large terrestrial animals.
4.Value is determined by supply and demand. Therefore, a world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce.
5. The Earth's human population will stop growing when either (a) the birth rate falls to meet the death rate or (b) the death rate rises to meet the birth rate.
6. The Earth's human population will stop growing as a result of either (a) deliberate human agency or (b) other.
7. Deliberate human agency is either (a) democratically controlled or (b) other.
8. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality.
9. All human behavioral traits are heritable.
10. Voluntary programs for population control selectively breed non-compliant individuals.
11. Human misery is like heat; in the absence of barriers (borders, insulation) it will flow until it is evenly distributed.

Mary writes:

You mean you want the US to end it's sovereign nation status, so you can profit fron taxpayer subsidized cheap foreign labor, making the US even less competitive. The US tax rates have gone through the ceiling, with the 38 million illegal aliens currently here. If they were such a boon to the economy, how come California is bankrupt, with the highest tax burden and highest crime rate in the US? You want the US completely destabilized, with a puppet government, who will allow foreign nationals like you, you are a dual national, aren't you... to loot the US for your own profit. Explain how it's not "just" to protect the US citizenry.. the only ones who have civil rights in the US.

No, the US not only needs to say no to open borders, the US needs to impose a temporary moratorium on all immigration, and end forever any allowance of dual nationals voting, lobbying, and employment in government, or election to office. If open borders is so important, please, feel free to advocate for open borders in Israel, or wherever you end up.

John Zube writes:

Free migration would be one of the many new and important individual rights and liberties to be included in a new declaration of all individual rights and liberties. Anarchists and libertarians should finally sufficiently collaborate to produce it between them, using all the best of all past private and governmental declarations - and going beyond them. The very survival of mankind may depend upon this. The lack of interest in this option has disappointed my for decades. In vain did I try to stir interest in this project via an anthology of over 130 private human rights drafts, which is part of a disc put online at - Sometimes movements are their own worst enemies and do not make sufficient use of all the enlightenment options that already exist or that could become established.

AS writes:

"The curious task of economics..."

Free exchange benefits both sides. That principle alone destroys any argument against open borders.

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