Bryan Caplan  

How Open Borders Will Win, If It Wins

The media's blind spot: Negati... Where Did the $110 Billion Go?...
Harvard's spring break was last week, so its students celebrated Open Borders Day one week early.  Here are the slides for the talk I presented there.  Full video coming soon.

P.S. In honor of regularly-scheduled Open Borders Day, I'm debating the Center for Immigration Studies' Mark Krikorian tomorrow in DC.  RSVP here.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Matej writes:

The trouble is that 'open borders' in today´s world not only are NOT such a great idea, but it requires a huge leap of faith to become a convert to this holy cause. ;)

See, for example, here:

"That economists are still struggling to come up with models of long-term cross-country economic growth which satisfactorily explain the patterns we actually see demonstrates that there is a great deal which matters about how societies as a whole function, even in just narrowly economic terms, that economics is still grappling with.

Which makes glib application of open market models to migration policy highly Autistic. So long as economics cannot produce a robust cross-country theory of long term economic growth compatible with the historical evidence, it cannot claim to provide any sort of reliable guide to the implications of open borders.

There is no reason to think that the factors which make Western countries stable and prosperous--and so attractive targets for migration--would be able to withstand a truly open borders policy. The current population of the West (EU, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) is about 890m. Adding 700m people to that population, or even a significant proportion thereof, would be an enormous social, economic and cultural shock.

The strain on existing physical infrastructure would be potentially huge. Then there are the social infrastructure issues. Why would existing structures of formal regulation be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? Why would existing informal structures of social order be able to magically scale up without any significant degradation? What would be the effects of having voters being a minority of adults? If the existing institutions (formal and informal) are not robustly elastic on the scale required, would the policy not simply be one of importing social dysfunction--potentially, massive social dysfunction?

Open borders have almost infinite capacity to go catastrophically wrong in ways which would be non-reversible. Taking such risks with the lives, freedoms and prospects of citizens and their children is not a moral policy.

Nor is it a rational one for existing voters, given that the possibility of multi-generational and irreversible social catastrophe so outweighs any likely benefits to them. And it is the existingelectorate which, directly or indirectly, would be making the decision."

JK Brown writes:

I came across this article from 1908 by the Chief Clerk of the US Census Office on the immigration problem. In 1908, the "problem" being immigration from southern Europe. He summarizes both sides of the argument which are almost exactly the same as the arguments presented today.

One mitigating factor from 1908, assimilation through public education, is not so available today with many public schools neglecting the teaching of American history and the culture of a democratic republic. Ironically, the immigrant seeking citizenship is likely to learn more about American history and civic culture than a student subjected to 12 years of schooling.

Unfortunately, the article does leave open that in the future it might be shown "the existence of the nation is imperilled by their coming, or until large numbers of worthy and indus trious American citizens are obviously deprived of their means of livelihood by the arriving throngs of foreigner" and thus the portal of entry may be closed. So that puts us right back where we are now.

A Common-Sense View of the Immigration Problem
Author(s): William S. Rossiter
Source: The North American Review, Vol. 188, No. 634 (Sep., 1908), pp. 360-371
Published by: University of Northern Iowa
Stable URL:

MHill writes:


Will there be a video of this debate? The eventbrite link shows that it is sold out.


Michael B. writes:

My greatest hope for open borders is genetic engineering. It's coming...they are already experimenting on using CISPR to prevent diseases in humans. One day, maybe we'll experiment on changing genes that served us 100,000 years ago, but not in a modern society. Maybe we could eliminate nationalism and anti-foreign bias at the source with minimal negative consequences.

In case anyone is thinking it...what I am thinking of would not be eugenics because in my vision there would be a great variety of experimentation and radical heterogeneity rather than enforced homogeneity.

BC writes:

The bullet point on slide 2 about open borders creating a low-cost escape route from oppression reminded me of how the original colonists, e.g., Pilgrims and Puritans, were fleeing persecution. One of the main reasons that the US came to value individual freedom and to distrust government so much was because so many of the original settlers were, in today's language, refugees. This point would seem to refute one of the most common anti-immigrant arguments: that too many immigrants would change our political committment to Limited Government. This argument seems to carry the most weight with libertarians, but it very much goes against what we know about our own history and development. People fleeing persecution themselves are the most appreciative of the dangers of all-powerful, authoritarian government.

MikeDC writes:

@ BC
Sort of. The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth and immediately set up a society that can only be described as a communist dictatorship and almost starved to death.Then they fought two significant wars with the neighboring countries, which mostly seem to have come about because the Pilgrims insisted on controlling trade even in areas they didn't have existing jurisdiction.

James writes:


In the text you posted, there was no mention of the extent to which potential migrants would benefit from open borders. Surely you see the oversight now that I have pointed it out: You cannot reasonably evaluate any policy option without considering the impact on all afected persons, including existing citizens and potential immigrants.

How large would the potential gains to migrants have to be for you to say that the net impact of open borders is probably positive?

Matej writes:


From the point of view of the current citizens or long-term residents of any given country, the primary concern are THEIR gains and costs of very large migation inflows, while potential gains of migrants are of secondary relevance.

And remember, Caplan´s (etc.) estimates that the global GDP would double with 'open borders' are based on the premise that a very large number of people would migrate to rich countries (George J. Borjas, pg. 965-966)

--"A second important implication of the model is that there are going to be a lot of migrants. The simulation implies that 2.6 billion workers, or 95 percent of the workforce in the South, will move. If these workers bring along their families, the 95  percent mobility rate implies that nearly 5.6 billion persons would move from the South to the North.

It is fair to say that this particular implication of the model has not received nearly the same emphasis or attention as the fact that world GDP would increase by tens of trillions of dollars. For example, the original Hamilton and Whalley (1984) article spends a great deal of time poring over detailed estimates of the dollar gains, but curiously neglects to report the number of movers required to achieve those gains at any point
in the study.

The glossing-over of this particular implication may be the politically sensible thing to do if one wishes to advocate these types of models in policy circles.4

However, it is conceptually impossible to buy into the argument that unrestricted immigration will increase world GDP by $40 trillion without
simultaneously buying into the prediction that this will entail the movement of billions of people from the South to the North."

James writes:


You wrote, "From the point of view of the current citizens or long-term residents of any given country, the primary concern are THEIR gains and costs of very large migation inflows, while potential gains of migrants are of secondary relevance."

I understand that people care more about their own welfare than the welfare of others but why are you changing the subject? I asked you a question about net impact (as opposed to public opinion) beginning with the words "How large..." That means I'm looking for a number.

E.g. you might say "The expected gains to immigrants would have to exceed the expected losses to natives by more than twice the size of the estimation error" or "No gain to immigrants is sufficient to offset even the tiniest loss to natives."

If you don't know your own answer to this question that's fine but then you have no basis for any strongly held view on the topic of immigration controls.

Joe writes:

Does anybody know if the full video of the talk was posted?

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