Bryan Caplan  

The Freedom-Loving Case for Open Borders

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Celebrating Immigration... Socialism is harder than it lo...

Here's my opening statement from Wednesday's Open Borders Debate with Mark Krikorian, sponsored by America's Future Foundation.


Robert Nozick famously criticized government for forbidding "capitalist acts between consenting adults."  If an employer wants to hire you and you want to work for him, government should leave you alone.  If a landlord wants to rent to you and you want to rent from him, government should leave you alone.  The right of consenting individuals to be left in peace by the government is the heart of freedom.  It doesn't matter if the individuals are white or black, men or women, Christian or atheist; consenting adults of all stripes have the right to engage in consensual capitalist acts.

 

The case for open borders begins with a follow-up question: If race, gender, and religion don't matter here, why should nationality?  Suppose I want to hire a Chinese citizen to work in my factory, and he wants to work in my factory.  Or suppose I want to rent my apartment to a Romanian citizen, and she wants to accept my offer.  It seems like government should leave us alone, too.  If it did, open borders - a world where every non-criminal is free to live and work in any country on earth - would result.

 

The main principled objection to this position is that countries are their citizens' collective property.  Just as parents can legitimately say, "My house, my rules," countries can say, "Our house, our rules."  Though even many libertarians sympathize with this argument, it undermines everything they think about human freedom.  The idea that countries collectively belong to their citizens has a name - and the name is socialism.  If your dad can mandate, "As long as you live under my roof, you'll go to church, refrain from swearing, work in my restaurant, and stay away from that girl I don't like," why can't countries make comparably intrusive demands "As long as you live within our borders"?  Authoritarians may bite this bullet, but freedom-lovers must reject the premise: America is not the collective property of the American people, but the private property of American property-owners. 

 

This brings us to the long list of pragmatic objections to open borders.  We're short on time, so I'll make two sweeping points. 

 

First sweeping point: Immigration restrictions aren't just another impoverishing trade barrier; they are the greatest and most impoverishing trade barrier on earth.  According to standard estimates, open borders would roughly DOUBLE the production of mankind by moving human talent from countries where it languishes to countries where it flourishes.  Picture an upscale version of the migration-fueled economic growth that's modernizing China and India.  Every advance hurts someone - see Uber - but open borders is not trickle-down economics; it's Niagara Falls economics.  This enormous increase in wealth - greater than all other known policy reforms combined - far outweighs almost any downside of immigration you can imagine - or all of them combined.

 

Second sweeping point: Immigration restrictions are not a minor inconvenience we impose on foreigners for the greater good.  To legally relocate to the United States, you need close relatives, incredible talent, or a winning lottery ticket.  Since every country has similar policies, almost everyone who "chooses" to be born in the Third World is stuck there - and being stuck there is very bad.  How is their plight our problem?  Because without our laws against capitalist acts between consenting adults, the global poor could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps in the global labor market.

 

Freedom-loving people often fret that immigrants don't love freedom enough to come to the land of the free.  They have a point: most immigrants don't love freedom.  But they're missing a larger point: most native-born Americans don't love freedom either.  See the 2016 election if you're in doubt.  The real question is, "Do immigrants love freedom even less than native-born Americans?"  I've seen the data, and the answer is, "Maybe a little, but immigrants don't vote much anyway."  Sometimes sacrificing a little freedom now brings much greater freedom in the long-run.  But for immigration restrictions, the opposite is true: They're a never-ending, draconian violation of human freedom where the long-run payoff is hazy at best.





COMMENTS (25 to date)
Sanjeev Sabhlok writes:

"open borders would roughly DOUBLE the production of mankind by moving human talent from countries where it languishes to countries where it flourishes."

This is a relatively crude argument, and needs more examination. It would appear, at first sight, to be an argument for attracting talent, not labour more generally.

The evidence is also very clear on this. Talent matters, not numbers. The US benefits enormously from IIT graduates (from India) who have left India. These graduates are able to produce vastly more in the US than they would have otherwise done in the ramshackle corrupt socialist society called India.

This leads to the view that US should permit highly talented people from countries like India and China to migrate, leaving the rest behind in those dumps.

Indeed, this is what has been actually happening: the best brains of India have migrated to the US, leaving the rest behind.

So the policy conclusion for a free society (in its own interest) would be to attract the 99th percentile talent from China/ India and leave the rest to these socialiast countries to deal with.

If these countries can't get their act together (all they need to do is to follow Adam Smith, basically), then it is not the responsibility or business of USA to look after their poor.

I have made a similar point at Vernon Smith's page today: https://www.facebook.com/vlomaxsmith/posts/676601242479064

Bedarz Iliaci writes:
countries are their citizens' collective property.

Ownership, properly speaking, can only exist in a state of laws, formal or informal, that people in a certain territory respect. Otherwise, I can claim to "own" a plot of virgin land by mixing X amount of labor but you may object that X is insufficient and 2X is required to homestead that piece of land. So, a nexus of laws in a territory is required (among other reasons).

Also properly speaking, the national territories are only possessed by the nations and not owned by them. For owning is by law but possessing by force. All nations came into the possession of their territories by force and maintain the possession also by force. There is no law regulating national territories and there can be none.

Economists pay no need to this vital difference between owning and possessing and inevitably confound the two. For instance here, Prof Caplan claims that belongingness of the national territory to the citizens collectively is socialism. This view is incorrect. Socialism is when citizens have no property rights within the national territory and has no bearing on the question of the relation of citizens and the national territory.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:
why can't countries make comparably intrusive demands

Libertarianism essentially is the denial of the moral authority of the community. It is the view, epitomized by Justice Kennedy, that it is the individual who solely defines his own moral universe. Thus, for a libertarian, countries are merely administrative (in)conveniences.

The libertarianism is embarrassed by the actual existence of nations that are more than administrative fictions. First, the libertarianism needs to account for the actual existence of borders , thereby acknowledging the lacuna in its understanding of nations, before demanding that the borders cease to exist.

HM writes:

While being sympathetic to the argument, there are actually examples where the negative predictions are borne out, and not only in the case "look what happened to the Indians".

I travelled in Eastern Europe last summer, and it is a reasonable argument that the german minorities in the cities were pushed aside when slavic migration from the countryside increased due to industrialization.

Even though the germans were only fully driven out after the second world war, they were generally not treated well by the majority in for example Prague and Riga. In Prague, Germans were almost a majority in the 1840s, but rapid industrialization made them a small minority by the end of the century. All German street signs were removed already in the late 1800s and they pleaded with the emperor in Vienna to help them out.

In Latvia, German land-owners were expropriated after the first world war, and Latvian nationalism grew stronger during the inter-war years.

Both these examples could be seen as classic minority oppression, but it is also a migration story as the capital cities had historically been primarily German, and the changes started as the rural majority became the urban majority as well.

Phil writes:

your definition of freedom is too broad - bordering on anarchy

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If your dad can mandate, "As long as you live under my roof, you'll go to church, refrain from swearing, work in my restaurant, and stay away from that girl I don't like," why can't countries make comparably intrusive demands "As long as you live within our borders"? Authoritarians may bite this bullet, but freedom-lovers must reject the premise: America is not the collective property of the American people, but the private property of American property-owners.

-------

the state can and does make all sorts of mandates on residents and citizens

some of those are more onerous and burdensome than others

but its a tradeoff between the burdens imposed by the state and the benefits of living within the state

residents and citizens get to vote with their disobedience, feet, and sometimes, actual votes

Hazel Meade writes:

Immigration is really no different than trade policy. US immigration policy, as it is written today, is basically naked protectionism for domestic labor. And like protectionism, it is a net loss for the majority of Americans.

It's no surprise to me that the same people who oppose immigration also oppose trade, but what's surprising is the number of people who accept the argument for free trade but don't accept the argument for free immigration.


Jon Murphy writes:

@Hazel:

It's no surprise to me that the same people who oppose immigration also oppose trade, but what's surprising is the number of people who accept the argument for free trade but don't accept the argument for free immigration.

That is a paradox I have long been struggling with.

Jon Murphy writes:

I suppose there is another hypothetical we could consider:

Often, it takes just one country to get the ball rolling on an international level (look at the way Britain kicked off a wave of slave emancipation, for example).

If the US has open borders, then it could start a cascade of other countries doing the same thing. That would mean that those who no longer think America represents freedom (or their curiously oppressive brand of "freedom") could more readily move to places where their views are more closely aligned. "Liberals" and "conservatives" could make good on their threat to move to Canada if so-and-so is elected, or that if people don't like it here they can leave. But the current system restricts this, not just in America but everywhere.

Jesse C writes:

Some would accept very relaxed immigration policy if we had some constitutional assurance that the demographic changes don't bring about a cultural shift towards less freedom.

Ideally, we'd cut government to a fraction of what it is, then allow free immigration. I'd like a potential immigrant to be better off staying where they live if they prefer a kind and helpful government.

I've heard the arguments in the other direction, I just can't help but think a 5% shift in demographics could bring about three branches of government filled with Bernie Sanderses (or is it Bernies Sanders?). Isn't it possible that we could become like pre-1990 India in terms of regulation, squandering the economic benefits seen by the immigration benefits? I've read BC's arguments against this in the past, but I think communism may be closer to being in fashion these days than it used to be. I could be wrong.

pyroseed13 writes:

"If an employer wants to hire you and you want to work for him, government should leave you alone. If a landlord wants to rent to you and you want to rent from him, government should leave you alone. The right of consenting individuals to be left in peace by the government is the heart of freedom."

Ok, but the government can and does impose labor regulations on businesses. Most of these are probably undesirable, but the basic point is that very few people currently agree with your premise. Laws do not exist to accommodate whatever businesses want but to accommodate citizens. I think you of all people would agree that what is best for businesses might not be best for the people overall.

"It's no surprise to me that the same people who oppose immigration also oppose trade, but what's surprising is the number of people who accept the argument for free trade but don't accept the argument for free immigration."

Except for the fact that immigration involves the importation of people, not goods, which carries its own set of consequences, some beneficial and some not.

MikeDC writes:
Though even many libertarians sympathize with this argument, it undermines everything they think about human freedom. The idea that countries collectively belong to their citizens has a name - and the name is socialism. If your dad can mandate, "As long as you live under my roof, you'll go to church, refrain from swearing, work in my restaurant, and stay away from that girl I don't like," why can't countries make comparably intrusive demands "As long as you live within our borders"? Authoritarians may bite this bullet, but freedom-lovers must reject the premise: America is not the collective property of the American people, but the private property of American property-owners.

This is a simplistic argument.

I love freedom and I reject this premise.

The reason your argument is false is that you've simply grouped a lot of dissimilar things into the category of "socialism".

I mean, even "Swedish Socialism" and "Stalinist Socialism" are fallacious to equate.

People who, by mutual consent, establish a system of property rights and obligations are establishing and protecting their freedoms.

They don't collectively own the entirety of the property under the nation's jurisdiction, but they are binding themselves, by agreement, to respect further agreements rights and responsibilities regarding that property and the fellow parties to the agreement. And... a key point of that agreement is these rights and obligations are inherited.

That is, Freedom doesn't derive from collective ownership (socialism), but more accurately from mutual agreement (a sort of social contract).

In present context, it's not expecting too much to require immigrants to credibly buy in to this voluntary agreement.

BC writes:

Iliaci: "First, the libertarianism needs to account for the actual existence of borders."

Borders exist to delineate a limit on a government's powers. New York state's laws don't apply outside New York's borders. Boston's laws don't apply outside the city's borders. It's actually immigration restrictionists' understanding of borders that is flawed. They frequently insist that the whole point of borders is to limit movement, particularly of people, across them. However, that doesn't explain why we need state and local borders when we have completely open inter-state and inter-city migration. The purpose of borders is to limit Governments' powers, not to increase them, for example by giving Government the power to limit migration.

MikeDC writes:

@BC,
No. Your national citizenship certainly avails you of rights and responsibilities beyond its borders.

Which furthers the point that citizenship is ultimately about people rather than land.

BC writes:

@MikeDC, an argument that not everyone should be eligible for US citizenship is not an argument against free migration of people across borders. The point is that borders keep out foreign governments, not people.

What was the purpose of the American Revolution: to shrink the borders of the British Empire so that Americans would no longer be subject to British rule or to keep out persons of British origin and/or expel such persons from the US? The Declaration of Independence provides the answer. The purpose of Government is to protect individuals' natural rights, the former colonists believed the British government no longer fulfilled that purpose, and so the colonists wanted to exclude the US from British jurisdiction.

US borders provide safe haven for all those within them, protecting their rights from infringement by all foreign governments, from the former British Empire to modern day ISIS. How ironic, then, that some would use those same borders today to block refugees fleeing ISIS, the precise opposite of the borders' true function.

Andrew_FL writes:

@BC-

The point is that borders keep out foreign governments, not people.

Foreign people bring foreign governments with them. Open borders is nothing less and nothing more than the demand that the American people live under a foreign power.

If you're going to say next "Nah, we can deny them voting rights" you're delusional. One single word will destroy anyone who politically wants to do that:

Apartheid.

Jim writes:

Would you urge Israel to open it's borders to unrestricted immigration?

Jim writes:

If Europe opened it's borders to unrestricted immigration from the Middle East or Africa the end result would be bloody conflict involving the death of millions. When this conflict ended there would again be borders albeit not necessarily in the same places.

Yugoslavia was a multicultural society without borders between it's ethnicities. This ended in horrifically bloody conflict. The ending of this violence involved the re-establishment of borders.

If the successor states of Yugoslavia were to open their borders to unrestricted immigration from one another it would not be long before massive violence would again occur.

Libertarianism like socialism is an ideological fantasy totally divorced from the biological reality of Homo sapiens, a species strongly predisposed to group conflict.

Jon Murphy writes:
But for immigration restrictions, the opposite is true: They're a never-ending, draconian violation of human freedom where the long-run payoff is hazy at best.

Absolutely, 100% agreed.

ThaomasH writes:

I think you are right, but I'm still risk averse enough to want to want to make marginal changes, not once for all changes. Let's make it "twice" or X times as easy for high-skill professionals to immigrate/stay after graduation. Let's double or quadruple the number of lottery migrants and let them improve their chances by showing higher skill/educational levels. Let's increase by Z times the number of humanitarian refugees we take, to at least say the European % of population/year.

Rinse, lather repeat every few years.

I'd also add a very non-Libertarian argument for opener borders. National security would be enhanced if, in part through immigration, US GDP were pulling each year farther and farther ahead of China's.

W. W. Brown writes:

Capitalist institutions---private property, the rule of law, open markets---underpin the success of the U. S. experiment in representative government. Unless immigrants share those values, open borders has a potential downside potentially offsetting the benefits of increased specialization. If sufficient numbers voted in institutional arrangements less conducive to economic freedom (e.g., Saharia Law), our continued prosperity would be in jeopardy. Presently, several European countries face this looming possibility. Any discussion of open borders that fails to account for fact that immigrants may not necessarily imbrace our fundamental political and social values is missing an important point.

Nimesh writes:

Capitalist institutions---private property, the rule of law, open markets---underpin the success of the U. S. experiment in representative government. Unless immigrants share those values, open borders has a potential downside potentially offsetting the benefits of increased specialization.

Isn't it possible that we could become like pre-1990 India in terms of regulation, squandering the economic benefits seen by the immigration benefits? I've read BC's arguments against this in the past, but I think communism may be closer to being in fashion these days than it used to be.

Ummm no. Note that those are white voters flocking to the anti-freedom and anti-capitalist Trump and Bernie rallies, not third world immigrants. Americans seem quite intent on destroying the "American experiment" without much immigrant help.

N. Joseph Potts writes:

Migration no doubt fuels India's and China's economic advances. Economic advances are effectively impossible without migration.

But are these migrations cross-border? If not, they provide a weak(er) argument for the relaxation of border/immigration controls.

Yes, they DO support the proposition, but not quite so clearly as might cases involving the relaxation/defeat of border/immigration controls.

gda writes:

Even Milton Friedman, who thought free and open immigration to be a rather good idea, clearly understood that open borders were incompatible with the modern welfare state.

Of course, in a perfect world we can assume, as economists are wont to do, that people are as interchangeable as widgets and that there is no limit to the numbers of widgets that the US can accommodate. And in that perfect world we can also assume that none (or hardly any) of those widgets that want to take advantage of our “open borders” will be low-IQ moocher widgets from some third world hellhole who expect handouts for the rest of their lives.

We can assume, like that economist on the desert island, that we have a can opener, or we can stop assuming and face the real world.

But there wouldn't be many economist jobs around if we did that.


MikeDC writes:

@BC,

What was the purpose of the American Revolution: to shrink the borders of the British Empire so that Americans would no longer be subject to British rule or to keep out persons of British origin and/or expel such persons from the US?

Actually, the answer is found in the widespread exodus of Loyalists from the nascent United States. People who maintained allegiance and values to the British Empire were unwelcome in the US. People who were willing to accept the US were welcome to stay.

There are two keys to take away from this:
1. Borders aren't magical, they're the product of human action.
2. Likewise, it's human action, not origin that are important.

How ironic, then, that some would use those same borders today to block refugees fleeing ISIS, the precise opposite of the borders' true function.
.

A border obviously has multiple purposes, but one is to establish the jurisdiction of a government. If people who are fleeing ISIS want to come in and adhere to this constitution, with all of the responsibilities for tolerance and recognition of the rights of others that comes with it, that's great. But current citizens should make sure that's a sincere belief, given the realities of the world.

That's not being sad or ironic, it's just being practical and smart.

Phil writes:

the externalities of Open Borders

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"If an employer wants to hire you and you want to work for him, government should leave you alone. If a landlord wants to rent to you and you want to rent from him, government should leave you alone."

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an employer was happy to hire a low cost worker, but doesn't have to bear the costs if that employee requires the state to bear additional costs to establish the peace

a landlord was happy to find someone willing to pay rent, but again doesn't bear the costs of that tenants bad acts

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today doesn't seem like the right day for that conclusion to crystalize, but its the day that it has

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