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Open Borders Work, Part 1


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Imagine you were born in a part of the country where farming was no longer productive, or in a rust-belt town where the local factories had closed. You hear of good jobs in California and Colorado, so you decide to move. How would you feel if, when you arrived at the state line, you were denied the opportunity of a better life because you happened to have been born in a different state? Welcome to what it is like to be Mexican.

Freedom of movement is one of the most basic human rights, as anyone denied it can confirm. Yet governments obstruct people’s movement across borders in all manner of arbitrary and iniquitous ways. They require that people prove — how? — that their lives are in danger before admitting them. They determine which family members are permitted to join their relatives and which are not; Danes’ non-European spouses cannot come to live with them in Denmark unless both are age 24 or more. Americans’ foreign girlfriends and boyfriends also struggle to gain admission; the rules for foreign pets are laxer. Those seeking to come to work are vetted through a byzantine set of rules and quotas that delight bureaucrats, lawyers, and lobbyists, but deny most people the opportunity to better themselves and do untold damage to the U.S. and global economy.

Immigration controls are generally seen as normal, reasonable, and necessary, but in fact they are economically stupid, politically unsustainable, and morally wrong. For a start, the freedom to leave a country and enter another is the ultimate safeguard against tyranny. Throughout history, emigrating has often meant the difference between life and death: remember the Pilgrims who set sail on the Mayflower, the Huguenots who fled France to take refuge in England, and the Jews who escaped Nazi Germany. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the shameful recognition that governments had conspired to send countless Jews to their deaths by denying them refuge led to their signing on to Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In practice, though, this right is often honored in the breach.

While it is vitally important that asylum-seekers are able to seek refuge abroad, fear of persecution is not the only legitimate reason that people might want to cross national borders. They might be seeking a better job. They might want to be with the ones they love. They might simply want to experience something different. And why shouldn’t they be able to?

Those fortunate enough to be rich and highly educated take it for granted that they can move around the world more or less as they please. They vacation in Mexico, safari in Africa, even go on trips around the world; they increasingly work abroad for periods of time; and some end up settling elsewhere — like the many Americans who now live in London, and the many Londoners who now live in the United States. Why, then, do we seek to deny this right to others?

Opponents of open borders often respond that Americans aren’t actually free to go where they choose. They point out, correctly, that one needs a visa to go to many countries and that the Chinese government, for instance, may very well deny you one. But why should America be basing its policies on what the Chinese government does? Should the United States deny people freedom of speech because the Chinese government does so? The point about universal human rights is not that they are necessarily universally applied, but that they ought to be. That others fail to apply them is not a reason for the United States to fail to do so too.

Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own.” But what is the right to leave a country if one cannot enter another? Since even international human-rights law does not give people the right to cross borders freely, the United States should lead by example, by passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing open borders.

Costs and benefits

Many people argue that opening the borders would have devastating consequences. But are the potential costs really so great that they warrant the huge injustice of denying people the possibility of moving freely? Might there not be big benefits to opening up the borders too? And even if one thinks immigration is a threat, are the costs of immigration controls not even greater?

This is not a point of abstract principle. Each year thousands drown trying to reach Europe. More people have died trying to cross from Mexico to the United State in the past decade than were killed on 9/11. By denying desperate people the opportunity to cross borders legally, the United States is driving them to risk death. Of course, voters and government officials would rather migrants didn’t die. But implicitly, they consider it a price worth paying for protecting the borders. That sounds shocking — and it is. But how else can we explain the general indifference to the deaths that U.S. immigration controls cause? Why is the official response always that “we” must remain tough in enforcing “our” border controls, rather than questioning whether the system makes sense? Immigrants are not an invading army; they are mostly people seeking a better life.

Freeing up migration is not just morally right, it is economically beneficial. When workers from poor countries move to rich ones, they too can make use of advanced economies’ superior capital, technology, and institutions, making them much more productive, and the world much better off. The departure of one in six Swedes for North America between 1870 and 1910, relieved pressure on the land, drove up the productivity and wages of those who remained, and helped catapult Sweden from grinding rural poverty to prosperity within fewer than 50 years.

Migrants from poor countries can earn wages many times higher in rich ones, and the money they send home — some $300 billion a year officially, perhaps the same again informally — dwarfs the $100 billion that Western governments give in aid. These remittances are not wasted on weapons or siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts; they go straight into the pockets of local people. They pay for food, clean water, and medicines. They enable children to stay in school, they fund small businesses, and they benefit the local economy more broadly. Where remittances account for a large share of the economy, they slash the poverty rate by a third. Even in countries that receive relatively little, they can cut the poverty rate by nearly a fifth. And by keeping children in school, paying for them to see a doctor, and funding new businesses, remittances can also boost economic growth. What’s more, when migrants return home, they take with them new skills, new ideas, and the money to start new businesses. Africa’s first Internet cafés were started by migrants returning from Europe.

Economists estimate that abolishing immigration controls could more than double the size of the world economy. This dwarfs the benefits of any other public-policy change. Just as the freeing up of international trade and capital flows since the Second World War has helped power a huge rise in living standards across the world, the freeing up of international labor mobility could deliver vast economic gains over the next 50 years. Indeed, the economic gains from migration are akin to those from trade.

Consider an American who requires medical care. He could be treated locally by an American doctor; he could go abroad to be treated by a foreign doctor; the foreign doctor could treat him remotely — over the Internet, for instance; or the foreign doctor could come to the United States to treat him. In the last three cases, the United States is importing medical care from the foreign doctor; the final case, which we classify as migration instead of trade, is simply a form of international services trade where a foreign provider comes to America to offer his services to consumers on the spot. But where services have to be delivered locally — the elderly cannot be cared for from afar; taxi drivers have to operate locally; dishes have to be washed on the spot — international migration is the only form of international trade that is possible.

Migration and trade

Now if one accepts that international trade is generally mutually beneficial — because, in a nutshell, it permits greater specialization, reaps economies of scale, reduces prices, increases choice, boosts competition, stimulates innovation, and raises economic growth — then so too, surely, is the particular form of it that involves foreign service-providers crossing borders to ply their trade. And just as governments have no place denying us the opportunity of watching foreign films, eating foreign food, or driving foreign cars, they should not be denying us the opportunity of engaging in mutually advantageous economic transactions with foreigners that entail their moving to our vicinity.

Where governments permit it, a global labor market is emerging: international financiers cluster in New York and London, IT specialists in Silicon Valley, and actors in Hollywood, while multinational companies scatter skilled professionals around the world.

Yet rich-country governments endeavor to keep out Mexican construction workers, Filipino care workers, and Congolese cooks, even though they are simply service providers who ply their trade abroad, just as American investment bankers do. And just as it is often cheaper and mutually beneficial to import computers from China and IT services from India, it often makes sense to import menial services that have to be delivered on the spot, such as cleaning.

Economic theory suggests that the gains from trade are greatest when countries are different. The United States has an aging, well-educated population, while the developing world has a much younger and generally less well-educated population. In effect, the work forces complement each other. It’s unfortunate that many free-traders who rejoice that Vietnamese people are bettering themselves by working in Nike factories to produce shoes for Americans are opposed to their coming to better themselves in America. People who truly believe in open societies and individual freedom are a rare breed.

Part 1 | Part 2

This article originally appeared in the March 2008 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Philippe Legrain is an award-winning journalist and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. His latest book, "Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them" (Princeton, 2007), was shortlisted for the 2007 Financial Times Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award.