Open Borders Are a Trillion-Dollar Idea

Tearing down all barriers to migration isn’t crazy—it’s an opportunity for a global boom.

The world’s nations, especially the world’s richest nations, are missing an enormous chance to do well while doing good. The name of this massive missed opportunity—and the name of my book on the topic—is “open borders.”

Critics of immigration often hyperbolically accuse their opponents of favoring open borders—a world where all nationalities are free to live and work in any nation they like. For most, that’s an unfair label: They want more visas for high-skilled workers, family reunification, or refugees—not the end of immigration restrictions. In my case, however, this accusation is no overstatement. I think that free trade in labor is a massive missed opportunity. Open borders are not only just but the most promising shortcut to global prosperity.

To see the massive missed opportunity of which I speak, consider the migration of a low-skilled Haitian from Port-au-Prince to Miami. In Haiti, he would earn about $1,000 per year. In Miami, he could easily earn $25,000 per year. How is such upward mobility possible? Simply put: Human beings are much more productive in Florida than in Haiti—thanks to better government policies, better management, better technology, and much more. The main reason Haitians suffer in poverty is not because they are from Haiti but because they are in Haiti. If you were stuck in Haiti, you, too, would probably be destitute.

But borders aren’t just a missed opportunity for those stuck on the wrong side on them. If the walls come down, almost everyone benefits because immigrants sell the new wealth they create—and the inhabitants of their new country are their top customers. As long as Haitians remain in Haiti, they produce next to nothing—and therefore do next to nothing to enrich the rest of the world. When they move, their productivity skyrockets—and so does their contribution to their new customers. When you see a Haitian restaurant in Miami, you shouldn’t picture the relocation of a restaurant from Port-au-Prince; you should picture the creation of a restaurant that otherwise would never have existed—not even in Haiti itself.

The central function of existing immigration laws is to prevent this wealth creation from happening—to trap human talent in low-productivity countries. Out of all the destructive economic policies known to man, nothing on Earth is worse. I’m not joking. Standard estimates say open borders would ultimately double humanity’s wealth production. How is this possible? Because immigration sharply increases workers’ productivity—and the world contains many hundreds of millions of would-be immigrants. Multiply a massive gain per person by a massive number of people and you end up with what the economist Michael Clemens calls “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk.”

Or do we? An old saying warns, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Far lower levels of immigration already inspire vocal complaints. After presenting my basic case in Open Borders, I strive to evaluate all the common (and many not-so-common) objections to immigration. My bottom line: While open borders are undeniably unpopular, they deserve to be popular. Like every social change, immigration has downsides. Yet when we patiently quantify the downsides, the trillions of dollars of gains of open borders dwarf any credible estimate of the harms.

The simplest objection to open borders is logistical: Even the largest countries cannot absorb hundreds of millions of immigrants overnight. True enough, but no reasonable person expects hundreds of millions to come overnight, either. Instead, immigration usually begins slowly and then snowballs. Puerto Ricans have been legally allowed to move to the United States since 1904, but it took almost a century before Puerto Ricans in the United States came to outnumber the population left on the island. Wasn’t the European migration crisis an unmanageable flood of humanity? Hardly. Despite media outcry, total arrivals from 2014 to 2018 came to less than 1 percent of the population of the European Union. Many European countries—most notably West Germany during the Cold War—have swiftly absorbed much larger inflows in the past.

The standard explanation for these asymmetric public reactions is that resistance to immigration is primarily cultural and political, not economic or logistical. While West Germans welcomed millions of East German migrants, a much lower dose of Middle Eastern and African migration has made the whole EU shiver. Aren’t economists who dwell on economic gains just missing the point?

Yes and no. As a matter of political psychology, cultural and political arguments against immigration are indeed persuasive and influential. That does not show, however, that these arguments are correct or decisive. Does immigration really have the negative cultural and political effects critics decry? Even if it did, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than immigration restriction? In any case, what is a prudent price tag to put on these cultural and political effects?

Let’s start with readily measurable cultural and political effects. In the United States, the most common cultural complaint is probably that—in contrast to the days of Ellis Island—today’s immigrants fail to learn English. The real story, though, is that few first-generation immigrants have ever become fluent in adulthood; it’s just too hard. German and Dutch immigrants in the 19th century maintained their stubborn accents and linguistic isolation all their lives; New York’s Yiddish newspapers were a fixture for decades. For their sons and daughters, however, acquiring fluency is child’s play—even for groups like Asians and Hispanics that are often accused of not learning English.

Native-born citizens also frequently worry that immigrants, supposedly lacking Western culture’s deep respect for law and order, will be criminally inclined. At least in the United States, however, this is the reverse of the truth. The incarceration rate of the foreign-born is about a third less than that of the native-born.

What about the greatest crime of all—terrorism? In the United States, non-citizens have indeed committed 88 percent of all terrorist murders. When you think statistically, however, this is 88 percent of a tiny sum. In an average year from 1975 to 2017, terrorists murdered fewer than a hundred people on U.S. soil per year. Less than 1 percent of all deaths are murders, and less than 1 percent of all murders are terrorism-related. Worrying about terrorism really is comparable to worrying about lightning strikes. After you take a few common-sense precautions—do not draw a sword during a thunderstorm—you should just focus on living your life.

The most cogent objection to immigration, though, is that productivity depends on politics—and politics depend on immigration. Native-born citizens of developed countries have a long track record of voting for the policies that made their industries thrive and their countries rich. Who knows how vast numbers of new immigrants would vote? Indeed, shouldn’t we expect people from dysfunctional polities to bring dysfunctional politics with them?

These are fine questions, but the answers are not alarming. At least in the United States, the main political division between the native- and foreign-born is engagement. Even immigrants legally able to vote are markedly less likely than native-born citizens to exercise this right. In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, for example, 72 percent of eligible native-born citizens voted versus just 48 percent of eligible immigrants. Wherever they politically stand, then, immigrants’ opinions are relatively inert.

In any case, immigrants’ political opinions don’t actually stand out. On average, they’re a little more economically liberal and a little more socially conservative, and that’s about it. Yes, low-skilled immigrants’ economic liberalism and social conservatism are more pronounced, but their turnout is low; in 2012, only 27 percent of those eligible to vote opted to do so. So while it would not be alarmist to think that immigration will slightly tilt policy in an economically liberal, socially conservative direction, warning that “immigrants will vote to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” is paranoid.

Note, moreover, that free immigration hardly implies automatic citizenship. Welcoming would-be migrants is a clear-cut blessing for them and the world. Granting citizenship is more of a mixed bag. While I am personally happy to have new citizens, I often dwell on the strange fact that the Persian Gulf monarchies are more open to immigration than almost anywhere else on Earth. According to the Pew Research Center, 76 percent of people in Kuwait—and 88 percent in the United Arab Emirates—are foreign-born. Why do the native-born tolerate this? Probably because the Gulf monarchies generously share their oil wealth with citizens—and jealously protect the value of citizenship by making naturalization almost impossible. You do not have to ignore the Gulf monarchies’ occasional mistreatment of immigrants to realize that it is much better to welcome immigrants with conditions than to refuse to admit them at all. Migrants—mostly from much poorer parts of the Islamic world—accept this deal, however unfair, exactly because they can still do far better in the Gulf than at home.

In Open Borders, I have the space to address many more concerns about immigration in more detail. What I can’t do, I confess, is address the unmeasured and the unmeasurable. In real life, however, everyone routinely copes with ambiguous dangers—“unknown unknowns.” How do we cope?

For starters, we remember Chicken Little. When people’s warnings about measured dangers turn out to be wrong or overstated, we rightly discount their warnings about unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers. This is how I see mainstream critics of immigration. Their grasp of the basic facts, especially their neglect of the tremendous gains of moving labor from low-productivity countries to high-productivity countries, is too weak to take their so-called vision seriously.

Our other response to unmeasured and unmeasurable dangers, however, is to fall back on existing moral presumptions. Until same-sex marriage was legalized in certain countries, for example, how were we supposed to know its long-term social effects? The honest answer is, “We couldn’t.” But in the absence of strong evidence that these overall social effects would be very bad, a lot of us have now decided to respect individuals’ right to marry whom they like.

This is ultimately how I see the case for open borders. Denying human beings the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord or accept a job offer from a willing employer is a serious harm. How much would someone have to pay the average American to spend the rest of his or her life in Haiti or Syria? To morally justify such harm, we need a clear and present danger, not gloomy speculation. Yet when we patiently and calmly study immigration, the main thing we observe is: people moving from places where their talent goes to waste to places where they can realize their potential. What we see, in short, is immigrants enriching themselves by enriching the world.

Do I seriously think I am going to convert people to open borders with a short article—or even a full book? No. My immediate goal is more modest: I’d like to convince you that open borders aren’t crazy. While we take draconian regulation of migration for granted, the central goal of this regulation is to trap valuable labor in unproductive regions of the world. This sounds cruel and misguided. Shouldn’t we at least double-check our work to make sure we’re not missing a massive opportunity for ourselves and humanity?

Open This Content

In Praise of Spontaneous Order

My girls and I recently spent several days in New York City, where I filmed this clip about unschooling and self-directed education. We decided to make it a field trip, enjoying a Broadway show, Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I have been a city dweller in Boston for over 20 years, it pales in comparison to New York City’s size and scale. Walking through Times Square, the phrase that kept popping into my head was: spontaneous order.

Here were thousands of people in a few square blocks, all peacefully pursuing their own interests in an environment of voluntary association and exchange. Some people might have been in search of Italian food, others Mexican. Some visitors may have been shopping for shoes, or pocketbooks, or travel memorabilia, while others were interested in the street performers and musicians. Some arrived by taxi, others by subway, and still others by foot or bicycle. Some were there to sell, while others were there to buy.

There were countless reasons all of those people were in Times Square, but they came as a result of their own distinct interests, taking advantage of a panoply of dining, shopping, and artistic vendors, without any central planner coordinating their activities. It is an extraordinary example of the power of the marketplace to spontaneously facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange for highly diverse individuals with many different interests and needs. As State University of New York economist Sanford Ikeda writes, “great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.”

Spontaneous Order

In his book, The Fatal Conceit, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek explained the beauty of spontaneous order in greater detail, arguing that while it’s not perfect, the order that arises through decentralized, individual interest is superior to any external attempt to mastermind human action. Hayek wrote:

Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected “appropriate” places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.

A few days in Times Square gave me an even greater appreciation for the spontaneous order of the marketplace and its ability to satisfy an array of preferences, peacefully and voluntarily, without central planning or control. It’s an extraordinary display of emergent, harmonious human action.

Open This Content

How Republicans Can Win Back the Immigrant Vote

Today’s immigrant voters are heavily Democratic, but ’twas not always so.  As Open Borders explains, immigrants were almost evenly split during the Reagan era.  It’s not hard to see why.  At least rhetorically, Reagan nearly endorsed open borders:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

What changed?  The Republicans I know focus on immigrants’ changing national origin.  When you look at the data, however, Republicans have lost favor among immigrants around the world.  European immigrants are Democratic.  So are Indian-Americans – the richest and most socially conservative ethnicity in the country.

What gives?  I say there’s been a vicious feedback loop.  Once Reagan left the stage, Republicans started feeling more negative about immigrants, which made immigrants more negative about Republicans, which made Republicans more negative about immigrants, which made immigrants more negative about Republicans.  And so on and so on.

You could say, “Tragic, but Republicans are stuck.  If they don’t keep out immigrants, their party will perish.”  Yet common decency aside, the path of exclusion has worked poorly.  A vocally anti-immigrant Republican president has totally failed to permanently rewrite immigration law.  Even if he gets reelected, Trump will soon be a lame duck.

What’s the alternative?  Lose the American’t attitude that “Immigrants hate Republicans – and there’s nothing Republicans can do about it.”  Massive partisan realignments really do happen; look what happened to white Catholics over the last fifty years.  Or to be more more precise, partisan realignments don’t “happen”; rather they come to fruition.  The secret: Far-sighted statesmanship.  Start magnanimously showing respect to people who don’t yet vote for you.  Search for common ground, and accentuate the positive.  If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.  And always shuck your tamales.

P.S. Some readers object to the Reagan cartoon’s implied comparison between the Berlin Wall and immigration barriers.  There’s a world of difference between keeping people in and keeping people out, right?  For private property, yes.  For countries, however, the distinction between “keeping people in” and “keeping people out” is far more complicated than it looks:

Suppose, for example, that the East German government closed its airspace to Western aviation and used the Berlin Wall to prevent anyone from leaving the surrounded city of West Berlin.  Honecker could have even told his citizens, “You’re free to move to West Berlin, but since we’ve got it surrounded, don’t expect to enjoy too many Western luxuries.”  Despite his oppressive intent, Honecker would, grammatically speaking, be keeping West Berliners out of East Germany, not holding East Germans in East Germany.

To make the hypothetical even starker: Imagine the East Germany government legally granted independence to a one-mile strip of land along its entire border.  Call it Mauerland.  All of the citizens of Mauerland are former officers of the East German border guard; their country is just one big, deadly wall.  East Germany then abolishes all laws against emigration; everyone is free to leave.  Unfortunately, the sovereign state of Mauerland refuses to grant visas or overflight permission to anyone without the East Germans’ approval.  When challenged, they say, “Mauerland, like the United States, has every right to keep foreigners out.  You keep out Mexicans.  We keep out East Germans.”

See my dialogue on “The Berlin Cage” for more.

Open This Content

Open Borders: Hopes and Fears on Release Day

My first graphic novel, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, co-authored with the great Zach Weinersmith, released October 28th.  Since I’ve already shared the backstory, today I’ll share my hopes and fears.

All of my books have been controversial.  Yet so far, almost no prominent critic has accused any of my books of being “ideological” or “dogmatic.”  Instead, they open the books and engage the arguments.  As a result, even staunch critics almost always find some common ground.  Few deny me a minimal, “While he goes too far, some of what Caplan is saying sure seems true…”

hope this pattern of reactions to my books continues.  I fear, however, that I’ve reached the end of the line.   Immigration has become so ideological during the last five years.  Pessimism about immigration is almost a litmus test for conservatism.  Yet there is no fundamental reason for this change of heart.  Yes, today’s immigrants are heavily Democratic.  As I explain in the book, however, this is a recent pattern.  During the Reagan era, immigrants were almost equally divided between the two major parties.

While it’s tempting to blame the changing national origin of the immigrants, this doesn’t hold water.  Indian-Americans are the richest and most socially conservative ethnicity in modern American, yet they’re probably even more Democratic than Hispanics.  What’s going on?  I say we’re seeing the Respect Motive at work.  Immigrants have turned away from Republicans because they no longer feel the heartfelt welcome that leaders like Reagan once eloquently voiced.

When I say this, I fear that conservative readers will feel attacked.  I also fear that liberal readers will amplify those fears by attacking them. My hope, however, is conservatives rediscover Reagan’s perspective – and liberals will show appreciation for those who do.  Support for immigration used to be bipartisan.  It can be bipartisan again.

Wishful thinking?  Perhaps.  With Zach Weinersmith’s help, however, it’s not hard to visualize…

Open This Content

In Syria “Withdrawal,” Less is Probably More

When US president Donald Trump announced his plan to relocate a few dozen US soldiers in Syria — getting them out of the way of a pending Turkish invasion — the Washington establishment exploded in rage at what it mis-characterized as a US “withdrawal” from Syria.

Instead of fighting that mis-characterization, Trump embraced it, pretending that an actual withdrawal was in progress and announcing on October 9 that “we’re bringing our folks back home. ”

If he’s telling the truth, hooray! But so far as I can discern, no, he isn’t telling the truth.

Since taking office (after campaigning on getting the US out of military quagmires in the Middle East and Central Asia), Trump has boosted US troop levels in Syria from 500 or fewer under Barack Obama to at least 2,000 and possibly as many as 4,000.

Even at its most ambitious, the supposed US “withdrawal” from Syria consisted of moving a few hundred soldiers across the border into Iraq, from which they could launch operations in Syria at will.

The Iraqi government objected to hosting more US troops on its soil, so now the plan has changed to deploying elements  of an armored brigade combat team (“less than a battalion,” so call it “less than a thousand troops” depending on what kind of battalion) to protect Syrian oil fields from the Islamic State (and from Syria’s own government).

Exactly how many US soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines were in Syria prior to the supposed withdrawal? How many are there now? How many will be there by the end of the year?

That’s hard to say with any exactitude. Over the last several years (and not just on Trump’s watch), the US government’s troop level claims have become less specific and more general,  less matters of public record and more notional state secrets.

But so far, according to those claims, Trump has escalated US involvement in every conflict he inherited from Obama, even after promising to do the opposite and even while pretending to do the opposite.

If past performance is an indicator of future results, what’s going on in Syria isn’t a US withdrawal at all. Instead of US forces departing the country, more troops and heavier weapons seem to be flowing into the country (and the region, including B-1B bombers to Saudi Arabia).

Will Trump’s non-interventionist supporters finally notice or admit that, as usual, his rhetoric and his actions don’t match? Fat chance.

Open This Content

How Children Learn the Humanity of Trade

My older children attend a self-directed learning center for unschoolers a couple of days a week. I love to hear the stories they share about what they do during the day. Classes are offered and are generated based on the young people’s interests, but they are entirely voluntary. Kids can attend classes or do their own projects, either independently or collaboratively, during what is known as “open hangout.” No one directs the hangout. Adults are present to facilitate and help if needed, but they don’t orchestrate the children’s work and play. The kids are free to create at will.

One creation that has been ongoing for months during open hangout is the development of a marketplace and its associated currency, known as myafo. It turns out, some of the kids want to tax the businesses in the marketplace “because that is how it is.”The kids create myafo using crayons and hot glue to make colorful, round gems and then use this currency to “buy” items that are produced for sale in the myafo marketplace. It’s been interesting to hear about the evolution of this economy and its unit of exchange, including the successes and setbacks.

Lately, as the marketplace gains popularity among the young people at the learning center, there have been discussions about creating a central bank and the potential issues related to that. There have also been conversations about power and control. Not surprisingly, one discussion that piqued my interest related to taxes. It turns out, some of the kids want to tax the businesses in the marketplace “because that is how it is.”

Forced Generosity

Others have more magnanimous reasons for taxation, such as using the taxes as a method of charity to allow kids who are new to the center, or who attend irregularly, to fully participate in the marketplace by receiving an allotment of myafo out of the collected taxes. It was called a charity tax. Some children disagreed with the tax idea and suggested that everyone be encouraged to voluntarily donate some of their myafo to help the newcomers. After all, forced generosity isn’t charity; it’s coercion.

It will be interesting to see how the myafo marketplace matures and how the kids address conflicts related to their growing economy. The issues they grapple with are big, and even we adults haven’t figured them out in real life. I am glad to see that dialogue and debate are central to the young people’s decision-making and that it is all completely child-driven. Trade is a fundamental process of human betterment.The kids, who range in age from about six to 14, created this project all on their own, with no adult prompting and no adult interference. It reveals how the idea of peaceful, voluntary cooperation through trade is something humans gravitate toward. Indeed, they have for millennia.

The history of trade dates to prehistoric times, as individuals sought to improve their well-being through trade. Someone has something to barter or sell that someone else wants to barter or buy, and both parties are better off as a result of the exchange. Trade is a fundamental process of human betterment. As it has spread during modern times, particularly when unencumbered by kings, dictators, and other central powers, free trade has led to growing global prosperity and astonishing reductions in poverty.

Trade

FEE’s Dan Sanchez goes so far as to say trade is what makes us human and quotes Adam Smith, who wrote in The Wealth of Nations of humans’ “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” Smith continues:

It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts. (…) Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that.

If you or your children are curious about the history of money and exchange, I highly recommend this Outschool.com class taught by Tom Bogle, as well as the Netflix original series Origins and its episode on “Money, Banks, and The Stock Market.” And definitely check out FEE’s fantastic Common Sense Soapbox episode “Voluntary Trade is Win-Win!

Open This Content