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?

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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…

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Dominance: Material vs. Rhetorical

Do the rich dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Rich people run most of the business world, own most of the wealth, and are vastly more likely to be powerful politicians.

In another sense, however, the rich aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Rich people are great.  We owe them everything.  They deserve every penny they’ve got – and more.  People who criticize the rich are just jealous failures,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do males dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Males run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a supermajority of the most prestigious jobs, and make a lot more money on average.

In another sense, however, males aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Males are the superior sex.  We owe them everything.  We need to protect males from women’s emotional abuse and financial exploitation, and show them the great deference they deserve,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

Do whites dominate our society?

In one sense, they obviously do.  Whites run most of the business world, hold most of the top political offices, hold a clear majority of the most prestigious jobs, and earn above-average incomes.

In another sense, however, whites aren’t dominant at all.  If you get in public and loudly say, “Whites have built Western civilization, the glory of the modern world.  Almost everything good in the modern world builds on white Europeans’ efforts.  The people of the world need to acknowledge how much they owe to the white race, and apologize for their many insults fueled by their own sense of inferiority,” almost everyone will recoil in horror.

My point: There are two very distinct kinds of dominance.*  There is material dominance – control of economic wealth and political power.  And there is rhetorical dominance – control of words and ideas.  Intuitively, you would expect the two to correlate highly.  At least in the modern world, however, they don’t.  Indeed, the correlation is plausibly negative: The groups with high material dominance now tend to have low rhetorical dominance.

Isn’t material dominance clearly more enviable than mere rhetorical dominance?  On balance, I suspect so.  Still, many people who could have won material dominance invest their lives in acquiring rhetorical dominance instead: intellectuals, activists, and religious leaders are all prime examples.  Why do they bother?  Because man does not live by bread alone.  Material dominance gives you luxuries, but rhetorical dominance makes you feel like you’re on top of the world: “I can loudly praise what I like and blame what I dislike – and expect the people who demur to meekly keep their objections to themselves.  Or even feign agreement!”

Conflation of material and rhetorical dominance helps explain why liberals and conservatives so often talk past each.  Liberals feel like conservatives dominate the world, because conservatives run the government half the time, and conservative-leaning groups – the rich, males, whites – have disproportionate influence over the economy.  Conservatives feel like liberals dominate the world, because liberals run the media, schools, and human resources departments.  In a sense, both groups are right.  Conservatives have the lion’s share of material dominance; liberals have more than the lion’s share of rhetorical dominance.  In another sense, though, both groups are wrong.  In the contest for overall dominance, both groups are roughly tied.  Both groups feel like underdogs because both yearn from the kind of dominance they lack.

Due to the endowment effect, moreover, both sides get angry when the other intrudes on “their” territory.  Thus, even though leftists have a near-stranglehold over research universities, the rare academic center that promotes free markets or social conservatism blinds them with rage.  99% rhetorical dominance?  We’re supposed to have 100% rhetorical dominance!  Conservatives have a similar, though less hyperbolic, reaction when business adopts liberal causes.  “Sensitivity training?!  Give me a break.”

The dream of both movements, naturally, is to hold all the dominances.  The conservative dream is a world where they consolidate their lead in the world of business and take over the whole culture.  The liberal dream is a world where they purge the last vestiges of conservative culture and bring business and the rich to their knees.  (The latter rarely means outright expropriation; I think even America’s far left would be satisfied if they could sharply increase regulation and regulation – and hear business and the rich repeatedly shout, “Thank you, may I have another?”)

When you put it this way, of course, both dreams sound like nightmares.  Neither liberals nor conservatives even dimly internalize Spiderman’s principle that “With great power comes great responsibility.” Both are epistemically vicious to the core, so habitually drunk with emotion they don’t even know what sober rationality looks like.  Frankly, I’d like to see both of these secular religions fade away like Norse mythology.  Since that’s unlikely to happen, however, I’m grateful to live in a world with an uneasy balance of power.  Or to be more precise, an uneasy balance of dominance.

* I suspect Robin Hanson will say that I’m conflating dominance and prestige.  Maybe a little, but when I picture “rhetorical dominance,” I’m picturing words and ideas that intimidate more than they inspire.  General point: You can have material prestige and rhetorical prestige as well as material dominance and rhetorical dominance.

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Social Events No Place For Politics

In spite of how libertarianism is often portrayed, it’s not a middle ground between conservatism and progressivism. It’s not even on the scale with those positions. But during social gatherings libertarians can be a neutral zone between conservative and liberal disagreement.

The silliness of the political right and left is clear to libertarians, yet we have common ground with each, on those few issues where they still support individual liberty. Progressives and conservatives are more similar to each other than they’ll admit. Why should they fight over the minor details on which they disagree?

Cousin Xander might believe government should do something which Cousin Yolanda opposes, while Yolanda wants government to do something Xander feels would be the end of civilization. The libertarian in the room knows that neither cousin’s wish excuses government violence. Pointing this out can distract the factions from being at each other’s throats by giving them a common enemy.

Expressing skepticism about the importance of the issue they value enough to fight over can make them unite against you.

Grandpa Al and Grandpa Bill may revere different presidents and hate the presidents revered by the other. Their libertarian grandkid can see the flaws of both politicians and the ridiculousness inherent in the office of president. To explain there’s no substantive difference between their respective heroes is a sure way to help them forget their disagreement with each other for a moment.

Once you understand that all politics is the search to justify government violence against those who are looking for an excuse to use government violence against you, it’s easy to see why politics doesn’t belong in society. It also helps you understand why those who are arguing aren’t nearly as different as they imagine.

If you find yourself under the boot of government violence you won’t care whether it’s a right boot or a left boot. Libertarians decry the boot while progressives and conservatives argue over which foot ought to be wearing it. Consistent libertarianism is non-political, which is why the Libertarian Party — being political — has such a hard time gaining traction among libertarians.

Personally, I don’t think social occasions are any place for politics. Yet politics will crop up in the most devious ways and in the least appropriate places. Having a libertarian in the mix helps unite all the pro-government people against the one who can’t embrace their government extremism. It’s our sacrifice for the cause of world peace. Happy New Year!

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Why I am Grateful to George Herbert Walker Bush

Unless you live under a rock (and probably even if you do), you’ve noticed the death of George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States, on November 30, at age 94.

You’ve probably also suffered through multiple personal remembrances of the man and his presidency — some positive, some negative, some mixed. Mine, which you may read below if you’re not already worn out on the topic, is of the latter variety.

I am grateful for Bush and for his presidency for two major and positive changes in my life for which he deserves at least partial credit (or, if you prefer, bears at least partial responsibility).

First, Bush made it inevitable that I would leave the armed forces rather than serving 20 years and retiring. He did so by kicking off a post-Cold-War round of cuts in military spending that continued into the Clinton era.

Those cuts, in addition to being a darn fine idea that I wish the current administration would emulate, led to a situation in which, instead of signing a new enlistment contract with the Marine Corps reserve, I received several six-month “extensions.” When I got tired of piles of new paperwork every six months, I took my honorable discharge (in 1995) and moved on to new and different pursuits. I did and do love the Marine Corps.  I suspect I love it more than I would have loved it if I’d remained in it into his son’s presidency. So thank you, President Bush.

Secondly, Bush’s presidency caused me to reconsider my (fairly short as such things go — I was young and still malleable) commitment to “conservatism” and to the Republican Party. It’s entirely possible that, had he not reneged on his “read my lips — no new taxes” pledge, I would have voted for him in 1992 and have remained a Republican voter to this day.

I told myself that if Bush kept his word on taxes, I’d support him for re-election; if he didn’t, I wouldn’t. He didn’t, and I didn’t … but I wasn’t going to vote for Bill Clinton, either. I carried ballot access petitions for, and voted for, Ross Perot in 1992. Then I conducted an agonizing reappraisal of my convictions and went looking for a movement and a party to match them. I became an ideological libertarian circa 1993 and a Libertarian Party member in 1996. So thank you again, President Bush.

American politics has changed since Bush’s presidency, and mostly not for the better. It seems reasonable to lay at least partial responsibility for some very bad things — in particular, the extension of his feud with Saddam Hussein into a series of foreign policy fiascoes that plague us to this day — at his feet. There were plenty of ugly things about the man and about his presidency, and I have no problem with those who ignore the old admonition to speak not ill of the dead.

But I’m still grateful to the president of my early adulthood for shaping my life in ways he almost certainly didn’t intend.

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It’s The Golden Mean, Not the Golden Median

I used to think that Aristotle’s idea of the Golden Mean was bullshit, likely because I encountered the idea from people who weren’t Aristotle.

To some of the people who articulated the line of thinking to me, the idea of the Golden Mean was sort of a tepid middle ground between opposing principles.

  • Don’t be too conservative or too liberal
  • Don’t be too self-controlled or too free
  • Don’t be too assertive or too loving

As one journalism course site puts it:

Moral behavior is the mean between two extremes – at one end is excess, at the other deficiency. Find a moderate position between those two extremes, and you will be acting morally.

This is unhelpful at best. Virtuous behavior doesn’t exist halfway between the two extremes of murder vs. non-murder, or slavery vs. non-slavery. In most major decisions, we wouldn’t rely on that (likely flawed, but I’m no Aristotle scholar) expression of the Aristotelian rule. The way this is expressed, it’s much more of a golden median (a midpoint in a data set) than a mean.

It’s much more helpful to understand things in terms of actual arithmetic means. In a set of numbers, it’s the most distinct extreme examples that will most shape the (non-weighted) average or mean. You do end up with a number that is average – at or around the median – but the way it’s actually arrived at is through a consideration of the whole set and not just the midpoints.

In the same way, we should determine virtuous action and become virtuous persons not by ignoring the extremes (the “golden median approach”) but in incorporating them in a dynamic balance.

Should you be conservative or liberal? The golden medians would tell you to be a moderate, on the fence or in the middle. I would tell you to combine the best of both perspectives in ways no one would expect. Include and transcend the content of liberalism and conservatism.

Should you be self-controlled or free? The golden medians would tell you to give yourself some choice, but not too much. I would tell you that to be fully self-controlled requires being fully free, and vice versa. You must be both, to the nth degree.

Should you be assertive or loving? The golden medians would tell you to be somewhere in between – not too loving but also not too assertive. I would tell you to be as assertive and as loving as you can be, at the same time.

Yes, these are paradoxes. But the dichotomies between the two extremes are generally false. And to accept them as real (and thus of requiring the tepid Golden Median compromise) is a failure.

To accept the two extremes and incorporate them is the real challenge. If you do that successfully, you will transcend both, and you’ll find a third way of being that includes both extremes without compromising them. In other words, you’ll have found the mean.

Most mystical traditions (and, of course, the Jedi) know that Being is underlaid with a dynamic balance (and battle of opposites). The Taoists represent that state of Being with black and white symbols called Yin and Yang, which are constantly clashing and flowing into each other.

To the Taoists, the ideal is not the gray of fusion or the gray of median. As psychologist and Being-popularizer Jordan Peterson puts it:

For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair [of the Yin and Yang]. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way.

12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan Peterson

I like to think that’s what Aristotle meant. After all, being hot and cold, is much better than being tepid. I would much rather go all the way into the various ways of being – and find dynamic balance there – than hold back for some imagined static zone of comfort in the middle.

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