West Berlin policemen and East German Volkspolizei face each other across the border in Berlin, circa 1955. (Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders

There are a prodigious number of moral arguments for open borders. Openborders.info lists libertarian, utilitarian, egalitarian, and other types of cases for open borders, with a number of arguments within each category.  What are my favorite arguments for open borders?

Before answering this question, it is important to consider what constitutes a strong argument for open borders. First, it should be logical. Second, it should not be overly complicated, requiring layers of explanation. Finally, it should, in the words of Fabio Rojas, appeal to “basic moral intuition;” it should resonate emotionally. While each of the following arguments may not contain all of these elements, they have at least some of them.

In descending order of strength, here are the three best arguments, in my opinion:

1. Open borders allow people, not their place of birth, to control their lives.

This argument is based on the unfairness that some people are born into poverty in countries that offer little opportunity for them to improve their situations (not to mention that in some of these countries human rights abuses and violent conflict are endemic), while in other countries people are born into relative wealth and have ample opportunities to improve their situations. (For example, the poorest 5% of Americans earn more than 60% of the world’s population. (p. 21) ) Hopefully currently disadvantaged countries will catch up with the advantaged ones, but in the meantime it is unjust to block citizens of disadvantaged countries, through immigration restrictions, from accessing the opportunities available to those born in advanced countries by moving to those advanced countries. Among other negative consequences, restrictions prevent would-be immigrants from benefiting from the place premium, which allows a person from a disadvantaged country to earn much more in an advanced country, even without an increase in the person’s skills. (See also here and here.) An open borders policy addresses the unfairness associated with place of birth, while immigration restrictions maintain it. (Openborders.info communicates the argument thusly: “open borders rectifies a glaring and morally problematic inequality of opportunity based on birthplace.”)

One measure of the argument’s potency is its use by many open borders advocates. Joseph Carens, who made the idea of open borders “intellectually respectable,” states that

In a world of relatively closed borders like ours, citizenship is an inherited status and a source of privilege. Being born a citizen of a rich country in North America or Europe is a lot like being born into the nobility in the Middle Ages. It greatly enhances one’s life prospects (even if there are lesser and greater nobles). And being born a citizen of a poor country in Asia or Africa is a lot like being born into the peasantry in the Middle Ages. It greatly limits one’s life chances (even if there are some rich peasants and a few gain access to the nobility)… Is there some story that they [people in rich countries] can tell to the human beings on the other side of this rich-poor divide as to why these existing arrangements are fair? Would they think the arrangements were just if they were in the position of the excluded? I don’t think so.

Using the terms “geographical roulette,” Stephan Faris, author of Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration, likewise notes that “our system of passport controls, immigration restrictions, and closed borders has created a world in which few factors shape a child’s life as much as one she can do nothing about: the flag under which she was born.”  Bryan Caplan of George Mason University states that “when most people are on earth are dealt such a bad hand, to try to stop them from bettering their condition seems a very cruel thing to do to someone.” And R. George Wright of Indiana University has written, in “Federal Immigration Law and the Case for Open Entry,” how those with the “undeserved good fortune to have been born in the United States resist… accommodation of the undeservedly less fortunate.”

I suggested that this argument is a powerful one in a previous post.  It is logical and simple. It also could appeal to the moral intuition of many, especially Americans, who oppose discrimination against others based on factors they cannot control. The American Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, forbids discriminating against someone based on their skin color or gender, traits that people are born with. As Mr. Caplan asks, “What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else? So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?”

2. If before you were born you didn’t know where you would be born (and who your parents would be) but could choose what the laws would be, you would choose laws allowing open borders because they could be key to your well-being.

This argument was developed by Mr. Carens. In “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” he uses John Rawls’ question about “what principles people would choose to govern society if they had to choose from behind a ‘veil of ignorance,’ knowing nothing about their own personal situations,” such as their class, race, sex, or natural talents, to address immigration policy. (p. 255) Since people would be prevented “from knowing their place of birth or whether they were members of one particular society rather than another,” (p. 257) he concludes that they would choose an open borders regime: “In considering possible restrictions on freedom, one adopts the perspective of the one who would be most disadvantaged by the restrictions, in this case the perspective of the alien who wants to immigrate. In the original position, then, one would insist that the right to migrate be included in the system of basic liberties for the same reasons that one would insist that the right to religious freedom be included: it might prove essential to one’s plan of life… So, the basic agreement among those in the original position would be to permit no restrictions on migration (whether emigration or immigration).” (p. 258)  (The original position means when people operate behind the “veil of ignorance” about their personal situation when choosing society’s laws.)

This argument is very logical and probably appeals to the moral intuition (or at least the self-interest) of many people by helping them achieve a global perspective. I have not seen the argument used frequently, however, probably because its logic is somewhat intricate. It was used by John Tierney almost a decade ago in an op-ed calling for expanding immigration to the U.S. Despite its infrequent use, it is a potent case for open borders.

3. Immigrants, like everybody else, have a right to not to be harmfully coerced, and implementation of immigration restrictions constitutes harmful coercion. (Or, in the words of Mr. Caplan, leave people alone so they can go and make something out of their lives.)

This argument was formulated by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. In “Is There a Right to Immigrate?”  he argues that unless special circumstances can be identified, physically barring immigrants from entering a country and expelling those already inside a country are violations of immigrants’ rights not to be harmfully coerced. (p. 434) Mr. Huemer addresses a variety of justifications for this coercion against immigrants, including claims that immigration hurts native workers, that immigrants fiscally burden natives, that the government should prioritize the interests of disadvantaged natives, and that immigration threatens natives’ distinctive cultures. Mr. Huemer effectively shows that these justifications do not override immigrants’ right not to be harmfully coerced through immigration restrictions.

This argument is logical and straightforward. It is not necessarily morally intuitive, since some people see  government as being in the business of harmful coercion through taxation, regulation, and law enforcement, in order to serve the greater good. The hypothetical of “Starving Marvin” contained in Mr. Huemer’s paper humanizes the argument, however. In the hypothetical, Marvin, a potential immigrant in danger of starvation, seeks food by going to a seller in the U.S. The U.S. government, embodied in a person named Sam, forcibly prevents Marvin from reaching the U.S. Marvin then returns home and dies of starvation.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, Mr. Carens and Mr. Huemer include caveats to their arguments indicating that extremely harmful swamping under open borders could override them. (Swamping refers to an immense migration flow in a short period of time.) Unfortunately, dispelling concerns about swamping is not as straightforward as presenting one of the three strong prima facie arguments enumerated in this post, since no one knows with certainty what migration flows might look like under open borders or what the effects of swamping would be, should it occur. Vipul has written posts which dispel concerns about swamping and suggest factors that would limit migration initially after implementing open borders, such as the availability of jobs, wage levels, connections in host countries, and moving arrangements. Declining birth rates in some countries, including Mexico, could be another limiting factor, as could strong ties to one’s home country, as Kevin Johnson suggests. (Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws, p. 27)

One can also look at situations where borders are currently open for clues about migration flows under worldwide open borders. Philippe Legrain, in Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, observes that Britain hasn’t been deluged with East Europeans despite the ability of citizens from relatively poor East European countries to come and work there. (p. 328) Mr. Johnson has written that despite the fact that the mainland U.S. has a per capita GDP twice that of Puerto Rico, most Puerto Ricans do not leave (p. 29), although many nations are much poorer relative to the U.S. and about a third of the people born in Puerto Rico have moved to the mainland U.S., which is a significant proportion.

On the other hand, co-blogger Nathan Smith, in his recently published paper “The Global Economic Impact of Open Borders,” writes that “Gallup polls have found that hundreds of millions of people worldwide would like to emigrate permanently. But economic models of open borders tend to predict that billions would actually emigrate.” Nathan suggests that these predictions, while uncertain, “deserve at least to be preferred to whatever casual assumptions may be harbored by untrained minds concerning the question.”

Assuming that billions migrate, Nathan’s research suggests, as does that of others, that world GDP would nearly double and that the living standards of unskilled workers worldwide would rise. The impact on Western countries that receive the bulk of the migration would be mixed, but generally positive: “… unskilled workers would see their wages driven down by competition from immigrants. There would be an enormous boom in investment, and elevated returns on capital for decades, as the world adapted to an enormously expanded effective labor supply.”  Nathan’s predictions about the impact on the U.S. political landscape in a forthcoming post similarly suggest significant changes, but not ones that should cause an open borders policy to be overriden.  Keyhole solutions would also be available to ameliorate the impact on receiving countries.

Uncertainty is always associated with radical policy changes, whether they be the abolition of slavery or the enfranchisement of women. This uncertainty should not prevent doing the right thing, however. The three arguments in this post powerfully show that, in the context of immigration policy, implementing open borders is the right thing to do.

Related reading

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The photograph featured at the top of this post is of West and East German border police confronting each other, moments after a woman successfully crossed the interior German border in Berlin, 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via the Google Cultural Institute.

Joel Newman

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

4 thoughts on “My Favorite Three Arguments for Open Borders”

  1. You leave at least two important factors out: How comes the recipient population has no say in who gets into their country? And, as Milton Friedman said, how is it possible to combine a welfare state with open borders?

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