Utilitarian case for open borders

This page outlines a case for open borders based on a utilitarian/consequentialist perspective. Unlike the libertarian case for open borders, this case relies more heavily on an empirical evaluation of migration policy. People may agree with the underlying moral premises but not the utilitarian case, because of disputes about the consequences of open borders.

As with all our top-level pages, please treat this page only as a starting point in exploring the ethics of the open borders question. To dig deeper, follow and read the links.

TL;DR

  1. Utilitarianism is the general idea that our goal should be to maximize total utility. It is related to the idea of cost-benefit analysis. Utilitarian justifications for open borders hinge on the idea that an open borders policy is better for human welfare than the status quo.
  2. Economists’ estimates of the effect of open borders range to about a 50-150% increase in global economic production (see our double world GDP page). Despite the huge error bars, it seems relatively clear that the upside, and the median gain estimate, for open borders exceeds that from other similar policies such as liberalization of trade and capital flows.
  3. The income gains from open borders are likely to be disproportionately realized by currently poor people. Due to diminishing utility of money, this makes the utilitarian gains stronger than they would be if everybody’s income grew in the same proportion. In fact, open borders will likely speed up the end of world poverty.
  4. The main source of skepticism about open borders from the universalist utilitarian perspective is that open borders would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, by significantly reducing the productive and innovative capacity of the best political, social, and economic systems around the world.
  5. The “universalist” utilitarian case can be attacked from two other types of angles: the more parochial angle (cf. citizenism and territorialism) and a broader universalist angle (such as animal welfare or the far future.

What is utilitarianism?

Utilitarianism is a philosophy where the basis of action is to “maximize total utility” — it is the underlying idea behind cost-benefit analysis. A more general term is “consequentialism” which says that actions and decisions must be judged by means of their consequences. For more, see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles on The History of Utilitarianism and Consequentialism. You might also be interested in Felicifia, a forum devoted to discussion of utilitarianism.

Iconic image of utilitarianism in terms of weighing costs and benefits
Image to describe cost-benefit analysis and utilitarian thinking, source Felicifia post by Gee Joe

Why should the utilitarian case matter to non-utilitarians?

Few people are willing to embrace utilitarianism wholesale. However, it’s also true that, in cases where there are multiple courses of action each of which is morally permissible, people are comfortable using utilitarian methods such as cost-benefit analysis to figure out which course of action to take. Further, interesting paradoxes aside, in many cases, the morality of an action is partly determined by its consequences. This idea is utilitarian.

In the case of open borders, the utilitarian case for it is overwhelmingly strong. Combining with the fact that there is a strong libertarian and a strong egalitarian case for open borders, the overall argument becomes quite strong.

The utilitarian case has two chief strengths:

  • It gives a much better quantitative sense of the importance of the open borders issue.
  • It is the aspect of the moral case that most directly connects empirical claims about the effects of migration with moral assertions about migration policy. It is most grounded in real-world consequences and most sensitive to changes in beliefs about the nature of these consequences.

Global economic impact: an efficiency-based case (in slogan form, “double world GDP”)

According to a literature review by Clemens, free labor mobility would lead to world GDP increasing by 50-150% relative to the counterfactual status quo scenario. Economist Bryan Caplan condensed the finding to the slogan form “double world GDP” to describe the scope and scale of change involved in opening borders. You can read more about the economic findings, and disputes and caveats, here.

The important point worth noting is that, even if these gains are significantly overstated, the gains from open borders for global production could still be huge. Even a 10% increase in global production means several trillion dollars of additional wealth creation every year.

The increase in global production is most closely tied to the efficiency-based case for open borders (in the sense of Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks efficiency). This is not quite a utilitarian case, because the utilitarian case would consider the differing levels of marginal utility that different people derive from money.

The pro-poor distributional impacts, and the end of poverty

While the increased production from open borders is likely to benefit a large share of the world population, the biggest proportional gains are likely to go to some very poor people (perhaps the world’s poorest, or those one rung above the lowest rungs of poverty). Some people have argued that open borders could accelerate the end of global poverty. While the pro-poor distributional impacts are of particular interest to egalitarians, they are also important to utilitarians, because money at the margin means more to poor people than to rich people. Thus, insofar as the gains from open borders are enjoyed more by poorer people, we get even more utility gain than if it were equally distributed.

Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs

The main objection to open borders within the universalist framework is that the above estimation of the effect of open borders is wrong in important ways, and that open borders could seriously endanger or harm the functioning of the global economic, social, and political order. For a detailed discussion of arguments of this sort, see our page on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Universalist versus parochial utilitarianism

The utilitarianism described here is a universalist utilitarianism: it aggregates the utility of all humans on earth (the interests of non-human animals and other creatures that display sentience properties are not included). However, for those who ascribe to more parochial philosophies, such as citizenism or territorialism, “utilitarianism” would likely be used to refer to the utility of people within particular national groups. Utilitarian arguments of this sort are referred to on this site as citizenist or territorialist arguments respectively.

Insufficiently universalist

One niche type of objection to the universalist argument for open borders is that it is insufficiently universalist. This argument can be made from at least two angles:

  • The welfare of future generations is not adequately accounted for. This argument typically is made alongside the killing the goose that lays the golden eggs argument.
  • The welfare of non-human animals is not adequately accounted for, and accounting for it could lead one to oppose open borders. For more on arguments of this sort, see the animal welfare page.

Blog posts and articles

For blog posts on the estimates of impact on global production, see our double world GDP page. For blog posts on the argument that open borders would accelerate the end of global poverty, see our end of poverty page.

The blog posts here include some general discussion of the importance of open borders from the perspective of utility and consequences:

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