Do Right on Immigration to Save the American Republic

I was a vocal advocate of open borders for many years. Then, after the spring of 2017 or so, I fell rather silent. Not completely: I wrote the essay “Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It” for the Cato Institute in May 2020, summarizing my long-held views. But I think my relative silence led some to think my convictions must have changed. The amusingly-titled Michael Barone essay, “Open borders would produce dystopia, says open borders advocate,” expresses it well. I may not have officially recanted, but didn’t my writings suggest a certain halting reconsideration of long-held views?

Not at all. Or rather, I do reconsider my views, frequently… but usually I conclude that yes, I was right. The reason I fell rather silent was (a) I wasn’t sure if open borders advocacy was making freer immigration policies any more likely (“Overton window” vs. “backlash”), and (b) I had a family to support, and open borders advocacy not only absorbed time and attention without (usually) paying anything, but risked alienating people whose help and good will I would need in order to get remunerative work. 

To dispel suspicions that I’ve changed my mind, though, I thought it might be of interest to state the case for open borders as I see it now. As far as I know, it’s the same as it was five years ago, but I’m restating it now out of my head, without particularly reviewing old writings, out of curiosity about how consistent I’ve been. 

And there is one further reason, quite new, to add to my case, if not necessarily for open borders. I’ll get to that at the end.

First, there’s the utilitarian case for open borders. Migration restrictions are very inefficient because they force people to stay in countries where they’re far less productive than they might be. That makes them less happy and thriving. It also makes them less able to be of use and contribute to the flourishing of others. Open borders would empower billions of people to move to opportunity and become much more productive. Migrants’ remittances to and feedback on their countries of origin would spread the beneficent effects to non-migrants. If one believes that policy should serve “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” in Jeremy Bentham’s time-worn (and of course somewhat ill-defined) phrase, then open borders should top the priority list. Economic estimates, though highly speculative, are the best available guesses as to what a world of open borders would look like, and roughly speaking, the median guess– a conservative guess in many ways; far more optimism could be cogently advocated– is that open borders would double world GDP.

Second, there’s what might be called the “deontological” or rights-based case for open borders, which grows out of the question of when violence may justly be used. I assume that some violence is just, for example in self-defense, or up to a point for the redress of wrongs. Indeed, I’d even insist that simple retribution, though hopefully without the passions associated with the term “revenge,” is sometimes an adequate justification for the use of force. Now, when an immigrant is prevented by force, i.e., by violence, from entering the territory of a country, that needs justification, since violence is presumptively wrong. But the peaceful immigrant has violated no one’s rights. So it’s simply not licit to use force against him. 

Now, there could be tension between these lines of argument. Often deontological and utilitarian reasoning lead to opposed conclusions, and it’s hard to settle the resulting debates. And I even think there are some edge cases under the general topic of immigration where utilitarian and deontological reasoning do collide in incompatible conclusions. For example, if X is the cousin of a ruthless terrorist, and pleads for entry into the US to keep him safe, there is reason to think he needs asylum, but also reason to fear that he is dissembling and working for the terrorist cause. Human rights (deontology) might suggest letting him in, while national security (utilitarianism) suggests keeping him out. Epidemiology also gives rise to edge cases where a likely disease bearer needs to cross an international border, yet jeopardizes the health of the domestic population.

But this is rare. The vast majority of potential migrants are not plausible terrorist threats, and don’t plausibly carry contagious diseases not already endemic in the destination country. Where restrictions of movement are needed to control the spread of contagious disease, temporary quarantine is almost always a practical and far less coercive alternative to permanent exclusion. For the vast majority of cases, I believe that the rights-based case for open borders and the utilitarian case for open borders agree and complement one another.

Third, the kind of open borders that I’ve usually advocated, involving the substitution of migration taxes for migration restrictions, would be desirable even from a more narrowly nationalist perspective that considers only the welfare of citizens of a country like the United States. Citizens would enjoy large benefits from open borders, as employers, landlords, merchants, colleagues, and investors, profiting through trade with the new immigrant masses. The economic impacts would vary widely depending on citizens endowment of “factors of production” such as land, labor power, skills, investable funds, and subtler things like connections, ability to influence policymaking, and preferences. But probably the vast majority of citizens would benefit naturally, on balance, from open borders through simple market exchange, and the government could use migration taxes and redistribution to make open borders economically advantageous for virtually all native citizens of immigrant-receiving countries.

Fourth, importantly for me, as a Christian, though not for all the likely readers of this post, is the commands of God to men through the Bible and the Christian churches. When I began advocating open borders, I thought the cause was very harmonious with the spirit of the New Testament, but that the Bible probably had a good deal that opponents could use against it, probably in the Old Testament, and that to advocate open borders so boldly might put me in an awkward position with respect to my Christian faith. Later, I did some scriptural research and discovered that I was wrong. Put bluntly, God supports open borders. There’s nothing in the Bible to give an open borders advocate pause, and everything to encourage him. It’s not just that the New Testament favors welcoming the stranger, loving enemies, and turning the other cheek. Even the Old Testament makes it very clear that ancient Israel under the divinely-inspired, though not yet “fulfilled,” law of Moses, was completely open to all willing immigrants. 

There’s another kind of urgency in the religious case for open borders. Christians are persecuted in many parts of the world, and their ability to practice their faith freely often depends on their being able to migrate to countries where they can escape persecution. Are we being faithful Christians if, by condoning the refusal of our countries’ governments to allow foreign Christians to enter, we put them at the mercy of their persecutors? Of course not. Christians must support asylum for persecuted Christians from abroad. But since it’s easy for foreigners to pretend to be persecuted Christians if laws incent them to do so– being a Christian has no external markers, after all, and government bureaucrats can hardly be relied upon to discern the sincerity of people’s professions of faith– the only practical way to meet this duty is to let in everyone.

All this, I think I’ve probably said before. At any rate, I’ve thought it before. But here’s the part of the case for open borders that is new.

On January 6, 2021, a mob stormed the US Capitol, on the instigation of then-President Donald Trump, who was fomenting a preposterous lie that he had actually won the 2020 presidential election, and that it had been “stolen.” This was a shocking breach of a tradition of peaceful, democratic transfers of power that has continued, essentially, since the very beginning of the republic. It’s not clear that there’s a plausible scenario where this mob action would have altered the election outcome, and therefore, how dire the threat to American democracy really was. Next time, we might not be so lucky. 

Through the first thirty-eight years of my life, I took for granted that American democracy was impregnable. We could argue about whether democracy was being eroded through judicial usurpations, but a direct attack on the constitutional, democratic transfer of power, though common abroad, seemed inconceivable in America. How could this have happened? 

The immediate explanation seems to lie in the personal character of Donald Trump, who always struck me as an incredibly vain and unprincipled egoist for whom nothing is sacred, least of all the American constitution. 

But that only pushes the question back further. How could 63 million Americans (in 2016) have voted for a man like that in the presidential election? How could so many millions of Republicans have voted for a man like that in the primaries, when there were so many other Republican candidates every bit as committed to core principles like support for free markets and opposition to abortion as Trump could claim to be? Trump’s depraved buffoonery wasn’t a secret, after all. That the preservation of liberty depends on virtue is a truth as old as the republic and older. Why didn’t Americans know better?

Above all, I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me. And yet, as a patriot, as someone who always planned for the American republic to outlive me, and to be there for my children and grandchildren, I can’t stop engaging in agonized guesswork to try to figure it out.

Here’s the best guess I can make.

Americans voted for an obviously immoral man because they wanted him to do something obviously immoral. There was ongoing pressure to “close the border” and “enforce the law.” That involved the expulsion of the Dreamers, people born abroad but raised in America, who knew no other home. This is so obviously indefensible, from a moral perspective, that people of a certain mind didn’t trust any politician to carry it out if they showed signs of having a conscience. Many wicked things had been done before in the name of immigration control: the expulsion of Haitians at the border to a dystopian homeland, or the exclusion of the Jewish refugees on the St. Louis in 1939. But in the past, it kind of worked to lump these evils into patriotic kitsch that might have a subtle racist dark side, or into national security boilerplate, and politicians could present a face of civic virtue while still doing these bad things. That no longer works. Conscience and realism had made enough headway that mainstream politicians were being inexorably pushed in the direction of legalizing the Dreamers. Even if politicians made anti-immigration promises on the campaign trail, in a somewhat unscrupulous effort to win power for some good purpose, upon winning office, they would be likely to reflect that it’s better– morally better– to break a promise than to deport millions of innocent people from America who have no other home. So the desperate expedient of restrictionists was to elect someone whose entire life bore witness to a total lack of conscience. And then, lacking the moral scruples to treat the Dreamers with justice, he also lacked the moral scruples to relinquish power peacefully when he lost the election.

I could be getting this all wrong. As I said, I’m baffled by the events of 2016. If there are people who somehow had better, more honorable motives than these for supporting Trump, I apologize for being unable to imagine their state of mind.

But if I’m right in my diagnosis, then our unreasonably draconian immigration laws, unenforceable by just means, are a moral cancer that is poisoning the American body politic, robbing it of the civic virtue that is needed for democracy to endure. So that’s one more reason for me urgently to support open borders, or at least to urgently desire to make the country more welcoming to immigrants. I want to open people’s eyes to the moral truth that it’s an untenable injustice to insist absolutely that no one shall reside within US borders without the express permission of the US government. Addiction to this injustice is depleting America’s indispensable supply of civic virtue and endangering the survival of the American polity. 

We need to do right on immigration to save the republic.