A case for open borders that is radically agnostic about migrant count

In a previous post, I considered the considerable divergence, even among open borders advocates, about the raw count and selectivity of migrants under open borders. I argued that it is important to get more clarity on these questions, including understanding the source of disagreement and how different views regarding these can affect the other estimates (including economic growth estimates) related to open borders.

In this post, I attempt to sketch several arguments that could form building blocks of a case for open borders that is radically agnostic about how many people would move.

The right to migrate argument

This argument states, simply, that people have a right to migrate. Denial of this right is immoral. How many people would end up choosing to exercise that right is not of direct relevance. Migration restrictions are immoral because they prevent a large number of people who are in a position where they may wish to exercise the right from doing so. The human capabilities case for open borders is somewhat similar.

The lower bound argument

This argument states that even the lowest possible estimate of how many people would actually move under open borders (perhaps such estimates can be obtained by looking at the number of people who have moved under relatively modest migration liberalization regimes) is high enough to make open borders worthwhile. Whether we are talking of 10 million people over a decade or 200 million people over 2-3 years, open borders would have huge impact.

The “it anyway won’t happen immediately” argument

This argument views open borders as a goal we should set our sights on as we gradually work towards it. Thus, determining the numbers of people who’d migrate under complete open borders is at best an illuminative theoretical exercise and at worst a distraction from the more important goal of seeking marginal change that is far better understood. Some proponents of this argument many view open borders advocacy as a means for shifting the Overton window in a manner that makes immigration liberalization appear to be a more “moderate” position.

The “market forces will prevent swamping” argument

One of the concerns that critics of open borders have is that under open borders, countries (mostly rich countries) that are attractive targets for immigrants will get swamped with large numbers of migrants. This is part of the motivation behind the desire to estimate how many would move under open borders. Some open borders advocates believe that market forces, loosely defined, will take care of this concern. If too many immigrants are moving into the area, rents and other prices will rise and wages will fall to the level that it is no longer attractive to move to the destination. Other non-pecuniary negative feedback loops may also counter the swamping threat. Many people use phrases like “migration flows tend to be self-regulating” to describe this perceived phenomenon.

The “however much it takes to attain labor market convergence” argument

This argument states that migration will continue until there is (upward) labor market convergence between the sending and receiving countries. Convergence may not be complete, but may stop when the place premium between the two countries is a factor of 1.5 or less (i.e., there is only a ~50% wage gain from migrating). The point here is that we don’t know for sure how many people would need to move in order for this convergence to occur, because of countervailing factors: governments may begin instituting economic reforms once people start leaving en masse, emigrants may return to the country to set up new factories and business connected with other countries, etc. Or, this may not happen. Uncertainty about how things play out result in considerable agnosticism about the number of people who move, but relatively more certainty about the nature and desirability of the eventual outcome for humanity.

3 thoughts on “A case for open borders that is radically agnostic about migrant count”

  1. Another potential argument for Open borders is that open borders could hasten the demise of the already unsustainable and un-just redistribution schemes is westernized societies.

    The insentives for productive-people in socialist countries is against open borders because the influx of mostly “poor” people leads to higher-taxes due to the “need” and “income disparity” solutions in place prior to their arrival. Insentives for the present redistribution-recipients is also against open borders because it is perceived as competition for those understandably scarce handouts. Both of those group-considerations are short term. Long term considerations are probably, arguably, all positive for both groups Including–but not limited to–the hastened demise of redistribution as a viable tool for addressing disparities in productivity. But I think most people consider short-term exclusively when making policy decisions.

  2. What we’ve seen in the EU is that even with relatively open borders, only a few migrate to other EU states. There are other impediments to migration like language, finding a job and so on.

    What I would expect to see (pure conjecture on my part) is more migration along established migration routes. So, for example, more North Africans moving to France or Latin Americans moving to the US. Even more Americans moving to Paris – there have been Americans in that city since before the American Revolution and our little community (about 100,000 of us) has been referred to as a permanent colony. 🙂

  3. I’m not convinced by the arguments that open borders are the way to rectify the unjust disparities between how much people can earn in different countries. Instead I think addressing the root causes of those disparities (by reforms for fair trade, a more equitable international monetary system rather than use of the US dollar as the global trading and reserve currency, less fostering of capital flight from the poor world to the rich world etc) would mean that opening borders would then become easy. If the disparities were less severe because the root causes had been fixed (even partially) then opening borders would not lead to a torrent of people all moving in one direction. That is the way to get to the ideal where everyone can live wherever in the world they fancy.
    I’ve had a go posting about this:

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