A succinct summary of the oppression of closed borders

Political philosopher Jason Brennan recently gave an interesting interview to 3:AM Magazine, focusing primarily on the ethics of voting and political participation. He has some interesting comments on libertarianism and liberalism as well, and this is where the interview becomes relevant to open borders, for Brennan makes this comment (I have made some formatting changes and added emphasis):

I think equality misses the point of social justice. The point isn’t to make people more equal. It’s to make sure first everyone has enough, and then that everyone has more. With that in mind, I find it bizarre that so many people focus on the plight of the least well-off in rich societies, and yet ignore the issue of immigration.

From my point of view, if you do not advocate open immigration, any claim to be concerned about social justice or the well being of the poor is mere pretense. When economists estimate the welfare losses from immigration restrictions, they tend to conclude that eliminating immigration restrictions would double world GDP. The poorest immigrants would see the largest gains. The families and friends they leave behind would see large gains.

Immigration restrictions expose the worlds’ poor to exploitation. If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

I do not think I could have said it any better myself. The conclusions in that final paragraph epitomise my personal journey to full support for open borders.

You can argue that open borders impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on many people as well. But strong claims require strong evidence. The evidence of the oppression of closed borders is staring us in the face. Every person who jumps a wall, swims a river, paddles an ocean, or dodges bullets in search of a better life is telling us just how much open borders is worth to them as an individual, and can be worth to us as a human race.

The economic evidence demanding open borders is compelling. But coupled with the fundamental immorality of oppressing the most vulnerable people on the face of the earth, there is absolutely no way to stomach the status quo. Closed borders are not just another example of governmental inefficiency: they are a graphic illustration of the evil things that humans can do to other people, and of the capacity we have for self-deception.

You can argue that now is not the right time to end immigration restrictions. That we’re not ready. That greater immigration levels bring all kinds of harms which we either absolutely cannot address, or simply cannot find the resources to address. All fair points; I might even agree with you on some of these (I am particularly sympathetic to the argument that a sudden influx of immigrants undermines a strong sense of community).

But these fair points only militate for gradually opening the borders. They demand experimentation with keyhole solutions — policies that mitigate the risks of opening the borders. We have a tendency to think that the status quo of closed borders is desirable. But if current immigration levels are desirable at all (a very dubious proposition), that is only because keeping them this low is a necessary evil — not a positive good. Brennan puts it so well that I can’t help but quote him again for emphasis:

If you have an economic system where everything can be globalised, except poor labour, then you make the world’s poor sitting ducks for exploitation. They can’t go where labour is scarce to get a good deal. They are forced to wait for capital to come find them and give them a bad deal. It’s not just that these restrictions are inefficient. Immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

If we have to impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death on some of the most vulnerable people in the world — if we have to shoot Starving Marvin in the face for the greater good — let’s at least be honest about it. And let’s be absolutely sure that such barbarism for the sake of saving civilisation really is necessary — that we’ve optimised the cruelty of our immigration regimes. The feasibility of open borders may be an open question. But as long as people are dying because governments refuse to give them a legal way to move in search of a better life, the onus is on us to examine the immigration policies enforced in our name. If we must close our borders, close them only as much as we need to, and no more. Fundamental morality demands it.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


11 thoughts on “A succinct summary of the oppression of closed borders”

  1. The biggest question I do not see addressed in this forum: you fail to understand the third world, filled with poverty and illiteracy, grows by 80 million people annually. They cannot be educated out of their poverty, they cannot evolve out of it, they cannot succeed away from it. They may be able to immigrate, but they create more poverty in the new countries where they take root. It’s cultural, it’s lack of intellectual horsepower and it’s intractable. Better for them to stay in their own countries and continue their exponential growth rates until they learn via Mother Nature’s wrath that you cannot continue producing babies that they cannot support. Nor can the Earth support. That’s the fundamental question of the 21st century. FW, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

  2. Poverty as defined by the UN, aka less than $1.25 a day (or even the less strict $2 a day line) is definitely decreased when immigrants move away. Place premium can be a huge boost to migrants and income per natural measurements show that migration does decrease poverty in a given population. Finally, you are simply incorrect that poverty and illiteracy are growing. As I’ve linked in responses to you before, poverty is decreasing in both absolute and relative terms. Literacy has also been expanding world wide. Child birth rates remain high in developing countries and yet this progress continues to be made which suggest Malthusian limits aren’t an explanation for world poverty and thus movement of people from the developing to developed world is likely to contribute to alleviating world poverty.

    1. In reality, you are incorrect. Annually, 57 million people die around the globe annually. Not only are 57 million more babies birthed to replace those that died, but another 80 million more babies are born, net gain. The human race adds 1 billion annually. There is NO WAY to educate 137 million more children annually because there aren’t enough teachers or schools or supplies. Thus, over 2 and perhaps 3 billion humans on this planet cannot read, write or perform simple math problems. They live on less than $2 per day. Over 18 million of them die of starvation. More will die as we add another 3 billion by 2050. Exponential growth cannot be sustained no matter how idealistic you promote yourself. You cannot “rose-colored glasses” over the harsh reality of human overpopulation and illiteracy. Africa at nearly 1 billion in 2013, expects to reach 3.1 billion before the end of the century. Its human population will lay waste to the land and scavenge the animals into extinction. Same with India. If people move away from their poverty into first world countries, they become greater polluters and energy users and water users–thus they bring about global climate change and environmental destruction at a faster rate of speed. You suggest a Faustian Bargain, but neglect to understand the end result: Hobson’s Choice. I suggest you become more realistic and promote birth control and family planning throughout the third world and allow those “would-be immigrants” to stay home and solve their own problems in their own countries. FW , 6 continent world bicycle traveler and author of the book: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans

      1. I’m glad to see you finally mention a source (though links are always ideal), but as in the previous discussion we had, I will cite the World Health Organization’s figures on top causes of death which are: 1) Ischaemic heart disease 7.25 million/year 2) Stroke and other cerebrovascular disease 6.15 million/year 3) Lower respiratory infections 3.46 million/year 4) Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease 3.28 million/year 5) Diarrhoeal diseases 2.46 million/year 6) HIV/AIDS 1.78 million/year 7) Trachea, bronchus, lung cancers 1.39 million/year 8) Tuberculosis 1.34 million/year 9) Diabetes mellitus 1.26 million/year 10) Road traffic accidents 1.21 million/year. At best you can assert that malnutrition was a contributing factor for a number of these, but it also seems quite probably that better health care systems could have saved many of these people as well as better nutrition (otherwise they would be listed as actually dead from starvation). This implies the carrying capacity argument is misguided (as do falling poverty rates).

        As for the idea that there is “no way” to teach 137 million new children being born every year let’s see what it would take to give every one of these potential students a decent K-12 education. We’ll simply the math and take pessimistic assumptions for this. First let’s assume an average classroom size of 20 (a decent size class that’s common in developed countries). Then let’s assume we have zero deaths and zero drop-outs between the age of 5 and 18 (a ridiculous concession on my part but it makes the math easy). I’m also going to assume that number of new births stays constant (in fact this is actually a concession to your side as birth rates are on a long-term downward trend as documented by the UN, see page 2 of this report). With these assumptions how many teachers would we need? Well for any given year we’d need 6.85 million teachers. For a full 13 years from kindergarten to high school graduation that’s a total of 89.05 million teachers needed globally. That’s about 1.3% of the world’s population would have to be teachers between K-12, a large number but certainly not impossible. And remember I’ve already made some very pessimistic assumptions and with a fairly small class size. Now how much would this cost? Let’s make one more very pessimistic assumption and say we need to use American per pupil costs as the average cost per student (note: Americans spend more per student than almost any other country). As of 2011 that would be $7,743 per pupil per year. That works out to a little under $14 trillion once all 13 grade levels have 137 million students each. That’s about 20% of world GDP, a hefty percentage under extremely pessimistic assumptions. But also technically possible. What would happen if the average costs were cut in half to a level similar of South Korea or Japan? We’re down to less than 10% or double what the world currently does on average. Hefty it’s true but again not impossible (several countries on the above list already pay that big a portion of their GDP to education) and this is based off of highly pessimistic figures. Assuming the likely attrition from dropping out, childhood death, consistent GDP growth, and the fall of birth rates that’s already happening these numbers rapidly begin to seem not to different from what we currently spend as a portion of GDP.

        And this all ignores the fact that I already provided evidence of improving literacy globally.

        1. Your evidence lacks credibility in the light of reality. But what you fail to address and you fail to understand still faces all of humanity. We humans add another 1 billion people every 12 years on our way to adding 3 billion by 2050 and on to a possible 14 billion before the end of the century. If you promote unlimited immigration into the USA or Canada, hundreds of millions of people would migrate. Their carbon, water and energy use impact alone would sink our countries. You lack any understanding of the fact that we already face water, energy, resource, environmental and food predicaments that cannot be solved. You avoid dealing with the fact that Peak Oil has us by the throat as it diminishes all our energy within the next 40 years. Your kind of “ignorance is bliss” thinking will not be tolerated by Mother Nature. The use of the word “if” is yet another folly and totally useless because “if” doesn’t work in the real world of human overpopulation. FW, 6 continent world bicycle traveler

  3. This blog entry claims that immigration restrictions impose poverty, suffering, pain, and death.

    Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that those harms are imposed by certain bad realities in those worst countries? The immigration restrictions close off one possible source of relief, but don’t actually create the harms.

    1. Say a volcano erupted outside your house, but at gunpoint I prevented you from fleeing the volcanic eruption. Did I impose suffering, pain, and maybe even death on you and your household? I just closed off one possible source of relief, after all.

      I think the Starving Marvin analogy illustrates this quite well: http://openborders.info/starving-marvin/

      If the government banned people from doing an honest day’s work on account of their race or their sexuality, if it banned them from living in certain regions on account of the same, forcing them to live in ghettos and work in much inferior jobs, would the government only be “closing off one possible source of relief” to living in the ghetto and working an inferior job?

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