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.