Are Open Borders Utopian?

I can’t remember if anyone has ever actually responded to my advocacy of open borders by calling them “utopian,” but they often seem to be thinking it. Are open borders utopian? It would be truer to think of them as “back to normal.” The attempt to control migration through a comprehensive passport regime is a 20th-century innovation. The late 19th century was a kind of golden age of open borders, when passport regimes were removed and the world’s leading countries accepted immigrants with few or no restrictions, but even before that migration was restricted only in certain places and for certain groups and not very rigorously. Certain countries– England in the Middle Ages, Spain a couple of centuries later– expelled the Jews, but you didn’t need a visa to travel from Rome to London.

That said, for most of history, no one, native or foreign, enjoyed the degree of protection of human rights that people in the advanced nations of the West take for granted today. Much of the history of civilization was dominated by absolute monarchs of one kind or another, who were above any law. Often, too, aristocratic castes had the de facto power and/or the de jure right arbitrarily to violate the property or persons of their social inferiors. Courts have tended to be more arbitrary and corrupt than in the contemporary West; and crime rates were higher. Economic opportunity was limited and more dependent on scarce resources, which gave people more valid reasons to see a migrant as a security threat. (How will he survive, unless by stealing our cattle?) Literacy was less widespread, and there has never been a lingua franca with a reach comparable to that enjoyed by English today. For all these reasons, the practical opportunities for safe migration have surely been limited for most of historical mankind, even if passport control was not among the obstacles.

So if we were to abolish passport controls today, we would be giving rise to something rather new under the sun. Relative to the late 19th century, freedom of migration has been politically restricted but technologically and socially enabled. It’s hard to get a visa, but once you do, you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism. If we were to remove the passport controls, human beings worldwide would be born with a far greater prospect of practical mobility than ever before in history. Considering that (a) it’s always presumptively good to give people more options, and (b) a glance at the global distribution of income makes it clear that some people could benefit a lot by moving, that’s a very good thing. Is it too good? Are open borders utopian?

Here it is useful to think about another societal transformation which must, at one time, have seemed too good to be possible: the abolition of slavery. Slavery has been practiced by nearly all human societies once they were rich enough to sustain it. As of the birth of Jesus Christ, few if anyone had conceived of its universal abolition even as a dream. Yet it largely disappeared in the Christian world within a few centuries after the conversion of Constantine. What we may call the first abolition of slavery occurred through a bit of moral suasion and some church law, and did not quite establish a pure antislavery principle. For one thing, slaves tended to turn into serfs. They had some rights, but the liberation was incomplete. Slavery persisted on the margins of Christian Europe, where Christians dealt with Muslims. And later, when church influence was weakened by the rise of modern absolutist sovereigns, mass slavery was revived, albeit never in western Europe itself but only overseas, often with connivance by the churches.

The second abolition of slavery was more thorough, principled, and permanent. Religion played the leading role, with British evangelicals like William Wilberforce and preachers like Charles Finney in the United States. Abolitionism was a moral movement, a humanitarian crusade. Freedom as a general social norm, the status to which abolitionists wanted to elevate the slaves, was far more well-developed by this time. The abolitionists first targeted the slave trade, then complete abolition, by a combination of moral suasion, economic pressure, e.g., boycotts, and sometimes, military force. Eventually de jure slavery was eliminated worldwide, though de facto it still exists in some regions.

If slavery was anathematized and abolished, we may hope to see the same thing happen to deportation and passport controls. Open borders would become a kind of “higher normalcy,” just as the abolition of slavery is now regarded as merely normal. But that is not my main point. What I want to draw attention to is the way abolition of slavery occurred in two phases: a first stage in which abolition was slow and unplanned, ultimate fairly thorough but still without a strong commitment to an antislavery principle; then a partial relapse; then a second stage in which abolition was carried through as a deliberate moral crusade and became permanent and universal. I believe (hope) that with respect to borders, the world today is analogous to what Europe in the 18th century was with respect to slavery. We have reverted to a barbarous practice (slavery; passport controls and deportation) which we once (in the High Middle Ages; in the Gilded Age of the 19th century) transcended, but we have in ourselves the moral resources for a new awakening which will abolish that practice forever.

Meanwhile, what deserves the word “utopian” is the now-mainstream notion that we can and should make it so that no one, not one single individual, is present on the soil of (say) the United States, without the permission of the government. It is an ideological and impractical dream, the attempt to realize which must involve coercion, arbitrariness, family separation and economic sabotage, and make the government a more invasive presence in everyone’s lives. Like other utopianisms, the popular obsession with “securing the borders,” in the special, distorted sense in which the phrase is used today (that is, securing the borders not against invading armies but against peaceful migrants) has a simple goal, which describes no society that has ever existed, or ever will.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “Are Open Borders Utopian?”

  1. Interesting post, but I have a quibble with the part: “you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism.”

    This is probably true at current immigration levels, but I suspect that a dramatic or sudden increase in immigration levels would lead to a flowering of racist, nativist, and other anti-immigrant sentiments.

    On a related note, check out this comment on Bryan Caplan’s blog post (read the blog post first).

    Overall, I think this “nativist backlash” would be a much lesser evil than immigration restrictions, so I am in agreement with your broader point.

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