I’m planning to write a multi-post series on how far the world as of now is from open borders. There are many different angles from which the question can be approached. In this post, I will provide a brief summary of the four major angles I’m considering. In future posts, I’ll elaborate on the individual angles. The four angles are:
- How many want to move
- How desperate people are to move
- How different the world would look (economically, socially, etc.) under open borders
The idea behind the post is quite similar to the idea behind my earlier post titled open borders is a radical proposal. They differ both in rhetorical approach and in the particular points of emphasis. The earlier post focused on how open borders is, in many ways, historically unprecedented whereas this post focuses on how it
Legal: Presumption and reviewability
Before looking at the status quo, it might be worth thinking about how an open borders regime might look like. Such a regime is not inherently incompatible with passports and visas. For instance, people need driver’s licenses to drive vehicles on roads, and the test is not completely trivial, but it is generally open and not too difficult for somebody who’s willing to work for it and take the test enough times. Democracies may require voter identification in order to allow people to vote, but they are still considered to have universal (adult) franchise if such identification is easy to obtain.
How closely a passport and visa regime comes to open borders would therefore depend on how procedurally straightforward it is to get a visa or equivalent permission to enter another country. In cases where this is just a matter of paying a small fee to have an application processed, we’d be close to open borders. In cases, however, where visas can be rejected for a variety of reasons, we’d need to start looking more closely at the list of reasons why a visa might be denied.
Legal theory has a useful concept called presumption of innocence, also known as innocent until proven guilty. The principle is generally applied in the context of criminal trials: the legal burden of proof rests on the state (the prosecuting party) that is trying to show that the accused is guilty, rather than on the accused to prove his or her innocence. Part of the justification for this asymmetry is the coercive and destructive nature of the punishment that people suffer once they have been found guilty. There is a strong presumption against forcibly making an innocent person suffer such punishment. The extent to which such a presumption exists, and should exist, is a matter of considerable debate, but the idea is straightforward.
In an open borders world, the analogous doctrine would be a presumption in favor of free movement, and the equivalent slogan would be “unrestricted until proven dangerous” — for approximately the same reasons: denying a person who expresses the desire to move to a new country the ability to do so is a significant infringement of the person’s freedom, and as such, deserves justification. There would be two components to this:
- When denying a visa, a consulate would need to provide a specific reason for doing so and cite evidence in support of the reason. The evidence would need to be made available to the applicant.
- The applicant would be in a position to challenge the consulate’s decision in front of a relatively neutral arbiter, who would hear out both sides and come to a decision.
Of course, just having the above doesn’t equate to open borders — the criteria may be very transparently stated but still very stringent. The same principle applies in criminal law: criminalization of a large number of victimless crimes, even if the law is executed fairly, can still be an indicator of an unjust and tyrannical society.
How far is the status quo from this open borders-like scenario? Very far. The United States is perhaps a somewhat extreme example, but not by a huge margin.
According to official estimates (linking HTML page), about 15-20% of applications across all nonimmigrant visa categories to the US in 2012 were rejected initially, and only about a third of the rejected applicants were able to overcome the refusal and get a visa eventually, resulting in a rejection rate of 10-15%. The primary reason for rejection is Clause 214(b): failure to establish entitlement to nonimmigrant status. In other words, the consular officer rejected the visa application on the grounds that the applicant might transition to long-term permanent resident status. Thus, not only does the US lack a direct route for most long-term migrants, it also coercively restricts people who want to visit the US for the short term (for work, study, or tourism) on the grounds that they might stay too long (with no evidence needed that such a long stay would hurt anybody). The US also has a doctrine of consular nonreviewability (see here and here): decisions by consular officers cannot be challenged by law or overturned by anybody, even the US President. Combine consular nonreviewability with Section 214(b), and the paradigm we basically have is the migration analogue of guilty until proven innocent.
How many want to move
I looked at this question in some detail in my earlier posts here and here. But here’s a quick summary: according to polling data on migration (the most recent available poll is here) about 13% of the world’s adults, or 630 million people, say that they are interested in permanently moving to another country. This is a huge number. In a world with open borders, there would still be people who are unable to move to another country due to personal issues, but it wouldn’t approach 13% of the world population. It’s safe to say that this is far from open borders. (The potential distinction between stated and revealed preferences is implicitly handled in the next point, which deals with how desperate people are to migrate). About 138 million people expressed a desire to permanently relocate to the United States. For contrast, the total annual number of people who migrate annually to the United States (through authorized and unauthorized channels) is a little over a million.
In his post titled Some Unpleasant Immigration Arithmetic, Bryan Caplan proposes an Open Borders Index as follows:
Open Borders Index = C/F
where C equals the total number of immigrants who enter the country every year, and F equals the total number of people who would annually enter the country under open borders. Caplan argues that C/F would be 0 under perfect closed borders and 1 under perfect open borders, and therefore it provides a normalized measure of border openness. He estimates that the C/F ratio for the United States is about 0.05 (i.e., about 20-30 million people would migrate to the US annually under open borders), and that the United States is thereby far from open borders. While the specifics of Caplan’s estimate can be disputed, the general idea suggests that the United States in particular is quite far from open borders.
How desperate people are to move
Desperation can be measured by the amount of resources people invest, relative to their current financial situation, to migrate. On the side of migration via legal authorized channels, this includes the fees that people pay as visa fees and lawyer fees. On the side of migration via unauthorized channels, this includes coyote fees as well as fees for document fraud that people who enter in an authorized fashion may pay in order to overstay their authorized stay. The cost measures need to be viewed in conjunction with the number of people who are willing to pay these costs. All these measures point in the direction of the world being quite far from open borders. Coyote fees from Mexico to the US are in the $3000-4000 range, and there are estimated to be millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico to the US, many of whom were smuggled via coyotes (others overstayed legally obtained visas). Coyote fees from China to the US have been estimated at $75,000, and although there are fewer Chinese who use coyotes to get into the US, the number is nontrivial. Note that coyote fees are an underestimate of the costs of moving, because migrants moving illegally often need to take other precautions in order to avoid being caught, and often need to tolerate inhumane conditions during the course of their movement – all costs that would need to be factored in. Finally, these fees should be considered in relation to their home country income. For the profile of people that migrate illegally from Mexico to the United States, coyote fees are generally equivalent to about 1-2 years’ worth of their current income.
How different the world would look if we had open borders
Finally, let’s consider the impact on economic output. Again, the estimation exercise is tricky because of the significant deviation we’re making from reality. A literature review by Clemens (2011) cites estimates suggesting that removing barriers to global labor mobility would yield world GDP gains anywhere between 67% and 147.3%. To rephrase, Clemens estimates that the status quo is shrinking world GDP to somewhere between 40% and 60% of what it might be under open borders. In the median case, open borders would “double world GDP” or equivalently, closed borders are “halving world GDP.” In contrast, ending all trade barriers is estimated to raise world GDP by about 5%. This isn’t surprising. Labor is a large share of the economy, and a lot of the world’s labor is confined to relatively unproductive segments of the world economy. Freeing people to move to places where their labor can be used better would lead to more production. How much more is debatable, but an estimate of doubling world production isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility when viewed in conjunction with the very large number of people who want to move. These same estimates also suggest that much of the gain in production – and consumption – would be experienced by the world’s currently poorest people, leading to a significant reduction in, and perhaps an elimination of, world poverty. If we take utility to grow logarithmically with income, then this distributional aspect argues even more strongly in favor of the idea that open borders would increase global utility tremendously. Open borders would also significantly reduce global inequality. For instance, a paper by Branko Milanovic estimates that under the status quo, country of origin accounts for 2/3 of global inequality (controlling as best as possible for other attributes). While the country of origin would still play a significant role in global inequality under open borders, there’s strong reason to believe that the fraction of global inequality accounted for by country of origin would be far lower than it currently is.
The cultural, social, and political effects of open borders are harder to quantify, but their existence is undisputed. To a large extent, the pushback to open borders is precisely because of the huge perceived cultural, social, and political changes that might be unleashed through open borders. Whether these effects are a net positive or a net negative is a more difficult question that the site at large is devoted to, and is beyond the scope of this post. What’s important is that the effects are significant, indicating that the world is far from open borders in a meaningful manner.