Open borders and liberal interventionism

The Syria crisis was an expose of US war-weariness, weakness of will, and indecision, as Timothy Garton Ash, among many others, recently observed. The contrast between the US in 2003, when a large majority of the American public favored the liberation of Iraq, and the US in 2013, when…

Every one of the countless members of Congress I’ve seen interviewed on cable television news has acknowledged this, be they Republican or Democrat, for or against striking Syria. Only “three or four” of at least a thousand constituents he’s talked to favour military action, reports Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and Obama supporter. Senator Rand (son of Ron) Paul, a rising star of the Republican party, says his phone calls are “100 to 1” against war.

… is remarkable, particularly considering that the administration’s proposed action in Syria, though vague, appeared to be much more limited, and motivated as an immediate reaction to a chemical-weapons atrocity. Of course, one can’t necessarily read the difference in public opinion as a barometer of where Americans stand on the “isolationism” vs. interventionism spectrum. I supported the Iraq war in 2003, though I foresaw it would lead to a bloody mess, because even anarchy is better than totalitarianism, and I have never repented of it. The closest I came to regretting it was in 2006, but I wasn’t that close, and after the success of the “surge” I became stronger in my retrospective agreement with myself. But I was skeptical of Syria intervention because the administration didn’t seem to have a plan that made strategic sense, let alone a will to follow through with it. Still, for the moment it looks like the eclipse of liberal interventionism:

Last but not least, there are still a few liberal, humanitarian interventionists, of the old 1990s genre, shaped by the experiences of Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Obama has appointed as his ambassador to the UN an almost totemic representative of that persuasion, Samantha Power, the author of a 2002 book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Well, Syria is a problem from hell, all right. These liberal humanitarian interventionists are not the predominant voice in an administration characterised by cautious, security-first pragmatism, but they’re still there.

Ash suggests that this episode of US “isolationism” (my libertarian-pacifist friends would object that it’s not really isolationism because it’s consistent with support for free trade, hence the scare quotes) may be more lasting than previous episodes:

“Isolationism” is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

Maybe, though in the relatively “isolationist” 1970s we were worried about relative economic decline, too. Still, it’s plausible. The US share of the global economy has been in decline ever since World War II, but especially in the past decade, and there must be some limit to how far the US can decline in relative economic power while still playing a leadership role in the world. The subtitle of Ash’s article is “The nation is sick and tired of foreign wars, and may never play its role of global anchor again. We may live to regret it.” Ash is British, and not everyone would regard US leadership in the world as benign. But many would.

Now, here’s what must always be remembered in such discussions. Relative US economic decline, and the decline in military pre-eminence and global influence that is linked to it, is a choice. The US could easily restore its economic weight in the world by opening its borders to tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants. They want to come. Many are more or less pre-assimilated, English-speaking and familiar with American culture and liberal democracy. By letting them in, the US could have burgeoning cities, growing GDP, rising tax revenue, and more military recruits. The US could also diversify its array of global contacts still further, and exert remote influence via return migration and letters home. If the intelligence services were at all enterprising they could find useful information among resident expatriates from around the world. And accepting immigrants would, by itself, win goodwill around the world. That would put the US in a better position, in future, to stop tyrants like Assad.

If we’re still worried about the freedom and safety of Syrians, open borders could accomplish a lot of that directly, simply by giving Syrians somewhere to go. For the more adventurously inclined, open borders could contribute to freedom in Syria and elsewhere in another way. Before and during the liberation of Iraq in 2003, many anti-war types dodged being called pro-Saddam by saying that they were all in favor of Saddam being overthrown, but they wanted it to be done by Iraqis. I think I recall at least one libertarian adding that he’d be OK with a private war of libertarian against Saddam– think of idealistic volunteers forming a private army to overthrow the tyrant– but that he had a problem with the US government doing it, because the US government has a mandate only to protect US citizens, and even if liberation does benefit Iraqis, it is not entitled to use Americans’ tax dollars that way. Under open borders, Syrian rebels could come to the US and tour the country asking for donations to rid themselves of the tyrant.

Liberal interventionists are willing to sacrifice their own resources for the lives and liberties of foreigners. Good for them. But they really ought, then, to favor open borders, which will allow foreigners to save their own lives and liberties, whether merely by escaping, or perhaps by seeking support for their causes abroad, not through governments, but through the voluntary generosity of well-wishers of liberty.

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

2 thoughts on “Open borders and liberal interventionism”

  1. I think it is also important to mention that closed borders are what makes it possible for tyrants to thrive. People aren’t just stuck in totalitarian regimes because the dictators wont let them out. They are stuck because we won’t let them in.

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