Optimistic futility arguments against open borders

In the past, I’ve addressed Roy Beck’s argument on the futility of open borders. There is, however, another direction of argument that comes from an optimistic, rather than pessimistic, view of the future.

This argument emphasizes the rapid strides being made in the elimination of world poverty, improvement in other human development measures, and progress of technology around the world. The end of 2010 saw a lot of celebratory articles about the past decade and the promise of the future (such as this). One website aims to end poverty by 2015, and their ambitious blueprint doesn’t include open borders or anything close. The Global Poverty Project uses a simple line fitting to estimate that poverty can be ended by 2040 or so, provided the right steps are taken — steps that don’t involve significant changes to immigration policies (see here and here). Open borders advocate Bryan Caplan thinks that, even without a shift to an open borders policy, absolute poverty will be completely eliminated and living standards will be much higher a hundred years from now.

If open borders advocacy does significantly open world borders, the process is likely to take at least 15-30 years. If all the things that people are already doing will lead to the elimination of poverty within 15-30 years, doesn’t that dramatically undercut the end of poverty argument for open borders? And once poverty is eliminated, won’t the pressure for open borders dissipate considerably? Perhaps open borders will be rendered redundant, and so there’s no point working oneself up over them?

This argument has some merit, but I list here some counter-arguments.

Open borders now help people now, and 15-30 fewer years of poverty mean a lot

If open borders can solve the problem of world poverty more rapidly, then they’re worth it. It’s true that completely open borders will take a long time to achieve. But even minor, partial reductions in migration restrictions that can help a few people would be a meaningful improvement in their lives. Instead of waiting for the complete elimination of poverty due to economic growth across the world, it makes sense to try to expand existing opportunities that can speed up the process.

Poverty may be gone, but inequality remains

Although absolute poverty has declined considerably, there is still a huge gap between the wages in different countries for the same kinds of jobs. This gap is called the place premium. The elimination of the place premium — a phenomenon called labor market convergence — has historically usually been observed only in cases of freedom of migration. There is no clear trend of decline in the place premium even as developed and developing countries both grow.

Simply put, it’s the place premium, rather than absolute poverty per se, that makes people wish to migrate. Yes, it’s possible that when everybody has at least Sweden-like living standards, the fact that some countries have living standards hundreds of times those of others does not create pressure to migrate. But that world is much farther away than the mere elimination of poverty.

Open borders would be valuable even in the absence of strong migration pressures based on differences in living standards

New York and California are wealthy first-world states. Yet, it is valuable that there are open borders between New York and California. Mobility matters and adds value for the poor, middle class, and rich. For the very poor, it may be matter of survival or escaping poverty. In a world without poverty, these urgent imperatives may no longer exist, but the one world and innovation case for open borders remain.

Supporting open borders is the morally correct thing

The most important argument in support of open borders, at least for me, is the libertarian presumption in support of open borders, but other people are more moved by other aspects of the moral case. Open borders, to me, are the morally correct thing and opposition to them must face a strong burden of proof — a burden of proof that is not, in my opinion, usually met. The fact that large numbers of people express opposition to open borders is significant not only in that it prevents open borders from being a reality, but in that it reflects what are, in my views, flaws in people’s moral reasoning or moral assumptions. Honest advocates for open borders can help shed light on these flaws and herald moral progress that would be beneficial beyond simply leading to more open borders.

3 thoughts on “Optimistic futility arguments against open borders”

  1. The elimination of poverty in the world is certainly remote and uncertain enough that it would be absurd to ignore a major remedy merely on the ground that it is superfluous. And yes, there would be a great deal of value in open borders even among rich countries. For example, it would be very nice if Europeans and Americans had an unlimited right to work in one another’s countries. Americans could immerse themselves in the cultural riches of Europe for a few years, rather than simply going there as tourists; probably more Americans would learn foreign languages. And Europeans would benefit greatly from easy access to the economic opportunities that America usually offers. This seems less morally urgent than permitting desperate people from the world’s poorest and/or most totalitarian countries from getting a decent life and freedom in the West, but it’s nothing to scoff at.

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