Tag Archives: global apartheid

Interview with Stephan Faris: Homelands, and abolishing global apartheid

Last week, we published an excerpt from journalist Stephan Faris’s thought-provoking book, Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration. A cheap, USD3 buy on Amazon, it is worth reading — if only for the compelling way he argues that modern border regimes constitute apartheid. A taste from the excerpt we carried:

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

Now, we bring you an exclusive interview with Stephan himself.

In Homelands, you reach a radical conclusion — that modern border controls are essentially unjust and illegitimate. You outline a thought-provoking case, but I’m especially interested in the experiences and insights that motivated you to reach this conclusion in the first place. What is the intellectual journey, so to speak, that led to this conclusion?

The idea came to me slowly, when I was a reporter writing mostly for Time Magazine out Africa. Across the continent, I kept having the same conversation, brief and to-the-point with people I hardly knew at all. A motorcycle taxi driver in Lagos would drop me off and then ask “How do I get to your country?” A young man at an Internet cafe in Kenya would do the same. And again, from a hotel clerk in Zimbabwe. “How do I get to your country?”

I can’t remember what I’d say to them. But the real answer was embarrassing. Put bluntly, it was: “You probably can’t. You’re young and African. The chances that you’ll be let in are vanishingly small.” That’s what got me thinking about the problem in those terms.

My experience has been that people anchor heavily to the status quo on immigration, making it difficult to even begin explaining to people that most immigration laws are unjust and unfair. Before you can begin, you have to overcome the sense that if we abolish border controls, then everything will collapse. Did you encounter this yourself in the process of outlining your ideas, and are you satisfied with the way you handle this sort of response in the book? Looking back, would you change anything about your argument?

The book is driven by an analogy between the status quo on immigration and the policies of South Africa’s apartheid regime. That in itself puts forward a couple of arguments that I find compelling. First of all is the moral case. If the immigration policies resembles apartheid, we have to grapple with that if we want to maintain the status quo. Secondly, apartheid eventually came to an end, and the result has hardly been as disastrous as many predicted.

How in general has the response been to your book, now that it’s been out for several months? Was it better or worse than you expected, and are you planning any follow-ups? What most surprised you about the response?

As a writer it’s always difficult to get a feel for how readers respond to your work. My feeling, however, is that the emotional argument has resonated with a lot of people, but the conclusion remains hard to accept. As you point out, the idea is fairly far beyond the bounds of what most people are willing to consider.

You are not the first person to describe immigration restrictions as a form of apartheid, but I think your most original contribution to the conversation has been a clear articulation of how apartheid was modeled on immigration restrictions and why the analogy between the two is so apt. How did you come across this connection in the intentions of apartheid’s architects? Are there other historical or modern parallels that you considered drawing?

I don’t remember exactly how I came across it or came up with it. I wrote a brief piece on the subject in 2005 or 2006. However, I’m not the first person who came up with it. I later came across a fantastic chapter in a book by the Stanford anthropologist James Ferguson, in which he made a similar comparison. In Homelands I make a reference to Lesotho, as a tiny country with which potential Bantustans could be compared. That’s an analogy I learned about from Ferguson.

In some sense, the analogy between apartheid and immigration restrictions is obvious: both are mechanisms by which a particular social group seeks to preserve its purity via coercively excluding other people. However I imagine this analogy doesn’t work for many, because they consider racial discrimination illegitimate, while discrimination on the basis of nationality is legitimate. How would you address this?

The question we have to ask ourselves is what is it about nationality that makes it legitimately grounds for discrimination. Nationality, like race, is not something people choose or are responsible for.

To allay concerns about the effects of liberal border laws, you discuss how the economic nightmare predicted by naysayers on the eve of apartheid’s abolition never came to fruition. But economic arguments don’t necessarily carry the day in a conversation about nationality and political institutions. How would you respond to concerns about the political and social effects of open immigration?

Those concerns are real, but as with apartheid, you have to weigh them against the injustices and distortions resulting from the status quo. I think we’ll find that the discomforts resulting from open immigration will pale when compared with the suffering that is alleviated by allowing people to move where to places where they can better themselves.

I imagine most people of liberal politics are somewhat sympathetic to liberal immigration laws. Why do you think there is such resistance, even among those with such sympathies, to the idea of truly open borders, or at least open immigration regimes, with visas available to most? What barriers do you see to convincing a typical liberal person that most immigration restrictions are unjustifiable?

I’m not sure that views on immigration laws fall neatly along the traditional lines between left and right. Concerns about the impact of open immigration on workers’ rights is certainly widespread among many on the left. Again, however, I’d argue one needs to extend our circle of concern beyond our co-nationals, and then it becomes pretty clear that lightening restrictions on immigration is broadly beneficial.

I think it is particularly fitting that this interview with Stephan follows on our inaugural blog post from migration scholar Katy Long, where she observed that we cannot blindly cite national borders as reason enough to wall out those not fortunate enough to be born in our home countries:

Rights of inheritance, ‘special’ family bonds, and Old Boys’ Networks entrench a great deal of privilege and power in our communities: look at the political dynasties that sit in Parliaments and Congresses, or the wealthy oligarchs who will their children vast fortunes. “Close ties” have a habit of spilling from protection into nepotism. In other words, acknowledging that borders may protect some of the most vulnerable close to us does not mean that we can ignore the fact that the inequalities between citizenships are often much more acute than the inequalities within our own communities.

For the effects of birthplace upon life chances cannot be overstated. In 2012, the World Bank concluded that ‘more than fifty percent of one’s income depends on the average income of the country where a person lives or was born … a very large chunk of our income will be determined by only one variable, citizenship, that we generally acquire at birth’. Where we are born determines to an enormous extent both how likely it is we are going to need to move, and also how free we will be to do so.

Harvard and former World Bank economist Lant Pritchett, another notable who labels our border regimes tantamount to apartheid, has a poignant way of illustrating Stephan’s and Katys point in his seminal book, Let Their People Come:

The analogy between apartheid and restrictions on labor mobility is almost exact. People are not allowed to live and work where they please. Rather, some are only allowed to live in places where earning opportunities are scarce. Workers often have to travel long distances and often live far from their families to obtain work. The restrictions about who can work where are based on conditions of birth, not on any notion of individual effort or merit. The current international system of restrictions on labor mobility enforces gaps in living standards across people that are large or larger than any in apartheid South Africa. It is even true that labor restrictions in nearly every case explicitly work to disadvantage people of “color” against those of European descent.

The obvious response is that with apartheid people of the same nation-state were treated differently while the apartheid of international barriers to mobility is is treating people of different nation-states differently. People subject to the same laws should be treated the same based on conditions of birth. The fact that people are, by whimsy of birth, allocated to different nation-states and hence treated differently has no moral traction. In nearly all modern theories of justice and ethical systems, most conditions of birth—one’s sex, race, and ethnicity—are excluded as morally legitimate reasons for differences in wellbeing, and yet discrimination on the basis of nationality is allowed.

…Amartya Sen has popularized the notion of “missing women” in Asia due to differential death rates and (increasingly) sex-selective abortion. Because the child mortality rate in India is about 100 per 1,000 while it is 8 per 1,000 in the United States, this implies that 92 per 1,000 more Indian children than U.S. children die before age five. This means there are 2.2 million missing Indian children each year. However, while the “missing women” is a standard refrain, I have never heard the term “missing Indians” to describe the results of the child mortality differentials between the rich world and India.

The Bantustans that Stephan draws our attention to still exist, even if few of us had anything to do with their creation, as Pritchett’s book points out with a compelling thought experiment:

There are 10 million people in the Sahelian country of Niger; if there were globally free labor mobility and only 1 million lived in Niger now, how many people would move there? Though some people might say that this creates a case for more aid or freer trade, it is hard to believe that if people moved out of Kansas because farming was no longer an attractive opportunity, then the best that can be done for the people of Niger or Chad is that they get slightly more assistance and slightly better prices for the items they grow.

Most of us remain blind, willfully or otherwise, to the suffering and waste of human potential that our countries’ immigration laws engender. All credit to scholars like Stephan, Katy, and Lant Pritchett, who can never be thanked enough for their tireless work aimed at exposing the regime of global apartheid for what it is.

HomelandsBuy Stephan Faris’s Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration on Amazon

The Huddled MassesBuy Katy Long’s The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality on Amazon

Let%20Their%20People%20Come[1]Download free or buy the paperback of Lant Pritchett’s Let Their People Come: Breaking the Gridlock On Global Labor Mobility from the Center for Global Development

The image featured at the top of this post is of a mother with her child crawling under the South African fence bordering Zimbabwe, taken by Themba Hadebe for the Associated Press in 2010 and published in The Guardian.

Journalist Stephan Faris: Modern border regimes are apartheid

Border controls that prevent innocent foreigners from travelling peacefully are in every meaningful way identical to laws enshrining racial segregation and apartheid. Both aim to exclude people from peaceful participation in civilised society, not because of anything they have done wrong, but purely because of a circumstance of birth that they had no choice over.

Open borders advocates have long compared the modern border regime to apartheid and other forms of racial segregation. But American journalist Stephan Faris has done us one better: in his brief book Homelands: The Case for Open Immigration last year, he outlined exactly why and how we shouldn’t let artificially-drawn borders delude us into thinking our immigration laws don’t somehow constitute an arbitrary form of discrimination comparable to apartheid. Stephan was recently gracious enough to spare some time for an email interview with us, which we’ll be publishing next week.

In the mean time, I’d strongly urge you to head over to Amazon and buy the book; it’s currently listed for under 3 US dollars, and is only thirty pages. I finished the book in one sitting, and felt I got far more than my money’s worth. The intro blurb from the publisher:

As a child, Stephan Faris nearly failed to qualify for any country’s passport. Now, in a story that moves from South Africa to Italy to the United States, he looks at the arbitrariness of nationality. Framed by Faris’s meeting with a young orphan as a reporter in Liberia and their reencounter years later in Minnesota, Homelands makes the case for a complete rethinking of immigration policy. In a world where we’ve globalized capital, culture, and communications, are restrictions on the movement of people still morally tenable?

I’d say the book delivers on these claims. But rather than take my word for it, why not preview an excerpt and judge for yourself? Deca, the publisher of Homelands, has allowed us to publish an edited excerpt of the book — one that doesn’t give you the full colour of Stephan’s stories or arguments, but should whet your appetite for the full-length item:

After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.

Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.

Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.

South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Pass Laws required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports.”

The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.

At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.

If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said [former South African Minister Roelof Frederik] Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”

“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”

Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”

To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.

What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.

There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.

Again, the full 30 pages are worth buying. I think Stephan very concisely sums up the fundamental moral case for open borders, and in a very compelling way. Check back next week for our interview with Stephan!

The image featured at the top of this post is of a man crawling naked through the South African border fence near Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, making his way to South Africa. Originally published in the Cape Times, it was taken by Henk Kruger in 2008, and won the runner-up prize for World Press Photo of the year.

Open borders would abolish Bangladeshi sweatshops

Substandard working conditions recently murdered over 1,000 people in the deadliest garment factory accident in history. This accident in Bangladesh drew attention to the substandard wages of “sweatshop” workers in the developing world, and industrialists’ scant regard for their workers’ safety. Many on the left in the developed world saw this as an indictment of free market economics, urging government action to prevent such future disasters. Responding to such pressures, the US government recently raised tariffs on a number of Bangladeshi goods. I’m as concerned as anyone that Bangladeshi workers aren’t earning a fair wage or working in dangerous conditions. So it strikes me as strange that utterly absent from this debate has been the one measure that we know for sure would alleviate these conditions for countless Bangladeshis.

If we truly find it disgusting that Bangladeshis aren’t earning a fair wage for their work, or are being forced to work under slave-like conditions, we should ask ourselves: who is trapping Bangladeshis in their antiquated, inefficient economy? Do Bangladeshis really want to risk death every day to earn a pittance?

The standard analysis of this problem points out that the alternative to most Bangladeshis employed in industry is a life of subsistence agriculture. Farmers run the perennial risk of crop failure, and in the developing world, most subsistence farmers literally live hand to mouth, doing backbreaking labour in the sun. Industrial work may be risky, but it’s often a better alternative.

In response, you can argue that if people have to choose between a life of subsistence agriculture versus risking their lives for a job paying 50 cents an hour, this only illuminates the utter rottenness of the choices open to people in the developing world. And you’d be right. But it’s odd that we stop ourselves there. Sweatshops have been debated time and time again for decades, and yet hardly anyone seems to have stopped and asked themselves why these are the only two real choices open to sweatshop workers of the world. What’s keeping the Bangladeshi in the factory from doing the same work at a better wage elsewhere?

The answer, quite simply, is us. By politically and morally legitimising laws that ban Bangladeshis at gunpoint from working in our countries, we have left them no choice but to toil away in sweatshops. If we allowed them to cross borders in search of work, how many of them do you think would embrace the abominable wages and working conditions they’re forced to endure right now? Hundreds of thousands of Afghans literally risk being shot to death today so they can find work in Iran — if we allowed people to search for work across borders, without fear of abuse and murder, how much longer could sweatshops endure?

Part of the reason compensation in Bangladesh is lower than it is elsewhere is simply because of the differences in its economy versus the economies of developed countries: skill and human capital levels are different, the cost of living is different. But a major reason Bangladeshis are so underpaid is because we, the citizens of more developed countries, ban Bangladeshis from earning higher wages. The economic concept of the place premium illustrates this quite well: statistical analysis allows us to take an identical person and predict how their wages for doing the same work would vary depending on which country they work in.

When you consider the place premium, the magnitude by which people in the developed world are underpaid for their work is astonishing. People in the West get upset by wage discrimination on the basis of gender; without adjusting for statistical differences, women might underearn men by almost 30%. The magnitude of wage discrimination on the basis of nationality is so shocking, I cannot find any term to describe it that would be less apt than global apartheid.

For the exact same work that their American counterparts do, Bangladeshis are underpaid by almost 5 times — in other words, they are underpaid by almost 80%. And they aren’t even the worse victims of global apartheid — Yemenis and Nigerians are underpaid 15 times over compared to Americans. If Americans had allowed those dead Bangladeshi workers to work in the US, doing exactly the same work they were doing, not only would they be alive today, but they would be earning 5 times as much.

It is morally unconscionable that our conversations about sweatshops ignore the elephant in the room: we are the ones who put those sweatshop workers to death. It wasn’t just that we bought the goods those workers produced. It was that we banned those workers from working for us in our countries. We forced them to stay in Bangladesh, despite knowing that this would guarantee them an unfair wage and unsafe working conditions. We made them slaves to those sweatshops because they had no other choice — we took all their other choices away from them.

Until labour mobility and freedom of movement become part of the conversation about our economic rights and responsibilities, we might as well not be having any conversation at all. To ignore our immense fault for these people’s plight is morally callous and unjustifiable. In concluding his seminal 1997 essay on sweatshops, Paul Krugman wrote:

You may say that the wretched of the earth should not be forced to serve as hewers of wood, drawers of water, and sewers of sneakers for the affluent. But what is the alternative? Should they be helped with foreign aid? Maybe–although the historical record of regions like southern Italy suggests that such aid has a tendency to promote perpetual dependence. Anyway, there isn’t the slightest prospect of significant aid materializing. Should their own governments provide more social justice? Of course–but they won’t, or at least not because we tell them to. And as long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard–that is, the fact that you don’t like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.

In short, my correspondents are not entitled to their self-righteousness. They have not thought the matter through. And when the hopes of hundreds of millions are at stake, thinking things through is not just good intellectual practice. It is a moral duty.

That is a perfect summation of the case for doing business with sweatshops — except for one thing. Krugman utterly ignored the possibility of allowing the wretched of the earth to serve as sewers of sneakers for the affluent outside their home country. Allowing people to work under alternative economic and legal regimes if they are born into unjust and insensible regimes only makes sense. What reason do we have to not consider this alternative that Krugman couldn’t even bother to list? Are we willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of an aesthetic standard — because, say, we don’t like the idea of guest worker programmes?

Our conversation today on sweatshops automatically takes open borders off the table. We automatically rule out the one thing that would automatically abolish sweatshops, and automatically give the people of the world a fair choice in determining where they work and on what terms. What reason do we have not to give this proposal serious consideration? It’s our guns and tanks that ban good, honest people from taking better-paying jobs — that ban people from working in safe factories where they won’t have to worry daily about the roof caving in or the machinery catching fire. We need a damn good reason not to consider revoking our ban on people seeking fair work at fair wages.

In our conversations today, I just don’t see those reasons. And so as Krugman says, I don’t see how anyone in this debate can be entitled to their self-righteousness. Anyone ignoring labour mobility, or the fault of the developed world in banning poor people from looking farther for work, has simply not thought matters through. They have not done their moral duty. If you won’t consider open borders as a solution to sweatshops, then don’t bother complaining about sweatshops at all. You’re clearly not interested in solving the problem.

Forget not the temporary migrants

There are many different ways to think about migration; when we discuss the subject, often people’s vision seems to be of someone moving with intentions of permanently settling and acquiring citizenship in their new country. Occasionally, they might give some passing thought to explicitly temporary guest workers on the side. The popular “permanent migrant” characterisation might accurately describe a lot of people, but I am skeptical that it captures the full picture. Here are some other broadly-painted immigration stories that don’t often come to mind:

  • The tourist who falls in love with a country she visits. One day while browsing job postings, she finds and applies for a job in that country.
  • The student who decides to apply for a university abroad on a whim. He finds he enjoys life there, and seeks to work afterward there.
  • The manual labourer who decides to look for construction work in a country with a better economy than his own.

These people could all follow the typically-envisioned track, and stay permanently in their new country. But they could well not: perhaps the tourist finds life in her new country is not all it’s chalked up to be. She moves on to another country, or returns home. Maybe the student and manual labourer are happy to stay and work for years, or even a few decades, but later move home to take care of aging parents and raise a family.

Common discourse around migration tends to assume two paths. Either you are:

  1. A permanent migrant, and once your visa is approved, you are on a one-way path to citizenship
  2. A temporary migrant, and you should be a seasonal commuter (working in a foreign country for one or two seasons, returning home for the rest of the time)

(Less sophisticated discussions sometimes even forget the second category. More sophisticated ones might include in the second category guest workers whose seasonal commutes are a little longer, working for the span of a few years at a time.)

But this common discourse is incapable of fitting real human beings into its shoehorned categories. Realistically, new immigrants don’t know whether they want to commit to a new country, and if so, for how long they’ll want to make that commitment. Maybe they’ll commit to it for a career, but not for family. (Or maybe it’s the other way round: I know some people who have migrated primarily for family reasons, but maintain jobs or businesses in their home country.) Maybe you commit to one country for the harvest season, but not for the rest of the year. Maybe you commit to it for only as long as construction work is available, or only until you’ve saved enough to buy what you want at home.

You might consider these trivial or rare scenarios, but I would argue they’re more common than you think. I consider myself one of these amorphous immigrants: I am a Malaysian who is currently a permanent resident in the US, but I’m not sure how long I’ll live here. The range of possibilities for how long I live and work here in my opinion range from 5 years to 50 or more. They are contingent a great deal on my career path in the US, whether my significant other is allowed by the government to live and work in the US (she is also a Malaysian), the political and economic climate back home, and what opportunities I might find in other countries.

(Speaking of countries I’ve fallen in love with as a tourist, I’ve often thought it would be fun to work in London or in another Western European city. My girlfriend thinks it might be interesting to work in Hong Kong, where she studied for a few years. If we do migrate to one of these places, who’s to say whether we’ll live and work there for 1 year or 10? Or our lifetimes?)

If you prefer hard numbers, consider the polling data: over 1 billion people (over 25% of the world’s population) say they desire to temporarily move to another country in search of work. This is about double the number of people who say they desire to permanently move to another country. I find these numbers a bit dicey for two reasons:

  1. A lot of people might not even be bothered to think of moving, permanently or temporarily, when they know that our system of global apartheid makes it impossible for most people to live and work outside their country of birth — this would artificially depress these numbers.
  2. Some people might not be sure whether they want to move temporarily or permanently. If you ask me whether I am a temporary or permanent migrant, I would honestly answer that I don’t know.

But these numbers are definitely directional. If when you think of migration and when you think of open borders, you only think of permanent settlement, you’ve erased 2/3rds of all the people who would like to migrate. You’ve written off the hopes, dreams, and futures of over 1 billion people. Open borders is not just about the permanent settler. It’s about ensuring people with all kinds of goals and motivations can make the most of themselves and contribute as much as they can.

The media makes the case for open borders

Well, not quite. But a better lifting of the global Rawlsian veil there never was. Citing a study by The Economist, the Washington Post published this map of the best countries in the world to be born in today (the bluer the better):


The summary of the results is worth reading, but there were a couple money quotes:

Even Portugal and Spain, for all their very real troubles, score highly. A child born today is likely to have a better life, according to the data, in Poland or Greece — yes, Greece — than in rising economic giants such as Brazil, Turkey or China.

Though countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam are projected to show astounding economic growth over the next generation, they are poor today. This map is a reminder that being born into a poor society, even one that offers opportunities for new wealth, can still mean life-long challenges.

So, if you’re a Westerner fretting about American decline or European collapse, then if nothing else, know that your children have still lucked into one of the best deals in history: being born in the right place at the right time.

Being born in the right place at the right time counts for a lot. There’s nothing ironclad that makes the amount of people being born in Portugal or Greece or Australia or the US today the right amount. If I took ten babies from Bangladesh and dropped them off in Germany tomorrow with forged German citizenship papers, in what conceivable way could their presence harm anyone there, growing up as German as can be? Yes, there is in principle some limit to how many people a country can have, and coming up against that constraint is a plausible reason to enforce immigration restrictions. But adopting restrictions without bothering to prove such a limit has been reached is nothing more than creating a new aristocracy.

Putting aside difficult-to-quantify social factors for now, from a purely economic standpoint, the global aristocracy of birthplace is immensely inefficient. How inefficient? The most conservative estimate is that true open borders would make humankind 67% richer. The most aggressive estimate suggests it would make us 150% richer. We’re talking doubling world GDP, folks. Even if you make allowance for social frictions necessitating some immigration restrictions, there is absolutely no rational basis for believing the economically rational thing to do is to, as a general rule, only have people live and work in the country of their birth.

Much of what I am today, I owe to my parents and my country, and to my creator who made me who I am. But I also owe an immense amount to studying and working in the United States, which literally offered me opportunities no other country could give me. I was lucky enough to be born in circumstances that could get me to the US. How many billion others can say the same?

It’s one thing to punish someone because if you don’t, they will harm you. That is at least prima facie plausible. But it’s another thing to punish someone purely for an accident of birth out of their control. I had no choice in where I was born. Neither did you. Let’s be glad we were born in pretty good circumstances (because if you’re able to read this, you’re almost certainly one of the luckiest people alive). But let’s not use birth as a reason to deny those less fortunate than us some of the same opportunities you and I had.