The case for open borders is universal

I am indebted to commenter Caroline for asking a very important question in a comment:

I’d like to hear Vipul blog on the case for open borders for India. Surely India can use 100 million African imports? And what’s the justification for closed borders with China, Pakistan and Bangladesh?

Why should we Westerners have all the fun?

Another comment in a similar vein is from Mary:

Why don’t you tell Australia, commie China, why don’t you tell corrupt socialist India that Pakistan has the right to stream over it’s borders and take it over. You won’t because what you mean is, that the rest of the world has the right to violate US sovereignty, no it doesn’t. The US is a sovereign nation, it’s not a cesspit for slumdogs to fill.

In later agreement with Mary, Caroline writes:

Vipul writes: It’s also worth noting that, de facto, the right to invite, and the right to migrate, predate nation-states. Border controls are a relatively recent innovation.

A world population of 7 billion people is a relatively recent innovation as well, as is relatively cheap and fast mass transportation. And Mary is correct, although her words are inelegantly expressed: how come we never hear the open borders crowd agitating for the “benefits” of a mass immigration free-for-all for China, India, Africa, South America?

Vipul might have more takers for his position if he argued vociferously for open borders for India, for example. Of course, then he’d have to face the RSS and the rest of the Hindu nationalist crowd, who sometimes aren’t very nice, to put it mildly.

And before you point out that India is too crowded, polluted and overpopulated to allow open borders and indiscriminate immigration–why should people who squat out baby after baby with no thought to how they will be fed and housed, and who voluntarily pollute their nation excessively, be the only people who are allowed to have national sovereignty?

Are you then saying that people who stewarded their lands properly, and reproduced responsibly–i.e. us Westerners–are the only people in the world who don’t have the right to national sovereignty?

If so, then it’s the case of the good being punished and the bad being rewarded.

In a blog post titled Parable of the Neighborhood Watch, Sonic Charmer makes a related point (although this is not the focus or thrust of his post):

All the Smart People in your Neighborhood Watch nod their heads. They can think of no counterargument, and certainly don’t want to appear selfish and chauvinistic. And so, before long, before you even really know what happened, your Neighborhood Watch – the one you set up and contributed your money and time to for the sole purpose of, well, watching your own neighborhood – is spending most of its time worrying about and patrolling Other Neighborhood, judging its success on the basis of whether crime is being reduced there.

The funny part is, Other Neighborhood already has its own neighborhood watch group, and they’re not at all swayed by these moral arguments. They focus solely on their own neighborhood and never give it a second thought.

How would you feel at that point? Tricked? Hoodwinked? Scammed? At best, if you had a great attitude and the means, you’d be like ‘oh well, I guess I have to start up a whole new Neighborhood Watch now’. One that actually serves the purpose for which you intended the other one.

Other commenters, including commenters on Steve Sailer’s blog, have made similar points.

Before proceeding, I want to thank Caroline, Mary, and Sonic Charmer for making the key point: the case for open borders does not solely apply to any one country. I enthusiastically agree. As I see it, there are two related points being made:

  1. Open borders advocates, in so far as they focus only on immigration to the United States, are applying a double standard, and/or being hypocritical.
  2. Even if open borders advocates intend to be even-handed in their treatment of nations, the de facto effect of their advocacy is disproportionately on the United States.

A limited self-defense

I don’t claim to speak for all open borders advocates. But I will try to address these critiques specifically in the context of this website. My blog post is largely an elaboration of point (1) in my reply comment to Caroline.

First, right from the inception of the site, I have been focused on making the case for open borders from a universal perspective. As I write on the site story page:

Most websites dealing with migration issues do so from a very country-specific perspective. They are thus able to focus on the details of specific laws and concrete numbers. But it’s hard to separate out the country-specific aspects of their analysis from the generic arguments being made. With the Open Borders website, I’ve tried to separate out the generic arguments from the country-specific arguments. Since country-specific arguments already receive so much attention elsewhere, building the country-specific pages typically requires linking to existing resources. As of November 2012, all the country-specific pages are US-specific, but this may change with time as more content is added.

For examples of this distinction, see crime (generic) versus Hispanic crime and illegal immigration in the United States (US-specific). Or see suppression of wages of natives (generic) versus US-specific suppression of wages of natives (US-specific).

In fact, I faced the very same frustration that Caroline probably did: the over-reliance of open borders advocates on one particular country (often, the US) rather than a discussion of how the case for open borders may be made universally.

Back in April, I wrote a positive review of Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation, where I indicated my agreement with

Brimelow’s critique of the restrictive immigration policies of countries other than the US, and his argument that the moral case for open borders should apply to all countries, not just the US (Page 251 onward, Chapter Doing The Right Thing? The Morality of Immigration)

followed by a lengthy quote from Brimelow’s book.

I did follow that up with a subsequent blog post where I argued that there is a case for each country to open its borders even if other countries don’t, drawing on the analogy with free trade.

In a critical blog post about Bryan Caplan’s persuasiveness as an open borders advocate, I noted this criticism of Caplan raised by his commenters:

Caplan’s case for open borders is heavily US-centric, especially when he tries to bring in empirics (the moral case is country-independent). This means that people in other countries may find his empirics unconvincing or irrelevant, particularly if he appeals to specific facts about the United States that aren’t valid for other countries.

Drawing on this, I wrote later in the same post:

Open borders advocates should separate generic moral and practical arguments from country-specific arguments.

Other bloggers on this site have also made many points about the immigration policies of other countries. In his first blog post, John Lee singles out Malaysia, the country he self-identifies as belonging to:

Worse, it is not simply penniless manual labourers who find it difficult to immigrate today. Take my mother, for instance: today she lives in the United States, because my own country, Malaysia, shamefully has refused to grant her permanent residency — in spite of her being the wife of a Malaysian, the mother of four Malaysians, and friend and supporter of many more Malaysians.

In a subsequent blog post, John is critical of Iran:

While reading an article in the New York Times today about the corner of the world where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran meet, all I could think about was the power of open borders to transform people’s lives. I don’t know many people who would find it appealing to live in Iran, yet there are literally people willing to run the risk of death just to get into Iran (over 2 million of them, by one estimate from the article). That’s the immense power of the place premium.

I don’t have extremely strong views on Iran, but after reading the article, I don’t think I had a very positive impression of the country — to put it mildly. The way it treats undocumented Afghan workers, literally murdering people for crossing a line someone drew on a map, is unconscionable. Yet almost everything about Iranian immigration policy, short of murdering immigrants, resembles immigration policy in almost every country of the world. What makes Iranian immigration policy barbaric, but US or European immigration policy civilised?

A mea culpa

With all this said, I confess that our coverage of worldwide migration, both current and historical, falls far short of where I (and other bloggers here) would like it to be. My main excuses are: we’re a young website and blog, we all blog here as a side job, and our subject matter expertise restricts the things we can comment upon intelligently (though some critics might question whether we comment intelligently even on the things where we do comment). Online and accessible data on a variety of migration-related material is not always as easy to find, and part of the reason it’s easier to focus on the United States is simply because the material on the subject, both pro- and anti-open borders, is much more readily accessible for the United States. That said, we are making efforts to expand our coverage of immigration policy-related issues worldwide and also talk more about historical episodes of migration of various sorts. Some of the historical examples we have touched on so far can be viewed here.

In particular, migration to middle- and low-income countries from their lower-income neighbors is an extremely important and under-discussed topic. Undocumented border crossings from Latin American countries to Mexico, or from Bangladesh to India, or from South Africa’s neighbors to South Africa, or from Afghanistan to Iran, are all extremely important issues for a person who genuinely cares about freedom of migration. In some of these cases, private violence (with state inaction) is often used to punish migrant sojourners, and this is a problem that is qualitatively somewhat different but just as important as state-enforced deportations. I hope that my co-bloggers and I will devote more attention to some of these issues.

We are also working hard on finding people around the world who would be interested in guest blogging for the site and can bring in a regional perspective. There are a few people who have expressed interest, and we might be featuring some guest posts in the next few months.

I think that people advocating radical change need to do their homework better. So the above excuses are ultimately not very convincing. But we hope to improve in this respect.

The point (2): will we have disparate impact?

The other point that is raised implicitly and explicitly by many of our critics is that even if we intend to make our case universally, the only place where it will have an effect is the United States. In the context of the Open Borders website, I doubt we will have any effect in the near future, so our restrictionist critics can probably relax about this. Perhaps a little more in the far future, but we’ll definitely be working to create a better global balance in our commentary and criticism long before we’re likely to become broadly influential.

As a general rule, I don’t know if the US is uniquely susceptible to the propaganda or lobbying of open borders advocates compared to other countries. Perhaps it is true that the West is more susceptible than non-Western countries to such propaganda. The demand for migration to Western countries is more than the demand for migration to other countries, so to some extent it does makes sense to focus more on migration to Western countries. But, we should be honest about the universality of the case for migration and refrain from giving middle- and low-income countries a free pass in these matters.

11 thoughts on “The case for open borders is universal”

  1. Mexico is an especially interesting case, in the way it ruthlessly blocks immigration from poor Central/South American countries yet simultaneously puts constant pressure on the US to maintain the status quo where poor Mexicans are massively overrepresented among immigrants to the US. Its leadership clearly thinks it is duping the US in a zero- or negative-sum game, whether or not that is actually true.

    I obviously think the case for self-determination of immigration rules is universal, and may be easier to understand in the context of other countries. For example, Japan has a unique culture which may border on being oppressively collectivist for some more independent-minded Japanese people (not to mention most foreigners), but it has enough interesting properties that I’d much rather let them do what they want than force their culture to conform to all Western standards (as long as they allow unhappy folks to leave, and aren’t coercing others into working for their Co-Prosperity Sphere, anyway).

  2. I agree that “the case for open borders is universal,” and the case I make in *Principles of a Free Society* and in “Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Optimal Policy” ( is not country-specific in scope. Both the economic case for open borders with migration taxes– quite similar to the case for using tariffs instead of quotas and other NTBs to regulate international trade, albeit better, because an open borders policy allows a country to tax foreigners– as well as the natural rights-based case for open borders– in short, governments are legitimate inasmuch as they resemble social contracts for the protection of citizens’ natural rights, and as those natural rights are not violated by peaceful migration, government has no grounds for preventing it– are of a universal character, though local conditions might strengthen the case in particular places, or provide extenuating circumstances for restrictionists.

    If I do stress the US case, it’s partly because it’s my own country (going back six generations or so, I think) and I know more about it, and partly because the US is a world leader which other nations look to as a model. I actually think it’s fairly likely that if the idea of open borders does spread, it may get its start in a country other than the US, maybe in a developing country, but that other countries would get an important push in that direction if open borders were seen to be a credible contender for public opinion in the US. There are two precedents for the type of international influence of a dominant-country minority-intelligentsia view that I have in mind. Unfortunately, both of the episodes have a rather negative aspect. First, the Bolshevik Revolution. Marxism aspired to gain control of the core of the West, but failed. Instead, it broke out in the periphery. Of course, the results were catastrophic. Second, the Chicago Boys’ neoliberal economics, though quite influential in the United States, never really had its way here, but it was embraced by Chile under Pinochet. That worked out pretty well economically, and Chile has been a moderate-to-great success story, especially compared to the country most similar to it, Argentina. However, since Pinochet was a brutal dictator the episode is not wholly satisfactory. Not that it was the Chicago Boys’ fault that Pinochet had people tortured, etc., and very like Pinochet with Chicago economists was better than Pinochet without them. But still. Open borders is a much better idea than Marxism, and my hope is that it would not be implemented by a brutal dictator.

    If Japan is an interesting culture with much to admire about it, that’s all the more reason that it’s a shame they don’t let other people come in and live among them to enjoy it. Moreover, Japan’s bleak trajectory seems to have a lot to do with the stultifying effects of closed borders. Closed borders can mean closed minds. Japan’s sad, sagging demographics and mountain of debt point towards disaster. If anything, the case for open borders there seems stronger than in the US.

    1. Two of Japan’s greatest “problems” right now are

      1. Overcrowding.
      2. A below-replacement birth rate.

      However, #2 is an excellent solution to #1. It leads to doom if, and pretty much only if, the border is uncontrolled. The Japanese appear to understand this.

      1. The problem is the dependency ratio. Unless Japan increases the birth rate, or makes incredible advances in automation, the burden of a shrinking workforce supporting the elderly will lower average standards of living.

        1. True. However, opening the borders to large numbers of either low-skill immigrants, or immigrants who don’t care about the welfare about the Japanese people as a whole, can be expected to result in worse long-term consequences.

          Immigration is only a reasonable solution to the dependency ratio problem if assimilation is reliable, and even then, it essentially turns over responsibility for the society’s future to the sources of the immigration.

    2. And it’s not like people are not allowed to live in Japan and enjoy their culture if they want to; I have an American friend who recently started working there. They just don’t have much of a path to citizenship.

  3. Americans can live in Japan, but for most aspiring to live there, it’s very hard. And I’d question whether over-crowding is a problem, even in Japan. Japan’s population density is much less than Singapore’s, and Singapore is doing fine. By contrast, it’s extremely clear that Japan has a huge problem with its dependency ratio. Immigration is the obvious and as far as I can tell the only way to solve that problem. True, Japan has difficulty absorbing immigrants; that’s why they’re now in so much trouble. And Japan’s somewhat claustrophobic and conformist culture seems to be an important explanation of its economic stagnation, and in general, its inability to renew itself without episodes wherein foreigners call the shots (Commodore Perry, Douglas MacArthur). Too bad Japan doesn’t allow those beneficent foreign influences from the bottom up on a continuing basis, rather than getting them occasionally from the top down.

    1. In the end, it’s up to the Japanese, and I think that’s the way it should be; I’m more afraid of a world where every nation is forced to make the same bad decision than I am of one where individual nations make unusually bad choices, as long as those choices don’t involve military invasions and the like.

      The LKY video clip I linked to in my other comment shows that he essentially agrees with you on Japan (and also shows that he’s probably not just putting on a politically correct show, given his “fruit pickers” comment in the same segment), so you are in good company.

  4. Up to which Japanese? Up to individual Japanese– who might want to invite foreigners into their homes? Or up to the Japanese “collectively,” whatever that means? Why should some collective decision-making procedure override the decisions of employers, landlords, merchants, and hosts to make their property accessible to foreigners? If collective decisions can override individual decisions in this way, why is the Japanese nation as a whole the right collective to do it? Why not families, or towns and cities, or regions, or on the other hand, the entire world, allocating the right to migrate to Japan with utilitarian-universalist goals? You’ve simply begged the question.

    1. No, I have not begged the question.

      For some commons, there is a natural level or two at which it is best protected. For immigration to an island nation like Japan, this level is obviously the national level. Any lower level fails to protect the commons because it can’t enforce immigration restrictions nearly as effectively; a no-longer-wanted immigrant or guest worker could just flee to a different prefecture. I already explained the problem with the higher level: “every nation forced to make the same bad decision”.

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