Are Open Borders Utopian?

I can’t remember if anyone has ever actually responded to my advocacy of open borders by calling them “utopian,” but they often seem to be thinking it. Are open borders utopian? It would be truer to think of them as “back to normal.” The attempt to control migration through a comprehensive passport regime is a 20th-century innovation. The late 19th century was a kind of golden age of open borders, when passport regimes were removed and the world’s leading countries accepted immigrants with few or no restrictions, but even before that migration was restricted only in certain places and for certain groups and not very rigorously. Certain countries– England in the Middle Ages, Spain a couple of centuries later– expelled the Jews, but you didn’t need a visa to travel from Rome to London.

That said, for most of history, no one, native or foreign, enjoyed the degree of protection of human rights that people in the advanced nations of the West take for granted today. Much of the history of civilization was dominated by absolute monarchs of one kind or another, who were above any law. Often, too, aristocratic castes had the de facto power and/or the de jure right arbitrarily to violate the property or persons of their social inferiors. Courts have tended to be more arbitrary and corrupt than in the contemporary West; and crime rates were higher. Economic opportunity was limited and more dependent on scarce resources, which gave people more valid reasons to see a migrant as a security threat. (How will he survive, unless by stealing our cattle?) Literacy was less widespread, and there has never been a lingua franca with a reach comparable to that enjoyed by English today. For all these reasons, the practical opportunities for safe migration have surely been limited for most of historical mankind, even if passport control was not among the obstacles.

So if we were to abolish passport controls today, we would be giving rise to something rather new under the sun. Relative to the late 19th century, freedom of migration has been politically restricted but technologically and socially enabled. It’s hard to get a visa, but once you do, you can hop on a plane, arrive speaking English, and are unlikely to encounter racism. If we were to remove the passport controls, human beings worldwide would be born with a far greater prospect of practical mobility than ever before in history. Considering that (a) it’s always presumptively good to give people more options, and (b) a glance at the global distribution of income makes it clear that some people could benefit a lot by moving, that’s a very good thing. Is it too good? Are open borders utopian? Continue reading “Are Open Borders Utopian?” »

All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders

That’s a one-line summary of Joseph Carens’ article “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders,” first published in 1987. More exactly, Carens shows how three broad ethical theories– I prefer the term meta-ethics, but it’s an idiosyncratic term– namely, (1) Nozick’s, (2) Rawls’, and (3) utilitarianism, all imply a case for fully open borders or at least much more open immigration than rich countries permit today. That’s what I’ve always thought. At some point, I’d like to look through the 515 citations to see whether any counter-arguments have any strength. Carens’ job seems rather too easy, but it’s good that someone’s done it, and in a charming and easy to read style. Carens discusses, however, a “communitarian challenge” to the case for open borders, as argued by Michael Walzer. Continue reading “All Ethical Roads Lead to Open Borders” »

Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Optimal Policy

I just posted my article, “Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Optimal Policy,” at SSRN. The abstract:

For some reason, economists are less willing to advocate open migration than free trade, even though the traditional free trade models, such as Ricardian comparative advantage and Heckscher-Ohlin, cross-apply to migration. In fact, however, the case for open migration is stronger than the case for free trade, because it is possible to tax foreign-born beneficiaries of open migration policies, through migration taxes. It is here proven that a policy of open borders with migration taxes is Pareto-superior to the alternative of closed borders (or discretionary migration control). Political norms of local inequality aversion seem to prevent the adoption, or even consideration, of such a policy, and the enormous gains in human welfare that would result from it. Some proposals, including a World Migration Organization and passport-free charter cities, are proposed as steps towards a world of open migration.

Continue reading “Open Borders with Migration Taxes are the Optimal Policy” »

Dani Rodrik Argues for More Migration

Dani Rodrik is probably the most prominent critic of globalization among academic economists. He thinks the global trade regime and global norms favoring financial liberalization have unduly constrained the policy space available to national governments. But while he’s for re-regulating trade and finance, he wants to liberalize flows of people. He writes in The Globalization Paradox: Continue reading “Dani Rodrik Argues for More Migration” »

Accusations of racism in the immigration debate

One of the tactics that many people on the pro-immigration side of the immigration debate adopt is to point out the unsavory “racist” and “eugenicist” associations that some immigration restrictionists have, or might have. I’m going to argue here that focusing on these associations, whether or not they are true, does not do much to advance the case for open borders, and detracts from the substantive debates. Continue reading “Accusations of racism in the immigration debate” »

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