This is a libertarian* response to some of the anti-open borders arguments that stem from concerns about the harms to immigrant-sending countries such as brain drain and delay of political reform. The claim is that, even if there are some harms to others due to an individual’s choice to migrate, these harms are not sufficient to overcome the right to migrate. This is because of the principle of self-ownership: each person is owned by himself/herself, not by the state where he/she happens to be born.
The argument has been made by many people, most notably Michael Clemens.
*: When we say that the response is “libertarian” that does not imply that the argument is made solely by libertarians, just that it draws on libertarian modes of reasoning, albeit in this case on aspects of these modes of reasoning that are shared by many non-libertarians.
Some blog posts and articles that elaborate on this theme:
- People are not property: Please stop saying that countries “steal” doctors from Africa by Michael Clemens in a guest post for Chris Blattman’s blog.
- What Is Not Owned Cannot Be Stolen: Stop Dehumanizing African Health Workers by Michael Clemens for the blog of the Center for Global Development.
- Why open borders are the solution to brain drain by Nathan Smith for the Open Borders blog.
- Research article: Can Brain Drain Justify Immigration Restrictions? by Kieran Oberman, Ethics, Vol. 123, No. 3 (April 2013) (pp. 427-455).
The limiting case of the anti-libertarian principle of state ownership has been seen in communist countries that forbid people from emigrating. For more on this, see emigration: escaping communism.
It could be argued that in cases where the governments of particular nations spend large amounts of money educating the individuals involved, the individuals emigrating is a loss for the source country governments. India has recently experimented with rules where people who wish to emigrate after partaking of government-subsidized higher education need to pay back all the money in order to be eligible for an exit visa, and such solutions implemented at the source country level (in cases where the governments are, in fact, providing a subsidy to education and have not forbidden people from seeking private educational alternatives) may be a good solution to the alleged problems. It does not, however, seem appropriate for the governments of immigrant-receiving countries to determine their immigration policies based on random guesswork about what might be fair to the governments and taxpayers of other countries, of which they have even less of an idea than for their own country.