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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Open Borders or No Borders?

The "no touching" rule is good for governments


Alex Tabarrok has a wonderful piece at the Atlantic on the case for open borders. He makes both the economic and moral case for allowing people to move, live, and work wherever they want.

Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury. …
Even relatively small increases in immigration flows can have enormous benefits. If the developed world were to take in enough immigrants to enlarge its labor force by a mere one percent, it is estimated that the additional economic value created would be worth more to the migrants than all of the world’s official foreign aid combined. Immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised. …
What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?
No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights — or as inherently possessing less moral worth — than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time.
Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other,” but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.
Freedom of movement is a basic human right. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belies its name when it proclaims this right only “within the borders of each state.” Human rights do not stop at the border.
Today, we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let their people exit. I look forward to the day when we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let people enter.

Well put. Read the whole thing here.

If there’s one part of the article I disagree with, it’s one that Tabarrok probably didn’t write himself — the headline: “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders — Completely.”

It’s a small difference between “open borders” and “no borders,” but it changes the perception of the argument quite a bit. It’s not necessary to abolish national boundaries to allow people to cross over them, but confusion on this point bedevils the conversation about immigration.

When Vox asked Bernie Sanders about opening borders, he fulminated, “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal… That’s a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States… You’re doing away with the concept of a nation state.”

Of course, this is nationalist claptrap — the United States existed and thrived with open borders for over a hundred years before the government started restricting immigration.

But states are dangerous things, and where they exist, it’s useful to have clear (if arbitrary) lines in the sand separating them. Individuals should be free to go where they please, but governments should be penned up and kept away from each other.

Where borders between states are ill-defined or contested, they tend to be bloody. It’s the predictable outcome of two well-armed groups both claiming a monopoly on the use of force in a single territory.

Where states are friendly, like the US and Canada, and the area is worthless or unpopulated, disputes are usually low-grade arguments about old maps. When states aren’t friendly, contested territory can serve as a trigger for larger conflicts.

Russia almost nuked China during their border dispute in 1969. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir, most recently in 1999 (a year after both countries tested a series of nuclear bombs). China and India also fought a war over their disputed border territory in 1962. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought over their disputed border from 1998 to 2000, leaving hundreds of thousands dead. (Eritrea’s continued policy of military conscription is contributing significantly to the mass refugee crisis.)

It’s possible to be both pro-border and pro-immigration, because borders are meant for separating governments, not peoples. The ultimate problem, of course, is that governments care a lot about maintaining control over people and territory. A reliable formula for peace is to get each side to agree on a line where their armies stop, while goods, services, people, and ideas are free to cross back and forth. A reliable formula for war, as Frederic Bastiat (may have) noted, is to do the opposite.


  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.