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Why Open Borders?

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Two dear friends of mine just experienced incredible struggles with immigration control in the United States, one from Australia and one from Canada. Both are enormously talented, in love with the freedom that America represents to the world — or once did anyway.

One barely got in after months of waiting, even though a willing, begging employer was waiting. The other was deported with a single day’s notice.

Each has been a captive of bureaucrats with awesome power. Their stories are tragic. Natives know nothing about this ghastly system and how it treats human beings. We never experience it.

The labyrinth of bureaucracy is jaw dropping. The arbitrary power exercised by “our” bureaucrats is frightening. The loss to our nation’s productivity is mindboggling. Hearing these stories, you can’t help but apologize for the way our own government treats people who want to love this country and contribute to its greatness.

And to think that for the first 100 years of this country’s existence we had zero national immigration restrictions. The whole world was invited in — and this invitation led to the most prosperous society the world has ever known. In these times, there were no passports. For the most part, everyone was free to move around the earth — and this was thought to be the very essence of liberty.

Today, we have an effective ban on immigration. You can’t come to the U.S. to live and work legally unless you are family, highly educated, or get in as a refugee. Other than that, the barriers to legal immigration are impossibly high. The wait lines for employment visas are impossibly long, and people from the world’s largest population centers aren’t even eligible.

Meanwhile, the government spends $18 billion on stopping immigration — more than all other federal criminal enforcement agencies combined. This is money spent to stop people from freely exchanging labor for money. That the whole thing is a massive flop is revealed by the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, and the half million apprehended crossing the border each year — surely only a fraction of those who were not.

But apparently, that’s not enough. Donald Trump is soaring in popularity by calling for mass deportations and building a wall around the country, in an effort to double down on a failed government policy. Other candidates are alarmed at his rhetoric, but echo his core claim that there is some kind of crisis going on.

Meanwhile, this is a huge debate among people who otherwise swear fealty to “limited government.” Many people who claim to want freedom seem to have no problem with the implications of a closed-border policy: national IDs, national work permits, non-stop surveillance, harassment of all businesses, a “papers please” culture, mass deportation, tens of billions in waste, bureaucrats wrecking the American dream, broken families, the rights of Americans and foreigners transgressed at every turn.

In this environment of political hysteria, in which the rankest form of racial fear has reared its head, few dare to stand up and call for the only liberty-minded answer: open borders.

Just the phrase causes people to sputter in shock. The objections start flying: wages will fall, welfare will explode, people will vote for the wrong people, there will be cultural confusion, the national language will evaporate, crime will soar — on and on the parade of horribles marches.

The more you look into the research, the more these objections fall away. Immigrants cause less crime than natives. Immigration does not cause unemployment. Immigrants don’t consume more public benefits than natives; in fact, they use fewer. Indeed, they have kept Social Security afloat, even though they will never get a dime from the system. They don’t love liberty less: they poll in as more libertarian. Indeed, every one of these and other claims in Trump’s immigration policy paper are patently wrong.

Apparently, the facts don’t matter. And as for humane values and human rights, forget it. Immigration restriction is a fundamental attack on the rights of at least two parties: the person who wants to employ someone currently outside the border and the person who wants to come work. It’s a thuggish interference with an economic exchange, like any other arbitrary restriction on trade.

So often, in many recent discussions I’ve had online, what’s going on here is just a shoot-from-hip bias. It’s exactly the same kind of fears that make people object to getting rid of the minimum wage, cutting taxes, eliminating tariffs, privatizing the TSA, eliminating zoning laws, cutting government spending, legalizing pot, and so on.

It’s freedom itself that people fear.

Once freedom goes away, it is difficult to imagine how things would work if it came back. The notion of freedom then scares people, and it becomes easy to think up a thousand different scenarios in which freedom can’t possibly work. Surely disaster will ensue!

This was a problem during alcohol Prohibition. The system wasn’t working, but the prospect of making its consumption and production legal again elicited a kind of panic. Would our streets be filled with staggering drunks? Would scarce income be squandered on liquor? Would families break apart?

The lack of imagination concerning how freedom can work is the single biggest barrier in the U.S. to ending the war on immigration.

Imagine if the U.S. had massive border controls between states, with checkpoints and passports and drug-sniffing dogs, and if you had to have permission to change from a job in Ohio to a job in Vegas, or if a Virginian could be deported from New Jersey for overstaying, or if you had to wait years to obtain the right documentation to move from one state to another, or if the labor market was so tightly regulated that an employer in another state could only hire you if they could prove they had no other options.

If all that were true, anyone who suggested open borders and a free labor market between states in the U.S. would be considered a dangerous loon.

But here is the clarifying fact: the conditions that allow free migration between states within the U.S. are identical with regard to free migration between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. The only difference happens to be the government that issues citizenship documents.

I live in Georgia. What if I started a movement to prohibit immigrants from Chicago to Georgia? Why would I suggest such a crazy thing? Because I believe that crime is higher in Chicago, welfare is more widely used, their imported labor would drive down wages, they vote in ways that are regrettable, and people there just don’t get the ways of the American South.

Should we have immigration controls between states? It sounds preposterous (though Trump could probably sell the idea). But the claims that we can’t have free immigration into the U.S. follow the exact same logic.

Every argument for immigration restrictions into the United States as a whole applies with equal validity for immigration controls between states, counties, cities, and even towns. And yet we do not have such controls. Why does it work so well? Because freedom works.

How can we begin to imagine what open borders would be like? We need an experiment in that exact thing. It just so happens that we have just such an experiment. There are 28 countries that have historically been at war for thousands of years. They all have different languages, different religions, and different folkways. At various periods, people from these countries have hated each other to the point of causing genocide.

Then one day, starting with an agreement that began to be implemented twenty years ago (the Schengen Agreement), they opened all the borders. Anyone from these countries can live and work anywhere. They can travel freely, on the same passports. No bureaucracy stops their freedom of movement and their freedom to produce.

The results have been spectacular. It’s the greatest experiment in completely open borders the world has seen in more than a century. It’s called the European Union. And it works. It points toward the ideal: a world in which everyone is free to move about the earth without fear of gun, wall, or barbed wire.

Let’s not fear freedom and free trade (which means, free trade in capital and labor). In the end, Ludwig von Mises was right: “Without the reestablishment of freedom of migration throughout the world, there can be no lasting peace.”

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