Open Borders is a Moderate Position
By Bryan Caplan
After Fabio Rojas, Vipul Naik, and I created the Open Borders Logo Contest Facebook page, many opponents of immigration joined the page and behaved uncivilly. When our troika decided to moderate the page, immigration opponents cried foul: “If you believe in open borders, you should let anyone join your Facebook group!” This is a slight variation on an anti-immigration argument I’ve heard many times before: “If you believe in open borders, you should allow strangers to move into your house, rent-free.”
To see what’s wrong with this argument, consider the following three positions.
1. Foreigners shouldn’t be allowed to move into a house even if the owner consents.
2. Foreigners should be allowed to move into a house as long as the owner consents.
3. Foreigners should be allowed to move into a house even if the owner doesn’t consent.
#1 is the standard, status quo view: The government can and often should forbid native property owners from hosting foreigners.
#2 is the open borders views: Individual property owners, not the government, have the right to decide whether or not to host foreigners.
#3 is Utopian socialism: We should just get rid of property and literally let foreigners go wherever they please.
It’s easy to see why people who support #1 would want to equate #2 and #3. But they’re radically different positions. Position #2 takes property rights very seriously. Position #3 views property rights as a joke. Equating the two views – as immigration restrictionists often do – is unfair to both positions.
Of course, immigration restrictionists are not the first to make this mistake. If “X is forbidden” is the status quo, defenders of the status quo often paint “X is required” as the only alternative. You’re against the prohibition of Protestantism? You must want to forcibly convert everyone to Protestantism. Rhetorically speaking, this is much easier than attacking the intermediate view that each individual should be free to choose his own religion.
In most historical cases, however, this false dichotomy is at least excusable. During the Wars of Religion, many Protestants really did want to replace mandatory Catholicism with mandatory Protestantism. In the case of immigration, in contrast, the mistake is silly. Position #3 has almost no adherents. Indeed, the most intellectually prominent proponents of immigration are economists, long-known for their appreciation of private property and scorn for Utopian socialism.
As a practical matter, open borders is a radical position: If implemented, our economy and society would swiftly and dramatically change. As a philosophical matter, though, open borders is a moderate position. “Free to choose” stands between the extremes of “Mandatory” and “Forbidden.” Open borders stands between the extremes of nationalist restriction and socialist mandate. Facebook clearly grasps the distinction: The individual who creates a group decides who’s in and who’s out. The critics of immigration really should stop talking as if this familiar option doesn’t even exist.