America Should Open Its Borders: My Opening Statement for the Reason Immigration Debate
By Bryan Caplan
Last night’s immigration debate with Mark Krikorian and Alex Nowrasteh was… interesting. Reflections forthcoming. For now, here’s my opening statement.
America Should Open its Borders
Under current U.S. law, it is illegal for a foreigner to work for a willing American employer or rent from a willing American landlord without government permission. For most foreigners, this permission is impossible to obtain. As a result, hundreds of millions who want to move here are stuck in their birth countries. Most would-be immigrants are desperately poor, but could easily work their way out of poverty if they were here.
I say America should open its borders to them all. Every other country should do the same. But given America’s illustrious open borders tradition, it is fitting that we lead the way. My case for open borders comes down to two claims: One moral, one empirical.
The moral claim: Immigration restrictions are unjust. Letting people work for willing employers and rent from willing landlords is not charity. It’s basic decency. And even though foreigners wickedly chose the wrong parents, they’re clearly people.
The empirical claim: Being just to foreigners would cost us less than nothing. When people immigrate here to work, they simultaneously enrich themselves and us. Though a high-skilled worker enriches us more than a low-skilled worker, the typical low-skilled worker is far better than nothing – and there’s plenty of room for everyone.
Let’s start with our laws’ injustice. Imagine the U.S. made it illegal for blacks, women, or Jews to take certain jobs or live in certain neighborhoods. You wouldn’t merely object. You’d be appalled. Whatever your specific moral views, you know it’s wrong to prohibit a black, woman, or Jew from accepting a job or renting a home.
My question: How is mandatory discrimination against foreigners against less wrong than mandatory discrimination against blacks, women, or Jews? The leading rationale is that “we should take care of our own first.” That might be a good argument against sending foreigners welfare checks. But it’s an Orwellian argument for stopping immigrants from working or renting here. Minding your own business when two strangers trade with each other is not a form of charity.
This is not a weird libertarian point. The fact that I never put Krazy Glue in the locks of the Center for Immigration Studies does not make me one of its donors.
Friends of immigration restrictions often compare nations to families. I’ll accept their analogy. I love my children more than I love the rest of you put together. This is a good reason to worry that I’ll treat you unjustly if there’s ever a conflict of interest. But it’s no excuse for me to treat you unjustly. “I want my beloved son to get this job” does not justify slashing rival candidates’ tires the morning of the final interview. The same goes for immigration policy. Your love for Americans may tempt you to treat foreigners unjustly, but it’s no excuse for treating them unjustly.
We should refrain from unjust actions even if they’re in our self-interest. In the zombie apocalypse, you shouldn’t eat me because you’re hungry and I’m wimpy. Yet in the real world, fortunately, justice usually pays. Becoming a violent criminal is a poor path to prosperity. So were Jim Crow laws. What about immigration laws?
This brings me to my second big claim: Being just to foreigners would cost us less than nothing. Everyone has his problems. Opponents of immigration spend most of their time staring at foreigners to find fault. But if you pick a random would-be immigrant – even a random illiterate peasant – and calmly weigh his positives and negatives for us, the sum is positive.
To see why, you need a little labor economics. Hard fact: Immigration laws trap people in countries where workers produce far below their potential. When Haitians move to the United States, their wages easily increase twenty-fold. That’s not +20%. It’s plus +2000%. The reason isn’t that American employers are nicer than Haitian employers. The reason is that Haitians produce vastly more in America than they do in Haiti. Think about how little you could contribute to the world economy if you were stuck in Haiti.
How much would total production rise under open borders? Every economist who asks the question reaches an astronomical answer. A typical estimate is that global free migration would double global production. If the U.S. alone opened its borders, the global effect would naturally be smaller, but the national effect would be even larger.
How is vastly higher production in your self-interest? The obvious reason: More stuff produce means more stuff consumed. This is not trickle-down economics; it is Niagara Falls economics. Production is what distinguishes the rich world of today from the wretched world of the past. If half the workforce suddenly retired, it would be bad for you.
Production always has its naysayers. When driverless cars arrive, you can count on people to complain that they’re putting truck-drivers out of work. But by this logic, we’d be richer if law-makers in the 19th-century banned the tractor. The fundamental truth of economic growth: While innovation often hurts immediate competitors, it is the fountainhead of rising prosperity.
Doesn’t immigration hurt workers by increasing the supply of labor? It’s complicated, because immigration also increases labor demand. After all, workers buy stuff. To grasp immigration’s full effect, keep both eyes on production. Trapping Mexican farm workers on primitive Mexican farms starves them and us. It’s far better if they move here and enrich themselves by putting better and cheaper food on our tables.
Like driverless cars, immigration can impoverish some Americans while enriching the rest. As a native-born research professor, I ought to know. Thanks to an immigration loophole, about half the people in my occupation are foreign-born. Closing that loophole would give my career a big shot in the arm. Most labor economists similarly find that lower immigration helps native high school dropouts.
How can I concede this yet insist that illiterate foreigners are far better than nothing? Because unlike Mark, I don’t look at a would-be immigrant and ask, “Is there any possible downside?” Instead, I ask, “Is his net effect positive?” Every innovation is bad for someone, but innovation is still a good thing. Every immigrant is bad for someone, but immigrants are still good thing.
Why must I be so radical? In part, because this is a matter of basic human rights. We don’t have to give foreigners welfare or let them vote. But treating fellow human beings like criminals for working without government permission is unconscionable.
What cements my radicalism, though, is that doing the right thing would cost us less than nothing. If you think production leads to poverty, open borders should terrify you. Otherwise, the sooner America opens its borders, the better.