Meant for Each Other: Open Borders and Western Civilization
By Bryan Caplan
Meant for Each Other: Open Borders
and Western Civilization
Institute for the Study of Western Civilization has a powerful statement on its
webpage: “Western civilization has remade the world. Most of the West’s
inhabitants live lives of which their ancestors could only dream: doubly long,
rich in diet, teeming with comforts and diversions, and, most of all, endowed
with the gift of liberty–not just for a privileged few, but for the many.”
this passage, I found myself, as Keynes told Hayek, “not only in agreement, but
in deeply moved agreement.”
Unfortunately, the Institute’s fine words embody a major oversight: In
the current world, Western civilization still only belongs to the privileged
few. Most of the world’s inhabitants are
not born in Western nations – and Western nations’ laws make it almost
impossible for more than a tiny minority to immigrate to prosperity and
position: The world’s nations – including of course the United States – should
abolish their immigration laws. Anyone
willing to pay for transportation should be able to travel here legally, anyone
willing to pay for housing should be able to live here legally, and anyone who
finds a willing employer should be able to work here legally.
If I can’t
sell you on this radical open borders position, though, I won’t get mad. Instead, I’ll be an economist, trying to
bargain you into as much deregulation of immigration as you can stomach.
we grant foreigners the rights to travel, live, and work where they want? The same reason we should grant these rights
to women, blacks, and Jews: They’re human beings and they count. Is this asking too much? No.
I’m not proposing that we give foreigners
homes or jobs. I’m proposing that we allow
foreigners to earn these worldly
goods from willing native landlords and employers. Under current law, housing and employment discrimination
against foreigners isn’t just legal; it’s mandatory. Why?
Because the foreigners chose the wrong parents. How horrible is that?
plenty of horrible-sounding things are actually good. Like amputating a leg with gangrene. Are immigration restrictions like that? Maybe.
So let’s consider the leading complaints about immigration. For each complaint, I answer two
questions. First, how real is the
problem? Second, assuming the problem is
real, are there cheaper and more humane remedies than lifelong exile from
complaint is probably that mass immigration leads to poverty. Virtually every economist who’s thought about
this reaches the opposite conclusion: Open borders would massively enrich the
world. A typical estimate is that free
migration would DOUBLE global GDP. Why? Because the status quo traps most of the
world’s labor in dysfunctional economies where people produce at a fraction of
their full potential. Moving a Haitian
to the U.S. easily increases his output by a factor of twenty. Hard to believe? How much could you produce in Haiti?
massive influx of foreign labor drive down native
living standards? It depends on what the
native does. Immigration of workers who
produce what you produce hurts
you. Immigration of workers who produce
what you consume helps you.
is like new technology. Driverless cars will
be bad for taxi drivers, but enrich everyone else. The net effect, as the history of Western
civilization plainly shows, is clear-cut: Mass production is the mother of general
prosperity. Still worried? There’s a cheaper and more humane remedy than
keeping foreigners out: Charge them an admission fee or surtax, then use the
proceeds to help displaced native workers.
most popular complaint is that mass immigration is a massive burden on taxpayers. Milton Friedman himself famous declared, “You
cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” The social science, however, tells a
different story: The average immigrant pays about as much in taxes as he uses
seems hard to believe, consider two things.
First, other countries have already paid for adult immigrants’
education, so we don’t have to. Second,
a lot of government services – most obviously defense and debt service – can be
consumed by a larger population for no extra charge. Still worried? There’s a cheaper and more humane remedy than
keeping foreigners out: Make them eligible to work but not collect benefits.
complaint, which I suspect has great resonance at the Institute for the Study of Western
Civilization, is that immigrants harm our culture. The data on English fluency is fairly clear:
While many first-generation immigrants are not fluent, second-generation
immigrants almost always are.
measures of culture are harder to pin down, but I’ll say this: Western culture already
dominates the global marketplace.
Nationalists around the world use cultural protectionism to “level the
playing field,” but most local cultures keep losing. The obvious reason: Western culture is
better, so people around the world choose it when it’s on the menu. Part of the reason it’s better, I hasten to
add, is the West’s openness to
awesomeness. Anything good can join
the Western bandwagon. That’s why Arabic
numerals are a triumph of Western civilization.
challenge to the fans of Western culture: Given its current global success, imagine
how much more dominant Western
culture would be if people around the world were free to vote with their feet
for whatever culture they prefer. Still
worried? There’s a cheaper and more
humane remedy than keeping foreigners out: Admit anyone who passes a cultural
common complaint is that immigrants will vote for bad policies – transforming
our country into one of the dysfunctional societies they fled. Here, the data do show that the foreign-born
are more economically liberal and socially conservative; they are, in a word,
less libertarian. But the difference is
moderate, and the foreign-born have very low voter turnout anyway. Furthermore, there is good evidence that
ethnic diversity reduces native
support for the welfare state. This is a
standard story about why the U.S. welfare state is smaller than Europe’s: We’re
a lot more diverse, and people don’t like supporting outgroups. The net
political effect of immigration, then, is unclear. The data, moreover, show little effect. For every California, there’s a Texas. Still worried?
There’s a cheaper and more humane remedy than keeping foreigners out:
Admit them to live and work but not to vote.
sugarcoat things. Free migration is a
radical change. But radical change in
the direction of human freedom is as Western as Shakespeare. Freedom of religion was a radical
change. Abolition of slavery was a
radical change. Ending Jim Crow was a
radical change. Before they were tried,
people feared that such radical changes would destroy Western
civilization. After the changes were
tried, though, people realized that state religion, slavery, and mandatory
discrimination were never compatible
with Western civilization’s commitment to individual freedom.
you would react if the world’s governments denied you the right to live and work where you please because you chose
the wrong parents. Does that sound like
the glory of Western civilization to you?
I think not. Western civilization
cannot realize its full potential as long as Western governments require discrimination against most of
mankind. Open borders will bring Western
civilization to the world by bringing the world to Western civilization. Open borders and Western civilization are meant
for each other.