The Political Externalities of Open Borders: Digest Version
By Bryan Caplan
“How can the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter favor open borders?” I’ve heard the question dozens of times. Once you admit that (a) democracy does what voters want, (b) voters irrationally oppose markets and liberty, (c) voters from less pro-market and pro-liberty lands are probably even more irrational than we are, doesn’t the case for strict immigration restriction readily follow?
1. Open borders are an extremely important component of the free market and human liberty. The labor market is roughly 70% of the economy. Labor is the main product that most people around the world have to sell. Immigration restrictions massively distort this market, and deprive literally billions of people of the freedom to sell their labor to willing employers. So even if open borders made all other policies much less pro-market and pro-liberty, the (open borders + side effects thereof) package would almost certainly constitute a net gain for free markets and liberty.
2. The political effect of immigrants on markets and liberty is at worst modestly negative. The median American isn’t a libertarian, and the median immigrant isn’t a Stalinist. We’re talking about marginal disagreements between social democrats, nothing more. Immigrants’ low voter turnout and status quo bias further dilute immigrants’ negative political effect.
3. Immigrants have overlooked positive effects for markets and liberty. Voters resent supporting outgroups; that’s a standard explanation for why ethnically diverse America has a smaller welfare state than, say, Denmark. So even if all immigrants want a bigger welfare state, their very presence reduces native support for redistribution. Immigrants are also markedly more pro-liberty and pro-market than natives in one vital respect: They favor more open borders.
But in the final analysis, perhaps it’s best to respond to the political externalities question with another question: “If you favor markets and liberty, how can you oppose the deportation of the entire statist generation?” Native voters under 30 are more hostile to markets and liberty than immigrants ever were. Why not just kick them out? Part of your answer, hopefully, is that mass deportation would be a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything voters under 30 are likely to manage. My position in a sentence, similarly, is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.