Open Borders and The Walking Dead
By Bryan Caplan
I just finished volume 13 of The Walking Dead. It’s my favorite comics discovery since Barefoot Gen. At first glance, it’s mere genre fiction – an unexplained zombie plague destroys civilization in a matter of weeks, leaving a handful of desperate survivors to face the horrible aftermath. But before long, you know you’re reading something special. The Walking Dead isn’t a zombie story; it’s a story of human nature – how people think, feel, and interact when their lives are on the line.
As you’d expect, evolutionary psychology plays a huge role – inclusive fitness and group-serving bias are omnipresent. But awkwardly for me, the series also makes a compelling case for immigration restrictions. When the zombie plague first hits, normal humans readily band together for mutual aid. But before long, society gets ugly. Within groups, the shortage of food and other resources soon leads to division and strife. But most of the atrocities are between groups. Murder, rape, sadism, and cannibalism swiftly emerge.
Before long, every group is afraid to admit new members. Who are these strangers who want to join your tribe? Are they scheming to rob you and flee? To kill your dominant males and take over? To betray you to the group that really has their loyalty? Before long, every group has rigid immigration restrictions. This is especially true for groups that occupy secure locations. And I’ve got to admit – in their shoes, I’d probably do the same.
Also noteworthy: In The Walking Dead, Julian Simon’s logic holds more than ever. There are massive positive externalities of boosting population: More ideas, better division of labor, better risk-sharing, and above all greater safety in numbers. The problem is capturing those externalities without getting stabbed in the back.
Still, on reflection, The Walking Dead doesn’t show that immigration restrictions are a good idea. It shows how desperate conditions would have to be before immigration restrictions became a good idea. If one-in-three immigrants were a serial killer, a rapist, or a secret agent planning to smuggle in an enemy army – not too far from humans’ ancestral environment – fear of immigrants would be justified.
Fortunately for us, the modern world is utterly different. Modern immigrants don’t want our blood – just an employer, a landlord, and a grocer. Unfortunately for would-be immigrants, we still haven’t emotionally accepted modern realities. Human potential is all around us. But unless it shares our national of origin, we see zombies.
P.S. I’ll be giving a Provocative Lecture on immigration in San Jose, California on Tuesday. If you’re there, stop by and say hi.