Last night I debated Stephen Balch of Texas Tech’s Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.  Here’s my opening statement.

Meant for Each Other: Open Borders and Western Civilization

The 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.”

Reading 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 freedom.

My 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.

Why should 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?

Of course, 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 Western civilization?

The leading 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?

Would a 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.

New immigration 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.

The second 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 in benefits.

If this 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.

Another 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.

Broader 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.

My 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 literacy test.

A final 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.

I won’t 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.

Imagine how 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.