The Freedom-Loving Case for Open Borders
By Bryan Caplan
Robert Nozick famously criticized government for forbidding “capitalist acts between consenting adults.” If an employer wants to hire you and you want to work for him, government should leave you alone. If a landlord wants to rent to you and you want to rent from him, government should leave you alone. The right of consenting individuals to be left in peace by the government is the heart of freedom. It doesn’t matter if the individuals are white or black, men or women, Christian or atheist; consenting adults of all stripes have the right to engage in consensual capitalist acts.
The case for open borders begins with a follow-up question: If race, gender, and religion don’t matter here, why should nationality? Suppose I want to hire a Chinese citizen to work in my factory, and he wants to work in my factory. Or suppose I want to rent my apartment to a Romanian citizen, and she wants to accept my offer. It seems like government should leave us alone, too. If it did, open borders – a world where every non-criminal is free to live and work in any country on earth – would result.
The main principled objection to this position is that countries are their citizens’ collective property. Just as parents can legitimately say, “My house, my rules,” countries can say, “Our house, our rules.” Though even many libertarians sympathize with this argument, it undermines everything they think about human freedom. The idea that countries collectively belong to their citizens has a name – and the name is socialism. If your dad can mandate, “As long as you live under my roof, you’ll go to church, refrain from swearing, work in my restaurant, and stay away from that girl I don’t like,” why can’t countries make comparably intrusive demands “As long as you live within our borders”? Authoritarians may bite this bullet, but freedom-lovers must reject the premise: America is not the collective property of the American people, but the private property of American property-owners.
This brings us to the long list of pragmatic objections to open borders. We’re short on time, so I’ll make two sweeping points.
First sweeping point: Immigration restrictions aren’t just another impoverishing trade barrier; they are the greatest and most impoverishing trade barrier on earth. According to standard estimates, open borders would roughly DOUBLE the production of mankind by moving human talent from countries where it languishes to countries where it flourishes. Picture an upscale version of the migration-fueled economic growth that’s modernizing China and India. Every advance hurts someone – see Uber – but open borders is not trickle-down economics; it’s Niagara Falls economics. This enormous increase in wealth – greater than all other known policy reforms combined – far outweighs almost any downside of immigration you can imagine – or all of them combined.
Second sweeping point: Immigration restrictions are not a minor inconvenience we impose on foreigners for the greater good. To legally relocate to the United States, you need close relatives, incredible talent, or a winning lottery ticket. Since every country has similar policies, almost everyone who “chooses” to be born in the Third World is stuck there – and being stuck there is very bad. How is their plight our problem? Because without our laws against capitalist acts between consenting adults, the global poor could pull themselves up bytheir own bootstraps in the global labor market.
Freedom-loving people often fret that immigrants don’t love freedom enough to come to the land of the free. They have a point: most immigrants don’t love freedom. But they’re missing a larger point: most native-born Americans don’t love freedom either. See the 2016 election if you’re in doubt. The real question is, “Do immigrants love freedom even less than native-born Americans?” I’ve seen the data, and the answer is, “Maybe a little, but immigrants don’t vote much anyway.” Sometimes sacrificing a little freedom now brings much greater freedom in the long-run. But for immigration restrictions, the opposite is true: They’re a never-ending, draconian violation of human freedom where the long-run payoff is hazy at best