Introduction to the Czech Edition of Open Borders
The Czech translation of Open Borders is now available for sale. And for those of you who don’t speak Czech, here’s the English version of my all-new Introduction to the Czech Edition. Special thanks to Martin Pánek, Director of the Liberální institut, for making this all possible. Enjoy!
Introduction to the Czech Edition
During the Cold War, the mass murder and slavery practiced by tyrants like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao received little attention in the West. Yet almost everyone knew about Communist migration policy. Immigration to the East was barely an issue because almost no one wanted to move to Communist countries. Emigration, in stark contrast, was a massive issue because so many people living behind the Iron Curtain were plainly eager to leave. Why didn’t they? Because they were not free to do so without their rulers’ permission – and that permission was nearly impossible to obtain.
The Berlin Wall provided the most dramatic illustration of Soviet Bloc emigration policy. Armed guards murdered anyone who tried to cross the border without permission. The Berlin Wall stood out because Western media could easily film the blood. But the same “No one gets out of here alive” policy was the norm throughout the Communist world.
Once in a long while, Communist leaders forthrightly defended their migration policies. Gorbachev, most notably, told American journalist Tom Brokaw:
What they’re [the West] organizing is a brain drain. And of course, we’re protecting ourselves. That’s Number One. Then, secondly, we will never accept a condition when the people are being exhorted from outside to leave their country.
Since the collapse of Communism, virtually the whole world has come to see Soviet-style migration policies as an abhorrent human rights violation. While such policies helped Communist regimes endure, they were almost certainly bad for their people. And even if they weren’t, denying the freedom of migration just seems morally wrong. If your government has made its subjects eager to flee, your government should switch to better policies – not turn your country into a giant prison.
On reflection, however, this epiphany raises an awkward question. Suppose that the government of, say, Communist Czechoslovakia negotiated the following deal with every neighboring country: “We’ll remove our ban on emigration if you institute a ban on Czech and Slovak immigration.” Strict enforcement continues, but now it is foreign – not domestic – guards who shoot people for illegally crossing the border. Challenge: Would this have been morally permissible?
The quandary is clear. In today’s world, almost everyone continues to recognizes countries’ right to restrict immigration in any way they please. Yet my hypothetical immigration ban has exactly the same effect as the policy of Communist Czechoslovakia. If the latter is an abhorrent human rights violation, why isn’t the former as well? The book in your hands, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, tries to grapple with this question on a deep level.
The most straightforward response is to argue that free immigration, unlike free emigration, has very bad economic, fiscal, cultural, or political consequences. So bad, in fact, that turning countries into prisons is the lesser evil. Open Borders considers each of these objections in turn, and concludes that the overall benefits of free migration have been vastly underrated.
This is clearest for immigration’s economic effects. Consider the case of a citizen of Communist Czechoslovakia who escaped to West Germany. Higher wages were one of the main reasons to move. Why, though, were wages so much higher in West Germany than Czechoslovakia? Simple: Because the West German economic system used human labor far more efficiently. Moving from East to West could easily triple your productivity. Migration did not merely shift GDP from East to West; it raised the GDP of humanity by moving labor from places where labor accomplished little to places where labor accomplished much. And the same is true for virtually all migration. Migrants flow from places where wages and productivity are low to places where wages and productivity are high, enriching themselves and the world. Estimates of the size of these gains are massive; a standard figure is that open borders would roughly double the production of the world.
Immigration’s other effects are less clear-cut, and more likely to vary from country-to-country. Open Borders heavily focuses on the United States, the world’s top destination for immigrants. At least in the United States, the fiscal, cultural, and political effects of immigration look quite good. The bigger lesson, though, is that even if fiscal, cultural, and political effects were much worse, they would likely be dwarfed by immigration’s aforementioned productivity gains.
Is there any way to justify immigration restrictions despite these enormous benefits? The “ethics” portion of Open Borders evaluates the facts from a wide range of moral philosophies. In the end, the only solid foundation for immigration restrictions is the socialist premise that countries are the collective property of their citizens – collective property they may legitimately use as they collectively wish. Only then can one flatly say, “The actual costs and benefits of immigration are irrelevant. If the people of this country don’t want to admit immigrants, they have every right to exclude them.” With private property, in contrast, employers, landlords, and merchants individually decide whether they want immigrant workers, tenants, and customers in their businesses, apartments, and stores. And when free to choose, many – though not all – employers, landlords, and merchants will embrace immigrants with open arms.
What’s so terrible about the socialist premise? Most strikingly, the socialist premise readily justifies the emigration restrictions that almost everyone now concedes to be a moral travesty. If the nation and everything in it collectively belong to its people, what right does anyone have to take his talent elsewhere? That was Gorbachev’s position – and from a socialist viewpoint, he was correct.
Do I really expect these brief remarks to change anyone’s mind on an issue as passionately debated as immigration? No. My hope, rather, is to make you muse, “Maybe this open borders idea isn’t so crazy after all” and start flipping the pages. Once you see Zach Weinersmith’s gorgeous art, I think you’ll want to keep reading. As you read, you’ll notice that unlike most political books these days, my arguments are designed to persuade readers who don’t already agree with me. My goal is not to condemn those who think differently, but to find common ground and calmly move forward from there. If you read to the end, I really do think you’ll see immigration in a new light.
 Critics of this argument often object that, “All of these gains go to the immigrants.” In the real world, however, the benefits of large productivity increases are almost always widely shared. The main beneficiaries of industrialization, computers, and vaccines have plainly not been factory-owners, programmers, or medical researchers, but consumers.