Open Borders: A Morality Play by the 1%

By Rumplestatskin, a professional economist with a background in property development, environmental economics research and economic regulation. Follow him on Twitter @rumplestatskin. Cross posted from MacroBusiness

Alex Tabarrok, who I rarely agree with, has recently argued his moral position on open borders here. There is no doubt that most moral frameworks also support his position. As do I in the mere theoretical sense. As Tabarrok argues

How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in countries where their political or geographic institutions prevent them from making a living?

I have argued before that redistribution of wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest should be at the top of the policy agenda for any economist who believes in the utilitarian foundations of their discipline. Open borders is an indirect method for pursuing similar goals of increasing wellbeing for the poorest, and usually promoted by those who fall on Mankiw’s side of the political spectrum; by those who typically argue that the rich ‘deserve’ their wealth (counterargument here).

Open borders is merely the logical outcome of any type of ‘natural rights’ moral reasoning. People should have the opportunity to flourish irrespective of the patch of Earth they were born. Yet the idea boils down to being the policy you support when you want to help the world’s poor but don’t support actually giving them money. Tabarrok’s argument equally applies within borders between the rich and poor, and I paraphrase his comment to make this point. “How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in towns and suburbs where their financial and geographic constraints prevent them from making a living?”.

That open borders within countries does not automatically eliminate poverty reminds us be skeptical of claims that opening borders between them will reduce poverty automatically.

It helps to identify the potential winners and losers from opening borders in order to better understand the motivations it its proponents. If open borders works, and large scale migration occurs, the net effect is that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would have their wages reduced due to competition for unskilled jobs. By contrast, the richest individuals in rich countries, whose incomes are derived mostly from owning capital, would increase due to the greater demand for their domestic assets (such as land) following high levels of immigration.

Even the wildest proponents of open borders agree that

…open borders could not on its own eliminate poverty and that international migration could only help the relatively better off among the global poor

The rich get richer; that we know with some degree of confidence. The poor get, well, we don’t know. Probably poorer in relative terms, maybe richer in absolute terms. We just don’t know. But we can be fairly certain that the poorest in the world are unlikely to walk away from their homes and straight into the most exclusive enclaves of New York and London. Indeed, one suspects that the most highly educated from the poorest countries will be the first to leave (as they often are now).

Open borders in a global sense is therefore likely to be a game that benefits the richest from the poorest countries and still leaves the poorest with few options to improve their economic fortunes. 

Putting this raw economic analysis to one side for a moment, one question seems completely overlooked by proponents of open borders. Why do borders exist in the first place? If we can’t satisfactorily answer that question we won’t get far understanding the many important social issues that would accompany open borders.

A very brief and abstract story of borders is as follows. National borders typically exist as a result of previous wars, or the negotiations that took place between competing interests under the threat of war. These borders now serve as moral boundaries, whereby we see those within our border as part of our tribe. Tribes reinforce their internal cohesion through social signals, customs and rituals which foster stability. This process, however, can distance them from other tribes (countries).

It is these tribal and moral values of borders that make integrating tribes quite difficult. Immigration is always contentious not because of the existence of a line on a map, but because of these deeper social customs, norms and rituals are often in conflict. It takes a mighty will for immigrants to adapt to their new countries, and for citizens of destination countries to patiently accept new people with often conflicting customs and beliefs in their towns and suburbs. I generalise here probably a little too much, but the point I hope to make is that social integration is not automatic and is an extremely complex issue that needs to be properly considered in arguments for open borders.

While I don’t have a disagreement with open borders on moral principles, I disagree on practical grounds they should be promoted as a first-best way to improve the lives of the world’s poorest. Any economic success from such a fantastical global open borders policy would come at cost of social challenges arising from what I’ve described as ‘tribal integration’. The greater the economic benefits to the, the higher the social costs at both source and destination countries.

In many ways open borders is the type of policy you support to display street cred in the company of the economically rational, particularly when discussions turn to inequality and, god forbid, redistribution. Making the poor richer is as simple as giving them money and therefore access to resources, whether they are fellow citizens of your country, or your planet.

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  1. JGordon

    Despite you being an economist, I have to say that I agree with your premise here. In most cases people ought stay in the area they grew up and work to make it better; and in any case people usually do stay around where they grew up, even in geographically mobile societies like America–most people die within 50 miles of where they were born.

    That being said, “making better” where you live can mean a lot of different things to different people, and someone stuck in the westernized industrial economy mindset might by horrified (or worse, condescending) at what people of indigenous cultures have in mind when they think of improving their lot in life.

    That said, I’ve made a commitment myself to moving where the pretty girls are, so I think I’m going to test out the waters in LA and then move on to China depending on the prospects–that’s one of those few cases where I consider emigration to be not only justifiable but a great thing: providing diverse populations with the opportunity to minimize homozygous alleles.

    1. James Levy

      Mr. Gordon, I would contest that claim about people dying within 50 miles of where they were born. I know in the UK the number is 40 miles, but here in the US with so many older people moving to Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona I can’t imagine your number is remotely accurate these days, and will be less and less accurate as the Baby Boomers die. I’m a homebody and was born in Brooklyn. I now live in the Berkshire Hills, way over 50 miles from where I was born, and will likely die here. My closest friends growing up today live in Rochester, New York, Telluride, CO, and Ann Arbor, MI. None will die anywhere near where the were born.

    2. The Heretic

      For most people, improving where they are, where they are close to their network of family and friends, will probably increase the undefinable quantitiy of ‘human happiness’ much more so than for the poor people of other nations to move to richer nations. They key question is what are the constraints that prevent them from making improvement.

      The mistake of many ‘development organizations’, well meaning though they are, is that they attempt to impose Western solutions onto a poor nation, often aggravating local problems…Google Clinton’s effort to replace the native breed pigs of Haitti with a pig breed from the USA. He actually had enough conscience to appologize for this… Same with GMO crops in India…water hungry and fertilizer hungry, accompanied by ‘micro loans’…google Arundhati Roy for that story.

      1. jrs

        Yea the thing is most immigrants don’t immigrate to the U.S. for quality of life, because quality of life is back home with loved ones and community. But if there are no economic opportunities, in fact if other economic policies destroy economic opportunities, what are you gonna do?

        1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

          It could be a vicious cycle where people moving to the imperial core actually strengthens (at least temporary), by providing, ironically, net positive effect, the empire, so that further imperial adventures can be launched to make more people move to the imperial core.

        2. JGordon

          And that’s where the part about “condescending” comes in. Who gets to decide what an “economic opportunity” is? I would dare say that if we had a lot less “economic opportunity” in America, our lives could improve dramatically. I look around me and all I say are harried and worn-down Americans rushing around in their resource-wasting vehicles doing all sorts of amazingly useless things. I am absolutely positive that the overwhelming majority of these people would be much, much happier sitting home growing trees, raising animals and reading books with their family.

          Frankly industrialized people are stupid beyond belief to make themselves this miserable. And where trying to push that way of living onto others? My God, what hubris and insanity.

    3. Taryn

      It’s easy for you to say what people ought to do. The majority of migrant labor aren’t moving for a field trip elsewhere, many are in very poor conditions and their bosses have their passports. Otherwise check out youth unemployment rates – kids have to get jobs somewhere.

      But maybe I ought not take you seriously, since you seem to be one of these guys who moves to China to pick up chicks and donate your ubermensch DNA.

      1. JGordon

        Outbreeding is a demonstrated way of improving offspring viability and resilience with all organisms. I don’t really understand why someone would be against that. Or is it some kind of religious or cultural thing with you? Now that I think about it I seem to recall that there are still many people in places like Alabama and Mississippi with such taboos, so if I offended your sensibilities I apologize. Not that I’ll change my plans of course.

        For the other part, I absolute do not see where you are coming from here. From my perspective, you are too focused on your immediate discomforts to see the dire peril we are in; and it’s incredibly frustrating to me that so many people go around whining about jobs and “the economy” when a mass extinction event is in the offing.

        And with that in mind, I can and will continue to inform people that there are ways that we can live our lives that heal and regenerate the environment–so much so that the planet could easily accommodate a population of 20 or 30 billion people, let alone 9 billion. But if we keep doing things the way we’re doing them now, the carrying capacity of earth for humans is likely very much under 1 billion, and population trends will be reflecting that soon enough as our species continues to exhaust the last little bits of environmental resources that are left to us.

  2. allcoppedout

    The USSR once claimed its borders were not to keep people in but capitalism out. The essential problem here is ideology pretending to be rational conflating facts with desired outcomes. Back in 1956 Von Mises was declaring the redistributive triumph of capitalist competition against the obvious facts and the trends to the present. Soon the skin will become a superfluous boundary.

    Most boundaries are artificial. Money to authors is an example given in one of Yves’ links. You drink boundaries in Starbucks (Netherlands’ royalties) and buy them to use Microsoft products. Workers of the world might unite against global wage arbitrage without boundaries. In biology, boundaries abound, some permeable some not. Purpose is important – most of us would carry water in a bucket rather than a sieve.

    One might add that businesses erect boundaries to protect competitive advantage (barriers to entry etc.) and that moving production to Chindia erects barriers against wage pressures at home. Women only sport barriers are clearly prejudiced against men.

    The sad underlier of this story is the manky disciplinary matrix of barriers that provides us with the texts and teaching sinecures of an economics industry based on unproven crank-work. Most Americans are both fooled into believing their society is more equal than it really is and want more equality. What boundaries keep this position in place? What can be the intellectual honesty of a thinker positing more equality through the very means that destroy it be?

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Lots of ideas to think over here

      I would also add that nation-states are themselves artificial boundaries.

      While we can’t rid of our skin boundaries for the foreseeable future, open borders are only consistently possible within one giant global village – and that’s something people should decide.

      ‘The first biological boundary was the cell wall – our original “sin.”‘

      1. different clue

        Should fifty million Bangladeshis get to decide that Denmark is now their fair share of the Global Village? Sure, if they have the means of violent conquest to make their decision stick. Otherwise, not.

  3. F. Beard

    If common stock was widely used as private money then the benefits of foreign labor would be widely shared.

    You can twist, turn and squirm but the government-backed credit cartel is divisive, hateful, unjust and is at the root* of nearly every economic problem.

    The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:34

    *Who could EVER guess that a money system based on stolen purchasing power, especially from the poor, for usury and which requires extensive government privileges could EVER cause problems? /sarc

    1. j gibbs

      Are you familiar with K Marx: the theory of surplus value? About 90% of the population owns nothing beyond a house subject to a substantial mortgage, and has nothing to sell but labor time. Stolen purchasing power is a serious problem, but it isn’t the only problem.

      And you still have monopoly and land and intellectual property.

  4. John

    Ah, I was writing a similar post on my blog. You sort of of beat me to it. I live in Europe where the right-wing xenophobes are making some headway. The recent Switzerland vote on limiting immigration is a case in point. Switzerland is a tiny country that relies heavily on foreign, usually European, workers to fill high skilled jobs. For some reason, Switzerland cannot produce enough of these people locally.

    The result of the influx of people over the years has caused friction with the locals. Incoming people have a tough time getting up to speed on the language and customs.

    The Swiss breakdown for the vote was along language lines: French speakers favored open borders while the German speakers, favored caps.

    Keep in mind this was a populist vote, not government legislation.

    OT — EU reaction was swift in penalizing Switzerland. It was hypocritically swift even though there was nothing binding the vote to actual action. It was hypocritical because, 1) France, under Sarkozy, deported numerous Roma without as much as a wrist slap from the EC, 2) The Swiss government had not the time to legislate on the matter.

    Similar right-wing xenophobic scare tactics are happening all over Europe. Each country has some sort of anti-immigrant party ginning up foreigner fear and lean towards nationalism.

    I’ve visited numerous European countries in recent weeks and can add the net immigration effect has been positive to the communities where they go. Right-wingers proclaim foreigners are taking welfare, causing all the crime, jacking up rents, etc…. these are minor issues compared to the benefits the immigrants bring to the table.

    People have always emigrated when they see potential elsewhere. That will never change.

    1. William C

      Have the EU actually done anything concrete in response to the Swiss vote? I have seen words but not anything else.

      I agree, though, that migration is a big issue in European politics now and I think it may get bigger.

      1. Andrea

        They have suspended (or postponed for the mo) talks on:

        The electricity issue (accords for a better integrated electricity market). So this is a matter of not moving forward, and the status quo will just continue, but it does throw all kinds of planning into disarray.

        A long-term Institutional Guidelines Thing. Scotching this makes sense, as the situation is now much changed.

        They have announced that they have or will suspend Swiss participation in EU research programs (Horizon 2020, Human Brain Project, Erasmus program for students, etc. All huge and very important to all the parties.) This is a straight up threat or angry riposte, meant to show that they are pissed as all hell and CH can forget about the EU being accommodating in any way. They can’t and won’t do it soon – legally it doesn’t wash (for the moment) and it involves too many complications and would affect too many ppl in the EU itself. That is my reading.

        1. susan the other

          If production has become so efficient that it requires far fewer laborers why do we, or Switzerland, etc, want to have open borders? It’s just that much more unnecessary laborers. It is not logical because the unemployed live badly wherever they are so it’s not helping anyone. If there is another reason to have open borders it would be to make sure labor costs, aka domestic inflation, never goes up and the currency is kept stable on the backs of an impoverishment of 90% of the people just to the degree that they never prosper, never get ahead. It is monetary policy based on the inflation theory that only the rich can prosper if stability is to be maintained. Bad reason for open borders – so naturally the designers are not confessing to it.

          1. susan the other

            We need another benchmark. Another definition of stability which has nothing to do with the domestic currency which can be fiated and managed through mechanisms like MMT. It should be along the lines of social stability, equity and etc.

    2. Synopticist

      “I’ve visited numerous European countries in recent weeks and can add the net immigration effect has been positive to the communities where they go”
      Oh, that’s OK then, John.
      There was me thinking that wages at the bottom end tend to fall, and that competition for housing increases with mass immigration. I was also under the impression that the economic benefits skew towards the wealthy, employer classes, while the costs are borne by the poorest.

      It’s not just right wingers who think too much immigration is a bad thing.

      1. Andrew Watts

        The author is a typical member of the bohemian bourgeois, or ‘bobo’ for short. Bobos view themselves as saviors of mankind while they do nothing to threaten the status quo that provides their upper middle class privilege.

        They’re particularly effective at neutering left-wing radicalism which is why only the right-wing is talking about these issues publicly.

        1. Synopticist

          Yes, the alliance between upper middle class liberals who claim to speak for the left, and hardcore neo-liberals, in favour of mass immigration has a pernicious effect.

        2. Dirk77

          Yes. Easy to reveal the self-serving intellectual laziness in the “moral argument” for open borders by suggesting to them the natural logical next step: “open house.”

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        ‘…net immigration effect has been positive to the communities where they go.

        Probably, though like GDP, one suspects that it could be more nuanced than one number or net effect (from distilling, adding, offsetting non-addable, non-offsettable effects).

        Then, there is the net effect on the communities they leave…again, some positive, some negative, with uncertain net-ableness.

    3. Capo Regime


      Oh the horror–a populist vote! Thats the problem–sometimes people will go off and vote for things we don’t like. Well maybe the legislative solution will be more like the u.s. where those who know better ignore or make short shrift of the popular will. Can;t have all those xenophobes who incredibly have the gall to want to keep their country or town how they like it going around voting their preferences.

  5. james

    If we open the borders then instead of 12 million illegals seeking amnesty we would have ten times that many beating down our borders to get in. Our country can’t find jobs for millions of Americans already and to add another 12 million to that pool will just make it easier for the top 1 % to exploit the working class that much more. I sympathize with folks looking for a better life and would suggest poor communities do more to build their own local economies to create opportunities with in their communities where everyone applies their best skills to making what is needed without importing it. We keep trying to expand our populations and production and consumption and this old girl were living on is wheezing in a bad way. It is time to back off.


    1. James macDonald


      Are you really advocating our having a completely open border with Mexico?

      Jim MacDonald

  6. j gibbs

    Governments ought to exist to improve the welfare of those living inside the country. That is hard enough, so hard that no government in memory has ever even tried it. Only tenured academics would waste time and energy worrying questions such as this. America has quite enough people, 300 million at last count. As a group they are reasonably capable of performing whatever work needs to be done. The barriers of monopoly and corruption are another matter. Perhaps academics ought to focus on these in their copious free time?

    As for poverty outside the country: leave those societies alone to organize and trade on their own terms. Who knows, they may figure things out before we do.

    1. diptherio

      There is a distinct injustice in the way international borders function currently. If you have a blue passport, you can buy your way into any country, at least on a tourist Visa. If, however, you hail from a country that issues green passports, like Nepal, for instance, you will not be allowed through customs unless you are either 1) Rich and can prove it; or 2) carrying a work or student visa. I would love to bring some of my Nepali friends over for a stay, but even if I bought the tickets and provided their room and board, there’s no chance they would be allowed entry. This disparity in people’s ability to travel internationally is not acceptable to me, and I would support any efforts to “level the playing field” in this regard.

      That said, almost no one I have met really wants to immigrate to the US permanently. All of my Nepali friends would love to come and work in the US, but they all also say that they would want to come home after banking some dough. Probably half of my Nepali friends have worked outside the country at some point, with just such a plan in mind. It’s only worked out for one of my friends; the rest ended up being no better off, or even worse off, after their stint of working abroad, mostly due to the labor shark fees required to obtain a work visa in the first place combined with horrendous working conditions and pay that make breaking even at least a two-year proposition.

      I don’t have a policy conclusion to offer, but I also don’t think the status quo is really acceptable.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      There is a build-in bias towards a bigger population of debt-slave consumers.

      Almost all business blunders can be overcome, or at least can use more bought time, with more customers.

      And it also means more money and bigger profits.

      It’s easy to see. More people means more customers for

      taxi drivers
      hotdog vendors
      convenient store owners

      It’s hard to see anyone who would not profit from it…

  7. Ignim Brites

    An alternative to open borders might be moveable borders. For example, the US might want to consider moving it’s southern border a few hundred kilometers closer to the equator.

    1. Robert Dudek

      As a complement, the northern states should be handed over to Canada, so that they can be run more in accord with the people’s values in those states.

  8. Banger

    I recall Edward Abbey saying that the solutions to illegal immigration from Mexico is to close the border and everyone who shows up would be given an AK-47. His point was that emigration is a policy oligarchs in various countries pursue in order to avoid social change in their countries. Open borders facilitates this, as a practical matter. On balance, I still like the idea of open borders–we need something to shake things up.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      we need something to shake things up.

      This idea has merit in so far as the only thing likely to defeat the 1% at this point is the 1%. The problem with it is a certain detachment from the suffering that would be an inevitable result of shaking things up.

  9. Kurt Sperry

    The upsides of restricting ordinary people’s movements between states may be outweighed by the downsides- which are in the end probably mostly to do with maintaining immorally disparate levels of wealth. I’d like to see freedom of movement anywhere and anytime on the face of the globe enshrined as an intrinsic human right. Let the Western world unblinkingly face the reality they have grown comfortable with as long as it is kept at a safe remove.

    I suspect humans are sufficiently morally evolved to actually take whatever steps are necessary to alleviate endemic extreme poverty in the world as long as it can be rationalized as someone else’s fault or problem or held at a safe emotional and physical remove. Further, I find all of the West’s high minded moralizing about human rights and progress to be essentially just hypocrisy and moral cowardice as long as millions of people are dying of the symptoms of extreme poverty while others live lives of comfortable plenty insulated from it. It’s easy to put on a front of smug moral superiority as long as one knows one’s privileged place in the world is safe. Moral courage can only be evidenced when one’s own self interests are truly put in jeopardy by moral action. Otherwise it’s essentially empty rhetoric and platitudes.

    And I think if the human race is actually on a more or less progressive arc of development and these problems are actually faced with honesty, we could be looked back upon as being just as morally compromised by our blithe acceptance of widespread extreme global poverty as those who dismissed slavery or the institutional subjugation of women or having systemic underclasses to perform our work cheaply with a cynical shrug as the natural state of man and viewed any efforts at improving the lot of the larger portion of humanity as opposed to the privileged few as naïveté. Foreign aid is analogous to charity, a sometimes well intentioned fig leaf to cover our unwillingness to look at the deeper systemic causes of the misery of others.

    We in the wealthy developed world live in our gated communities/states surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the poor masses, protected by our armed guards from having our posh cocoons of privilege penetrated. This living behind an armed fence keeping the world at bay to protect my privileged position in that world is something that feels to me personally morally compromising.

    There is also the issue of political freedom. How free is a person who cannot “vote with their feet” and leave an intolerable situation? How much power do tyrants derive from the ability to hold their subjects captive–often aided and abetted by putatively liberal states that act as proxy guards for those tyrants by actively enforcing that captivity from the other side of the border? When we deny people the opportunity to flee intolerable tyranny, either through an armed border or a bureaucratic process that is designed to make travel across that border a practical near impossibility for the person fleeing, we in effect become culpable in that tyranny.

    I’ll happily admit I haven’t spent a great deal of time considering all the potential ramifications and ways open borders might be gamed by bad actors, but my gut feeling is that by default people should be free to travel, live and work anywhere they please in the world we share regardless imaginary lines and that the burden of rationalizing why people’s freedom to do so should be restricted must be placed squarely on those would restrict those freedoms rather than the other way round.

    1. Brooklin Bridge

      I’d like to see freedom of movement anywhere and anytime on the face of the globe enshrined as an intrinsic human right.

      The clarion certitude of no borders, eh? Would that include your street? Your house? Your kitchen? Your fridge? Your bedroom? Your bed? It sounds like it from the above, “anywhere and anytime on the face of the globe.” If not, why not? How would you draw a line other than fancy (perhaps the old dismissive ploy: “rediculous, nonesense”) language that boils down to: “The line occurs at the point it affects me, myself and moi-meme.”

      1. Kurt Sperry

        That’s an interesting question. The logical demarcation to me would seem to be one’s domicile and immediate adjoining property. Pretty much as is the custom vis trespassing in Italy or the UK where one can generally cross private properties at will as long as one avoids the immediate area of the house. So, to answer your question, street and all larger boundaries? Yes. House etc.? No. I’m not okay with people buying huge properties and throwing up “No Trespassing” signs all around the perimeter. That shouldn’t be allowable. On the other hand one should have an area that is private–just not a huge one. Sound reasonable?

        1. Vatch

          The effects of large scale migration extend beyond the precise physical locations of the migrants. As I have discussed in another comment, wages of the existing residents are almost always reduced by high levels of immigration, and there are major environmental and infrastructure consequences.

          Low and middle income Americans and Britons are not responsible for causing poverty or overpopulation elsewhere in the world, but they seem to be the ones who pay the costs associated with high levels of immigration. Since it is the rich and the super rich who most benefit from immigration, they should be the ones who pay the full costs of mitigating the environmental and infrastructure problems caused by the immigration. That is very unlikely to occur.

        2. Brooklin Bridge

          Sound reasonable?

          No, not really. What sounds reasonable to me might be what one could reasonably do in a given set of circumstances. The circumstances that surround open boarders are that international corporations are actively and effectively using those geopolitical boundaries globally as a means of breaking labor. Claiming a moral high ground without first addressing that issue, not to mention the underlying problems that permit the corporations to get away with it, sounds high flying, admirable (I have no reason to doubt your sincerity) and honorable, but not reasonable in any sense of being effective; that is, of helping large groups of people find sustenance, shelter and the means of continuing to do so.

          1. Brooklin Bridge

            I agree with @Vatch. I should have said, […]that is, of helping large groups of people find sustenance, shelter and the means of continuing to do so without ruining the infrastructure wages and means of support of other groups in the process.

    2. Working Class Nero

      The theory of global wealth convergence should be based on the third world moving towards what (was?) the first world model of a fairly even distribution of wealth among the various classes. You are not making the third world any better by letting in swarms of poor people into the first world countries; what you are doing is converging the first world down towards the third world model of a huge concentration of wealth in the rich. This is exactly the neo-liberal blueprint and it is amazing how many do-gooder liberals are ready to serve as useful idiots for the oligarchs – although I have to admit people on the left are really starting to wake up to this in a big way.

      This whole idea of the huddled masses being accidently and unfairly born into a country where they are then stuck has a darker flip side. It is that greedy oligarchs are also born into a country. A few centuries ago an Open Borders movement of oppressing oligarchs called colonialism was launched. Instead of sending checks home, these immigrant oligarchs sent the bill home to their taxpayers in order to socialize the costs of infrastructure while the colonizers pocketed the resulting profits. And a lot of this activity was aided and abetted by do-gooder liberals who talked about Christianizing and civilizing the natives.

      Eventually the colonized people rose up and using the tool of NATIONALISM were able to kick out the colonizers and then employed the concept of BORDERS to protect themselves from roving oligarchs.

      But unfortunately many of these former colonies have not flourished and are instead dominated by local oligarchs (often working in concert with foreign powers).

      So instead of emulating the West in bringing their oligarchs under a certain amount of control (less and less nowadays) and staying in the pocket by demanding a fair share of the national wealth, more and more people in the third world are taking off down field and fleeing to the first world. But this just acts as a pressure release valve for the local oligarchs and for their first world western wealthy elite cousins (because wealth knows no borders) the poor migrants serve as a powerful tool to pound down the standard of living of their native working and middle classes, the same classes who had previously foot the bill for colonialism are now paying an even higher price for Open Border reverse-colonialism.

      The working and middle classes of the first world have to use as a protective shield their borders to protect what remains of their welfare states. Free trade is fine between economically similar entities. But when it is used as a tool to drive down wages and inflate profits it is a serious problem. Some level of immigration is also normal; it will never happen that there is no movement of people. But again when immigration is used as a tool to destroy welfare states, rip apart social cohesion, force people to think in identity groups instead of social classes, then it is a nothing more than a weapon of class warfare.

      Global leveling should be encouraged by people of the various nations bringing under the yoke their oligarchs. And conversely the first world owes it to the third world to fight tooth and nail to make sure their elites are not meddling in third world affairs, no matter how many do-gooders claim we should get involved.

      Wealthy countries seem to have a tendency to go into a demographic decline and this process seems natural and should be allowed to play out. This decline leaves space for some of the younger countries to rise up. But they will only rise up if their people stay and fight their oligarchs for a fair slice of the pie.

    3. different clue

      “We” in the wealthy developed world? You mean “you”, not the rest of us, certainly not the nouveaux poor.

  10. Andrew Watts

    The proponents of open borders and free trade have not fulfilled the utopian destiny envisioned by their advocates. In the beginning the classical liberal theorists were genuine in their idealistic beliefs. Our neoliberals can make no such claim of honesty.

    In the present these policies have facilitated a brain drain from poor countries that has robbed their development of precious human capital and expertise. While the western world has seen a universal decline in the standard of living and a massive disparity in the distribution of wealth.

    But hey, it’s more money for the rich. That’s what makes America great.

  11. Vatch

    In the case of large scale migration to the United States, providing low wage employees appears to be the primary reason that the government allows it to occur. This includes both legal and illegal immigration. Sometimes corporations outsource by sending jobs to countries with large numbers of low wage workers. Other times the corporations insource by bringing in the low wage employees.

    Aside from the downward effect this has on the wages of U.S. citizens, there are also infrastructural and environmental considerations. When the population in a region rises rapidly, whether from a high birth rate or from a high migration rate, there are multiple effects. Water and sewage systems may not be able to cope with the higher population. Similarly, there will be school overcrowding, and emergency health services will be stressed. Any increase in population will bring harmful environmental impacts. Meanwhile, corporations and rich individuals benefit by being able to pay lower wages. It’s another example of wealth transfer to the 0.1%.

    1. Kurt Sperry

      “Aside from the downward effect this has on the wages of U.S. citizens, there are also infrastructural and environmental considerations. When the population in a region rises rapidly, whether from a high birth rate or from a high migration rate, there are multiple effects. Water and sewage systems may not be able to cope with the higher population. Similarly, there will be school overcrowding, and emergency health services will be stressed. Any increase in population will bring harmful environmental impacts. Meanwhile, corporations and rich individuals benefit by being able to pay lower wages. It’s another example of wealth transfer to the 0.1%.”

      Wouldn’t there just as likely be a corresponding but inverse effect on the country experiencing net emigration? Which is to say, less school crowding, less stress on water, sewage and health systems, If “Any increase in population will bring harmful environmental impacts” then wouldn’t any local decrease in population bring commensurate beneficial environmental impacts to the places being depopulated as well? The Earth being a closed system, these effects will tend to be be essentially zero sum within that system. Seems perhaps a bit parochial to assume all effects will necessarily net out as negative.

      I don’t mean to say that migrations across jurisdictional boundaries could not be exploited by the 0.1% for their own benefit, but surely that’s not the whole story.

      1. Vatch

        Hi Kurt, what you say is certainly true in part. However, I don’t think that some countries, such as the United States, have a moral obligation to be the safety valve for other countries’ harmful population growth. For one thing, the U.S. population would be growing even without immigration, although it would be growing at a much slower rate. So large scale immigration adds to a problem that already exists in the U.S. Second, migration from many countries has little effect on the overpopulation problem in those countries. Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines all provide large numbers of immigrants to the U.S., and population continues to grow at dangerous rates in those countries. The leaders of those countries need to take responsibility for their own domestic population problems. To an extent, China has done so, albeit in an oppressive fashion.

        The U.K. is another country that is being burdened by excessive immigration. Together, the United States and the United Kingdom are not even close to being large enough to absorb the world’s population problem.

        1. The Heretic

          There is another practical matter to consider. Concerning the US in particular, but also any country where there is large scale immigration that results in stress for the domestic population and the domestic government budget…how do you intend to manage the sharp rise in xenophobia upon the incumbent population. Among the poor and lower middle class, who already feel some degree of disenfranchisement in society, their degree of anger will rise substantially when they see immigrants recieve government services and take low wage jobs, even if they themselves experience no reduction… It is a recipe for civil strife in the target nation. Even here in Canada, a relatively propserous country, the incumbent poor and lower middle class do speak of their discontent at immigrant communities… the resentment of truckers at the number of Indian truck drivers, and the opportunistic xenophobia incited by the Quebec legislature via their new ‘culture laws’… And I would say Canada’s immigration numbers are managable at present.

          1. Working Class Nero

            The natural tribalism sometimes expressed by working class people towards immigrants is certainly a feature and not a bug from the oligarchic point of view. Since the ultimate goal is to destroy any social cohesion, by exaggerating working class reaction to their declining standard of living — which unfortunately does sometimes get directed towards the immigrants themselves instead of where it should be directed towards the wealthy elites that are pumping them into the country — the oligarchs can turn the bourgeoisie against the now-hated working class and demand even more immigration as a punishment for the racist working class. And obviously this results in even more working class reaction, which starts a virtuous cycle; virtuous from the oligarchic point of view because then anyone who resists mass immigration is immediately branded as a racist prole.

      2. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        Very interesting discussion here.

        I would add, to the overall pluses and minuses, that sometimes, so many people move, out of a village to urban areas, that the entire village dies out.

        This could be migration to domestic urban areas due to the relentless and, not always rare, regrettable ‘progress,’ or this could be migration to another country’s urban areas (and agricultural areas as well) due to neoliberalism bringing yet more ‘progress’ to their homeland.

        In these cases, you are left with ‘dead’ villages.

  12. Brooklin Bridge

    Beware of conservatives arguing from a moral position, at least when it comes to proposals that they claim will help the poor, like open borders.

    Conservatives??? Huh?? The Trojan traitors (thieves with nylon stockings pulled over their heads – like humans stuffed into leaky Trojan rubbers) that liberals are allowed to select from by vote, you know, “Democrats”, are the ones arguing themselves blue in the face for “open boarders” and their motive is just as shady -and as far removed from “helping” the poor- as that of any conservative. The only difference is that Democrats specialize in dissimulating their motives along with the cash and revolving doors they get from lobbyists.

  13. MikeNY

    I am just starting to think through these issues, and here are my tentative thoughts:

    It seems to me that completely open borders are neither practical nor desirable. Mass immigration can be destabilizing to a destination country that isn’t prepared to house or provide for them. It is too idealistic, in the way that Marx’s “fisheman in the morning, baker in the afternoon”, was too idealistic in an industrial society.

    It seems to me that free trade IS desirable IF the economic result of free trade is shared equitably or justly in each country. I don’t have a problem with the theory of competitive advantage, and I don’t have a problem with a relative reduction in America’s standard of living, say, if that means a relative increase in Jamaica’s standard of living. If the theory of competitive advantage is true, everyone can be beneficiaries of free trade; it can result in a more prosperous world, and more equal global wealth.

    I have a BIG problem with the exploitation of globalization by rapacious plutocrats who think that *they alone* should not have to share with their fellow citizens, and who think that *they alone* should be the beneficiaries of free trade. In short, I have a problem with people who have no conscience, for whom no amount of wealth is enough, and who WILL not see that we are all in this together.

    Once again, the crux of the issue for me is a moral awakening in individuals and in societies. (There’s no getting around Dostoyevsky.) I do believe that such an awakening is possible in society — much like Dan K wrote yesterday.

    1. different clue

      The theory of comparative advantage is often deceitfully misapplied to include advantageously slave wages, zero environmental regulation, zero working conditions standards, etc. The purpose of Free Trade is to keep Haiti as poor as it is now and to make America as nearly poor as Haiti as is possible. The purpose of Free Trade is to destroy wealth in all countries so some of that wealth can be monetized and sent to the upper classes of all countries.

      1. MikeNY

        To the extent the theory is deceitfully applied, as you say, and that results in the outcomes you enumerate, I’d say that confirms the need for moral awakening.

        What is your alternative? A return to walled medieval city-states? Or are you content to have the beggars change places, while the lash goes on?

        1. different clue

          I read about a possible better alternative long ago in a trade/economics article in Acres USA. It talked about an economist named Colin Clark who was an economics theory/practice adviser to those parts of the Vatican which thought about such things. This was during the Papacy of the Pope who helped organize the council which led to Vatican II.
          The alternative was: Equity of Trade. If any wannabe-importer wanted to import something into the US at a lower price than its American counterpart, that wannabe-importer had to pay to a special division of the US government the full difference between the import price and the American counterpart price, (and raise the price of their imported item to the American counterpart price.) That money would be held in special accounts (one for each foreign exporting country) to be used by any entity within that country which wanted to export back into its country anything made in America. The point would be to deprive foreign exporters ( or runaway American bussinesses hoping to export “cheaper” things into America from their foreign-based semi-slavery production platforms) of their artificial advantage based on
          lower wages or lower worker-safety and pollution prevention, etc. The more the foreign export platforms raised their standards ( and therefore costs) to American levels, the less price-difference would occur between their production and ours, and the less Forced Equity tariff they would have to
          pay. There may not be enough of an American economy left to benefit from such Forced Equity, which when proposed was about forcing others to climb to our level if they wanted entry into their market. Every nation has the right to protect its own market and nobody has any “right” whatsoever to export something into some other country’s market. Free Trade is, was, and always will be the general Evil Principle embodied in such actions as Britain forcing “free trade” opium from India into China.
          If you want a Haitian baseball, you have no right to pay a “Haitian” price for it. You should be forced to pay an American price for it regardless. If you want to buy Thailand sardines, you should be forced to pay the American price for those sardines. Competition on strict quality, as with Japanese and German cars, would continue as before.
          I believe your goal is to make American poorer and “making Haiti richer” is simply the bait on your hook. That is why you support driving America into the race to the bottom instead of forcing others into a forced march to the top if they want to import into America, which by the way, nobody has any right to do.
          And further , Colin Clark accepted that same logic for every other country.
          Under such forced equity logic, America would have had to pay tariffs to Mexico to prevent its lower-priced petro-chemicorn from selling for less in Mexico than Mexico’s own corn. If Free Trade is immoral anywhere, it is immoral everywhere. If you ever decide to embrace morality, you will reject Free Trade. That’s how we will know that you have embraced the morality you currently recommend for others.

      2. Lori

        Comparative advantage theory rests on an assumption of full employment; therefore it shouldn’t be taken to be a model of the real world.

  14. Brooklin Bridge

    Lipstick on a pig.
    First things first. Getting that first apartment, or car, doesn’t solve the problem of growing up and opening boarders doesn’t solve the problem of greed, corruption, hoarding or the worship of selfishness.

    I would agree that if enough people were to decide that opening significant parts of their possessions (such as, but not restricted to national boarders) towards the welfare of their fellow humans, then the need for boarders would largely disappear, but that is a far cry from what we have now; politicians and the MSM seeking to serve their corporate masters in the relentless effort to strip rights and assets off the working class by pitting one geopolitical group of workers against another.

  15. The Heretic

    Comment on the following…
    ‘I have argued before that redistribution of wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest should be at the top of the policy agenda for any economist who believes in the utilitarian foundations of their discipline. Open borders is an indirect method for pursuing similar goals of increasing wellbeing for the poorest, and usually promoted by those who fall on Mankiw’s side of the political spectrum; by those who typically argue that the rich ‘deserve’ their wealth (counterargument here)’
    AND another quote..
    “If open borders works, and large scale migration occurs, the net effect is that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would have their wages reduced due to competition for unskilled jobs”

    Why doesn’t this a-hole argue for closing of ALL tax havens and tax avoidance polices, strict enforcement of these policies by the rich countries, and higher taxes on the rich; the money that would be properly extracted from the ubber rich would severely limit their political power, and the money could be spent on properly building the nations from which the money was extracted. Instead he argues for impoverishing the middle classes and the poor, as their low-skilled and med-skilled jobs are taken up by the recent immigrants… This fellow is not a bleeding heart liberal, he is an academic wannabe plantation-owner hoping to cultivate of sufficiently large group of poor people to exploit in his first world country.

  16. jrs

    I suspect these things are always propaganda hiding their objectives. I mean a pure philosophical debate about open borders is one thing but has nothing to do with any policies ANYONE is pushing. The only actual policy we have being pushed in the U.S. is Obama’s immigration bill. But does that actually open borders? No! It makes the path to immigration a tiny bit shorter and it would increase the immigration of high skilled workers but at the same time it funnels money into actually MILITARIZING the borders – the complete opposite of open borders.

    “The number of border agents will double to 40,000, DRONE USE will expand and 700 miles of BORDER FENCING will go up. ”

    Dean Baker is foud of pointing out our “free trade” bills actually increase monopoly protection such as I.P. (managed trade). Yes and our immigration “liberalization” bills actually finance droning the border. What they want is MANAGED borders. Managed for who? Haha as if you need to ask – the 1% of the 1%. In this context our high minded academics pretend they aren’t discussing anything to do with actual proposed policy and want to discuss how many angels can fit on a pinhead.

    Well ok … angels on a pinhead. Why do borders exist? Because they geographically define the jurisdiction of states (but the U.S. thinks it has jurisdiction anywhere and bombs and spies where it pleases). Yea, yea, then they define the citizenry of states or in democratic theory who can decide the control of states (yes as we know the U.S. is a sorry excuse for a democracy). So why do borders exist? Why do states? Historically conquest and wars yes.

  17. Brooklin Bridge

    Large multinational corporations, in so far as they now run the globe, would never allow truly global open boarders for the same reason they are in favor of localized open boarders in specific areas such as the United States where they result in destructive competition for the working class and a weakening of the economic assets and infrastructure of the middle class.

    If all populations were boarderless and thus tribeless, this competition would be reduced or eliminated and the working class would start to defend themselves.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      The rich would like nothing but to play one nation off against another.

      ‘If I don’t like what I see, I am moving (my movie production, my factory, my project, etc) to another city/state/country.’

      They like borders when they suit the rich.

  18. casino implosion

    Amusing that neoliberal hacks make the “…but for the accident of birth” argument when cheap labor from other countries is in play.

    Anyway—longtime NC reader totally opposed to neoliberal, Clinton/Rubin/NAFTA cheap labor schemes. I guess that makes me a scary right wing populist.

  19. different clue

    This argument is the same as what Teddy Roosevelt and others stated to sanctify the extermination of the Indian Nations and the taking of the land. I forget the exact words. Something about why should a bunch of savages who never used the land be allowed to obstruct civilized millions who would develop the land? Only here it is restated as why should a few hundred million who have worked to create a less-than-desperate-poverty existence have any right to deny entry to two thousand million ultra-pauperised people who want to lift themselves into less-than-desperate-poverty?
    Actually, the Indians had every right to keep us out if they could have. All they lacked was the military technology and the high population to sustain huge armies in the field. Likewise for the Aborigines and their Australia. And likewise for us now. We have every right to try keeping two thousand billion people outside the borders of America so we can keep what they have. If they can conquer and exterminate us or submerge us, then they win the right to come here by Right of Conquest. Then two thousand three hundred million Americans and NeoAmericans can all be equally happy in our shared desperate paupery.

  20. different clue

    Keep what they have? I meant keep what we have. “Keep what they have” is the purpose of Free Trade and only the upper classes and their Republicans and their filthy Clinton Democrats ever wanted Free Trade. None of the rest of us ever did.

  21. j gibbs

    It seems to me that all the arguments for open borders are based ultimately on wooly headed do good fantasies about uplifting those stuck in the Third World, even when they trample the shrinking opportunities of first world workers and not coincidentally further enrich the predatory and toadying classes, providing cheap labor for the one and baby sitting for the other.

    Altruism is the liberal disease and the plutocrats use it like jujitsu to advance their own agendas. This reminds me of debates about Foreign Aid, back in the 1960s, the primary result of which was to enable American producers of surplus crap for which no market existed to dump it on the taxpayer so it could rot somewhere in Africa, where nobody had the faintest idea how to use it or what it was for.

  22. different clue

    By the way, which part of the article is straight faced and which is satirical? As many limousine liberals as support open borders to get their near-free nannies and yard-laborers and drastically under-priced food and so forth, one default-supposes that arguments for open borders are sincerely meant for upper-class selfish purposes.
    I reject open borders and free trade, by the way. If others want to open our borders to themselve, let them do so by conquest, if they can. And let us destroy their efforts in that direction, if we can.

  23. John

    Once, long ago, I may have agreed with open borders.
    But having watched and experienced 13 years of layoffs with Americans getting the shaft and H1-B visa foreigners still in their jobs I can tell you I’m against ALL immigration until the millions and millions of Americans have jobs again. ALL foreigners need to be sent home NOW. That would solve over half the unemployed problem in this country almost overnight.
    If you aren’t rich in America you need a job to survive. Without a job it’s straight to poverty and often the street. We DO NOT owe the world a job.

  24. Lori

    “Tabarrok’s argument equally applies within borders between the rich and poor, and I paraphrase his comment to make this point. ‘How can it be moral that through the mere accident of birth some people are imprisoned in towns and suburbs where their financial and geographic constraints prevent them from making a living?’.”

    “If open borders works, and large scale migration occurs, the net effect is that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would have their wages reduced due to competition for unskilled jobs.”

    If open borders become a truly worldwide phenomenon, the net effect might be that the poorest in the world’s richest countries would emigrate to poorer countries, where labor is still competitive with capital (but probably not for long, as automation is the long-term job killer), or more likely, because the cost of living is lower. Like W.C. Varones sez, it’s really about getting more consumers. German nursing home patients have been “emigrating” to nursing homes in Romania, for example.

    If the less expensive countries are less politically free, maybe it means “freedom isn’t free” is actually a statement about economics.

    At any rate, open borders worldwide (with capitalism still in place) would probably mean that between nations, like within nations, the real estate market is a human sorting algorithm; and between nations, like within nations, civil liberties tends not to be a front burner issue in a tough neighborhood…

  25. Jessica

    This is an issue I find myself incapable of being consistent on. On the micro level, I have met hundreds of immigrants of all types (professionals moving 1st world to 1st world professionals, educated people moving from 2nd/3rd world to 1st world, 1st world folks retiring in 2nd/3rd world countries). The borders that got in their way (and on occasion my way too) seemed irrational and foolish in each individual case. But on the macro level, I think that removing those borders would at best reduce living standards for most people across the 1st world and 2nd world to 3rd world levels and create a brain drain out of the 2nd and 3rd world. In the worst case scenario, the resulting chaos and plunging wage levels would create some type of global collapse.
    I have spent a fair amount of time in Denmark. As a social democratic country, Denmark has no valid basis for keeping people out. A nationalist could say “XXXland for the XXXers” but not a social democrat. On the other hand, the ability to sustain a society run a bit more on trust and inclusion and a bit less on the raw power of money depends on a cozy sense of “Us”. With open borders, (actually even with the borders as open as they are right now), the best that Denmark could hope for is a gradual shift to a more ruthless money-driven society, with a larger and tenser gap between ins and outs, haves and have-nots, in other words Americanization.
    Perhaps this is the issue that will force us to realize that we can no longer tolerate politics and societies that have as their unspoken, unchallengeable first rule the right of concentrated wealth to run roughshod over all other values.

  26. washunate

    Like all things in life…moderation is key :)

    Certainly it’s possible to imagine a theoretical world where borders are too open. We do need some basic system of organization, and citizenship seems a useful component of that model. But in the actual world where borders are way too closed, the calling to make things more open is quite worthwhile.

    It’s our present system of corporate trade that is what benefits the rich, from ridiculous IP law to mass arrests of immigrants to the surveillance state of tracking and papers and identification. It’s absurd, plain and simple, that someone in Detroit needs a passport to visit someone in Toronto.

    The threat that there would be mass migrations all over the world is little more than thinly veiled fear mongering and xenophobia. We know empirically that most people (in aggregate) tend to live where and how they were raised. The notion that a centralized police state is required to enforce this is based neither in evidence nor theory. In fact, one of the best methods of reducing net migration is to raise living standards where people are at, which does everything from lower birth rates (family planning is positively correlated with basic economic development) to make communities more resilient to local disasters (like famine and disease).

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