The Case for Open Borders

In Sunday’s New York Times, just below the fold, there was a heartbreaking story about a young girl, Noemi Álvarez Quillay, who died in a Mexican shelter last month, she was 12 years old. Her parents, currently undocumented immigrants living in New York City, had paid smugglers (“coyotes“) to bring her all the way from Ecuador, a journey of over 6,500 miles. After being caught by Mexican authorities and sent to the youth shelter, she was inconsolable and was later found hung in a bathroom. Her death as been ruled a suicide. Noemi’s story is not unique. The Office of Refugee Resettlement estimates that the number unaccompanied minors caught entering the country will reach 60,000 over the past 12 months ending in September 2013. The sad part? 60,000 is a drop in the bucket when you’re deporting over 30,000 undocumented immigrants a month and your border patrol has an annual budget of almost $13.5 billonIt doesn’t have to be this way.

What if, instead, we lived in a world where anyone could move to wherever they wanted at any time and for as long as they wanted?

What if, instead, we lived in a world where anyone could move to wherever they wanted at any time and for as long as they wanted? This revolutionary idea started to intrigue me following a passionate post by Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution. I try not to summarize Tabarrok’s post, you should just go and read it yourself, it’s that good. Beyond preventing heartbreaking stories like Noemi’s, eliminating the borders globally could bring about massive gains in human welfare, economic output, and equal opportunity.

Below I’ve complied some of the most compelling of those arguments. (For an even more in-depth exploration of the theoretical underpinnings of the concept, check out the excellent 

1. The Moral Case

Using a strict reading of moral frameworks (libertarianism, utilitarian, egalitarian, etc.) restricted national borders are nearly impossible to justify. How is is my liberty jeopardized by someone wanting to come into my country who couldn’t before?  If we believe in providing equal opportunity to all (not just our fellow citizens) how can we limit the potential of those who don’t have the same opportunities as we do just because they were born somewhere different? In many countries there are institutional and structural impediments that limit occupants’ potential. When people are granted the chance to move to locations where institutions and growth are strong they see a huge boost to their income and productivity. So, if by giving people the right to move freely across borders it allows people to provide better lives for themselves, can a practical case also be made for opening up the world’s borders?

2. The Practical Case

If you’re serious about alleviating (and ultimately destroying) global poverty or at least reducing global inequality you have to be serious about the idea of open borders. It’s been estimated that opening the world’s borders could bring about a 50-150% one time increase in global GDP. As people move to locations where there skills and labor are most in demand, their incomes will rise. Not only would opening the borders increasing the size of the pie that is the global economy, but it would also likely begin to shift the sizes of the slices by increasing both income and growth globally. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Piketty doesn’t mention this in his Capitalism in the 21st Century while proposing the almost equally politically/practically infeasible idea of a global wealth tax, but more on the book later). Clearly open borders would have a significant impact on potential immigrants, but there’s also evidence that it would have an impact on immigrant-receiving countries, especially highly-developed ones.

  • Highly developed countries tend to have knowledge intensive economies where labor tends to be complimentary. If an astrophysicist can spend more time studying the stars and less time doing other tasks everyone will be better off.
  • Since advanced economies tend to offer better institutions, legal structures, and infrastructure, they’re better able to reap the benefits of additional innovation. The founders of the next Google may only be able to start and build that company in the US, rather than the country they emigrated from. Since the company’s founded and based in the US, the country will reap most of the benefit.

While it remains revolutionary*, opening the world’s borders should be the next big equal rights and globalization campaign. As Tabarrok writes, when Thomas Clarkson founded The Society For The Abolition of the Slave Trade in the late 1700s, the idea that he would live in a world where slavery was socially unacceptable was inconceivable. Yet by the end of his life, slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

By opening the world’s borders we could advance the rights of billions of people while also bringing about the potential for a massive gain in human welfare. Revolution happens, and it can’t afford to happen with the potential to improve the lives of this many.

*If you’re more interested in some constructive, practical solutions to the US’s immigration problem specifically, take a listen to this Planet Money episode.

Comments or questions? Send them to me @jeremysjacob