The phrase “open borders” is not one you hear much these days. The ostensibly populist surges that catapulted forward both Trump and Brexit were built in large part on extreme border control; the liberal world order’s belief in a globally connected planet is very much under threat. Conditions for refugees are mortally dire: The New York Times recently reported that “more people have died illegally crossing the southwestern border of the United States in the last 16 years than were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined.” And yet: suggesting to even avowedly liberal pals that you believe in open borders would get you, politely or otherwise, laughed out of the room.
Which is why I love the folks at OpenBorders.info so much.
While the West grapples with its existential crisis, these guys — many of them professors or think tank employees — calmly and surely put forth every argument they can think of in favor of open borders. That means we get everything from the philosophical (covered: Libertarian, Utilitarian, Egalitarian) to the economic (“Double World GDP”; “End Poverty”) to the culinary (“Cuisine diversity benefit to immigrant-receiving countries.”) The throughline, as OpenBorders.info contributor and George Mason University professor Alex Tabarrok wrote in the 2015 book How To Save Humanity: “All people should be free to move about the earth, uncaged by the arbitrary lines known as borders.”
In the context of our current climate it’s a wild idea, to be sure. But is it really all that far out there? The FADER chatted with Prof. Tabarrok (via email from his sabbatical in India) to hear more.
These days, we seem very far removed from the possibility of open borders. What needs to change for us to start discussing this seriously?
The liberal world that emerged out of World War II was diminished and weak but we did slowly climb our way out of the pit. Iron curtains were lifted, the Schengen Agreement created open borders in Europe, China and then India liberalized and opened their economies. The internet connected the world. So I do believe that the trend is right. Technology, in particular, is hard to put back in the box. Information today flows easily over borders and that alone will tend to bring humanity closer together. We don't live the trend, however, we live the actual experience and that is subject to massive ups and downs.
Under the Trump administration, there has been a massive push for aggressive border control. Have you seen that kind of aggression spur a similarly impassioned reaction on the other side? Meaning — do you think Trump's obsession with border control has inspired some liberals to warm up to the ending of borders (an idea they may have found too radical under less heated circumstances)?
Divisive rhetoric causes people to take sides. That's not always good but in some cases it can be necessary for progress. When people didn't think much about homosexuality, for example, homosexuality was easy to suppress because that was always what had been done. But when gay rights activists at Stonewall forced people to discuss and debate the issue it became clear that there weren't many good arguments---arguments that could withstand the heat of scrutiny in a liberal democracy--in favor of punishing people for what were consenting acts among adults.
By bringing the issue of freedom of movement to the fore perhaps Trump's rhetoric will inspire greater attention to the fundamental questions: how can it be justified to use violence against people who merely want freedom of movement? What justifies machine guns on the wall to prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults? Why is discrimination against people due to their national origin illegal, yet discrimination against foreigners perfectly legal?
Does the end of borders mean the end of citizenship?
No, the end of borders does not mean the end of citizenship. In Europe today there are still Poles and Spaniards and Germans even though there are open borders between these countries. Even in the United States there are differences in the laws and attitudes of Texans, New Yorkers, and Floridians.
I am also not against imposing (as we do) requirements that immigrants not use the welfare system for a period of 5 or 10 years or some reasonable number. As a principle, all people, domestic or foreign, ought to stand on their own two feet.
What about a country still trying to stop those who wish to enter it in order to do it harm? Is there a situation you could agree with in which border control still exists, but only to monitor would-be attackers?
Sure, borders may be useful as a matter of convenience. We search people getting on a plane, for example, even when it is a domestic flight! Outbreaks of infectious diseases could also justify temporary measures of border control (although we usually inflate these dangers but the argument per se isn't absurd).
Say you're engaged in small talk at a party about the end of borders with someone who, you can tell, finds the idea preposterous. What one argument do you pick to sway him or her?
What's interesting about the argument for open borders is that it's consistent, even required, by many different moral frameworks. A utilitarian economist, for example, is likely to be impressed by the fact that people who move from developing countries to the United States are able to increase their wages by five or ten times. An enormous improvement in the standard of living. At the same time, this doesn't come at the expense of anyone else. Indeed, it appears that immigration actually increases the wages of most citizens (and at worst diminishes the wages of the least skilled by only a small amount.) Thus, the net benefits of immigration are very large.
Christians might find the parable of the good Samaritan and Jesus's admonition to “love they neighbor as thyself” relevant. Someone interested in philosophy might be convinced by thinking about the rule that they would choose for the world if they didn't know what country they would be born in. People interested in music and culture might be convinced by the great benefits of cross-pollination and how much a diversity of viewpoints and perspectives can strengthen an organization. Thus, the key argument for open borders will be different for different people but there's a good argument for everyone.
In 2015 you wrote "Today, we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let their people exit. I look forward to the day when we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let people enter." Do you believe we are moving, however slowly, toward that day?
In the late 19th century it was possible for a person to travel over much of the globe without even a passport! That world, however, was destroyed by genocidal hatred, two world wars, and the rise of communism. So I have no illusions. We could fuck it up again.