The case for open borders

29 Aug 2017


The phrase ‘open borders’ has a tendency to raise alarm. For years now, politicians on the right and left have been warning us about the dangers of opening up borders and allowing for a more flexible immigration system. Right-wing populists like Donald Trump have argued that (Latino) immigrants are criminals and drug dealers, whilst leftists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn argue they drive down wages and destroy working conditions.


Such claims are  false, and are largely driven by a desire to keep the support of members of the white working-class.  Instead of fuelling populist rage, such politicians should open their eyes and realise the benefits of open, more flexible borders.


So, what are open borders, and why would they be beneficial?



Open borders?! Don’t you mean no borders?


Before going into the moral and economic benefits of open borders, I feel I should dispel one of the biggest myths about them. Open borders doesn’t mean no borders. It simply means allowing people to freely move to countries to find work. Checks of some kind would probably still exist. Think flying into Berlin from Paris and having your passport scanned  but the burdensome regulation surrounding immigrants and employment law would be heavily reduced.



The moral argument


Morally, open borders make sense. Indeed, when I hear people debate open borders, one of the first arguments made in their favour is moralistic. Today’s combination of tighter borders and restrictive immigration regulations actively discriminate against those from developing nations. Opening borders would be a policy that genuinely creates equal opportunities for all, regardless of one’s background or class.


Can we honestly argue that building walls with barbed wire and armed guards is morally a good thing? As noted by Alex Tabarrok in The Atlantic, no “standard moral framework” in moral ethics that allows for us to discriminate against someone’s right to travel and work freely.


And when he and others like myself say ‘right’, we don’t mean it in a wishy-washy, social justice activist way. Open borders would both uphold and extend Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, allowing not only for freedom of movement within states, but also freedom of movement between them.



The Economic argument


However, moral arguments are not enough. When they are brought up in debates, they tend to get dismissed as open to interpretation. So, if you really want to show just how beneficial open borders would be, look no further than economics.


In terms of the global economy, Michael Clemens of the Centre for Global Development (CDG) notes that open borders would lead to global GDP increasing by between 67% and 147%. Far from government intervention or events like Red Nose Day reducing global poverty, opening borders would allows millions — about 630m to be  more precise — to move to another country to seek a better life for themselves.


These workers would become far more productive not only because developed nations are technologically more advanced, but also because the clientele they would be working for would be richer, thus meaning that their services would be used more often and by a wider range of people. 


The economic benefits are also not — as many politicians claim — a one-way street. Countries that accept migrants benefit from the fact immigrants are far more likely than natives to set up their own businesses, many of which employ locals, especially young people and students.


These businesses are not all small ones either. A study by Duke University & the University of California at Berkeley found that, of all the companies that made up Silicon Valley, 50% of them were founded by immigrants, as were 25% of start-ups. Would this be totally replicated on a global scale if we opened borders? Probably not. But, it still counters the myth that immigrants take, take and take, giving nothing back in return.


Countries would also benefit hugely from the fact that immigrants routinely help stem skill-shortages, not just in the service industry but also in the medical, construction and engineering sectors. At a time for example when many complain about hospitals and other places being understaffed and inefficient, it makes sense to open borders in order to rectify these inefficiencies.


Furthermore, more immigrants would lead to governments taking in higher tax revenues. For example, a US study found that immigrant households pay an average of $11,000 more than their native counterparts. This increased revenue would offset any potential strains placed on say health services, services that would have already benefitted from the fact that immigrants plug skills gaps as mentioned earlier.



The benefits outweigh the risks 


Are there risks to opening borders? Yes, there are. For example, some of the new arrivals could be hostile to the society that receives them.


Nevertheless, open borders have the potential to make the world richer, reduce global poverty, and create genuine equality of opportunity for everyone. Instead of actively opposing them, politicians should embrace open borders.


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