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Happy Open Borders Day: How to Argue for Immigration Restrictions

Immigration restrictions

By Jason Brennan

In honour of Open Borders Day, here is an excerpt from the current draft of Global Justice as Global Freedom, which Bas and I are writing for Oxford University Press. This excerpt comes from the end of chapter 5. In chapter 5, we make the preliminary case for open borders. In chapters 6 and 7, we respond to and debunk a series of economic and philosophical arguments against open borders.

At first glance, immigration restrictions look like rights violations. When we impose immigration restrictions, we do not simply fail to help would-be immigrants, but rather use violence and threats of violence to prevent them from making life-saving or life-changing trades with willing trading partners. We also harm our own citizens, who would benefit from interacting with those immigrants. We impose ourselves and cut off relationships that otherwise would have formed. We use violence and threats of violence to interfere with people who, if left alone, would work or live or trade together.

If a country placed internal immigration restrictions on its own citizens, almost everyone agrees that this would be a huge violation of their human rights. But, for some reason, they treat immigration restrictions between countries differently. Perhaps, in the final analysis, they will be right to do so, but they bear the burden of proving that there is a real difference, a difference sufficient to explain why it’s impermissible to violently interfere with voluntary interactions between co-nationals, but permissible to violently interfere with or ban voluntary interactions between people from different nations. In the next two chapters, we’ll examine a range of arguments that attempt to defend such conclusions, but, as we’ll see, in the end these arguments all fail.

The best estimates of the effects of open borders find that they could double world product, or, under more pessimistic assumptions, at least add something like an additional China + Europe + United State’s worth of production (and associated increases in living standards) to the world each year. The economic upsides of open borders are staggering. People who oppose open borders on economic grounds thus need to find some economic downsides that outweigh the benefits. In the next chapter, we’ll examine a range of arguments that attempt to show that open borders would have bad economic consequences, and that these bad consequences suffice to show we should restrict immigration. In response, we’ll show that these arguments get the facts wrong. We’ll also argue that even they had the facts right, they would also fail to justify immigration restrictions (or, at least, most restrictions).

Before we move on to examine the various objections to open borders, we want to provide a sort of checklist outlining what it would take to defend immigration restrictions. As we see it, most arguments for closed borders (or against open borders) take the following form:

  1. Open borders would cause some Bad Thing B or are incompatible with Good Thing G.
  2. Therefore, let’s keep borders closed.

The arguments are often quick and dirty like that. But making a successful argument of this form is trickier than people realize.

First, we need real evidence that open borders do indeed produce the Bad Thing B or come at the expense of some Good Thing G. As we’ll see especially in the next chapter, often such arguments are just mistaken about the facts. For instance, many people believe open borders would depress domestic wages, but the evidence seems to show that for most domestic workers, they would do the opposite. Or, other times critics simply speculate that open borders would have some negative effect, but do not provide any evidence that they would.

Second, we need a good philosophical argument that in order to avoid B or get G, it’s worth closing borders. For instance, suppose it turned out that open borders would undermine France’s distinctive culture. We would then need a good argument showing us that that is sufficient reason to close borders. Neither of us are Francophiles, but we suspect that even if we were, we wouldn’t see maintaining France’s culture as a reason to forbid French people from making willing exchanges with immigrants, especially when such exchanges produce serious economic growth and seriously reduce world poverty. States do not have the right to promote just any old consequence at this kind of price. They have a limited scope of what they may legitimately do. So, when an immigration restrictionist claims that open borders would lead to some result he finds undesirable, he needs to supply us with an argument about why the state should be concerned with that result and why it would be sufficient to justify the very serious imposition of closing borders.

Third, as an elaboration of the last point, the restrictionist who favors closed borders must provide argument for generally closed borders, rather than an argument for specific, targeted restrictions. Consider: Suppose we are worried that immigrants from West Africa might carry Ebola, or immigrants from Afghanistan might be terrorists. At best, these worries call for targeted restrictions or additional screening for people from those countries. They do not call for maintaining the status quo of mostly closed borders. It would call for opening borders to everyone from China, India, Europe, South America, and elsewhere.

Fourth, as another elaboration of the second point, we need to know why avoiding Bad Thing B or getting Good Thing G doesn’t also call – by consistency of reasoning – for internal migration restrictions. After all, many of the arguments restrictionists offer, such as the claim that immigrants might depress wages, sully culture, cause crime, that democracies “own” their institutions, or possess a right to self-determination, and so on, seem equally good as arguments for forbidding internal migration. For instance, if “they might cause crime” is a reason for the US to forbid Mexican immigration, why is it not also a reason for low crime New Hampshire to forbid black immigration, or immigration from high-crime Southern whites? As far as we know, none of our intellectual opponents support internal migration restrictions. So, we need a plausible argument why these reasons for closing the borders of the nation-state do not also count as sufficient reasons to close some internal borders, such as those between provinces, counties, or cities.

Fifth, continuing on from the fourth point, we need to know why avoiding B or getting G doesn’t also suffice to impose other illiberal or anti-democratic restrictions. Consider all the reasons people give for restricting borders: to protect current workers’ wages, to prevent crime from rising, to reduce strain on infrastructure, to avoid overburdening the welfare state, to protect culture, to ensure that we have a democratic and pro-liberal culture that respects the rule of law. Or consider philosophers’ arguments, such as that societies have a right of self-determination, or a right of self-creation, or a right to maintain to determine who is a member of their community. As we’ll see over the next few chapters, most of these arguments on behalf of immigration restrictions seem to work equally well or better as arguments for eugenics, forced birth control, censorship, religious control, voting restrictions, internal migration restrictions, and other illiberal or anti-democratic laws. Thus, someone offering such arguments will need to carefully explain why these arguments only call for external immigration restrictions and nothing more. Or, if they are willing to bite the bullet and endorse eugenics, censorship, and the like, they better have a good enough argument to compel readers to bite the bullet with them.

As we’ll see over the next two chapters, the objections to open borders don’t make it successfully through our checklist. Often their arguments fail on their own terms, but even if we grant them their premises, they lead to conclusions the objectors would not want to endorse. It is important to keep in mind here the general nature of most of these arguments. Authors who open borders generally do not call for the occasional, targeted restriction – a position that might be defensible in some cases. They defend a standing right for states to close their borders, more or less at will. This coheres with the traditional conception of sovereignty, an idea by which the state (or the people), as an independent entity, gets to decide how to run its internal affairs. And this right allegedly includes the right to decide whether or not to admit any newcomers. Arguments like this, we will show, are not merely arguments against immigration. They are really arguments against liberalism and freedom in general.

*This article was previously published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians

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