Book Review: Open Borders

My copy of the book.

Admittedly, a book advocating for liberalizing immigration with the ultimate goal of “open borders” is preaching to my choir — second to war, I think liberalizing immigration is the most important cause to champion for the well-being of everyone, but especially those directly deleteriously affected (same as how avoiding war is to the well-being of everyone, but especially those directly deleteriously affected) — and then, to present the argument in comic form, I’m more than down. I’m talking about Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith’s 2019 book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Caplan has rather perturbed me lately with his views on education and so-called academic freedom, but nonetheless, his argument in favor of an open borders policy approach to immigration is sound and airtight.

Let me emphasize the latter word: airtight. Unlike other areas of policy disagreements where I can at least understand where the other side is coming from and think they are making sound arguments, even if I disagree with them, I don’t see any strong argument against immigration. Whether you’re incremental and less radical by liberalizing immigration flows by 20 percent compared to the status quo, for example, or going full radical with open borders, I don’t know of a single sound argument against doing so. None of them hold water, as Caplan explains and offers arguments against: not on economic grounds, nor fiscal, social, cultural, and certainly not moral.

For me, I start with the moral, and it isn’t perhaps the moral imperative you may think. It isn’t that America ought to carry the world’s poor on its back out of the “goodness of its heart,” or some such altruism. No, it’s a negative rights imperative. A negative right means that I refrain from interfering with your rights. At the macro level then, with a nation, the United States government ought to not interfere with my right to engage in a business relationship with a foreigner, or to house that foreigner. Or take me out of it: The government shouldn’t interfere with the foreigner’s desire to move to a better, more prosperous, and safer country. Morally, there is no good argument for interfering in the free movement of people. Morally, there is no good argument against discriminating against people because they happened to be born in Ethiopia instead of the United States. Morally, I would be doing moral harm (among other harms) by preventing the world’s poor from being able to come here, and I particularly think it’s morally odious when we prevent refugees — those fleeing their violent country of origin — from coming here, whether it was Jews escaping the Holocaust or Hondurans fleeing one of the most violent countries on Earth.

I want to break this point out into its own paragraph for emphasis: This moral duty to not interfere applies to all immigrants. I think there is a tendency even from those friendly to immigration to want to hold up the model immigrant (same as people will hold up the “model” Black person who ought not to have been killed by the police), such as someone who is a brain surgeon, speaks fluent English already, and perhaps, is a similar race as us. But the moral duty to not interfere applies to everyone: those coming from developed countries with top tier educations and skills, and those at the bottom of the pack, with low-or-no skills. Open borders is for everyone. We are not picking and choosing “winners” for the right to move here.

The other arguments are secondary in my calculus, but they can’t be discounted. Empirically-speaking, allowing the people of the world to move about freely without regard for borders would be an economic boon to the world’s gross domestic product. Even conservative estimates would peg it at trillions of dollars worth of a boon. Yes, trillions.

Immigrants are less criminally-inclined than their native counterparts, second generation immigrants assimilate to the culture quickly (as Caplan argues, assimilation is helped not by gradual persuasion, but by cultural immersion), which includes English fluency, and far from being a “burden” on the welfare system or the American taxpayer, most immigrants are a surplus on the system, i.e., they pay back their way over time and generations. Some are even paying payroll taxes and other taxes with no likelihood of ever receiving the requisite services. I’m not going to regurgitate all the arguments Caplan makes, but I do think it’s worth dwelling on the welfare state point. Even so-called libertarians often talk about this, and Caplan spends considerable time counterarguing Milton Friedman, who famously said you can’t have open borders so long as the welfare state exists. To which Caplan argues, why not target the benefits the immigrants receive (a keyhole solution; more on that in a moment) rather than the immigrants themselves? Or to put a finer point on it, Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh, another open borders advocate, says, “Let’s build a wall around the welfare state, instead of the country.” (Which is why it’s hilarious to me libertarians make this argument because they’re arguing for protecting the welfare state, something they’re typically against!)

Even if you wanted to entertain the arguments against immigration, which again, I don’t think any of them are sound and are often based on numerical illiteracy, as Caplan likes to say (basically, even if there are “some” immigrants who are criminals, or dregs on the welfare system or taxpayers, why brandish all immigrants with that brush? In other contexts, we know such generalities are bad and discriminatory. For instance, we know that will be the case with natives, but we’re not limiting births in the United States), Caplan has aforementioned “keyhole solutions” for those. Analogizing to medicine, a keyhole solution is a way of achieving an end (more liberalized immigration) with the most non-invasive means necessary (doing surgery, then, in such a way to ensure the best recovery possible for the patient). So, for example, if you’re worried about the burden of immigrants on the American taxpayer, Caplan proposes an “entry fee” for immigrants, which might not seem fair to immigrants, but Caplan argues what’s less fair is restricting immigrants all together. That’s a “keyhole solution” to appease everyone and make it more practical that we’ll move in the direction of more liberalized immigration, i.e., shifting the so-called Overton window of what’s possible.

One of my favorite analogies Caplan uses to demonstrate numerical illiteracy and the problem with averages — to show that concerns about low-skilled immigrants depressing our standard of living are silly — is to think of a basketball court filled with NBA players. The average height is 6’7″. When a class of preschools come onto the court, the room’s average height plummets to 4’10”, Caplan says. But nobody (from the vantage point of the NBA players) would proclaim, “I’m shrinking!” In other words, averages may change, but the point remains that everyone is still better off. And better yet, we should concern ourselves with people, not averages.

A liberalized, open borders approach to immigration makes not only the immigrants better off (exceedingly better off), but natives, too. As Caplan is fond of saying, mass consumption in America is made possible by mass production, which is aided by more immigrants. And most immigrants aren’t competing for American jobs, as even low-skilled Americans are higher up the food chain than the world’s poor. Being better off does not mean just economically and arguably fiscally (by expanding the base of taxpayers who are able to support our welfare system, for example), but also culturally. What has made America the country it is is that we had open borders for most of our history until the early 20th century. That diversity in culture and entrepreneurial spirit was our strength, and still is, as hampered as it may be.

Few things truly get under my skin. I like to think I’m calm most of the time, even when it comes to political matters, but one of the few things that gets under my skin are those who seek to keep immigrants the world over from coming here. Because it makes no sense in any direction you come at the issue. Whether you call it xenophobia or plain ignorance, the harms immigration restrictions do to natives and would-be immigrants alike is nearly incalculable, but it isn’t! We know that a more liberalized immigration policy would reap trillions of dollars in reward, among other benefits.

But what about this idea, an idea I even ridiculously hear from so-called libertarians, that immigrants will come here and vote against freedoms? Caplan had a funny counterpoint to that. Aside from the fact that immigrants aren’t that likely to vote anyhow, and even if they do, for the most part, immigrants are similar to natives in policy views, Caplan makes the point simpler:

Master Plan:

  1. Flee hellhole of birth.
  2. Get first-world citizenship.
  3. Vote Hellhole Party.
  4. Repeat.

It makes no sense! But I would go even simpler with it: Who am I to restrict someone’s movement because I disagree with their politics? Ohio wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, argue that people from California can’t migrate here because they might be too liberal. It’s ridiculous.

One final argument I never thought about is that if you’re someone who looks at the world and thinks it ought to be organized like a meritocracy, i.e., we should hire the best person for the job, Caplan argues: exactly right! The best person for the job, not the best citizen. Or to put it another way, Caplan’s slogan of sorts is open borders is meritocracy without borders.

Alright, one more. At the end, Caplan argues for open borders from various ethical frameworks, like meritocracy, or Kantian ethics, but I’m fond of the Christian one. After all, it so happens that most of the anti-immigrant folks in the United States also consider themselves Christians. The simplest Christian argument in favor of open borders Caplan presents: Who would Jesus deport from the country? That question answers itself. But you can go further. Who is thy neighbor? Just those in my neighborhood? My city? My state? My country? Why stop at country? What Christian argument do you have for stopping at country?

Whatever ethical framework or political framework or economic and fiscal framework or even cultural framework you bring to bear on immigration, or all of the above, I don’t see how you could read Caplan’s book and still think there are good reasons to restrict immigration as we currently do, or to restrict immigration even more. That’s the biggest irony of all, of course. People argue we have open borders now! We obviously do not. And even if you’re not entirely convinced by Caplan’s myriad arguments, then he still has you covered with his keyhole solutions to at least move us toward a more liberal immigration policy than the status quo.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure the people who need to read this book in comic form (making it accessible) will do so, but I sure hope they will, and I sure hope within my lifetime we move toward a more humane, liberal (in the classical sense), and moral immigration system in the United States and the world over. At minimum, as Caplan argues, why don’t we have open borders with freakin’ Canada?! What the heck!

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