The Two Simplest Arguments for Open Borders

On November 20, 2014, president Barack Obama announced a series of executive orders reforming the US immigration system. His plan of action consists not so much of improvements as of acceptance of the system’s failures and a doubling down on those failures. The plan’s key elements include increasing border security, deporting felons (“instead of families,” notes, criminal background checks, and tax liability for all undocumented immigrants.

Instead of trying to enforce these  failed policies, Obama could consider two simple arguments for open borders: The rights argument and the economic argument. Though either alone is sufficiently strong to make the case for border abolition, together they should be strong enough to destabilize enforcement of one of the greatest human rights abuses and human welfare handicaps in human history.

The rights argument is the simpler of the two. If every person has the right to do as he or she pleases without infringing on others’ right to the same, then borders are a baseless infringement on every person’s rights. If someone in Spain and someone in Saudi Arabia want to meet in Bangladesh, preventing them by force from doing so simply because of their starting locations cannot be justified. The same two people, if living across the street from one another and meeting in a local restaurant, would do no harm and face no border controls. The inconsistency is morally intolerable. Furthermore, the argument that immigrants might be criminals, who might harm others’ persons or property, flagrantly violates the principle of presumption of innocence. If one has the right to cross the street, as even convicted felons do, one has the right to cross borders.

The economic argument is a very simple one. Imagine a hypothetical planet, Widgetworld. On Widgetworld, two things are needed to make widgets: Usable land and labor. All anyone needs to live on is a few widgets. Once laborers have enough widgets to live for a while, they prefers to spend their time on leisure, i.e. not making widgets. Workers laboring together produce more widgets per hour than they could alone. On Widgetworld, laborers are distributed randomly and unevenly, as is usable land. Naturally, laborers may move from place to place, but land is fixed in location. If laborers want to spend as little time as possible working , their natural course of action is to move to where they will be most productive. Laborers may congregate on centers of usable land to build widgets and by cooperating maximize the amount of time they spend on leisure.

Now, imagine that on Widgetworld there are random lines drawn across the planet delineating borders. It doesn’t particularly matter what the enforcement rules are, so long as they make movement harder. It could be that it costs a few widgets to cross one, that it takes a long waiting time, that they are completely impassible, or some combination thereof. What matters is that there is a cost, insurmountable or not, to crossing a border. This does not bring prosperity to those in regions with more land than labor to work it, as they cannot easily get laborers to work that and increase its productivity. Nor does it help labor-rich regions, as laborers there have nothing on which to work. Everyone has to work more to stay alive, meaning less leisure. Borders just make life harder for everyone.

Widgetworld is not that different from Earth. Both have only two independent productive factors: Land and labor. Capital, the goods used to produce other things, must ultimately be built from land and labor. The largest difference between Widgetworld and Earth is that on Widgetworld all labor, all useful land, and all products are the same. On Earth, the varied types of labor and land make it even more important for the right kinds of each factor to come together in the right places to make the right kind of products. The differences in kind within each category only compound the need for freedom of movement.

Borders are rights violations and economic burdens. They disrespect human dignity and hold down quality of life. They represent arbitrary violence and limit human potential. The White House’s reformism is unacceptable. Borders must be abolished.

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