One of the aspects of my libertarianism that most people seem put off by is my strong belief in open borders. Not just “more open borders”, not just an end to the execrable visa quotas that America currently enforces, but radically open borders that permit nearly everyone to enter America to work at will. (The only reasonable restriction I’ve yet found is a domestic background check. But anyone who hasn’t committed a felony in the United States should be permitted entry and allowed to work.)

My reasons for this stance are both principled and practical, and both humanitarian and self-interested.

First of all, I object on principle to the current massive restrictions on human free movement that closed national borders imposes. I am fortunate that, on my American passport, I can travel almost anywhere in the world. Coming, as I do, from a prosperous Western nation, I would have little trouble getting a work visa in any nation on the planet. When I moved to the UK as a student in 2005, a work visa application was came included with my acceptance letter from the study abroad program.

Of course the situation would have been much different had I been traveling from, say, Bangladesh. Or Rwanda. Or Honduras. That a person’s choices regarding where they live and work is determined almost entirely the geography of their birth should shock and horrify any egalitarian.

Equally as shocking, though, should be the crushing effects of global poverty that are directly aided by closed borders. I’m struggling to find my original citation for this (I believe it comes from Bryan Caplan’s excellent work on the subject), but working as a guest worker for just six months in a prosperous economy with strong markets and strong property rights does more for a worker’s standard of living than many years worth of foreign national aid. Labor-related immigration allows workers from poor economies, crippled by dysfunctional institutions and corrupt governments, to move to societies with better social and political institutions that value their work and respect their rights. In doing so, people are lifted out of poverty far more effectively than they ever could be through direct investment.

What’s even more important, though, is that these workers who leave impoverished, dysfunctional economies for wealthier, liberal economies make things better for the nations they leave, too. This occurs both through direct remittances sent back home, but also through the much-ignored effects of competitive governance. (The fact that competitive governance is a largely ignored topic in the modern debate shows just how twisted our views of sovereignty and nationalism have gotten.)

Competitive Governance is, at root, the idea that governments can be driven to improvement through competition for labor and capital. In this, they are just like corporations. Governments, however, are each functional local monopolies, which makes competition very difficult. What’s more, they each exercise a special kind of monopoly: monopoly of force. This permits them to create extremely large barriers to exit and entry in order to form cartels to stabilize their market share. (Think the Berlin Wall and the USSR’s attempts to keep in a population that desperately wanted to leave. Think also of America’s visa quotas and its increasing attempts to tax US citizens abroad and foreign nationals investing stateside.)

By increasing competition amongst governments, we give governments incentive to reform for the better. Unfortunately, governments, like all monopolies, detest competition and so attempt to raise barriers to prevent it. As such, nation-states begin to work like any other global cartel, united against the customers who might abandon them given the chance.

So what does all this have to do with closed borders? Well, closed borders (both restrictions on exit and on entry) reduce competition and remove incentives for government reform. If strong western economies were to open our borders, this would increase the levels of emigration from foreign nations with dysfunctional governments and increase the pressure on them to reform their institutions to respect rights and foster prosperous, liberal economies. (For more on this, see the great work of Arnold Kling, especially his interesting comments on exit, voice, and freedom. For the future of competitive governance see Patri Friedman’s work, especially his wonderfully extropian Seasteading Institute.)

So the principled part of my argument for open borders is basically that it raises standards of living for immigrants, that it does this better than direct humanitarian aid to the country, and that it improves conditions not only for immigrants but also for the families and fellow citizens they leave behind, both through remittance and competitive governance.

But what about the effects to the US economy? It turns out that it provides a huge boost economic prosperity in general, while actually increasing wages for the majority of workers.

The most common objection to open borders is that immigrants “take our jobs“. But it turns out this isn’t the case. Waves of immigration tend to cause no change in the unemployment of native citizens. Not only are these unemployment fears unfounded, but more broadly there’s good evidence that high levels of immigration are correlated with high levels of economy production and a strong economy. (The Gilded Age, despite some predjudicial policies, was a time of high immigration and comparatively open borders in the US and GDP, GDP per Capita, and real wages all skyrocketed.)

The slightly more refined argument is that, well, immigration may be economically beneficial in aggregate, but it depresses wages. This also turns out not to be the case for most people, as Bryan Caplan (citing George Borjas) abley demonstrates. As usual, the truth resists simplicity and it looks like in the long term, wages shrink slightly for those involved in menial labor (high school dropouts) and by a vanishingly small about (0.5%) for those with college degrees. For the majority of workers, immigration has a long term net benefit, raising wages by as much as 1.2%. (For more on possible explanations of this, see Caplan’s excellent Socratic Dialogue on the subject.)

So in addition to philosophical and humanitarian arguments for open borders, there is good evidence that open borders are good for self-interested reasons as well. They improve the overall health of the economy and, at very worst, depress wages only modestly for some, and actually increase them slightly for the majority of workers.

In closing, I want to leave you with some images that I think convey the cost of closed borders. These are images of African imigrants that were found trying to make the dangerous crossing from Morocco to Spain. They risked their lives for the chance to live in a place where their rights would be respected, their labor valued, and where they had the necessary resources to build a life for themselves. They knew at the outset that they may not make it, but it was still worth it for them to make the attempt. Many of them arrived in pretty bad shape.

Not all of them made it alive.

Immigration reform is not an abstract issue. It has very real impacts on all of us, but most of all on the least fortunate members of the human race. Open borders can make the difference between poverty and starvation and a good life for those unfortunate enough to have been born into the most impoverished nations on our planet. We have the power in our hands to prevent the needless suffering and death of millions of people. And all we in the West need to do is put pressure on our government to relax restrictions on immigration.

Please support open borders.

For a much more complete treatment of immigration issues and a libertarian view on immigration policy, please see this excellent video by Bryan Caplan, as well as this interview that he did with EconTalk’s Russ Roberts.