Economists have estimated that opening the world’s borders to migration could double world GDP. To get the gist of that number, imagine that your boss walked into your office tomorrow and said, “we’re doubling your salary”—and the same thing happened to everyone else, too.
What would we all do with the money?
Buy better food, more cars, better educations for our children, medical care, books, vacations, and other entertainment. We’d take more leisure and patronize the arts more, enjoy more of the charm of life and more of the latest technology, and lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
In short, higher standards of living.
These estimates, though admittedly speculative, are actually rather conservative. If the whole world population migrated to the U.S. and earned what Americans earn, world GDP would multiply more than four-fold. That isn’t actually possible, and researchers take that into account in various ways, thus bringing estimates of the impact of open borders down to a mere doubling of world GDP.
Poor countries aren’t poor because their people are defective individuals. The proof of that is that when they migrate to rich countries, they usually close most of the earnings gap quickly. Some countries are cursed by geography—it’s hard to be productive in malarial, landlocked regions of Africa—while poverty partly reflects a lack of capital, public (e.g., roads) and private (e.g., structures and equipment). Predatory, corrupt and/or foolish governments bear some of the blame. Many places are improving, but fixing countries is usually harder than moving people.
Open borders would be far more disruptive than everyone just getting a pay raise. They would probably lead in fairly short order to epic mass migrations. In the burgeoning cities of the United States and western Europe, there would be far more visible poverty than there is today. Of course, open borders would not create that poverty. In fact, they would improve it. But they would also make it visible to the rather complacent middle classes of America and Europe, for whom the border serves as a convenient blindfold.
The big gains probably wouldn’t show up in the average American’s paycheck. They’d come in the form of a surging stock market, soaring land values, and steeply falling prices of labor-intensive services and locally made goods and services.
If open borders are such a good idea, why haven’t they been tried already? They have. In the mid-to-late 19th century, the U.S. and most of the world’s leading nations had entirely or nearly open borders. How did that work out? Brilliantly. Open borders were a big reason why the 19th century was by far the most technologically progressive and politically liberalizing era in the history of the world up to that time, and maybe since, too.
Everyone knows that the 20th century witnessed a hideous descent into widespread totalitarianism and large-scale war. Recently, though, several economic historians have begun to argue that the period from 1880-1940, the era of open borders and its immediate aftermath, was the real heyday of technological progress, and recent decades have seen a “great stagnation,” though this is counter-intuitive, since we are more advanced than people a century ago (technology accumulates) even if the generations that introduced electricity and indoor plumbing and the automobile and the airplane and the assembly line and so on were more innovative. And while domestic inequality was greater in the 19th century than in the mid-20th century, global inequality was less.
Meanwhile, the 19th century puts paid to the panicky protests of people who think open borders will dissolve the nation-state and lead to anarchy. America in the age of open borders possessed and gloried in its distinctive identity and institutions at least as much as it does today. So did other countries in that time, for better or worse.
Open borders might threaten national identity today as they didn't then, but it’s not clear why. Indeed, since American culture today is a global juggernaut, assimilating the world even beyond its borders; more foreigners than ever are prepared to fit into American life almost immediately, speaking English (probably more than a billion people speak it now), wearing blue jeans, listening to rock-n-roll, understanding and supporting democratic tolerance.
Under open borders, some would come who don’t want to be Americans. They’d stay a little while, earn some money, and go home. Nothing wrong with that. Others would want to stay, and, please note, they’d have made a positive choice to be Americans, as native-born Americans have not done. When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising that open borders never seem to have weakened anyone’s national identity much, just as a church doesn’t lose its distinctiveness by accepting converts.
The irony is that the people who complain about Mexicans not wanting to assimilate are usually the same people who minimize their incentive to assimilate by keeping them in the shadows, under the threat of deportation. Why invest yourself in a country that might deport you?
No less important than the economic benefits are the gains in freedom and respect for human rights that open borders would probably achieve. Open borders would represent a huge gain for freedom per se, opening up vast new opportunities for people to pursue their dreams and be the authors of their own lives.
But most crucial is the protection open borders would afford for basic human rights. There are still far too many countries where basic freedoms of speech, of the press, of religion, and from arbitrary arrest are not protected. It helps if people can get out from under regimes that abuse them. Those whose consciences compel them to practice the Bahai faith or criticize a Central Asian dictator should be able to do so at home, but failing that, they should be able to emigrate to somewhere that they can do so safely. Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the right to emigrate, and it really has become rare for governments to try to lock their citizens in.
The problem is that many have nowhere to go. We think of refugees, in particular, as victims of this or that dictator or episode of ethnic cleansing, but in an important sense they are victims of our entire world order, which partitions the surface of the earth among a cartel of sovereign states, who insist on the right to exclude people for every reason and no reason. It doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t that way in the past. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, it won’t be that way anymore.
Until then, refugees will suffer, as every pathway to some sort of normal life is blocked by closed borders. For those who want to do right by the world, open borders should be a high priority.
How well could you identify our world if there were no borders? Play GeoGuessr, a game that uses Google Street View images to test how much you recognize our planet.