Economics, Politics, Spotlight

An Argument Against Open Borders and Liberal Hubris

No one except a militant nativist would deny that some level of immigration is beneficial and should be accepted. After that, we face a question of scale. There are those, however, on the opposite end of the spectrum, who believe that no level of immigration should ever be denied. These are advocates of “open borders”; an idea as strange as that of the nativist—yet more dangerous for being considered respectable.

The liberal Economist magazine contains an essay promoting open borders. It imagines a world in which people are free to live and work wherever they please. It is an astonishingly biased and unreflective piece, which illuminates dangerous extremes of progressive utopianism:

Perhaps I sound inhuman. Who could dislike people living and working whereever they please? It can be a splendid thing, but if everybody did it think of what that would entail. The Economist reports that if borders were opened, 630 million people would be likely to migrate. Perhaps 138 million would go to the US, expanding its population by almost a half. About 42 million would join the British, expanding their numbers by more than a half. How many would go to Australia, a country with a population of 24 million, and with infrastructure already under strain? Such influxes would pose monumental demographic changes, soon made more dramatic by the higher birth rates. It will be exacerbated by the fact that local governments will not be able to keep up with the building of roads, hospitals, schools and transport systems that citizens—both old and new—will demand.

These predictions might be overestimates, the author tells us. This is true. But they could also be underestimates. When Poland was admitted to the European Union far more migrants flooded into Britain than was expected.

But what of proposed merits of open borders? A consistent failure of the Economist’s article is a reluctance to distinguish between different migrants. If one finds the study, it turns out that 54% of the men and women who expressed a desire to migrate came from Africa and the Middle East —with another 20% being from Central America. Yet the most successful immigrants, in terms of launching businesses and earning wealth, have been found to hail from Asia and Europe. A UCL study found that European immigrants to Britain contribute more to the economy than they take from it while the opposite is true for non European immigrants. It is senseless, then, to claim, as the author of The Economist article does, that immigrants are “more likely than the native-born to bring new ideas and start their own businesses”. Immigrants do not come from “Immigrantland”. Population differences related to entrepreneurial and earning potential are real, and significant, and difficult to bridge.

The author keeps on his rose-tinted spectacles as he considers negative effects of immigration. “A study of migration flows among 145 countries between 1970 and 2000,” we are told, “Found that migration was more likely to reduce terrorism than increase it.” The year before 2001 is a strange time to stop considering data on terrorism, and besides, the actual study found that terrorism was reduced only where they migrated from, not where they migrated to. “In some European countries, such as Sweden,” the authors admit, “Migrants are more likely to get into trouble than locals, but this is mostly because they are more likely to be young and male.” Again, this is hardly reassuring when 73% of migrants to Europe are young males.

Migrants from non-European origins more likely to be young adult men. Pew Research Centre, August 2016

But perhaps I am not dealing with the arguments for open borders at their best. For that, one can turn to Open Borders: The Case; an admirably and imposingly extensive resource. Here one finds grand speculation about economic blessings of free migration. For example, we find the claim—originating from a literature review by the economist Michael Clemens—that open borders could result in an increase of world GDP by 67% to a startling 147%. The main beneficiaries would be the migrants themselves, though that is not trivial. What is more damning from an economic perspective is that it would cause a surplus of unskilled labour. Open Borders founder Vipul Naik responded to this criticism by insisting that he could see no shortage of unskilled and semi-skilled work:

Until self-driving cars are a reality, there are ample job for personal drivers…There could be many more jobs for nannies, cooks, home attendants for elderly and disabled people, janitors, bus boys and girls at restaurants…Formerly eliminated jobs, like gas station attendants to fuel your car at the gas station, or movie attendants to show you your seat in the cinema hall, could be revived.

Why would they be revived? Nobody wants to pay for them. The only jobs he mentions that are difficult to fill are in social care. Although technically care work is “low skilled” it is not comparable to factory work, it requires a special kind of applicant who possesses the personal traits of empathy, diligence and agreeableness. Low standards in the UK in care work have resulted in horrifying case studies of incompetence, neglect and abuse.

Then are the social and political consequences. Nathan Smith, an economist, writing for Open Borders, published a speculative essay in which he imagined a future world in which borders had been flung open. For this advocate of free migration, an influx of migrants into the West would demand “improvisational and authoritarian expedients”, such as the end of the welfare state and equality of opportunity. “Natives would retreat into gated communities.” “Law enforcement would often be baffled by new and complex challenges.” “Local stirrings of revolt [could] transform the [national] psyche enough to make weapons training in school or even universal conscription into some sort of national police force attractive.” Migrants would work in “modern latifundia” for “pay rates that would strike native-born [Westerners] as a form of slave labour”. This vision of starkly divided, viciously authoritarian societies is his optimistic view, for Smith remains confident that free migration would encourage “a continuous surge of booming economic growth” which, presumably, would disincentivise civil strife between fearful, resentful and unequal classes.

But most of us would not roll those dice. Some of us would not even think it worth handling.

Arguments for open borders are based not merely on economics but on ethics. Open borders advocates tend to be “moral egalitarians”; that is, they believe in treating human beings symmetrically. The economist Bryan Caplan often asks his readers to imagine how they would feel if trapped in impoverished and tyrannical states. Well, badly, of course. But how would Bryan Caplan feel as a member of the underclass within his own society as Nathan Smith imagines? Presumably badly as well. So, what does this tell us? Not much, really. Empathy is a fallible guide in politics.

Caplan is critical of the in-group bias that leads us to care more about their countrymen than foreigners. It is the same in-group bias, in a stronger form, that leads us to buy presents for our family and friends rather than donating to the poor. We have concentric circles of empathy, which means that the less direct our connections to people the less we are invested in their wellbeing. So, we nest our loyalties; we put our families first, and then our friends, and then our neighbours; then, perhaps, our countrymen and then mankind at large. This by no means makes us indifferent to foreigners. We can care about their lives, and try to help them. But the limits of our loyalties make nations convenient units of humanity, and explain why we put the interests of our nations first.

This is not just true of Europeans and Americans. Arguably, mass migration helped give us Brexit and Trump, and protests against mass migration policies have erupted across the world, from Singapore to South Africa. This is not to give blanket cover for anti-immigration sentiment—which can often be irrational, hysterical and even cruel—but to suggest that humans feel a natural oikophilia that is at odds with the rapid change produced by mass migration.

Immigration is important. As an immigrant myself who is delighted and grateful to have been accepted by my hosts, I very much appreciate this. It needs rational and humane consideration. But the respectable extremism of open borders advocates, who, on the basis of dubious projections, would transform our societies, exposing them to radical division and strife, should concern us; less because their wishes are likely to be granted than because the seriousness with which they are taken shows that even more moderate liberals are radical on this matter.

We do not have open borders but we are experiencing unprecedented demographic change. What progressives should remember is that civilisation is not a science laboratory. The consequences of failed experiments endure. That is the main virtue of gradual change; we can test new waters and not leap into their depths.


  1. Theophrastus says

    Very good piece.

    Minor point: ‘dice’ is plural, so ‘those dice’, not “that dice”.

    • Ben Sixsmith says

      Thank you sir. Proud as I am of this piece the attention to grammatical detail was shocking.

  2. Julian R says

    How naively optimistic do you have to be to think this would work? There wold be supremacist factions murdering each other in the streets. How are people who cannot speak the language supposed to communicate to facilitate peaceful interactions? How can present institutions handle a population increase of fifty percent over a brief span of time? How can this be conceived as anything other than an invitation to chaos? Do open borders advocates honestly believe that more than half the population would not be scared out of their wits and probably violently opposed to such an influx? This all seems like a logistical nightmare with calamitous consequences.

    • Yes. Look at, say, many Middle Eastern or African nations or for that matter Northern Ireland a few decades ago. They are not especially ‘diverse’ compared to the West with similar-looking people but only needs a schism between a couple of ethnicities and all hell breaks lose.

      In the West, now that ‘minorities’ are no longer drop in the ocean but increasingly the majority of whole urban areas, we are seeing the same tribal strife emerging. When the Muslim population was small its radical element was not numerous enough to sustain a violent jihad – now jihad attacks of various sizes are becoming near-daily in Europe as the Muslim population has exploded due to birthrates and vast legal and illegal migration. The re-emergence of black nationalism in the US and to an extent the UK (with Farrakhan-style separatism and segregationism under the surface) is another part of the trend.

      And it didn’t need a crystal ball to work out that if everyone was encouraged to form ‘identity groups’ by the neomarxians of academia and their graduate foot soldiers in media, culture and the ‘diversity industry’ that the only group excluded from the process – whites – would cry ‘not fair!’ and demand to be treated distinctly too.

      So far, the response to Islamic terror from the rest of the population has been surprisingly muted – a mentally ill man’s car attack outside a London mosque, a bacon sandwich thrown by a yob at the door of a Mosque in Bristol. But as the attacks become more frequent and the populace turns more frustrated at nothing but platitudes from government the tit for tat will start. And history shows it’s a short walk from riots and skirmishes to civil war.

  3. First of all, great piece!

    A consistent failure of the Economist’s article is a reluctance to distinguish between different migrants. If one finds the study, it turns out that 54% of the men and women who expressed a desire to migrate came from Africa and the Middle East —with another 20% being from Central America. Yet the most successful immigrants, in terms of launching businesses and earning wealth, have been found to hail from Asia and Europe. A UCL study found that European immigrants to Britain contribute more to the economy than they take from it while the opposite is true for non European immigrants. It is senseless, then, to claim, as the author of The Economist article does, that immigrants are “more likely than the native-born to bring new ideas and start their own businesses”. Immigrants do not come from “Immigrantland”. Population differences related to entrepreneurial and earning potential are real, and significant, and difficult to bridge.

    That’s just it isn’t it? Immigration selectivity ultimate hinges on intrinsic differences between groups of people. The open borders crowd acts as if all people are identical everywhere (and hence interchangeable). The fact that this is NOT the case frustrates any arguments they might make.

    Caplan is critical of the in-group bias that leads us to care more about their countrymen than foreigners. It is the same in-group bias, in a stronger form, that leads us to buy presents for our family and friends rather than donating to the poor.

    No. Kin altruism (and hence concern for close family) is distinct from in-group favoritism, the kind that leads you to be concerned for non-relatives like your teammates or your co-nationals. The two have distinct evolutionary origins. They are similar superficially only.

  4. Anomaly says

    Jay man hit the nail on the head! Failure to distinguish different immigrant groups (by libertarians arguing for open borders) is a lot like the failure by leftists to include statistics about Asians when discussing Black/White differences. It’s a deliberate suppression of easily available data that throws a wrench into the relevant arguments (in the latter case, the argument that all group differences stem from racism, in the former case, the argument that if some immigration is good, more must be better, regardless of the composition of immigrants).

  5. Vincent says

    Great article. I’d further suggest that the leftist scramble for social-engineering courtesy of mass migration is nothing short of racist. It suggests that countries without a western/white base are irredeemable basket cases whose citizens are doomed to failure lest they migrate to be governed by strangers. The imperialist mindset is quite ironic.

    Perhaps if each country were viewed as a fish tank then we would all enjoy a much better quality of life. Fish tanks have a finite number of fish that they can support before the environment becomes toxic. Multiple fish tanks with hard borders help prevent willy-nilly bullying-through-to-killing of some fish by others. It’s not going to end well if you introduce ten male Siamese fighting fish to a small community fish tank because they add a pleasing-to-the-eye diversity of fins.

  6. Nathan says

    A consistent failure of the Economist’s article is a reluctance to distinguish between different

    This has been touched upon by others, but it always gets my blood pressure up, when American libertarians argue that taking a few tens of thousands of doctors, programmers and engineers from the third world,via their green card program, is the same as taking tens of millions of uneducated people western Europe style.
    It is not surprising in the least, that these two strategies yield vastly different results.

    Very good article.

  7. WonderBoy says

    The Economist is owned by the Rothschilds. We shouldn’t be surprised it presents skewed and manipulated data to support globalist ideals.

  8. Curious says

    Any thoughts on how freedom of labour movement compares to goods, capital or information?

    Mental images of a country swamped by immigrants are more easily evoked than a glut of non-tangibles like capital or information. The availability of such images and the common sense response, namely that open borders is a bad idea, is expected to guide policy. Yet we do not have analogues for goods, capital or information – so what guides policy in its place?

  9. Tomas says

    Who cares about your arguments? Banks and government already made all decissions. U have open borders, u will them in future. Enjoy peasants.

  10. Gerard Jackson says

    I would not advise anybody to get their economics from The Economists, particularly with respect to the economics effects of mass immigration.

    Let us begin with an historical approach, taking England as an example.

    Industrial development is never ‘even’ in that everyone is affected the same way and England was no exception. Sir James Caird estimated that even as late as 1851 the average weekly agricultural wages in 20 southern counties were 8s 5d compared with 11s 6d for 12 northern counties. He correctly noted that the higher-wages of the Northern counties is altogether due to the proximity of manufacturing and mining enterprise. (Sir James Caird, English Agriculture in 1850-51, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1852, pp. 511-12.)

    Now according to the open borders advocates as soon as Lancashire farmers were forced by the market to raise wages to retain their workers they should have imported cheap foreign labour instead, thereby driving down wages.

    As for benefitting the economy, a rapid increase in the labour supply will, at best, retard wage growth and create marginal enterprises. From 1855-1895 average American wages increased at 1.27% per annum. But when mass immigration picked up during the period 1896-1916 (the great Ellis Island influx) the annual growth of wages dropped to 0.55. (“Employment and Wages in the United States” by W. S. Woytinsky and Associates, New York: The Twentieth Century Fund, 1953).

    If the open borders crowd were right about the need for mass immigration then this would mean, in economic terms, that Western countries had a sub-optimal population, meaning that the growth in capital accumulation had exceeded population growth. However, if this were so then there would exist a shortage of labour which in turn would be driving up wages for everyone. This is self-evidently not the case. Nevertheless, there those who mindlessly demand an open borders policy.

    Chris Berg of the IPA argues that unlimited immigration would increase ” Global GDP by $US60 trillion”. (“Population overload In a truly globalised world, immigration must be free”, The Drum, 9 March 2011). It escapes him and those like him that what matters is national GDP. What is the point of driving up global GDP (a meaningless term in my view) at the cost of rendering Australians destitute?

    On another occasion Mr Berg asked: “How does the free movement of people differ in any significant way from the free movement of goods or services?” It differs in the vitally important sense that open borders would drive down real wages and hence the standard of living while the free flow of goods has the opposite effect. These are two simple facts that the classical economists pointed out.

    (Nassau W. Senior, “An Outline of the Science of Political Economy”, Augustus M. Kelley, 1965, p. 168. Also James Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy”, University of Toronto Press, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965, p. 190. Gottfried Haberler makes the same point in his “The Theory of Free Trade”, William Hodge and Company LTD, 1950, first published in 1933, p. 38, pp. 194-95, pp. 250-51)

    • YoloSwag420 says

      But hasn’t the free flow of goods, resulting from globalization, also “hollowed out” the American economy?

      In both the cases of trade and immigration, you have some rent-seekers who want to protect their jobs from foreign goods or foreign labor, and the rest of us, who would benefit from those goods and labor. There may be good arguments against open borders, but there’s no economic argument against it that wouldn’t also apply to free trade.

  11. Rob Darling says

    I’m sure some Liberals are open border advocates, but certainly not the majority. Conflating the ideals of progressives and leftists with Liberals (though there may be some little bit of overlap with some people) is simply lazy thinking.

  12. Admittedly extreme and simplistic, but I have found an image that relays many concepts to anyone who favors “open borders”, among them the natural occurrence and need for borders and the control of them : I offer to peel their skin off.

  13. Excellent article!

    However, I would also like to focus on two specific points here:

    1. Other than for countries that have either a Communist legacy or a resource/tourism/et cetera windfall, you could use a country’s IQ/human capital to calculate its wealth pretty accurately. Indeed, here is some of blogger Anatoly Karlin’s work in regards to this:

    Also, I believe that economist Garrett Jones has made a similar argument in his Hive Mind book.

    Basically, if adult IQ is mostly heritable and Third World adults score much lower on IQ tests than First Worlders, then having massive Third World immigration to the First World is only going to significantly reduce the average IQ of the receiving First World countries and thus reduce the prosperity and per capita GDP of these countries–in effect, transforming these First World countries into Third World countries.

    As for the projections that open borders will double the world’s GDP, please keep in mind that it is possible that these projections *don’t* take human capital–which is much lower in the Third World in comparison to the First World–into account; thus, these projections might very well be inaccurate.

    2. In addition to the IQ differences and their effect on economic prosperity, there are also cultural factors to consider when it comes to accepting immigrants from the Middle East and Africa. Specifically, many of these countries have extremely backwards attitudes and views in regards to women, gay people, various freedoms and liberties, et cetera. Thus, importing a massive number of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa into the First World might very well result in a decrease in support for things such as women’s rights, gay rights, various freedoms and liberties, et cetera.

    Thus, if importing large numbers of Third Worlders will likely have a very negative effect on both economic growth (due to the average IQ reductions that it will cause) and (further) social progress, why exactly should we (the First World) import large numbers of Third Worlders?

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