Immigration Reform 2013: If We Are Serious About Creating Wealth, We Will Open the Borders

ByWilliam Smith

A major component of the Gang of Eight’s recently released immigration-reform bill consists of a variety of measures intended to improve border security. But at the same time as some Republicans are questioning how effective these proposals will actually be, a loosely affiliated group of economists and other scholars is suggesting that what America — and the world — needs is not tighter border security and marginally faster and more generous immigration procedures, but open borders. It may be surprising to hear that economists — a group stereotypically seen as a staid, no-nonsense bunch — are, along with other scholars, advocating what most people probably see as an extreme (not to mention unrealistic) idea. But when one remembers that much of economics is concerned with studying how prosperity is achieved, one ought to at least hear what Vipul Naik, Bryan Caplan, and others have to say. When one does, it will be clear that the empirical evidence, economic logic, and morality support open borders.

There are several fundamental conditions which must be present in order for a society to maximize its prosperity-achieving potential, but one the most important is freedom to trade. Wealth is created when one person finds a way to turn something into something else that other people want. More often than not, this creative process requires multiple people to work together to create the good or service. When people are prevented from working with each other to provide things people want, wealth cannot be created, and thus prosperity cannot be achieved. Restrictions on immigration are one such obstacle to prosperity.

The research of development economist Michael Clemens (not an advocate of open borders himself) has shown that “barriers to emigration” "place one of the fattest of all wedges between humankind's current welfare and its potential welfare," and that the benefits from reducing these obstacles could be gigantic, as much as tens of trillions of dollars. The basic idea is that some places offer more opportunities to create wealth, and if you want to increase wealth creation, you let people go where the opportunities are. Ideally, we could constantly create more economic opportunities in opportunity-poor locations, but that is much harder. Any why should anyone have to wait for that to happen when could make their lives better much faster?

This brings us to the moral case for open borders. There are a number of strong arguments in favor of open borders, but for now, I will provide just one, courtesy of University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer. Huemer asks us to imagine Starvin’ Marvin — the malnourished African child of South Park fame — attempting to travel to a market to buy food. Along the way, however, a man (“Uncle Sam”) holding a gun steps in Marvin’s way and refuses to allow him to enter the market. As a result, Marvin cannot buy food and starves. Marvin’s tale is a parallel to how the U.S. treats would-be immigrants. If forcibly preventing Marvin from making his life better is wrong, then isn’t forcibly prohibiting would-be immigrants from doing the same immoral as well? With the massive loss of wealth creation and the direct prevention of people improving their lives, there had better be some extremely valuable other ends restricting immigration accomplishes, but it is hard to imagine what they might be.