The Case for a Borderless World

A nighttime view of Europe made possible by the ?day-night band? of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) is seen in a global composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite in 2012 and released by NASA October 2, 2014 . The VIIRS detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as city lights, wildfires, and gas flares. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - RTR48P3V

A nighttime view of Europe made possible by the ?day-night band? of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) is seen in a global composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite in 2012 and released by NASA October 2, 2014 . The VIIRS detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as city lights, wildfires, and gas flares. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (UNITED STATES – Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS – RTR48P3V

Alex Tabbarok (The Atlantic)—To paraphrase Rousseau, man is born free, yet everywhere he is caged. Barbed-wire, concrete walls, and gun-toting guards confine people to the nation-state of their birth. But why? The argument for open borders is both economic and moral. All people should be free to move about the earth, uncaged by the arbitrary lines known as borders.

Not every place in the world is equally well-suited to mass economic activity. Nature’s bounty is divided unevenly. Variations in wealth and income created by these differences are magnified by governments that suppress entrepreneurship and promote religious intolerance, gender discrimination, or other bigotry. Closed borders compound these injustices, cementing inequality into place and sentencing their victims to a life of penury.

The overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants want little more than to make a better life for themselves and their families by moving to economic opportunity and participating in peaceful, voluntary trade. But lawmakers and heads of state quash these dreams with state-sanctioned violence—forced repatriation, involuntary detention, or worse—often while paying lip service to “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Wage differences are a revealing metric of border discrimination. When a worker from a poorer country moves to a richer one, her wages might double, triple, or rise even tenfold. These extreme wage differences reflect restrictions as stifling as the laws that separated white and black South Africans at the height of Apartheid. Geographical differences in wages also signal opportunity—for financially empowering the migrants, of course, but also for increasing total world output. On the other side of discrimination lies untapped potential. Economists have estimated that a world of open borders would double world GDP.

Even relatively small increases in immigration flows can have enormous benefits. If the developed world were to take in enough immigrants to enlarge its labor force by a mere one percent, it is estimated that the additional economic value created would be worth more to the migrants than all of the world’s official foreign aid combined. Immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised.

And while the benefits of cross-border movements are tremendous for the immigrants, they are also significant for those born in destination countries. Immigration unleashes economic forces that raise real wages throughout an economy. New immigrants possess skills different from those of their hosts, and these differences enable workers in both groups to better exploit their special talents and leverage their comparative advantages. The effect is to improve the welfare of newcomers and natives alike. The immigrant who mows the lawn of the nuclear physicist indirectly helps to unlock the secrets of the universe.

What moral theory justifies using wire, wall, and weapon to prevent people from moving to opportunity? What moral theory justifies using tools of exclusion to prevent people from exercising their right to vote with their feet?

No standard moral framework, be it utilitarian, libertarian, egalitarian, Rawlsian, Christian, or any other well-developed perspective, regards people from foreign lands as less entitled to exercise their rights—or as inherently possessing less moral worth—than people lucky to have been born in the right place at the right time. Nationalism, of course, discounts the rights, interests, and moral value of “the Other, but this disposition is inconsistent with our fundamental moral teachings and beliefs.

Freedom of movement is a basic human right. Thus the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belies its name when it proclaims this right only “within the borders of each state.” Human rights do not stop at the border.Today, we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let their people exit. I look forward to the day when we treat as pariahs those governments that refuse to let people enter.

Is there hope for the future? Closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings but the opening of borders is the world’s greatest economic opportunity. The grandest moral revolutions in history—the abolition of slavery, the securing of religious freedom, the recognition of the rights of women—yielded a world in which virtually everyone was better off. They also demonstrated that the fears that had perpetuated these injustices were unfounded. Similarly, a planet unscarred by iron curtains is not only a world of greater equality and justice. It is a world unafraid of itself.


12 responses to “The Case for a Borderless World

  1. One could argue that the rapid globalization over the past few decades has made it so that borders are becoming less and less relevant. Being a first generation American, it never felt this way to me. I was brought up listening to my father’s stories about his journey as an immigrant from Pakistan. When I was younger, I visited the rural village where my father was born, with small dusty huts and hard cots, lacking running water or electricity beyond a single lightbulb. I couldn’t help but wonder what my father’s life had been like had he not gotten the opportunity to come to college in America, where he earned an MBA, married my mother, and became a small business owner. His brother wasn’t as lucky as him. He couldn’t obtain a visa, and still resides in Northern Pakistan- a pretty volatile region. My dad rarely gets the chance to see him. So, having experienced all this through him makes me significantly more sympathetic to the moral side of this case. Should people be confined to the conditions and regulations of whatever country they come from, no matter how miserable? I don’t think so. In this way, I identify with Mill and his claim that we are all a human family- that no one’s life matters more than anyone else’s and therefore, everyone should have the opportunity to achieve happiness, even if it means being able to move freely about the globe to pursue safety or opportunity. So, personally, this issue is one I identify with on a moral rather than economic level.

    Of course, the notion of a borderless world is one more easily imagined than practiced in reality. One recent and very prominent issue that has brought the “borderless world” discussion to the forefront is the current influx of refugees in Europe, and the resulting backlash from Western countries. Here is an interesting CNBC article that explores the issue, calling the refugee crisis a “test for the idea of borderless Europe”:


  2. The only compelling argument against unlimited immigration that I’ve encountered thus far in the course is from Hardin’s “Living on a Lifeboat.” Hardin presents an environmental argument against immigration: “[U]nrestricted immigration moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the environment in rich countries. Why poor people should want to make this transfer is no mystery: but why should rich hosts encourage it?” (Hardin 434-5, Globalization and International Development). Hardin’s argument highlights the tragedy of the commons: if there were no borders, land and resources in wealthy countries would be flooded and overused and the environment would be devastated. He mentions how this is especially problematic in Hawaii where limited space provides a growing concern regarding immigration.

    The author of “The Case for a Borderless World” seems to ignore environmental concerns. As I contrast Hardin’s claims with those of this article, I’m left wondering if concerns for the environment and for future generations can ever truly outweigh concerns for the well-being of people today across all countries. Should we ensure quality of life today by allowing immigration, or quality of life 5 years from now by focusing on the environment? I’m led to believe that current well-being is more important. Nevertheless, I’m not entirely convinced that unrestricted immigration would bring the most overall well-being. Would people in rich countries have to level down their well-being environmentally if unrestricted immigration were allowed? Would everyone, immigrants included, be made worse off in the near future due to environmental damage? On a smaller scale, it would seem like the residents of Hawaii have experienced significant environmental losses as immigration to the islands has increased.

    Hardin leaves room for exceptions in his life-boat ethical framework, notably in regards to accepting refugees, with which I agree. From a purely humanitarian argument, their suffering could be immediately lessened and well-being improved if wealthy countries were to increase efforts to allow them to immigrate.


  3. I enjoyed reading this article due to the fact that I believe it touches base on important points. My favorite line of the article being “ man is born free, yet everywhere he is caged” greatly caught my attention and got me thinking. On the other hand, reading the other comments on this article lead me to think that, unlike Alex, borders are in fact becoming more and more relevant as the days go by. Even with the upcoming election we can see that the talk of borders is something highly talked about, especially the U.S. Mexico border. Being of Hispanic decent I not only have been glued to what the candidates have to say about illegal immigration but also about their plans for border control if they were to take office.

    However as the article states “geographical differences in wages also signal opportunity—for financially empowering the migrants, of course, but also for increasing total world output.” And in understanding this line further I agree. The reason in the past that we have seen such an increase in the amount of illegal Mexicans in the U.S. greatly has to do with the difference in wages attainable. This is why I was pleased to hear on the news and in class that we have had a greater amount of Mexicans leaving the U.S. than entering signaling that their economy is slightly getting better.


  4. I think this is a seriously thought-provoking discussion, but how could this possibly happen? In my head, I keep over imaging a (Mad Max-esque) scene of complete anarchy that would ensue if every country decided to drop their borders at the same time. But even if that is far fetched, how would this process go about? Would it be gradual? Although the author seems to believe that this world would promote greater equality and justice, are we just going to assume that everyone will get along with each other right away and that no serious ethnic, social, economic, religious problems (and anything in between) will occur as a result? That being said, I have no idea what of the exact result would if we decided to become a borderless world, and that is what is funny about it. But it just feels like Tabbarak takes a very optimistic, utopian perspective on how the final product would look, without considering what it will take to get there.


  5. It is clear that immigration is good for all countries involved, and that open borders presents large economic benefits. It is also clear that many people do not understand those benefits, and that those benefits are net, meaning while the economy as a whole is better off, some people actually lose out. These two issues are intertwined. Because the net benefit goes to the entire economy no one really notices that benefit, but the negative effects are felt by people who can see when they are being paid less or have to switch industries. These people make a stink about their plight, which then taints the judgement about immigration for others, even if they benefit from it. Before the world can even think about open borders, they have to think about how they have to consider how they can shield their citizens from the negative effects of immigration while still taking advantage of the overwhelming positive effects, and inform their populations of those positive effects.


  6. This is an idea I’ve long been in favor of and this article helped me flesh out my own thoughts more. It seems kind of ridiculous when you think of how much bloodshed has occurred on the basis of something as arbitrary as an invisible line. My only concern would be the logistics. The government would still be needed obviously, so crafting a system that relies on the consent of the governed (which would increase exponentially with the eradication of borders) and is representative and efficient would be difficult. We can’t even have a representative/efficient government at a country-scale, so a global-scale seems a little intimidating. But I’m confident we’re moving toward that direction with the further development of INGOs and international collaboration. I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, but I do hope it happens eventually.


  7. Morally, this seems to be very compelling. I do question whether unlimited migration truly would improve the world’s GDP. I would have to think that practically, it would induce a host of problems–most obviously environmental degradation, but also interpersonal conflict. I would like to believe that much of the world’s social, economic and political successes can be somewhat based on national pride. I suspect that over time, a borderless world could be achievable, but I would think the transition to such a thing would be incredibly difficult.


  8. The economic and moral argument for open borders: borders are arbitrary lines that prevent us from achieving maximum utility with our global workforce. Borders confine us to a particular land and its God-given resources, or lack thereof. Borders confine us to a particular standard of living, whether or not that is the standard of living we want or deserve. Opening borders worldwide could double world GDP, yank millions of people out of poverty, raise real wages in the economies that accept immigrants, and/or further specialization and exploitation of comparative advantages.

    Why not open the borders? Freedom of movement is a basic human right according to Tabbarok. I would argue opening the borders would create short-term havoc, and likely violence, as people flow in and out of places that have created their own stories that these new immigrants are not interested in learning or upholding. Culturally, countries would be in ruins as their historical narratives would be trashed. However, in the long, long term, people would eventually get over it. Open borders would be the status quo.


  9. This article was especially thought provoking having also read the New York Times article by Jason DeParle on the theory of Lant Pritchett. I agree with many I think when I say that opening borders completely would be impractical and uncontrollable at the current moment. However, I believe that Pritchett’s ideas allow for nearly the same economic benefit to be reached while maintaining respect for national sovereignty and borders. It is clear when you objectively observe the international political system that these are the issues that stand in the way of any open border proposal and are at the root of most other problems. Even looking at the Kyoto protocol, the United States decided not to ratify in favor of maintaining sovereignty. If a generally good and easier to implement policy such as that can’t succeed here, there is no way that something as drastic as open borders would reach the level of acceptance in the international community needed for it to be successful. Implementing the ideas of Pritchett would serve to move us slowly in the right direction.


    • True, there’s a lot here and some of it might be unintelligible to some people, but for the sake of intelligent discussion please try to be more specific as to what you don’t understand.


  10. If open borders were combined with mandatory birth control so that the commons was best served and preserved why not? Without it….we are talking lifeboats.


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