No panaceas: Libertarian challenges to open borders

Traditionally, libertarianism has welcomed a plurality of views on the immigration question. While nearly all free market proponents agree that current government policies restricting freedom of movement around the world are riddled with problems, we lack a consensus on what exactly these problems are and what should be done to solve them. However, it seems that a growing segment of (mostly young) libertarians are becoming more vocal in their view that unequivocal support for open borders should be *the* libertarian position on immigration. These libertarians tend to emphasize the moral case for open borders, though folks like Bryan Caplan have done a good job of presenting the economic benefits as well.

Unfortunately, advocates of open borders almost always fail to acknowledge important and fundamental tradeoffs when it comes to immigration. As Gene Callahan has written recently, it is strange that libertarian economists, who are usually eager to point out that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, “treat immigration as if it were immune to this principle, and argue as if unlimited immigration is simply an unalloyed bundle of benefits with no associated costs.” Advocates of open borders should recognize that not all opposing arguments are veiled conservative prejudices rooted in xenophobic hysteria and that there are practical downsides worthy of consideration. Here, I will discuss some of these legitimate challenges to open immigration. But first, a few disclaimers on what I will not be arguing.

I will not be arguing that the potential costs of open borders necessarily outweigh the potential benefits. I suspect there isn’t enough evidence to make a compelling case either way and I’m certainly not informed enough to adopt a strong position on the subject. Ultimately, I think that some level of immigration fosters innovation and the exchange of ideas and I have no doubts that the majority of immigrants are hard-working, honorable people who just want the opportunity to create a better life for their families. Nor will I be arguing that the practical challenges of open borders should necessarily drown out the moral arguments, which I generally find compelling. In fact, my path to becoming a libertarian began when I was exposed to the corrupt and unfeeling actions of several bureaucrats towards Haitian immigrants in a congressional office where I interned during high school.

However, I am very skeptical of what appears to me to be an emerging tendency to institute a libertarian litmus test around open borders and a reluctance to engage in a conversation about the many tradeoffs of such a policy stance. I would like to push back against the tendency of open borders advocates to frame the conversation as if immigration is a zero sum game. A writer at SpawkTalk has criticized Bryan Caplan for such framing:

He [Caplan] analyzes whether immigrants on the whole depress native wages, or whether immigrants as a whole use a lot of welfare, etc. It seems to not occur to him that there may be a good case for restricting immigration even if immigrants as a whole do no net harm. After all, some subset of immigrants might do harm in these various areas even if immigrants on the whole do not. And so it would make sense to ban this subset of immigrants from immigrating to your country. Just about no one actually advocated banning all immigration. And yet this is the position that Caplan’s analysis directly argues against. In so doing it fails to address the vast majority of proposals for immigration restriction actually in existence.

It’s especially worth lingering on the point that virtually no one is calling for a ban on immigration across the board. In fact, there is probably no other policy position more implicitly excluded from mainstream debate than immigration restriction. Nearly everyone is against it, from Brookings to Karl Rove to the ideological left to libertarians — and most have self-interested reasons for doing so; the business right wants cheap wages, the left wants more voters, and so on. Advocating for open borders isn’t as radical of a position as many libertarians make it out to be.

Similarly, Thomas Sowell has critiqued the broader immigration debate for discussing immigrants as if they are a monolithic group, or “abstract people in an abstract world.” By invoking Milton Friedman’s old line, “the best is the enemy of the good,” Sowell has cautioned us against failing to achieve good possible outcomes in pursuit of an unattainable ideal. Immigration shouldn’t be abstracted into a simple rights-based argument; proposed solutions (which very well may differ from ideal positions or principles) should take into account the potentially disastrous consequences of an open borders policy. Namely, the dilution or destruction of cultures that have a historical track record of leading to economic prosperity and social stability; the incompatibility of open borders with democracy and limited government; and the damaging effects of human capital flight on developing countries.

I’m always disheartened when I observe proponents of open borders flippantly dismiss skeptics of free immigration who argue that such policies could disrupt or destroy native cultures. For example, Jason Brennan has responded to the culture argument by stating, “Perhaps there is some value in maintaining a distinctive French culture and identity, but it is not valuable enough to justify forcing millions to starve.” This is true if you trivialize culture as little more than people’s subjective preferences for a certain type of food or music. However, if you aren’t a cultural relativist and you acknowledge the Hayekian insight that traditions passed down through cultural institutions are invaluable in crafting peaceful and prosperous societies, you will recognize that preserving certain cultures can also be a matter of life or death in the long run.

As Gene Callahan has noted, “A key contribution of the libertarian economist and political theorist F.A. Hayek was to stress the importance of local knowledge in making our social life workable … Thus, it is somewhat surprising that libertarian advocates of open borders have paid so little attention to the effects of mass immigration on the local knowledge base.” Disrupting these institutions by introducing a drastic demographic change could put our dispersed cultural knowledge in peril, thereby threatening social stability and economic growth. Before dismissing this as conservative paranoia, consider the data.

A large body of reputable research has found that increased ethnic heterogeneity in a region is correlated with lower levels of social capital, even when controlling for variables such as age, poverty, and crime. Social capital can simply be defined as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness.” People in ethnically fragmented communities have lower levels of interpersonal trust; lower levels of civic, social, and charitable engagement; less efficient provision of public goods; more sluggish economic growth; and lower levels of happiness and general satisfaction. It seems that the more diversity we experience, the lower our quality of life is. As political scientist Robert Putnam has stated, in places with higher levels of social capital “children grow up healthier, safer, and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better.”

This finding is not likely to resonate well with most people since it contradicts the “diversity is strength” mantra that permeates American culture. So long as the mainstream position is that diversity is an unqualified good (emphasis on unqualified), it’s unlikely that libertarians will see the value in openly weighing the costs and benefits of immigration. As a movement that is already labeled racist and is frequently criticized for a lack of diversity, recognizing such unwelcomed evidence would further damage our image, which increasingly seems to carry more weight than intellectual honesty.

There is good reason to believe that in addition to disrupting valuable cultural institutions, open immigration could have a disastrous effect on political systems, since some groups of immigrants are likely to vote in large numbers against economic freedom. For example, polling data for the Hispanic population in the United States demonstrates that unlike the general population, Hispanics tend to prefer a big government which provides more services to a small one providing fewer services. They are also twice as likely to support the statement that “government should increase the standard of living of the poor and guarantee a job” and are closer to Democrats than Republicans when it comes to healthcare and public education. Tino Sanandaji, a PhD student in Public Policy at the University of Chicago notes that these findings are unsurprising considering that countries like Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela have a long history of leftist populism when it comes to economic policy. I’m sure many libertarians will reject this evidence as collectivist generalizations but the reality is that when you’re assessing the possible effects of a substantial demographic shift, you have to actually analyze those demographics.

Advocates of open borders usually claim that this problem could be solved quite simply by denying immigrants the right to vote. This is problematic for several reasons. First, this position neglects the fact that immigrants have higher birthrates than the general population and that immigrant children and their children’s children tend to vote like their parents. Not long from now, the Hispanic population will have the numbers to decide elections. Latinos have been reliably Democratic voters for decades and given that Hispanics currently earn about half as much as white people, it seems unlikely that they will become free market advocates any time soon. Second, as Sanandaji has pointed out, no minority in America today is denied equal rights for very long.

The notion of large swaths of immigrants moving to another country and gaining the right to vote should be considered problematic to minarchists and general proponents of democracy because democracy can only function (put that in scare quotes, if you will) with a limited citizenship. This is best illustrated if you imagine voting rights over decisions about the allocation of collective assets as a form of property. Sanandaji put it best in saying, “Limits on free migration is not just an arbitrary state construct, it is necessary to uphold ownership rights imposed by owners (citizens), just as a fence is necessary to uphold private property…If you accept this premise, abolishing borders in a modern welfare state is a form of socialism, just as abolishing fences would be.” Anarchists won’t find this compelling but they aren’t totally off the hook, either. The right to exclusion is of paramount importance in any free society, arguably even more so in an anarchist arrangement. Private property rights will always limit freedom of movement and in a stateless society, institutions akin to homeowner’s associations, which rely on limited membership to provide public goods, would abound in far greater numbers than we see today and would heavily rely on the right to exlusion.

Proponents of open borders also frequently dismiss the argument that open borders are incompatible with and will further the growth of the welfare state as conservative posturing. Nevermind the fact that the three most influential libertarian intellectuals in the twentieth century all held this position. Hayek’s support for a social safety net for the least well-off in society necessitated “certain limitations on the free movement across frontiers” and Friedman famously stated, “You cannot simultaneously have free immigration and a welfare state.” In an interview towards the end of his life, Nozick likewise commented, “Why do we not have completely free immigration everywhere? One reason is the welfare state.” But I digress. What does the data show?

Caplan has cited a literature review which presents data from seven studies on the rate at which immigrants use welfare. The majority of these studies found that immigrants were more likely to use welfare than natives. For example, studies on the United States found that immigrants were 10-15 percent more likely to use welfare than natives and another study found that the average immigrant family uses about $5.7k (in 1989 dollars) more in welfare than the average native family over their lifetime. Caplan has argued that this difference is negligible since it amounts to only a few dollars more per person per month.

On the other hand, these small amounts add up. If you use the 5.7K number to estimate that if borders were opened up and half of the people around the world who want to move to the United States were able to do so (75 million people), there would be an added trillion dollars of welfare spending over these immigrants’ lifetimes. Caplan fails to consider that second and third generation Hispanic immigrants also use welfare at a greater rate than natives do, so increased welfare costs would likely be much higher. Finally, under an open borders policy, immigrant populations would be even poorer than current immigrants to the United States and would be more likely to use that much more welfare.

Some will argue that I’m focusing too much on how Western countries might be harmed by open borders and not enough on the dire circumstances potential immigrants in developing countries face and how much they stand to benefit. But the costs to wealthy nations deserves a high level of attention considering the soberingly enormous demand among poor people to move to Western countries. Indeed, in the world’s richest 18 countries, immigrants constitute 16 percent of the population and by 2050, an astounding 39 percent of people under the age of 18 in the United States will have immigrant parents. Regardless, some of the most compelling arguments against open borders are that such policies could lead to brain drain (human capital flight makes poor countries even poorer) and delayed political reform in developing countries. If people can just leave, there will be less incentive for people to stay and reform institutions from the inside.

Finally, I fear that the benefits of migrating to countries like the United States are overstated. The sad reality is that current immigrants simply don’t share the same prospects for success as immigrants of the past, as Gregory Clark has noted. While many immigrant groups (though certainly not all) have historically achieved income, education, and wealth equality within one or two generations, modern day social mobility rates are extremely low. In fact, today, seven to ten generations are required before the descendants of low status families reach average status. And government policies that try to accelerate that transition have all failed. Tragically, “immigrant groups tend to retain the social status they arrive with,” as Clark points out. The immigrant groups who have been able to climb to average social status or higher in the United States were already from the upper classes of their native countries (China, India, South Korea, Iran, etc.) whereas groups like the Hmong and Latinos who came with lower social status have failed to achieve similar rates of upward mobility. As Clark notes:

The United States seems to cherish an image of itself as a country of opportunity for all, a country that invites in the world’s tired, its poor, and its huddled masses. But the United States is not exceptional in its rates of social mobility. It can perform no special alchemy on the disadvantaged populations of any society in order to transform their life opportunities. The truth is that the American Dream was always an illusion. Blindly pursuing that dream now will only lead to a future with dire social challenges.

In summary, the libertarian discussion surrounding immigration shouldn’t be viewed as an all or nothing proposition and as Sanandaji has argued, it should take real world empirical patterns into account rather than assume away voting, the public sector, and social externalities. Libertarians should adopt the same skeptical economist’s view they apply to all other subjects when weighing questions about immigration to determine if we can actually affect the changes we would like to make.

It is perfectly acceptable for libertarians to disagree on such a complex subject and to hold opinions in favor of more marginal change. There are plenty of modest ways libertarians can criticize the existing immigration system without being in favor of open borders. These libertarians shouldn’t be vilified for their humility and prudence. There is no academic consensus on the subject and the issue is too complex and contextual for there to be a clear-cut libertarian position. The burden of proof lies on advocates of open borders to engage these criticisms.

(Image source)


  1. I published an article with some similar themes, primarily focused on the cultural issues, in the context of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.

    The one point I would add to this excellent article is that the open immigration/no voting or citizenship advocates ignore Obama/Holder’s dogged determination to prevent states from policing voter fraud. Just this week, courts have issues temporary injunctions blocking enforcement of basic photo ID requirements in Wisconsin, Texas and Arkansas. To ignore that fact is to say that you know the enemy is using free political institutions to destroy those political institutions, but shrug and say “there’s nothing we can do about it.” Hogwash.


  2. Nicely written. However, I think you may have misapplied the idea that “the best is the enemy of the good.” In your context, if I understand it correctly, the idea is presented as the classic libertarian trade-off between moral or philosophical integrity vs. practical results. In other words, even if open borders are the “best” moral position, there’s no reason to discount the many good but restrictive ideas in the world, which although morally imperfect could yield important practical benefits.

    If I’ve read you correctly, then I think it’s worth considering it another way–in perhaps a more obvious way. Arguing from a practical, economic standpoint, Caplan’s argument is that open borders are indisputably GOOD. Not only does it require no government involvement, which as we know bears significant costs, risks, and dangers to freedom, but it also benefits the country on the whole. Viewed this way, it doesn’t matter that no one is arguing the exact opposite. What matters is that everyone else is arguing for “the best.” Sowell et. al are the ones who seem to be rejecting Caplan’s simple, good idea in pursuit of an ideal, and yet much more complicated, way. Look at Sanandaji’s own words:

    “It seems to not occur to [Caplan] that there may be a good case for restricting immigration even if immigrants as a whole do no net harm. After all, some subset of immigrants might do harm in these various areas even if immigrants on the whole do not. And so it would make sense to ban this subset of immigrants from immigrating to your country.”

    Here, Sanandaji is rejecting a simple, good solution in the pursuit of the “best” solution, right?

    Granted, I think that in our political landscape, an open border policy is not a realistic outcome,. For this reason, I agree with and understand why you would frame Caplan and others as the ones who are being too philosophically idealistic. But on a very obvious level, they are proposing an extremely simple solution on the basis that it is, on the whole, a good and moral thing.

    To me, then, this is where the strength of your objections might start to unravel to most libertarian readers. Forgetting immigration for a moment, couldn’t we apply your concerns about trade-offs to anything? Aren’t there some disastrous examples of, say, free speech? And yet I’m hardly convinced that selectively restricting “subsets” of speech is a good idea. Nor does it mean that those who argue for absolute free speech have constructed a straw man simply because no one is arguing against absolutely no speech.

    The libertarian position has never been that extreme levels of freedom come with no trade-offs for anyone. Rather, as you concede, most of the policy arguments are rooted in moral imperatives. Beyond that, I’ll be reductive and say that most libertarians generally feel that it’s better to accept the trade-offs of freedom than to accept the trade-offs of government intervention. And although I appreciated your post, I continue to agree with them. Don’t you?


  3. How does the heterogeneity literature control for the benefits of small politically autonomous units?

    Most of the successful heterogeneous cultures that are cited, say the Nordic countries, are smaller than a large number of US states.


  4. This is the case for xenophobia nicely crafted in the mumbo jumbo meaningless pseudoscientific jargon. Everything seems to support the case presented, except the facts.

    The core argument is that increased ethnic heterogeneity cases problems. It is xenophobia in white gloves. Just to make sure that the reader will not get any wrong ideas which cultural variety is wrong, the author list Hispanics as the bad ones.

    The author of this text is as much libertarian as I am the Miss of America. Just to make it clear, I am an old man, often called ugly.


  5. This is a very good post, but I would quibble with some of the claims. For one, why would brain drain necessarily delay politically reforms? If anything, wouldn’t it lead to the opposite? Certainly if highly educated people are leaving your country that would incentivize you to improve public policies. Nonetheless, I believe remittances account for a large percentage of GDP in some developing countries, and not all high-skilled immigrants permanently remain in the U.S.

    Secondly, while it may be true that many immigrants will remain an underclass here in the U.S., won’t they still be comparatively better off than they would be in their own countries? In a sense, you contradict yourself when you claim that there in an “enormous demand” to move here but then contest that the benefits are “overstated.” Well maybe they are, but immigrants must see some benefit to moving here or they wouldn’t choose to do so.

    Overall, I agree with the general proposition that libertarians do not exercise the same degree of scrutiny with open borders that they do with other issues. The economic benefits of open borders would be sizeable for both immigrants and current citizens, but “economic benefits” is not the only issue that matters here.


  6. Nicely done. I suspect that people from other cultures may indeed bring their political ideologies, and baggage bias with them. For example, on the whole, people that move here from Argentina, will likely vote for the same types of politicians that ruined their once prosperous nation. People that move to move from liberal Santa Barbra, to Texas, will more likely vote to turn texas more liberal.

    I’ve termed this the “votellion effect” (in honor of the pygmalion effect).


    Liked by 1 person

  7. A good read for sure, and some good points. But overall, Caplan,, and other advocates have dealt with or attempted to deal with basically everything you bring up.

    They acknowledge certain costs. They deal with cultural implications, voting patterns, welfare use, income distribution effects, brain drain, language adoption, etc… Their position is that open borders still make sense, on a net cost-benefit test, outside of its moral imperative. That is not a position that equates open borders with a free lunch. They do not assume away these things. Maybe the broader movement does, but I haven’t seen that either.


  8. At several points in this article you cite, and even quote, a post from the blog “spawktalk” and attribute it to Tino Sanandaji. However, he is not the person who wrote that blog. (I am.) He has no connection with that blog. If you cite the blog in the future please make sure that you do not mis-attribute it to another person. Thanks for the link though.


  9. Great article. Thank you! I just wrote an article titled The Libertarian Immigration Conundrum and received some abuse for it as your article anticipates 😦 One point I made, though, that I haven’t read anywhere else, is that the welfare state creates immigration problems not (only) because immigrants come to use it, but because it creates a labor floor in the native population under which Americans will not or cannot work. Minimum wage prohibits low skilled workers from working, and welfare, food stamps and unemployment insurance ensure that jobs beneath a certain pay level don’t make sense for Americans to take. This creates our current situation: underemployed Americans and a shortage of unskilled labor which creates a black market for labor that attracts low-skilled foreign workers who don’t have a cushy safety net at home and who are desperate enough to risk living illegally. As we can see with the Drug War, it takes extreme brutality to eradicate a black market, hence the difficulty in securing the border (assuming that’s a genuine problem and not a deliberate failure). Here’s the article in case you’re interested…


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