open borders

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.