Imagine a law that says black people aren’t allowed to get jobs unless they apply for special permission from the government. Now, replace “black people” with “Muslims” or “the LGBTQ community”.
Feeling any better about it? No? Good. Me neither.
The whole idea sounds like something from a Margaret Atwood novel; designed to warn us against the painful consequences of stumbling into a dystopian future.
It also makes no sense: What rational or moral reason is there to limit people’s opportunities like this, based only on their characteristics or preferences?
Yet most nations in the world already have a blanket law exactly like this one. It applies to anyone born on the wrong side of their borders.
These days, the movement of data, words, images, and ideas face fewer restrictions than ever before. I can send dank memes 12,000 miles from Malaysia to Ecuador in an instant. The movement of people, however, isn’t so fluid.
Where we can go and the opportunities we can access are still very much determined by where we were born.
The global borders system we’ve inherited is outdated and inefficient. So why don’t we just open up those bad boys? Here’s my take on why we should do just that.
Unlocking human potential
The most powerful argument for open borders is simple: Giving people the freedom to move unlocks their potential. If a low-skilled person from Haiti relocates to the United States, they’ll experience a wage increase of 2,000% for doing work that’s identical.
The Haitian worker doesn’t have to spend time learning new skills to achieve their salary bump. The uplift is instant and based entirely on their choice of place. Bottom line: Janitors in Miami are paid more than janitors in Port-au-Prince.
The same labour is worth more in wealthier countries. And, globally speaking, the most efficient and effective way to move people out of poverty is simply to let them access better opportunities.
But open borders isn’t just about improving life for people born in developing countries. It’s about improving life for everybody.
Research shows that open borders would increase global GDP by 30-50%, making every person on the planet richer. As the American economist Bryan Caplan puts it, “This is not trickle-down economics — this is Niagara Falls economics.”
The impact on rich countries
OK, so open borders would stimulate economic growth and lift people out of poverty. Great stuff.
But surely it’s migrants who experience most of the benefits we’re talking about here. Doesn’t that mean people in the host countries lose out? Won’t low-skilled migrants take jobs away from low-skilled native workers? The answer is yes and no.
First off, labour market shifts are happening all the time anyway. A major European company relocates its manufacturing arm to Asia. A Canadian construction firm replaces 200 workers with machines. Tuition fees rise, so a generation of young people study overseas.
The choice here isn’t between standing still and running a marathon — borders aside, everything is already changing constantly.
An influx of low-skilled workers from overseas does result in more competition for jobs, but it also creates new opportunities for native workers. Local language fluency is now a key differentiator, meaning new roles for low-skilled native workers to train or manage migrants.
Think about it like this: When women joined the U.S. workforce in droves during the 1960s and 1970s, the result was not mass unemployment for men. Sure, there were new challenges and opportunities — but, ultimately, the economy adjusted and thrived.
Would we be better off if the female half of the population was still stuck at home? Of course not. The same principle applies to migration.
Getting it right
Incentives are the key to making open borders a viable proposition.
An essential piece of the puzzle is reassuring native workers in host countries that migration won’t hurt them. Simple policy solutions like charging migrants higher taxes and redistributing those funds to native workers (perhaps as a basic income) are a straightforward way to quell those fears.
Governments can also charge migrants admission fees, deem them ineligible for benefits, restrict their voting rights, and make language tests mandatory. Whatever the specific complaints, there are ways to address them without continuing the extreme measure of closed borders.
Today, open borders is still a radical thought. Most voters want governments to pursue policies that benefit their own residents, for fear of the different and the unknown.
But progress is never a matter of creating a perfect system — especially for something as complex as migration.
It’s about improving on what we have right now; setting a direction of travel for migration policy in the 21st century; and making sure that humans have the same mobility rights as data, capital, goods, and services all do.