The Case for Small Government

A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy

March 15, 2006

Open the Borders

Most Libertarians oppose restrictions on immigration. They hesitate to open the borders, however, without first scaling back entitlement programs. The fear is that many immigrants would enter the U.S. simply to “live off the dole.”

Even without reductions in entitlements, however, the U.S. should remove all impediments to immigration.

By opening the borders, the U.S. would eliminate the costs of enforcing immigration restrictions. These include the expenditure for border controls plus the corruption and disrespect for the law engendered by imperfect enforcement of existing restrictions.

By opening the borders, the U.S. would signal its desire to help those seeking a better life. This would plausibly combat terrorism better than any policy currently being pursued.

By opening the borders, the U.S. would encourage other rich countries to open theirs.

By opening the borders, the U.S. would provide humanitarian assistance to many in desperate need.

On top of these benefits, increased legal immigration might generate political pressure to scale back entitlement programs. So the standard Libertarian view on the relation between entitlement and immigration policies is perhaps backwards.

Opening the borders does carry the risk that a flood of immigration might overwhelm the economy. This concern is understandable but likely exaggerated. Historical experience does not suggest immigration would be dramatically larger than occurs now. And if the borders were open, many immigrants would not migrate permanently. Instead they would earn income here for a period and then return to their country of origin. This occurred frequently before the imposition of immigration restrictions early in the 20th century.

No immigration policy is perfect. But open borders is the best tradeoff available.


At 10:13 PM, Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

Well it's even dumber than a misplaced concern about lots of people from poor countries flooding in. Why impose any restrictions on say Aussies or Brits or even dare I say Frenchies. How many do you think would come? Do you think poor people would desert these generous welfare states for the US or would the best and brightest come?

At the unskilled end of the scale the choice is between say Mexicans working in the chicken processing plant in Arkansas, or Mexicans working in the chicken processing plant in Mexico and exporting the processed chickens to US.

At 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Increased immigration would create pressure to *reduce* entitlements? Current naturalized Mexigan immigrants are more likely to support redistribution and government intervention in the economy than the median voter. Hispanic Americans have substantially lower incomes, a mean IQ 11 points below the national mean, and an educational deficit of several grade levels that is sustained through successive generations.

Is it reasonable to suppose that importing an ever-expanding underclass and vastly increasing domestic inequality will be conducive to better economic policy? Or will we see a shift towards the situation in Venezuela, Bolivia, etc where racial/ethnic divisions have exacerbated class warfare and led to disastrous economic policies?

A guest worker program that denied citizenship to immigrants and their children (reversing 'birthright citizenship', just as the children of ambassadors do not receive American citizenship), combined with the exclusion of guest workers and their families from tax-funded schools, welfare programs, and emergency rooms (which are forced to open their doors thanks to federal Medicare rules) would forestall these difficulties.

Otherwise, free immigration of low-productivity workers and non-workers would lead to a massive increase in the burden on net taxpayers. Given that polling data in Mexico indicates that more han 30 million Mexicans would wish to move to the United States if they could do so legally, (and Mexico is a fairly rich country by world standards, close to 5 billion people have lower living standards) truly open borders could bring in enough 3rd world immigrants to force either a caste society or a socialist one. Neither is particularly attractive.

Free trade in goods and service is fabulous, but not the freedom to move to richer areas and expropriate the locals.

At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well I agree there should be much much much higher levels of immigration of people of all skill levels. but tyler cowen has convinced me that opening up the borders completely might be a little scary. some things to worry about:

a. American cities and suburbs would become ringed with shantytowns
b. American hospitals and medical facilities would become overburdened
c. Some immigrants would pose threats to public order
d. Assimilation might become more difficult, as the numbers of immigrants from each region increase
e. The political backlash would be enormous

i worry about a. and d. more than anything. i worry that it might destabilize the nation even. i think it would be dramatic and i think everyone would see the consequences of completely opening up the borders whatever they were.

in some ways i think china has dealt with mass immigration in allowing its citizens to migrate from farms to cities. maybe there are some comparisons to be made there.

great blog btw.

At 11:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congress can't even stomach opening the borders to investment these days, much less our neighbors to the south.

At 12:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing you could clear up.
Do you mean unlimited anonymous immigration, rubber stamp "at least we know who you claim to be" immigration, or "prove who you are and you can come in" immigration?

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, and how does this affect citizenship? Does anyone who makes it into the country just become a citizen, are they just eligible to apply for citizenship or do you not care about citizenship at all and move to abolish it?

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Jeffrey Alan Miron said...

In response to a number of comments:

I recognize that opening the borders entirely (whatever that means precisely) carries some risks along the lines indicated by Eric. In my view those risks are modest, but they exist.

It is key to remember, however, that we bear substantial costs associated with the current system. Millions of people who reside in the U.S. are "outside" the law, and we bear considerable expense attempting to enforce the existing law. It is unclear, morevoer, the law does much to reduce immigration. In particular, it probably keeps out high-skilled immigrants far more than it keeps out low-skill immigrants.

As for details, I have frankly not considered them much since we know the borders will not be "open" in the near future.

At a practical level, therefore, my message is to 1) resist any new restrictions on immigration, such as those the Administration is currently considering, and 2) push for ways to moderate the stringency of current restrictions. This would mean, in particular, more visas for scientiest and engineers and a guest worker program for lower-skilled immigrants.

An additional measure that should not be controversial is repeal of the 1986 act that forces employeers to verify immigration status of their employees. This imposes large costs with minimal effects on immigration.

At 10:58 AM, Blogger polysciwiz said...

I agree with you. People should be free to migrate anywhere, regardless of whether a welfare state exists or not in any nation. Travelling and migration is a fundamental right.

At 10:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most people are unaware that immigrants are not allowed to recieve public benefits such as welfare, food stamps, and medicaid for their at least their first five years here. In my opinion, this is not only a strong refutation of the argument these immigrants are coming here to live off the dole (it is much easier to be poor in Mexico; where it's always warm, things are cheap, and where one has strong family networks; than it is to be poor in NYC), but also proof that without the welfare state to rely on, the poor will form informal networks to support each other (since you do not see these immigrants starving to death in the streets).

At 9:12 PM, Blogger LP Mike Sylvester said...

I am a LIbertarian that thinks we should CLOSE the borders.

We should boot 11 million illegal immigrants out of our country using whatever force is needed...

AFTER all of this is completed we should increase the amount of legal immigration we allow.

Mike Sylvester

At 11:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live in a retirement area of california and find the same attitude here (towards new development and local growth) as with the immigration control crowd. Namely, the "I'm in and I've got my place in the sun now everyone else stay out!" I find this very un-american and distasteful. Maybe when these so called b. boomers die off we can have some humane policy reform.

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At 2:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To people who say that it would open up shanty towns and pollute our hospitals. That isn''t a libertarian's concern. Hospitals are mainly owned by corporations now which hire doctors, nurses, orderlys, janitors, receptionists, paramedics, construction workers, and pay into insurance claims.

America is about making it on your own, without the governments grace and gifts, or at least it used to be. Its selfish to keep that dream to ourselves

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