If People Could Immigrate Anywhere, Would Poverty Be Eliminated?

Some economists are pushing for "open borders"
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Honduran immigrant Jose Humberto Castro, 26, clings to a freight train on his way to the border with the United States in Orizaba in the state of Veracruz on November 3, 2010. (Eliana Aponte/Reuters)

What if there was a program that would cost nothing, improve the lives of millions of people from poorer nations, and double world GDP? At least one economist says that increased mobility of people is by far the biggest missed opportunity in development. And an informally aligned group of advocates is doing its best to make the world aware of the "open borders" movement, which suggests that individuals should be able to move between countries at will.

Vipul Naik is the face, or at least the voice, of open borders on the Internet. In March 2012, he launched Open Borders: The Case, a website dedicated to the idea. Naik, a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, is striving for "a world where there is a strong presumption in favor of allowing people to migrate and where this presumption can be overridden or curtailed only under exceptional circumstances." Naik and his two primary co-writers, Nathan Smith and John Lee, parse research into immigration impacts, answering claims by those they call "restrictionists"--people who argue against open borders--and deconstructing writings on migration by economists, politicians, journalists, and philosophers.

The theory they espouse is that border restrictions of almost any kind are wrong, that they are antithetical to the fundamental human right of self-determination. To see their point, imagine an American in rural Mississippi being told she cannot move to New York City to seek a better career. That is exactly what the U.S. and other developed nations are telling the millions of foreigners who are denied access to their rich labor markets.

The moral case for open borders has perhaps been most eloquently described by Michael Huemer, a philosopher at the University of Colorado. In a blog post, he recounts the story of the young boy Starvin' Marvin, named after the skeletal South Park character. Speaking over the phone, Huemer told me Starvin' Marvin's hypothetical tale of woe:

[Marvin] is very hungry and is trying to travel to the marketplace to buy some food. Another person, Sam (Sam has a large number of nephews and nieces, so we'll call him Uncle Sam), decides to stop Marvin from going to the marketplace using coercion. He goes down there with his M16 and blocks the road. As a result, Marvin can't trade for food and, as a result, he starves. So then the question is, did Sam kill Marvin? Did he violate his rights? Almost anyone would say yes, Sam acted wrongly. In fact, if Marvin died as a result, then Sam killed him. It wouldn't be that Sam failed to help Marvin. No, he actively intervened....This is analogous to the U.S. government's immigration policy. There are people who want to trade in our marketplace, in this case the labor market, and the government effectively prevents them from doing that, through use of force.

Marvin's story leaves open many questions that writers on the Open Borders site spend hours deliberating on the site's blog. If Uncle Sam doesn't prevent Marvin from coming to the market, won't Marvin take jobs from Sam's nieces and nephews? What if Marvin is a criminal or a terrorist? Will Marvin learn English and assimilate culturally? Won't Marvin just take advantage of the marketplace's welfare system? Can the marketplace even sustain more Marvins?

George Mason economist Bryan Caplan, whose writing at EconLog inspired Naik's interest in open borders, has offered "keyhole" solutions as a substitute for black and white, yes-or-no questions on immigration. "If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers," Caplan wrote last year. "If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy."

While Caplan advocates for keyhole solutions over the status quo, he would pull the trigger immediately on open borders if given the chance: "My conscience wouldn't allow anything else." If people are so afraid of what might happen with open borders, says Caplan, then we should just implement it gradually. "But it's very easy for you to say that when you're in the first world living a comfortable life," he told me. "If you are living in abject poverty in Haiti, on the other hand, this go-slow attitude seems rather callous."

Though he generally disagrees with the standard arguments against increased immigration (that immigrants take jobs from native workers, increase crime, take more out of the system in welfare than they put back in taxes, and hurt their countries of origin due to so-called "brain drain"), Caplan understands that some developed-world workers could see a minor decrease in real pay. But whatever downsides there may be, he wrote in a 2011 post, "the upside of open borders would be the rapid elimination of absolute poverty on earth."

To prove the economic power of open borders, supporters often turn to the work of Michael Clemens, a development economist and one of the strongest voices for loosening border restrictions. Clemens is not an open borders advocate, but his research and writings make it very clear that movement of people across international borders should be a much higher priority than it is now. He is, he told me, "in favor of a vastly more sensible way of regulating movement," if not "a utopia of completely free movement." Based out of the Center for Global Development, a think tank in D.C., he has spent much of the past half-decade compiling international labor mobility statistics that are, as he says, "gasp-inducing."

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Shaun Raviv is a freelance writer based in Accra, Ghana.

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