The death knell of Open Borders?

The world of the 1990s and aughts is now gone. A borderless, wall-less world will be relegated to the musty, threadbare realm of academia and on the white papers of a few brave think tanks. The flood of war refugees from Syria has been overwhelming Europe’s political and cultural sensibilities (Europe’s political sensibilities are quite innovative, but it is stagnating culturally; not a good combination for societies trying to manage large influxes of mostly unwelcome refugees). In the US, demagogues on the Right and the Left have been trashing immigrants and the freedom of movement in the name of the Worker.

The freedom of movement of individuals is a fundamental right that I will advocate on behalf of for the rest of my life, and yet I have been cautious in embracing the trendy calls for Open Borders by technocrats and non-paleo libertarians. My caution had less to do with my disdain for the cultures of those respective factions than it did with my inability to imagine a world of Open Borders as the prominent factions presented it. The Open Borders trend brought too many questions to my mind. For example, what if only a few countries recognize Open Borders? Why should people be free to move to one area but not to another? What is fair about any of that?

Open Borders was, in my mind, a short-sighted cultural campaign aimed at furthering freedom. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, as some such campaigns end up furthering freedom in the long run (though these campaigns can also damage the push for more freedoms, too). In this respect, Open Borders was a big success. It brought technocratic Leftists around to the idea of loosening restrictions not only on labor but capital as well. It brought lots of non-Europeans into the libertarian fold. The Open Borders campaign made the unspoken nationalisms of trade protectionism and immigration restriction taboo for smart people.

Yet, as current events so blatantly illustrate, freedom of movement is not in the same camp as, say, freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is culturally sacred to Westerners. Every individual in the West believes that her freedom of speech is inalienable. This, even though free speech is always under political and legal attacks from factions vying for power over others. (These political and legal attacks, of course, are a necessary evil for a free and open society. If this doesn’t make sense, recall that “freedom of speech” is a right protected so well by states like North Korea and Cuba that the rulers of those countries consider it a crime to claim otherwise.) For those who want a world where freedom of movement is in the same camp as freedom of speech, more hard work and more critical thinking is required. My small contribution is below.

If there had been political bonds – a la (con)federation of some kind – between Syria and EU states (or other Arab states), then the horrific violence that has been tearing Syria apart could have been avoided. The opposing parties would have had to spell out their differences in a parliamentary setting, and if they could not come to any kind of agreement then the opposing parties could have hashed out their differences in a legal setting, either by suing each other in the courts or by pursuing secession options (which would have likely led all parties back into parliamentary negotiations). In fact, the legal and political jostling could have been done simultaneously.

Look at the EU. Just look! Open Borders is possible because the states involved in the confederation are bonded together politically. They had come to an agreement about Open Borders (amongst other policies) and how to recognize, respond, and respect such a policy.

Look at the US. Open Borders is possible because the states involved in the federation are bonded together politically. They had come to an agreement about Open Borders (amongst other policies) and how to recognize, respond, and respect such a policy.

Now look at Syria and the EU. Open Borders is not possible because these states have no political bonds. Instead, people are being murdered and driven from their homes. People are being harassed by policemen and bused from one country to another. People are being barred from riding trains. People are dying at sea.

Open Borders is a watered down policy prescription that is too Western-centric (ask me how). It’s better than nothing, mind you (like free trade agreements), but it’s worth reminding ourselves that it’s not a comprehensive answer to the question of freedom of movement. As such, it’s easier to attack or dismiss when things go wrong. Here is yours truly blabbing at the mouth back in May of 2014:

I think that there is a way to incorporate open borders into a One Big Change-style reform while also leaving room for other improvements such as financial competition in the markets (rather than between governments) and competing tax regimes. I’d dig deeper and go a little more structural. I’d federate the entire world, and I wouldn’t make the federation out of the current agglomeration of nation-states, either. I would destroy the states currently in place and federate the administrative units that currently operate underneath the nation-state.

This, I think, would do a great job of incorporating open borders (everyone is part of the same federal union now), financial competition (no more national banks), tax regimes (you can more easily vote with your feet), and a common legal system that protects individual rights such as private property and freedom of religion.

Now, you wouldn’t want to do this in a ‘top-down’ manner. The best way to get the ball rolling on such a proposal would be to tack on a constitutional clause of some sort that merely opens the door to dialogue on closer political ties between peoples. So, in the case of the US, a clause could be adopted that makes it possible for states or disgruntled sub-states to approach the US about collaborating more intimately. An even better option would be to find an already existing clause in the constitution that allows for such a thing. Maybe nothing comes of it. Maybe people balk at American pomposity. At least, at least that is until their strong man starts bombing their neighborhoods or their social democracy starts adding a few extra zeros to its currency…

Holla back!

UPDATE: Re-reading through this made me realize that I’m addressing a different aspect of freedom of movement than the Open Borders crowd. They’re focused on the ‘why’ whereas I’m focused on the ‘how’.


10 thoughts on “The death knell of Open Borders?

  1. Good article. I am not a fan of open borders for too many reasons to list here. I think you listed many of my objections and concerns in the article. The motives of politicians should always be suspect. We should not trust them to have our self interest in mind when they legislate.
    I think the solution lies somewhere in the middle. 🙂

    • The solution to a problem rarely resides in the middle John! 🙂

      You shouldn’t be suspicious of politicians’ motives, either. Their interests are tied to their re-election campaigns.

      Open Borders is a short-sighted way of defending the right of individuals to move about freely, so long as they break no bones nor pick no pockets. Jacques wrote a longer article on the Mexican-American border issue that was published by the libertarian journal Independent Review, and you can find it here (pdf), if you’re interested. It’s an innovative argument.

  2. The whole concern about “what if only a few countries recognize Open Borders” seems odd to me.

    Should the United States maintain and expand gun control on the premise that “only a few countries” recognize gun rights?

    Should the United States continue the drug war if “only a few countries” give up on it?

    Should the United States abandon any moves toward a free trade policy until Myanmar’s junta, Fidel Castro’s Cuban regime and the Iranian mullahs all agree to end trade restrictions?

    Or, perhaps, should the US do the right thing because it is the right thing, regardless of what other countries do?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, TLK (and for the shout-out at Rational Review News Digest!)

      You are absolutely right that the US should have an open border because it’s the morally right thing to do (it helps that such a morally superior way of doing things would make the US much, much richer as well). I have no problem with supporting an open border or freer trade via unilateralism. But this way of thinking is waaaay too US-centric for my tastes, especially when we consider the internationalist underpinnings of individualism.

      An open border is just that. There is no ‘s’ on the end of ‘border’. Going back to my example with Syria and the EU, Open Borders won’t happen without political compromise, and political compromise is at its best when sides have a binding agreement of some sort. Whether this agreement be in the form of a loose confederation, or a stronger, secession-friendly federation (my personal recommendation), or whether it is simply a multilateral agreement a la the Schengen Agreement, is an argument we can have further on down the line. My aim right now is to get Open Borders advocates to see that their arguments are incomplete and short-sighted because they don’t take into account non-Western points of view.

      Countries that take in the refugees of the ongoing civil war in Syria will benefit from doing so immensely. The people who will be living in Syria once the war ends? Not so much.

      There is also another element to consider here. What if Syria had been politically connected to the EU in some way? Maybe not as a member of the EU, but still bound up through some mutually agreed-upon contract that included the right to freedom of movement. Do you think the war would have even occurred in the first place?

      • Brandon,

        Always glad to show your stuff to RRND’s readers!

        Interestingly, there IS a partial and not entirely satisfactory codification of “open borders” in international framework — Articles 13 and 14 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Far from complete, and as an anarchist I’m suspicious of state frameworks, but it does go to show there’s been some thinking and work on “international consensus for open borders” among states.

      • Thanks TK.

        I consider myself an anarchist as well, albeit of the pragmatic variety. Most of this stems from my interests in political anthropology, which is concerned with where states come from (this is in contrast to political philosophy, which asks what it is states should do, and economics/political science/sociology, which all look at how states function).

        In my eyes, a state is just another institution created by people wishing to cooperate. From there, of course, any number of scenarios can arise, but this framework can definitely seem strange to some anarchists who are less familiar with political anthropology.

  3. Any argument that concludes “we can’t have good result X without bringing everyone into a bigger (and thus more distant and less accountable) empire” makes me itch. Fortunately, I can observe that Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the Schengen agreement and not of the EU.

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