Will the world ever have open borders?

By Felix Salmon
June 30, 2011

My favorite bit in this video comes towards the end, when I ask Charles about the wonderful tweet he sent out last Friday, after the gay marriage bill passed the New York senate.

One day we’ll see legal discrimination by *place* of birth as evil as discrim. by other features of birth –gender, orientation, color.less than a minute ago via web Favorite Retweet Reply

I wanted to know, was this just a lovely sentiment, or does Charles really think this is going to happen? The answer is the latter, and Charles gives two strong reasons why that might be the case.

One is the way that the world is getting smaller and more interconnected. Countries make hundreds of agreements with each other, they set up organizations like the UN and the EU, and in general behave much more pleasantly towards each other than they ever have in the past. And at some level that has to be because doing so is what their people want.

Charles’s second point was about mobility and immigration, and it’s a great one. Greater levels of immigration aren’t just a fantastic idea from a national-security standpoint and a fiscal standpoint, they’re also demographically necessary for an aging America which has a lot of labor-intensive needs in a service sector which can’t be outsourced. “The self-interest of people will weaken the effects of borders,” says Kenny, which is surely true. Americans don’t like immigration, but they love the low prices that immigration brings for their golf courses and swimming pools and McMansions.

There’s a long distance between appreciating the upside of immigration, on the one hand, and extolling the idea of completely open global borders, on the other, where everybody has the same right to work in the US, no matter where they were born. There’s many people who would push for the former, and almost nobody who would push for the latter. But as the economic distance between countries shrinks, the problems associated with such a policy will get smaller. And Charles points out too that there will be increasing numbers of Americans who want to live abroad; those Americans would in principle be quite happy to sign bilateral open-border agreements with the countries they’d like to live in.

None of this is going to happen in our lifetimes, but if you look at how far the world came over the course of the last century, there’s reason for optimism about how much more progress it can make in this one. Countries already go to war with each other much less frequently than they did in the past; the insane cost of war alone is one good reason why that might be. And without wars to make us hate each other, we’ll surely continue to get friendlier towards each other.

Sometimes, too, change can happen astonishingly fast. David Schlesinger touched on this in his chat with me yesterday — look at the way in which the Chinese government is successfully serving the interests of the Chinese people today, compared with 20 or 30 years ago.

The main official obstacle to Chinese people traveling around the US today is not China’s government, it’s America’s. And while we fear China in many ways, the spectre of mass Chinese immigration to the US is not one of them — to a large degree, America could and should welcome an influx of Chinese entrepreneurialism, which could quite possibly be funded with some of China’s trillions in foreign exchange reserves. From a US perspective, much better all that investment and job creation happen here than in China.

They put something in the water, here in Aspen, which makes people very optimistic. (Although maybe it’s inactive early in the morning: both Steve Adler and I were unimpressed by the latest demographic analysis purporting to find a centrist, consensus-driven majority in America.) But the world really is getting better, and has been for a couple of centuries now, and it’s very likely to continue doing so, in its lumpy and unpredictable way. Which means that, sooner or later, there’s a good chance that Charles’s dream will come true.


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Europe already has open borders with both the internal borders of the EU and the Schengen agreement making possible easy transit between adjacent EU countries (apart from the paranoid UK).

Paranoid America though is a different matter: even when US citizens move to countries other than the US, the Federal Govt still treats them as if they never left. For instance, they continue to have to file US tax returns even though they no longer benefit from any US services – and they have to fill in tax returns for the ‘foreign’ country in which they are newly resident for tax purposes.

This apolitical, non-partisan control of citizens was further extended by the Bush Administration and now also extends to how US citizens abroad are allowed to invest their money: practically no foreign bank or fund company will touch US citizens because of the very strict SEC laws governing which companies are allowed to Trade in New York and what their subsidiaries outside the US have to do.

If you think Republican Party stands for less control, look at the details first, because from an ordinary citizens point of view, when in power it doesn’t do what it says on the tin (nor do the Democrat Party for that matter). But what can you expect when the politicians are in the power of the larger non-institutional shareholders of the big corporations?

Land of the Free? Don’t make me laugh. Once, maybe, but increasingly not these days. So long as US consumers can get more and more of their drug, consumerism, they don’t care who’s pushing it, or why, and happily spend the family silver on products that by being made in China take away their own jobs.

Trade may be practically unrestricted, but sadly, that’s the only border for Americans that ever will be.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

Nah. USAmericans are happy to take from the global commons, but unwilling to contribute to it. The country keeps high borders because it makes menial labor cheaper. You say the benefit of open borders is that Americans can go abroad to retire. I am abroad, have been for years. Like many American citizens, I don’t have the proper visa in my new country, and nobody really cares. I will get a visa easily enough soon.

Most of the world already has much more open borders than the USA. That country (and increasingly Canada) is excluding itself from the party. Meanwhile, unsurprisingly, it’s also the place where you can’t find an unlocked mobile phone, or one with a built-in television, or pirate DVDs. The US will awaken from its paranoid self-exclusion around the same time that survivalists decide to give up on the Montana woods. Which is to say, don’t hold your breath.

Posted by Setty | Report as abusive

Felix, this is too ironic because you are one more segregationist in a city full of them in one of the most rigidly self-segregated places on Earth.

http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/ explorer

What is astonishing about New York is the mind-boggling prices many New Yorkers are willing to pay to achieve segregation for themselves. New York is not really so expensive if New Yorkers were willing to give up their segregation, but that would be unthinkable.

I thought New York real estate was a bubble until I understood that they were driven by the powerful and quite stable segregationist urges of New Yorkers.

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

Okay, the Internet being what it is, I took a peek, and your ‘hood, is actually a pretty evenly tossed salad, almost unique in New York.

While the segregationist label does not seem to apply to you at this stage of life, New Yorkers are famous for ferociously forging figurative fences for themselves, especially after having children.

Perhaps you will never have children, to avoid risk of catching this unspeakable disease?

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

The US will open it’s borders soon. Once we become a third world country from all of our debt, we can open our borders because no one will want to live here!

Posted by minipaws | Report as abusive

The native tribes of the Western Hemisphere had their borders forced open hundreds of years ago. I hope they are grateful for the diseases, distilled alcohol, pick-up trucks and diabetes they have gained.

Posted by walt9316 | Report as abusive

As FifthDecade noted, at least up to the point where I quit reading, the US would need to make some changes to its tax system; the corporate tax system is discordant with international norms as well. A lot of “social welfare” harmonization would probably be needed as well.

As with businesses going bankrupt, there’s a trade-off here between a kind of institutional capital that is impaired by change (any change) and the obvious value to re-optimizing when things change. A large business, even if it’s insolvent and can’t pay its bills for a time, may be worth more intact than in pieces; on the other hand, it may be that it’s time has passed, and there’s certainly something to gain from allowing a better-run (or more up-to-date) entrant to take its place. Similarly, social institutions are of real value, and as you shuffle people from place to place, you lose some of that; this is the excuse for the mortgage interest rate deduction. On the whole, the US has surely benefited from internal mobility more than it has lost, though this may have been facilitated in part by a degree of cultural homogeneity that, while nowhere near absolute, is higher than that between the US and the rest of the world. I suspect that entirely open borders would cost more in social capital than it would gain in allowing aspiring migrants to be more productive, but that the optimum lies at a higher level of legal immigration (and certainly a better considered policy on legal immigration) than the US at least currently uses.

Incidentally, I was under the impression that residents of Puerto Rico don’t pay federal income taxes, so it seems strange that American residents of foreign countries would. If someone can clear up my confusion, please do.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive

As long as America still believes in the ‘American Exceptionalism’ concept they will continue to foster no desire for open borders. The freedom America believes in is the freedom to be left alone! (since when have those on the pulpit practiced what they preach – they want to be left alone but leave no one else alone).

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Is it possible for non-European nations to join the European Union? If not, why not? What if, say, South Korea wanted to be a part of the EU?

Posted by jerryku | Report as abusive

The Chinese government discriminates based on where in China you were born. Migration from the rural interior to coastal cities is restricted, and the urbanites like it that way.

Posted by TGGP | Report as abusive

Wait wait wait…who ever said Americans don’t like immigration?

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

***Americans don’t like immigration, but they love the low prices that immigration brings for their golf courses and swimming pools and McMansions.***

What about the longer term costs if groups have lower levels of academic attainment and earnings over subsequent generations?

The Economist had an article on the ‘Decline of the working man’ (28 April 2011). It was noted:

“A second explanation is that American men have let their schooling slide. Those aged between 25 and 34 are less likely to have a degree than 45- to 54-year-olds. As David Autor of MIT points out, they are also less likely to have completed college than their contemporaries in Britain, Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain. In recent years America’s university graduation rates have slipped from near the top of the world league to the middle. Men are far likelier than women to drop out. Their record at school is bad too. This educational decline has a racial edge. Black and Hispanic boys are far less likely to graduate from high school than white or Asian youths. A smaller fraction starts college and a larger fraction drops out.”

This issue is particularly acute in California, as Alex Aleviev explains:

The unhappy picture in Los Angeles is replicated to one degree or another across much of California and is taking a huge toll on the state’s economic competitiveness and long-term prospects. California’s educational system, once easily the best in the country, is today mired in mediocrity near the bottom among the 50 states as judged by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in math, science, reading, and writing.

Perhaps even more important than the collapse of educational achievement among the lower strata is a deterioration of the higher education that was for decades the basis of California’s preeminence in science and technology. California currently ranks 40th among the 50 states in college-attendance rates, and it already faces a significant shortage of college graduates. Studies have shown that the economy will need 40 percent of its workers to be college-educated by 2020, compared with today’s 32 percent. Given the aging white population (average age, 42), many of these new graduates will have to come from the burgeoning Latino immigrant population (average age, 26). By one estimate, this would require tripling of the number of college-educated immigrants, an impossibility if current trends hold. The state’s inability to improve the educational attainment of its residents will result in a “substantial decline in per capita income” and “place California last among the 50 states” by 2020, according to a study by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.”

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story .php?storyId=112167023

Posted by Chi019 | Report as abusive

1. Another point, which Milton Friedman pointed out is that you can’t have open borders and a welfare state. Again, the California example discussed by Aleviev above is an example.

2. Just in terms of the point regarding intergenerational lags in earnings and academic attainment, Stephen Trejo and Jeffrey Groger studied the intergenerational progress of Mexican-American immigrants in their work, “Falling Behind or Moving Up?”

They discovered that third-generation Mexican-Americans were no more likely to finish high school than second-generation Mexican-Americans. Fourth-generation Mexican-Americans did no better than third.

If these results continue to hold, the low skills of yesterday’s illegal immigrant will negatively shape the U.S. work force into the 22nd century.

http://www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/ R_502JGR.pdf

3. Jason Richwine discusses some of the implications of this here.

“The consequences of a large ethno-cultural group’s lagging behind the majority in education and income are significant. In strictly economic terms, perpetually poor immigrants and their descendants will be a major strain on social spending and infrastructure. Health care, public education, welfare payments, the criminal justice system, and programs for affordable housing will all require more tax dollars. When pro-immigration conservatives declare that these government programs should be scaled back or eliminated entirely, I am sympathetic. But a large public sector is a reality that cannot be wished away — we will not be abolishing Medicaid or public schools anytime soon. Immigration policy needs to take that reality into account.”

Posted by Chi019 | Report as abusive

***after the gay marriage bill passed the New York senate.***

1. How can that be sustainable if via immigration you had a majority who were opposed to that?

“Interestingly you can’t even calculate a real ratio for British Muslims to the general public, not one British Muslim surveyed would admit to homosexuality being morally acceptable.”

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2 010/12/admissions-of-illiberalism/

2. There’s also the issue of historical rivalries being imported into new places.

“We are disappointed that in its public statements, the EUMC downplays its own conclusions that the new anti-Semitic outbreak is connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict and that incidents are being primarily perpetrated by Muslim immigrant youth, and concerned by the report’s narrow approach to the connection of anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.

Even after a previous EUMC report produced in 2003 was not released by the Centre, reportedly because of the report’s conclusion that Muslim immigrants were responsible for the sharp increase in anti-Semitic violence in the Spring of 2002, the EU still appears unwilling to acknowledge its own findings that Muslim immigrant youth are increasingly responsible for anti-Semitic violence motivated by the conflict in the Middle East.”

http://www.adl.org/PresRele/ASInt_13/447 3_13.htm

“What has taken place here is that Frits Bolkestein, the former leader of the Liberal Party, which now heads the Dutch government, has advised “recognizable Jews, orthodox Jews” that their children should emigrate from the Netherlands to Israel or the United States. He said, “I see no future for them here because of anti-Semitism, above all among the Moroccan Dutch, whose numbers continue to grow.”

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340, L-3995574,00.html

Posted by Chi019 | Report as abusive

“Segregation in the Land of Limosousine Liberalism”

http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_r oom/2011/07/01/denvir_westchester_segreg ation/index.html

“Tony Westchester locales like Scarsdale and Bedford have long been bastions of limousine liberalism, home to Ralph Lauren, Glenn Close, Martha Stewart, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and many others. Super-rich “entrepreneurs” like Donald Trump live here too, and it’s a haven for Wall Street bankers — from Jay Gould in the late 19th century to hedge fund pioneer Michael Steinhardt today.

Meanwhile, working-class black and Latino residents remain overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of municipalities, most of which hug the Bronx border.”

“When I was a kid I remember Eisenhower sending federal troops down to Arkansas,” Levy said. “That’s where we are in Westchester County.”

Posted by DanHess | Report as abusive

It might be helpful if people like Charles Kenny serviced themselves for a period of time and then made some determination as to the actual worth of menial labor.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

The concept of open boarders is stupid. It embraces the idea that you and your 5 brothers and 3 sisters can royally screw up the place you were born, see the impact of your culture / communities lousy decisions and then bolt for greener pastures where the locals plan smarter and work harder.

Good fences make good neighbors.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive