Democracy Without Borders

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A World Without Borders

Immigration has recently come to the forefront of the political debate in a spectacular fashion in several developed countries. Yet amidst the rising populist tide, an article published in Foreign Affairs’ last edition makes a concise yet powerful case for open borders. Despite being a self-described conservative, the author, Nathan Smith, is a staunch supporter of the free movement of people who has made immigration policy his specialty.

Smith: Ending migration controls would increase liberty, reduce global poverty, and accelerate economic growth.

The crux of Smith’s argument is that “ending migration controls… would increase liberty, reduce global poverty, and accelerate economic growth”. Open borders would lead approximately 640 million people to emigrate, causing land values to rise, diminishing the price of labor-intensive goods and services, and pushing stock prices upwards. Smith cites economic studies estimating the gains of open borders being as high as doubling global GDP, as well as the precedent of the 19th century economic boom, which occurred at a time where “most of the world’s borders could be freely crossed without passports”.

Smith cautions, however, that the benefits of free movement of people might not be obvious at first. For instance, poverty would likely increase in the short-term in developed countries. Although extreme poverty would undoubtedly dramatically decrease worldwide in the long run, its ungainly sight in developed nations could fuel popular backlash. Another criticism is that mass migration could strain the West’s social-security institutions. Smith rebukes both points by pointing out that the dramatic decrease in poverty worldwide would more than outweigh the discomfort experienced by the West. He also notes that open borders would have other benefits, including making immigration enforcement, a coercive policy which often “separat[es] families and imperil[s] peoples’ lives”, obsolete.

In the short term, Smith’s borderless world seems more of a brain-teasing counter-factual than a plausible policy alternative. The Washington Post, for example, speaks of a “New Age of Walls”. They recently counted barriers on 63 borders that divide nations across four continents – more than ever before.

The 19th century’s progress Smith puts forward was rolled back by nationalist sentiment and two world wars. Yet this is not a pre-determined outcome: well-constructed arguments such as his may help pave the way towards a more equitable immigration policy. As economist Alex Tabarraok pointed out in The Atlantic, in moral terms “closed borders are one of the world’s greatest moral failings.”

Inès Ajimi
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