Where do ‘open borders’ lead?

Published 6:37 am Thursday, September 20, 2018


Contributing writer

The “open borders” movement exists only in western democracies. One does not observe demonstrations for open borders in China, North Korea, Russia, or any other totalitarian country.  Strangely, it seems to have legs only in western democracies.

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Open borders as a policy is not defined. Would we disband ICE, have the Border Patrol stand down, and grant citizenship to anyone who steps foot in the country? We have one example of open borders in practice: the European Union. When independent countries joined the EU, they surrendered their border sovereignty and their freedom of speech to the EU.

Once Germany announced it would accept all comers, the EU was flooded with migrants. One country made the decision for the rest of the EU without any other input — that has no democratic precedent. As resistance grew, the EU prosecuted citizens who opposed the policy, charging them with “hate speech.” This did not silence the opposition. The EU seems to have just stumbled into this policy.    

Open borders are an existential threat to welfare states. People seeking welfare have the most incentive to take advantage of open borders. It is easier and safer for educated foreigners to enter the country legally. Few people would object to educated, well-trained immigrants entering their country, although there is something to be said for these people staying at home to help rebuild their countries. 

As the ratio of welfare recipients to payors rises exponentially, the welfare state becomes bankrupt. This is the “iron law of demography” and is why Venezuela collapsed, even though it has huge oil reserves.

We are also aware of the problem in our public health care and pension plans. The EU and the US have significant unfunded liabilities without this additional burden.

In the short term, open borders are politically advantageous for the European Union. It eliminates, or at least weakens, those pesky nation states and leaves the unelected senior EU bureaucrats in charge. By contrast, if a poverty-stricken country adopted open borders, no one would notice, since immigration would not change — although an exodus would follow.  Migration without border constraints is primarily driven by economic advantage, as the EU demonstrates.

Another important consideration is the ambitions of totalitarians around the world. At the very least, open borders in the free world severely weakens western democratic governments.  NATO would be fatally weakened, Japan would have to go nuclear to defend itself, the same would be true for the middle east, and China would have a free hand in the South China Sea. It would be very destabilizing; but obviously advantageous to the totalitarian states.

Open borders make the income distribution worse by lowering unskilled wages. This aggravates an already grievous problem in Europe and the US. Lower wages are in the interest of large international firms. The size and political influence of these firms is far outside our experience.  Small business is in a precarious position and competition with the mega-corporations is impossible.

Open borders are a major impediment to rational debate about immigration reform and how to respond to periodic refugee crises. Compromise is possible and would be welcome if neither side had to contend with extreme positions taken by the other side. Our immigration policies are woefully out of date and reform is overdue by several decades.

Bob Martin is the Emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.