Why Open Borders?

Photo by Phil Botha on Unsplash

There is a wide and diverse support base for open borders that includes arguments from actors working from varied ideological backgrounds.

An comprehensive outline of the arguments for open borders has been constructed into a blog, designed and maintained by a collaborative group of experts within the field at openborders.info.

Free Migration Project has worked to distill the information presented on openborders.info on this page and the pages linked to it.


Moral Argument

The arguments for the moral case for open borders can be designated into three ideological categories, arguments from the libertarian perspective, arguments from the left and faith based arguments.

Arguments from the Libertarian Perspective

Libertarianism is a moral and political philosophy that argues in favor of a strong presumption of letting people engage freely in mutually consensual activity and on minimizing coercion in society. In the modern political context, libertarians generally focus on government-enforced and government-facilitated coercion.

The right to migrate can be considered a corollary of the libertarian view that people should be free to do what they please (individually or collectively) unless it violates the rights of others. Find a comprehensive explanation of the libertarian view on open borders on our Libertarian Case for Open Borders page.

Arguments from the Left

“More than marking the difference between people, therefore, borders make the difference—imaginary lines fissuring families, cultures, and ecosystems.”

John Washington; What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like? (The Nation)

In “What Would an Open-Borders World Actually Look Like?,” John Washington lays out the main ethical, environmental and economic justifications for the complete eradication of borders and the nation state.

Washington points out that from a humanitarian perspective, getting rid of borders could save thousands of lives. 60,000 migrants have died or gone missing since 2014 worldwide.

Increased border enforcement has been shown by various studies to be unsuccessful at reducing the amount of migrants entering a country, however it does make the journey more deadly.

The idea that whether a person is born on one side or the other of a line drawn by imperial conquest determines what access to opportunity and what proximity to violence that person will have for the rest of their life is archaic and sickening and philosopher Joseph Carens argues, akin to feudal class privileges.

Washington outlines another ethical approach to viewing open borders, as reparations. The US is responsible for interventionist actions that have directly and indirectly planted the seeds of violence and instability in countries all over the world. Vassar professor Joseph Nevins uses the term “imperial debt” to describe the relationship that the United States has to Honduras in his book Open Borders.

“The goal of the open borders argument is to challenge complacency, to make us aware of how routine democratic practices in immigration deny freedom and help to maintain unjust inequality.”

Joseph Carens- The Ethics of Immigration

As Washington mentions, there is also an environmental reason to support open borders. Borders negatively affect ecosystems, and create a framework that is conducive to wasteful resource extraction that lies at the heart of climate change. The recent environmental report by “IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”, highlights the importance of global interconnectivity in effectively addressing climate change.

“a key element of more sustainable future policies is the evolution of global financial and economic systems to build a global sustainable economy, steering away from the current limited paradigm of economic growth.”

“IPBES’ 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”,

The report, released in May 2019 has been deemed the most comprehensive environmental report ever created by the UN. The report finds that global goals for conservancy and sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories and advocates for “transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

“With accelerated displacement projected across the globe, hardened borders make no sense [and] free movement will be imperative as more places become uninhabitable…. That also goes for cross-border cooperation, solidarity, organizing, and ecological restoration. Climate change needs a movement and organizing that is transnational, not hindered.”

Todd Miller- Storming the Wall

One of the most common and compelling reasons that people get behind the idea of open borders is the economic benefit. Economic benefits of open borders have been supported by the research of both conservative and liberal economists. However activist scholars from the left such as Natasha King and Harsha Walia have used the open borders debate to take a critical eye to the conception of the nation state itself. As Atossa Araxia Abrahamian puts it in an article for The Nation “The problem has never been globalization in and of itself, but that the globalization we have had puts the well-being of capital and capitalists over that of ordinary men, women, and children.” The very conception of the nation state is founded in the exploitation, and erasure of indigenous peoples and cultures.

“The bottom line is that if even one in 20 people currently in poorer countries could work in richer countries, that would add more value to the world economy overall than removing every remaining policy barrier to goods-and-services trade—every tariff, every quota.”

Michael Clemens: senior fellow at the Center for Global Development

Arguments based in Utilitarian & Egalitarian Ideology

Utilitarianism is the general idea that our goal should be to maximize total utility. It is related to the idea of cost-benefit analysis.

Utilitarian justifications for open borders hinge on the idea that an open borders policy is better for human welfare than the status quo. Find a comprehensive explanation of the utilitarian view on open borders on our Double World GDP & End Poverty page.

Egalitarianism, in the broadest sense, is a trend of thought in social and political philosophy which favors some kind of equality as morally optional (a desirable ideal) or morally compulsory (a component of justice), normally on the grounds that all persons are equal in moral status (although not all humans, or not only humans, necessarily qualify as persons). In modern democratic societies, ‘egalitarian’ is often applied to a position favoring greater equality of income and wealth than currently exists.

John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher who contributed a new understanding of justice to social contract theory in the modern age, argued that the principles of justice are those that free and equal rational people would hypothetically agree upon under conditions of fairness. He proposed a thought experiment called by himself the ‘Original Position’ to answer the questions of what principles and what conditions those would be. In the Original Position, people are situated behind a veil of ignorance about their personal and their society’s condition and circumstances, and therefore would agree, in the following order of priority, to (1) have equal basic rights and liberties to all and (2) permit social and economic inequalities as long as (a) they are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity and (b) to the benefit of the least advantaged.

In an article titled Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders, Joseph Carens expands John Rawls conception of the Original Position, to a global scale and argues that states’ sovereignty should be (morally) constrained by the Rawlsian first principle of justice: free and equal rational people, not knowing within which state one will be born and how it might prove essential to one’s life plan, not necessarily for economic reasons (that is, even if economic inequalities among states were reduced by a global application of the second principle), would agree to have an equal right to migrate across state boundaries. Find a comprehensive explanation of the egalitarian view on open borders on our Egalitarian Case for Open Borders page.


Practical Argument

The arguments for the practical case can be broken down into four categories; (1.) benefits to migrants (2.) benefits to immigrant-sending countries (3.) benefits to immigrant-receiving countries and (4.) global benefits.

1. Benefits to Migrants:

  • Given the huge worldwide demand for migration from underdeveloped countries to the developed countries, particularly the United States, a prima facie case can be made that migration probably benefits the migrants a lot. The case can be made in two ways:
    • Stated and revealed preferences of migrants and potential migrants looks at what migrants and potential migrants themselves say and do.
    • Concrete benefits to migrants tries to use various quantitative and qualitative indicators to judge whether migrants are better off after migration compared to before migration, and the extent of the difference in their condition.

2. Benefits to Immigrant-Sending Countries

  • Free migration creates a number of benefits for the people who choose to remain in countries that are net sources of migrants
    • “ghosts vs zombies” when a certain countries experience mass emigration due to limited economic opportunity they can experience what has been referred to as becoming ghosts of their former selves; doing fine but not thriving. However if people aren’t allowed to leave it’s possible they will experience what has been referred to as becoming zombies; terrible living conditions. This argument claims it is better to be doing fine than suffering.
    • Remittances sent by migrants to their family, friends, and local communities, together constitute a much larger fraction of global financial flows than all foreign aid.
    • Incentives for human capital development: With the option of migrating to a country where high-paying high-skilled jobs are available, people may pay more attention to developing high skills. Some of these people may ultimately choose not to migrate for personal or family reasons.
    • Exit and competitive government: The threat of exit leads to more competitive government. Rulers who know that their subjects can quit are more constrained in the policies they can adopt.

3. Benefits to Immigrant-Receiving Countries

  • There are many harms to immigrant-receiving countries that various critics of immigration have pointed out. It is not axiomatically true that the benefits to immigrant-receiving countries outweigh the harms. However, there are some general reasons to expect that this is the case for migration to highly developed countries, which are indeed the target countries for most migrants.
    • Highly developed countries are more likely to have knowledge-intensive economies. These kinds of economies are more likely to have higher levels of complementarity between labor. The economies can more readily adapt to the new forms of labor.
    • People in developed countries are in a better position to experience the global benefits of open borders and capture a larger share of these locally. For instance, if immigrants provide the labor, capital, and entrepreneurship to set up a new business that caters to a global market, many of the benefits to consumers are global, but some of the benefits of the economic activity are concentrated in the area where the business was set up.

4. Global Benefits

  • Open borders are expected to yield a number of global benefits. The majority of the benefits accrue to the migrants themselves, while some accrue to immigrant-receiving countries and immigrant-sending countries. But there are also other benefits of a more diffuse nature that are experienced throughout the world.
    • Double world GDP: World GDP will experience a one-time boost of about 50-150%
    • End of poverty: The GDP gains will be felt most by the world’s poorest, and absolute poverty will reduce dramatically. This will benefit the whole world, even those not living in poor countries, as there will, for instance, be fewer dangers of communicable diseases originating in these countries.
    • One world: As kinship and friendship networks spread across the world, this helps strengthen the ties between countries, leading to more trade and mutual gain, with less war and hostility. Cutting-edge ideas developed in one part of the world spread rapidly to others.
    • Innovation: When people are free to move across borders, human capital can be allocated to more efficient uses, leading to greater innovation, much of which benefits the whole world due to the fundamentally non-rival nature of knowledge and ideas.
    • Peace: Building upon the one world theme, more open borders would lead to more peace as people with friends and kins in and from specific other countries would be less likely to support wars against those countries.