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Open Borders is a Terrible Slogan
Guest post from my friend Dan Klein, partly inspired by my “How Immigrants Became Democrats.”
Everyone knows that only so many words fit on a flag, button, bumper-sticker, or headline. Three flags I am happy to wave and defend:
Those slogans are worthy.
I don’t feel that way about ‘Open borders.’
What’s the difference?
‘Free markets’ is a slogan we apply to the issues of our world where we imagine a market—say for milk or for gasoline. The slogan suggests, the freer the better. It is applied market-by-market—or issue-by-issue. One can say he is for a free market in marijuana or a free market in human kidneys. Suppose that there are 100,000 markets or issues out there. If you think freer the better for 90,000 of them, you’re a free-marketeer. You maintain a presumption in favor of freer markets.
‘Free trade’ is generally about international trade. Suppose there are 100,000 possible items for trade out there. If you think freer the better for 90,000 of them, you’re a free trader.
Likewise, ‘Free enterprise.’
(A minor caveat: Taxes are going to fall somewhere, so when I say ‘freer the better’ I abstract from tax policy simply for revenue.)
It’s natural to think free, freer, freest.
It’s not so natural to think open, opener, openest. A door can be only half-way open, but, as a practical matter, open is open for any physical object that can fit through the opening. Indeed, being able to get through is generally what we mean by ‘open.’ It is much more binary. Basically, a door is either open or closed, as a light is either on or off.
So, it doesn’t make sense to say that ‘Open borders’ merely means freer immigration — such as, 20 percent more. Why should 20 percent more be called ‘open’? For those wanting in but not making it into that 20 percent, the border is not open. It is closed. It could well be that even with a ’20 percent more’ reform, there are far more people who find the border closed than who find it open.
So, what does the slogan ‘Open borders’ mean to the person who hears it? The only other option is that it means what it sounds like: Open borders—as a general announcement, to anyone who may be listening, anyone in the whole wide world. Any who wants to immigrate may do so. The border door is open to you. Come on in.
What’s more, ‘Open borders’ is not about 100,000 issues or varieties. It is about immigration.
I’ve heard high-IQ economists say that open borders is but an application of free trade — just that it is people, as opposed to inanimate goods, that cross the border. The differences between a human being and an inanimate object, however, provide the basis for separating the issue of immigration and the issue of trade quite fundamentally.
‘Open borders’ is a terrible slogan. Who came up with it? Who started it? Curious minds would like to know.
To me, waving an ‘Open borders’ flag is like waving a ‘Legalize all weapons’ flag. Like immigration, weapons policy is an issue in and of itself. And like ‘Open borders,’ ‘Legalize all weapons’ communicates the extremum among positions — ‘all’ includes everything from bazookas to machine guns to nuclear bombs. ‘Open borders’ is like ‘Legalize all weapons,’ and not like ‘Free markets,’ ‘Free trade,’ or ‘Free enterprise.’
The ‘Open borders’ slogan has enabled some libertarians to blandish leftists, who, after all, dominate the cultural world in which most professional libertarians operate. By declaring ‘Open borders,’ libertarians assure them that they are not of the enemy, the Republicans. The extremum really does the trick.
Those libertarians have damaged the sound and healthy sense that has long stood behind ‘Free markets,’ ‘Free trade,’ and ‘Free enterprise,’ because suddenly they sport a slogan — ‘Open borders’ — that announces an extremum, and on a particular issue. That creates openings for anti-liberals to treat ‘Free markets,’ ‘Free trade,’ and ‘Free enterprise’ as though those slogans necessarily stake out the most extreme position for every market or on every issue. Leftists no doubt enjoy seeing libertarians paint themselves into untenable corners. ‘Open borders’ assures them: “Really, I’m harmless!”
And on the particular issue of immigration, the extremum is irresponsible, as a policy position, just as legalizing all weapons would be.