What do libertarians think of open borders?

Restricting immigration is economically and morally a disaster, says US economist Bryan Caplan

The American economist Bryan Caplan describes today's immigration policy as “global apartheid” and calls for nothing other than the abolition of borders. He is convinced that this would almost double the world's wealth. A conversation with the controversial bestselling author.

Trump, Boris Johnson and Brexit, Orban in Hungary, Salvini in Italy, the AfD in Germany: there are politicians and parties in many places who want to curb immigration. Mr. Caplan, on the other hand, you advocate open borders. Are you a dreamer?

The idea of ​​open borders has not only had few advocates since today. The figures mentioned do not change that much. I am someone who gets involved with ideas that have a lot to offer but are unpopular. If there were already twenty books on the subject, I wouldn't have to write about them.

Are there experiences with open borders that you can build on?

Until 1921, the borders in the USA were almost open. There were only certain restrictions for people from Asia. An open regime also applied in Europe until the First World War. And in the 19th century there were countries like the USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand that explicitly encouraged immigration.

If the experiences at that time were positive, why was this policy abandoned?

I see one reason in the rise of the mass media. You have allowed people to spread their disapproval and pessimism more effectively. In the United States, for example, there was an attitude among immigrants from Northern Europe that migrants from Southern Europe were inferior. Such stereotypes were combined with complaints about supposedly falling wages.

They say we live in a world of global apartheid. Why do you think that?

In terms of South Africa, apartheid meant that blacks' freedom of movement was restricted. They were not allowed to go to certain places and they could not do certain jobs. When it comes to mobility, it's similar today: if you're born in the wrong country, you can't move around the world freely.

But there is a big difference to South Africa: In western countries nobody tells you where to live.

That is why I also speak of “global apartheid”. But let's do a thought experiment. Let us assume that the FRG had built a wall to keep the East Germans out. The effect for the citizens in East Germany would have been similar to the real wall of the GDR regime: the movement is narrowed in both cases. A wall on the part of the FRG would not have been more acceptable either! And yet the thought experiment stands metaphorically for a restrictive immigration policy, as it is known in many countries today. It shows how arbitrary such restrictions are.

But there are very real problems if we simply tear down the border fences: People in Switzerland complain about the overcrowded public transport.

But there are questions of the right regulation. Instead, such problems are blamed on the immigrants. In public transport you give people the wrong price signals. In general, prices are too low when there is overuse. If you ask for higher prices at rush hour, you earn more money with which you could finance an expansion of the infrastructure. That would be the obvious and more humane approach.

The pressure on the housing markets also increases when more people come.

Therefore, stifling immigration is for me similar to limiting the number of children per family in order to protect the infrastructure or the housing market. If there are too few apartments, you build more of them, designate more building land and reduce the bureaucratic requirements.

And how do you intend to make immigration more palatable to the local population?

First of all, the secret of mass consumption lies in mass production. So it's about increasing production. The gain in prosperity now arises from the fact that people migrate from places with low productivity to those with higher productivity. When someone comes to Switzerland from Albania, their earnings will rise sharply because they are more productive in Switzerland than in their country of birth. Immigration therefore increases human productivity. This not only improves the lot of immigrants, but that of all consumers.

How much does welfare increase?

Michael Clemens from the Center for Global Development estimates that the increase in prosperity from open borders is half to one and a half times the global economic output.

As long as there is no massive immigration, your argument can still be followed. But a million refugees came to Germany within a very short time. That was a lot very quickly.

I ask back: How much have real estate prices fallen in Berlin, for example, because of the refugee crisis? If real estate prices even go up, a city can't be too bad - we have enough cities in the United States that are bleeding to death.

But there is not much to be seen of the refugees' high productivity either.

This will certainly not happen immediately, but only over time. You shouldn't focus on what happens in the first few months, but look at your whole life. Especially with young refugees, the chances of a positive balance are good.

In the case of refugees, however, it takes a full 15 years until 70% of them are active in the labor market, while 80% of the locals are gainfully employed.

Then one should wonder what could be done to make more of them work. Perhaps the transfers are too high because they reduce the motivation to take up a job. Instead, every time there are problems with migrants, there is a reflexive demand to get rid of them. This amounts to unfair clan liability if you no longer allow refugees in because initially only a few work.

But if immigration is supposed to be so beneficial, why have most European countries tried to avoid accepting refugees?

Do not forget that in the 1930s the international community was also not keen on accepting Jews from the German Reich and the occupied states, although there were many talents among these refugees, as later became apparent. Most refugee groups experience this. There are many popular policies that are a bad idea - and vice versa. The rejection of immigration is driven by xenophobia and hatred of people. It then says: Why should we want them, what good can come from them?

And what do you think about that?

When I see a person, I see their potential. If someone comes to Switzerland and works as a cleaning lady, what's wrong with that? If the cleaning lady suddenly died in your company, you would certainly not find it a good thing, even if her productivity was below the average in Switzerland. After all, she does something useful and is not a burden just because she is not Albert Einstein!

If you open the goods markets completely, you have a similar effect as if you open the borders. In the first case the cheap goods come, in the second the cheap workers. Isn't it enough if we simply introduce free trade with everyone?

80% of the gross domestic product is now generated in the service sector. So free trade only revolves around a fifth of total production. You can't buy your haircut, or mow your garden, or take care of it in another country. In addition, American farms, for example, are run more effectively than Mexican ones. You could send the technology to Mexico, but not the management methods. Free trade and technology transfer cannot be a substitute for open borders.

The citizens of a country have built the infrastructure over generations. Immigrants can use them free of charge from day one. It only seems fair to restrict access to the club.

Again: The problem is that the price for using the infrastructure is too low. If one wants to keep the subsidy for locals, it is conceivable that the prices for immigrants would be set higher, as is the case in certain tourist locations. One could also restrict access to the welfare state and introduce a waiting period for immigrants.

And where do you get your optimism that immigrants will assimilate quickly?

First, there has already been a lot of westernization in the non-western world. I don't just mean English as a world language. The attractiveness of Western culture is also shown in the fact that authoritarian regimes often try to keep them out. If there was a competition, our culture would do well in Iran or Saudi Arabia. In the news, however, we mostly hear about extremists who hate the West.

And what is the second reason?

If you wonder how far assimilation has already gone, you tend to compare migrants to natives. Instead, one would have to consider where they stand compared to their former home. If 0 stands for the mentality in the home country and 100 for the one in the host country, then second-generation migrants are already at 80 to 95 - a giant leap. Instead, you only compare with the 100 points given by the locals and you don't see the huge change. My wife came to the United States from communist Romania when she was seven years old. But there is no television station that would make a report about my wife with the statement: "She came to the USA as a Romanian and is now indistinguishable from an American."

Despite all optimism: In Swiss prisons, a good 70% of inmates have a foreign passport.

In the US, however, immigrants are less likely to be criminals than natives. In Europe it seems to be the other way around. The reason for this is simple: locals in Europe have a low tendency towards crime, which is why immigrants perform worse compared to this level. In the US, crime is generally much higher.

But you also cite studies showing that migrants with low qualifications are less concerned with freedom of expression than locals and are also in favor of a stronger role for the state. It must hurt a liberal!

I don't want to frost everything, I try to be honest. In terms of economic policy, migrants are in favor of more redistribution and more conservative than natives on social issues. But on the one hand, low-skilled people take part in elections less often. On the other hand, the values ​​quickly converge to those of the locals. Second-generation migrant children are mostly embarrassed by their parents' political views.

A belligerent libertarian

Bryan Caplan has an original mind - like many economists who teach at George Mason University in Fairfax, near the American capital Washington. The most famous of these are Vernon Smith and the late James Buchanan, both of whom were honored with the Nobel Prize in Economics. The faculty is committed to classic liberal or even libertarian ideas and is always offended when it puts freedom above other values. This also applies to Caplan, who teamed up with the illustrator Zach Weinersmith on a comic. In it, the 48-year-old pleads for open borders. It is a matter close to his heart - also because his wife fled to the USA with her parents from communist Romania when she was a child. The part in which he lets philosophers such as Rawls, Kant or Mill compete, whose arguments - in Caplan's interpretation - always lead to a plea for open borders, is particularly successful.