"Open Borders": A Gimmick, Not a Solution

Newsweek recently published an article by Daniel Bier with the headline "Bernie Sanders on Immigrants: Silly, Tribal and Economically Illiterate." The piece, when it is not distracting the reader with rather unimaginative vitriol (phrases like "lame socialist agenda" are hardly Pulitzer material), bases its argument on a trendy libertarian idea called "open borders."

Like many libertarian ideas, "open borders" is bold, has superficial intellectual appeal - and is incapable of withstanding thoughtful scrutiny. It would benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the many, here and abroad.

The "Open Borders" Debate

The latest controversy began when Sanders (for whom, it should be noted, I work) was asked about immigration in an interview with Vox's Ezra Klein.  The "open borders" concept is a simple one: allow workers to travel freely from country to country in search of employment. Proponents argue that this would improve the lives of people in poor countries, because they could earn more by moving to nations like the United States.

They also claim it would, magically, do very little harm to workers in nations like this one -- even though proponents also frequently suggest eliminating the minimum wage at the same time.

Klein, it should be noted, didn't simply ask Sanders about the open-borders idea. He argued for it, forcefully.  "You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view," Klein said to Sanders. "I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the U.S. are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders."

Sanders responded that it the idea is "a Koch Brothers proposal," a "right-wing proposal" (he presumably felt that Klein, a former Democratic blogger, was not a right-winger), and added that

"It would make everybody in America poorer -- you're doing away with the concept of a nation state...

"What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

"You know what youth unemployment is in the United States of America today?  ... You think we should open the borders and bring in a lot of low-wage workers, or do you think maybe we should try to get jobs for those kids?"

Libertarian Pushback

To Bier, Sanders' mention of the Koch brothers is gratuitous -- as if it were absurd to suggest the Kochs' own economic interests have motivated their ideological investments. (Don't libertarians believe everyone is primarily an economic actor?)

Bier claims that it is "patently untrue" that an open borders policy "would make everybody in America poorer," and cites a study from the (Koch Brothers-funded) Cato Institute as evidence.  Unfortunately, that study based on a far lower rate of immigration than an open borders policy would produce, rendering his interpretation of it meaningless.

The work of economist Ha-Joon Chang, by contrast, provides compelling evidence that an open borders policy would exert a powerful downward pull on American workers' wages.

Devaluing Other Countries

Bier then gets to the core of the open-borders argument, writing that

"labor is enormously more productive here. As a result, identical workers can earn 280 percent more here than in Mexico; workers from Yemen and Nigeria, 1,300 percent more; Haitians, 2,200 percent more." 

It is inhumane, he suggests, to deny workers the opportunity to multiply their earnings by such impressive percentages.

But that interpretation is, to borrow a phrase, "silly, tribal and economically illiterate." Bier fails to consider a fundamental principle of economics: when the supply of labor increases, wages go down. A massive influx of foreign workers would lead to a steep plunge in those multiples.  What's more, there are often significant cost-of-living differences between the United States and these workers' countries of origin.

And this argument is "tribal" because advocates like Bier (and Klein) apparently don't understand that other nations, despite their relative poverty, have virtues of their own.  That should be a source of deep embarrassment for them.

For most migrants, their native lands hold ties of language, culture, family and community. It should not be necessary to endure the pain of displacement merely to earn a livable wage. To claim otherwise, as open-borders advocates implicitly do, is to reflect the xenophobic belief that everybody would be happier here than anywhere else.

Close to Slavery

In fact, the open-borders crowd sometimes comes embarrassingly close to making the kind of argument that was once deployed in defense of slavery: Sure, they have a tough life in this country, but it must be so much better for them here than it was in their old country.

If that comparison seems harsh, consider this: The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report on "guest worker" programs in the United States -- programs which might be considered a model for the open borders concept -- and entitled it "Close to Slavery."

"Far from being treated as 'guests,'" the report said, "these workers are systematically exploited and abused." The report also found that the program "harms the interests of U.S. workers, as well, by undercutting wages and working conditions for those who labor at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder."

The conditions endured by past "guest workers" have been nothing short of horrifying. They include young people on student guest worker visas forced to work 25-hour shifts without overtime while paying exorbitant rents to sleep in their boss's basement; and seafood workers forced to endure 16- to 24-hour work days, and 80-hour work weeks, laboring until their hands went numb but threatened with beatings if they stopped.

Proposals like "open borders" aren't made in a vacuum. We already know how such programs lead to abuse -- and the victims are likely to be immigrants themselves.

The Downward Spiral

Bier argues that workers from other countries should work for $2 or $3 per hour once they get here. That, in a nutshell, is why Sanders is right and the open-borders crowd is wrong. The open-borders idea is inextricably linked to an approach in which US wages, along with those of foreign workers, are trapped in a race to the bottom.

This approach would lead to a downward spiral for the middle class, as powerful corporate forces impose their will on an inexhaustible supply of cheap and replaceable labor.

Bier mocks the idea that an open borders policy means "doing away with the concept of the nation state." But his policy prescription would leave a sovereign people unable to set its own minimum wage or determine its own employment policies.

False Choice

Perhaps the term "open border" should be replaced with the phrase "cheap lawnmowing," since that is the essence of the argument as one writer presents it. In characteristically hyperbolic libertarian style, Jason Brennan's "Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know" says this about the idea:

"Most people on the progressive left actively try to restrain the world's poorest and most vulnerable people from making life-saving and life-changing trades with willing employers. They thus condemn the world's poor to death and misery. The progressive left is delighted with me when I donate money to the poor through OxFam. But the left forbids me from hiring the poor to mow my lawn, even though that helps them more than an OxFam donation."

This is a false choice. The world's masses will not be forced to choose between perpetual poverty on the one hand or taking a weed whacker to Jason Brennan's crabgrass on the other. That is where the thinking of Sanders and his colleagues is far more sophisticated and systems-based than that of Bier, Klein, or other open-borders advocates.

An Ugly Misstatement

One of those advocates is Dylan Matthews, who works for Klein at Vox. Matthews repeats many of the libertarians' discredited arguments. He even accuses Sanders of "treating Americans' lives as more valuable and worthy of concern than the lives of foreigners."

That is an ugly misstatement of Sanders' position. Sanders, himself the son of an immigrant, is a strong supporter of immigration and immigrants' rights who wants to ensure that we have fair and humane policies in this area. He supports the DREAM Act, and believes the Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) should be expanded to include the parents of citizens, the parents of legal permanent residents and the parents of DREAMers.

The issue isn't immigration. The issue is fair play for all working people. Principled opposition to "open borders" can and should be based on the recognition that the rights of all workers -- immigrant and native-born, in the US and overseas -- are eroded when workplace protections are weakened anywhere, and when human lives are subjected to the global flow of capital.

Changing the System

Sanders, unlike his open-borders opponents, recognizes that the global workforce faces a systemic problem. The concentration of wealth and political power, both in the US and globally, is diminishing workers' wages and making them less able to improve their own working conditions.

That problem must be addressed systemically, with a transformation that is both economic and political. The principal instrument for that change is the democratic nation-state, an entity which the open-borders concept would seriously weaken.

In that sense, open borders resembles NAFTA-style corporate trade: both give corporations the ability to apply their economic power across national boundaries in pursuit of maximal profits at minimal cost, either by outsourcing jobs to workers overseas or paying minimal wages to workers at home.

As we said at the outset, "open borders" is a superficially attractive idea -- until it's subjected to critical thinking, at which point its true nature is revealed.  Its proponents attempt to make a "moral case" in its defense. But there is no moral case to be made for sacrificing democratic decision-making and national sovereignty to oligarchic and corporate whims.

"Open borders" is a recipe for the further commodification of human beings. It treats people as economic inputs to be moved about the globe at the whim of global capital. It is neither rational nor humane, and it has yet to receive the thorough public debunking it deserves. We need a systemic solution to global wealth inequality, rather than intellectual gimmicks designed to promote exploitation and sow confusion.

Originally published at Democracy Daily. The views expressed here are strictly those of the author.