Three Arguments for Open Borders: Part I – The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Whatever you think about the current immigration debate, you have likely never questioned our country’s right to dictate who can, and cannot enter our borders. But, what if we are all wrong about that?

Undocumented border crossing.

This is the first part of a series of blogs concerning arguments for open borders. However crazy this sounds, I will give three separate arguments for open borders, each from a very different ethical perspective – the greatest good for the greatest number, libertarianism, and from the perspective of impartial rights – which should cover most of my readers.

These arguments were originally conceived by Joseph Carens, in his groundbreaking paper, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders.” All I will do is reformulate and simplify his arguments in order to call into question one basic assumption we all share – countries have a right to prevent people from crossing their borders.

This first argument concerns utilitarianism. This is the ethic of bringing about the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The idea is that we should pursue policies that provide for the greatest overall level of well-being for everyone affected by the policies.

This ethic takes equality to be fundamental, so each person’s good will count for one, and nobody will count for more than one – everyone’s interests get counted the same.

Now, economic effects on current citizens of the U.S. will certainly tell against open borders. As immigrants enter the nation, this tends to drive wages down, hurting American citizens. But, it also seems likely that other Americans will actually be helped economically – both employers and retailers will likely see an increase in their profits.

However, we cannot forget that we must look at everyone affected when judging a policy. This means that the economic prosperity of the new immigrants themselves will also tip the scales.

There are two important things here: first, considering the huge economic gain poor immigrants can expect, and the small economic loss that some Americans will experience, this will suggest that we should have open borders because of the huge amount of good for the immigrants, which creates only a small loss to current citizens. Second, most economists agree that for greatest economic prosperity, mobility of labor is essential, which also means open borders.

Of course, there are things besides the economy we should worry about. For instance, we must take into account how open borders will affect current American culture. Perhaps there may be some negative side effects, but again, we cannot focus solely on the Americans affected.

Many immigrants are fleeing oppression, the threat of death, and extreme poverty. The amount of good created for these suffering individuals will undoubtedly far outweigh any small effect on current American culture. Yes, perhaps we will here more Spanish, but this is outweighed by the massive amount of well-being that open borders would create for poor immigrants.

Many of us want to weigh the interests of Americans more here, but that is unjustified within an ethic that takes basic equality of interests as its starting point. Just as being white should not mean your interests matter more, being American should not mean your interests matter more either.

Thus, when dealing with the greatest good for the greatest number, it seems closed borders are not justifiable.

However, I must point out a couple of qualifications. First, completely open borders are still not justified. We must still maintain some control at least to prevent terrorists and criminals from entering the nation.

Second, any open border policy will have to be implemented slowly because there is perhaps a point when the U.S. economy simply won’t be able to handle the number of new immigrants, thus decreasing overall well-being. However, this point will not be hit even once we allow for much more open borders than we have today.

Finally, not only the U.S. is required to have open borders. If only the U.S. pursued such a policy, this would likely flood our labor market and decrease well-being greatly. However, what this argument gets us is that NO country should have closed borders, meaning immigrants can equally go to any number of wealthy, developed nations to seek out greater opportunities for a good life.

So, if we want the greatest good for the greatest number, we must seriously consider far more open borders than we have today. In the least, I hope to have shaken your confidence in a closed border system just a bit.

But, if not, please stay tuned. In the next blog I will present a libertarian (think Ron Paul) argument for open borders – perhaps that will move you.