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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

Imagine you were born in a part of
the country where farming was no longer productive, or in a rust-belt
town where the local factories had closed. You hear of good jobs in
California and Colorado, so you decide to move. How would you feel if,
when you arrived at the state line, you were denied the opportunity of
a better life because you happened to have been born in a different
state? Welcome to what it is like to be Mexican.

Freedom of movement is one of the
most basic human rights, as anyone denied it can confirm. Yet
governments obstruct people’s movement across borders in all manner of
arbitrary and iniquitous ways. They require that people prove — how? —
that their lives are in danger before admitting them. They determine
which family members are permitted to join their relatives and which
are not; Danes’ non-European spouses cannot come to live with them in
Denmark unless both are age 24 or more. Americans’ foreign girlfriends
and boyfriends also struggle to gain admission; the rules for foreign
pets are laxer. Those seeking to come to work are vetted through a
byzantine set of rules and quotas that delight bureaucrats, lawyers,
and lobbyists, but deny most people the opportunity to better
themselves and do untold damage to the U.S. and global economy.

Immigration controls are generally
seen as normal, reasonable, and necessary, but in fact they are
economically stupid, politically unsustainable, and morally wrong. For
a start, the freedom to leave a country and enter another is the
ultimate safeguard against tyranny. Throughout history, emigrating has
often meant the difference between life and death: remember the
Pilgrims who set sail on the Mayflower, the Huguenots who fled France
to take refuge in England, and the Jews who escaped Nazi Germany. In
the aftermath of the Second World War, the shameful recognition that
governments had conspired to send countless Jews to their deaths by
denying them refuge led to their signing on to Article 14 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the
right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
In practice, though, this right is often honored in the breach.

While it is vitally important that
asylum-seekers are able to seek refuge abroad, fear of persecution is
not the only legitimate reason that people might want to cross national
borders. They might be seeking a better job. They might want to be with
the ones they love. They might simply want to experience something
different. And why shouldn’t they be able to?

Those fortunate enough to be rich
and highly educated take it for granted that they can move around the
world more or less as they please. They vacation in Mexico, safari in
Africa, even go on trips around the world; they increasingly work
abroad for periods of time; and some end up settling elsewhere — like
the many Americans who now live in London, and the many Londoners who
now live in the United States. Why, then, do we seek to deny this right
to others?

Opponents of open borders often
respond that Americans aren’t actually free to go where they choose.
They point out, correctly, that one needs a visa to go to many
countries and that the Chinese government, for instance, may very well
deny you one. But why should America be basing its policies on what the
Chinese government does? Should the United States deny people freedom
of speech because the Chinese government does so? The point about
universal human rights is not that they are necessarily universally
applied, but that they ought to be. That others fail to apply them is
not a reason for the United States to fail to do so too.

Article 13 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to leave
any country, including his own.” But what is the right to leave a
country if one cannot enter another? Since even international
human-rights law does not give people the right to cross borders
freely, the United States should lead by example, by passing a
constitutional amendment guaranteeing open borders.


Costs and benefits

Many people argue that opening the
borders would have devastating consequences. But are the potential
costs really so great that they warrant the huge injustice of denying
people the possibility of moving freely? Might there not be big
benefits to opening up the borders too? And even if one thinks
immigration is a threat, are the costs of immigration controls not even
greater?

This is not a point of abstract
principle. Each year thousands drown trying to reach Europe. More
people have died trying to cross from Mexico to the United State in the
past decade than were killed on 9/11. By denying desperate people the
opportunity to cross borders legally, the United States is driving them
to risk death. Of course, voters and government officials would rather
migrants didn’t die. But implicitly, they consider it a price worth
paying for protecting the borders. That sounds shocking — and it is.
But how else can we explain the general indifference to the deaths that
U.S. immigration controls cause? Why is the official response always
that “we” must remain tough in enforcing “our” border controls, rather
than questioning whether the system makes sense? Immigrants are not an
invading army; they are mostly people seeking a better life.

Freeing up migration is not just
morally right, it is economically beneficial. When workers from poor
countries move to rich ones, they too can make use of advanced
economies’ superior capital, technology, and institutions, making them
much more productive, and the world much better off. The departure of
one in six Swedes for North America between 1870 and 1910, relieved
pressure on the land, drove up the productivity and wages of those who
remained, and helped catapult Sweden from grinding rural poverty to
prosperity within fewer than 50 years.

Migrants from poor countries can
earn wages many times higher in rich ones, and the money they send home
— some $300 billion a year officially, perhaps the same again
informally — dwarfs the $100 billion that Western governments give in
aid. These remittances are not wasted on weapons or siphoned off into
Swiss bank accounts; they go straight into the pockets of local people.
They pay for food, clean water, and medicines. They enable children to
stay in school, they fund small businesses, and they benefit the local
economy more broadly. Where remittances account for a large share of
the economy, they slash the poverty rate by a third. Even in countries
that receive relatively little, they can cut the poverty rate by nearly
a fifth. And by keeping children in school, paying for them to see a
doctor, and funding new businesses, remittances can also boost economic
growth. What’s more, when migrants return home, they take with them new
skills, new ideas, and the money to start new businesses. Africa’s
first Internet cafés were started by migrants returning from Europe.

Economists estimate that abolishing
immigration controls could more than double the size of the world
economy. This dwarfs the benefits of any other public-policy change.
Just as the freeing up of international trade and capital flows since
the Second World War has helped power a huge rise in living standards
across the world, the freeing up of international labor mobility could
deliver vast economic gains over the next 50 years. Indeed, the
economic gains from migration are akin to those from trade.

Consider an American who requires
medical care. He could be treated locally by an American doctor; he
could go abroad to be treated by a foreign doctor; the foreign doctor
could treat him remotely — over the Internet, for instance; or the
foreign doctor could come to the United States to treat him. In the
last three cases, the United States is importing medical care from the
foreign doctor; the final case, which we classify as migration instead
of trade, is simply a form of international services trade where a
foreign provider comes to America to offer his services to consumers on
the spot. But where services have to be delivered locally — the elderly
cannot be cared for from afar; taxi drivers have to operate locally;
dishes have to be washed on the spot — international migration is the
only form of international trade that is possible.


Migration and trade

Now if one accepts that
international trade is generally mutually beneficial — because, in a
nutshell, it permits greater specialization, reaps economies of scale,
reduces prices, increases choice, boosts competition, stimulates
innovation, and raises economic growth — then so too, surely, is the
particular form of it that involves foreign service-providers crossing
borders to ply their trade. And just as governments have no place
denying us the opportunity of watching foreign films, eating foreign
food, or driving foreign cars, they should not be denying us the
opportunity of engaging in mutually advantageous economic transactions
with foreigners that entail their moving to our vicinity.

Where governments permit it, a
global labor market is emerging: international financiers cluster in
New York and London, IT specialists in Silicon Valley, and actors in
Hollywood, while multinational companies scatter skilled professionals
around the world.

Yet rich-country governments
endeavor to keep out Mexican construction workers, Filipino care
workers, and Congolese cooks, even though they are simply service
providers who ply their trade abroad, just as American investment
bankers do. And just as it is often cheaper and mutually beneficial to
import computers from China and IT services from India, it often makes
sense to import menial services that have to be delivered on the spot,
such as cleaning.

Economic theory suggests that the
gains from trade are greatest when countries are different. The United
States has an aging, well-educated population, while the developing
world has a much younger and generally less well-educated population.
In effect, the work forces complement each other. It’s unfortunate that
many free-traders who rejoice that Vietnamese people are bettering
themselves by working in Nike factories to produce shoes for Americans
are opposed to their coming to better themselves in America. People who
truly believe in open societies and individual freedom are a rare
breed.

Posted 23 Jun 2008 in Published articles

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