The Technium

Open Immigration: A Basic Human Right

On Freakonomics there was a fabulous interview with the author of “Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them” by Philippe Legrain. Legrain said:

I think freedom of movement is one of the most basic human rights, as anyone who is denied it can confirm. It is abhorrent that the rich and the educated are allowed to circulate around the world more or less freely, while the poor are not — causing, in effect, a form of global apartheid. So I think the burden of proof lies with supporters of immigration controls to justify why they think letting people move freely would have such catastrophic consequences. And, frankly, I don’t think they can.

The economic case for open borders is as compelling as the moral one. No government, except perhaps North Korea’s, would dream of trying to ban the movement of goods and services across borders; trying to ban the movement of most people who produce goods and services is equally self-defeating. When it comes to the domestic economy, politicians and policymakers are forever urging people to be more mobile, and to move to where the jobs are. But if it is a good thing for people to move from Kentucky to California in search of a better job, why is it so terrible for people to move from Mexico to the U.S. to work?

Immigration is THE topic of contention in the approaching presidential election. An awful lot of Americans (all whose ancestors came here as immigrants) are now down on immigration, both legal and illegal. In fact polls show Americans are less favorable toward immigration than Europeans, who have more of an anti-immigration reputation. Personally I am baffled by the fear of immigrants, since they are the source of so much of our economic and cultural strength. And in a world headed toward population decline, immigrants will be a highly desirable counter-force. We should definitely make immigration easier, legal, and with more subtle options (worker, child student, etc).


I can’t predict how each side will pan out in the short term, but I feel very confident that in the long term, free movement of people across borders will be the norm, and will come to be seen as a basic human right. I feel so strongly this is the case, that four years ago I made a Long Bets prediction claiming that by “[2103] one hundred years from now the world’s governments will formally and legally recognize the basic human right of mobility: a person may live anywhere on earth if they agree to obey local laws.” Here was my argument:

In one hundred years governments will realize the economic benefits of allowing full mobility of all citizens to both leave and arrive at will. (Not every single nation will agree, but 95% will.) Furthermore, this notion of universal free-movement will seem so obvious and natural that it will become hard to argue against. It will be taken as an unalienable right like free speech, or one person-one vote. Paradoxically this free-movement right will ease the volume of horrific mass migrations, since there will be constant daily mini-migrations that are self-correcting.

I did not mention in my bet, but would add now, that a driving force in making this “right” inevitable will be the global demand for workers. The world’s population will peak at about 2050, and thereafter it will begin to plumet. There will be an insatiable appetite in all developed and developing countries for workers of all sorts — both professional and blue collar — and immigration can feed that need. It will be to most countries’ advantage to permit easy migration, so I believe that in less than 100 years free-movement becomes the default.

If anyone finds my bet laughably unlikely and is willing to wager against me, I welcome your bet. Just go to the Long Bets site.

Sample excerpts from the book:

If you are worried, or simply wonder, what might happen to the US if the foreign-born population- now one in eight-continues to rise, you could do worse than consider Canada, where one in five people were born abroad, or Australia, where one in four residents were, and where approaching half of the population has at least one foreign-born parent. And if you think America should be seeking to attract the world’s brightest brains rather than its huddled masses, you might want to examine Australia’s and Canada’s skills-focused immigration policies, as well as their unintended consequences.


Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good? — J. K. Galbraith


‘Make Poverty History’ is the rallying cry for a new generation of campaigners for global justice, led by the now-familiar faces of Bob Geldof and Bono. Their key demands include fairer trade, debt relief, more and better aid, and action against AIDS and corruption. Yet one thing that is not on their list could make a bigger dent in global poverty than all of those combined: freer international migration. Nothing else comes close to the magnitude of economic benefits that this would generate. It is time for those who want to make poverty history to confront the entrenched prejudices of Western voters – and doubtless many of their supporters – and lobby the US and EU governments to ‘Let Them In’. It is a cause for our time.


They see immigrants as a drain on our resources and a threat to our way of life. I have argued that these fears are largely unfounded, but you don’t have to take my word for it. By allowing anyone in the eight relatively poor new members of the EU to come and work freely, Britain, Ireland and Sweden are putting these claims to the test. All seventy-five million people in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are now free to move to Britain and work. Since wages in Poland are typically only a fifth of those in Britain, Poles have a big incentive to come and work here. If opponents of immigration are right, Britain should now be deluged with East Europeans and unemployment should be soaring. But it isn’t. In fact, only 427,000 East Europeans have so far applied to work in Britain (many of whom were already in the country illegally) – and most stay only briefly: net migration from eastern Europe was only 48,000 in 2004? Unemployment remains at thirty-year lows, tax receipts are up and jobs that British people no longer want to do are being filled. The newcomers are working in factories and on farms, in kitchens, warehouses and packing plants, as cleaners and as waiters. John Monks, the British head of the European Trade Union Confederation, says fears that cheap workers from the east would drive out local workers had so far proved unfounded.


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