Editorial note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Maastricht Students For Liberty.
OPEN BORDERS AND MIGRATION
by Prof. Dr. Erich Weede
In principle, I am in favor of open borders, in practice I am against. Why this ambivalence and ambiguity?
Let me start with the case for open borders: The West invented economic freedom, established capitalism, and overcame mass poverty before the great Asian civilizations because of disunity or the political fragmentation of Europe, because of the exit opportunities for Europeans which this political disunity provided. If exit or migration opportunities have been a prerequisite for the establishment of some approximation to a constitution of liberty in the West, then open borders are desirable in principle. People should be able to run away from their governments.
In the past, running away from one government and migrating to another country did not provide migrants with a right to the wealth or property of other people. Currently, migrants from poor countries to rich and generous European welfare states acquire the right to be supported by host country taxpayers by illegally entering a country. This is unfair. Why?
My starting point is Locke’s idea of self-ownership. If everyone belongs to himself, it is obvious that the fruits of one’s labor belong to oneself and not to the government. During the 20th century, Western societies have moved ever further away from a free society. At the beginning of the century, government expenditure in most Western countries was close to 10% of GDP. In Europe, now it is close to 50% GDP. Social welfare expenditure is close to 30% of GDP and the dominant item in government expenditure. In my view, a welfare state financed by progressive taxation where the poorer 60% of the population no longer contributes significantly to government revenues is unfair.
If one combines the welfare state with open borders and instant access to welfare for migrants, then the welfare state becomes unsustainable. According to Sinn, the migrants which Germany actually admits cost the German taxpayer about 79,000 Euros per person and lifetime. By necessitating a higher rate of taxation they contribute to the further erosion of economic freedom in the host society. Therefore, libertarianism is incompatible with open borders as long as we do not overcome the welfare state.
Moreover, the welfare state is a source of perverse incentives for migration. If one succeeds on the market and earns a high income in a welfare state, then one suffers from high taxation rates. There is an incentive to emigrate to lower taxation countries. For Germans, the pecuniary incentive drives successful Germans to America or to Switzerland. People in many poor countries know that welfare payments in many West and Central European countries are significantly higher than average incomes at home. They face an incentive to come. Combining the outflow of qualified emigrants and the inflow of less qualified immigrants leads to a deterioration of the human capital endowment of societies. The less generous the welfare state is, the stronger the case for open borders becomes.
Although the welfare state provides one reason to be against open borders, there are two more fundamental objections. Open borders and mass immigration reduces the cultural homogeneity of societies. Why is some degree of cultural homogeneity desirable? No society can do without social norms and laws channelling behavior. Norms and laws work best, if most people most of the time want to follow norms and to obey the law. If norms and laws confirm to people’s habits and traditions, then people find it easy to observe the law. If migrants come from a strongly different cultural background, then they find it difficult to accept the strange norms and laws of the host society.
Culturally heterogeneous societies, either suffer from social disorder which undermines prosperity or they have to rely on government coercion in order to maintain order. More government coercion is not a libertarian’s dream. Even worse, the expansion of government coercion to handle diversity comes in small instalments. European anti-discrimination laws provide an example. Although I am in favor of anti-discrimination laws governing the behavior of public officials, I see no justification for such laws concerning employment or housing markets. Private home owners or employers should be free to provide housing or employment according to their personal preferences or profit expectations. But European governments curtail the freedom of contract in order to deal with diversity.
One may even argue, as the Oxford economist Paul Collier has done, that Western institutions contribute more than other institutions to prosperity. That is why poor people from less developed countries want to come to the West. By coming to the West and bringing their habits and norms along, by claiming welfare payments and receiving protection from discrimination, they enforce government expansion and erode the economic freedom which constitutes the basis of Western prosperity.
Finally, mass migration from poor countries and different civilizations undermines the stability of the political order. The more culturally, i.e. religiously, linguistically or ethnically, diverse a country is, the more likely it is to suffer from political instability or unrest or civil war. Think of religious diversity in Syria, or Iraq, or the Balkans. Think of Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, think of Basques and Spaniards, or below the level of political violence even of Flemings and Walloons in Belgium. Think of African-American riots in the 1960s and 1970s or of the riots in immigrant populated French suburbs more recently. Too much cultural heterogeneity is a burden on society.
Is it legitimate for governments to increase the burdens on citizens in order to help newcomers? Is it legitimate for governments to reduce the property rights of citizens for the benefit of newcomers? If your answer is affirmative, then government no longer belongs to citizens, but citizens belong to a government which believes itself to be more moral or enlightened than its subjects are.