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February 22, 2019 | Really Bad Ideas, Part 7: Open Borders

John Rubino is a former Wall Street financial analyst and author or co-author of five books, including The Money Bubble: What To Do Before It Pops and Clean Money: Picking Winners in the Green-Tech Boom. He founded the popular financial website in 2004 and sold it in 2022.

Now that we’re all free to speak our minds (maybe we should we call this the “post-political-caution world”) a lot of previously discredited ideas have re-emerged and are being tossed into the debate – apparently without much thought to, for instance, their horrendous unintended consequences.

One such idea that’s, ahem, gaining a lot of currency lately is Modern Monetary Theory (previously known as currency debasement). Another, which seems even easier to dismantle, is open borders. But the emergent democratic socialist movement apparently takes it seriously. Here’s an excerpt from a representative article:

Progressives Should Support Open Borders — With No Apology

(Foreign Policy In Focus) – Supporting freedom of movement isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s a political winner for the left.

A genuine call for open borders is virtually absent from the debate between the White House and Capitol Hill, where the question has been not whether to militarize the border, but merely how many billions of dollars should be devoted to “border security,” or what specific physical infrastructure it should buy.

But open borders is more than an epithet for the right to attack its opponents with. It is a legitimate position, and the left should take it up as the only humane one.

Catching up with capital
For decades, critics of globalization have pointed out that the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization—institutions that are shaped and dominated by the United States—have helped create a world where capital moves freely, while human beings are stuck at borders. Numerous “free trade” agreements have accelerated this trend.

As asylum seekers at the border confront metal barriers, surveillance drones and armed guards barring their entry, trucks, trains and boats bring a high volume of shipping containers into the United States each day. Ports of entry have perfected clearing these goods through customs efficiently, and policy makers have regulated (and deregulated) international commerce to make the process as easy as possible.

If only the people migrating from Central America and elsewhere were commodities instead of human beings, they would enter the United States painlessly, be handled with care by workers who are experts at transferring goods quickly and carefully, and then transported overnight to all corners of the country through extensive commercial distribution networks.

Commercial goods aren’t the only things that move freely across borders. The U.S. military carries out operations all over the world with such regularity that it’s not even considered newsworthy in the United States.

It’s bitterly ironic that Trump constantly describes migrants in the Central American Exodus as an “invasion,” when the United States has carried out so many actual invasions of that region — operations which bear great responsibility for destabilizing those societies and pushing so many people to come north in the first place.

The right to movement
Systems and governments that invest tremendously in perfecting the movement of commerce and violence across borders, while investing at similar scale to stop the movement of people, aren’t being simply hypocritical. They’re also violating a fundamental human right.

People have the right to move freely. Human migration, and migration particular to the Americas, predates the United States or its borders. Indeed, many of the people coming north from Central America are Indigenous, belonging to groups of people whose histories stretch far before that of the U.S. nation-state.

The right to freedom of movement becomes only more important as growing numbers of people become uprooted and displaced. Conflicts over control of the planet’s resources, economic policies that devastate people the world over, and climate change — which creates more disasters and makes parts of the world uninhabitable for everyday life—are all increasing.

With those dynamics, the responsibility of governments to honor people’s freedom to move only grows, too—as does that of ordinary people to defend that right.

New political possibilities
We are living in a time, not only of darkness and repression, but also political possibility.

Medicare for All, previously a marginalized demand in the United States (though existing in practice throughout much of the world) is now a central demand of mainstream liberal politics.

The slogan “Abolish ICE” — first raised by grassroots migrant justice activists and lifted up by the Democratic Socialists of America — has been brought into official U.S. politics and even carried onto Capitol Hill by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The slogan has become so potent that the president and vice president have had to go out of their way to denounce it—something Trump did again in the most recent State of the Union.

Meanwhile, the majority of people in the United States oppose Trump’s wall. And three-quarters of Americans recently told pollsters they think immigration is “a good thing.”

These facts — evidence of a complicated political terrain, but one that has much promise for progressives and the left — show why supporting “border security” rather than centering the rights of migrants in the conversation about migration is not only wrong. It’s also out of step with the progressive trend in U.S. politics.

While demanding open borders may seem like a marginal position in U.S. politics now, keep in mind that “build the wall” was on the fringe until recently.

Let’s consider some of the above:

Is there actually a “fundamental human right of movement”? Or is this one of those “it would be nice if” kinds of things that conflict with other “it would be nice” things to present us with trade-offs involving difficult choices. Specifically, giving people from places without social safety nets the “right” to move unimpeded to places with social safety nets could (actually will without doubt) result in massive increases in demand for, and cost of, education, housing and health care for host country taxpayers.

Given their high cost and unpredictable timing, are open borders really “a political winner for the left”? This takes us back to our newly wide-open political debate in which everyone’s fever dreams now get equal time. In any large society there are people who believe that invading and subjugating every country that steps out of line is a great idea, that printing unlimited amounts of paper currency increases national wealth, that secret government spying programs make us “more free,” that workers produce all the value inherent in a given product while capital adds zero value (therefore if we just nationalize all the big companies and fire the capitalists…). It goes on and on, because the fringes of society host a near-infinite number of reasonable-sounding but ultimately crazy ideas.

A decade ago, most such policies were only discussed seriously in Marxism seminars and militia compounds, for good reason: The average non-ideologue can spot their fatal flaws pretty quickly.

But now these ideas’ fans only have to preface them with “in the world’s richest country we ought to be able to…” and the glow of unlimited spendable cash turns ideological sow’s ear into mainstream political silk purse.

So open borders could indeed, for a little while, attract some votes. But not for long because the fatal flaw – millions of immigrants swamping public services – will be both easy to explain and hard to defend in debates.

And if it open borders somehow survive electoral scrutiny and end up being enacted, the resulting chaos will give the policy a very short lifespan – much shorter than, say, Prohibition.

But wait, don’t a lot of libertarians also favor open borders? They do indeed, but with the explicit (maybe even gleeful) understanding that free movement of people from developing to developed world will swamp – and thus end – the latter’s social safety nets, an outcome libertarians like because welfare, Medicaid etc., are not legitimate functions of government. So in this case progressives and libertarians are natural allies only for the first phase of open borders.

The other posts in the Really Bad Ideas series are here.

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February 22nd, 2019

Posted In: John Rubino Substack

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