Immigration is a strange issue. Although it is the subject of a lot of popular fear and political debate, there is an overwhelming consensus among economists that it is, on the whole, a great blessing. What’s more, this consensus cuts not only across political, but also methodological lines, with classical liberal, neo-classical, Chicago school, Austrian, and even some Keynesian economists agreeing that relatively unfettered labor mobility maximizes economic growth. John Stuart Mill even went so far as to say that migration was “one of the primary sources of progress.” Adam Smith opposed mercantilist restrictions not just on capital, but on labor as well. Ludwig von Mises, the guru of the Austrian school, advocated a system of free trade where capital and labor would be employed wherever conditions are most favorable for production.
The one prominent exception was Karl Marx. Although he doesn’t seem to have treated this subject in a systematic way, his comments here and there suggest that he was no fan of immigration. For example, he regarded England’s decision to absorb the “surplus” Irishmen being driven out of their country during the Great Famine not as a benefit but a ploy by the English bourgeoisie to “force down wages and lower the material and moral position of the English working class.” The popular, modern-day restrictionist canard that immigration from the Third World to rich countries is tantamount to “importing poverty” has its genesis in Marxist thought. Indeed, far from being embarrassed by this lineage, restrictionists tout it. Consider this quote by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, the premier restrictionist outfit in the country: “Employer organizations spend enormous resources lobbying the government to import a ‘reserve army of labor,’ to use Marx’s phrase, so that they can hold down their labor costs and avoid unionization.”
It is ironic that half of the public in the free world, including America, the land of immigrants, sides not with free-market economists like Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises—but with Marx, the father of socialism.
The primary reason for this is that the case for open borders is counterintuitive. It is hard to see how, in a world with finite resources, allowing more people into a country would enhance its prosperity instead of leading to overcrowding, more job competition and lower wages. But this Malthusian worldview, I will argue, is ultimately flawed—even dangerously so. I will lay out the theoretical case for open borders, present the empirical evidence showing that immigration is a net boon and address the common restrictionist objection to open borders: the issue of welfare.
But, first, what does open borders mean?