Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons

by Herman Daly

“Open borders” refers to a policy of unlimited or free immigration. I argue here that it is a bad policy. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move (or at least move your money) to one that doesn’t. Thus, safety nets and public goods in general, disappear as they become both overloaded and underfunded. That is the “world without borders” and without community. That is the tragedy of open access commons.

Some will think that I am attacking a straw man because, they will say, no sensible person really advocates open borders. They simply advocate it will be said, “More generous levels of immigration, and a reasonable amnesty for existing illegal immigrants.” I agree that some form of strictly conditional amnesty is indeed necessary as the lesser evil, given the impasse created by past non-enforcement of our immigration laws. Deporting 12 million long-settled residents is too drastic and would create more injustices than it would rectify. But unless we enforce immigration laws in the future, there will soon be a need for another amnesty (the first, often forgotten, was in 1986), and then another—a de facto open-borders policy. Nevertheless, the policy of open borders should be fairly discussed, not only because some people explicitly advocate it, but also because many others implicitly accept it by virtue of their unwillingness to face the alternative.

Photo of a border patrol police officer and migrant children

The USA needs to enforce immigration laws in the future, otherwise, there will be need for amnesty and an open-border policy. (Image: CC0, Credit: Beeraj Patel).

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point to begin a discussion is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Emigration is often considered a human right, but immigration requires the permission of the receiving country. Some countries allow many legal immigrants. Others allow few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database: “The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one-fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.”

There are also arguments about the emigration side of open borders—even if emigration is a human right, is it unconditional? Might “brain-drain” emigrants have some obligation to contribute something to the community that educated and invested in them before they emigrate to greener pastures?

Immigrants are people and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy and deserves reasoned discussion in the public interest. It seems that neither expectation is fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of 2 billion people into which I was born no longer works in today’s world of 7 billion. In addition to people, the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require not only space but also a metabolic flow of natural resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds the ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The USA is indeed a “country of immigrants,” although for Native Americans this frequent refrain reflects a less positive historical experience than it does for European settlers. Nor does the term resonate positively with those African Americans whose recent ancestors were brought here as enslaved peoples. Many Americans, including me, think that heirs of slavery deserve priority in the U.S. job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants (likewise for the many Americans of all races living in poverty). Some other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor, guaranteed by unemployment.

Immigrants working

The US elite employing class uses immigration to force down wages and break labor unions. (Image: CC0 1.0, Credit: Linnaea Mallette)

We have in the USA a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the USA is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. Class division is more basic than the racial and ethnic divide in current U.S. immigration politics, although the latter is not absent. Progressives in the USA, with their admirable historical focus on racial justice, have been slow to see the increasing dominance of the class issue in immigration. The Wall Street Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, and big corporations, in general, do not mind seeing the class question submerged by racial and ethnic politics favoring easy immigration as a cheap-labor supplement to off-shoring. It feeds the myth that we are a classless society, even as it contributes to increasing income inequality. Further, given the closeness of recent elections, a bit of ethnic pandering can be politically decisive.

The USA is also a country of law, or at least strives to be. Illegal immigration falls outside the rule of law and renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. It is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents 20 years ago. We have judges to deal with difficult cases as well as statutes of limitation regarding the time period within which certain laws must be enforced, and this principle could be applied to immigration laws.

Which democratically enacted laws will the open-borders lobby not enforce next? How about laws against financial fraud? We have apparently already quit enforcing those, partly abetted by globalization and foreign tax havens as well as too big to fail or jail banks. Acceptance of illegal immigration is only one part of the broader trend toward impunity, and while impunity for banksters is arguably worse than for illegal immigrants and their employers, the latter still plays a part in undermining the general respect for the law.

Surely our immigration laws could be improved. Indeed, the 1995 US Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, made a good start but was ignored for reasons already suggested. Her commission called for lower legal immigration quotas, stricter family reunification criteria, and enhanced border control, as well as stricter sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants. The last embraced the caveat that ethnic profiling would likely result without a secure national identification system, since employers are not able to adjudicate false documents. A secure identification system would, of course, make it easier to identify illegal immigrants and is often opposed by open-borders advocates and libertarians. The present Congress should build on the good work of the Jordan Commission, but they seem to have forgotten it.

Map of Bhutan

What would an “open borders” policy mean for Bhutan, sandwiched between the world’s two most populous nations? (Image: CC0 1.0, Credit: onestopmap)

Would open borders be good for Japan, Germany, Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous peoples be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

In developed countries, immigration boosters are especially interested in opening borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower natural population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap-retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. While working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected, indeed required, to continue indefinitely.

In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists and from the libertarian faction of right-wing economists. The former consider any limits on the total number of immigrants as “thinly disguised racism.” All evil is reduced to racism, often “in disguise.” The libertarian economists label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion,” their synonym for regulation. We already have open borders for capital (as well as goods), so that open borders for labor would complete the global integration agenda—deregulation taken to the limit. This is not “free trade” or reasonable recognition of interdependence among many separate trading economies, as embodied in the 1945 Bretton Woods Treaty. Rather it is a single global economy tightly integrated on the principle of absolute, not comparative, advantage. It is being imposed top-down by transnational corporations via the undemocratic World Trade Organization.

Net immigration is the overwhelming cause of USA population growth. How big should the USA population be? We are currently the third most populous country in the world. Do we aspire to overtake China and India? What numbers define a “more generous immigration policy” and exactly who is being generous to whom, and at whose expense? Our elite is being generous to itself at the expense of both the U.S. working class and of immigrants.

Any limitation of the number of new immigrants still requires selectivity and enforcement of immigration laws. It requires saying “no” to many worthy applicants, which is difficult, and is why some humanitarians are tempted to favor open borders. It is easier to pretend that unlimited “economic” growth can support an unlimited population, including immigrants. Never mind that growth in the USA has, at the margin, become uneconomic, increasing social and environmental costs faster than benefits. The idea of a steady state economy goes out the window, and customary growth-mania is reaffirmed.

If the USA could just set an example of how a country can live justly and sustainably within its ecological limits (i.e., in a steady state economy), that would be a splendid contribution to the rest of the world. We are far from setting such an example—indeed we are not even trying.

Herman DalyHerman Daly is CASSE Chief Economist, Professor Emeritus (University of Maryland), and past World Bank senior economist.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
7 replies
  1. Brian Sanderson
    Brian Sanderson says:

    I have often entertained your question:
    “Might “brain-drain” emigrants have some obligation to contribute something to the community that educated and invested in them, before they emigrate to greener pastures?”
    Sometimes it is clear that rich countries actually plunder from poorer nations by accepting their trained people. But it is also clear that sometimes a nation will train far more people in a particular field than the economy of that nation can support — and fewer than are required for other parts of the economy.

    In general, I think that people should be free to move between nations that have stabilized populations at levels that enable a quality life within a quality ecosystem.

  2. Jonathan W. Maxson
    Jonathan W. Maxson says:

    My thanks to Dr. Herman Daly for another rock-solid analysis. The interplay between immigration, racism, and classism is extremely difficult to get a handle on – there is so much political spin – but here Daly shows us that steady-state ecological economics can help us navigate to an objective and compassionate center.

    Dr. James Hansen has recently called for discussion of a centrist new “American Party.” I have quickly responded here, but it seems to me that CASSE must already have articulated the case in one or more compelling documents that there can be no scientifically or politically valid discussion of a “new American centrism” without aiming this center at Contraction and Convergence to a steady-state economy under a just and precautionary rule of global governance.

    I consider the work of Dr. Daly to be just as much a national scientific and civic asset as the work of Dr. Hansen, and would very much to like read a response from CASSE to Dr. Hansen’s signal publication of “The American Party.” Is it any longer possible for Americans to discuss centrism without reference to steady-state ecological economics?

    Is 4th-generation nuclear power truly the most plausible source of baseload electricity in a steady-state economy?

  3. Mike S.
    Mike S. says:

    Following up on the Contraction & Convergence concept, if there were a global climate trust that distributed equal per capita emissions shares that were worth $X/ton, and overconsuming countries such as the USA were forced to buy the surplus from citizens of underconsuming countries such as Bangladesh, would this counteract the current economic forces pushing emigrants trying to move to the USA? In other words, could solving climate change equitably also solve immigration and other problems?

  4. Jonathan W. Maxson
    Jonathan W. Maxson says:

    Mike raises an excellent case example.

    In general, I think C&C of fossil fuel consumption will counteract the aspirational flow of population from low-emissions to high-emissions economies. C&C should create greatest demand for citizenship in those economies that deliver the highest quality of life on a steady-state ecological footprint – and global development trends should follow.

    This said, overpopulation is a critical problem in Bangladesh and globally. National population dynamics cannot be separated from equitable per capita emissions entitlements and are part of C&C negotiation.

    But even with all of this factored into a C&C treaty, I find it very hard to forward map to 2050 without assuming that tens of millions of Bangladeshi climate refugees will require climate asylum in nations that can “afford” to absorb them.

    How many climate refugees from Bangladesh and worldwide can the US absorb? At present, the US economy is so much a part of the emissions problem it cannot afford to absorb a single climate refugee without making a vicious emissions cycle worse! Added to this, depletion of High Plains groundwater together with regional climate impacts seem likely to make mass migrations within the US a significant challenge.

    The only engineering pathway I can see to management of this problem is an emergency drawdown in the planet’s 22 billion head of livestock, together with a C&C framework that brings CO2/CH4 emissions AND human population back within carrying capacity.

    We know that people do just fine (physically and emotionally) on plant-based diets after an initial period of adjustment. Our children and grandchildren will have no problem enjoying these diets. I would like to join CASSE (and enter a PhD program aimed at global degrowth/C&C to a steady economy), but I am waiting to see a position paper that formally acknowledges we have now so overshot planetary carrying capacity that mass vegan-engineering is an immediate practical necessity.

  5. Mike Hanauer
    Mike Hanauer says:

    I have been studying population and environmental issues for over 25 years and have come to believe that for the US, for other countries, and for the world – the most humane and environmental tact is to help people where they are – not to encourage them to migrate.

    Migration to the US increases our own very unsustainable and growing population level with its devastating local and global environmental impacts, takes pressure off of source countries to deal with their own population growth problem, and draws away from those countries the very people who are most likely to be leaders in their native lands to help improve conditions. Some countries have asked us, in fact, to better enforce our laws to help them better their own conditions.

    Population is the great multiplier!

    Don’t be a deep feeler and a poor thinker. – George C. Marshall, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, 1953.

  6. Mel
    Mel says:

    Well that all sounds great…if you’re poor just move to a rich country…except a few things…there are only certain options for people of certain countries to move to another country. If you don’t fit into those very limited options then forget it. Also, most countries discriminate against ex convicts.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!
(No profanity, lewdness, or libel.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *