Open Borders V: The Wealth of Nations

Unlimited migration does not create infinite opportunity for the poor to get richer just by moving to a richer country.


This is the fifth entry in a series of six articles on ‘open borders’ migration policies. You can read the rest of the series so far hereherehere and here. If a country has ‘open borders’ its government uses border control agencies only for frustrating criminals’ attempts to escape punishment in one country by fleeing to another. Other than that, a government pursuing an ‘open borders’ policy lets anyone enter or leave, and settle, without any restriction.

In the first three articles I examined three arguments against open borders. In the next three I’ll look at arguments for open borders. In my first article I considered an argument for border control based on democratic socialism – the view that a nation’s economy should be subject to the control of its elected government for collective social benefit.

An open borders policy makes democratic socialism impossible as it strips the government of one of its levers of control over the economy, namely the size and shape of the workforce. Open borders also make it much harder to organize public services.

A popular  argument for democratic socialism is that democratic control of the economy is more egalitarian. Insofar as economic forces are accountable to democratically elected governments, they’re accountable to the whole electorate, too, so in a universal suffrage democracy we all get equal control. Whereas ‘the market’, left alone, distributes economic control according to a whole lot of luck, some unscrupulous behaviour, and a little bit of wit and grit; so one would expect a social democracy to tend towards greater equality of outcome.

So here’s a natural argument an open borders advocate can make in reply: border controls sustain inequalities between nations, which open borders would, at least over time, eliminate. The egalitarian goals of socialism are frustrated by border controls, if we want to extent equality globally. More precisely, border controls prevent people who are poorer because they live in a poor country, become richer by moving to a rich country and thereby gaining wealth.

There’s one quick and easy response to this argument. If you wanted to sustain the ‘democratic’ part of ‘democratic socialism’ then you would need all the countries, whose borders you wanted to be porous, to be governed by one democratically elected government. Otherwise, each democratic government is going to cede control of its economy to the winds of migration.

But the bigger a state is, the harder it is to sustain its genuine democratic nature. Elected representatives must travel far from the districts which elected them, and they often become part of a subculture with its own interests at heart (the ‘political class’). Voters in different regions are more loyal to those in their own region than those in other regions, and chafe at the bit. Administrating a larger territory requires a larger unelected bureaucracy, which, being staffed by humans, will accumulate power (and so undermine democracy), and use that power to feather its employees’ nests, and accumulate more.


Like trying to cook pasta in a sieve.  (Doran, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

OK, now let’s suppose that you have solved all of these problems.

A question of principle remains: that nations have unequal wealth – more precisely, that living in one nation, rather than another, can cause an individual to have more or less wealth – is not a fact of nature. It’s not a straightforward consequence of there being separate nations. Inequality between nations is a consequence of historical events.

Anyone who argues opening up borders will increase global equality is making a large-scale prediction based on an interpretation of the trending effects of historical events – significantly, similar government policies – in the past. So they should look at the effects of similar government policies in the past. History can teach us a lesson about how nations get wealthier, and what it teaches suggests that the ‘comparative advantage‘ a migrant gains by moving from a poor country to another is reduced (in the long-term, squashed) by their destination country adopting an open borders policy.

There is plenty of evidence that inequality between nations cannot be reduced to differences in initial natural resources. Rather, institutions are partly responsible.

Property rights  and the rule of law are known to create the kind of predictability which allows people to plan their work and trading in a way which generates wealth.

But so is culture: higher trust in strangers facilitates working together and taking reasonable risks; weaker family ties facilitate labour mobility, which encourages specialisation. Note that there are trade-offs here which are masked by isolating ‘wealth’ as the only thing we’re comparing. Weak family ties might facilitate labour mobility, and so increase someone’s take-home pay. But in a culture with weaker family ties, I’m more likely to get home from my high-paid, high-skilled job to discover my wife in bed with the postman – something that my large paycheque may not quite make up for.

Not all countries have the same culture and institutions, which is why some countries have become wealthier than others despite being equally fertile and rich in other resources. And culture and institutions are not made out of places, but people. Institutions function only when their personnel and the people they serve embrace and understand their norms. Learning those norms – as well as changing one’s culture – can take a whole childhood or, if one’s parents didn’t have them, a lifetime.

A country with open borders has decided that, in principle, it is willing to change its culture, and thereby change its institutions, if international events encourage people to move there faster than they can assimilate to that culture.

Of course, it’s possible that the only people who will ever want to move to a country with ‘wealthier’ institutions and culture will be from countries with ‘equally wealthy’ institutions and culture. But if this possibility occurred, then open borders wouldn’t reduce international inequality, so our egalitarian argument for open borders would fail. And when it works out the other way, mass-migration will reduce the wealth gap between the home and destination countries.

To put it another way: individuals can get richer by leaving a country which is historically poorer, and settling in a country which is historically richer. But if you ‘universalise’ this decision, and imagine everyone doing that, the historically richer country won’t be richer anymore. And open borders policies are absolute: they say that we won’t slow migration if it becomes too fast. So they say this outcome should be acceptable.

But this outcome doesn’t represent sharing wealth out between nations equally. It doesn’t even represent an effort to ‘distill’ how the institutions work so that any nation can ‘copy’ them without the loss of its own distinctive character. It’s a recipe for brain drains in poorer nations and political transformation in richer ones.


Hugh Burling is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge.

Enjoy this article? Subscribe to the Quad. Featured photo by Elliot Killingbeck, used under a Creative Commons Share-alike 3.0 Unported licence.

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