We’re Not Ready for a Borderless World

A balding yet bearded white man, large and tall with jeans tight around his belly, would visit my grade school once a year or so and bring a long, blank banner. Without the help of even an index card, he would outline with a Sharpie every corner, boundary, and detail of land and sea, every cookie-cutter and irregular border of our almost 200 countries.

It was always a good time when Map Man was in town. He would ask us trivia questions about geography and nations’ capitals, and we would answer them to earn Fruit Roll-Ups.

He didn’t get into the negative side of borders, though. There was no blood drawn on the Map Man’s banner, no references to border wars or nationalist spite.

Much to the Map Man’s dismay, a movement calling for the end to country boundaries is growing throughout the political spectrum. Its points are not as extreme as some would expect, but rather respectable, well-researched, and compelling arguments. However, until the global community addresses the many downsides of open borders, our national divisors — and the Map Man’s craft — will need to remain.

Borders have historically caused much damage. Territorial disputes in 2017 might not be at the scale of the first half of the twentieth century — a time when invasions were common during two world wars — but today’s borders still bring tensions. In just the past four years, Russia has claimed Ukrainian territory, China and India have bickered over Bhutan, and India and Pakistan have spilled blood over Kashmir. Given this, are borders worth the trouble?

Many still swear by borders’ effectiveness despite the harm they cause. Supporters of closed borders argue, for instance, that national boundaries help preserve the native cultures and identities of each country. The spread of crime, terrorism, and disease, closed-borders advocates say, are also unavoidable side effects of open borders.

The hefty open-borders movement, though, believes that dropping barriers entirely would yield positive results. Not least of these is the prospect of greater global economic productivity owing to more efficient labor markets. Scholars estimate that open borders would lead to a 50% to 150% jump in world GDP, a boost that would disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and lead to a global reduction in poverty. Libertarian, utilitarian, and egalitarian arguments for the morality of looser borders are plentiful, such as the libertarian claim that no state should hinder the free movement of people, since people are their own masters. Open-borders advocates also note that both immigrant-receiving and immigrant-sending countries would benefit from open borders: Nations losing population would be able to better support their remaining residents (many of whom will also be receiving remittances from their family members abroad), and nations accepting immigrants would benefit from a knowledge and business boost that would extend to local economies.

These are not radically progressive, hippie arguments for dropping walls and singing songs of joy and inclusion. To be sure, liberals are often associated with lax immigration policy and cultural fusion. But it’s the libertarians who are identifying the practical, as opposed to emotional, appeal for open borders.

A people able to move freely worldwide is an alluring idea, but also one with serious shortcomings, especially in the current political climate.

One of the goals of dropping national boundaries, for instance, is to alleviate world poverty. But the arrival of a high number of needy people into a country would overwhelm the system. “A vast influx of immigrants would bankrupt the welfare state, as newcomers would not be able to pay enough in taxes to finance the benefits to which they would be entitled,” Nathan Smith, a prominent open-borders advocate, acknowledged in a Foreign Affairs article.

Nationalism is another limitation. While the practical case for open borders is strong, unless receiving countries are welcoming to foreigners, immigration will not go smoothly. Frequent hate crimes against immigrants make it hard to envision open borders leading to love and acceptance of the other.

There is also the concern that the free movement of people would inevitably engender the free movement of drugs, terrorism, and human trafficking. When Ecuador in 2008 made the pioneering decision to, in the words of its president, “dismantle that 20th-century invention of passports and visas,” it caused problems for its Western Hemisphere neighbors — including the United States, which saw increasing numbers of terrorist and smuggling cells in Quito that were now suddenly closer to the United States.

Open borders would bring many advantages, including less poverty and a global community. But idealizations can lead to rash decisions when consequences have not been well-measured. Until we can also prevent the damaging effects of open borders, boundaries between nations, no matter how harmful, should hold.

Dan Sicorsky ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

Dan Sicorsky

Dan Sicorsky ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at dan.sicorsky@wustl.edu.

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