An economist’s step-by-step guide to creating a borderless world

The differences would be astounding.
The differences would be astounding.
Image: Reuters/Bernadett Szabo
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This question originally appeared on Quora: What does it mean to get rid of borders in practice? Answer by Alex Tabarrok, economist, writer at MarginalRevolution, TED talk in 2009.

I’d like to see a world of more open borders for both moral and economic reasons. I expand on these arguments in my article, “The Case for Getting Rid of Borders—Completely.” (See also the excellent resource page openborders.info).

I don’t, however, expect us to open the borders to China tomorrow. Yet it may surprise people to know the United States has in fact signed an open borders treaty with China! The Burlingame Treaty of 1868 proclaimed in terms accepted by China and the United States that “[we] recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance…” Sadly, the Burlingame Treaty was superseded in 1882 by the plainly racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law preventing a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States. The examples of history should be encouraging, however. More change is possible than of the status quo dreams.

What concrete steps can the world take to move down this path?

First, I would open the United States to high-skill immigration from anywhere in the world, with no quotas whatsoever. This is what I have called a no-brainer policy. (Actually our current policy of not letting smart people in is the “no-brainer” policy but you get the idea.)

High-skill immigrants innovate, patent, and start new firms at higher rates than natives. At least one-quarter of the new firms in technology and science—from software and semiconductors to biotech—are founded by immigrants. In Silicon Valley, more than half of the high-tech start-ups were founded by immigrants. High-skill immigrants, especially with degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (aka: STEM) create more jobs and higher wages for Americans. Increasing high-skill immigration is a win-win policy for increasing innovation.

Second we should create a straightforward route to permanent residency for foreign-born students who graduate with advance degrees from American universities, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We educate some of the best and brightest students in the world in our universities and then on graduation day we tell them, “Thanks for visiting. Now go home!” It’s hard to imagine a more short-sighted policy to reduce America’s capacity for innovation.

Third we should take inspiration from the European Union and create a North American Union. Quoting from the EU:

Free movement of workers is a fundamental principle of the Treaty enshrined in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and developed by EU secondary legislation and the Case law of the Court of Justice. EU citizens are entitled to:

look for a job in another EU country

work there without needing a work permit

reside there for that purpose

stay there even after employment has finished

enjoy equal treatment with nationals in access to employment, working conditions and all other social and tax advantages

The European Union is the greatest political accomplishment of the twentieth century. It’s a profound advance for a region that had been riven for hundreds of years by wars and hatred. (The monetary union was not a good idea, but that is a separate issue, as are some of the relatively minor current issues with refugees—yes, very minor for Europe, compared with WWI and WWII.)

Thus, I would like to see a North American Union comparable to the European Union. We already have a free trade agreement with our largest trading partner, Canada. Goods and capital travel easily across the Canadian border. Let’s open the border to people as well! If French citizens can work in Germany without a permit, then surely we do not need work permits for Canadians and vice-versa.

Let’s start with Canada, as we did with free trade, but then let’s open the border between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The best way to stop illegal immigration is to make it legal! Let’s also not assume that the travel would be all one way. A great many American citizens would like to buy land and retire in Mexico with high quality health care and services. Mexico should make it easier for Canadians and Americans to live and work in Mexico. Open borders are open both ways.

There is a danger in creating free movement blocks if the blocks become ever more isolated from one another. What I would hope, however, is that over time we can make the blocks ever more connected. We already have a very successful defense treaty with Europe, NATO. If we are close enough to provide for our common defense, then we are close enough to allow any NATO citizen to work or reside in any NATO country. Open the NATO borders!

Turning to the question:

How would this work specifically?

The transition will take time, but a world of open borders would work much like the world does today. In the United States, for example, as one crosses the border from Kentucky to Tennessee, motorcyclists have to put on a helmet, a host of other laws change, the tax authority changes, even the culture changes—but no one questions the right of an American to move about the country in the pursuit of happiness.

Fear of foreigners is built deep into our DNA, but so is the ability to expand the moral circle and redefine who is foreign. I look forward to the day when we recognize the free movement of all people as a human right.

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