Across the West today, a rising populist right is blaming established elites for letting in too many immigrants. The immigrants, the populists complain, lower wages, dilute the local culture, and pose a threat to national security. But even as anti-immigrant sentiment gains ground, a small but growing band of open borders advocates is reaching the opposite conclusion: Western elites aren’t letting in too many immigrants—they are letting in too few. These advocates, including the author, call for a regime of nearly complete freedom of migration worldwide, with rare exceptions for preventing terrorism or the spread of contagious disease. Borders would still exist in such a world, but as jurisdictional boundaries rather than as barriers to human movement. Ending migration controls in this way would increase liberty, reduce global poverty, and accelerate economic growth. But more fundamentally, it would challenge the right of governments to regulate migration on the arbitrary grounds of sovereignty.
The open borders position may sound new and radical, but it is simply a call for the return of lost liberties. When the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886, most of the world’s borders could be freely crossed without passports. Passport requirements had sometimes existed before and were still in place in backward tsarist Russia, but the more liberal governments of advanced European nations regulated migration, as modern democracies regulate speech, only rather lightly and in exceptional cases, if at all. Comprehensive restrictions on international movement, which almost everyone today regards as a normal and necessary government function, are really an innovation of the twentieth century, which emerged as liberalism gave way to nationalism and socialism in the wake of World War I. Although the reasons for border control were often explicitly racist—such as the national origins quotas of the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act—the restrictions were also motivated by bona fide national security concerns, as well as a desire to protect native wages and welfare states from immigrant competition and foreign dependents.