The moral case for open borders

One of the main ‘rules’ of rhetoric is to never start with an apology. Nevertheless, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my the overly sentimental way that I’m going to introduce a very serious idea, but that’s just the way it is. Get over it.

I’ve been reminded this last week of the song ‘Borderline’ by Chris de Burgh. I realise that being familiar with songs by this particular singer is probably enough to destroy any ‘street cred’ I may have, but I am. I confess it. And I can’t stop this particular song bringing a tear to my eye. It tells of two lovers being parted by the outbreak of war because they come from the opposite sides of a borderline, and includes the refrain of him pleading with her to wait for him “until the day there’s no borderline”. I can vaguely remember another, less sentimental song about getting rid of borders between countries, this time (I think) by a British folk rock band – but I can’t remember who. Whilst I remember the idea capturing my attention at the time, this is something that I have given practically no consideration to in recent years. Not until a late chapter in Rutger Bergman’s Utopia for Realists that is.

So, in an era when the UK government is in the process passing a new immigration bill that will further restrict ‘low skilled’ immigration, when there is outrage from the nationalist right wing of politics about desperate refugees risking their lives by crossing the English Chanel to seek safety and shelter, and when this country treats anyone found to be here illegally so inhumanely, I would like to propose the opposite: the opening of borders. Obviously the UK could not act unilaterally on this, but it could start to at first consider, and then campaign for, the gradual elimination of regulated national borders.

As Bergman points out, formal borders controlling the movement of people is a relatively new phenomenon: “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilized.” So why do we need them? National governments could still administer their geographical area and its services. And it would be possible, for the sake of planning and resource management, to restrict access to all but emergency health and social services to people who have been living and / or working within the administrative border for more than a certain period of time. We could even have a collective of administrative governments entering into an agreement to allow total free movement of people and services. Or has this been tried already?

We live in a global society. The most serious of the problems faced by humans are global. The effects of a rise in mean global temperatures, the slow erosion of habitats capable of supporting human life, and the corresponding erosion of our wider ecology are not phenomena restricted by national borders. Arguably the migration of people fleeing these problems could be controlled or restricted, but that would be so inhumane it would be off the scale of perversity. If we are serious about equality and human rights (and I really hope that we are) we surely have to accept that it is grossly unethical to actively prevent people travelling to seek food and work, to seek safety and refuge from war and civil unrest, and to escape the effects of climate change and ecological collapse. And just in case someone is inclined to argue against, could I point out that many, if not most of these problems were caused, either directly or indirectly, by the economic expansion of those Western states that suffer them least. These states have a moral obligation to accept responsibility for their colonial histories and their plundering of the Earth’s resources.

We also have a moral obligation to greatly reduce global inequality. In terms of wealth, it is scandalous that (according to UN figures) the poorest billion people in the world are responsible for just 1% of all consumption, whilst the richest billion are responsible for 72%. “In the nineteenth century”, Bergman argues, “inequality was still a matter of class; nowadays, it’s a matter of location.” It’s not even that the opening of all borders to facilitate the sharing of global wealth would cause those in the richest countries to be noticeably worse off. It’s been estimated that the gross world product would grow by between 67% and 147%. The whole world could be twice as rich. And even the Centre for Immigration Studies, a think tank that opposes immigration, concludes that immigration would have no effect on the wages in the countries receiving people. In standard economic terms, a bigger workforce will increase consumption and create demand, which, in turn, will create jobs. It is just that these new jobs will go people who really need them.

We really need to rid ourselves of the prejudice that immigrants are criminals or scroungers or terrorists that have no right to a share of the wealth that we, in rich countries, enjoy. Those that struggle with this thought should ponder where we got our wealth from in the first place. Instead, we need to move towards a truly global society, and rid ourselves of any thought (other than in sport) of nation competing with nation. Our human survival, and the survival of our wider ecology, demands that we cooperate and support a global conception of humanity. And if all of this is just too sentimental for you – I can’t apologise. It’s just the way it is.

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