I recently attended a conference about economic development and why some countries are desperately poor while others have emerged from subsistence to abundance in the last 200 years.  What struck me was that, whatever the theory on why some countries are poor, so few propose the most obvious remedy: free and open immigration.

If you’re born into a horrible place, surely the first and most humane thing for those more fortunate to do is not prohibit you from leaving.  Opening up the borders does not obligate anyone to anything, it simply removes state thugs and red tape and allows individuals to peacefully cooperate with others who are happy to sell to, buy from, or hire them.  If I want to rent my spare room to someone from Sudan, no state agent should interfere.

When I proposed this idea, a fellow conferee said, “Well yeah, you can say, “Open the borders”, but in reality it’s more complicated than that.  It might cause all kinds of unforeseen problems.”  Compared to what?  People might die of starvation in their horrible countries.  If we remove the barriers that keep them out what’s the worst that can happen?  I won’t be able to perfectly understand every cashier at the grocery store in my preferred language?

I know where this fear of open borders comes from.  I once shared it.  In fact, it’s a common fear about freedom generally – in trade and in ideas.  Think back to a time when speech was far from free.  Kings and courts had to provide an Imprimatur on anything written before it could be published.  There was simply too much crazy, dangerous, ignorant superstition out there.  Rules were needed.  People accustomed to censored speech would have a hard time imagining what would happen with total freedom.  Horrible, crude, offensive, dangerous things would no doubt be published.  You can’t just let anyone say anything!

Yet today it seems silly to worry about free speech.  Not because none of the fears were realized: there is no shortage of lies, smut, and darkness in printed and spoken word.  But the beautiful chaos of an open marketplace for ideas is of immeasurably more value than whatever ills would be curbed by censorship.

John Milton famously argued against the laws of Imprimatur in his amazing work Areopagitica.  Though a devout Christian, Milton understood that unleashing the dynamic messiness of free speech was the best policy.  He said this of an open marketplace in ideas and even dangerous doctrines,

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and falsehood grapple; who ever knew truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

The same is true of free and open markets in everything, including goods and labor.  It is true, we don’t know what a world of open borders would look like.  It would be messy, and at times uncomely.  So is free speech.  So are some grocery stores.  Would we prefer state run food production and distribution?

Years ago, when I began to see the failure of every bad argument I tried for immigration restrictions, I was left with a serious gut check.  Why did I want so desperately for there to be a sound argument against the free movement of people?  Often this urge is attributed to racism.  I think it was actually something different, and much broader and more programmed into most of us.  I was not a racist, but a stasist.

Virginia Postrel’s book, The Future and It’s Enemies awakened me to this reality.  I feared the unknown of dynamism.  I wanted to preserve the status quo, even if it was a known evil, rather than to face the unknown of genuine immigration freedom.  What if the neighborhood changes?  What if the economy changes?  What if the radio stations sound different?  Surely they will.  So what.

In the end, you can’t stop change.  You can either embrace it in all its risk and glory or fight a losing battle against it.  Do the former, and you might be able to keep the process as open as possible and mitigate the damage of over-aggressive iconoclasm.  Do the latter and you’ll be bitter and closed off to the ever evolving beauty of humanity.

Being an individual within a decentralized, cooperative, spontaneously evolving society is a bold and dangerous thing.  The only thing scarier is the alternative.