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  • Maria Matskevich

Interview with Bryan Caplan: An economist's take on open borders, discrimination, and COVID-19.

When you pick up a book and get captivated by its contents, you may get curious about the author and their background. How did they come to creating this? What do they think about related matters? What advice can they share? If you’re curious enough - you Google them, and after perusing their online presence - you move on. You may consider reaching out to them, but never in a million years do you think they’ll actually reply. Well, I’m here to tell you - some do respond, and within less than 2 hours of your email being sent.

To launch this project, I couldn’t think of anyone better to interview than someone who’s spent a large portion of his career exploring the relationship between open borders and their implications. So, within days of sending out an email to an author of a book that touched so close to home, I got to jump on a Skype call with Bryan Caplan to talk about his book, freedom of movement, and his thoughts on COVID-19. Mr. Caplan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, author of Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, and one of the world’s leading advocates of free migration. I invite you to discover the full interview below, maybe grab a cup of tea and get comfortable - it may look like a long read, but I promise you there are great insights along the way.

Disclaimer: The following interview took place on March 13th, when the Coronavirus situation hasn’t progressed as far as it has today. As the pandemic status develops rapidly, some answers relate more to what was going on back then as opposed to now. 



What prompted you to dive into the subject of open borders?


I first started thinking about the issue around 1990, when I was just learning economics and economic policy. That was when I learned that immigration restrictions are just like another trade barrier, just another form of reactionism. And that made sense to me. But I didn’t think much about it for a long time. It was only when I started blogging in around 2005 that I started reading more of the research on the subject. Soon it became clear that it wasn’t just another trade restriction.

It’s THE trade restriction, the most important one by far, out of all existing ones on earth, because it’s a strict regulation of an essential good - human labor. 

The more I read, the more I realized that this is the best example of a destructive regulation that exists on earth right now. So that got me very motivated to start thinking about it more and after about ten years working on the subject, I thought - I really should do this as a book. So, that's where I ended up.


Article 1 of the Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings are born free and equal. As is evident with immigration laws – this isn't the case. People are discriminated against based upon the country where they were born, which they have no control over. Would you agree that the declaration is "outdated" and needs to be revised? Why do you think the United Nations doesn't pursue this new policy more aggressively?


Well, the original U.N. agreement on human rights was always a ridiculous farce full of hypocrisy. The Soviet Union signed it, so what can that possibly mean?! If the Soviet Union signs your declaration of Human Rights, it essentially means "We will do whatever we feel like, we'll call that human rights and see." It doesn't mean the agreement is useless, so of course, you could think about going and revising the document and building it out, but the reality is - almost all countries want to keep things the way they are. They want to say that they believe in human equality while treating people unequally. 

So, I think it's more symbolic than anything else, but even this hypocrisy, now and then, ends up doing some good.  


Would you go as far as to say that discrimination based on a person's country of origin (as is with immigration laws) is, at its core, the same as discrimination based on gender or race? 


Of course! Actually, it's worse because people don't care about it.

Logically, discriminating based on a person's country of origin is just as bad, but in practice, it's much worse because most people don't think it's the same.

You know, it's the same principle - I didn't choose to be this way, to be born here or there, so why am I being mistreated?


In your book, you talk about "keyhole" solutions, which can be a sort of compromise and significant steps towards fully open borders. One of them, against crime worry, is to exclude individuals with criminal records. This works in truly democratic countries where justice exists, but when applied to non-democratic countries, where many charges and criminal records are motivated by politics – even highly skilled, "suitable," individuals would be turned away. So, my question is, that while this policy would still be significantly better than current immigration controls – do you think the described situation might occur? And – do you know how to deal with it?


So, in the U.S., we have a long history of letting people in that were imprisoned in totalitarian countries like the Soviet Union. So the system was, at least in the past, functional enough to realize that people who are detained by the Soviet government are not really criminals. We weren't worried about them doing horrible things because harm was actually done to them. 

What I meant in the book was the focus on violent criminals. I'm trying to bargain with people. If the majority prefers only to keep violent criminals out - let's do that, and for those who are in prison for political reasons - have a unique asylum process.

My view is - the best thing is to just let everybody in and focus on the problems afterward.

But if the people are not going to buy that, then I'd rather try to make the most moderate compromise I can. If it comes down to either letting in no one or letting in only those who have never been to prison - alright. Let's just let in the people who've never been in jail, it's still better than what we have now. 


Due to coronavirus, many countries are almost closing their borders or at least sending all arriving people to quarantine. Those opposing the Open borders may use this situation and raise a new argument – immigration and Open borders trigger epidemics. What would you answer to them?


I would say that, well, maybe yes. We've got to be honest - maybe open borders would trigger pandemics. Now we're seeing countries limiting travel within them as well, so it's a huge illustration. However, I would also say that this kind of thing happens once every hundred years, and it's not a reasonable basis for a long-term policy. 

At the same time, as I say in the book, I'm not an absolutist. So if limiting travel for a couple of months saves millions of lives, I think that's reasonable. Right? But then, we can also turn it around and say - if what you're doing does not save millions of lives or even thousands of lives, then it's unreasonable. People have to realize that things have to get very bad before mobility gets limited within their countries.

And you know why? Because this measure is very oppressive. It's very harmful. I think that the current situation gives us an illustration of how bad the restrictions usually are. You know, people who defend free trade sometimes say, "You know what happens to a country during the war? When ports get blockaded? That's what you're trying to do during peacetime for no reason." We can use a similar argument and point to how the economy is plummeting right now when there's little freedom of movement. With current policies, we're limiting movement during "normal" times as well, thus damaging the economy by not making the most of the human labor market.


What would you like to say to the opposers of open borders who may be reading this right now?


I would probably focus on the central argument of the book, which is that immigration restrictions trap enormous amounts of valuable human labor in unproductive countries, which doesn't just impoverish them, it impoverishes the world to democratize people.

Just imagine - what would you be able to do if you had to spend your whole life in Czechoslovakia? What would you be able to accomplish there? What could you contribute to humankind if you were stuck in Tajikistan? That's when people start to realize that there are hundreds of people stuck in such countries right now. And not only is it a cruel thing to do to them, but you're depriving humankind of all it could accomplish. So that's the argument that I think is intellectually the most powerful and the most surprising for people. You generally just don't think about there being a loss as we have this very zero-sum view of the world. But when you ask them to imagine that the person that would have cured human aging is in Tajikistan - suddenly, people start to get it. 

I would also be inclined to appeal to someone's conscience. Like, why is it OK to mistreat people? Because they're born in the wrong country? It's not OK to mistreat them because of race or gender, and this is no different. 

But, honestly, the best way forward is to be a great ambassador for your views. Talk to people in the friendliest way possible. Be friendly. Treat everyone as if they're your friend. You have to ask yourself - what's more important, my ideas, or my pride? My pride says that if you're mean to me, I'll be mean to you, but if you're trying to put forward your ideas, then you swallow the pride and be kind in return. Sure, it's painful, it's bitter like eating dirt. But I feel like if you care about the ideas - then you will eat dirt for the idea.


What would you encourage those passionate about the topic to do to spread awareness and generate results?


First, I'd have to say, be friendly. Second, be friendly. And so on. I say this, but I am aware that it's not easy. I need this advice more than anyone. It's not my natural inclination, but I'm convinced that that's the way forward.

Another suggestion, while it may seem self-serving, but give kids my book. Give it to curious kids. Young kids have read my book and enjoyed it and got a lot out of it. That's the age when they're most persuadable. Teens as well. But with older people - it's harder to change their minds. That's why I put a lot of focus on a book that young people could not only read quickly but also enjoy it. 

And lastly, you may look at the world and see how successful terrible liars are in politics and media, and you may conclude that you've got to fall to their level. But I discourage doing that because,

in the long run, you do stand out by being very honest and conscientious. You stand out by being friendly.

If all you want to do is be famous, then be a charismatic jerk, but if you're going to spread your message, then you need something very different. You need to try to talk to other people like human beings and reach out to them to find common ground. 


This interview is part of a series on The Freedom of Movement Project. To discover more insights from people affected by the current immigration laws and to learn about the concept of open borders and freedom of movement - stay tuned on our website and let us know in the comments what YOU think about this subject.

You can discover Bryan Caplan’s work here: 




Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration:

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