Thought Experiment: What If the U.S. Had 100% Open Borders?

Open borders would lead to a massive wave of immigration and probably the collapse of American constitutional democracy...though one economist says that's not a bad thing.

Economist Nathan Smith has long been a supporter of the U.S. opening its borders. He's argued that the American polity would "endure and flourish" if it elected to lay out 2,000 miles of welcome mats rather than building a Trumpian wall. He's claimed that unencumbered movement of peoples from land to land would result in worldwide GDP doubling, though not without some serious social destabilization. Still, he predicted the U.S. could handle an influx of 150-200 million immigrants over a span of several decades.


Smith wrote again on the topic of open borders a couple weeks ago in a piece that plays out like a giant thought experiment. Smith's hypothetical situation: If all borders were opened and 1 billion people immigrated to the United States over the course of 50 years, could the country maintain its "political character and structure"? Smith thinks not. He spends the length of the piece exploring in-depth situations in which constitutional democracy would likely erode if the U.S. were tasked with governing tons of new people. Likening this hypothetical bloated America to the empires of Rome and the UK, Smith argues that the eventual form of government would straddle the line between the authoritarianism of the former and the improvisational approach of the latter.

Law enforcement, public schooling, higher education: All these things would struggle beneath the weight of a suddenly larger populace. As groups of people would likely self-segregate within this new America, organized government would probably empower sects of each community to maintain law and order. Certain ideas and values we perceive to be chiefly American (one person, one vote, as an example) would likely be abandoned: 

"Certain American ideals would die of their own increasing impracticality, e.g., “equality of opportunity,” the social safety net, one person, one vote, or non-discrimination in employment. Americans might continue to feel that these ideals were right long after they had ceased to be practiced, as the Romans seemed to feel that Rome ought to be governed by its senate long after real governance had passed to the emperors...

If open borders included open voting, US political institutions would be overhauled very quickly as political parties reinvented themselves to appeal to the vast immigrant masses, but I’ll assume the vote would be extended gradually so that native-born Americans (including many second-generation immigrants) would always comprise a majority of the electorate. This would put an end to majority rule, for a large fraction, likely a majority, of the resident population would lack votes."

Smith's piece (linked again below) is well worth a read simply because it's so darned interesting to run the simulation in your mind of how American society would react to such an extreme situation. What's most interesting is how Smith conjures a scenario out of which American constitutional democracy becomes so destabilized that it collapses beneath its own weight. We'd be looking at a new world order and an American polity unrecognizable compared to the present. For many people, that might sound like a reason to scrap a 100 percent open-border policy. Smith is not one of those people. He's got a bone to scrap with American politics and wouldn't mind it turning into collateral damage amidst the rush of a brave new society:

"Modern constitutional law is a lot like the Catholic Church’s theology of indulgences in the 15th and early 16th centuries. It makes very little sense, and every critical thinker more or less feels that it’s a disgraceful travesty, but people are afraid to challenge it as aggressively as reason demands, because it underpins the order of society. Reams and libraries are dedicated to rationalizing it, precisely because it’s rationally indefensible, yet is a crucial currency of power. And yes, I’d like to see modern constitutional law immolated in a kind of Lutheran Reformation, and would gladly pay a high price in chaos to see the dragon slain."

Personally, I think that's more than a little crazy, but I'll leave it for you to decide how you feel about Smith's idea.

Read more at Open Borders.

A segue: One of the key social problems with an open-border policy — simplified into common terms — is that humans are dumb people who believe dumb things. Rather than being accepting of people and things that are different, we latch on to feelings of tribalism and nativism enforced by facile conclusions built upon stereotypes. George Takei brings up a good example of this in the video below:

Photo credit: cscredon / iStock

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