Only a few weeks ago, I encouraged Bryan Caplan–one of the leaders of the “Open Borders” movement–to pick a different slogan for his position. I recommended instead the slogan “Privatize the Borders!” because that (a) more accurately represented the true libertarian position and (b) it wouldn’t scare the heck out of regular Americans the way “Open Borders” would. With the recent Ebola scare, I have to say that my point has already been vindicated. In a post today at EconLog, Bryan himself threw in the towel (without seeming to realize it) and admitted that he’s not committed to open borders, after all.
In his post, Bryan first brought up the fact that opponents of immigration have jumped on the Ebola situation as a trump card–with one wiseguy inventing the hashtag #LibertariansForEbola to twist the knife. But the thing is, Bryan admits that the wiseguy is right: a true “Open Borders” policy might invite a mass outbreak of Ebola in the United States, at least in the short run, and so Bryan himself admits he would consider departing from Open Borders if that were the case. Here is Bryan in his own words:
From a long-term perspective, the effect of open borders on Ebola is anything but awful. Open borders is the greatest remedy for poverty ever discovered….If you want to eliminate serious contagious diseases like Ebola during the next few decades, open borders is probably the best way to do it.
…Under full open borders, however, West Africans could enter the U.S. as easily as Virginians enter Maryland. There is every reason to think that hundreds of thousands of people from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone would jump at the opportunity. And while most would be healthy, a sizable minority would be infected – possibly so many that existing U.S. health facilities would be unable to safely isolate them. Health workers’ risk of catching Ebola from their patients amplifies this scarcity – for every doctor or nurse who catches Ebola, how many others will refuse to expose themselves to the disease?
Fortunately, only mild departures from full open borders are necessary to avert this scary scenario. The obvious keyhole solution: Instead of freely admitting everyone from affected countries, freely admit everyone from affected countries who provides a clean bill of health and accepts a standard 21-day quarantine. [Underlining added.]
I think this episode proves my original point pretty clearly: When push comes to shove, not even Bryan believes his own slogan; he doesn’t actually support “Open Borders,” because he realizes–like most Americans–that it would be a nutty policy.
It’s unfortunate that Bryan marched a bunch of immigration supporters into a cul-de-sac with a poorly chosen slogan. His critics are now (unjustifiably) laughing at the fact that Ebola has demolished the “Open Borders” position, thinking that they were right all along. (To be crystal clear, I agree with virtually everything Bryan argues in his standard case for the free movement of labor without federal government restriction–I just think calling it “Open Borders” is a terrible label.)
Obviously, the biggest tragedy in all of this is the poor people who have been infected. But as far as the political impacts, this whole episode is tragic because it should have been a wonderful teaching moment to show Americans why placing their faith in the federal government is such folly. (That’s how Jeff Tucker has been commenting on the unfolding tragicomedy of the CDC, TSA, etc.) But by setting up a nonsense goal of “Open Borders,” Bryan and those who embraced that slogan fed into the popular idea that only government can keep “undesirables” out of society.
A free society could handle quarantines, as I argued on these pages in August, and it would do so much more effectively and sensibly than the State. My claims should now ring truer to the ear, as Americans have just seen firsthand that government officials are incompetent liars when it comes to infectious diseases, just as with everything else they touch. There’s nothing magical about employees of the State, giving them special abilities to explore space, provide justice, or contain epidemics.
When libertarians oppose government-run roads and schools, it is only the most ignorant statist who argues that they therefore must be against transportation and education. By the same token, when libertarians oppose government-orchestrated border controls and quarantines, they should be crystal clear that a free society could provide these mechanisms if necessary, yet in voluntary ways that do not violate property rights.
As the Ebola scare has now made crystal clear, the term “Open Borders” should be abandoned. It is as unhelpful as “No Schools” would be in discussions of educational policy.