Also: Free Migration

Freisinnige Zeitung
5 min readDec 10, 2017


One more topic to add to my list of what I will blog about here is free migration (or in German: Freizügigkeit). You could also call it “open borders,” but I have become somewhat disenchanted with the term because it puts a mistaken stress on what happens at the border. My position is not that you must not have any control over who enters the country, but that people are free to migrate. Since hardly anyone can live on their savings, being free to live somewhere means that you are also free to work there.

This does not preclude, for example, border checks or that specific people are kept out of the country for good reason. Citizens of a country can freely migrate within its borders (now, before 1867 that was not so in Germany!). But that would not apply for someone who is in prison or who is under a restraining order.

I don’t think that border checks would make a lot of sense with free migration as is also the case within countries. But I would not rule out that there might be situations where it could be different. One example I can think of is during a war. So to insist on no border checks, ie. “open borders” in an extremely literal sense, is besides the point in my view. Most people I know who call their position “open borders” would probably agree with me. Hence my quibble is about terminology, not content.

What’s in the background is another book project of mine. I have a broad sketch of what I want to write about, but blogging might be a first step to fleshing it out. While I think the topic is very important, I have suspended my work for the time being. I think this is anyway long term, even very long term. And it depends on whether we solve some imminent problems first, and before all and to use a five-letter word: Trump.

The general thrust of my argument is this:

Free migration is just and it is also possible in this world. “Possible” here means not an abstract possibility, but that its consequences if realized are acceptable. I don’t think it is necessary or even plausible to make an argument that free migration would work miracles or that immigrants are better people. There may be downsides and upsides. On the whole it would be good, and the downsides would at worst be modest.

The world is very far from free migration and has been so for a long time. That’s why it should be a rather large change. Many people would move and that can also lead to risks that are at least plausible. My conclusion is that you need a gradual transition that could be quite long: decades or even a century. It would also have to be an effort by many countries. A single one, like Germany, cannot do it. Maybe the US alone could, but maybe not even the US. If the transition is slow enough and in a certain way, I would argue that conceivable risks are small, even marginal.

One apprehension with the idea of free migration that many people have is that it would be overwhelming and a big gamble. However, if it is gradual, the effort to get to free migration is actually astonishingly modest. Roughly immigration to developed countries of 1% of the current population per year or a little more would do the trick.

You have to compare this to 0.3% immigration now for the US or the EU. While it is a tripling or a quadrupling versus the status quo — so at first glance a big change — it is not that extraordinary. It would be safely in a range that we have historical and contemporary experience with. The US had about 0.9% annual immigration from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, often a lot more. Canada has immigration at about such levels now, Sweden or Germany have had them at times.

So this would not be a utopian experiment where you just have to jump into the blue, but limited reform that itself can be phased in gradually. If it turned out that there are unforeseen problems, you could stop or reverse it at any time. As above: a single country cannot go it alone. But I would argue that each country should abide by a categorical imperative: You have to do what would lead to the outcome if all countries did it. It is no reason not to do it that you cannot obtain the result alone. That’s just like you should not kill someone even if that does not mean that homicide will cease to exist in the world because of it.

The effects of such a gradual transition would be very moderate over the short run. There are some common misconceptions how immigration works and how it affects a receiving country that I will try to tackle. However, over the long run — think: a century — the effect would be quite large. Population in developed countries, assuming that none catch up with them, might easily triple, quadruple or rise even more.

Apart from the inherent justice of free migration, I would argue that people in free countries have a strategic interest to see their population grow. It is much better for the world if there are three or four billion people in free countries than less than a billion. We are stronger for it. And it might make the difference between a world where the free countries are on the way out and a world that might be all free if the free world is strong enough. Putin hates immigration to the free world for a reason.

Or think about this: If the US had had no immigration after the founding of the Republic, as some in the US now think would have been a good idea, it would have a population about the size of France: not over 300 million, but only about 60 million. Try to imagine how world history would have evolved in that scenario. And yes, I think, while there is a lot to criticize about US foreign policy over time, on the whole the US has been a tremendous force for good in the world. My family is from the American occupation zone in Germany, and if you think about occupation by another country, if it is the US, I would strongly recommend it.

Now since the transition to free migration might take very long — half a century would already be optimistic, a century is more realistic — the situation is suboptimal with only partially free migration in the meantime. That’s why I would combine it with temporary migration, which can mitigate some of this. There are also tricky questions about how to handle humanitarian objectives, eg. for political refugees or refugees from wars or civil wars. Should immigrants be on track for citizenship (yes!) and how would that work? What’s the impact on welfare states? Would so much immigration change the culture (not really) or even corner the current language (no way!)?

I will develop my ideas on all this in further posts. One more reason to stay tuned …