The 180

Erasing political borders: A fix for global poverty?

How many Syrian refugees should we allow into Canada? How many immigrants is the right amount? These can be topics of great debate, but economist Alex Tabarrok has a better idea: get rid of borders.
A Syrian refugee runs after entering Hungary from Serbia through a barbed wire fence, on the border near Roszke, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. (AP/Darko Bandic)

As politicians campaign for votes, and refugees pour in Europe, there has been much discussion about just how many immigrants, and refugees, Canada should accept. But Alex Tabarrok says we don't need a number-- he says we should just open the borders. 

In fact, the economics professor says the world would be a better place if all borders disappeared, and people could move freely around the world: "What I want to see is to allow more choice, to allow people to move, allowed to choose which are the places which best fit with their goals, and their desires."

Tabarrok says it's a moral issue, but also an economic one. He joined Jim Brown this week to explain. Here is an excerpt from that conversation: 

Beyond the moral case, how would removing borders make the world better? 

Economists have looked at this question, and what they calculate is that if we removed all of these barriers, that world GDP would actually double. That means twice the economic output of the world, not just in one year but in every year going forward. So looking around the world today, this is not just a big moral failing, it's actually our greatest economic opportunity as well. 

What would drive that huge climb in GDP?

It's actually pretty intuitive if you think about it. You take a poor person from Haiti, for example, and you simply move them to a developed country such as the United States or Canada, and their wages go up a tremendous amount-- double, triple, five times, sometimes even go up as much as ten times. So there's a huge economic gain from taking a labourer from where their labour has low value, and moving that person to where their labour has high value.

So the labourer would benefit. Who else would benefit if borders were removed? 

So there's no question that the immigrants gain a huge amount from immigration, but the residents of the developed world also benefit as well. There's plenty of jobs here,  there's plenty of room for mutually beneficial trade. The example I think about is sort of the absurd example: you go to the supermarket, and what do you see? You see these self-checkout lanes. So we've invested all of this money in computers, and scanners, and so forth, so that people can self-checkout, while at the same time, there are millions of people in the developing world who are not only capable of doing these jobs, they would really desire to do these jobs. Indeed, we see the refugee situation in Europe, there are actually thousands of people who are literally dying, drowning, in the Mediterranean in order to do these jobs. 

But what about the argument that we'd simply be opening the borders in order to bring people here, desperate people here, to do the jobs that we don't want to do? 

Well, that's exactly the benefit, so I don't think that's a negative at all! Now I will say this: it is true that if we had more open borders that we would see more poverty in Canada, or in the United States. But here's the thing: we would see more poverty, but at the present that poverty is even worse and it's overseas. But out of sight, and maybe out of mind, is not out of morality. So when we bring people in, when we allow people to come in, we will see more poverty but there will actually be much less poverty in the world. So I don't think that it's right for us to say, "well just because I don't want to see it, just because it makes me feel a little bit off, I don't want to see poverty," that we should actually try and eliminate poverty. In fact, immigration is the greatest anti-poverty program ever devised.

This transcript is an excerpt. Press the play button above to hear the complete interview.