Thoughts on Freedom by Donald J. Boudreaux
Donald Boudreaux is chairman of the economics
department of George Mason University and former president of FEE.
America should re-open its borders to immigrants.
Not until 1924 did the government generally limit the number of people who could
come to America and make it their home. If America’s borders had been closed,
say, a century earlier, the civilization that we now call “American” would not
exist. The Irish, Germans, Italians, Scandinavians, central and eastern Europeans,
and many Asians arrived here in bulk during the nineteenth century. Most would
have been turned away under the restrictive regime followed since 1924.
When I talk with people about immigration, everyone agrees that the open-borders
policy of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries was a great
boon to America. Without it, we would today be unimaginably poorer and less vibrant.
So I then ask: If open borders in the past generated enormous benefits, why not
open our borders today? I always get the same answer: “Times change. America had
more room and resources then. We could then absorb immigrants better than we can
Room for Immigrants
Since 1820 the years that witnessed the greatest influx of immigrants as a proportion
of America’s population were the early and mid-1850s, when annual immigration
was about 1.6 percent of the resident population. This figure was approached again
in the 1880s and during the first decade of the twentieth century. Today, annual
immigration is about 0.25 percent of the resident population—less than one-sixth
its level during the first half of the 1850s, and about one-sixth its level during
much of the 1880s and the first decade of the twentieth century. (Some people
argue that illegal immigrants are undercounted today. Taking the largest estimate
I’ve seen of uncounted illegal immigrants, total annual immigrants as a proportion
of the U.S. population today would be 1.25 percent of the resident population.
While likely overblown, accepting this figure as accurate means that, as a percent
of the resident population, immigration today remains well below that of any of
the peak years of the past.)
What about our ability to “absorb” these—and even more—immigrants?
An important element of the ability to absorb is living space. Americans today
enjoy record levels of residential living space. For example, in 1915, the typical
dwelling in America housed 5.63 people; today it houses fewer than half of that
number—2.37 people. Combined with the fact that the square-footage of today’s
typical dwelling is, on the most conservative estimate, 20 percent greater than
it was a century ago, our ability to “absorb” immigrants into our residential
living spaces is today more than twice what it was during the era of open borders.
What about land? Contrary to a widely mistaken belief, the amount of land devoted
to urban and suburban uses is a tiny percentage of America’s land (even excluding
largely unsettled Alaska). While such land use has grown significantly during
the past century, today it is at most about 3 percent of the land area of the
lower 48 states. (The 3 percent figure is an overestimate because, since about
1960, cities have increasingly incorporated lands that remain largely rural in
character but that are classified as “urban.”)
And since at least 1950, the amount of land devoted to public recreation uses
and to wildlife refuges has increased faster than has the amount of land devoted
to urban and suburban uses. Today, the land area devoted to national and state
parks, and to wildlife refuges, is more than seven times greater than it was in
1900. America is nowhere close to being crowded.
Also, we’re much better able to feed ourselves today, even though the amount of
land used to grow crops and to pasture animals is no larger now than in 1900.
Extraordinary increases in agricultural productivity enable American farmers and
ranchers to produce vastly more output on the same amount of land. For example,
each acre planted with wheat today produces three times more output than it did
a century ago. Similar, and even greater, productivity increases have occurred
for nearly all other agricultural products. This productivity explosion is reflected
in a much more abundant food supply and lower food prices.
Immigrants, of course, come to America not only to consume but also to work. A
measure of our ability to “absorb” workers is capital invested per worker—the
amount of machinery and other tools in place for workers to use. Today, the amount
of capital invested per worker is more than nine times greater than in 1880 and
about 8.5 times greater than in 1924. Because a worker’s productivity rises when
he has more capital to work with and his pay is tied closely to his productivity,
workers entering the American economy today produce and earn more than workers
entering during the open-borders era.
Don’t lose sight of our labor market’s great flexibility. It easily absorbed the
massive increase of women workers during the second half of the twentieth century.
Over this time, 46 million jobs were created for women, which is more than half
of the 80 million jobs created during that same time.
In many other ways, America today is far better able than in the past to absorb
more immigrants. For example, compared to 1920, per person today we:
• have greater than ten times more miles of paved roads;
• have more than twice as many physicians;
• have 50 percent more dentists;
• have almost three times as many teachers;
• have 540 percent more police officers;
• have twice as many firefighters;
• produce 2.4 times more oil—as known reserves of oil grow;
• produce 2.67 times more cubic feet of lumber—as America’s supply of lumber stands
• have conquered most of the infectious diseases that were major killers in the
The fact is America today is much wealthier, healthier, spacious, and resource-rich
than it was a century ago. And we owe many of these advances to the creativity
and effort of immigrants. If open immigration worked until 1924 to enrich America,
it can do so now with even greater certainty. Let’s welcome more immigrants so
that they can help themselves, and us, build even better lives.
*My principal data sources for this article are Julian L. Simon,
ed., The State of Humanity (Blackwell, 1995), and Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate
Resource 2 (Princeton University Press, 1996), as well as various U.S. Census