In a sign that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme, Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders once again stated his opposition to open borders, a position that provoked some criticism on the online left in 2016, and is doing so now as well:
In 2016, Sanders called open borders a “Koch brothers” idea, which as I wrote at the time, it sort of is — the intellectual networks that promote such an idea are on the right-libertarian part of the spectrum, some of them funded by the Kochs.
This time around, Sanders is basically arguing that if you have a completely open border with unlimited immigration, you will not be able to sustain a welfare state or decent economy for folks already here in the U.S. Which, of course, is true. There is no country in the world with a robust welfare state and open borders. Unlimited competition would decimate parts of the American middle class, whose wages are essentially inflated by the border, which is an economic barrier.
In fact, the only mainstream think tank I am aware of which advocates for a completely open border is the Cato Institute, which is indeed a Koch-funded libertarian-right think tank. This isn’t an insult — we recently had a great Cato Institute researcher on my podcast, Extremely Offline — it’s just a fact that the labor-left does not and has never supported open borders. That’s the Sanders tradition.
Cato also wants to see no minimum wage — not only do they want to eliminate the federal minimum wage, they want Congress to prohibit local and state governments from establishing their own minimum wages. They are hardcore enough about preventing any sort of market or efficiency barrier that they are straight up throwing federalism out the window.
The left, on the other hand, generally supports market barriers. They love unions, for instance, which inflate wages by limiting the supply of labor. Unlimited immigration and no borders — the free movement of capital and labor across the lines of nation-states — would increase competition, lower prices, and lower wages. That’s not the left’s agenda.
So why is it folks at Vox and Splinter have opposing views? My guess is that they are rooted in a different type of ideology, which is not about economics. Their philosophy is based on multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. These are values that most people in the U.S. share to some extent — this is probably the most pro-immigration country on planet Earth — but most Americans do hold some nationalistic ideas, especially people from lower-class backgrounds.. For instance, we know that white liberals tend to be more pro-immigration than people from ethnic minority groups. And we know that anxiety about immigration is a global phenomena, that is not limited to any racial group or nationality.
The new liberal upper class does not view immigration as a threat to their livelihoods — they view it as providing cultural and social enrichment. The view is very different for most Americans, who by and large support immigration but do not support open borders.
If 80 percent of Americans do not support open borders, as polling shows, and Sanders is taking that position, he is simply being a normal left populist — someone who takes the position of the majority of the people. That’s democracy. He isn’t an elitist, which is the position taken by writers at Vox, Splinter, and the Cato Institute.