Bryan Caplan  

Are Immigrants "Ordinary People"?

Mankiw's Got Class... Interviewed on Health Care...

A while back I polemically asked, "Are low-skilled Americans the master race?" The targets of my ridicule called me an elitist. But my elitism is nothing compared to this gem from Dennis Mangan:

All of his [Mankiw's] academic theorizing about immigration or indeed about larger economic issues cannot be informed by a direct knowledge of the way these things affect ordinary people.

Query: Are impoverished foreigners "ordinary people"?

If they are, then the typical American has no direct knowledge of the way these things affect "ordinary people" either. What does an American burger-flipper know about the plight of the rural Mexican or Haitian refugee?

If they're not, I'd like to know why. Is it because immigrants are extraordinary people? Or is it because, as far as opponents of immigration are concerned, impoverished foreigners don't qualify as people?

That's more elitism than even a snob like me can stomach.

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COMMENTS (27 to date)
Matt McIntosh writes:

That sound you just heard was the facade of moral vanity cracking and falling, followed by the chirping of crickets in response to Bryan's question.

These people have no shame.

Dog of Justice writes:

There is a question of responsibility here. Normally, the US government is primarily responsible to US citizens, and the Mexican government is primarily responsible to Mexican citizens. Theoretically, this results in more responsiveness than a single government ruling both territories.

The trouble is, what should be done when the Mexican government is obviously irresponsible, and illegal emigration substantially improves the stability of their corrupt system?

I argue that if we really care about the welfare of the Mexican people, we should think about long-term strategies to improve it even for the folks that remain in Mexico, rather than settle for locally optimizing behavior that guarantees the Mexican government will continue its irresponsibility and imposes a whole host of externalities on US citizens to boot. Closing down their illegal emigration "safety valve" may be part of the best way to accomplish this. This results in an obvious short-term reduction to their utility and only a possible long-term improvement, so it's easy to criticize such a step. But it may nevertheless be correct.

Of course, we can also decide that we aren't fit to solve this problem for them, in which case we obviously should reduce illegal immigration since current patterns are a net detriment to US citizens.

Robert Speirs writes:

The argument is made harder because those who want to argue that all immigrants are noble, hard-working and highly-motivated treat the impoverished rural Mexican who doesn't even read or write Spanish - and maybe didn't even speak it at home - as a Hindoo who speaks English as a first language and has a doctorate in computer science. The easily made distinction that they glide over is that one came here illegally and one legally.

Were foreign governments particularly responsible while immigration was almost entirely closed off in the mid-20th century?

Martin Kelly writes:

Dr. Caplan,

Firstly, Dennis Mangan is my team-mate on my blog. He is an American patriot and a gentleman, and you do my friend a dis-service.

Dennis' question might be put a little more directly. Are Professors Mankiw, Boudreaux, Cowen and yourself subject to lay-off?

Do you go to work fearing that your job will be sent to China to be performed at a fraction of its current cost?

Do you go to work fearing that George Mason will hire an Indian economist on a H-1B visa? And that you'll have to show them the ropes before Boudreaux fires you?

Is your neighbourhood still quite nice? Or has it turned into an MS-13 rape zone in the last seven years?

What I interpret Dennis as saying is that the fact that you and the rest of The George Mason Gang (who in my humble opinion are a threat to the West on a par with the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party) don't suffer from those kinds of pressures (because you don't) insulates you all from mass migration's harsher realities.

I am probably more familiar with Dennis' work than you are, and for you to suggest that he trades the humanity of immigrants at a discount by using selective quotation and a logical hyperleap of wormhole proportions is beneath your talents. You're cleverer than that.

Clearly, The Sage of Santa Rosa has you on the hoof...

And why should an American burger-flipper know about the plight of Mexicans? He's in America. They're in Mexico.

What's to know?

Nathan Smith writes:

Matt McIntosh's response left me pretty much baffled. Whose moral vanity is cracking and falling? Which people have no shame? If Matt means that the moral vanity of opponents of immigration is cracking and falling, and that they have no shame-- and "crickets are chirping" because Bryan's critique of them is unanswerable-- then, good point. If he means that Bryan's moral vanity is cracking and falling, that Bryan has no shame, and that "crickets are chirping" because Bryan's remarks are so self-evidently absurd that no answer is needed... Well, excuse me, I hope Mr. McIntosh will elaborate, because the absurdity of Bryan's remarks is not at all self-evident. In fact, they're quite cogent.

The bottom line is that the struggle over immigration is really the struggle over the social welfare function. If US policy should take the welfare of immigrants and potential immigrants into account then that pushes us inexorably-- perhaps in a gradualist manner, perhaps with caveats and controls of one kind and another during a transition period, and maybe the transition period could even last a generation or two, but inexorably nonetheless-- towards some kind of open borders policy. If US policy should not take the welfare of immigrants and potential immigrants into account, or, to be more precise, if the "social welfare function" that the US government should try to maximize does not include the welfare of immigrants and potential immigrants, then there may be a case for closed or partially-closed borders as a permanent equilibrium.

For the US government's social welfare function NOT to take into account the welfare of immigrants and potential immigrants seems to me self-evidently amoral. Indeed, one could almost define amorality as an indifference to the welfare of specified groups of people. Any moral philosophy worthy of the name would support something like this proposition. Bryan's rhetoric of the "master race" may seem inflammatory, but Pat Buchanan and Adolf Hitler have both abandoned the moral worldview, having chosen to nullify the rights and humanity of a large portion of their fellow men, and the difference between them is only one of degree. Or perhaps of opportunity.

Dog of Justice writes:

"Were foreign governments particularly responsible while immigration was almost entirely closed off in the mid-20th century?"

We weren't yet a lone superpower, so we just attempted to act in our own self-interest then and let foreign governments sort out their own problems. An argument can be made that now that we're so powerful, we shouldn't be so indifferent.

I'm neutral about that matter for now, preferring to think through the consequences of both preferences and looking for what's invariant.

Dog of Justice writes:

"Matt McIntosh's response left me pretty much baffled. Whose moral vanity is cracking and falling? Which people have no shame? If Matt means that the moral vanity of opponents of immigration is cracking and falling, and that they have no shame-- and 'crickets are chirping' because Bryan's critique of them is unanswerable-- then, good point."

This is, in fact, what Matt was saying.

However, I clearly don't think it was a good point. Among other things, I believe I have answered Bryan's critique.

It may appear to be self-evident that a social welfare function taking potential immigrants into account can only be maximized with an open borders policy, but I think this neglects a lot of the stickier details of human nature. For example, it's quite plausible to me that Japan's policy of preferring robots to low-skilled immigrants does not reduce global utility.

Dog of Justice writes:

"What I interpret Dennis as saying is that the fact that you and the rest of The George Mason Gang (who in my humble opinion are a threat to the West on a par with the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party)"

Okay, this just isn't fair. I'm ashamed that this man is on my side on this issue.

I think Bryan is wrong, but he has clearly been acting in good faith and making a genuine effort to understand why or why not. He's even been doing his best to honestly discuss IQ and genetics.

The fact of the matter is, even the most brilliant people have mental blind spots. Paul Erdos had a lot of difficulty understanding the solution to the relatively simple Monty Hall problem, despite being the most prolific mathematician in history. But with enough effort, including showing him stochastic simulations as well as various mathematical arguments, he was pretty much convinced. The same should be possible with Bryan and immigration -- his brain is open. Or perhaps it is me making the error -- in which case I'd like one of you to show me my error.

We aren't scheming against the West. We're just trying to discover the truth.

Steve Sailer writes:

In 2004, there were 4,976,000,000 human beings who lived in countries with mean per capita GDPs lower than Mexico's. Immigration to the U.S. can't begin to solve the problems of poverty of those five billion. The real solution is internal reform. The Chinese reforms begun in 1978 have lifted more people out of dire poverty than all the immigration of the 20th Century. In contrast, Mexico's corrupt system remains largely unreformed, in part because immigration to America remains a safety valve allowing the ruling class to continue in comfort.

Steve Sailer writes:

It's ironic that while economists have long warned us to treat skeptically claims that one's policy proposals are motivated by higher morality rather than by self-interest, that valuable lesson apparently isn't supposed to be applied to economists' claim a higher morality for themselves.

The unfortunate reality is that in this world of trade-offs and limited knowledge and rationality, true universalism is probably beyond human moral and intellectual capabilities (unless we were attacked, as Ronald Reagan pointed out to the UN in 1988, by space aliens). When people tell you that they are favoring some policy because they are valuing every individual in the world equally, you can be fairly sure that they are valuing their own interests above yours.

In my judgment, the best we are capable of is citizenism. Just as private property works better than joint ownership under self-appointed moral visionaries, so does patriotic citizenism work better than the alternatives.

To learn more about citizenism, see

Tom West writes:

Without specifying an opinion on the immigration question, I will say that if Bryan is looking for reasons why people *don't* look to economists to be political leaders or policy providers, he has may have provided a perfect one here.

If his claim that economists don't place much value on the citizenship per se is correct, then it seems unlikely in the extreme that one would want them representing your interests, as by Bryan's claim they are among the least likely to value their constituents' interests over others.

Gordon Mohr writes:

Immigration can "begin to solve the problems of poverty of those five billion" -- for the millions who can and should move to better regimes. That counts for something.

I am deeply skeptical of the idea that immigration to the US is a major factor propping up bad regimes. What's North Korea's "safety valve", or Cuba's for that matter? It is not always the case that making things worse wakes a regime up to its problems. (I am reminded of Caplan's hypothesized "Idea Trap".)

Emmigration from bad regimes does cause a brain drain, but also sends resources and ideas back -- perhaps most important among those the idea that things could be better.

I would be highly surprised to find that emigration to the US (or in general) is negatively correlated with domestic reform in lagging states. Anyone have the data to surprise me?

Steve Sailer writes:

Off the top of my head, here are some countries that send a sizable percentage of their populations to America:

El Salvador
Dominican Republic
Cape Verde
South Korea

Although there are exceptions, that's not a very impressive list of reforming countries.

John S Bolton writes:

Prospective immigrants do not enjoy the benefit of the doubt; it needs to be known that they're not hostile. We owe loyalty to our fellow national when he is attacked by foreigners coming in on net public subsidy. The nation cannot mean less than that our loyalty is to the net taxpayer here, to defend him against the foreign aggressor.
For a foreigner to come in on net public subsidy, taken from our fellow citizens, is a hostile act in itself, by those immigrants. It means being accessory to treason, a capital offense. A foreigner who does that is not to be regarded as ordinary people, but, by the law, as in a subhuman punishable category.
This is also demonstrated by what happens to someone who steps on a landmine at the border, while crossing illegally. He is killed in the same way as an animal, and there is no way to say that his rights were violated by a national defense facility.
Therefore, necessarily, foreigners approaching in hostile manner are not ordinary people with the same rights as citizens. Anarchists may believe that there could still be rights without government, and such that a magical one-world stateless disorder is rational to believe possible, but why should anyone else?

Steve Sailer writes:

What's fascinating is how economists suddenly turn into utopians when the topic becomes immigration.

do writes:

That, and the fact they're suddenly willing to give a pass to stunningly bad arguments. The above post borders on the incoherent -- making sense of it requires some pretty labor intensive unpacking on the reader's part, and I, for one, don't have that kind of time. Gordon Mohr's point in comments, by contrast, isn't incoherent; it's simply foolish. Gordon: Steve's claim is not that bad regimes are CREATED by immigration. It is that already existing bad regimes often find promoting immigration a convenient way of remaining bad.

Try imagining it as a Venn diagram if that helps you get your head around things...

Gordon Mohr writes:

Sailer's list of countries is not very impressive, true, but it's not very convincing, either. It's not obviously worse than world averages.

I'd like to see some smart regressions of emigration rates (to US or anywhere) against positive measures of a country's progress -- either growth in general or other assessments of rights and welfare.

Sailer is arguing from anecdote and personal intuition that outflows of people allow bad governments to stay bad or become worse. Emigration is a "safety valve" for bad regimes, he suggests.

My intuition is exactly opposite: I think when people vote with their feet it increases the ultimate likelihood of domestic reform. To use the examples du jour: haven't the Indian and Chinese diasporas been invaluable in their domestic reforms and opening to the world market? Does Sailer believe these countries would have done better, faster if only more of their people had stayed trapped at home during the darkest years of famine and misgovernment?

Content-free labels like "incoherent" and "foolish" don't help; numbers would.

The analysis won't be easy. There are lags involved and inferences about the direction of influence will be hard to make. (If the populace sees a corrupt tyrant on the fast track to power, and thus rushes for the exits, Sailer might interpret the emigration as a trigger for the worsening government that then follows. I'd see it as an accurate leading indicator, and one that further preserves human potential that might otherwise be irreversibly destroyed by a negative-sum "stay and fight" strategy.)

Ken Andrews writes:

Mr. Sailer says that Canada is one of the countries that sends a "sizeable percentage" of it's population to the US. Might I ask what he considers a "sizeable percentage"? FYI, in 2004 15,567 Canadians moved to the US, while 6,470 Americans moved the other direction, a net flow of 9,097 people to the US. That was 0.028% of our population. Not 2.8%, but 28 thousandths of 1%. Not enough to even half-fill a decent-sized rock concert. Also, what should we be reforming from, or to, for that matter?

Mr. Bolton's comments were, umm, quite... interesting. He said "... We owe loyalty to our fellow national when he is attacked by foreigners coming in on net public subsidy...". The implication is that anyone attempting to immigrate to the US who is not immediately productive is, in effect, attacking the US. I expect, then, that Mr. Bolton is totally against allowing refugees from any country into the US. Refugees, pretty much by definition, aren't bringing anything with them and do not have jobs lined up waiting. Further, with his use of the rather extreme term "attacked", the mind's-eye view of Mr. Bolton waiting on the shore with a .303 for those attacking refugees is... rather disturbing.

Mr. Bolton also said "... For a foreigner to come in on net public subsidy, taken from our fellow citizens, is a hostile act in itself, by those immigrants. It means being accessory to treason, a capital offense. ...". I don't know how to break it to him, but to take something you're not entitled to (whether or not you're a citizen) is theft, not treason. Further, only Americans can perform acts of treason against the US. Foreign citizens and foreign immigrants (prior to them becoming citizens of the US) cannot. I can perform acts of treason against Canada, but it's flatly impossible for me to perform them against the US.

John S Bolton writes:

I said 'accessory to treason' anyway, if one wants to quibble over the application of various legal definitions, which have no difference in effect.
We can't just make immigrants, or refugees, for that matter; turn by definition into those who can do no wrong, who cannot be aggressors.
Refugees, if defined as sacred cows, whose damage is never culpable, but holy even, are not then treated as ordinary people, but as outside the species.
A refugee who steps on landmine in a border noman's land, is still in no exalted special rights-condition. If rational arguments are available for antirestrictionism, why try to endow the refugee with some special emotionally appealing condition, also using pity, and hatred against patriots? Rational argument could say how the refugee has qualities which exempt him from the standards which apply to others. Why is our need for freedom from aggression less important than his, and how can we owe loyalty to foreigners over against their victims here?

Dezakin writes:

John S Bolton:

"Refugees, if defined as sacred cows..."

"no exalted special rights-condition..."

"hatred against patriots..."

"how can we owe loyalty to foreigners..."

I smell jingo.

US immigration does have the advantage of increasing the _total_ US GDP by virtue of increasing the productive population, and thus enhancing the US international political power, which is only set to decline with the rise of India and China over the next half century. A true 'patriot' would seek to maintain international power one might think, but a real jingoist patriot I suppose would try to do it by increasing domestic fertility.

John S Bolton writes:

A country with relatively, or absolutely, declining output per person is not patriotically to be wished-for.
If rational arguments are available for increasing the aggression on the net taxpayer via immigration; why would ad hominem smear terms, such as jingo and chauvinist appear?
Portugal dominated China for centuries; Belgium had the Congo. Britain ruled India, Holland dominated Indonesia. They could do so, because per capita output, either overall, or in certain categories, was much higher.
Each increment of aggression against the net taxpayer makes us weaker; but maybe that is what some would want, who see patriotism as jingoism.

John S Bolton writes:

Also whether our people are better or worse than others, is not even relevant to the question of whether we owe loyalty to those of our countrymen, who are attacked by foreigners here.
Why will no one explain how we can know with sufficient assurance, that immigration cohorts will not increase the aggression on those to whom we owe loyalty?
It remains to be argued how we can owe loyalty to the foreigner over against the citizen.

jaimito writes:

Let me focus on a lateral aspect of immigration, unrelated to the disconfort it is causing to most Americans and the prosperity they bring to the owners of capital.

Porous frontier with Mexico is a main element in the excellent relations between the two countries. The alternative is a fence, which would have to be patrolled and soon it would start causing incidents and "mala sangre" ("bad blood"). The correlative persecution of Mexican illegals in the US and their expulsion would spoil America's relations with its Southern neighbors.

Relations were never so idyllic as they are today, which is a great political achievement of successive American governments. But there is deep undercurrent of antiamericanism that is only waiting to explode. Chavez and that Bolivian coca-grower expropiator are only the tip of the iceberg. Unthought actions could really provoke the emergence of a redivist movement of occupied land that was conquered in war and has to be "returned" (knowing the United Nations, as we do in Israel, they would vote 250 to 3 against the US. The 3 would be the US, Israel and Micronesia).

According to game theory, America's current leadership is due to be challenged by a coalition that believes that its combined power is superior to America's. The European Union's challenge seems to have failed for now, but others are to be expected. It is good to have friends down there.

Nothing is simple and easy, amigos.

JS writes:


Relations between the two countres' elites are indeed "idyllic." The same cannot be said for how regular Americans view regular Mexicans, and vice-versa. You admit as much when you point to the "deep undercurrent of antiamericanism" and "bad blood" simmering among Latin Americans.

America's open borders policy, by your own admission , have coincided with intensifying hatred of the U.S. among Latin Americans. If relations between the two countries are your primary concern, shouldn't we reverse course?

JS writes:

In order to define "regular" people, American or not, here's a litmus test: Do you scrub your own toilet?

If you can answer yes, you're a regular person, or, as Dennis Mangan puts it, you're "ordinary." If you answered in the negative, it means you're rich enough to pay someone else to do this task, which means you're richer than the average person, which means your self-interest regarding mass immigration likely conflicts with that of regular people.

It is ridiculous to assert that Mangan is describing Mexicans as subhuman. Rather, he's pointing out the economic harm that Mexican immigration has on American people who do not have Mr. Caplan's advantages. Pretty easy, really.

expat writes:

In support of JS's comments on anti-gringoism in Mexico:
Seventy percent of Americans said the U.S. is wealthier because there is plenty of opportunity and work available in the United States, but 62 percent of Mexicans said the U.S. is wealthier because it exploits others, the Zogby poll said.

On a personal level, 84 percent of Americans said they held a positive view of the Mexican people, but only 36 percent of Mexicans had a positive view of Americans.

78 percent of Americans consider Mexicans hard-working, but only 26 percent of Mexicans consider Americans hard-working.

18 percent of Americans consider Mexicans racist, while 73 percent of Mexicans see American as racist.

42 percent of Americans see Mexicans as honest, while only 16 percent of Mexicans see Americans as honest.

The survey was a joint project of Zogby International and a Mexico City-based research and development group.

Any reference to "excellent relations" between the US and Mexico must take into account the estimated 3,000 Mexicans wanted for murder in the US who have taken refuge in Mexico. A recent Mexican Supreme Court decision allows for extradition to the US but none of the 3,000 has yet been extradited. See

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