Bryan Caplan  

Immigration: Has the Public Been Ignored?

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Matt Yglesias is puzzled that my piece in Cato Unbound uses immigration as an example where the public's misconceptions have led to pernicious policies:

Strangely, he takes immigration as his main example. If I were trying to devise an example of a policy area in which an elite consensus had shown a consistent ability to override contrary sentiment, I would have picked, well, immigration where the public's consistent preference for dramatically more restrictionist policies have been consistently (and, in my view, rightly) frustrated.

I certainly agree that immigration is freer than the public wants. But immigration restrictions in place still massively reduce immigration relative to open borders. We probably get about 5% as many immigrants as would like to come, so advocates of actually banning immigration currently get 95% of their way. From my vantage point, anti-immigration forces practically get their first choice already. But they've got such a sense of entitlement that the slightest deviation from their first choice enrages them.

Admittedly, elite advocates of more open immigration rarely want open borders. They're more likely to advocate, say, twice as many immigrants as we have. Even if the median voter wanted no immigration at all, current immigration policy would be exactly splitting the difference. That's not an "override." It's a compromise. And if the public underestimates the benefits of immigration, it's a compromise with bad effects.


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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Matt writes:

People oppose illegal immigration. People oppose immigrants going on welfare. Remove these two groups and you could get far more legal immigration.

James writes:

Opposition to illegal immigration is not a position on the matter of what the law concerning immigration should be.

Enigma writes:

OK, open borders. The U.S. takes in 200 million comparatively uneducated Mexicans, Bangladeshis, etc. They vote for nationalization of industry, racial quotas in firms (systematically mismatching labor and employment), massive redistribution and confiscatory taxation. The original citizens are worse off, the new ones are better off.

As the electorate shifts the U.S. economy slows, producing less global public goods (new technologies, business practices, etc). Eventually institutional quality falls so much that the incentive to immigrate is reduced and population flows reach equilibrium.

Bryan, do you think it's guaranteed that the benefits to 100 million+ uneducated immigrants of living under American institutions will outweigh their negative effects on those institutions? Wouldn't importing high-IQ educated workers provide greater benefits (smarter workers get larger productivity increases from access to the American legal system and economy) with less negative (or perhaps positive) effects on public policy?

Just why would you support an amnesty for uneducated and unskilled illegal immigrants who are already working in the US but prevented from voting as non-citizens? You just advocated additional votes for college graduates (not to say that there's anything wrong with that), and now you want to enfranchise a lower-IQ population dominated by high-school drop-outs?

Here's another tool to prevent the stupid masses from enacting bad policy: separate countries, so that uneducated, dumber populations can only TRADE with smarter, richer populations, not TAX them.

Steve Sailer writes:

So, how many immigrants do you think would come over the next 20 years under your ever so rational "open borders" policy?

shecky writes:
So, how many immigrants do you think would come over the next 20 years under your ever so rational "open borders" policy?

As many as the market will bear?

I don't understand why the US would be overrun under an open border policy. Consider this: Manhattan has open borders. Anybody can go there to live. Yet, despite the population density, it seems to thrive. And plenty of folks don't want to relocate despite the possibility of a better life there.

OK, open borders. The U.S. takes in 200 million comparatively uneducated Mexicans, Bangladeshis, etc. They vote for nationalization of industry, racial quotas in firms (systematically mismatching labor and employment), massive redistribution and confiscatory taxation. The original citizens are worse off, the new ones are better off.

Funny, it seems the biggest proponents of massive redistribution and confiscatory taxation are plain old red blooded American citizens. Sometimes in order to keep illegal immigrants from coming to the US.

Restricting immigration to high skilled workers seems a popular notion, yet there clearly is a demand for unskilled workers, even if illegal. The government seems unable to acknowledge the demands of the market, and there's no indication it can dictate demand any more successfully than it can dictate the new fall colors.

Matt writes:

A free market, given infinite resources, can bear an infinite amount of workers if they're productive. Adding more people makes society more complex with more creative ideas. The question isn't how much the market can bear, but when the resources will be exhausted. In this case, there are other countries, so immigration will continue until the U.S. standard of living is closer to the global standard.

If you want to see what open borders looks like, see the urbanization of China. They still have not reached the point where people are leaving the cities because of polluted air and water.

Robert Cote writes:

I am not fooled by the clever wordplay. Nowhere in the commentary is the word illegal used yet when people are asked it is always the subtext. The obvious answer to is to lead by example. Everyone interested in unbounded immigration please unlock your doors, publish your address and promise not to call the police. Illegal immigration is to immigration what bank robbery is to banking. It is no more immigration than is bank robbery an undocumented account withdrawl.

It is good to here some push for lower or no standards for new residents. Please provide billing information for my County to charge you for translation services, healthcare and the various other expenses associated with our alarming outbreak of whooping cough.

No hypocrites need reply. Full name and address please. Okay, I made my point no need to push the issue. How about a small favor when responding? Tell us why you aren't publishing your name and address when you reply but remember that reply cannot include any comment refering to protecting someone or something as that issue is already settled.

Mark Seecof writes:

Caplan writes:

But immigration restrictions in place still massively reduce immigration relative to open borders. We probably get about 5% as many immigrants as would like to come, so advocates of actually banning immigration currently get 95% of their way. From my vantage point, anti-immigration forces practically get their first choice already. [emphasis added]

Well, we probably get only about 5% as many murders as disgruntled people would like to commit, if only murder were lawful or enforcement less diligent. Should we press folks who dislike murder to compromise with those who might prefer to commit it? What would be the optimal murder rate? Would it be 10 times the current rate?

Seriously, who cares how many aliens would like to immigrate? (The number is probably well over two billion.) The proper question is how many immigrants American citizens wish to accept!

The American government is constituted to reflect and enforce the preferences of Americans. I can respect an argument that the vast majority of Americans should strike some compromise with the small minority of Americans (the "elite") who want to import boatloads of "low-human-capital" serfs. (I propose this compromise: it should be an affirmative defense to the felony charge of employing an particular illegal immigrant that the serf's presence was necessary for the immediate preservation of his employer's life--and that the illegal immigrant left the country within 24 hours of the time the threat to his employer's life abated.) However, when setting immigration policy Americans have no duty to take into account the private interests of foreigners in faraway places.

Enigma writes:

Crime IS PART of the economic cost of Mexican immigration. While the migrants themselves do not have terribly high crime rates, their children do: Mexican-Americans have a murder rate over three times as great as non-Hispanic whites. Valuing lives at $7,000,000 or so, that cost alone is in the 11 digit range. Becker and Posner are blogging about destructive Latin American crime rates and their economic costs this week, in fact.

CDarklock writes:

I have a weird idea for the immigration thing.

Why not try like hell to prevent people from entering the country illegally, but then once they get here... just stop giving a damn?

Sort of like permanent amnesty. We won't let you in, but if you do get in, you may as well stay.

I think the easy way to do this is by having papers that are near-impossible to forge, and requiring them for all government assistance. If you come into this country illegally and never need government assistance, GREAT! We love you! Stay as long as you want! Whereas if you do need assistance, you're not getting it here without a seriously high-dollar forgery.

We should get the papers made by the same people who do Microsoft certificates of authenticity.

Just a basic and probably oversimplified idea, but I wanted to throw it out there.

El Presidente writes:

Enigma,

Here's another tool to prevent the stupid masses from enacting bad policy: separate countries, so that uneducated, dumber populations can only TRADE with smarter, richer populations, not TAX them.

and . . .

Robert Cote,

Illegal immigration is to immigration what bank robbery is to banking. It is no more immigration than is bank robbery an undocumented account withdrawl.

Alright folks. You have equated short-run self interest with long-run ignorance and ignored the distinction between fiscal and economic effects. Good rhetoric. Bad reasoning.

The fiscal effects in the states that absorb the greatest number of immigrants, legal AND illegal, are negative in the short-run. This is primarily due to the lower value added per employee and higher demand for services associated with the illegal immigrants as a class (not necessarily as individuals). However, the economic effects are positive in so far as they allow production that would otherwise not occur. Look at the low unemployment rate we have right now due to the decline in the real value of the nominal minimum wage that occurs as a result of inflation. That’s also what happens when black-market production short-circuits the political decision-making process. In the context of the current level of illegal immigration, border states are, for lack of better enforcement, engaging in a forced investment behavior. They are investing in the future productivity of immigrants at the expense of the current standard of living for citizens and residents of THOSE states. Schools are stressed by the load on the system generated by higher birth rates of immigrants and the higher cost of educating "English learners" with an English curriculum. Social services are impacted by disproportionate demand fueled by immigrants who have a lower ability to pay. These have impacts on the government equivalent of cash flow. In a business, having inadequate cash flow can sink you even if you have a positive balance sheet. You get upside-down and you incur large financing costs in order to dig out of the hole. That’s the pinch that Americans opposed to illegal immigration (those who aren’t simply xenophobic) are sensitive to.

From the perspective of the immigrant it makes very good short-run and long-run sense to immigrate, illegally if necessary/expedient, so long as the number of immigrants doesn’t topple the system. They are rational actors, not “dumber populations”. The wage differential (Mexico:U.S.) is 1:12 for physical laborers. That is the largest wage differential of any contiguous nations in the world. You’d probably do it too if you could get away with it. What would your annual income be if you multiplied it by 12? And you probably make a decent living now. We have a choice to make regarding our insistence on the inequality (in a mathematical sense) between the two nations’ allocation of the factors of production. Does it cost us more to influence an increase on their standard of living or to protect ours from erosion? In the long-run, increasing theirs gives us an export market for our production. Does ignoring that make us a "dumber population"?

A word of caution to those who haven’t spent enough time reading their history: don’t think for a moment that previous and current American governments aren’t partly responsible for the economic condition in the nations of the Western Hemisphere. Take a look at what happens with extensive vertical integration in any industry. Cost are streamlined, profits increase to the consolidator but not usually the consolidated companies. Call me a leftie but has anybody ever heard of the Banana Republics? That model continues to create people-farms out of these countries.

In an economic sense, these people are making unauthorized deposits in excess of their unauthorized withdrawals. The bigger problem is that they’re screwing up the accounting and that muddies the political decision-making process. That’s a BIG problem, and one that is extremely important to me, but not the same as a “dumber population” committing “bank robbery”. People being ignored and people being decieved are both elements of our present condition.

Your move.

Lancelot Finn writes:

Bryan writes:

I certainly agree that immigration is freer than the public wants.

I'm not sure this is true. You have to distinguish between the public's desired outcomes and the public's desired policies.

The public's desired outcome, I think, is less immigration. But people also want "legitimate" immigrants to have a chance to come. It's amazing how often you talk to a member of the general public who thinks that illegal immigrants should have followed the rules and come legally. And I've also been surprised how often ordinary Americans are shocked when they hear actually stories about the difficulty of getting in.

The simple fact of the matter is that we're living in an apartheid state that shuts out most of the world's population permanently and irrevocably because of their place of birth. And hardly anyone in America understands that. If this is explained to them they tend to change their point of view.

mcaffee writes:

I'm just guessing here, but I suspect that Bryan doesn't live in a neighborhood with lots of illegal immigrants. I suspect his kids won't be going to schools with lots of their children, he doesn't go to lots of movie theatres with mainly illegal audiences. He's insulated himself in a universe where he can show his egalitarian bona fides, and signal his productive superiority because he knows he is smart enough to avoid most of their negative externalities. Limousine, but classical, Liberal.

Most of today's immigrants are very unlike those of 100 years ago. The West has lost it's confidence in assimilation, of self-sufficiency, so immigrants learn to celebrate their indigenous culture (which was so wonderful they had to leave it), to demand various rights, and glom onto racial and ethnic hucksters who make a living off the guilt of European suburbanites. Ever 'hang out' in Little Haiti in Miami? I suspect not.

Kent Gatewood writes:

Why don't we have a trial on open borders but use another country first? We could insist Israel and Egypt open their borders to any immigrants with a right to immediate citizenship as a requirement for foreign aid. Once the idea is validated there, we could adopt open borders in America.

Dezakin writes:
I'm just guessing here, but I suspect that Bryan doesn't live in a neighborhood with lots of illegal immigrants.
Blah. Typical racist screed. Don't let your daughters date these lazy foreigners! I live in a neighborhood with lots of illegal immigrants, and I have lived in a neighborhood with lots of poor white trash. I'll take living next to hard working immigrants any day.
Kent Gatewood writes:

I want to be a rational voter. I'm a Republican. Immigrants who are Mexicans, Africans, East Asians, Muslims, and Jews vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. No amount of appeasement or accomodation will change this reality. Therefore as a Republican I can't be in favor of the admission into the US of any of these groups or similar ones?

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