Arnold Kling

Immigration, Libertarianism, and Democracy

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Me on the BBC, Part II... Wealth and Self-Control...

A reader asks,


Bryan Caplan's new book (which I look forward to) says voters are irrational. Do you think they would be more or less rational in a society with high migration rates?

I am reading Amy Chua's World on Fire, which says (p. 6-7),

In societies with a market-dominant ethnic minority, markets and democracy favor not just different people, or different classes, but different ethnic groups. Markets concentrate wealth, often spectacular wealth, in the hands of the market-dominant minority, while democracy increases the political power of the impoverished majority. In these circumstances the pursuit of free market democracy becomes an engine of potentially catastrophic ethnonationalism...This confrontation is playing out in country after country today, from Indonesia to Sierra Leone, from Zimbabwe to Venezuela, from Russia to the Middle East.

Voters may be at their worst when they vote on the basis of ethnic loyalty. To the extent that Hispanic immigration produces a sizable bloc of voters that responds purely to pro-Hispanic demagoguery, then my guess is that immigration will reduce voter rationality in the U.S.

My reader writes,


it strikes me that if you have free migration and a high turnover
of people in a society or nation, society becomes an open-access
resource, and you will end up with a kind of tragedy of the commons
decision making which puts too much store on the short-term.

...In this way of thinking, migration controls are simply property rights over a resource held in common.


As a libertarian, I think that freedom of immigration is an important check on tyranny. If you cannot move, then government has almost unlimited power over you.

It is true that if we allow open immigration, then I could become surrounded by people who have a different culture, and their culture may not respect liberty. I tend to think, however, that on average immigrants to the United States appreciate liberty and free markets more than the native population.

UPDATE: Bill Whittle has a relevant essay. He writes,


The biggest losers in our inability to control illegal immigration are the legal immigrants. What benefit do these honest people gain from playing by the rules?

He argues in game-theoretic terms that the cultural foundation of civil society is tit-for-tat behavior.



COMMENTS (16 to date)
Neal Hockley writes:

Dear Arnold
Thanks very much for giving your thoughts on this.

I agree that migration would undermine tyranny, however, I'm not totally convinced by your argument in favour of free migration - it seems dissatisfyingly consequentialist, for a libertarian!

I guess it comes down to whether migration laws were created by the state, or by the people. If the people in a society mutually agreed on coercion to reduce migration, would that be OK?

Which comes back to my underlying problem with libertarianism: what if the free will of the people was that the state should exist, and enforce mutually agreed laws, taxes etc as an efficient mechanism to solving communal problems!

What if the most efficient way of getting disparate and numerous 'Coasian' actors together is through a mutually agreed coercive "state"?

Yours in confusion...

Christopher writes:

Thanks for your thoughts. A few points:

"I think that freedom of immigration is an important check on tyranny"

Likely true, but only for the person leaving a tyrannical situation. It says nothing about the effect on the place he is moving to.

"I tend to think, however, that on average immigrants to the United States appreciate liberty and free markets more than the native population."

A robust argument in favor of unrestricted immigration would need a more grounded support than this sentiment.

In my experience with the many Mexican (and a few Irish) illegal immigrants I've met, they appreciate money more than liberty -- but that is just anecdotal.

I suspect that we libertarians may need to adopt a "libertarianism in one country" model if we hope to achieve some political success.

shecky writes:
Voters may be at their worst when they vote on the basis of ethnic loyalty. To the extent that Hispanic immigration produces a sizable bloc of voters that responds purely to pro-Hispanic demagoguery, then my guess is that immigration will reduce voter rationality in the U.S.

It'd be interesting to know how much ethnic demagoguery takes place across the board. Certainly, it would seem some of the anti immigration sentiment is stoked by demagoguery from politicians.

As a libertarian, I think that freedom of immigration is an important check on tyranny. If you cannot move, then government has almost unlimited power over you.

I tend to agree. The interesting thing is that potential host countries become complicit in creating tyrannies when they restrict influx of immigrants. Does this reinforce the perception that economic freedom and liberty are a zero sum game, or result from it?

The biggest losers in our inability to control illegal immigration are the legal immigrants. What benefit do these honest people gain from playing by the rules?

It's a pity, but the blame should be placed squarely on the government that created a byzantine bureaucracy.

Neal Hockley writes:

Christopher
I'm inclined to agree with you. I have no doubt that a pure libertarian can easily defend free migration, but only by ignoring the possibility that there could be any communally held goods, such as "society". Alternatively, he might propose that individuals come together to enforce mutually agreed rules on migration, but that starts to sound a lot like a state.

Most contracts have clauses specifying whether actors can leave (or join) the agreement, and if so, how. Very few contracts make leaving and joining cost free. Why should the "social contract" be any different?

Well, we have no choice over which society we are born into. This would argue in favour of cost-free contract-entry/exit.

However, we have usually lived in a society (and benefited from it) for 18 years or so before becoming independent, free-thinking individuals. By which time, we may owe a debt to the society we were born in. But we could class that debt as having been incurred by our parents. So, maybe migration should be free for all those turning 18? After which time, societies would be free to impose exit and entry costs.

Of course, a society has to be more tyrannical to impose entry costs than exit costs - or does it?

Neal Hockley writes:

Neal Hockley wrote

Of course, a society has to be more tyrannical to impose entry costs than exit costs - or does it?

Sorry should have read:

Of course, a society has to be more tyrannical to impose exit costs than entry costs - or does it?

Cyrus writes:

Neither entry nor exit costs are inherently tyrannical, but exit costs are an enabling factor for tyranny.

Cyrus writes:

Of course voters are irrational: voting is irrational.

The voter first must believe that voting is worth the effort. Based on the influence a single vote has on mass democracy, the rational response is not just rational ignorance of the candidates, but non-voting. So one must become irrational to show up in the voting booth at all.

Yet voting is frequently an act of choosing the least bad candidate, which undermines one resolve to regard voting as important and do it anyway. A common response to this is to become even more irrational, and align one's views with a candidate's in order to escape the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise come with doing a believed-important and entirely voluntary task (voting), badly.

Two measurable experiments: do non-voters hold more rational policy preferences than voters? and, what is the effect of mandatory voting on voter irrationality?

Heather writes:

I would disagree that freedom of immigration is a check on tyranny. Movement within borders could be argued this way, since the government keeping track of an individual is tyrannical, however restricting access to a country does not serve this purpose. Rather, it maintains property rights for current "owners" of the country, ie it's citizens.

Cyrus writes:

[R]estricting access to a country does not serve this purpose. Rather, it maintains property rights for current "owners" of the country, ie it's citizens.

Of all the complaints I have heard against undocumented immigrants, one I haven't heard is, These illegals are driving property prices up; I just can't find housing because they've taken up all the places to live.

Jason writes:

Neal Hockley wrote:

If the people in a society mutually agreed on coercion to reduce migration, would that be OK?

This depends on how the people agree and what kind of coercion. If through a majority vote the people decide that the government should interrogate everyone in the country and forcefully deport those that don't have the right papers, that would not be OK (tyranny of the majority). If, on the other hand, each individual decided that they personally would not hire or sell to an immigrant, that would be OK. Your natural right to freely associate allows you to decide to not deal with whomever you choose. It would also be OK for people to boycott or scream loudly their disapproval of companies that hired immigrants. However, none of these methods may be effective in reducing migration if there aren't enough people that feel the same way.

Neal Hockley writes:
Cyrus wrote: Of all the complaints I have heard against undocumented immigrants, one I haven't heard is, These illegals are driving property prices up; I just can't find housing because they've taken up all the places to live.

Believe it or not, that is a comment complaint here in crowded Europe. However, Heather was using the word 'property' more broadly, in the way that I used it, to include 'intangible property' in society

Jason writes:

Heather agrees that the government keeping track of individuals is tyrannical, but that is exactly what the government has to do to to ferret out who should or shouldn't be in the country. Currently the gov't doesn't try too hard to find out who is here illegally. I predict that if the will of the majority were to be enacted on the immigration matter there would be a huge increase in identity theft. If the gov't really started cracking down and checking people's papers a black market for fake documents and stolen identities would pop up immediately. It would be just one more instance of the government making things worse by using force to prevent a peaceful activity.

Neal Hockley writes:
Jason writes: "This depends on how the people agree and what kind of coercion."

I agree, but agreement doesn't have to be universal on each and every issue. People can agree to pool sovereignty in a nation, even agreeing to submit to the coercion of the majority on individual issues on which they disagree, because they prefer to live in a nation with a state than otherwise. This is still potentially compatible with a libertarian view of the world, and could be argued (by a latter day Hobbes, if not by me) to be a very rough description of what has happened.

Cyrus writes:

He argues in game-theoretic terms that the cultural foundation of civil society is tit-for-tat behavior.

There exists a "bad equilibrium" in tit-for-tat, wherein once someone has transgressed, one party has to be willing to take a short-term loss relative to the other party to re-establish trust. Clan-based feuding, urban gang killings, and some aspects of ethnic territorial disputes are all illustrations. When such equilibria run long enough, often it takes a Leviathan to resolve them.

Now, the more sophisticated party might resolve to limit the extent of their retaliatory party, if their fear of Leviathan is worse than their fear of losing to the other party. Hence Eastern Orthodox prelates carry out their ecclesiastical and doctrinal disputes within a certain envelope where the existence of the dispute can be tolerated by all parties, because they all know that if they carried a dispute so far that it absolutely had to be resolved, it would take a supreme bishop to do so.

Jason Malloy writes:

To the extent that Hispanic immigration produces a sizable bloc of voters that responds purely to pro-Hispanic demagoguery, then my guess is that immigration will reduce voter rationality in the U.S.

Chua's book demonstrates among other things how ethnic differences in economic capability drive ethnic mobilization and hostility. If (largely Mexican) American Hispanics were able to perform like white Americans in school and in the market, they might assimilate into a non-Hispanic generic white identity. Since they do not assimilate economically, they will view themselves, and be viewed by society, as underclass outsiders - like African-Americans. African-Americans and Hispanic political parties will be ethnic interest parties, and they will vote in ethnic bloc. They will vote to transfer what they will view as undeserved white resources to themselves. In places where whites are in numerical competition with these votes, white political parties will also degrade into ethnic interest parties as well. This isn't hypothetical, we already see this.

So the externality on American politics from low-IQ illegal immigrants is two-fold. First low IQ makes for more irrational voting, as Dr. Caplan has demonstrated. For two the ethnic hostility and competition leads to less trust, more corruption, and more ethnic politics.

I tend to think, however, that on average immigrants to the United States appreciate liberty and free markets more than the native population.

First generation immigrants are more likely to be thankful for a low slot in a more wealthy society (which is like being rich in their former country). Their children, on the other hand, do not have this frame of reference and will just view themselves as victims for being on bottom. See Steve Burton's National Survey of Latinos comment in the other thread:

"Hispanics are the most extreme and consistent anti-libertarian constituency in American politics today"

The General Social Survey shows the exact same thing. The children of Mexican immigrants appreciate the free-market and liberty significantly less than the native population.

Those economists pounding the table over 'comparative advantage' are ignoring every obvious externality from low-skilled, anti-market immigration. How much is the free-market worth to the American economy?

thebastidge writes:

Of especial relevance to the games theory of immigration, is the mutual rules problem. When a large bloc of immigrants does not agree on the basic rules of the game, then the nature of the interaction is necessarily adversarial.

If Americans are playing checkers and Mexicans are playing backgammon, the superficial similarities will soon run into fundamental incompatibilities.

This is the largest and most valid point in favour of restricted immigration. It's not the direct effect on the labour market, it's not the economic drain of welfare benefits extended beyond those who pooled resources for that social sfety net.

It's the fundamental acceptance of what it is to be and act "American". Adherence to principles of liberty constrained only by mutual agreement to live by the rule of law are a couple of the biggest points. If someone want so to integreate into that system, great. Otherwise, devise their own system whence they came. But one cannot expect to crash somone else's game of Monopoly™ and change the rules to be Snakes and Ladders™.

Addressing another good point in comments above: if immigrants' children and second generations are failing to learn about the libertarian traditions of our country, whose fault is that?

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