Bryan Caplan  

Interview with Trent McBride, Including the Political Consequences of Immigration

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Here's a print interview with Trent McBride of Distributed Republic. I had a lot of fun doing it, and there's little overlap with the (also very fun) Nick Schulz TCS interview. The highlight for EconLog readers will no doubt be my discussion of the political effects of immigration.

I begin by clarifying the arithmetic:

TM: If more poorly educated voters lead to more irrational economic policies, is this a reason to oppose a lot of immigration (presuming immigrants would be less educated)?

BC: This is a complicated question; I'll blog it in coming weeks. Short version:

If you care as much about immigrants as natives, this is no reason to oppose immigration. Consider the following example:

Suppose there are two countries with equal populations. The quality of policy ranges from 0-10, 10 being best. In country A, bliss points (people's first choice for policy) are uniformly distributed from 2-6. In country B, bliss points are uniformly distributed from 4-8.

What does democratic competition deliver? When the countries are independent, country A gets a policy quality of 4 (the median of the uniform distribution from 2-6), and country B gets a policy quality of 6 (the median of the uniform distribution from 4-8). Average policy that people live under: 50%*4+50%*6=5.

Now suppose you open the borders, and everyone moves to country B (the richer country). The median of the whole distribution is 5. Result: The immigrants live under better policies, the natives live under worse policies. The average (5) remains unchanged.

Then I move on to substance:
That's small consolation to the natives, you say? Keep in mind that even in the simplest model, the economic benefits of immigration for natives could easily outweigh the political losses for natives.

In any case, the simplest model seriously overstates natives' political losses for natives. Some of the main reasons:

  • Empirically, non-natives are markedly less likely to vote than natives, even controlling for education and age. Immigration has a considerably smaller effect on the median voter than it does on the median resident.
  • Natives start with a near-monopoly on political slack. At least initially, all of the incumbent politicians, government officials, media leaders, etc. will be natives, and will tend to use their slack to prevent deterioration of the political status quo.
  • "Faith in rulers," another source of political slack that I discuss in my book, makes immigrants more likely to simply accept whatever policies are already in place.
  • Although poor immigrants are likely to support a bigger welfare state than natives do, the presence of poor immigrants makes natives turn against the welfare state. Why would this be? As a rule, people are happy to vote to "take care of their own"; that's what the welfare state is all about. So when the poor are culturally very similar to the rich, as they are in places like Denmark and Sweden, support for the welfare state tends to be uniformly strong.

    As the poor become more culturally distant from the rich, however, support for the welfare state becomes weaker and less uniform. There is good evidence, for example, that support for the welfare state is weaker in the U.S. than in Europe because our poor are disproportionately black. Since white Americans don't identify with black Americans to the same degree that rich Danes identify with poor Danes, most Americans are comfortable having a relatively small welfare state.

    Thus, even though black Americans are unusually supportive of the welfare state, it is entirely possible that the presence of black Americans has on net made our welfare state smaller by eroding white support for it.

    Immigration is likely to have an even stronger counter-balancing effect on natives' policy preferences because, as far as most Americans are concerned, immigrants from Latin American are much more of an "out-group" than American blacks. Faced with the choice to either cut social services or give "a bunch of foreigners" equal access, natives will lean in the direction of cuts. In fact, I can't think of anything more likely to make natives turn against the welfare state than forcing them to choose between (a) helping no one, and (b) helping everyone regardless of national origin.

Finally, let me add that even if immigrants do have negative political consequences, solutions should focus on the alleged problem. If you don't like how immigrants vote, the solution is to deny immigrants the right to vote. If you don't want to pay taxes to support immigrants, the solution is to make immigrants ineligible for benefits. Whatever you do, don't campaign to close the border and deport millions of people back to Third World poverty.
In coming weeks, I'll expand this response to a series of 2-5 posts. So stay tuned.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
David Thomson writes:

"...deport millions of people back to Third World poverty."

Virtually nobody wants to deport those illegal immigrants already in the country. No, we want to stop anymore from entering into the country. When will our borders become secure? Sadly, the country club Republicans and left-wing Democrats have no intention of putting a stop to this nonsense. They will almost certainly find phony excuses like never ending “environmental studies” and an exaggerated fear of discriminating against Hispanics and other minorities.

The ideological virus of political correctness dominates the process. I am utterly convinced that we all would be better off if the illegals had blue eyes and blond hair. Their dark skins discombobulate those badly infected with the ideological virus of political correctness.

shecky writes:
No, we want to stop anymore from entering into the country.

Why should we stop more immigrants from coming into the country any more than we should stop Walmart from selling Chinese goods in the US?

If you're worried about illegal immigrants, why not push to for liberalization of immigration procedures? Allowing immigrants easy and legal access to US labor markets nearly eliminates all the negative effects of propping up a bootleg economy, while allowing increased flexibility for US based employers.

alberto writes:

how do you reconcile your pro unlimited immigration stance with the Douglass North's ideas that economic prosperity is tied to the state of institutional arrangements? as I understand, North's institution reflect the beliefs shared by a culture. therefore, one could assume that a rapid influx of people that, judging by economic performance of the origin countries, do not share a culture leading to great economic outcomes, will shift the US institutions in the wrong direction.

Steve Sailer writes:

As we've seen in California, which voted Republican in 9 of 10 Presidential elections from 1952-1988 and Democratic ever since, the big impact politically of immigration is to drive natives to the left by making family formation less affordable. Lousier public schools, higher home prices, and longer commutes discourage native-born Americans from getting married and having children. Thus, GOP family values appeals are less appealing in California because fewer voters have families.

Dick King writes:

We don't let our immigrants become citizens for a while, by which time they're assimilated enough to vote similarly to the native born. This seems right to me.


quadrupole writes:

This is only true of policy quality is linear in voter quality, I deeply suspect that it isn't. I would tend to say that when mean voter quality maps to mean policy quality something like this:

Voter quality 0-2 = policy quality 1-2
Voter quality 2-4 = policy quality 2-3
Voter quality 4-6 = policy quality 3-4
Voter quality 6-8 = policy quality 7-8
Voter quality 8-10 = policy quality 8-10

In this kind of a model if country A had a voter quality of 6-8 and country B had a voter quality of 2-4, both with equal populations, than seperate they'd have a mean policy quality of 4.5 - 5.5, but merged you'd have a mean voter quality of 4-6, for a mean policy quality of 3-4.

Since there seems to be a rather large gap between well and poorly governed countries, I strongly suspect that the kind of non-linearity thrown out above is in play.

Mark Seecof writes:

If you don't like the way they vote, or the taxes they consume (or the way they drive wages and productivity down, or the way their kids debase the schools, or the way they put Blacks out of work), or whatever, just limit their access to those things piecemeal...

Why? Why fight each of those battles separately, with somewhat different interest groups on one side or the other of each? Why not try to deal with the common factor in all those problems: the immigrants?

It is an insult to suggest that we are stupid enough to adopt your plan to weaken our cause by dividing one big issue into a zillion little ones.

Also, you keep trying to reassure us that immigrants won't affect our political system because they don't vote (as diligently as natives). That seems like misdirection. You must surely know that we allocate political districts by raw population-- not by number of legitimate voters-- so areas with many immigrants are "rotten boroughs." A few citizens living in such a district are as powerful as many citizens in a district populated mainly by natives. The few citizens in immigrant-heavy districts may provide "virtual representation" to the immigrants--or more likely, just use their disproportionate influence to extract stiff rents... Oh, wait a moment... they have been doing that for years!

Finally, with respect to your theory that adding immigrants to the welfare rolls will cause the welfare state to wither away because taxpayers will revolt; well really, are you offering a naïve argument or a dishonest one?

Suppose that, in the long run, public disenchantment with welfare spending on immigrants overcomes rent-seekers' influence and causes some diminution in welfare payments. As an economist you should know all about the time value of money. I would much rather save a few hundred billion dollars TODAY by excluding immigrants, than pray that admitting them will help me save that money ten or twenty years from now!

(There's little evidence for your theory anyway. From 2000 to 2006 (inclusive) total government spending on welfare increased every year after the Clinton-era welfare reform. Just Federal spending on "Education, Training, Employment, Social Services, Health, and Income Security," but excluding Social Security, Medicare, and Veterans Benefits, increased by about 60% (not adjusted for inflation[1]).

(Taxes also went up every year, both in absolute dollars collected and as a percentage of income for most taxpayers.

(You will note that conservative estimates have more than six million illegal immigrants entering the USA between 2000 and 2006.)

[1] Failing to adjust for inflation shouldn't matter, because as we all know, there is no inflation, and even if there is it's overstated because it doesn't correct for quality improvements, except when it comes to gasoline, for which the BLS decided that oxygenated-fuel mandates that reduced MPG (and often poisoned groundwater), and enriched corn farmers, but did not reduce air pollution, were really quality improvements, so gasoline price increases (both $-per-gallon and $-per-mile) were not really price increases. You just have to know how to apply hedonic theory correctly, you see.)

John S Bolton writes:

The unmentioned, or perhaps unspeakable assumptions here are quite objectionable:
citizens owe no greater loyalty to citizens than
random foreigners, even enemies?
an immigrant by definition is that which cannot be blamed, when his own acts, such as grabbing net public subsidies, cause an increase in aggression
on those to whom loyalty is actually owed?
when blameworthy acts by immigrants nevertheless occur, somehow the American is to blame?
that imagining a society in which low-income cannot
obtain net public subsidy, allows for deriving principles as if such governments actually existed?
That there exist living beings which are here just to work, as if that were possible?
That pushing foreign criminals back to a lower standard of living is somehow worse than increasing the level of aggression on the net taxpayers of our citizenry?
that we can revolutionize the society at will, and the difference in feasibility between the popularity of immigration
restriction and the enormous odds against
demolishing the jungle of net public subsidy programs, most of which are popular, is of no account, because somehow, solidarity with all mankind, even enemies, trumps everything?

Horatio writes:

Steve makes a good point. The data seems to fit his argument in that regard.

Also, I question your assumption that Americans will see Latin Americans as more of an "out-group" than American blacks. Certainly, the children of Latin Americans who are born here would be seen as less of an out-group. Racially and culturally, they are more like white Americans than blacks are. This will tend to increase the proportion of the poor population that white Americans identify with. In NYC, it was very common to see groups of kids whose backgrounds were very diverse, but nevertheless did not include any American blacks. White Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, even Afghans, but no blacks.

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