David R. Henderson  

The Rational Voter?

Housing Matters... The Conservative Dissenter...

In his post earlier today, Bryan writes:

It's possible that immigrants will vote to destroy the system that attracted them, but unlikely. Immigrants come here because they prefer life here to life at home. It wouldn't take a marketing genius to win them over to the cause of American liberty.

Commenter Pat nailed the problem with Bryan's statement:
So much for the Myth of the Rational Voter.
Just because some immigrant wants more freedom than they [sic] have in their awful country doesn't mean they [sic] won't vote to make our system less free.

When people come here from other countries, sometimes it's because they want more freedom and sometimes it's because they want more wealth. They see the possibilities for wealth but don't necessarily understand what political and economic system led to that wealth. When I moved to Winnipeg from a small town in Manitoba in 1967 and became a libertarian shortly after, I noticed this. I would meet people who came to Canada from England, which was a substantially less-economically-free country than Canada back then, and they voted for the New Democratic Party, the socialist party in Canada. They weren't dumb people. They just had no idea about the connection between the results in England that they disliked and the system that led to those results.

My reaction to Bryan's statement about how easy it would be to convince people is like George Stigler's reaction to a similar statement by Adam Smith. Stigler quoted Smith's famous passage:

I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

Stigler commented, "I wonder what those very few words were."

Similarly, I'd like to meet Bryan's marketing non-genius.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (32 to date)
William writes:

Attaching a [sic] to the singular "they" is completely inappropriate.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

What's inappropriate is using the plural pronoun 'they' with the singular subject 'some immigrant.'

I agree that we can't trust these new voters, but can we doubt them? Do we really have any way of knowing, in general, what the average immigrant will vote for?

Stephen Smith writes:

The singular "they" was used by Shakespeare and Jane Austen...it's a totally normal English-language construction acceptable in all modern registers.

Scott Scheule writes:

Pedigree or not, it's an abomination! Like "octopi!"

Hyena writes:


Shakespeare was a hack and Jane Austen was a hussy. Enough said.

david writes:

Caplan is writing to people who believe that people vote rationally, not to people who buy into rationally-ignorant-voter theory.

If you accept the Myth of the Rational Voter idea, then you can also stop worrying about immigrants: they, like any other existing citizens, can be manipulated by appealing to their assorted biases. It's hardly as if they will necessarily vote according to their short-term economic interest of rent capture, after all.

Rebecca Burllingame writes:

Back in the eighties, I was told the story of the earlier groups of Cubans who emigrated to Miami from Cuba, just prior to Castro coming into power. Many from this early group tended to be fairly liberal. It was only with the passing of time that newer groups of immigrants to Miami from Cuba became more conservative. Why, I can't really remember, it just struck me as quite interesting.

another david (not henderson) writes:

The questions one might also ask oneself are:

a) to what extent is the social or political culture in the country of origination antithetical to liberty (presumably if the individuals in question are leaving to seek either more freedom or more wealth, we already know the answer);

b) is it likely the social or political culture referred to in a) developed independently of the outlook/ethics of those that lived there; and

c) to what degree can we expect that immigrants might share the outlook/ethics in b)?

C) is obviously the hard one.

P.S. As one Canadian David to another, I think the use of "sic" was a little harsh, particularly in response to what might have been a hastily dashed-off comment. I note that the use of "they" also avoids the two extra characters involved in the annoying "he/she" required by the politically correct. It also avoids the even more annoying and affected use of "she" to demonstrate how "enlightened" one is. I say cut the users of the singular "they" a bit of slack.

Marcus writes:

"Just because some immigrant wants more freedom than they [sic] [sic] have in their awful country doesn't mean they [sic] [sic] won't vote to make our system less free."

Mr. Pedantic Professor, you get an 'F' on this paper.

In this enlightened day and age it is wholly appropriate to use the singular 'they' following a singular noun where the assignment of a sex only serves to cloud the point with an irrelevant detail.

ThomasL writes:

Wandering back to the original topic, even if Bryan were right about immigrants' aim and definition of freedom being identical, his statement assumes that appreciating something [freedom] is proof of understanding the mechanics of how to produce it.

That is no more necessarily true than the assertion that by admiring a piece of art I prove that I am capable of producing it.

Jim Ancona writes:

When I lived in rural northern New Hampshire, the natives would often remark on the folks who moved there from suburbia in order to "get away from it all" and then immediately showed up at town meeting to set about re-creating the suburban lifestyle they left behind, complete with streetlights, sidewalks and restrictive zoning laws.

Hyena writes:

I think it's clear that we should be more concerned about the effect of immigration on grammar and usage. ¬_¬

agnostic writes:

There's a different, more powerful way that immigration would decrease liberty, inflate the welfare state, etc.

The straightforward, not-so powerful way: immigrants themselves may have biases toward such policies.

But as Bryan extensively documents in MotRV, liberty-curtailing and redistributionist policies are there not necessarily there because those who directly benefit have hijacked the system, but because those who *do not* benefit support them too: men support abortion, young people support social security, the healthy want universal health care, etc. Most people vote for altruistic and idealistic policies, not self-serving cynical ones.

When a mass of low-skilled immigrants arrives, we will have greater inequality in the US (even if global inequality is thereby reduced). Also, we will have a larger share of the population that belongs to a "historically disadvantaged" group.

Will even the doing-OK white voters sit idly by and tolerate our new higher level of inequality? No, not if the past 40 to 50 years is any guide. The majority of whites will want Something To Be Done, just like they've supported similar policies to improve the lot of blacks. These policies will restrict liberty (e.g., the freedom to hire whoever you want) and redistribute wealth from top to bottom. Immigration would make this bad state of things even worse.

Since above-poverty whites will be a majority in the short-run, it's this road to serfdom that we have to worry about -- the one where the majority votes for altruistic and idealistic policies on behalf of a "historically disadvantaged" group. Selfish and cynical immigrants will be too tiny in the short-run for that road to serfdom to threaten us the most.

Publius writes:

I have a friend who is a Democrat that lived in California 10 years ago. He moved to Texas to accept a job as a computer programmer at the same pay rate as he received in California, but his standard of living is much higher because it costs less to live in Texas. He even bought a house, which was impossible in California without incurring a heavy debt load to speculate in a risky asset.

He claims to hate the Texas Republicans and after 10 years of living there, he still has not made the connection between the prosperity he enjoys and smaller government relative to California.

Pat writes:

Good news - David thinks I made a good point.
Bad news - I have terrible grammar!

Sean writes:


My father spent a large part of his life working for the government. He constantly complained about the idiotic waste of it all. Then he started his own business and complained about all the government red tape and taxes.

In all that time, it never occurred to him not to vote democrat.

bjk writes:

Caplan may be right, he may not. Let's conduct an enormous, fateful experiment to find out! For the immigrants benefit, of course. There's not much in it for us.

Chris writes:

Don't people move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to avoid the high taxes of Massachusetts? Don't these same people then vote for the same type of politicians in New Hampshire that caused taxes to be high in Massachusetts? I always thought this was the reason why New Hampshire was trending Democratic in the past few elections.

Ted Craig writes:

Two reasons why immigrants will support bigger government:

1. As pointed out, to them it is smaller government.

2. They like it. I deliver food for Focus:HOPE and many of the people are immigrants from the Middle East. Sometimes one will ask why somebody they know doesn't also receive the packages. I explain there's a process to apply for the program and they need to contact the church that oversees it. They become offended and can't understand why the person can't just be put on the list. The upside of authoritarianism is a sometimes efficient paternalism.

Hyena writes:


That's radically untrue. The costs of living in California are heavily concentrated along the coast.

If you're willing to live in, for example, Hemet, you can purchase houses for less than $60,000.

California, by contrast to Texas, has a much higher concentration of high school and college graduates. It even has a higher percentage of foreign born residents and a lower poverty level. Home values are much greater, of course, and people make about $13,000 more on average.

The reality is that when you come to California, you must compete with smarter, wealthier, higher-earning people who come from all over the world. That's a recipe for high costs of living.

Texas, on the other hand, is like Oklahoma (where I grew up): it has a thin layer of high-earning, educated people who face little competition from the much poorer masses.

liberty writes:

Not only is the singular "they" legitimate, its just unnecessarily rude (especially on a blog) to add a "[sic]" where there is unlikely to be any misunderstanding, or expectation that there was some sort of transcription typo. The purpose of a "[sic]" is not to show off your superior grammar skills - it is to ensure that the reader is able to make sense of the sentence.

David R. Henderson writes:

Good point.
Jim Ancona,
Great example.

guthrie writes:


Not much in it for us? More lower-wage workers mean lower prices for goods and services for 'us' to consume, and freeing others to move into higher-wage-earning lines of work... 'Many hands make light work', and all that... I'd say, just like in the first century of our country when this 'experiment' worked, ‘we’ would get rather a lot out of it... at least as much as them dang immigrants!

bjk writes:

In the libertarian fantasy, we would have $1/hour Filipino servants raising our children, cooking our meals, fighting our wars, and working in our factory. We would have our own foreign servant class, like in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, except that Kuwait and SA have hired the US to fight their wars - we would subcontract that out. We could have the first truly virtual country, where all functions short of voting and eating could be handled by low-paid, at-will foreigners. A win all-round.

guthrie writes:


Why stop there? Why not complete your particular libertarian fantasy and have the Filipino servants handle the feeding tubes, catheters and voting as well?

guthrie writes:

David, my question for you would be thus: did you try to help make the connection for your British neighbors and if so, how difficult was it?

bjk writes:

If the voting were handled by the Filipinos, they would obviously vote themselves higher salaries - then they would have to import Bangladeshis to be their servant class. The inevitable logic of the libertarian philosophy leads Maywood, CA to outsource municipal services to LA - instead of the US bringing in a servant class, the servant class outsources the government to the US. That's one way to achieve charter cities.

shecky writes:

The biggest reason immigration will lead to bigger government: established, deeply rooted, and resentful Americans will call for growing government power in the name of limiting immigration. No speculation involved with this scenario. We've observed this very thing at play for decades. And recent immigrants who fall victim to such majoritarian power plays won't defend themselves by appealing to America's libertarian senses, either, but more likely by collectively lobbying government on their behalf.

The potential for a European influenced North American libertarian paradise died in 1492.

Steve Sailer writes:

The Nixon Administration invented racial quotas in 1969 to attract black voters discriminated against by white Democratic trade unions.

The Nixon Administration made Asian and Hispanic immigrants eligible for affirmative action in 1973.

The Reagan Administration transferred Indian immigrant businessmen from Caucasian to Asian in 1982 so they could benefit from minority set asides in government contracting and low interest SBA loans.

Have all of these moves made these groups eternally grateful to the GOP. Of course not, they just drove them further into the arms of Democratic politicians more committed to preserving these groups' legal privileges than Republican politicians could be counted on being.

If you want immigrants to vote mostly Republican, you first have to take away their racial/ethnic preferences and absorb a number of years of anger from their leadership.

Mitch Oliver writes:

David's anecdote echos what I've heard called "Californication" here in the US. People move from California to escape the oppressive taxation and interference found in California. When they arrive in their new setting (in Publius' anecdote, Texas) they being voting for more spending and government interference, just like they remember having in California.

As a conservative, I echo David's call for Bryan to produce his non-genius before I'll throw any more support behind relaxed immigration standards :-)

Snorri Godhi writes:

Perhaps I can be forgiven a bit of giggling when I see Bryan exposed as a believer in the myth of the rational voter. (I myself accused him of anti-foreigner bias some time ago, if memory serves correctly.)

Let me point out that even immigrants who are driven by economic freedom [as opposed to wealth] can be persuaded to vote for big government. How? by bribing them: by offering special privileges to Latin Americans [in the USA] or Muslims [in Europe].

Even better, by scaring them: convince them that "the right" [which can mean anybody who believes in free markets] are xenophobes. In fact, scaring them is by far the most effective tactic, since many natives will also be scared -- or at least will be feeling guilty.

shecky writes:
convince them that "the right" [which can mean anybody who believes in free markets] are xenophobes.

Historically, this has not been a very difficult job. "The Right" traditionally acted, in all appearances, very much like xenophobes. Maybe this really wasn't the case. But enough are willing to put on a good show regardless. Just look at the Judean People's Front/Tea Partiers and the likes of Glenn Beck.

And to make things worse, "the Right" rarely believes in free markets when the competition gets tough.

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