David R. Henderson  

Caplan On Immigration

Real Estate Time Bomb?... Liberty and Me...

I would say that Bryan Caplan hit a home run with his recent lecture on immigration, but that would be an understatement. Bryan was the Mr. October of economists.

He laid out the arguments beautifully and in the right order, starting with the moral presumption against consigning people by force to a horrible life, and then considering whether there are any prudential considerations that overcome this presumption. He goes through all the standard ones and presents the research results. Bottom line: no. Moreover, he points out, even if you don't buy these arguments totally, there are way more humane methods of handling the problems: residency requirements, English proficiency tests, fees for immigrating, etc. A real tour de force. And if you don't have time to watch the whole 70-minute talk plus 10-minute Q&A, make sure you look at his Powerpoint slides. They're chalk full of information. What you'll miss, though, is Bryan's personality and warmth.

I will take issue with two things. First, he labels the potential arguments against open immigration as "excuses." I've talked to many foes of immigration--some of them are my friends--and I don't think they're mainly making excuses. I think they're making arguments: they're poor arguments, as Bryan shows, but they're not excuses.

Second, in the Q&A, a questioner raises the issue of the minimum wage: would you have to get rid of the minimum wage if you allowed open immigration? Bryan answers correctly that it would help. But then he makes two errors. First, he says that if we didn't get rid of the minimum wage, legal immigrants would just get black-market jobs. That's true, but incomplete. Precisely because they would now be legal, they could comfortably go to a wage board in their state and complain after the fact and get back pay. An employer, looking forward to that outcome, would not hire them. I pointed out here that ironically, the way the minimum wage law is enforced is what gives illegal immigrants (who would no longer be illegal under Bryan's preferred policy) an advantage in the competition for jobs. Illegal immigrants can credibly commit not to turning in a minimum wage violating employer. Legal immigrants can't credibly commit. Bryan's other error is to suggest that enforcing a minimum for native-born people but not for immigrants would help the native-born. No way. Would United Airlines want a pricing restriction that doesn't let it cut fares but lets Southwest do so?

These are small wrinkles, though, in an awesome speech.

Personal note: When Bryan discussed what people would be willing to pay to immigrate, I thought of my own situation as an immigrant in the 1970s. I'll tell one part of that story soon.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (39 to date)
Scott writes:

I think Bryan's use of the word "excuse" was appropriate. He established quite lucidly at the beginning that there is a strong presumption against immigration restrictions. Thus any argument for immigration restrictions is really nothing more than a defense or justification of the status quo, aka, an excuse.

As an immigrant myself, I look forward to hearing about your experience as an immigrant. While I'm quite fortunate as immigrants go-I'm an American living in Spain, a country whose immigration policy is considerably more humane and economically-literate than that of the US-I've gotten to experience firsthand the absurdity and irrationality of what people have to go through just for being born somewhere else.

ThomasL writes:

The fundamental question is whether or not the citizens of a country have any right to restrict immigration under any conditions whatsoever.

I say "whatsoever" because many libertarians qualify the right to immigrate with their own restrictions, such as no communicable diseases, criminal records, or ties to terrorist groups.

I find those restrictions unconvincing. If it would be wrong to deport someone to country X for any of those things, surely it is equally wrong to condemn them to remain in country X for them.

Equally important is the question of where someone derived the right to restrict on those grounds (but presumably not others). It is as if they were unquestionable revelation--
objectively right while any other restrictions are objectively
wrong, rather than acknowledging that even the possibility of restriction involves arbitrariness (and therefore a kind of right to discretion by _somebody_).

My view would tend toward property rights--citizens own their country and derive the right to control immigration from that ownership. That, as a concept, is no more or less arbitrary than the idea of personal property.

And like personal property, you may be right that I use my property unfairly, that it could be put to a better use, and that I might even benefit if I changed my policies. However, it is still mine to do with as I please, not yours to take.

David R. Henderson writes:

Scott writes:
I think Bryan's use of the word "excuse" was appropriate. He established quite lucidly at the beginning that there is a strong presumption against immigration restrictions. Thus any argument for immigration restrictions is really nothing more than a defense or justification of the status quo, aka, an excuse.

I agree that he established that there's a strong presumption. That doesn't mean that anyone who differs from him is making an excuse. I dare say that few people have thought this through as much as Bryan has. So people who haven't come up with the thinking that gets them to this presumption--99+% of the population--aren't making excuses. They're saying what they really believe.

Ella writes:

Wait, is Bryan's argument seriously that being born in Mexico is so hellish and intolerable that it is a human rights violation to "force" someone to stay there?

No one is forcing Mexico to be a hellhole. This country didn't cause, and it's not our responsiblity to change it. This is a freakishly backhanded attempt at nationbuilding, if you think about it.

People can certainly resolve being born into a "horrible life" by moving somewhere else, but there is no reason that that somewhere else has to be the US or that we are "consigning" or "forcing" anyone to have a horrible life by not allowing them to immigrate here.

They could, I don't know, try changing their own country through votes or riots or social upheaval or hard work. Immigrants certainly have no issues organizing and protesting here. Why not in Mexico?

Aaron writes:

I think he makes it very clear that Mexico is not a hellhole when you compare it to the rest of the world. Have you watched the lecture? He talks more about countries where people live on less than a dollar a day. I suppose the argument is the same whether you're talking about Mexico or Haiti though.

Your argument is an easy one to make from the outside, but think about what you're saying. Is it actually feasible to attempt to change things this way? In some countries they will throw you in jail for doing that. I would think that most people are too busy trying to survive to be politically active in that way, even in countries like Mexico.

Before you settle into that position, I would suggest reading some of Dr. Kling's posts on exit vs. voice.

Evan writes:

ThomasL, even if I accepted your argument that citizens own "their" country and can use it irrationally if "they" please your argument that it lead to allowing immigration still fails because it assumes citizens are unanimous. I "own" my country and want to let more people in. If you try to stop me, how are you any less a thief than me?

Furthermore, what about individual property rights? If I own a factory and an apartment building and want to fly in people to peacefully live and work there, someone who tried to stop me would be violating my property rights. Unless you think nations have a right to arbitrarily override property rights, you'd be forced to let me admit those people, even if they were foreign.

ThomasL, I recommend you listen to Arnold Kling and "lose the we." There is no such thing as "we" or "they," choosing to identify or not identify with total strangers based on social labels they have no control over is silly. There is no "us" and "them."

Evan writes:

Sorry, I meant "leads to disallowing immigration" on my last post, not "lead to allowing."

dave smith writes:

Open immigration = nation building?

That's a new one.

Steve Z writes:

Wow, I hope Bryan gives up all of his money to charity. (Perhaps he could keep enough for subsistence so he can continue giving to charity longer.) If he does not, he is allowing people to live in hellholes on less than $1 a day. I hope he also actively invites homeless people into his house.

I have agent relative permission to want my immediate surroundings to be nice, regardless of the suffering in foreign lands. The debate, for me, boils down to whether immigrants will make my country a less-nice place. Is that so hard to understand?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Steve Z.
I'm sure he doesn't give all his money to charity: I've been in his house and he has an awesome collection of CDs and an awesome house. You're right that he is allowing people to live on $1 a day, as are you and as am I. But allowing is not the same as forcing. He's advocating that the U.S. government not use force to keep them in that situation.

David R. Henderson writes:

P.S. Nicely stated, Aaron and Evan.

TimG writes:

I can understand how Bryan lecture could fire up the home team, but as someone who favors restricted immigration, I just don't see how its persuasive to people who favor restricted immigration (ie the majority). Most of the examples seem like strawmen. Americans are different than Haitian. American's built America, Haitian's didn't. People invest in America's commons because their descendants will benefit. If anyone can claim that benefit, then you destroy the incentive to invest.

Honestly Bryan's lecture and to call it a "homerun", just sounds crazy to me.

Steve Z writes:

David: If I foreclose one of many possible better opportunities, I am not forcing you to stay in a bad position. Moral luck doesn't imply moral responsibility, to my mind.

If a murderer is stabbing you and I (along with many other people also watching from their windows) fail to call the cops, I have not forced you to die. The blame falls on the murderer. If you live in a failing state and the US builds a border fence and doesn't allow you to naturalize, that's the US not allowing you in, not forcing you to stay. We don't send armed guards into other countries to invigilate their residents and make sure they don't move anywhere else.

Perhaps a quasi-empirical solution to our debate would be best, since we both seem to identify certain actions with different categories, and this is a persistent debate. One could write up some neutral descriptions of what immigration enforcement entails. Then, have a a large-enough, random group of people read the descriptions and rate on a 5-point scale whether they involve allowing or forcing.

Short of this, it might clarify things to ask--if you did think of immigration enforcement as just not allowing others in, rather than forcing them to not come in, would it make a difference?

ThomasL writes:


(part one)

Shareholders own companies through their stock, are you implying that every shareholders' vote must be unanimous in order to be valid? If not, aren't they abusing the dissenting shareholder's rights to direct the company as they see fit? (Rights no less valid than the affirming shareholders.)

"We" is the only pronoun that fits on certain decisions involving multiple participants.

I'd as well make the argument in a monarchy so I could specifically say "he" or "she", but seeing as this is a republic[ish], "we" is sometimes the only way to go. If I complain that it wasn't "me" it was "them", the politicians, I've only exchanged an indistinct first person, plural, nominative "we" for an equally indistinct third person, plural, accusative "them". It is still indistinct and it still hasn't identified anybody. In reality, it certainly wasn't "me" and it wasn't even "them" either, not the least of which because most our immigration restrictions date from before this crop of politicians was even born. So who was it? Cause the decision got made. "We" is as close as I can get. Can you do better? Can you point to the single person responsible so I can blame them by name instead?

I have no problem with the idea that government is not always "we", but in a democratically-based government, "we" (as in, "We the people...") can be used to refer to the governing majority without implying that it meant universal support.

To wedge that in with my first statement, if, after a shareholders' meeting, I called someone and said, "We decided to do X," or "They decided to buy Y," no one would assume I meant that everyone present was in favor, or necessarily even that I was in favor. Nevertheless, something was decided. So who did it? "Us."

David R. Henderson writes:

I have a sense that you're going just with my brief description of Bryan's talk and not actually listening to the talk itself. True? If so, then I agree that my short description would not convince many people. I was saying that the talk was good, not that my description was sufficient.
@Steve Z,
I am happy with your suggested wording, "immigration enforcement as just not allowing others in." That means using force to keep them out. I agree with you that that's less bad than actually having ICE go to other countries and using force against their citizens. But it's still using force. And that's what distinguishes it from not giving money to charity.

ThomasL writes:


(part two)

Furthermore, what about individual property rights? If I own a factory and an apartment building and want to fly in people to peacefully live and work there, someone who tried to stop me would be violating my property rights. Unless you think nations have a right to arbitrarily override property rights, you'd be forced to let me admit those people, even if they were foreign.

No, I wouldn't. You own argument only even approaches functioning if you keep everyone locked on your own private property like some kind of sweat shop.

It doesn't work very well even then. Living here, they will have a right to expect some services and rights (access to courts, due process, &c.) and are made subject to the laws of that jurisdiction. Being subject to the laws, in this form of government at least, they have a right to have their voices heard in the making of the laws they will be subjected to.

In order to control and make orderly that process, the existing citizens have made up a specific set of requirements and rules to gain entry, and procedures to follow to gain progressively more rights and participation in government (ie, not allowed here at all, just residing, residing and voting, &c.). Those rules are made available so that people desiring to live there will know the process to use to make it happen, and know what they are getting in to once they arrive.

BUT, the important part is, for those rules to have any validity whatsoever, the people that made them (ie, the previous and existing citizens) had to have the RIGHT to make them. If they had the right to make THOSE, they also had a right to make OTHERS, unless you can show me the a comprehensive, OBJECTIVE morality of immigration. For example, "The Lord says immigration must be free and open, except for no persons with communicable diseases, and no persons with more than 4 misdemeanors or 1 felony. Eligibility for voting and social services vests in 5 years."

Short of immigration law based on some objective moral authority, either some entity is sovereign over that territory, and so has the right to set the restrictions they see fit, or all restrictions are in and of themselves evil and no entity posses the right to implement any restriction of any sort. That latter leads to a host of practical problems, but is morally consistent. I don't see the consistency in any argument that admits some restrictions can be made (by whom?), but denies that others can. The reasonableness of either set of restrictions is entirely subjective, and subject to both time and circumstance. I don't like the immigration law that exists now, but I acknowledge that "we" had the right to make it.

Kurbla writes:

I think Bryan's avoids essential arguments for limited immigration.

(1) Solidarity argument is wrong. Immigrants are, on average, younger, better educated, more ambitious. If they immigrate, those who stay in the source country: old, poor, retired, sick - will be worse off. If you allow medical doctor from Mauritania to immigrate in USA, his patients will die. It is big no-no. "Freedom of movement" argument stays, but not the solidarity. USA can allow immigration of those who are in so bad situation, that nobody will be worse off if they immigrate. In that case, I'd have no objections. But, Bryan doesn't advocate that.

(2) Main reason why people do not like immigrants is - that they are afraid of strangers. If you are citizen of Lichtenstein, would you really allow immigration of 50 000 Muslim fundamentalists? USA is bigger, but problem is the same. One can still argue for immigration, but the general case should be openly admitted.

ThomasL writes:


I know exactly what Ella was objecting to. The line, "[C]onsigning people by force to a horrible life," distinctly implies that not allowing people here on their own terms is a positive action against them.

Not allowing anyone and everyone to live in my house might well "consign" them to live in a worse house--and it would be done by force if someone I hadn't invite tried to come in. Very few libertarians would argue with my right to decide who lives in my house though, or shake their heads in moral resignation that I had "consigned... by force" that person to horrible life without the enjoyments of my easy chair and my Netflix subscription.

This argument justifies every strain of socialism imaginable. Aren't you consigning the homeless in this country to a horrible life by not giving them a house? True enough, not giving isn't force (though it is also no moral excuse), but if they moved into a house that was not yet occupied, or failed to pay for one, certainly removing them would require force?

Aren't you consigning the chronically ill in this country to a horrible life by not giving them medical care? Certainly, if their illness denies them the capacity to earn enough to pay for their own care, you will either be forcing someone else to pay for them, or "consigning" them to their fate, not the less harmful to their health or wellbeing for not being done by "force". And for all that, it may well be done by force, if they attempt to obtain care somewhere and force is not being applied to someone else instead.

Aren't you consigning the hungry in this country to a horrible life by not giving them food? If they attempt to take it from grocery store, force will be involved.

The list goes on.

On top of all that, the phrase "consigning... by force" is poorly constructed.

Brian Shelley writes:

Bryan's argument proclaiming that freedom is not diluted by immigrants falls flat. If Bryan is a libertarian authority on this issue, and his argument is that poor, I am convinced of the opposite. All other points he handles well, but I was a little shocked at how poor his explanation was against dilution. Hopefully, Econlog will pursue it a little more.

It bothers me even further that his arguments against rely on an almost Marxist ideological determinism. If religion is sticky, then surely political ideology is as well. Not only will a socialist immigrant stay a socialist, his children are likely to be socialists as well.

Sure, racial attitudes might affect opinions on AFDC or TANF, but to suggest that southern Anglo-saxons are significantly more freedom leaning than foreigners on other issues, like labor union power, because of racial outgroup bias is absurd.

Ella writes:

Aaron, there is a reason that Mexico itself encourages exit over voice. The PTB encourage a mass exodus in order to prohibit change. That indicates that if they stayed there would be a significant societal pressure to change, no? Does knowing that Mexico encourages both its undesirables and its dissidents to emigrate affect your opinion at all?

Yes, open borders is similar to nation building because it assumes a simultaneous moral superiority and moral culpability that, frankly, doesn't exist. We are not responsible for the rest of the world, whether it is wonderful or whether it is horrible. We didn't make or unmake the rest of the world. We are not responsible for fixing their rotten condition and supplying everyone else a better life. Nation building and open borders have a similar, moralistic, and misguided arrogance that assumes that our blessed presence can fix other people's horrible lives. And, conversely, if we don't intervene, we're evil.

No. I reject the moral argument. I am neither "forcing" nor "consigning" anyone to anything. I didn't create their situation. They can blame God if they think it's unfair that they were born in another country. I think it's unfair that Paris Hilton was born rich and thin and Megan McCain got into Columbia. But they didn't "consign" me to being middle class or "force" me to go to a state school. They are not responsible for me.

Evan writes:

ThomasL, your claim that "This argument justifies every strain of socialism imaginable" only works if your claim that the country is collectively owned by all its citizens in the same way an individual owns a home is workable. It isn't. It isn't equivalent to ownership of voting stock either. The country is owned and ruled by the government, an entity which is, if you strip away all the romance from it, an unusually large, unusually nice organized crime syndicate.

Its services are provided for people by force whether they want them or not, and payments for them are extracted by force whether they want those service or not. In a better world these things would be provided privately whenever possible, but they aren't. Just because the government is committing an injustice against people by socializing services, doesn't mean you have a right to compound the injustice by barring entry because they might use them. It would be like if the mafia told you you had to give $100 to every new neighbor that moved in and you then used violence to scare away potential homeowners because you don't want to give up $100.

You say that "they have a right to have their voices heard in the making of the laws they will be subjected to" and that people have a right to control immigration to regulate distribution of that right is an argument that, in similar forms, has been used to justify all sorts of horrible forms of socialism.

It is not moral to claim someone has a "right" to something and then taking away one of their other rights because it conflicts, without even letting them choose what right they prefer! For instance, claiming someone has a right to health care, and then trying to ban fatty foods and cigarettes because they make providing them with health care to expensive! There was recently a (defeated fortunately) bill proposed in the Netherlands to tax stay-at-home moms because since they weren't working the government couldn't recoup the "investment" it had made in their education!

This country isn't "ours." Each bit of land is owned and controlled by individuals and organizations, who are overseen by the government. They have a right to let whomever they want onto their property and it is none of "our" business when they do.

Evan writes:

After I posted that last rather long reply I realized that it might be smart to post a shorter reply so people who didn't feel like wading through my long one would still get the gist of it.

Here goes: I believe that the only appropriate function of government is to prevent the use of force, fraud, and similar things by using police and courts to defend against criminals and a military to defend against invading armies. All other functions it performs are not legitimate. This includes "deciding who can move and live within the geographical area it controls." Therefore, the government has no right to keep people from moving here, unless those people happen to make up an invading army.

The morally legitimate purpose of voting is to hold government agents accountable for their actions, not to decide the ways in which the government tells other, peaceful people what to do.

Ergo, the government has no moral right to restrict immigration. It is merely a peace-keeping service (at least when it's acting legitimately, anyway)and no more "owns" the country than you own your electric company. If it performs other, illegitimate services, you do not have a right to restrict people who consume them. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Nathan Benedict writes:

Short question to opponents of open immigration--numerous times in the speech, Caplan mentioned what he considered better immigration policies than the ones we have currently have. Examples include not letting guest workers vote, charging extra taxes/ entry fees to immigrants, etc.

I have not yet seen anyone address these proposals. If each immigrant does X amount of damage to the U.S.--in the form of importing socialism, lowering native wages, fraying of the American ethos--whatever you want to claim, why not simply charge them 1.5X dollars to come to the U.S.? It's a standard Pareto improvement. If, say, the first million immigrants do little harm but subsequent ones do more, charge a bit more for each subsequent immigrant.

The unwillingness of anyone to seriously consider what should be a simple improvement for everyone is somewhat baffling, especially among allegedly economically inclined libertarians.

agnostic writes:


The problem is not just the harm that immigrants will cause themselves, but rather the harm that results from the natives' own response to a greater population of low-skilled and low-IQ people. Namely, these native voters will altruistically vote for a greater welfare state on behalf of these new immigrants -- *exactly as Bryan's Myth of the Rational Voter thesis would suggest.*

I've pointed this out at least twice before in immigration posts here, but he never explains why his main scholarly idea will not apply to this case, even though the evidence is already there. Just as young people favor greater social security, and just as men favor abortion rights, the doing-OK natives will feel sorry for low-skilled immigrants and want to give them good schools, good health care, good wages... and *cough cough* affordable housing... so that they too can live the American dream.

Bryan never tires of lecturing public choice economists to ditch the view that societal harm comes mostly from interest groups pushing their own agendas, and to look at how voters who have no material interest in welfare state policies nevertheless push them strongly -- out of a sense of compassion.

Thus, it doesn't matter if we silenced immigrants, as long as the native voters will provide a voice for the voiceless, a very well established pattern in voting.

I've out-Caplaned Caplan on this point for... months, maybe half a year, but he still focuses on how to mitigate harm coming from immigrants themselves, when his own worldview should commit him to focusing on how native voters will beef up the welfare state on immigrants' behalf.

Then it becomes clear that this experiment would be hopeless -- voters show no desire to roll back or dismantle social security, medicare, and all the rest, so they're not going to be any different when it's the help-the-newcomers cause. Again, for recent unequivocal evidence, see the widespread support among voters for affordable housing for immigrants -- they didn't rise up and punish pro-immigrant politicians at the voting booth.

agnostic writes:

Getting more constructive, and putting on my Black Swan hat, here is why Bryan's compromising proposals would not work:

1. When we radically alter the biological and cultural make-up of our society, the greatest harm will not come from "known unknowns" -- like how much greater would the welfare rolls get -- but from "unknown unknowns," or sources of danger that we aren't even aware that we aren't aware of.

The Black Plague came from micro-organisms *inside of* fleas, which were *riding on* rats, which were *hiding in* the ships that the sick arrived on. Quarantining the people would have been good, but the harm was spread by the rats. And there had never been a widespread die-off due to rats before (that people knew about anyway), so why bother checking the rats now? Sure are some more rats running around the streets, but the locals can be cut a quick check for that inconvenience.

2. Because these are unknown unknowns, the expected magnitude of their impact cannot be estimated at all, and neither can the probability that a harm of magnitude X will occur. With no estimate of the cost, there can be no compensation through fines, fees, buy-outs, etc.

I don't know the history of the 19th / early 20th C immigration restriction movement, but just imagine what people could have been worried about -- immigrants will depress wages, not speak the language, etc. Could the natives have foreseen that a large chunk of immigrants would be radical labor activists, lob bombs on Wall Street, greatly favor New Deal policies, and have a kid who would assassinate an American president (Czolgosz).

Those would all have been unknown unknowns, given that the New Deal society was not even in existence yet. The massive and long-lasting harms resulting from a radical change in our immigration policy would not even be apparent until long after the fact, past the point of no return. Better not to go down that path in the first place, then.

To get a feel for the wisdom of this reluctance to accept bribes for harm done, ask yourself whether you would accept monetary compensation to the tune of the expected damages if a bunch of street people started squatting in your home. The bureaucrats would make a list of harms done, estimate the magnitude of each, and give you a check for the sum.

But most of the harms done will not be apparent until after the fact, thus will not appear in the list, and because they were no prepared for (being unseen) they will account for the greatest share of the damages.

Not to mention that a lot of these harms are even more subjective in value than most economic valuations are, something that libertarians and Austrians should be better aware of. Think of how widely variable and open-ended are the awards that juries give out -- Bryan's compromises are asking for the same thing, only with immigrants being the guilty party, citizens the plaintiffs, and god even knows who as the jury.

Two Things writes:

Caplan starts and ends with a moral argument: that refusing to invite immigrants is the same as attacking them in their homes-- that America's visa requirement is like bombing Serbia. This is at worst sheer emotional propaganda, intended and proffered to avert, rather than invite, rational consideration of the whole problem, or at best an example of insisting on the less popular answer to the trolleycar problem. I don't see why listeners should agree to Caplan's cart-before-horse moralistic premise before (or after) they confront the pragmatic arguments.

Natives who do not favor immigration are not promoting violence against prospective immigrants. People who attempt to immigrate in violation of the laws adopted by the natives* are the "violent" ones; they are the ones initiating force (since they could just stay home peacefully) and any force used by the native police to exclude them is purely defensive. Unwanted immigrants are invaders. Private persons may exclude trespassers from their homes. Political communities may exclude invaders from their territories.

Caplan's example of native citizens touring abroad refused readmission to their homeland is entirely inapposite. By definition a citizen is a member of the native community with residential and political rights. To exile a citizen would be an attack on him. To exclude an alien (a non-citizen) is no attack at all. Millennia of Western law (and Eastern, I believe, though I have much less expertise on it) agree on these points. History is full of disputes over the facts in one case or another (who is or isn't a citizen, when a given ruler may properly exile someone or admit someone else...) but rarely over the principle that some people are insiders and others outsiders, that status derives chiefly from community membership by birth, and that it is not a moral offense to merely exclude an outsider, however wrong it might be to attack him or steal from him or even leave him bleeding beside the road after someone else has assaulted him.

(Of course there are no nationalities in lifeboats, but at the same time, all emotionally and rationally mature people recognize that the "micro" rules vary with circumstances. Telling a prospective immigrant that he is not welcome merely leaves him at home in his own country, no better or worse off than before, it does not toss him out of a lifeboat.)

Really, Caplan's gigantic strawman shows how weak his argument really is: by replacing the actual foreigners whose immigration we are supposedly considering with hypothetical natives we might cruelly and unlawfully exile, Caplan appeals to a solicitude toward members of the community on which aliens have no vested claim.

Caplan's politico-economic arguments are full of holes and the fulsome praise they have garnered from a few like-minded economists appears to reflect confirmation bias rather than cool intellectual appraisal. In fact, one of Caplan's arguments is nearly an own-goal and yet none of his reviewers mentions that.

@ Despite handwaving in the opposite direction, Caplan actually argues that unrestricted immigration would reduce wages severely. He specifically claims that immigration would slow to a trickle when wages (net of living costs) had fallen to the point where the marginal gain to immigrants (over their home country wages) of immigrating was approximately nil. Caplan is undoubtedly correct on this, but he glosses over the implication: immigration will slow when low-skilled labor in the US earns no more than (Caplan's phrase) "$1 a day" and lives in the squalor of the undeveloped world. Most natives do not want their pleasant home cities to turn into Rio De Janeiro-- favelas, kidnapping, police brutality, and all.

@ Caplan confuses costs and benefits. He says that the astonishing immigration influx to California was good because it pushed up real estate prices! That is bad for natives, not good for them, which is why Census data shows they're fleeing California as immigration drives down wages and drives up housing prices in good neighborhoods-- those with fewer low-skilled immigrants!** Economists usually cheer when the relative price of some good falls, typically due to improved productivity or better substitutes. Why should we analyze housing prices differently?

@ Why are "good neigborhoods" those with fewer low-skilled immigrants? Because despite Caplan's misdirection about how most descendants of Mexican immigrants learn to speak English (sometimes poorly), the relevant facts are that the descendants of Mexican immigrants do not, even unto the 5th generation, assimilate to anywhere near native educational levels or culture. (Heck, Hispanics do much worse in high school than blacks(!).) We don't have similar analyses of comparable data sets for immigrants from other source countries, but we do have work like Garrett Jones' which shows that immigrants perform in the US at levels predicted by their home countries' IQ's. The sets of "low IQ" and "poor" countries largely overlap. No rational analyst would encourage low-IQ immigration!

("Good neighborhoods" are those having "good schools." It may be perverse but the accepted definition of a "good school" in America is one filled with students who make high scores on standardized tests. Students' test scores are simply a proxy for the IQ's of those students and their parents. Low-wage immigrants have low IQ's and low IQ children who make low test scores, so they reduce the "goodness" of any schools they enroll in.)

@ The supposed "cultural" primacy of Los Angeles and New York depends on their respective very high IQ communities of writers, entertainers, filmmakers, financiers, etc., not on their vast supplies of low-IQ immigrants-- except to the extent that cheap immigrant labor makes it possible for the cultural elites to spend a lot of time hobnobbing in restaurants staffed by low-wage immigrants while other low-wage immigrants clean their homes and watch their babies and wash their cars. (ND a cultural wasteland because it lacks immigrants? Pish. It's an actual wasteland: population density 9.3/mile² vs. whole-US 86/mile² and Los Angeles 7000/mile²; AK has only 1.2/mile². Of course little "culture" comes from so few people. AL? Perhaps the lowest-average-IQ state? Pish on that too.) There is no evidence that low-skill immigrants contribute anything of significance to US literate culture.

@ Caplan relies heavily on Julian Simon, but Simon's arguments have two huge holes in them (neither of which implicates Simpson's Paradox): (1) Simon predicts that the effects of unlimited immigration would be the same as the effects of restricted immigration; (2) Simon averages the performance of high- and low-skilled immigrants in his statistical comparisons with natives. Simon wishes us to believe that we have already seen the effects of unlimited low-skilled immigration and they are benign. To the contrary, even the high rate of illegal immigration we have experienced is nothing compared to the tsunami of immigration Simon and Caplan propose to invite.

Simon's modern statistics are drawn from an era of restricted immigration (even illegal immigration is throttled by a certain level of enforcement) of people mainly from developed countries (Mexico is a developed country by world standards). It is folly to assume much greater immigration of much lower-quality people (Haitians, anyone?) would have no different effects, especially given the other problem with Simon's stuff: averaging the performance of very different groups of immigrants is improper. It's like averaging my wealth with Bill Gates' and claiming that proves I'm a billionaire. It's very misleading to average William Shatner's and Sergey Brin's (or Ayn Rand's, or Isaac Asimov's) impacts on American culture, or tax payments, or welfare dependency with the corresponding effects of semi-literate strawberry pickers and their offspring. Simon claims immigrants pay more in taxes than they take in social spending. That is simply wrong because he does not account for social spending on immigrants' children or costs imposed by criminal aliens, but it's more subtly wrong because of his averaging problem. Low-skilled immigrants clearly do not pay their own way. Simon could make a strong case for selective immigration but he chose to make an intellectually-dishonest case for unlimited immigration.

(The "comparative advantage" argument for low-skilled immigration is incomplete. We know for sure that there is only weak demand for low-skilled labor, because such labor earns only low wages! Low-skilled labor is a complement to other factors of production. If the supply of low-skilled labor increases without any increase in the supply of other factors, the price (wages) of low-skilled labor will fall, possibly to zero or anyway below subsistence, which is actually negative on a macro level as unemployed laborers will draw on welfare and substitute criminal activity for employment.)

@ Caplan claims that all the objections to immigration which he is willing to consider may be obviated by simply changing American laws in a more libertarian direction, as if that were readily feasible. Low-skilled immigrants will draw social spending? "No problem-- just make them ineligible," says Caplan. Look, low-IQ immigrant children are devastating California's government schools right now. Caplan can't even get a school voucher plan passed, but he's going to get all the immigrant kids thrown out of the government schools? Like Hell he will. Of all the planks in the Libertarian platform, unlimited immigration should be enacted last, since doing things the other way 'round would amount to an assault on the taxpayer of unprecedented fury.

@ Caplan's insouciance toward the realities of politics seems linked to his disdain for the realities of the immigration question. He seems to think his reductio-- that if we propose to exclude undesirable immigrants we should be equally willing to exile undesirable natives-- proves his case. In fact it just makes him look silly, because most people regard the distinction between natives and prospective immigrants as crucial. Sure, some of the natives are benighted. In any large family some of the children are dull. Their parents still try to protect them! The voters wish to protect all the natives against the evils which would eventuate from unlimited immigration. Saying "there's trouble at home already" provokes rational people to respond: "then let's not add to it!"

*Yes, laws can be so wicked that they are void for immorality. No, neither I nor most of the people of the world think exclusionary immigration laws are so wicked.

**Really, the housing-price bubble was caused by government policy more-or-less distinct from immigration policy. Without the combination of land-use restrictions and Federal subsidies to housing purchases housing prices would not have risen so quickly, though immigrants may have added to the home-mortgage fraud problem.

Ed Hanson writes:


Unlike you, I have find myself disagreeing with many points Bryan makes. What follows is one.

Bryan spends a goodly amount time of his lecture that current US immigration policy has not greatly effected American culture, at least, detrimentally. I have little problem with his demonstration of that fact.

But his mistake in logic is his presumption that since limited immigration does not threaten American culture, then unlimited immigration would also not threaten American culture.

To refute that logic, one only has to look at recent human experience. Native American Indians, which defined American culture just a few hundred years ago had an unlimited immigration policy. I do not know a single person today who thinks the current American culture is that same Indian culture.

Ben writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

jake writes:

Thanks for sharing this awesome lecture. It finally pushed me over the line when it comes to immigration policy.

Nathan Benedict writes:

agnostic--Did you listen to the part of Caplan's speech where he said that racial diversity tends to make people less in favor of the welfare state? Do you reject this empirical evidence?

One more question to opponents of open immigration. Do you believe that internal immigration is a natural human right, akin to free speech and due process of law--that all governments should guarantee--or merely a policy choice?

There are currently countries in the world in which citizens require permission to move from one city or province to another. It seems to me that every practical or consequentialist argument used to oppose open international immigration--spread of disease, terrorism, crime, changed cultures, lowering of wages, etc.--can be used to justify such policies. I see no reason why a person from a poorer, high-crime state like Alabama has the "right" to move to (and bring down) a nicer place like New Hampshire while a person from Mexico has no such right to do the same thing in Arizona.

Drawing a distinction at the "country" line seems very artificial. Some countries, like the U.S., Singapore, Suriname, and Switzerland, have marked cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and racial diversity. Others like Japan are very homogeneous. Some are very federalist, with individual states having a variety of rights, while others have more centralized governments. Defining what is and isn't a country just isn't that simple. Queen Elizabeth is the nominal head of state of Scotland, Wales, and Canada, but you need a passport to travel from Scotland to Canada, but not Scotland to Wales. The EU is similar to the United States, but still far less centralized. Should it be counted as a single "country" for purposes of determining rights to immigrate? What if it gets slightly more centralized? At what point does a right to move from place A to B arise? At some point, you have to either accept that there is no fundamental right to go anywhere accept by government fiat, or draw some arbitrary line in the sand and say that on one side, travel and immigration are fundamental rights, while on the other, they're privileges bestowed by government.

Ben writes:

I don't understand why the effect of immigrants on American culture is necessarily a concern. If they live here, why shouldn't they influence the culture? It will be "their" culture as much as anyone's. Suppose that immigrants and their children don't learn English but continue to speak their native language. So what? That's their choice. Either learn to speak their language or don't talk to them. How is their refusal to conform automatically a negative? How is rejecting immigrants because of their different practices, beliefs, languages, etc., or that they might cause others to change their practices, beliefs, etc. anything but intolerance?

Our culture is not sacred. American culture is not what is was in 1776. Is that entirely a bad thing? I doubt anyone is completely satisfied with the current American culture. Libertarians, for example, are trying to change the culture to be more tolerant of other people's choices. Why is altering a culture a bad thing only when immigrants do it?

I like the point about immigration from Alabama to New Hampshire vs. immigration from Mexico to the United States.

TimG writes:

To David Henderson

I have a sense that you're going just with my brief description of Bryan's talk and not actually listening to the talk itself. True? If so, then I agree that my short description would not convince many people. I was saying that the talk was good, not that my description was sufficient.

No, I listened to Bryan's talk and I even commented on his post, before I made my comment here. I just don't see how Bryan's lecture would be persuasive to most people. I commented on your post because it just sounds so crazy to me and tonedeaf to call Bryan's lecture a "homerun" or that the he "laid out the arguments beautifully and in the right order".

Like I said before, I can see how Bryan's talk would fire up the home team, but to people who are against open immigration (empirically most people) just see Bryan's talk as hand waving at straw men. See Two Turns great comment above for some examples.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

Just a quick comment, there seems to be some schizophrenia going around in the collective mind of the EconLog community right now. 'We' have a lot of Deontological and Consequentialist arguments sorta all mashed together but 'we' haven't set out our first principles clearly. I know that most individuals employ some mix of both types of reasoning but even if that is the case 'we' have to set out who wins ties, how conflicts are resolved, etc.

If 'we' are Deontologists and there is a moral imperative to open borders then who cares what the consequences are? 'We' HAVE to do it. If such a moral imperative does not exist then does it matter what 'we' do? Consider consequentialist arguments? Do nothing?

If 'we' are Consequentialists then no 'moral' arguments exist except, "what are the consequences of open immigration?" As we disagree about the consequences, are there any actions which ALL parties agree are beneficial?

Two Things writes:

The acid test: would Caplan allow unlimited immigration of Eastern European Gypsies?

We can be nearly certain Gypsies and their offspring would cost society much more than they would ever produce.

If we can keep out the Gypsies, why can't we keep out less obnoxious people as well?

Evan writes:

I'm sure Caplan would be happy to let in Gypsies since he probably didn't get his information about them from a paternalistic racist like Steve Sailer (okay okay, paternalistic citizenist if you insist).

That being said, even if Sailer's allegations about Gypsy behavior are true, it doesn't mean they'd act the same way in America that they do in Europe. European countries are notoriously bad at assimilating immigrants, compare the Muslim population of France with the Muslim population of Michigan and you'll notice the later is considerably better-behaved.

D writes:

Steve rarely talks about Gypsies.

However, there seems to be a lot of unanimity about them even among the most liberal of Europeans or Americans who have been around them. Therefore I think Two Things' question is actually a great one and nails the issue most of us have with any open borders argument.

agnostic writes:

"Did you listen to the part of Caplan's speech where he said that racial diversity tends to make people less in favor of the welfare state? Do you reject this empirical evidence?"

There's an association but not a causation. We differ in all sorts of ways from racially homogeneous / bigger welfare state societies. The easiest reality checks of causation are always ones that track both variables over time.

As America has become more racially diverse, has the welfare state grown or shrunken? Now, you can wave your hands and say it would have grown even larger if our racial make-up was like Sweden's, but you have no way of supporting that conjecture.

The key point remains: more diversity leads to a larger welfare state. The foundation of the welfare state is to protect the disadvantaged, the down-on-their-luck, the historically marginalized, etc. With more low-skilled or low-IQ people, the welfare state will have more to take care of.

And remember it's not just an expansion of existing welfare state structures but the invention of entirely new ones -- like affirmative action. You can expect to see more of those with unlimited immigration, and again you can't even predict what they'll look like or cover, just as no one in 1900 could have foreseen the present-day affirmative action industry.

Again look at just the recent history of the widespread support for no-doc loans and affordable homeownership for low-skilled Central American immigrants. No hypotheticals or theories -- just check reality and see how unwilling we are to exclude them from welfare state benefits.

Aaron writes:

@ Ella

Aaron, there is a reason that Mexico itself encourages exit over voice. The PTB encourage a mass exodus in order to prohibit change. That indicates that if they stayed there would be a significant societal pressure to change, no? Does knowing that Mexico encourages both its undesirables and its dissidents to emigrate affect your opinion at all?

No. Should it? I think you are describing a policy that's relevant to a tiny percentage of immigrants. People don't leave Mexico because they dislike the government's policy, they leave to give their families a better life.

immigration writes:

I definitely feel that whether someone is for or against immigration, Caplan’s incredibly laid out plans and viewpoints, along with incredible facts, makes for an incredible stance and presentation. This is definitely worth watching!

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