Bryan Caplan  

Immigration Restrictions: A Solution in Search of a Problem

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The video and slides from this week's GMU Econ Society/FFF talk are up.  They're easier to follow if you watch them in tandem.

P.S. FFF president Jacob Hornberger's review is enough to make me blush.

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Mercer writes:

I don't think immigration critics think Latinos come to be idle on welfare. The American welfare state does not just pay welfare. It also pays for public schooling and for medical care. These are what make low skilled immigrants a drain on taxpayers.

You state the solution to this is to deny immigrants benefits. The new health law moves in the opposite direction by expanding health benefits for legal immigrants. Since the law is moving in the opposite direction from your solution are you willing to pause in your advocacy for more low skilled immigrants until benefits are curtailed or do you still want open borders regardless of the consequences for taxpayers? If you choose the latter look at California for a preview for America's future.

Salem writes:

I think you gloss over the issue of entitlements too easily by saying that if necessary immigrants can be denied welfare or voting rights. It is certainly possible to have mass immigration under that model - see e.g. the UAE. But is that compatible with democratic processes?

In the USA, any group lacking an entitlement becomes a potential political constituency. If your new wave of immigrants can vote but cannot receive benefits, what is to stop them from voting themselves benefits, in alliance with statist natives? If your new wave of immigrants cannot vote, then one party will seek to grant them that right, hoping to have a permanent voter bank.

It is all very well saying that we can adopt such-and-such a policy to mitigate the harms, but unless that policy is democratically stable, it will not last - and any proposal that essentially creates a second-class citizenry is unstable. Hence entry fees are workable, but a surtax is not.

Evan writes:

Mercer, I don't see why we should stop people from emigrating just because they're currently eligible for receiving benefits payed by our tax dollars. It's not like we'd get that money back if we kept them out. The government would just spend it on something else stupid.

People who complain that immigrants are getting "our money" when they take benefits act like the immigrants are personally robbing them, and that they'd get that money back if immigration was curtailed. In fact, the government would just spend that money on some other stupid program for something else. You should get mad at the government for taking your money in the first place, not at immigrants for receiving it from them.

It is the nature of humans to respond to incentives, so getting mad at people who do so is foolish. You should instead get mad at the people who create the incentives (i.e. the politicians).

Also, California looks like a fairly decent place to live, all things considered. There is that bankruptcy problem, but it was again caused by politicians, not immigrants.

Nathan writes:

"The American welfare state does not just pay welfare. It also pays for public schooling and for medical care. These are what make low skilled immigrants a drain on taxpayers."

And yet a common argument used by liberals (and to a lesser extent, everyone who's not libertarian) is that education and health care create a positive return on investment for society. If this is the case, we should welcome immigrant children with open arms, as a penny spent educating them today will turn into dollars in productivity and taxes in twenty years.

Excluding anyone from such a strong return-generating machine is like having a magic system that's guaranteed to beat the stock market and then refusing to buy on margin.

Nathan Smith writes:

Good lecture, though I think it's necessary explicitly to champion civil disobedience if the terrible sin (and folly) of immigration restrictions is to be erased from the national conscience.

I think Bryan handles the public choice side of immigration pretty well. If it were understood that it's just wrong to keep people out, but acceptable to use the tax-and-transfer system to make open borders Pareto-optimal, that would be politically sustainable too. The key is that people's moral ideas need to change. The blindness of Americans to the fact that immigration restrictions are morally intolerable is comparable to the blindness of Southerners in the 1840s to the fact that slavery is morally intolerable, or of many Americans in the 1930s to the moral evil of segregation. The verdict of reason is clear, as Bryan does a good job of showing. But it needs to be made as obvious to future generations of Americans as it is to us that slavery is wrong.

To Mercer: California is better than Haiti. 'Nuff said.

Michael Wiebe writes:

Do you have a list of recommended readings on immigration?

Jaap writes:

someone should show this to mr. Wilders, the anti-immigrant/anti-muslim politician from the Netherlands.
he had research done by the dutch economical institute Nyfer. the paper concluded it cost the dutch taxpayer E7.2 billion a year to have a inflow of 25,000 immigrants plus the same amount of descendants. unfortunately I couldn't find an english exerpt.

time for a book called: Selfish reasons to have more immigrants?

TimG writes:

It seems unpersuasive to me to try and claim open immigration as the presumptive position when that is not the legal or popular norm. If the case for open immigration is so strong, then the starting point shouldn't matter so much.

I am always frustrated by Bryan's immigration posts because I he never seems to characterize the other side fairly. For example, on slide 5 he claims

Estimates this wage effect are small. Even Borjas claims just a 4.8% reduction in native drop-outs’ wages from decades of immigration.

This is an empirical statement, in the context of 20-30 million legal and illegal immigrants coming in a restricted and somewhat controlled manner over course of the last two decades. How can Bryan reasonably imply this would continue if say 10% of his 1 billion people living on a dollar a day want to come in the next decade. Also Bryan claims that Borjas study shows that native semi-skilled labor isn't affected, and maybe it does in the context of our current restricted immigration system. But if Bryan advocating for open immigration, what about the other 5.5 billion people in the world, of which many are semi-skilled and speak English? This from an economics professor?

arnoll writes:

Bryan, I am troubled by your view that immigrants are not voting for statism. At least in Denmark, they recently polled immigrants, which showed a whopping 95.2% support for the socialist opposition parties, and a mere 4.3% support for the ruling government parties, which among the total population has a support of around 49%. I would like to know if the numbers are similar in other European countries?

I can also assure you that crime among immigrants is higher in Denmark than among the native population. Immigrants make up around 9% of the population, but 20% of the prison population.

It is true that the US has a high immigration rate, but the immigrants to the US come from very different countries than those coming to Europe. I suggest you look more into the evidence from Europe to get a more nuanced view of immigration.

Brian Moore writes:


"But if Bryan advocating for open immigration, what about the other 5.5 billion people in the world, of which many are semi-skilled and speak English? This from an economics professor?"

That's what he addresses with the line: "Under open borders, low-skill wages would fall and rents would rise long before a billion people showed up." The past 2 years of recession have shown that even low-cost immigration from Mexico is affected by bad economic conditions here. How do you think they affect immigration from places that it is far more expensive to come from, like Asia?

That's the interesting finding of the Peri/Oct paper (if I remember it correctly) -- that immigrants compete with previous immigrants for jobs. Immigration is a diminishing returns scenario for immigrants, but not for the majority of natives, which imposes a long term natural limitation on the number of immigrants. Yes, you may believe that living on welfare here and unemployed is superior to staying in your home country, but the fact remains that leaving one's country and coming to America is very expensive for most people (i.e. everyone who isn't Mexican or Canadian) and even for those nearby countries, they are influenced by the job opportunities here -- as evidenced by the last 2 years of reduced immigration from Mexico.

Matt Skene writes:

I really liked the talk and agreed with the conclusions. I thought, though, that it was worth pointing out that when you said every moral theory supported your initial claim that immigration restrictions are prima facie wrong, you weren't quite right. There is at least one serious moral theory according to which immigration restrictions aren't necessarily prima facie immoral: social contract theory.

Those who endorse social contract theory as a basis for morality (rather than just a reason to create a government) believe that our moral duties are defined by and limited to the contract. Hobbes, for example, developed the view to explain how morality grows out of mutual self-interest. On this view, we agree to be moral as part of a contract with those we think can benefit us. Anyone who is not a party to the contract, however, has no moral standing with the group, so treatment of them isn't a moral issue.

This point is of more than just academic interest. Many people who object to immigration seem to be thinking something along these lines: a country sets a contract that defines our obligations to one another, and we have none to outsiders unless we decide to let them in on the contract. Given this, we don't have to consider effects on them caused by our national policies. Most actual proponents of immigration restriction are probably acting on residual tribalism rather than an express defense of such a view, but there is a view they could fall back on if pressed. (This holds even though few contemporary academic proponents would advocate developing a contract that isn't broadly inclusive. As with most academic views, the efforts to make false views seem more palatable have no effect at all on those whose actions are in accordance with them in broad outline.)

To convince this sort of opponent, establishing that their burden hasn't been met isn't sufficient, since they wouldn't have accepted the burden in the first place. What you would actually need to convince them of is that the extension of the contract, or the tribe, will benefit them in ways that justify whatever burdens come with feeling associated with the new members as part of their group. Sadly, irrational bias is likely to make this last part nearly impossible. The idea that new members add something good to a group suggests that the current members aren't already providing it, and hurts their pride. The more superior they feel to the new additions in question, the greater the perceived insult will be, and the harder it will be to get them to look past it to hear your explanation.

TimG writes:


I'm confused, is Bryan claiming that wage effects will be small or large?

Citing the Borjas paper makes it sound like he is saying the wage effects will be small (and that Americans are making "excuses" to worry about it). Saying that wages will be bid so low that the cost of living will prevent people who are currently living in third world slums on less than a dollar a day to not want to come here makes the wage effect sound large.

I also get confused on the claim as to whether immigrants compete with native skilled workers. I would say looking backward that generally immigrants haven't competed with native workers because the number of legal immigrants has been greatly restricted, and legal status is more important for skilled jobs held by Americans. If we change this to open borders, I don't see why any of the past empirical work holds and I believe a significant fraction of the worlds 6.5 billion people would want to come to the US. Many (hundreds of million) of those will be semi-skilled and able to speak English, competing with America's middle and professional classes.

Mexico isn't a good example, its much richer than most of the third world. And again, even Mexican immigration is greatly restricted, being illegal makes it harder to work in the US. If we have no restrictions on immigration, maybe immigrants would prefer to stay and compete on price in occupations that aren't practical for someone with illegal status.

Steve Z writes:

False imprisonment is an intentional tort, recognized by the common law. One does not commit false imprisonment by locking one's doors so as to keep some other out, one commits it by locking one's doors so as to keep someone else in. If someone breaks their shoulder trying to force your door open, you have not battered them. In short, Bryan's moral argument regarding force fails, because he assumes the conclusion that keeping illegal immigrants out is unprivileged force. The ground norm is that one who is trying to break in is the initiator of force, and reasonable force used to keep him out, or eject him, is privileged.

Bryan's suggestions to accommodate immigrants are wonderful in theory but unlikely as a matter of political reality, as Agnostic explained. It seems like an imaginary spoon full of sugar to make the medicine of open borders go down in a most delightful way.

I wonder if this all really boils down to guilt at not being born in the third world. I sometimes ponder whether people in the third world ever feel guilty that they were born at all, as opposed to dying at birth--surely they're also the lucky ones; I can tell via revealed preference, since they don't kill themselves. I don't know where existential guilt ends.

In any case, nobody is a pure utilitarian in practice, even Peter Singer. At most, we are bounded utilitarians. This being said, one could make the argument that immigration restrictions are better for third world countries even on utilitarian grounds.

First, without easy escape, third world countries might be more likely to improve, as their best and brightest remain. Second, it could be that, with the right mix of people, first world countries are more likely to generate innovations that eventually trickle down to third world countries--for instance, Merck cured River Blindness. Contrariwise, open borders everywhere might make it impossible to have a true first world country, the engine of innovation, anywhere.

Ideally, I would like to see smaller-scale, more competitive government, across the world--of the sort Arnold has been talking up lately. That way, acolytes of Julian Simon could live in Julian Simonville, and we'd see the results of open borders in just a few decades.

scineram writes:

"Matt Skene writes:

Those who endorse social contract theory as a basis for morality (rather than just a reason to create a government) believe that our moral duties are defined by and limited to the contract. Hobbes, for example, developed the view to explain how morality grows out of mutual self-interest. On this view, we agree to be moral as part of a contract with those we think can benefit us. Anyone who is not a party to the contract, however, has no moral standing with the group, so treatment of them isn't a moral issue."

So annihilating Australia is like exterminating cockroaches? What a nice moral theory this social contract is!

sourcreamus writes:

Your solutions to problems associated with immigration are very good but they are not currently on the table. The choice is not immigration by those who pass a test, pay a fee, and never vote. The choice is immigration by poor people who prefer their own culture and at some point will vote for the statist party. A country where a politician could propose free immigration and the solutions you propose without immediately being shouted down as a rascist would be a great but it is not this country.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The best argument against anti-immigration is the historical one.

The US has often had a HIGHER percentage of foreign-born citizens than today, with periods of massive immigration, yet wages did not go down, the country became wealthier.

Moreover, people have ALWAYS argued against immigration to the US, and they have ALWAYS been wrong.

I'll offer a few examples:

1912 - Eugene Hecker writes "Prohibition of Immigration is necessary for the workingman and employer alike. It will lead to an automative adjustment of labor troubles, to a higher standard of living, to an increase of the american birthrate, and to more even distribution of wealth"

1911 - The San Francisco Asiatic Exclusion League is worried about the "Oriental invasion" and says we must "redouble our efforts in stemming the tide of an influx which threatens the very life of this Republic"

1882 - The American Party stated "The only serious difficulty the American laborer now arises from the competition with mechanics and workingmen who are being imported into this country."

1856 - The Know-Nothing Party platform of 1856 reads "Repeal of all Naturalization Laws", "Hostility to all Papal influences when brought to bear against the Republic", "The sending back of all foreign paupers", and "The advocacy of a sound, healthy and safe Nationality".

1798 - Alien & Sedition Acts - our first "war on terrorism" on "dangerous immigrants"

1782 - Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.VIII: "[foreigners] will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass... "

gail lightfoot writes:

What difference does being an immigrant make to the poor benefiting from education or anything else we agree to provide to all people equally?

Gilbert Reeser writes:

How do you conduct a literacy test when you do not control the borders? Same with an admission fee.

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