Bryan Caplan  

The Political Externalities of Open Borders: Digest Version

Price Discrimination Explains ... A Must Read...
"How can the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter favor open borders?"  I've heard the question dozens of times.  Once you admit that (a) democracy does what voters want, (b) voters irrationally oppose markets and liberty, (c) voters from less pro-market and pro-liberty lands are probably even more irrational than we are, doesn't the case for strict immigration restriction readily follow?

No.  I've explained why more than once.  But since what we have here is a failure to communicate, I'm now going to state my position as briefly and bluntly as possible.

1. Open borders are an extremely important component of the free market and human liberty.  The labor market is roughly 70% of the economy.  Labor is the main product that most people around the world have to sell.  Immigration restrictions massively distort this market, and deprive literally billions of people of the freedom to sell their labor to willing employers.  So even if open borders made all other policies much less pro-market and pro-liberty, the (open borders + side effects thereof) package would almost certainly constitute a net gain for free markets and liberty.

2. The political effect of immigrants on markets and liberty is at worst modestly negative.  The median American isn't a libertarian, and the median immigrant isn't a Stalinist.  We're talking about marginal disagreements between social democrats, nothing more.  Immigrants' low voter turnout and status quo bias further dilute immigrants' negative political effect.

3. Immigrants have overlooked positive effects for markets and liberty.  Voters resent supporting outgroups; that's a standard explanation for why ethnically diverse America has a smaller welfare state than, say, Denmark.  So even if all immigrants want a bigger welfare state, their very presence reduces native support for redistribution.  Immigrants are also markedly more pro-liberty and pro-market than natives in one vital respect: They favor more open borders.

But in the final analysis, perhaps it's best to respond to the political externalities question with another question: "If you favor markets and liberty, how can you oppose the deportation of the entire statist generation?"  Native voters under 30 are more hostile to markets and liberty than immigrants ever were.  Why not just kick them out?  Part of your answer, hopefully, is that mass deportation would be a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything voters under 30 are likely to manage.  My position in a sentence, similarly, is that immigration restrictions are a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything immigrant voters are likely to manage.

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Hyena writes:

Does that control for education? More educated people think more like economists and have more liberal social attitudes. Ergo....

Patrick writes:

I repeat my call for a debate with Steve Sailer. I really want to see who can make the stronger case. Please please please.

Doug writes:

If you're talking about deviation from true free markets, let's consider what North American would look like under steady-state anarcho-capitalism. What would be the natural quantity and level of immigration from the Southern spanish speaking region to the Northern predominately Anglo region?

One thing we can be sure of is that any protection agency/large land owner would only let in immigrants if
1) Their marginal revenue exceeded their marginal cost, and
2) Their disruption wasn't enough to overly dissatisfy or drive away existing customers, in addition
3) We can probably say that when the immigrants arrived they would have little to no long-term guarantees of settlement for them or their offspring until after a tentative period.

Do any of these things cases sound strong for the typical Mexican immigrant (especially illegal)? 1) May be true, may not be true. Immigrants do pay into taxes, but they draw huge amounts in education, medical and law enforcement expenses. 2) Isn't true, at least not in high immigration areas in the Southwest. The AZ law is evidence of that.

Point 3) definitely doesn't match reality. Modern democracies are kind of hard to compare to AnCap corporate pseudo-states, because US citizens are both the customers and something of a shareholder. In the context of the latter the political externality you mention has a direct analogy: equity dilution. This would be analogous to a rule forcing any protection agency for some reason to anyone it let in? How much immigration do you think would be tolerated in this scenario?

I'm not saying that in AnCap immigration levels will be as low as they are today. The United States government is run far worse than anything you'd see among competing protection agencies or micro-states. In addition it has a bizarre/byzantine corporate structure that we only think of being normal because we live with it.

In reality micro-states would have much tighter expense controls, and much better civic and crime management, and most importantly the ability to throw out trouble makers (let alone not giving every Tom, Dick and Harry who stumbles in a few shares). The ability to absorb large number of immigrants with minimal disruptions would far outstrip what our government can achieve today.

However the reality is that competitive government/anarcho-capitalism does not exist. Our government is lumbering, expensive, and inefficient. If Lada cars are a lot worse than BMW cars, the way to get them up to quality isn't to start selling exactly the Lada version of the upscale 3 series right off the bat. This would be disastrous given Lada's existing management. To improve Lada first get it up to Western business standards. That means running a profitable enterprise, which may mean going downscale before they can go upscale.

If our government was broken down and privatized into a bunch of micro-states, unskilled immigration would fall dramatically before rising. Because at current governance levels and rules low skill immigration is very unprofitable.

Jaap writes:

Part of your answer, hopefully, is that mass deportation would be a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything voters under 30 are likely to manage.

doesn't this rhyme with the way the Western world is treating/wants to treat muslims? if you use racial profiling, offshore detainment like Gitmo, torture, violation of freedom of speech, is your country not slowly turning into what you are trying to keep out?

Ed Hanson writes:


I asked this question before in a different form, but got no response.

What is the difference between open borders as you promote and migration?

Previously I used the example I am most familiar, the open border policy by Native Americans. There can be no question that its culture was devastated. However there has been many more historical instances of demise of culture through migration.

JPIrving writes:

I respect your view but wish you would extend your analysis to the situation of Islamic immigration to Europe.

I will certainly admit that we cannot forecast demographics perfectly. However, the reasonable forecast today is for France, UK, and Netherlands to be majority or nearly majority Muslim before the century's close. This is huge. Were this to happen the harm to freedom would be comparable to the rise of a fascist or communist party, and made worse by its effective irreversibility. There are no free Muslim countries.

Also, if immigrants tended to have lower genetic IQ than natives (i.e. improved environment would not make their children the equals of natives on the average) would that not also be a long run risk to freedom? Your own research shows that economic literacy is strongly affected by IQ.

I am not certain about my proposals, but I think you take an awful lot for granted. Even our flawed capitalism is incredibly precious, and seems to only be viable in high IQ western countries and even higher IQ westernized East Asian countries. If either the culture or the IQ is degraded the whole thing might fall apart. I am not willing to take this risk. I want immigrants given IQ tests and quotas on Muslim countries.

Evan writes:

@ Hyena

Does that control for education? More educated people think more like economists and have more liberal social attitudes. Ergo....

Fortunately, less educated people don't vote as frequently as highly educated people. You can see evidence of this in the structure of the US welfare state. Programs to help the middle class, i.e. Social Security and Medicare, are far larger and better funded than ones that help the poor. In fact, poor people on average are probably exploited by the middle class welfare state, since they live shorter life spans, but still have to pay into Social Security and Medicare.

@J.P. Irving

There are no free Muslim countries.
In terms of economic freedom Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, Turkey, Malysia, and Oman are all moderately free according to the Economic Freedom index. The countries I named are freer than many western countries, such as France, Italy, and Poland.

Also, if immigrants tended to have lower genetic IQ than natives (i.e. improved environment would not make their children the equals of natives on the average) would that not also be a long run risk to freedom? Your own research shows that economic literacy is strongly affected by IQ.
Mexico, El Salvador, and Uruguay, are economically more free than Israel, according to the EFI, even though, from what I know of IQ studies, Jews are supposed to have higher average IQs than Hispanics. Botswana is also freer even though blacks are supposed to have the lowest average IQ of all. And in case you think Israel is an outlier, note that many white and Asian countries (France, Poland, Greece, Mongolia, etc)are also less free than the countries I named.

I think a possible reason for this is that, as I mentioned earlier, low IQ, poor people are less likely to vote. This results in high IQ, middle class people being the ones who influence the elections. High IQ people do occasionally throw a little welfare the poors' way since they presumably feel sorry for them, but reserve most of it for "people like them." Before you worry about Muslim immigrants you should check their level of political participation, not just their raw demography.

If my "low IQ and poor people rarely vote" theory is correct than the worst possible thing that a pro-freedom person could do is take a nativist stance and rally against immigration. This would result in low-IQ immigrants feeling threatened, spurring them to vote in elections where they normally would have stayed home.

Tristan Band writes:

So, if poor immigrants are less likely to vote, and rich immigrants more likely to be market friendly...then, what's the problem?

David C writes:

"Native voters under 30 are more hostile to markets and liberty than immigrants ever were."

No, they're not. Americans under 30 believe in slightly more economic restrictions than the average group, but they're significantly more pro-liberty on social issues. They also feel more strongly about their social beliefs than their economic beliefs.

Mr. Econotarian writes:
if immigrants tended to have lower genetic IQ than natives

I think we have to recognize that we might be in the last generations of people that do not have enhanced IQ through genetic engineering.

We also can't be sure that the genetic IQ of immigrants accurately reflects the genetic IQ of the source population. The choice to immigrate may itself reflect higher IQ.

That said, I think it is clear that there are Asian populations with higher average IQ than European Americans, but significantly less economic and political freedom than what we have in the US, so I think we have to recognize the limitations of this kind of discussion. Culture is a strong issue.

That is why our current policy that creates an "apartheid" beween legal and illegal immigrants, separating the cultures, is a bad idea. We should make part of expanded immigration a sales job on the value of economic and political freedom, of which the freedom of movement is part.

JPIrving writes:


These are good points and thank you for being civil and challenging the veracity of my claims rather than calling me a xenophobe. My point is just that there is a solid relation between IQ and support for economic freedom, not that IQ is the only driver of economic freedom. Interestingly mean IQ in Israel is below 100 (check out 'IQ and the Wealth of Nations' or Kanazawa's stuff) even though most estimates of IQ for Ashkenazi Jews are between 110 and 115. My guess is that Sephardic Jews and Palestinians drag Israel's average down, there may be other selection effects. Also Israel is far from a normal western country but has done a good deal of liberalization lately.

I stand by my observation that Islamic countries are not free. The economic freedom rankings reflect low taxes rather than property rights and freedom from corruption which are the real gifts of western civilization, and Italy and France are not a high bar. Moreover, would one be allowed to draw mohammed in the quasi capitalist gulf states? Are women free to divorce their husbands? Are little girls raped and genitally mutilated as a matter of custom? What is the penalty for possession of drugs? But even if I am wrong and there are pluralist open 'Muslim' countries my point about European Muslim immigration stands. I live in Sweden in a city with a big muslim population. The swedish state bends over backwards to help the 'refugees' assimilate to the extent it is possible and find work. Yet (as a descriptive generality) they have zero interest in assimilation or work and commit crime vastly out of proportion to their population. (They are also loud and drive too fast :o) Further there is a simmering ethnic tension that I detect whenever Swedes or other westerners interact with the muslims, which is exacerbated by the fact that the muslims know the conflict averse swedes can be easily intimidated and guilt tripped. I wish it weren't so but humans are tribal animals and I just don't see vastly different cultures coexisting at nearly equal proportions. Singapore is the best model and that country is still strongly majority Chinese. And the Chinese dont mess around.

Just last week we had a Muslim who had lived in Sweden since 1991(!) nearly murder dozens of people in a failed suicide bombing. He looked so normal too. Suddenly people realized that there is a huge latent, potentially violent population all round them, which gives the state scope for curbing electronic privacy. If you want a big muslim population you will give up privacy, the median voter will demand it. Also can anyone say that Mexican immigration to California has not resulted in converting vast swaths of that formerly great state into a 3rd world disaster? IQ and culture explain everything.

@Mr. Econotarian

I sure hope you are right, who knows a IQ drug come come out next week. Until then I urge caution.

ThomasL writes:
Part of your answer, hopefully, is that mass deportation would be a vastly greater crime against markets and liberty than anything voters under 30 are likely to manage.

Not really that at all.

That is an essentially consequentialist justification. A is bad, and B is bad, but A is not as bad as B, so why don't we take the lesser of the two evils and do A.

You propose this as if the key part were the choice between A and B -- it isn't. The key part is the definition of 'we.'

Those statists are citizens. Citizenship is a concept as old as civilization, and in the US case as in all others, it has defined rights. One of the most basic of those rights is not to be deprived of citizenship or exiled except after having been convicted for some highly unusual and extreme crimes (simply preferring some other person or group not among them).

Every single person in the world that is not a citizen does not have that particular guarantee. They might have other guarantees that are equally, or even more, important depending on circumstances, but they don't have that one.

lizzie writes:


Some of us with higher IQs are moving to Mexico to get away from the empire. California's failures are a result of behemoth government, not the Mexicans who go to live there. And while you might not mean to sound xenophobic, if you go and read what horrible things were being said about European immigrants to the US at the turn of the 20th century, it might make you a little uncomfortabl to discover that you are, on the whole saying the same things the xenophobes from 1900-1920 said.

Carl writes:


In light of this post I must say I'm curious as to what your partisan leanings as a voter are.

As the labor market is 70% of the economy and the Republican Party is clearly less friendly towards the libertarian position on labor market controls (immigration policy), it should follow that you lean Democrat.

This should be especially true given that, on the other 30% of the economy, the Republicans are in reality only slightly (if at all) more libertarian than the Democrats. They are in favor of a giant federal government without any cuts to Social Security, Medicare or the Military (as evidenced by the 2010 GOP election manifesto).

So, what's to like about the Republicans, really?

Just curious as to where you stand.

(In full disclosure, I'm a "soft" libertarian who is willing to split his ballot and ends up going Democrat around 80% of the time and Republican around 20% of the time).


1. If Mexico is such a great place, why are so many Mexicans leaving it?

2. If the US is such an awful place, why do so many Mexicans go there?

Caplan's article comes across as desperate theorizing. To pick just one issue, global trade actually works in the other direction. It eliminates the need to import labor.

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