Bryan Caplan  

Reply to David on Immigration

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Questions on Immigration... Open Immigration: How Many Wou...
Last month I digested my position on the political externalities of immigration, but I'm happy to elaborate.  David writes:
I could imagine that leading to an additional 300 million people coming into the United States within a couple of years. My impression is that Bryan could imagine it too.
I could indeed imagine it, but I think rising rents and declining wages for low-skilled workers would lead to more modest rates.  See New York City: Every American is free to move there, but low real wages and high rents convince most of us to live elsewhere.

David continues:
Now, under my scheme, the U.S. government would couple open borders with a 20-year residency requirement for U.S. citizenship and a requirement that one be a citizen in order to get any kind of welfare, including government schooling... But Bryan and I both know that you can't always get what you want. The government is not some entity that he and I control. So what if the government did not couple open borders with this 20-year residency requirement or even a 10-year residency requirement? Would Bryan still advocate open borders?
Definitely.  While I view libertarian rights as prima facie rather than absolute, I do insist on high certainty of very bad consequences before making exceptions.  And the negative political consequences of letting lots of immigrants vote are at worst uncertain, for reasons I've previously explained.

David concludes:
And would he worry at all that the new residents would vote away the goose that lays the golden eggs? And if he wouldn't worry about that, why wouldn't he worry? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Of course I would worry.  But mere worry is a poor excuse for depriving millions of their basic human rights to work for a willing employer and rent from a willing landlord.  And I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration.  As I think David will agree, American voters have sadly shown themselves to be totally unreliable on this vital issue for over a century.



COMMENTS (30 to date)
JPIrving writes:

I guess it all comes down to what one thinks the probability distribution of political and institutional change from open immigration looks like. I imagine it having more mass on the "negative outcomes" bit.

I would still like to see Bryan address the issue of Islamic immigration in Europe, or Mexican immigration in the Californian central valley. He can visit me in Sweden and see the absurdity that arises when 21st century meets 9th.

He seems to dismiss the effect of immigration upon the natives who are told to acquiesce to all immigrant's "human right" to live in a society their own culture and genes couldn't build. What happens when inequality approaches Brazilian levels along with the population's IQ?

Saracen writes:

"I could indeed imagine it, but I think rising rents and declining wages for low-skilled workers would lead to more modest rates. See New York City: Every American is free to move there, but low real wages and high rents convince most of us to live elsewhere."

Yes, I totally agree that after quality of life for the average American declines to roughly Brazilian levels, fewer people will want to immigrate here. The question is, why do you consider this an argument FOR open borders?

"While I view libertarian rights as prima facie rather than absolute, I do insist on high certainty of very bad consequences before making exceptions. And the political consequences of letting lots of immigrants vote is at best uncertain, for reasons I've previously explained."

Agreed that immigrants won't bring about immediate electoral doom. However, while the low voting frequency of Hispanics is an argument against doom, it also begs the question of whether we really want to become a society where the majority (i) does not care about civic engagement, and (ii) the reason is NOT that they're instead spending their time inventing awesome things, etc.

"Of course I would worry. But mere worry is a poor excuse for depriving millions of their basic human rights to work for a willing employer and rent from a willing landlord."

If the employer and landlord are so willing, why don't they set up shop in Mexico? Bad environment for business? Okay, so what is it about America that makes its environment better? Are you so sure it's totally invariant with respect to demographics?

"And I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration."

I wouldn't be so sure about this. Sure, Hispanic political *leaders* are in favor, but the actual people? Despite my comments about low IQ, I recognize that a pretty large fraction of them have figured out the whole "declining wages for low-skilled workers" thing, and they actually don't want so many more of their countrymen to join them.

By the way, I'm also a nonwhite immigrant, but not a Hispanic one. As someone who respects Kant's categorical imperative, I of course oppose a complete immigration cutoff, and I also oppose rules that are deeply temporally asymmetric--i.e. create a situation where my parents won the lottery while today's equally deserving people are locked out forever. But somewhere between that and totally open borders, there's a sweet spot that preserves both American quality of life and the ability of the most competent and motivated foreigners to join our society.

Saracen writes:

"Are you so sure it's totally invariant with respect to demographics?"

I should add that, if it is *potentially* invariant if our dominant culture chooses to be sufficiently assertive... does that condition hold today? If not, shouldn't we address that first, *before* we open the border?

Jason Malloy writes:

At the very least Dr. C, I think you have your next book idea with the immigration issue.

Your anti-border, Universalist message bodes well for sales.

Also if you take a sympathetic position on race and IQ, etc, while advocating open borders it will result in a lot of comical head explosions.

frankcross writes:

Isn't the black diaspora from the South a pretty good parallel for what would happen? Pretty substantial migration to Northern cities. But many blacks chose not to move, surely for personal reasons, like many foreigners wouldn't move. And they were motivated by freedom as well as economics. I think the net effect of this was probably pretty positive. But I'm sure a segment of northerners was quite opposed to the blacks moving in.

Various writes:

Well Bryan, I think your approach is very altruistic, but I think there is a large possible unintended consequence. By allowing such a large influx of folks who could benefit from our social programs, you are creating an enormous incentive for politicians to try and mine that resource. In other words, you'd be creating a big incentive for politicians to give this group large resources in exchange for their votes. This is already a huge problem in our country with various constituencies and their lobbyests, (AARP, teachers unions, etc.). Why would you intentionally create another such special interest group. Better to establish the ground rules ahead of time such as David proposes.

Bottom line, your proposal for open borders is a great idea.....IF we lived in a society where politicians couldn't game the social programs we are all paying for.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Bryan. I'm glad to see that you would at least worry. I can't pick up any hint of worry in any of your previous posts. I'm guessing that that's one thing many of your critics were responding to: your apparent absence of worry.

MernaMoose writes:

But mere worry is a poor excuse for depriving millions of their basic human rights to work for a willing employer and rent from a willing landlord.

"Right"? By whose provision and at whose expense, does this "right" exist?

This is little different from saying a poor stray dog has a "basic right" to a warm place to sleep, and the fact that it may mess on the floor is "a poor excuse" for me to deny it entry to my house.

And I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration.

You may be a "universalist". Most of us aren't. For reasons that would take far too much space to explain here in sound bite size.

To claim that a "right to free migration" is in any sense "universal", represents a philosophical misunderstanding at a very deep (i.e. fundamental and basic) level.

As I think David will agree, American voters have sadly shown themselves to be totally unreliable on this vital issue for over a century.

May it forever be so. Most of them grasp the very real risks that wide open borders would pose to our very way of life.

Most of them -- unlike you -- are not so eager to gamble on loosing it.


I strongly suspect that you either a) know not what you ask for, or b) you're an anarchist who doesn't think governments as we know them should exist in the first place.

Clay writes:

What about K-12 education?

It's impractical to deny education to people living here. It's horribly difficult to talk about, but some minority groups are associated with bad schools, where school quality is highly inversely correlated with specific minority group attendance. Large increases in those minority groups is an obvious detriment to native Americans.

Secondly, what about genetics?

The IQ of a nation is largely correlated with standard of living. Letting in mass numbers of low IQ immigrants would clearly lower the nation's IQ. Wouldn't that also lower the national standard of living?

TimG writes:
And I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration.

I bet if you asked recent Hispanic immigrants if they would prefer 1) the status quo where they are effectively the only people allowed to immigrate pseudo legally or 2) completely open boarders where they would compete economically against billions of poor Asians/Africans, that they would greatly prefer the status quo.

Evan writes:
And I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration.
I agree with Saracen and TimG that your confidence is misplaced. My reasoning: All Americans (even Native Americans) are descended from immigrants if you go back far enough. Many Americans oppose free migration.

Even if you only count people who came to the US after it became a country as immigrants, a lot of people descended from immigrants oppose free migration. Concrete example: Many of my family members are descended from Irish, Swedish, and Czech immigrants who came here in the late 1800s. Many of the same family members also oppose free migration.

I'm sure that if Hispanic immigrants come here and naturalize, in a few years they'll be complaining about immigration and claiming that Indian and African immigrants are coming here, won't learn our language, all go on welfare, and commit crimes.

Ryan Vann writes:

"The IQ of a nation is largely correlated with standard of living. Letting in mass numbers of low IQ immigrants would clearly lower the nation's IQ. Wouldn't that also lower the national standard of living?"

I don't know how that mechanism would work exactly. It isn't as if the standard of those already here would have to decrease. Basically, averages would just shift downward, while net well being would increase.

JLA writes:

"I'm confident that immigrant voters would have one extremely pro-liberty effect: Protecting the right of free migration."

Immigrant voters would probably be opposed to more migration because of the downward pressure it would put on their wages. I remember hearing a running "joke" that once the Chinese emigrated here, they wanted to keep out the Italians. Once the Italians emigrated here, they wanted to keep out the Jews. And so on.

I'm not sure whether open borders are a good policy. Before I can form an opinion, I'd want to see an empirical analysis estimating the effect that open borders would have on public goods and infrastructure. How would doubling the population affect traffic? How would it affect the spread of infectious diseases?

It is at least possible that at certain levels of migration, the negative externalities of immigration outweigh the positive externalities of immigration. Obviously, the reverse may be true as well. But because of this uncertainty, I don't think that theory and ideology alone can answer whether having open borders is a good policy.

David writes:

Your comment about "mere worry" explains why conservatives don't take libertarians seriously. It's bad enough that you don't really care about unforeseen negative consequences. You don't even care about foreseen negative consequences.

Anonymous admirer writes:

People forget that Milton Friedman was once considered beyond the pale. Much of his writings from the 1960s, read today, make perfect sense. But at the time, they were outrageous. Floating currencies? The sky would fall! An all-volunteer military? We'd be invaded tomorrow!

Sometimes I see a nascent Milton Friedman in Bryan Caplan.

ryan yin writes:

@MernaMoose,

"Right"? By whose provision and at whose expense, does this "right" exist? This is little different from saying a poor stray dog has a "basic right" to a warm place to sleep, and the fact that it may mess on the floor is "a poor excuse" for me to deny it entry to my house.
The reason any dog doesn't have the right to live in my house is that I own the house and he would be imposing a cost on me. So ... who are you saying owns the country and control over all hiring & renting decisions therewithin? In what way does one person hiring another impose a cost on you?

The Engineer writes:

I salute Bryan for not taking David's conditions and going whole hog for open borders in any form it might take.

Very few people agree with him, but at least he is intellectually consistent.

Any economists out there that would argue that economic growth is highly correlated to population growth (especially in the US) and that letting in anyone who wants to come here is the quickest and easiest way to build our economy? I am surprised that I never hear that argument, especially on economics blogs.

I live a few miles from Gary, Indiana, a place that is literally half the population it was in 1950. Gary could use some immigrants. So could Detroit. So could Cleveland. So could Buffalo, Rochester, Utica, Syracuse, Binghampton, and a lot of other rustbelt cities.

2M immigrants per year, legal and illegal, has not done the trick for the rust belt. How much immigration would it take?

Colin K writes:

I'll take 19th-century immigration as soon as we have 19th-century government. The questions posed by this are not hypothetical: look at what happened with prop 187 over a decade ago, back before Glenn beck and the Internet ruined civil discourse. Must we run the experiment again?

Besides, I think we are doing more than our part for global welfare by having open borders for trade. The EU could do a lot to reduce African poverty if it wasn't so set on protecting French and German farmers.

English Professor writes:

Bryan should be ashamed of himself for talking about immigration as a human right. First, where do "human rights" exist outside individual polities? What rights of political protest do citizens of China have? How about the right of worship for Christians in certain Muslim nations? All real rights are tied to political institutions, and currently, all viable political institutions exist within nation states. Bryan WOULD LIKE people to have these rights, so he declares them universal human rights, but let's look at the world as it exists, not as libertarians (among whom I count myself) want it to be. There is no human right to mass immigration. Hell, in the Soviet Union, there wasn't even a right to EMIGRATE!

Ryan Vann writes:

"All real rights are tied to political institutions"

I'm curious about these ties. Are you saying political institutions are adapted to create rights? If this is the case, I see a problem of irreducible complexity in your argument.

MernaMoose writes:

ryan yin,

The reason any dog doesn't have the right to live in my house is that I own the house and he would be imposing a cost on me.

I'm glad you see that part clearly. Now let's take it the rest of the way.

So ... who are you saying owns the country....

We The People who already live here. It is We who most assuredly have the right to decide how many immigrants, from where and when, we do or do not wish to let into our nation.

The contention that "nobody owns a nation" doesn't hold up.

The "universalist" position that people have a "right" come here just because they want to, therefore also does not hold up. As English Professor says above.

I'd put it this way: there are people in Africa (to pick an example) who need shoes and food. The fact that they need, is not an automatic obligation on me (or a nation) to satisfy that need.

The "universalist" ethics that Bryan espouses here sounds very much like another flavor of socialism. It would appear from commments above that I'm not the only one who isn't interested in buying it.

The only way I'm going to be persuaded, is that Wide Open Borders is an unequivocal good for those of us who are already here. That case has not been made.

ryan yin writes:

Now that we've established that I own the nation, there's something I've been meaning to bring up: you're a little late on your rent payments. I don't recall getting one, now that I think about it. For that matter, how come you didn't ask me if it was ok for you to have whatever job it is that you do? Surely you didn't think that's a decision solely up to you and whoever hired you -- such dangerous notions are, as you say, socialism!

{Head explodes.}

MernaMoose writes:

Yer funny.

MernaMoose writes:

Like I said above, the nature of this disagreement runs deep. The particular issue of immigration is in fact the proverbial "tip of the iceberg".

I don't believe there's any chance we'd convince each other of anything, until we first covered a whole lot of other (I expect highly disputed) ground.

MernaMoose writes:

Your comment about "mere worry" explains why conservatives don't take libertarians seriously.

Not all libertarians are anarchists. But in any case I've stopped calling myself a libertarian because this is what so many people think libertarians are.

Some of us are more of the classical liberal type, which is a quite different perspective. The alliance -- if we may call it that -- of anarchists and classical liberals, under the libertarian banner, is tenuous at best.

I've met a lot of conservatives with strong classical liberal inklings, but few with any sympathy for anarchism.

Steve Johnson writes:

Saracen:

""Of course I would worry. But mere worry is a poor excuse for depriving millions of their basic human rights to work for a willing employer and rent from a willing landlord."

If the employer and landlord are so willing, why don't they set up shop in Mexico? Bad environment for business? Okay, so what is it about America that makes its environment better? Are you so sure it's totally invariant with respect to demographics?"

For this reason Professor Caplan's argument doesn't support his preferred policy of unlimited immigration. If we more closely examine his argument it goes as follows:

1) There are businesses that wish to employ third world dwellers
2) Those people would like to accept offers of employment
3) [UNSTATED] The businesses who would like to employ these people are unwilling to do business in the country in which these people live because of the nature of these countries *
4) Therefore, the current residents of this country should accept into their nation a bunch of people [who are really really bad neighbors (for those of us who understand heredity and the link between IQ and civility)] / [who are undifferentiated masses of humans (for those who deny heredity)]

What the professor has actually justified is a policy whereby nations that are desirable targets for immigrants administer the governments in nations where people desire to emigrate.

This is a policy that I could get behind. Examining the architecture in, let's say, the Caribbean shows the potential of such a set up.

* Premise 3a, is of course, that the people that make up the nation won't simply make this country come to resemble the country that they had to move from to find jobs that they would like to take to the exact extent that they move here. This neglects the possibility that there is a critical mass of low IQ, low contentiousness population that simply breaks a country's institutions. This would, of course, result in there being no where that anyone wants to live. Of course, then we would have total liberty of movement. Everywhere would be equally terrible.

frankcross writes:

"Isn't the black diaspora from the South a pretty good parallel for what would happen? Pretty substantial migration to Northern cities. But many blacks chose not to move, surely for personal reasons, like many foreigners wouldn't move. And they were motivated by freedom as well as economics. I think the net effect of this was probably pretty positive."

Ah yes, a cursory glance at Detroit or the Grand Concourse in the Bronx shows what a huge net benefit that was for the targets of that wave of migration. Of course, the blacks that moved north were American citizens and fairly limited in number. They also left one part of the country for another part. What would be the problem if approximately a billion people with similar temperaments and abilities moved to the United States?

ryan yin writes:

@MernaMoose,
Yes, if you're going to claim that socialism is the belief in voluntary contracts and letting individuals themselves decide whom they want to hire and to whom they want to rent or sell (so then "the market" and "classical liberalism" are when these are determined collectively and everything is collectively owned?), then I suppose yes, there is quite a bit of contested ground here. Ditto on the implied equivalence of pecuniary externality (which is any case relatively rare with immigration) with externality.

English Professor writes:

@Ryan Vann

I am not saying that political institutions are adapted to create rights. I am saying that rights exist nowhere without institutions. As Hobbes tells us, without institutions, everything and everyone is subject to the most immediate source of power. Institutions channel power, sometimes (from the classical liberal view) justly, sometimes not. Even Burke will tell you that there are no such things as abstract rights.

@ryan yin

No one "owns" the country, but countries have governments. In the case of republics, the government supposedly reflects the will of the people. And the rules regarding immigration are subject to the actions of the government. Even Prof. Henderson, if I understand him correctly, wishes open immigration to be a government policy. And by the way, your "rent" for your portion of the nation is paid in kind--it consists of the rights and privileges that come along with being an American citizen.

ryan yin writes:

So because the government is the "will of the people" (whatever that is), then whatever the government decides is good and certainly its prerogative? Is it then incoherent to speak of a bad law or a law the government had no right to enact?

I'm not sure what is achieved by conflating positive statements (it was not physically possible to leave the USSR) with normative ones (ergo, no one had such a right). Obviously someone saying, e.g., two people have the right to trade with each other isn't saying you're not strong enough to stop them: they're saying you would be wrong to do so. In your experience, has anyone ever been convinced by this argument?

MernaMoose writes:

At least English professor has arguments. So far I haven't seen you do anything but misinterpret and throw stones at some else's.

How many people have you convinced of anything?

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