Bryan Caplan  

Why Should We Restrict Immigration?

An Empirical Disagreement... The Prospects for a U.S. Defau...
The Cato Journal's special immigration issue is now out.  I have the lead article, entitled "Why Should We Restrict Immigration?

My piece sums up everything I've been saying about immigration since I joined the blog:

(a) Common-sense morality implies a presumption in favor of free migration.

(b) None of the main objections to free migration are remotely strong enough to rebut this presumption.

(c) Even I'm I'm wrong about (b), there are certainly cheaper and more humane remedies than forbidding migration. 

My conclusion:
Many libertarians would condemn [the American government's treatment of immigrants] as "inexcusable." I rest my argument on a weaker premise: whether or not the facts are "inexcusable," they do require an excuse. On the surface, it seems wrong to prohibit voluntary exchange between natives and foreigners. Proponents of immigration restrictions have to show why, moral appearances notwithstanding, immigration restrictions are morally justified.

They fail to do so. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American workers. Most Americans benefit from immigration, and the losers don't lose much. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American taxpayers. Researchers disagree about whether the fiscal effects of immigration are positive or negative, but they agree that the fiscal effects are small. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American culture. Immigrants make our culture better--and their children learn fluent English. Immigration restrictions are not necessary to protect American liberty. Immigrants have low voter turnout and accept our political status quo by default. By increasing diversity, they undermine native support for the welfare state. And on one important issue--immigration itself--immigrants are much more pro-liberty than natives.

Even if all these empirical claims are wrong, though, immigration restrictions would remain morally impermissible. Why? Because there are cheaper and more humane solutions for each and every complaint. If immigrants hurt American workers, we can charge immigrants higher taxes or admission fees, and use the revenue to compensate the losers. If immigrants burden American taxpayers, we can make immigrants ineligible for benefits. If immigrants hurt American culture, we can impose tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. If immigrants hurt American liberty, we can refuse to give them the right to vote. Whatever your complaint happens to be, immigration restrictions are a needlessly draconian remedy.
This essay is me at my most persuasive.  In the acknowledgments, I thank my dad, one of the most bitter opponents of immigration I know.  If he were twenty years old, there's a 50/50 chance "Why Should We Restrict Immigration?" would have changed his mind.  At this point, sadly, I think my odds of success are more like 1%.

But I'll send him a copy anyway.

COMMENTS (33 to date)
Clay writes:

IQ type intelligence is highly heritable. A country's average IQ is highly correlated with many desirable factors including individual income potential. This is a compelling, yet wildly offensively reason, to have targeted immigration (any maybe emmigration) rather than an open borders solution.

Clay writes:

Also, the same argument can be used for schools. Why not let any student into any school? Why do parents try to put their students into more exclusive schools that keep out the less desirable students?

(sorry for separate posts)

James Oswald writes:

The most compelling reason for opposition to immigration is simple dislike of foreigners. Even if it were conclusively proven that immigration would raise the national IQ, lower taxes, increase wages, give everyone a pony, etc, I think most people who oppose it now would still oppose it.

Perhaps your task is not in vain though. People would probably be ashamed to admit that pure outgroup bias drives their policy opinons, and so faced with overwhelming evidence, they may change their minds simply to make themselves look better.

Jeff writes:

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but for a follow up, I think it'd be worthwhile for you to address the apparently inverse relationship between ethnic diversity and social capital, as noted by Robert Putnam. I see you touched on this by pointing to rising real estate prices, but I think that's rather weak. I think you could easily tell a story about how the arrival of large number of immigrants to a city becomes a catalyst for a kind of ethnic sorting, which raises prices in desirable neighborhoods and/or school districts by a big chunk because people are willing to pay a lot not to have to live amongst or send their kids to school with large numbers of immigrants.

There are also a plethora of other factors which might serve to prop up real estate prices that might otherwise be on the decline, like a historic over-expansion of mortgage credit (I heard we had one of those recently), so-called "smart-growth" policies, height restrictions, zoning laws, and other restrictions on new development, etc.

Adrian writes:

Clay, most studies have shown that when you factor in the environment, schooling, and other variables, the gap decreases a lot.

Why not also look into Gary Becker's solution of charging $50,000. I am sure banks would lend that money to people that thought would be able to pay it off. Also chances are if you are paying that kind of money you are not going to be getting much from the govt.

Jeff writes:

One more thing I want to add: your point that increased immigration and diversity will help shrink the welfare state strikes me as naive at best (and probably also undermines your point that the social capital effects of immigration are small). Shrinking the size of the state, as any libertarian with a pulse can recognize, is damn hard to pull off. Government programs develop their own constituencies, advocates, and interest groups. It may slow the growth of the welfare state, but I don't see a mechanism whereby importing a bunch of Hispanics or Asians or whoever who according to you, hardly vote, anyway, is going to actively undermine and shrink it.

On the contrary, the diversity/equality industry currently sucking up money and resources on college campuses across the country seems more likely to simply kick into high gear than for leftists to come to their senses and stop supporting big welfare programs.

Wallace Forman writes:


As I believe Brian has argued, low IQ is not a persuasive argument against immigration because the benefits of trade hold for dealings with low IQ people just as they hold for dealings with high IQ people.

Put another way, even though immigration by low IQ people might cause the average IQ of the nation might drop, the returns to natives would still increase on net. The only thing the nation loses is bragging rights.

Tom writes:

Let's pretend the US passed a law making no restrictions on immigration. 40 million Mexicans move to California and a new political party is established called the Mexican Political Party. The following year the MPP wins total control of the Californian government, secedes from the Union, and joins Mexico. Do you have a problem with that Bryan?

Bostonian writes:

I agree with Clay. Caplan should read the recent City Journal article "California’s Demographic Revolution", discussing how Hispanics are below average in income and education and above average in welfare dependency, crime, and voting Democratic. The article is not yet online, but I have read the print version.

Even if recent immigrants cannot vote, their children will be citizens, and Caplan wrote a whole book explaining how children tend to resemble their parents. Those children will consume more social services than average and vote to take away my money. Why can't libertarians see this threat?

Tom in Reno writes:

If the excerpt here "is me at my most persuasive," it's unlikely that Bryan will ever persuade anyone of anything. The last paragraph he quotes above from his essay is totally ridiculous; sure immigrate, but you'll have to register so we can punish you with burdens not applicable to "real" citizens. Sure, that'll work.

Ken B writes:

I am eliding here to make a point.

If immigrants hurt American culture ... we can refuse to give them the right to vote.

Sure they come from different points but doesn't creating a kind of permanent second class citizen change American culture in a fundamental way? Caplan's remedies are debating points not real possibilities.

My main objection is that Caplan (as ever) ignores numbers. 1 billion illiterates bent on imposing the worship of Thor immigrate ... This is not a realistic worry, but it shows that details matter.

Tom makes this last point a wee bit more realistically.

I am not in short impressed with general first-principles arguments on complex matters with hard to quantify costs and benefits. I support fairly easy immigration, but not any 'right' or 'principle' requiring it.

Richard A. writes:

From the Pew Research Center:

The term capitalism elicits more positive (55%) than negative (35%) reactions from Whites. While among Hispanics capitalism elicits a more negative (32%) than positive (55%) response.

What's needed is a US immigration policy that tilts immigration towards better educated immigrants.

Richard A. writes:

While among Hispanics capitalism elicits a more negative (32%) than positive (55%) response.

The above line is wrong. It should read:

While among Hispanics capitalism elicits a more negative (55%) than positive (32%) response.

R. Jones writes:

The idea that we could attach all these strings to immigration is not a political reality. It's armchair philosophy. Not all immigrants are created equal. I would support more immigration for high IQ workers, but that has a zero chance of being politically viable.

Nathan Smith writes:


Mr. Econotarian writes:

Regarding IQ, we know that richer families will have children with higher IQ (Flynn effect), so any immigration from a poorer country to a richer one marginally improves global IQ.

Of if you wan to be a stickler, have an IQ test for potential immigrants. I bet there are tens of millions of Chinese with higher IQ than the US average who would like to move here...

Steve Sailer writes:

This essay is me at my most persuasive."

Fake Herzog writes:


My thoughts on your paper (short version -- I didn't like it and thought the moral reasoning was especially weak -- people value more than just the national GDP score) are here.

I recommend you read a lot more of Steve Sailer's blog and if you want more economic analysis, try "Super-Economy" by the best anti-immigrant Kurdish/Swedish blogger you'll ever read.

Mercer writes:

"Common-sense morality implies a presumption in favor of free migration."

I think common sense implies views that are commonly held. Your views on immigration are not common at all among the population and your essay does little to persuade people who do not share them.

I remember when a writer in the NY Times wrote about being illegal and how cruel and unjust you thought his plight was. The article made no change in the immigration climate.

If Romney wins the nomination he will easily be the hardest on illegals of any nominee in over thirty years. If elected President he would be the toughest since Ike. Romney's views are likely influenced by Mark Krikorian. If you want to influence the immigration views of the GOP you should debate him or Roy Beck. Writing in Cato is preaching to a tiny choir on immigration.

D writes:

Not persuaded, although I did find some of the ideas interesting. Then again, I live in California. Bryan needs to get out more and rub shoulders with the left side of the bell curve.

D writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Pete Murphy writes:

"None of the main objections to free migration are remotely strong enough to rebut this presumption."

OK, here's an objection that is strong enough. The inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption is driving the structural increase in unemployment and poverty in America, and immigration is feeding the increase in population density. As population density increases beyond some critical level, worsening overcrowding begins to erode per capita consumption. (That's a fact, not a theory.) And since per capita consumption and per capita employment are inextricably linked, worsening unemployment and poverty are inescapable as long as the population continues to grow.

Until this nation comes to grips with worsening overpopulation, including restricting our high rate of both legal and illegal immigration, our economy, in per capita terms, will continue to deteriorate.

Pete Murphy
Author, "Five Short Blasts"

Jeff writes:


The Mexicans who immigrate to California don't want to turn it into Mexico. If they liked Mexico so much, they never would have left it.

Is this not obvious?

Randall writes:

I believe that a strong America needs immigration. I was raised around Spanish people that were much richer than I but they were kind and very family oriented. I recognize that every group of people brings something to the table. In the last 10 years my brother dated an upper middle class Spanish woman in her 30's. He still had to go meet the family. I can think of no better reason than to invite people willing to work as hard as our southern neighbors.

I would like to give a fast track immigration card to everyone who fits the criteria of improving their family and the United States legally. This is the problem with our political rhetoric that want to use immigrants as a pawn to stir up voter unrest instead of giving legal immigration a better chance of working. As long as unrest can be manipulated by the media and the Social Agenda of the press and certain Power dominant politicians, there will be a immigration problem and not for the good of either populations.

However, there are reasons for immigration restrictions that are not discussed as politically correct and I am not and will never be politically correct. Grow a thicker skin!

A few reasons for enforced immigration laws:
1. Tuberculosis --read state department documents -reference 4-8 new TB centers in Midwest to Southern U.S... There are many other diseases based on state department warnings that can be found outside the U.S... Most U.S. would see a doctor and eliminate the threat to our population when they re-enter the U.S., I am not comfortable that illegal immigrants would do the same.

2. Organized crime – needs to be restricted.

3. Political factions and terrorist that could blend in with our system should be restricted by the visiting nation.

4. Equal migration from the United States to these same countries wishing immigration from our country. I as an American Citizen would be extremely restricted with virtual not rights by our southern neighbors. If other countries are restricting our rights in their country they should not be given rights in our country. There are exceptions when people are persecuted but it should be a legal and binding contract with respect to our laws. Give the U.S. free rights in every country south and north of the U.S. on condition of fairer immigration into the U.S. The countries offering should restrict the people that would do us harm at the same time.
5. Because of many gut less politicians, illegal immigrants and many legal immigrants have more rights in a traffic accident or other situations that American Citizens because the un-uniform laws dealing with immigrants. The legal rights of the people of the U.S. must be protected first. Fifty percent of these people are paying the taxes, voting, contributing to have a safe and legal system of protection and it is not right to undermine citizen’s rights for the rights of illegal persons of any origin.

Mike writes:

How about the "moral argument" that immigrants are not making their home country any better by leaving. If they have enough motivation to immigrate in search of a better life why don't they stay at home and fight for that life there?

Lynn Atherton Bloxham writes:

Excellent article. Fear many who commented were not "open" to open immigration.
For those who admire people such as Krikorian, Buchanan and others who advocate for greatly restricted immigration, simply recognize that this is a protectionist position. One should not advocate restrictions on immigration and attempt to also claim a pro market position. Quite simply, a free flow of ideas, capital, goods and labor are the basis for a market. All else is secondary.
Lynn Atherton Bloxham

There's some evidence that ethnic diversity decreases social trust. Another way to put this is: Immigration makes people less gullible.

Bill writes:


How about the "moral argument" that immigrants are not making their home country any better by leaving. If they have enough motivation to immigrate in search of a better life why don't they stay at home and fight for that life there?

I think for many immigrants that they do make their home country better by leaving. Say they can make $5000 a year at home. With their talents and skills, they can fetch more like $35,000 a year in an advanced capital-intensive country like the US. Aside from what they're likely to send home from earnings in the US, later on in life they go back home and work for that life there. I've heard a similar story to this several times where I live.

Craig Landefeld writes:

I favor restricting immigration, and I'll explain why. I frame the matter by saying my highest value is freedom. Mexicans, for instance, want to come to America because they have voted for bad government policies that hinder prosperity and freedom in Mexico. After they become citizens here they will vote the same kinds of bad policies they voted for in Mexico. That will make me less free. The author's statement that "immigrants are much more pro-liberty than natives" is only a vigorous assertion without supporting evidence.

Tom writes:


No, it is not obvious that Mexicans who leave Mexico don't like their home country. In fact, most of them probably love their country, their culture and their people. I wouldn't assume Italians, or Chinese or Irish don't love their home country because they immigrated to America. But what is obvious is that they cannot get the same opportunity to make a good living in Mexico as they can in California. However, if because of unlimited immigration California because majority Mexican in a relatively short amount of time, there would be the possibility of California seceding from the Union and joining Mexico. This not an unrealistic possibility. Perhaps they wouldn't join Mexico but maybe establish their own independent country. Think Quebec and Canada.

Andy Hallman writes:

Excellent job, Bryan.

It's sad to see that your critics on this blog make no effort to address your arguments.

A few people have mentioned possible problems caused by increased migration, but so far no one has provided an argument that these allow for immigration restrictions.

So what if immigration lowers the average national IQ? How is that a sufficient reason to violate someone's rights, as immigration restrictions plainly do? That is the task for the supporters of immigration restrictions, and it is one they are apparently unwilling to accept.

Daryl Jensen writes:

This is one of the most persuasive pro immigration essays I have seen. Great work, Brian.

Ken B writes:

I find the argument that because I moved here from Canada to get a job means I don't like Canada (or that I don't want to teach you people how to spell 'centre' correctly) odd.

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