Bryan Caplan  

Some Unpleasant Immigration Arithmetic

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Let C=total number of immigrants - legal and illegal - who annually enter the U.S. under existing laws.

Let F=the total number of immigrants who would annually enter the U.S. under open borders.

Under perfectly open borders, C=F.  Under perfectly closed borders, C=0.  Where does the status quo fall on this continuum?  The obvious metric:

Open Borders Index=C/F

With closed borders, the Open Borders Index=0.  With open borders, the Open Borders Index=1.

Regardless of your views on immigration, it's hard to see how your estimate of the actually existing Open Borders Index could exceed .05.  After all, there are hundreds of millions of people who would love to move to the U.S. just to shine our shoes, and three million would be a very high estimate of annual legal plus illegal immigration.  Rhetorical invective notwithstanding, mainstream immigration policy proposals are all in the neighborhood of .01 to .05. 

Lessons: If, like me, you want to set the Open Borders Index=1, you should be utterly depressed.  Nothing close to open borders is even on the table.  If, however, you want to set the Open Borders Index=0, rejoice.  We're approximately there already.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Caliban Darklock writes:

I see a flaw in this. You incorrectly assume that under open borders, all who WANT to come in WILL come in. Clearly, the illegality of immigration is not the only thing preventing people from coming over the border - there may be family concerns, a desire to remain in a given culture, religious views, all sorts of things. After all, there are many people here in the United States who express that they would love to LEAVE, which they can currently do with little resistance - and yet they do not, because there is something else they want MORE. I assert that there is no real way to know how many of the people who WANT to immigrate WILL immigrate, but that it is probably still a very small percentage. After all, less than 2% of Mexicans are crossing the border, and it's arguably easier for them than anyone else.

Vipul Naik writes:

I agree that open borders fans in the US have much to be depressed about, but perhaps closed borders fans don't have that much to be cheerful about. Instead of looking at differences, you might wish to look at ratios. In that case, pure closed borders advocates want an index of 0, and get an index of 0.05, so immigration is infinitely higher than what they'd like it to be.

A closed borders advocate who wants an index of 0.01 is getting 400% more immigration than desired, compared to an open borders advocates who is getting only 95% less immigration than desired. Seems like the open borders advocates is getting the better deal. Okay, that was a very misleading use of numbers, but the point is that you can paint the numbers in many different ways depending on the conclusion you want to draw.

BK writes:

This is a silly measure that ignores scale for pro-open borders rhetorical purposes. Most of the people who would like to immigrate to the United States would be comparably happy to migrate to other rich countries. And other rich countries take in more immigrants collectively than the United States. So the statistic is higher for the rich world as a whole, and distorted by considering smaller divisions.

On this metric Luxembourg and Liechtenstein are orders of magnitude worse than the U.S., simply because they are small. Even countries that are much more welcoming of immigrants per capita, such as Singapore and Canada, would do far worse.

Consider a similar measure for foreign aid: the amount of foreign aid given by a country divided by the amount required to meet the UN development goals. On this metric Vatican city or Tuvalu are automatically monsters, but it's clearly bogus.

BK writes:

The U.S. population is 12.1% first-generation immigrant, versus a similar level for Europe, 18% for Canada, and 25% for Australia.

Scaling up migration levels by a factor of 20 to 100 would leave natives a minority or small minority in the United States.

A factor of 20 would reduce American natives from 88% to 30% of the population, while a factor of 100 would reduce them to 8% of the population.

BK writes:

Or consider applying this logic to Alaska's oil dividend, paid out to the citizenry. Almost every human would like to receive cheques from the oil revenues. But only some 1 in 1000 or less do, the Alaskans! On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Norway are larger, so more people receive proceeds from their oil spoils. Clearly, the Alaskans should take some moral lessons from Saudi Arabia and Norway on this matter...

Michael Stack writes:

Caliban: the analysis stands regardless of how many people would actually come. I think the point of the post is that the number of actual immigrants relative to the those that would come given open borders is distressingly small.

mobile writes:

Your denominator is too high, unless your denominator is a stock instead of a flow. Do you really believe that hundreds of millions of people would move to the U.S. annually?

Isn't that a significant multiple of the annual carrying capacity of all commercial flights into North America? If hundreds of millions of people really tried to get to America in one year, it would become prohibitively expensive for anyone whose life ambition is to shine my shoes (that is, they wouldn't want to come anymore).

Nathan Smith writes:

Brilliant! My one question is: why an ANNUAL measure?

Let's say under open borders 200 million people would immigrate to the US in the first year. After that, it would presumably slow down, let's say to 10 million per year. So there would be roughly 300 million in the first decade of open borders.

Further, let's suppose 2 million people per year immigrate to the US, legally and illegally.

Now, if we calculate the Open Borders Index on an annual basis, the measure is 2m/200m=0.01. But if we calculate it on a DECADE basis, we get 20m/300m=0.0667. Big difference. Why should one measure be less appropriate than the other?

Either way, though, the main point is the same: that the vast majority of people who would like to immigrate to the US are prevented from doing so. The Open Borders Index is obviously a rough measure, but however you look at it, the status quo is best described as "mostly closed borders," or even in simplifications for certain analytical purposes, simply as "closed borders." Pundits who agitate against "open borders" as if that were the status quo are either ignorant or deceitful.

mikedc writes:

I've always wondered; What's Israel's optimal immigration strategy under from a libertarian perspective?

8 writes:

C= the amount of chocolate glazed donuts I eat annually (10)
F=the amount of chocolate glazed donuts I want to eat (10,000)

If C/F=1, I am happy!
If C/F=0 I am sad :(
If C/F=0.1 for several years, I become morbidly obese and die young

What is the C/F ratio that ends America's experiment with liberty? We are probably at or exceeding that ratio currently.

John David Galt writes:

It seems to me we are already quite close to open borders in practical terms, because:

1) F has been decreasing steadily in the last decade or so, as the USA's economic freedom index and its economy both continue their long slide downward to "banana republic" status. The immigration boom has ended, and not because of any successful enforcement.

2) Nearly all of the immigrants and families who came here illegally either already have, or will within the next 5 years or so, legalize themselves using the "anchor baby" strategy. Thus even if an immigrant-hating Republican becomes the next President in January 2017 and cracks down, he won't have any way to make most of them go away.

Granted, reducing F is not the ideal way to bring C/F closer to 1, but it is happening.

Matt writes:

You know when we were running airstrikes over Libya, Gadaphi (Choose your spelling) threatened Europe with helping sub-Saharan Africans immigrate in mass. Of course Bryan would argue that self-interested Europeans should have welcomed this action. Guess they are a bunch of really short sited people.

John Strong writes:

Drives me crazy the way absolutely everyone elides the distinction between wanting to go to the U.S. to work and wanting to immigrate. They are not the same thing.

Henry writes:

This is a pretty silly analogy. The proportion of your bloodstream that is arsenic can theoretically be between 0 and 1, so if you're at 0.01, well don't worry, you're practically at 0.

(Note: I don't think immigrants to the USA are at all akin to arsenic to the human body).

johnleemk writes:

John D. Galt:

The "anchor baby" strategy doesn't exist. If you've been illegally present, especially if you've been so for longer than a year, there is no good way to regularise your US immigration status short of going back to your origin country and waiting for years.

Compared to most other countries in the world, the US is not a banana republic.

Sonic Charmer writes:

Why not go further and just divide C by a really really big number, say N = 10 kajillion. Then use the Index C/N instead of C/F.

HEY LOOK the Index is already almost 0, 'just like restrictionists want', so restrictionists should shut up now.


Taeyoung writes:

Yes, maybe we get 100 million in the first year. But adding 100 million population to an infrastructure that can't support that many people -- roads, plumbing, housing, etc. -- is a recipe for human disaster, particularly in an environment where building additional roads, plumbing, and housing is slowed up by cumbersome laws and regulations. Furthermore, if minimum wage laws remain in place, I don't see how we can absorb that volume of additional labour in a single year. And that doesn't even get into the devastating social effects of bringing in 100 million people.

We won't need to worry about similarly massive immigration the second or third year because in-migration will drop to negligible levels once the stories get out. Canada, meanwhile, will have big problems with illegal immigration. From America.

Fralupo writes:

Someone might have mentioned this above, but in case they haven't I'll raise it: the "F" and "C" numbers aren't related the way you think they are. It seems to me that F=C if and only if immigration laws have no effect on the number of people entering the United States. By saying that F=C you are saying that a totally free system and the current system would have the same number of people entering the US. Given the massive disincentives that the current immigration laws place on entering illegally this doesn't make sense.

If the current regime (where some people may legally enter and the vast majority of humanity may not) has any sort of negative effect on immigration then F>C.

michael vassar writes:

I'm not expecting total open borders, but if we ever have them I'll be happy to bet long odds on immigration in the following year not increasing 20X.

Steve Sailer writes:

We don't actually have to worry about all the people in the world who say they'd like to move to the U.S. actually moving here under Open Borders because the quality of life in the U.S. under Open Borders would decline so badly that soon the foreigners would stop coming because life in America would be no improvement over life their own Third World country.

You can see this effect already happening since the Hispanic-driven Housing Bubble burst in 2007-08.

James writes:

Steve Sailer,

This forecast seems to be a key assumption regarding your views on immigration policy: "[T]he quality of life in the U.S. under Open Borders would decline so badly that soon the foreigners would stop coming because life in America would be no improvement over life their own Third World country."

For the benefit of those deciding whether or not to take your ideas seriously, what is your track record as a forecaster?

Cedric writes:
James writes:

Steve Sailer,
...For the benefit of those deciding whether or not to take your ideas seriously, what is your track record as a forecaster?

I can't vouch for Steve's forecasting, but from where I sit (not too far from the border) he pretty well describes the recent trends visible in manifold ways. Not a single person around here would say we continue to benefit from immigration (except my roofing guy who has an "understanding" with "the illegals" as he calls them....something to do with his not paying taxes and their agreeing to scurry away if they get injured).

Funny to think that the notion "too much of a good thing" needs justification...assuming you believe it's a good thing.

Paul writes:

I am not quite sure why everyone thinks that open borders are an unmitigated good. When we had open borders in the past, it brought crime, corruption, and a subversion of the rule of law and democracy. Irish and Italian immigrants brought criminal organizations which have wrought a permanent increase in corruption in this nation, and I say this as a descendant of Irish immigrants who is grateful that such feelings did not deny my ancestors entry to this country.

Clearly, at some level of immigration there is permanent, irreversible damage done to the integrity of the polity due to the fact that the U.S. cannot successfully integrate everyone to liberal democratic norms. That level is at least equal to, if not much less then C=F, to use Caplan's language. Perhaps the benefits of immigration so far outweigh the costs that a less democratic, less ruled by law, more corrupt U.S. with open borders really is a greater force for good than under the current immigration regime.

I would bet money, however, that Caplan will convince few people who are concerned about open borders due to emotional reasons without first acknowledging the legitimacy of their emotions and expressing that he in some way shape or form shares them.

What did those polls say about the candidate that voters thought actually cared about people like them, and who did those voters elect?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

people who are concerned about open borders due to emotional reasons

Nations are a matter of psychology and not of economic calculus.
The nation can not be justified on any economic grounds and in fact does not need any justification.
The national sovereignty is Pure Assertion; all it needs is a people willing to assert their sovereignty and back it up with control of a territory with force. .

That does not illegitimate the nation but only underscores the purely economic arguments do not apply in this sphere.

Ak Mike writes:

Paul - you have it exactly backwards. Crime and corruption declined dramatically during the nineteenth century as immigration increased. The earlier Anglo protestant society had many virtues, but it was a far more violent and drunken culture, and tolerated levels of official corruption that became unthinkable by the early twentieth century.

I'm too lazy to look up the numbers, but I believe that descendants of the big waves of late nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration have higher education and income levels than the descendants of the earlier British stock.

Paul writes:

Ak Mike- Yes, I wasn't very clear when I wrote my post about what corruption I was speaking of. I actually would be interested to see the figures for New England, New York, and Philadelphia, as those were the areas I was actually thinking of when I wrote about increased corruption. So if you do ever find the numbers, please post them, especially if they contradict my story. Because I think it would be really interesting if it were the case that immigrants made the societies founded by Puritans and Quakers less corrupt, because it is counter-intuitive.

That said, I am not in the least bit surprised that the descendants of the nineteenth and early twentieth century immigration are wealthier and have higher levels of income than descendants of people from regions where there was less immigration. It would make sense if immigrants were to move to the most economically dynamic parts of the country. I also happen to think that he the Northeast and its cultural offshoots stretching west were and are much wealthier than the South or Appalachia due to cultural reasons. So those waves of immigration would have been assimilating to the kinds of norms that tend to produce wealth, as opposed to the kinds of norms that prevail(ed) in other parts of the country which retard the production of wealth for the masses.

I also suspect that many of the descendants of immigrants are at the same time descendants of the earlier British stock. At the very least I can say that I am.

Patrick writes:

Steve - what evidence do you have that suggests the housing bubble was "hispanic-driven?" (or were you suggesting the burst was hispanic-driven? couldn't tell from the vague wording of your comment)

CMC writes:

James, Patrick,

What evidence do you have that suggests you made any sort of good faith review of Steve Sailer's website for his predictions or discussions of housing?

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