Bryan Caplan  

My Path to Open Borders

How I Was Wrong About Governme... If This Be Aspergers...
My open borders autobiography is now a guest post at Open Borders.  Since I strove to truthfully and unstrategically describe my intellectual evolution, even my harshest critics may enjoy it.  Highlights:
Until I was seventeen, my views on immigration were completely conventional. In 11th grade, I wrote a paper defending the "moderate" view that (a) contemporary levels of immigration were good for America, but (b) immigrants should have to learn English. As far as I remember, I didn't discuss illegal immigration one way or the other. If you asked me about illegal immigration, I probably would have reflexively said, "I'm against it," perhaps adding, "Well, illegals do a lot of jobs that Americans won't."
By the time I started my undergraduate education as UC Berkeley, then, I was a staunch yet shallow devotee of free immigration. I simply lacked the knowledge base to understand the magnitude of the issue. My subsequent coursework did nothing to alleviate my ignorance.
After I joined EconLog in 2005, I suddenly had an ideal forum to share my views on immigration. Many such posts were based on my lectures or lunch table arguments with my colleagues. Take "How Everyone Can Get Richer As Per-Capita GDP Falls," blogged in March, 2005. [Open Borders note: Arguments of this sort are discussed at the compositional effects page on this website]. If I sent this piece to an economics journal, I doubt the editor would even send it to referees. Why not? Because the argument is "obvious" and "informal." Yet if I wrote this piece as an op-ed, I'd just as surely be rejected. Why? Because the argument is "abstract" and "academic."
Once I became a professor at George Mason, however, I came to personally know many victims of U.S. immigration law. None of this affected the substance of my views, but it probably increased the intensity. The United States really does have the effrontery to brand good people as criminals for performing honest labor without government permission.
If you like the piece, thank Vipul Naik, who urged me to write it.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Dan W writes:


For my own understanding, and perhaps that of other readers, can you clarify your interpretation of "Open Borders" advocacy?

I welcome any and all who want to come to America to learn and to work. Does that make me a member of the "Open Borders" crowd?

However, I believe the claim on government assistance and the right to vote oneself those benefits should be withheld from those who are not legal citizens. I do not see how open borders and a generous welfare state are compatible with long run national strength. Does this belief kick me out of the "Open Borders" club?

Thank you.

cole writes:


I think you would still be in the open borders crowd. If you think immigrants should be allowed to come into the country, and freely contract with employers and property owners (to either rent or buy living space) then you are in favor of open borders. Even if you think they shouldn't be able to vote, shouldn't become citizens, or shouldn't receive welfare benefits.

Vipul Naik writes:


I think the key question is whether your commitment to open borders overrides your opposition to welfare and citizenship benefits. If you think (open borders without welfare and citizenship benefits) > (open borders with welfare and citizenship benefits) > (status quo), you are a supporter of open borders in my book.

If, on the other hand, you think that (open borders without welfare and citizenship benefits) > (status quo) > (open borders with welfare and citizenship benefits), I wouldn't call you pro-open borders per se, but a deal-breaker on the keyhole solution of denying welfare and citizenship benefits.

I discussed the rank-order preference typology in considerable detail in the blog post Six possible positions on a specific keyhole solution.

BK writes:

“Philosophers emphasize a menagerie of mutually incompatible competing moral theories: utilitarianism, Kantianism, Rawlsianism, egalitarianism, even libertarianism. On immigration, however, all serious moral theories appear to support open borders.”

Suspiciously wrong. Communitarianism is more popular than libertarianism among philosophers.

Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?

Other 382 / 931 (41.0%)
Accept or lean toward: egalitarianism 324 / 931 (34.8%)
Accept or lean toward: communitarianism 133 / 931 (14.3%)
Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 92 / 931 (9.9%)

And these are the numbers in the presence of a strong selection for pre-theoretic left-leaning political commitments by entering philosophers (relative to other high-IQ and educated people, as Bryan has discussed elsewhere) which depresses the communitarian score.

Jacob AG writes:

@BK, none of that is incompatible with what Bryan wrote. In fact it supports Bryan's premise that philosophers emphasize a variety of theories.

That premise isn't about how philosophers would *rank* those theories, just that they have them, but that being said, the word "even" as in "even libertarianism" would seem to suggest he thinks libertarianism is relatively unpopular among philosophers, as you're saying.

You're in agreement.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Jacob AG: I think BK was referring to communitarianism as one moral theory that Bryan missed in his list, and which (probably) doesn't support open borders. (To be honest, I don't have a clear idea about what communitarianism would say).

Joe Cushing writes:

Dan W,

The kind of people who are willing to leave their families and go live in a country where most people don't speak their language in order to better themselves are the kind of people who take action to improve their lives. They are not the kind of people who go on welfare. Numbers back this claim up. Immigrants are more likely to be working and less likely to be on government assistance than people born here. Immigrants are also more likely to be entrepreneurs hiring people than people born here. So regardless of government policy, welfare is not a reason to be against immigration.

I don't know where this welfare myth comes from. Maybe it comes from Unions, trade associations, and licenced workers who all tend to lobby and propagandize to protect their incomes. Unions produce some of the most disgusting lying propaganda I have ever seen.

Simon C writes:

Beautiful summary. It's great work. It's still a mystery to me that this issue, which is I think the most important economic issue in the world, is relatively little discussed. And why does it have so few advocates? There are plenty of celebrities who spend time advocating aid for people of poorer nations but why do I never hear them say, "Let's let them in!"? Perhaps they do and I just haven't noticed it.
Maybe I'm crazy but I feel like open border advocates like Bryan are really the only sane people in the world.

Dan W writes:

Joe Cushing,

I know you like to write the words you wrote but if they were true then why do immigration advocacy groups fight so hard for welfare benefits to be offered to their members? If what you wrote is true why is California struggling so much to pay its bills? Should not the state be home to the hardest working workforce in our nation?

What you call a "welfare myth" is in fact a way of life for low income immigrant families. Living off the state may not be their goal when they come here but once they do arrive they encounter many who want them to do just that.

The vast majority of Americans have no qualms whatsoever about opening our borders to well educated foreigners. It is expected that such people have the skills and the desire to be self-sufficient. I even suspect must Americans have no qualms whatsoever about opening our borders to all adult men & women whose single focus is working towards a better life.

Yet the evidence shows that when we open our borders to low-income families many members of those families demand some level of social assistance. There is an argument to be made that such assistance serves the greater good of all humanity. There is also plenty of evidence to argue that such an arrangement initiates a multi-generational pattern of dependency.

This is why I do not believe it is realistic to separate the question of the welfare state from the policy of "Open Borders".

johnleemk writes:

BK / Jacob AG / Vipul,

I posted a reply on communitarianism's stance towards immigration here:

Dan W,

"Yet the evidence shows that when we open our borders to low-income families many members of those families demand some level of social assistance."

That's because many immigrants are in households with citizen members, who are entitled to the benefits of citizenship. (One can talk about reforming US citizenship policy as well to limit the availability of birthright citizenship.) And welfare usage rates really differ depending on how you slice the numbers. Cato points out that immigrant men have higher labour force participation rates than non-immigrant men (women have lower rates because immigrant women are likelier to be married and have children than their non-immigrant peers), and immigrants personally have lower usage rates of various welfare programmes. The CIS of course tells a different story, because it focuses on welfare usage rates among households with immigrants instead.

Moreover, the CIS can't explain away the fact that immigrants have higher labour force participation rates or start businesses at higher rates than natives. Even they call out that the reason for higher welfare use among immigrant households is likely to be that immigrants tend to have a lower stock of human capital (education and skills) than natives, not because they are any lazier. (I'll provide links to Cato and articles on the CIS study in a separate comment, because if I post multiple links in one comment, that comment'll probably be stuck in the moderation queue for a while.)

As for California, that state has many many problems that go far beyond immigration. Which sounds like a likelier source of its fiscal problems: letting in too many immigrants, or profligate spending and tax policies? Other border states like Texas have let in plenty of immigrants without suffering anywhere close to the same purported deleterious economic effects of immigration in California, and this combined with Occam's razor suggests to me that California is far from a typical illustration of the supposed economic difficulties posed by immigration.

Note as well that even stronger welfare states like Canada, Australia, Sweden, and Germany all have the same or higher proportions of immigrants in their population compared to the US. The first two actively promote skills-based immigration, but all of them are also relatively generous to refugees (Germany harbours almost 3x the number of refugees than the US, despite being less than 1/3rd the US's size in population). There is no crystal clear evidence that welfare states are incompatible with higher levels of immigration or more open borders.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

By the way, New rule makes residency easier for immigrants with U.S. kin

Beginning March 4, illegal immigrants who can demonstrate that time apart from an American spouse, child or parent would create "extreme hardship" can apply for a visa without leaving the United States. Once approved, applicants would be required to leave briefly in order to return to their native country and pick up their visa.
johnleemk writes:

Mr. Econotarian,

Note the main impact of this is not to open the floodgates to a new class of people eligible for visas. Rather, it streamlines an existing process which currently requires said class of people to leave the US just to apply for that visa. Under the current process where they must leave, this process in 50% of cases goes relatively quickly, and in the other half, literally takes years:

Steve Sailer writes:

"California is far from a typical illustration of the supposed economic difficulties posed by immigration."

Yeah, because California is only the biggest state in the country and has by far the most immigrants and for the longest time, so let's not pay any attention to California.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Steve Sailer, johnleemk:

My understanding is that johnleemk had no intention to "not pay any attention to California." He devoted a paragraph to it in a blog comment devoted to many other related issues, which is not exactly the same as not paying attention. And I think he would be willing to go into a lot more detail regarding California at a more opportune place and time.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Dan W:

A little followup on my earlier comment.

The key question as far as whether you support open borders is not so much whether you find immigrant welfare use problematic, but whether you consider it sufficiently problematic as to justify restrictions. Empirically, it seems that while many immigrants go on welfare, this is mostly because the option has been made available to them due to policies chosen by natives through a democratic process (of perhaps questionable legitimacy). Keep in mind: the anarcho-capitalistic Bryan Caplan works for a state university and sends his children to public schools. Is it really unimaginable that a low-income person, offered the option of a welfare benefit in the name of his/her children, would take it, particularly if this appears to mean a somewhat better standard of living for the child? No, and I do not think this reflects negatively on the person's character.

What I would stress, and where I think that both the people at Cato and CIS agree, is that the primary goal of the migrant is not welfare collection. This means that walling immigrants off from the welfare state would be very much feasible. While many immigrants wouldn't like it (who likes a potential source of money being taken away?) it probably won't have much of an effect on migration rates, and most people will get used to the new equilibrium. It's also true that most serious restrictionists don't believe that simply walling off immigrants better from welfare will do much to stem migration, which is why they focus more on enforcement and deportation measures.

There are immigrant rights advocacy groups who advocate for more welfare access for immigrants. But there are all sorts of advocacy groups that advocate for more privileges (or in their view, rights) for specific subgroups of the population, whom they may or may not actually be speaking for. There are groups that lobby for lower tax rates for taxpayers -- this does not mean that they speak for all taxpayers. The NRA does not speak for all firearms owners in the US. Feminist advocacy groups don't speak for all women,. Focus on the Family does not speak for all families in the US.

You already lean in support of open borders modulo welfare state issues. So, for the welfare state to be a deal-breaker, you need to have the view that the harms created by welfare for immigrants (plus other problems) are sufficiently severe to overcome the presumption in favor of migration, and that other ways of dealing with these problems (such as walling off immigrants from the welfare state, denying birthright citizenship, etc.) simply won't work. I think the point that johnleemk was making was not so much that the welfare state is free of problems (which it probably isn't, particularly from a libertarian-leaning perspective!) but rather, that these problems are not severe enough to justify restrictions, even if "wall off the welfare state from immigration"-type keyhole solutions prove to be impossible.

Dan W writes:

Naik wrote: "While many immigrants go on welfare, this is mostly because the option has been made available to them due to policies chosen by natives through a democratic process (of perhaps questionable legitimacy)."

This is precisely my concern with an Open Borders policy that invites low income families into the country. To have this concern is not to blame the immigrant. The reality is that domestic political power brokers have made it their life's work to take other people's money and spend it on growing their minority, under-privileged, coalitions.

This type of politics is fractious, self-serving and ultimately bankrupt.

Are the pure Open Borders advocates honest about the cost of this political manipulation? Do they appreciate the extent of the costs that trickle down to all levels of government as a result of the political lobbying of these minority advocacy groups?

As long as these concerns are ignored the American people will never trust the politicians on the issue of immigration.

Jacky writes:

Hi Bryan,
I agree with your keyhole solution. Coming from Hong Kong, we in fact already have something very similar here - Filipino maids. They came here on a visa specifically spelled out in the law disallowing them to apply for citizenship. (ok. not exactly, but to the same effect) Such legislation, however, is currently under legal challenge as being unconstitutional:

I am not a lawyer, but I suspect something similar could have happened in the US (or Europe) if a "keyhole" solution is adopted?

johnleemk writes:

Dan W,

While I agree that spending public funds on immigrants is probably not the best use of governments' money (though do note that most of the public expenses when it comes to immigrants in the US are borne by local and state governments, so look to your local statehouse or town hall too, not just Washington), I don't see a reason to be more concerned about this than I am or should be about other advocacy groups who waste the taxes I pay. If the choice is between a guy from Mexico who wants to feed his kids and the advocacy group that wants to help him, or the military-industrial complex, I'm not sure why it should be obvious to me that the immigrant advocacy groups are the bigger problem.

Dan W writes:

From a political and social perspective there is a significant difference between government military spending and government welfare spending.

(1) The positive externalities are similar but the negative externalities are different. With military spending the money is largely spent locally (in salaries) and the mischief (ie the end product) is deployed on someone else's continent. With welfare spending the money is spent locally but the problem remains local. As we have clearly seen the past few years with rising food stamp and disability numbers, the government can ALWAYS find more customers for its welfare dollars. It is politics as usual for lobbyists to engage politicians for more filthy lucre. It is a completely different dynamic when politicians directly bribe voters with other people's money.

(2) Military efforts are a Federal responsiblity and the politics of military spending are largely contained in that sphere. Welfare spending and advocacy impacts all levels of government, from the halls of Congress all the way down to the halls of Jefferson Elementary School. No matter what one thinks about levels of military spending it is just another Federal program that may grow or shrink depending on the politics of the day. Welfare advocacy is a profitable enterprise at every level of public activity. Not only does this make Americans weary of program that expand the welfare numbers but it makes Americans cognizant that there are real trade-offs associated with programs to care for the poor and disadvantaged.

Political distrust arises because the elite not only ignore these real world trade-offs but they pass moral judgments on those who express these concerns. These judgements are of course self-serving because the elite do not have to face these trade-offs. The elite benefit from competition amongst lower wage workers. The elite do not have to worry about competing for lower wage jobs and they do not have to worry about their kids competing for those jobs. They also do not have to worry about their schools being pulled downward by the presence of large numbers of less-competitive students. The elites get all the benefits of open borders and face none of the trade-offs.

Other Americans do not get this free-lunch. The wage issue is small potatoes compared to the impact on schools. Here the evidence is clear. Schools that accommodate large numbers of students from lower income homes do not perform as well. That is only the half of it. Of greater significance is because of rules brought about from welfare and minority advocacy schools that do not perform as well in aggregate MUST devote more resources on helping the lower performing students. Doing this involves a direct trade-off of taking resources that would otherwise be spent on higher performing students.

Real Americans are aware this trade-off exists. This is why neighborhoods in high performing schools are so prized. This is why families flee neighborhoods that serve low performing schools.

I know you all know this to be true. What puzzles me is why you discount this cost when it is so evident.

johnleemk writes:

Dan W,

First thing that troubles me is you're saying you don't care if your money kills people in a faraway country but do care if your money subsidises the education of Americans who happen to be immediately descended from low-income immigrants. (You seem to have dropped the focus on social welfare spending altogether, except perhaps tangentially as a supposed attracting factor for low-income immigrants -- even though there's ample evidence that most of these immigrants work hard and would likely come with or without access to welfare.)

I live in Virginia, a state whose economy heavily depends on government spending, *especially* in the military sector because of bases and contractors. At almost every level of government here, a common slur on one's opponents is to accuse them of supporting "devastating defence cuts" (a verbatim quote from ex-Governor George Allen in his recent failed Senatorial campaign against ex-Governor Tim Kaine) and destroying Virginian jobs. Yes, the money is spent by the federal government, but that ignores the fact that state/local actors lobby hard for the federal government to spend that money in their jurisdiction. Military-industrial advocacy is in fact "a profitable enterprise at every level of public activity."

Most open borders advocates are sympathetic to programmes that would ameliorate the impact of greater competition for low-skilled jobs -- an impact that is relatively small, mind you, since even if nominal wages fall, lower labour costs in production will exert a countervailing upward force on real wages. (It likely won't be sufficient to fully outweigh a fall in nominal wages, but this is often overlooked.) Identical arguments you make regarding competition's impact on domestic low-income workers have been made about free trade.

A further often-overlooked factor is how greater availability of low-skilled labour opens doors for everyone; limiting low-skilled immigration prevents the benefits from accruing to those besides the richest. Right now rich Americans hire poor Mexicans to mow their lawns. In Malaysia, where I grew up, middle-class (poor by American standards) Malaysians hire even poorer Filipinos to look after their children. You don't need to be particularly rich to hire a live-in Filipino maid, and if you aren't that rich, you can send your child to relatively affordable daycare because that daycare hires Indonesian or Filipino maids to look after your children. Sure, it's not the same as having a nice native girl with a Masters looking after them, but if you're a housewife who can now earn $20,000 because you can afford to hire someone, anyone, to look after your kids, it's a huge difference.

As for negative externalities on education, Tiebout sorting means that if native families find their neighbourhood schools are filling up with families they'd rather not send their children to school with, they up and move to another neighbourhood. (This is exactly how white flight happened, after all; this isn't a new issue at all.) The argument you're making only applies to sudden, unexpected, and incredibly large inflows of immigrant families, because in such cases the adjustment costs would be incredibly high (e.g. local governments would have to build more schools). A gradual adjustment means that as wealthier families move out and a jurisdiction becomes more dominated by low-income households, the "negative externalities" (if any) of the presence of low-income children in the classroom will be confined to that low-income jurisdiction's schools only. Given the US's model of school spending, where local jurisdictions fund their own schools, this effectively confines the problem to low-income school districts. If the issue is with large, difficult-to-anticipate flows of immigrants, that hardly militates against opening the borders; it merely means the opening process has to be staggered across a long period of time.

(California is actually the exception to this local school funding model; since 1971 Serrano v Priest has forced the state government to equalise school spending across all districts, meaning it confiscates "surplus" spending from wealthy districts to spend on poorer ones. This is yet another reason evaluating the impacts of immigration solely based on the California data point is ill-advised. Given that much of Swedish welfare spending is at the local level, this might be another reason why that country has been able to effectively accommodate low-income immigrants. It's also interesting that despite their more centralised education systems, other developed high-immigrant countries also don't seem to have problems with education that remotely approach California's.)

Dan W writes:


Let's keep it simple

#1: American history shows that the citizenry sees a difference between government programs that spend money on things and paying people to work on those things and government programs that directly transfer money to people.

Put another way, Americans are much more forgiving of cronyism and much more judgmental of welfare. Perhaps this is because at least with cronyism an attempt is being made to argue the spending is yielding a useful public good. No matter what the argument is the simple fact is this:

Americans seem to have little problem with government workers and government contractors using their incomes to buy BMWs and other high-market goods. But it is a national outrage for a welfare recipient to spend food stamps on an iPad.

Economic theory states that money is fungible and there should be no outrage. Political reality claims there is a difference in how money is received and spent. Perhaps EconLog can examine this question ...

#2: You discount the risk of sudden, unexpected socioeconomic change. Well from an individual perspective this risk is real and based on history. It is called busing and district realignment. With these programs it is possible for a middle class family to be minding its own business in its middle class neighborhood that the family spends a lot of money to afford when suddenly and unexpectedly the policy makers decide to send those families children to a poorer school in a poorer neighborhood.

Policies that attract more poor people to our nation and enable the poor to increase their political influence assume Americans can be fooled into believing "this time will be different". American is a generous nation. We do far more than almost all other nations to spread the wealth and provide equal opportunity to all people. Americans also have a keen sense of reality and they sense when they are being played for a fool.

Oh, by the way, most middle class Americans want to watch after their own kids. That is why they had them in the first place. You may want to outsource parenting to the lowest bidder but I don't think that policy argument is going to be persuasive.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Dan W, you write:

On #1:

Put another way, Americans are much more forgiving of cronyism and much more judgmental of welfare. Perhaps this is because at least with cronyism an attempt is being made to argue the spending is yielding a useful public good. No matter what the argument is the simple fact is this:

Americans seem to have little problem with government workers and government contractors using their incomes to buy BMWs and other high-market goods. But it is a national outrage for a welfare recipient to spend food stamps on an iPad.

Economic theory states that money is fungible and there should be no outrage. Political reality claims there is a difference in how money is received and spent. Perhaps EconLog can examine this question ...

Actually, paying people money to produce useless stuff is, from an economic standpoint, worse than just paying people money with no expectation of anything in return. That's because while both waste resources in the sense of redistributing them away from productive sectors and distorting incentives, the former wastes even more resources in needless production. If the government cuts a check for $20,000 to you without expecting anything in return from you, that is nowhere near as bad as if the government cuts a check for $20,000 to you and requires you to dig and refill a ditch for one hour every day for 20 days to earn it.

Now, it's true that the welfare state isn't quite a no-questions-asked transfer payment scheme. It creates disincentives to work (particularly if it's means-tested), and hence is bad from that angle. But these are more subtle and indirect arguments. The fact that no useless production is occurring in exchange for the welfare payment is a plus, not a minus.

If the public sees cronyism as less bad than welfare, then they've got it even more wrong than you note.

On #2:

Oh, by the way, most middle class Americans want to watch after their own kids. That is why they had them in the first place. You may want to outsource parenting to the lowest bidder but I don't think that policy argument is going to be persuasive.

I don't think John is talking of parents completely not taking care of their own kids, it's about getting help from others that allows the parents to juggle kid-raising better with their other activities. Parents in the US do hire babysitters quite a bit when they need to make short trips outside -- nannies are no worse (probably better, in that they have a more long-term investment in taking good care of the kid and a more long-term relationship with the kid). Anyway, I don't think John's purpose was to make nannies the specific issue. There are lots of other relatively low-skilled jobs that people around the world want to get done but don't want to do by themselves all that much, and the same argument applies to all.

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