Bryan Caplan  

Open Borders in 4 Easy Steps

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Today at Students for Liberty 2013 I did a double-header debate against the Center for Immigration Studies' Jan Ting.  The format gave each of us a two minute (!) opening statement for each topic.   Here's my opening statement for Topic #1: Immigration.

Open Borders in 4 Easy Steps

1.      Immigration laws deny very basic human rights: The right to accept a job offer from a willing employer and the right to rent an apartment from a willing landlord.  The predictable result for people born on the wrong side of the border is severe poverty and worse.  This creates a strong moral presumption against immigration restrictions. 

2.      To overcome this presumption, you'd have to show that free immigration has consequences so awful that they clearly overshadow the horrible consequences of restriction.  And you'd have to show that there isn't any cheaper, more humane way to avert these consequences.

3.      The best social science finds that the alleged downsides of immigration are greatly overstated at best, and often the opposite of the truth.  For starters: Immigrants make Americans and the world richer, and they pay about as much in taxes as they use in benefits.

4.      Even in worst-case scenarios, there are cheaper, more humane remedies.  If immigrants are really a fiscal burden, you don't have to prevent immigration.  Just make them ineligible for benefits.  If that seems cruel, it's far less cruel than forcing them to live in Haiti.




COMMENTS (21 to date)
MingoV writes:
The predictable result [of restricting immigration] for people born on the wrong side of the border is severe poverty and worse. This creates a strong moral presumption against immigration restrictions.
That assumes we have a moral duty to care about all people, and that we must help those in bad economic situations. Thus, people living well above the poverty level should give most of their money to aid the abysmally poor. Those who fail to do so are violating that supposed moral duty.

I favor more open immigration, but not because I have a moral duty to help poor foreigners.

Ghost of Christmas Past writes:

Yep, you're a great advocate. Economical with the truth, but very persuasive to people who don't know to much about your topic.

1. Poverty is endogenous to population, not exogenous. Admitting a flood of poor immigrants to your country makes your country poor. All this stuff about being born on the wrong side is misleading, because the difference between the two sides is not natural resources or something* but the people themselves.

Also your stuff about willing employers and landlords is incomplete, because those people do not keep immigrants in cages. The immigrants impose stiff externalities on other people in the destination country, who are not able to adjust their costs and benefits vis-a-vis immigrants by lowering their wages or raising their rents.

2. Restricting immigration is necessary to avert the destruction of the high-capital-to-worker society which is uniquely conducive to technological progress. Even if mass immigration may please some poor immigrants in the short run, it is 'eating the seed corn.' As commenters have pointed out to you before, virtually all the world population growth in the last two centuries has been enabled by the diffusion of technology from advanced countries to poor ones (and one reason most formerly-poor countries are still poor is that they put nearly all their economic growth into population growth rather than capital accumulation, so they stayed near the Malthusian limit!). Transforming all the advanced countries into poor countries by mass immigration will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Anyway, hard-core utilitarianism is a suicide pact; clearly non-adaptive. The moral duty to refrain from harming strangers, which is a form of cooperation (offer to participate in 'mutual altruism') does not extend to a duty to relieve all strangers' opportunity costs of not having been born or invited into the community.

Also, there are diminishing marginal returns to immigration. The first few poor immigrants may enjoy big wage gains over their home-country wages (though higher cost of living in rich countries will mitigate those gains) but as more immigrants arrive to compete down wages and fill all the jobs enabled by the available industrial capital, each new immigrant gains less and less over staying home. (We know for sure there isn't much demand for low-wage workers in rich countries-- low wages==low demand!) It is therefore misleading to suggest that open immigration will relieve much poverty around the world, because only a modest amount of migration will force the marginal gains to zero. Sadly, by that point, the quality of life for citizens of the (formerly) rich countries will have dimished toward poor-country levels. So open borders means economically destroying rich-country citizens to benefit a small percentage of world poor people. Temporarily.

3. You tend to destroy your own credibility when you lie, even by omission or by statistical legerdemain. Poor immigrants pay much less in taxes than they (and their offspring) consume in benefits. This is very well documented (in Europe as well as in the US) and conceded even by (intellectually honest) open-borders advocates, and it has been pointed out to you with links to reliable references many times. The closest you can come to justifying your propaganda is to average (as Julian Simon was wont to do) a few hyper-rich Google-founder-type immigrants in with the millions of low-IQ Mexican peasant illegal aliens. That's dishonest because we don't need open borders to admit math geniuses-- we do that already.

4. The "guest worker" approach doesn't work: (1) even immigrants "ineligible for benefits" collect them. They have children and claim welfare payments and schooling for them.** They get sick or injured and go to the E.R.. They file for EITC. (2) Poor immigrants excite the sympathy of nice people, the duplicity of leftist politicians, and the cupidity of businessmen. Every grocer in a neighborhood of poor immigrants funds politicians who work to extend benefits to immigrants because the grocer wants his customers to spend more money and he doesn't mind if that money is taxed away from citizens somewhere else. Every employer of poor immigrants is a big advocate for government subsidies to them because those reduce the wages the employer must pay to maintain his workforce-- it's a matter of socializing costs and privatizing benefits. In our society, the only way to avoid subsidizing poor immigrants is to exclude them from the country.

(Nobody is "forcing" anyone to go and live in Haiti. Your prospective immigrants already live in Haiti. They were born in Haiti. Haiti may be a dump but the Haitians made it that way. Americans have no duty to import Haitians to make America a dump like Haiti. Americans who feel sorry for Haitians can send them money. Hope springs eternal, but experience is the best teacher. More than a century of American experience with Haitians in and out of Haiti suggests that no amount of subsidy improves Haiti because the Hatians themselves squander any resources given to them, and bringing Haitians to the US simply adds mouths to the welfare rolls (and inmates to the jails). The only way to "fix" Haiti-- an approach I oppose completely-- would be conquest and imperial administration. I do not advocate doing that.)

*Generally speaking. Oil sheikdoms and so-forth are noise.

**Eventually a disproportionate number of the children of low-quality immigrants become criminals and impose additional stiff costs on citizens.

Ted Levy writes:

It doesn't assume that at all Mingo. There is a big difference between a positive obligation to help others and a negative obligation to not place arbitrary barriers in their way to block their goal of them helping themselves. All Bryan's #1 moral presumption does is block the latter, not demand the former.

If Bryan had said, "A free market presumes that you won't go out and kill anyone whose voluntary trading activities you oppose," it would be a bizarre reading to respond, "This assumes we have a moral duty to care about all people..." It merely presumes we have a moral duty to not violate the rights of others to engage in peaceful trade.

Finley writes:

Mingo can you point out where in the 4 steps it was said that native born have a moral duty to help in anyway or to give a dime of their money to immigrants? It says to not get in their way as they try to get a job and an apartment. That's it.

Justin writes:

I absolutely love point #4. I've often promoted the idea open borders while granting as a precondition the necessity of a substantial reduction in the welfare state. The twist in point #4 is so much more powerful.

ajb writes:

I would support 4 if they AND their children were ineligible for benefits, including all affirmative action. Moreover, violations including serious crimes should require immediate deportation (This isn't well enforced even now.) And if you think the point about no AA is even remotely politically viable, I have an iceberg in Nevada to sell you.

Dan writes:

Bryan,

Open borders did not work out so well for the Native-American nations. What makes you think that the current United States will fare better with open borders than they did?

I can agree with points #1, #3 and #4 but I believe you are in denial about the risks suggested by point #2. Cultures can and do conflict and that conflict can yield horrible consequences. We do not need to imagine this can happen. We know it can happen.

MikeP writes:

I would support 4 if they AND their children were ineligible for benefits, including all affirmative action.

I agree that children of immigrants, even citizen children, should be as ineligible for welfare as their parents are.

But I don't get your fascination with affirmative action. There is precious little of that impairing human action today, and virtually none that applies to immigrants.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

I deny #1. There exists no such right that enables a foreigner to rent a place from a landlord. The landlord's property exists within the national territory and the State necessarily has the say, even the final say, in this matter.

MikeP writes:

Bedarz Iliaci,

Does the State have the final say on whether the tenant can have a child?

How about whether the tenant will be allowed to live through the next day?

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

The State has the final say on whether a stranger can reside in a particular private property that exists within the national territory.

For the earth is not divided up into private properties in the first place but into nations and national territories.

I reject any formulation that attempts to sneak past this fundamental fact that nations exist.

A private property exists only within the nexus of laws that a State establishes. If that State goes, i.e. is conquered, all the property rights within that State are rendered moot.
In other words, the sovereign will is an unanswerable argument.

MikeP writes:

In other words, the sovereign will is an unanswerable argument.

So the answers to my questions are "yes" and "yes", whether the tenant is a stranger or not.

MdeG writes:

Two points:

To your 4.: Not only the undocumented but green card holders in their first period of residency (3-5 years minimum) are prohibited from accepting government benefits. That's what we immigration sponsors are for. We're the backup safety net for any contingency before the immigrant qualifies for public assistance of any kind. People generally don't migrate for public benefits. The undocumented consume vanishingly few of them. The only exceptions to the bar are 1. emergency medical treatment (do we really want to leave people to die on the street?) and 2. workers' compensation (to avoid creating perverse incentives for preferential hiring of undocumented workers). Complete bar on public benefits would create slight change, and for the worse.

To Bedarz Iliaci's point: There is no bar on noncitizens *owning* real estate in this country, let alone renting. My husband and I own land here and in his home country; the latter has to be in his name because I as a noncitizen there cannot own real estate. Our house in the US is in both names, and lawfully so, since even before he became a Legal Permanent Resident. You are entitled to have opinions about the law if you like, but that's what the law is.

MingoV writes:

A number of commenters incorrectly believe that opening our borders to the poorest of the poor will be cost-free to us. Who pays for their transportation to our nation and for their relocation within it? (They all can't get jobs in LA and NYC.) Who pays to keep them from starving and getting ill from exposure before they find employment? Who pays for their medical care before they get a job or after they get a low paying job with no healthcare benefits? Who pays for their public schooling since most of them aren't paying property taxes?

It's possible that these extremely poor immigrants will, at some distant future time, become productive enough to have a net positive effect on or economy. It's also possible that they will have a net negative effect for decades.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

MdeG,
I never claimed that a noncitizen may not own property. My only point was that the State has the final say in the matter, as you yourself acknowledge.
Thus, contrary to what libertarians maintain, nations exist and one needs to make proper distinction between citizens and noncitizens and any argument that sneaks past these distinctions has begged the very question.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:
In other words, the sovereign will is an unanswerable argument.

So the answers to my questions are "yes" and "yes",

Not so fast, The sovereign will acts only on the common good.

It is a matter of judgment. Solzhenitsyn has given the beautiful image of State as the Roof of the People. Now, we want the roof to be far enough so we can stand naturally and we don't want the roof to fall in and crush us too.

MikeP writes:

The sovereign will acts only on the common good.

Oh, that's reassuring.

How do you know open borders aren't the common good? In the US this went without saying until the 20th century.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

'Open borders' can not be a common good since the open borders destroy the notion of the State itself. A state is defined by its land and its citizenry. In other words, the material cause of a State is its land along with its people.
With open borders, the distinction between a citizen and a non-citizen is lost.

That US had any kind of open borders is a misunderstanding and lack of attention to relevant details.

First thing is lack of intruders due to underpopulated nature of the New World and distances from the Old World.

Second thing is the desire of US itself to import immigrants (European only) to settle the empty lands.

Had Chinese or Hindus decided to immigrate to US in 19C in some numbers, you would have pretty quickly seen strict enforcement of borders.

gunslingergregi writes:

Even in worst-case scenarios, there are cheaper, more humane remedies. If immigrants are really a fiscal burden, you don't have to prevent immigration. Just make them ineligible for benefits. If that seems cruel, it's far less cruel than forcing them to live in Haiti.'''''''

The only problem with feeling so bad about forcing them to live in haiti is forcing the people where they immigrate to have to live in the new haiti they create.
I have 30 drug dealers within two blocks of my house I am sure that someone felt bad that these people had to live in cleveland at one point and then decided to move them to my town but now my town has a new shooting every week 20 years later.
Somebody did a study about how they needed to be babysat in a town and how magically they would change their ways and be productive citizens well it didn't happen unless you consider drug dealing productive. So what happened is the people who could move out did. Every time there is a fire someone wins the lottery because they get a hundred grand and can escape the area. There are empty lots all over. I guess eventually there will be nothing here because all the houses will have burned down because nobody is gonna build a new one.

James A. Donald writes:
Mingo can you point out where in the 4 steps it was said that native born have a moral duty to help in anyway or to give a dime of their money to immigrants? It says to not get in their way as they try to get a job and an apartment. That's it.
We supposedly have a moral duty to provide them with welfare and a vote with which to vote for more welfare. Most Mexican immigrants do not work for a living. Instead they get pregnant with little voters, or sponge of women with bastards, or have affirmative action sinecures where the actual work is done by a white male, assuming there is in any work. Bryan Caplan only sees the minority that do work for a living.

The majority do not work, or work in government jobs, which comes to much the same thing - paid to vote against my interests.

Bryan Caplan says "well let us let them in without welfare", but if we cannot take welfare away from them now, the more we let in, the more we will be outvoted, and the more generous welfare will get, as we observe happening in practice.

James A. Donald writes:
you don't have to prevent immigration. Just make them ineligible for benefits.

In California We cannot even arrest mestizos who drive without license or insurance and cause traffic accidents because they do not know how to drive a car, nor can we impound their cars.

How do you think we can prevent mestizos from voting and collecting welfare? They are part of the ruling coalition, and whites are part of the ruled coalition, as is apparent whenever one has a traffic accident on California roads.

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