Bryan Caplan  

Immigration and Bubbles

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Vipul Naik called my attention to an interesting comment on immigration and bubbles:
Isn't the bubble idea in opposition to the unlimited immigration idea? Your bubble advice boils down to surrounding yourself as much as possible with like minded people. Immigration means being surrounded by people with different cultures and mindsets.

Those of us with incomes high enough can move to where immigrants can't afford to live but what of other people?
My thoughts:

1. The key lesson of the Bubble is that psychological separation from unpleasant experiences is a low-cost substitute for physical separation from unpleasant experiences.  You don't have to choose between (a) suffering at the hands of the people around you, or (b) moving to a mountaintop. 

2. You could object: "You're neglecting better options.  Namely: (c) forcing the people around you to do as you wish, and (d) making people you don't like move away from you." 

3. Like most people, I ignore (c) and (d) because they are not only impractical, but unjust.  There's no way I'm going to transform the surrounding population into econ nerds or drive the non-econ nerds away.  And even if I could, I'd have no right to do so.

4. Unlike most people, I apply #3 to foreigners as well as U.S. citizens.  Making people uncomfortable by your mere presence is not a crime, much less a crime for which exile to the Third World is a fitting punishment.

5. The comment implicitly assumes that I don't want immigrants in my Bubble.  I do.  My wife is an immigrant.  Many of my closest friends are immigrants.  Many of the people I trade with are immigrants.  If immigration restrictionists had their way, my Bubble would be a sadder, emptier place.

6. "Those of us with incomes high enough can move to where immigrants can't afford to live but what of other people?"  At risk of sounding sanctimonious: Immigrants are people, too.  Many of them are escaping problems far worse than feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you.



COMMENTS (25 to date)
NZ writes:

I wouldn't want to get rid of all immigrants either, because like you I can think of several who enrich my life (actually, I'm one). I think even the VDare crowd would tend to agree.

However, most immigration discussion isn't about removing all immigrants, just about stopping or slowing the flow of immigration, typically from certain key countries.

I wonder...what if you, Bryan, for some reason had to move to one of two cities tomorrow. You don't already know anyone in either city. In either city you'd have to commute across town every day for work (so you can't just hide in your house). Both cities are very far from where your friends and family live now (so you can't crash on their couches). Which city would you pick:

A) a city full of non-econ nerds, who mostly don't share your sub-sub-sub culture but at least share your first language and general culture, and whose racial makeup is mostly white;

or

B) an immigrant enclave city where you'd be the only white person, the only person who speaks English as a first language, and certainly the only economist. A lot fewer people in this city are married, too.

In which city would creating and maintaining your bubble inflict a higher opportunity cost? In which city would your bubble, frustratingly, constantly seem most porous?

Now imagine that instead of moving to one of those cities, the people from one of those cities would gradually move into your current city. From which city would a mass migration most increase the cost of maintaining your bubble?

Carl writes:

Does prof. Caplan think there ought to be any restriction on immigration? If the U.S government abolished all borders tomorrow, would the result inevitably be more "just"? Would not a continuous stream of people escaping problems in their own countries start to arrive? That seems highly probable, no?

I reckon most people, pro-immigration advocates included, would not wish for the U.S borders to be abolished tomorrow. But on what grounds can they object? It's the humanitarian thing to do, right? It is also apparently great for the economy!

It has become very difficult for people to politely express their opinion on what is probably the primary question for any given group of people or nation: Who can come into the group? Bryan reduces this crucial question to "feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you". Isn't that absurdly simplistic? Is it possible anymore to regard that "uneasiness" as something other than mere pathology?

Renato Drumond writes:

Does prof. Caplan think there ought to be any restriction on immigration?

I'm not Dr. Caplan, but I think a very reasonable immigration restriction would be reagarding infectious diseases.

ivvenalis writes:

Carl: You must be new here.

At the risk of putting words into Prof. Caplan's mouth: No he doesn't; it'll only be continuous until conditions in the United States and the "donor" countries are equalized; it will in fact be great for the economy because GDP (and total utility in general) will rise, even though many individuals (primarily current American citizens) will see their income and utility fall at least in the short-mid term (note: longer than you will be alive); that "uneasiness" is in fact pathological because you're irrationally/selfishly privileging the well-being of your countrymen/yourself over e.g. a Haitian menial laborer who could quintuple his income by moving to Florida.

Philo writes:

@Renato
Some infectious diseases would require quarantine, but they wouldn't require any restriction on immigration.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

@Philo
What about potential immigrants who have HIV/AIDS?

Jacob Lyles writes:

@kevin

I am not Bryan Caplan, but I think he would point out that immigrants with AIDS are people too and they will be vastly better off in the USA than in a third-world country.

Those of us that would rather not live in a country with Botswana levels of AIDS infection are being selfish bigots.

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

Immigrants reference with the idea of creating your own bubble is itself very incorrect and complete wrong understanding of the author's concept. A bubble can be colorful also with different colors resembling different ethnics, religions and nations.

Vipul Naik writes:

If somebody has HIV/AIDS, don't have sex with them (personally), and bar them from making blood donations. And if a lot of people from a high-HIV country are entering, a simple policy that bars immigrants from that country from donating blood could be instituted, just as there exist policies against blood donations from sexually active homosexual males).

AIDS seems like a suboptimal example because it's not particularly infectious. The argument may work better for a highly communicable disease.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Carl:

I reckon most people, pro-immigration advocates included, would not wish for the U.S borders to be abolished tomorrow. But on what grounds can they object? It's the humanitarian thing to do, right? It is also apparently great for the economy!

It has become very difficult for people to politely express their opinion on what is probably the primary question for any given group of people or nation: Who can come into the group? Bryan reduces this crucial question to "feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you". Isn't that absurdly simplistic? Is it possible anymore to regard that "uneasiness" as something other than mere pathology?

There is nothing pathological about feeling "uneasy" -- what's arguably pathological is the absence of a sense of proportion where that uneasiness is used to justify coercive immigration restrictions. There may be compelling reasons to restrict immigration (and candidate reasons of this sort have been discussed and critiqued elsewhere on this blog and elsewhere), but "immigrants make me uneasy because they don't meet the criteria I demand of the people in my bubble" is not one of them.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'd love to see Bryan get hired to be the chief spokesman for the Gang of Eight.

James A. Donald writes:
Immigrants are people, too. Many of them are escaping problems far worse than feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you.
The problem for poor whites is not feeling uneasy because their neighbors look different, but that they are being ethnically cleansed.

Further, not all immigrants are people too. Some of them are, some of them are not, some of them should be reclassified as animals and sold to the highest bidder. You hide inside your ever shrinking bubble so that you can avoid meeting such people, but being forced to hide inside a ever shrinking bubble is a severe restriction on your freedom, a restriction that an ever increasing proportion of Americans are unable to afford.

Taeyoung writes:
I reckon most people, pro-immigration advocates included, would not wish for the U.S borders to be abolished tomorrow. But on what grounds can they object? It's the humanitarian thing to do, right? It is also apparently great for the economy!

For my part, I think in any discussion of immigration, the preferences of the natives ought to be given first priority. If they don't want a bunch of colonists coming and settling among them, we should feel very reluctant to settle a bunch of colonists among them. Even if there's one or two natives among them who would like to bring in a pack of colonists. If that means they're missing out on some marginal boost to economic growth -- so be it! Economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of civil society, and is not the sole criterion against which the government of a democratic polity ought to be judged. And if the majority want to preserve the communities, culture, and customs that have made them what they are today, they ought to be allowed to do so, rather than being subjected to the sociological equivalent of getting bulldozed to make room for the new Vogon hyperspace bypass (if they're the minority, well, tough luck -- but a just polity would nevertheless allow the minority some space and protection for their traditions somewhere).

Now, the fact that the natives' views ought to be given first priority doesn't mean that they're the only priority. I'm sure there are cases where we ought to override them. But there are a lot of people who have absolutely zero sympathy for the natives. These people are wrong. And their attitude is morally reprehensible.

Paul writes:

6. "Those of us with incomes high enough can move to where immigrants can't afford to live but what of other people?" At risk of sounding sanctimonious: Immigrants are people, too. Many of them are escaping problems far worse than feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you.

Widespread, massive poverty has externalities. Now, if Caplan himself actually lives in a high crime, high poverty neighborhood with sub-standard public services (i.e. poor policing, very long EMT response times, corrupt politicians, failing schools, etc.) then maybe he is worth listening to on this issue. However, the most likely outcome of unrestricted immigration is massive slums full of people who have no access to water, electricity, or police protection and the rule of law. Advocates of unlimited immigration sound more like reactionaries in love with anti-democratic hierarchies than libertarians. I cannot see how such an unequal society could remain democratic, as democracy depends upon a clash of opposing powers to produce public virtue from private vice, just like functioning markets turn greed and ambition into consumer surplus.

Jeff writes:
If somebody has HIV/AIDS, don't have sex with them (personally), and bar them from making blood donations. And if a lot of people from a high-HIV country are entering, a simple policy that bars immigrants from that country from donating blood could be instituted, just as there exist policies against blood donations from sexually active homosexual males).

Maybe we could also tax the immigrants to subsidize Anti-rape underwear for women, too, since consensual sex isn't the only way to contract HIV. But then maybe the stuff I'm hearing about India's, Haiti's and Sub-Saharan Africa's problems with rape are overblown and really aren't any big deal. Or maybe once everybody moves to Chicago, the problem will abate, somehow. I don't know, but I suppose it's worth a shot, right?

Bryan, can you really be so oblivious to the actual point being made that the 'low-cost' psychological separation from unpleasant experiences suggested by your 'Bubble' philosophy is for various obvious reasons far more easily attainable to people who live in the Right Sort Of Place, that The Right Sort Of Place (probably not all that coincidentally) tends to have low concentrations of (certain sorts of) immigrants, and that it tends to actually have a high background cost to live there?

Or are you just ignoring it in favor of straw-men like 'feeling uneasy because your neighbors don't look like you'?

sourcreamus writes:

Thank you for the mostly respectful and thoughtful reply.
As someone who loves children and believes in bringing many into the world,isn't it much harder to for them to create a bubble in an environment with many poor immigrants. Children do not have the freedom that we adults have to chose our environments, and most of our kids will end up in public schools. If those schools are filled with poor immigrants won't that degrade the experiences of our children? I am not talking of an aesthetic preference for people who look like us. I know you are a strong believer in the heritability of intelligence and the correlation of intelligence with impulse control. Going to a school filled with young people who have poor impulse control and low intelligence can be a dangerous thing. We as parents have a special responsibility for the safety of our children.

Secondly, surrounding ourselves with a bubble is as common for immigrants as it is for you and I. Thus immigrants tend to want to create bubbles that resemble what they are comfortable with and reflect their culture. This is obviously true with regards to food and shopping but also true with regards to other parts of culture such as mores, economic beliefs, and political beliefs. Thus immigrants from Vietnam have built a little Saigon in Northern Virginia. I am sure Cowen is always trying to get you to eat there. Now obviously one Little Saigon is no threat to anything and just enriches the experience of living in Northern Virginia. However if immigration were at the level you would like to see then there would be tens of millions of immigrants, all trying to create their own bubbles by recreating the culture of the land they left. Given enough immigration would not it be possible for immigrant culture to become the dominant culture in many regions? There is nothing special about the land, what makes America great is the culture of America. Aren't you risking that culture, by bringing in tens of millions of people who do not share the culture? If immigrants are 1% of the population assimilation is probably inevitable. If they are 10% of the population and share a culture assimilation is entirely optional. If they are 50% of the population perhaps assimilation starts going the other way.

If immigrants are practicing their cultures in ways that don't harm natives, then what's the problem? And even if immigration increases crime (a questionable proposition) that does not justify restricting immigration unless you also support restricting everything that increases crime. For example, in an alternate world in which alcohol prohibition did not increase crime, would you support banning alcohol (since it itself increases crime)? Somehow, I doubt it.

Vipul Naik writes:

@Jeff, thanks for your response. At best, this argument applies to HIV-positive people with some propensity to rape. Given the difficulty of distinguishing who may be violent, perhaps this applies to all males ... This would still leave the door open to allowing HIV-infected females in. Do we agree on that?

NZ writes:

@Eccentric Opinion:

You are oversimplifying. Increasing crime is only one part of the equation. Even if immigrants committed very little crime, citizens of a country may still have other utilitarian or consequentialist reasons to oppose immigration. (Like, for example, the notion that a surge of immigrants will drive down wages.)

Speaking of alcohol prohibition: Prohibitionists, who were in effect the Progressives, had primarily ideological rather than utilitarian reasons for supporting a ban on alcohol. Indeed, conservatives at the time tended to oppose the ban, not because they necessarily thought drinking was okay but because they thought the ban would do more harm than good.

@NZ
There are many things that can decrease wages: women entering the workforce, mechanization, etc. Yet people who claim to oppose immigration on the grounds of wages rarely oppose many of the other things that may decrease wages. Anyone who opposes immigration on these grounds should at least oppose free trade, which few conservatives explicitly do.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Carl:

The answer to your question is quite simple. You may include whomever you wish in your in-group. But you may not use violence in order to prevent me from hiring somebody, even if they were born outside the United States and you don't want them to live here.

NZ writes:

@Eccentric Opinion:

Again, you are focusing on only one factor. You can take any isolated negative externality of something, point to other random things that share that negative externality in common, and press someone on why they're not against those other random things too. However, when looking at a particular issue or policy we have to look at the sum of all its externalities together, not just one or the other.

sourcreamus writes:

@Eccentric Opinion
If the immigrant's culture subverts the superior norms of the native culture than then the immigrant's culture can harm the native without the native interacting with the immigrant culture.
For example, my brother went to visit some friends in Mexico. At the border crossing he was told he had forgotten some paperwork but was able to get in the country anyway with a quick bribe to an official.
Bribery is illegal in Mexico just as it is in the US, the difference is that the norms in Mexico made it safe for the official to ask for the bribe. He could be sure that even if my brother complained about it his coworkers and bosses would be okay with the bribe and he would not lose his job. In America an official who wanted to be corrupt could not count on the acquiesence of his superiors and coworkers so he would not ask for a bribe even though he wants one.
If enough people from a country where bribery is fine move into a country where it isn't at some point the norm will be changed, and the potentially corrupt official will find it safe to ask for bribes.

Yaj Reizarb writes:

From an amazon.com review of Harry Browne's book:

"Libertarians are not free because they spend way too much time thinking about freedom when should be out getting laid and eating a great meal."

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