Bryan Caplan  

"Craziness" and Immigration Policy: A Dialog with Brad Trun

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A while back on Twitter, I asked:
Question for people who think my views on immigration are "crazy": Would the same views remain "crazy" if I were Haitian?
Brad Trun, blogger at Libertarian Realist, wrote a direct and forthright reply.  Some will condemn him as racist, and be horrified that Brad identifies with libertarianism.  But his response to my Twitter challenge was better than the others I've seen.  My reply is below.  He's in blockquotes, I'm not.

You write:
If you were a freedom-loving American, it would be crazy for you to advocate unlimited inflows of unskilled, crime-prone, Affirmative Action-eligible, future Democrat bloc-voting Haitians with average IQs of 80 into your country.
Suppose, however, that I was a freedom-loving PERSON, who cared about the freedom of Haitians as well as Americans.  Would advocacy of open borders be "crazy" then?

Would you similarly say that a "freedom-loving white American" would be "crazy" to oppose the exile of black Americans who share the same undesirable characteristics you attribute to Haitians?  Why or why not?


Brad then sent me the following email reply, used with his permission.  I'm in blockquotes, he's not.

Bryan,

I'm delighted to get your response.

If you valued the freedom of Haitians and U.S. citizens equally, then I suppose open immigration for Haitians would be justified if Haitians gained more freedom than they subtracted from U.S. citizens.  To me, it's an irrelevant question.  It is not the purpose of a libertarian government to help redistribute freedom more equally around the world.  It is to secure the freedoms of the people under its jurisdiction.

Do you value the freedom of Islamists to impose sharia law wherever they want?  Presumably not, since it would be crazy to value a person's freedom to take another person's freedom away.

Do you favor more Muslim immigration into Western Europe?  The Muslim influx is having disastrous consequences for freedom there, ranging from skyrocketing rates of rape in Scandinavian cities to sprawling polycentric Sharia zones in London, where drinking is banned, women must be covered, and gays can't exist openly. 

Would you similarly say that a "freedom-loving white American" would be "crazy" to oppose the exile of black Americans who share the same undesirable characteristics you attribute to Haitians?

No, but Thomas Jefferson was a freedom-loving white American who favored both the emancipation of black slaves and their deportation back to where they were illegitimately taken from.  That opportunity has passed.  I don't favor forcibly exiling people unless they've actually committed a crime.

But the granting of citizenship to the foreign born is the granting of positive rights and privileges (to vote, etc.), to which the entire world population isn't  automatically entitled.  Being highly selective as to who gets citizenship is an aspect of national security.  Citizenship selectivity would be especially important for a libertarian country that exists within an overwhelmingly non-libertarian world.

Indiscriminately open immigration can result in rapid political and economic deterioration if the immigrants are overwhelmingly low-IQ, crime prone, statist, and/or culturally hostile.  Imagine that Detroit circa 1955 -- which was majority white, relatively safe, prosperous, and widely considered to be one of the greatest cities in the U.S. -- became a sovereign city-state.  Should it have adopted a policy of open immigration?  We don't have to speculate about the consequences of such a policy.  It was in place by default.  And it was catastrophic.  

My informed speculation is that Detroit's death spiral of rising crime, declining property values, a collapsing economy, white flight, and depopulation would have been averted with immigration restrictions.  Detroit today might still be a jewel of a city.  I think you'd have to admit that it's hard to imagine a sovereign Detroit with selective citizenship being worse off than Detroit today actually is.  

I'm not saying that every city should be its own nation.  But if the people who reside in a given nation -- however delineated -- value their freedom, they should favor an immigration system that selects for a population with compatible characteristics.


I then sent Brad the following reply.  He's in blockquotes, I'm not.  (Except for his blockquotes of my blockquotes).


I'm delighted to get your response.

Likewise.

If you valued the freedom of Haitians and U.S. citizens equally, then I suppose open immigration for Haitians would be justified if Haitians gained more freedom than they subtracted from U.S. citizens.  To me, it's an irrelevant question.  It is not the purpose of a libertarian government to help redistribute freedom more equally around the world.  It is to secure the freedoms of the people under its jurisdiction.

If you're a libertarian, where does this "jurisdictions" stuff come from?   I'd think that the purpose of a libertarian government would be to respect people's freedom.  And even if you think freedom in a jurisdiction is a priority, that hardly means it's an absolute priority.  In the worst case scenario, full Haitian immigration make Americans mildly less free.  In the status quo, American immigration restrictions make Haitians vastly less free.

Do you value the freedom of Islamists to impose sharia law wherever they want? Presumably not, since it would be crazy to value a person's freedom to take another person's freedom away.

No.  But keeping out all Muslims because a few of them are nutjobs is much crazier.

Do you favor more Muslim immigration into Western Europe?  The Muslim influx is having disastrous consequences for freedom there, ranging from skyrocketing rates of rape in Scandinavian cities to sprawling polycentric Sharia zones in London, where drinking is banned, women must be covered, and gays can't exist openly. 

I think these tales are absurdly exaggerated.  And remember - the main victims of expat Sharia would be far worse at home, as I explain here.

Would you similarly say that a "freedom-loving white American" would be "crazy" to oppose the exile of black Americans who share the same undesirable characteristics you attribute to Haitians.
No, but Thomas Jefferson was a freedom-loving white American who favored both the emancipation of black slaves and their deportation back to where they were illegitimately taken from.  That opportunity has passed. 

Taking freed slaves and sending them back to a country they've never known is an "opportunity" that's "passed"?

I don't favor forcibly exiling people unless they've actually committed a crime.

People, or citizens?  What's the difference?

But the granting of citizenship to the foreign born is the granting of positive rights and privileges (to vote, etc.), to which the entire world population isn't  automatically entitled.  

Opposing citizenship and opposing immigration are very different things.  I am saying that the entire world population is automatically entitled to sell their labor to willing employers, rent from willing landlords, etc.  If you think people aren't entitled to more, why not complain about the welfare state instead of immigrants?

Indiscriminately open immigration can result in rapid political and economic deterioration if the immigrants are overwhelmingly low-IQ, crime prone, statist, and/or culturally hostile.  Imagine that Detroit circa 1955 -- which was majority white, relatively safe, prosperous, and widely considered to be one of the greatest cities in the U.S. -- became a sovereign city-state.  Should it have adopted a policy of open immigration?  We don't have to speculate about the consequences of such a policy.  It was in place by default.  And it was catastrophic.  

What you call "catastrophe" is, by world and historic standards, a paradise.  Would saving Detroit have justified depriving blacks of the freedom to live and work where they like - and whites the right to trade with them?  No.

I'm not saying that every city should be its own nation.  But if the people who reside in a given nation -- however delineated -- value their freedom, they should favor an immigration system that selects for a population with compatible characteristics.

Why stop there?  Exile aside, why not restrictions on who can have children, how many they can have, etc?  If you say, "Those restrictions are themselves severe abridgements of people's freedom," I agree.  But then I have to add, "The same goes for immigration restrictions."


Brad emailed me a further reply, but I'm too busy for another round. 

P.S. In the comments, please double-check that you aren't misattributing my words to Brad, or his words to me.  Thank you.



COMMENTS (33 to date)
FredR writes:

It seems like the basic issue for libertarians, as his latest response makes clear, is whether or not you consider residence/citizenship in a country a property right or not.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

I have only two comments.

First, data show that immigrants are less prone to commit crimes than US born citizens. That's a myth that immigrants even those who are very poor are more prone to commit crimes and it's bad thinking to assume that one's national origin or religion will dictate one's tendencies to commit crimes (or IQ or tendencies to be a statist).

Second, I would like to see the data that correlate immigration rates to crimes rates in Detroit. If we believe crime rate is related to unemployment and poverty rates, meaning that in areas where unemployment and poverty rates are high, crime rates are higher, I don't see how this is related to immigration. It seems to me that unemployment in Detroit increased because the main source of revenues from people in Detroit was the automobile industry that progressively declined because of inability to compete with foreign competition due to unions, government anti-competitive barriers that got lowered over time. Let's not forget strengthening of drug prohibition, etc. I concede this is a very simplified explanation of Detroit's problems.

I highly doubt that the increase of welfare states in the US or any European countries for that matter is immigrant-driven. It's historically inaccurate.

Andrew writes:

Bryan,

By this point, surely you know that arguing from a global libertarian perspective only serves to turn off the minds of those you're trying to persuade. If you're looking to actually bring people over to your side, you need to show that immigration is a net benefit to current citizens along all relevant dimensions. Demonstrating that you have the moral high ground or that immigrants benefit tremendously is irrelevant in this case.

Also, in regards to the "if you can't stand welfare, fight welfare" argument, I would think that most citizenists find it implausible that immigrants would ever be prevented from using public services such as health care and public schools. At least with the Democrats in power, the chances of new legislation rolling back the welfare state or barring immigrants from public services are basically zero.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

Brad Trun and other immigration restrictionists are cherry picking the cause of deterioration of many black communities such as Detroit or Haiti.With regards to US blacks, what ever happened to libertarians' and conservatives' admiration for Losing Ground? For international blacks, what ever happened to other development economics explanations (e.g. institutions)?

Mercer writes:

"be "crazy" to oppose the exile of black Americans who share the same undesirable characteristics you attribute to Haitians?"

Anyone who keeps making arguments based on ignoring the distinction between citizens and foreigners will never persuade most of the population.

Gabriel Puliatti writes:
Anyone who keeps making arguments based on ignoring the distinction between citizens and foreigners will never persuade most of the population.

Well, given how my 8 year old tri-lingual half-sister communicates regularly Skypes her friends from across the world, and I did the same when I was 13 and would spend my time on message boards discussing with others who didn't live in my nation, I have a feeling that the connectedness of my era will mean that future generations will not be as bigoted as others.

We have gone a long way to making this world a better place by expanding rights from powerful to disenfranchised groups by showing how those distinctions are not as important as we thought they were. I'm very glad Bryan is putting forth arguments in a language that pushes for this acceptance of people's rights because of their humanity, rather than just because they're a specific group that we happen to like.

"Anyone who keeps making arguments based on ignoring the distinction between whites and negroes will never persuade most of the population."

FIFY

[Editor's Note: FIFY is short for 'Fixed It For You.' It notes a substitution of other words--possibly entirely antithetical to the original ones--for the author's original words.--Econlib Ed.]

Brian writes:

"Suppose, however, that I was a freedom-loving PERSON, who cared about the freedom of Haitians as well as Americans. Would advocacy of open borders be "crazy" then?"

Bryan,

If you are a good libertarian, you will care only about your own freedom and well being. The freedom of others is only of concern to the extent that it enhances your freedom and well being. Any concern about the freedom of abstract Haitians is the essence of "soft head, soft heart" reasoning. As other posters have noted, that will get you nowhere in convincing others. And it SHOULD get you nowhere. It's muddle-headed thinking and not worthy of you. Make your arguments, instead, on how more open immigration will benefit the people you're trying to convince.

Kevin writes:

If we should only let in liberty-lovers, then I wonder if Turn is OK with open borders with places that are freer than the US. Going by the Economic Freedom of the World scale, would he support open borders with Hong Kong and Singapore? New Zealand and Switzerland? What about slightly less free Australia and Canada?

Jeff writes:
What you call "catastrophe" is, by world and historic standards, a paradise. Would saving Detroit have justified depriving blacks of the freedom to live and work where they like - and whites the right to trade with them? No.

Turning America's major cities into barren, post-industrial wastelands is acceptable because freedom? That's more than a little perverse. This is ideology taken to an unthinking extreme. You're like an unrepentant Marxist. So what if capitalism makes everyone better off? Equality! Fraternity! So what if your community becomes a burned out ruin? Freedom! Rights! Bubbles!

nzgsw writes:
Also, in regards to the "if you can't stand welfare, fight welfare" argument, I would think that most citizenists find it implausible that immigrants would ever be prevented from using public services such as health care and public schools. At least with the Democrats in power, the chances of new legislation rolling back the welfare state or barring immigrants from public services are basically zero.

Indeed. I'm with Bryan on the theory. I've yet to see him seriously engage in the actual practical implications of his positions, especially given the political realities that exist in this country.

For example, Ted Cruz has proposed amendments to the current immigration reform bill that would exclude newly-legalized illegal immigrants from accessing means-tested benefits or from ever becoming citizens. Does Bryan support these? Aren't they examples of Vipul Naik's "keyhole solutions?" Shouldn't Bryan be cheering these amendments?

7x7 writes:

Brad sounds like he's read Raspail's The Camp of the Saints. It is fiction Bryan, but reading it might make his views more intelligible to you.

That and FredR hits the nail on the head, in my opinion.

Tom West writes:

From his postings here, I suspect that Brad Trun (along with some number of other Libertarians) believe that to a greater or lesser degree, there are large ethnic groups that are simply incapable of peaceful existence in a Libertarian society.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brian,
If you are a good libertarian, you will care only about your own freedom and well being.
I think you and I differ about the meaning of the words "good" and "libertarian."

David Friedman writes:

Several comments:

1. "Do you value the freedom of Islamists to impose sharia law wherever they want?"

That's a red herring, since most libertarians don't use "freedom" to mean power. It would make no more sense to ask whether one values the freedom of murderers to kill people. Bryan is arguing for the freedom of people to buy and sell, hire and be hired, which are things libertarians generally do view as freedoms.

2. Apropos of which, it's a mistake to conflate immigration and citizenship. In the chapter on immigration in my Machinery of Freedom, published about forty years ago, I suggested extended restrictions on full citizenship for new immigrants, including both voting and collecting welfare. I also suggested that, as a matter of fairness, people who were barred from collecting welfare ought not to be taxed to provide welfare to others.

3. I've been arguing for some time that the link between immigration and welfare goes in both directions. The existence of a welfare system provides an argument against immigration—a good argument in theory, how strong in practice is an empirical question. But the existence of immigration provides an argument, a politically powerful argument, against a welfare system. For those critical of income redistribution, that is an argument for freer immigration.

For a longer version of the argument, see this post.

Ted Levy writes:

I guess the question I'd ask Brad and others similar thinkers is: What if YOU were a Haitian? A peaceful, libertarian Haitian eager only to better your life using free trade and voluntary interaction with others... What if you lined up a job with a willing American employer? What if you were willing to buy a home from a willing American seller? What if you were happy never to take welfare or other government benefits beyond taxes you would willingly pay? What if you were not interested in citizenship, merely in improving your life peacefully by living and working in America?

Like Jews being turned back to Hitler's Germany by FDR, wouldn't you, as this hypothetical libertarian Haitian, ask "by what right?" And wouldn't you be correct to ask that question?

Brian writes:

"I think you and I differ about the meaning of the words "good" and "libertarian."

David,

Perhaps, though I suspect our main disagreement is with my use of the word "good." I am equating good with rationality, with doing what's best for oneself. But this isn't as selfish as it sounds. If I want to maximize my own freedom, I need everyone else to be free also. My freedom to interact with you, if I choose, would be greatly limited by any restrictions on your ability to interact with me. All goods, if they are truly good, will benefit both parties, including the good-doer.

If Bryan wants to argue that the inability of Haitians to immigrate restricts his and others freedom to interact with them, I think he can make a strong case. But I also think it's a mistake to appeal to some higher moral principle that is likely not to be shared by others. The standard objection is simple enough--letting Haitians in would lower our standard of living. Whether right or not, the argument follows rational principles and should be countered in kind.

Doug writes:

@ David Friedman

"I suggested extended restrictions on full citizenship for new immigrants, including both voting and collecting welfare."

This is roughly Dubai's approach to immigration, which seems highly rational and well-designed to me. However there's no way that this would ever fly with voters. (Just look at all the flak Dubai gets about its foreign workers in the Western press) And it's really no wonder that the only places we see these types of immigration policies are in countries that are decidedly undemocratic.

Look at the history of every major democracy. They always expand their franchise given enough time. In contrast you'd be hard-pressed to find an example of any democracy ever that restricted the franchise. That's because co-opting new voters into the system is a tried and true formula for easy electoral success.

How long do you think such a non-voting immigrant system would last? A thousand political entrepreneur would see all those juicy sacks of meat just waiting to hit the ballot box. We'd hear non-stop from hundreds of advocacy groups, academic sociologists and muckraking journalists about the "disenfranchisement" and abuse of America's "immigrant under-class". My sincere guess is one election cycle, maybe two, until they were granted full voting rights.

Mercer writes:

" existence of immigration provides an argument, a politically powerful argument, against a welfare system "

How powerful has it been in California and New York?

I get the impression open borders advocates pay no attention US politics and government when I read statements like that.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan,

Your digital paper trail on IQ is too extensive, so you are eventually going to get Richwined no matter how many ultra-long posts you put up about how you want to flood America with impoverished foreign blacks.

Steve Z writes:

It is fine to oppose welfare and want to restrict the franchise of new immigrants, but in reality, something has to give. Prof. Caplan is logical, and so he feels comfortable waving away any objections to the collateral consequences of immigration by noting that there is no necessary connection between the "right to travel and work for whom you want" and, e.g., the right to vote or receive welfare.

But in the world we actually live in, rights come in bundles. Moreover, I have never heard of a case where a modern democracy granted a whole new category of right to a group that does not participate in its political process while simultaneously curtailing other categories of rights. As others have pointed out, it's hard to imagine it happening, or sticking if it does happen.

Professor Caplan does not believe a nation may morally exercise the right to exclude, and has noted that he believes the President need not be bound by the rule of law when it comes to this right. What this really comes down to, when measured against the practical reality laid out above, is advocacy of abolishing nations entirely. One may argue the merits of this position more fruitfully with a clear view of its radicalism.

anonymous writes:

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

Tom West writes:

In contrast you'd be hard-pressed to find an example of any democracy ever that restricted the franchise. That's because co-opting new voters into the system is a tried and true formula for easy electoral success.

Nothing to do with the fact that further restricting the franchise is immoral? (At least in any circumstance I can think of.)

People who live, work and pay taxes in a country deserve to be able to vote. Creating a two-tiered country is recipe for long-term disaster.

Adam writes:

Why aren't libertarians concerned with expanding liberty? The US today is hardly a free country. Everything's illegal, regulated or taxed. Governments control more than 40% of the GDP. With all the former, why is immigration the top priority for discussion?

Let's do the easy stuff first--like getting rid of licensing requirements for florists, water conserving toilets, the minimum wage and ad infinitum?

Nathan Wartooth writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for rudeness. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Doug writes:

"Nothing to do with the fact that further restricting the franchise is immoral?

People who live, work and pay taxes in a country deserve to be able to vote. "

Despite not being able to vote in any meaningful sense the people who live, work and pay taxes in Monaco and Liechtenstein seem quite free and happy to me.

In fact significantly more so than those who live, work and pay taxes in their neighboring countries. Subjecting a people to Hans-Adam's divine rule seems much more moral to me than Hugo Chavez's electoral mandate.

We accept that restricting the franchise solely to his majesty Hans-Adam is morally fine, primarily because an electorate consisting of Hans-Adam and Hans-Adam alone delivers excellent quality government.

Let's take it one step further. The white native population of California overall seems to constitute a better electorate than the people of Mexico. Mexicans have had the franchise in Mexico since 1917. Suffice it to say the quality of government in Mexico has not reached the quality of government in California.

So what's so bad about restricting the franchise in California to white native Californians? I'm not advocating removing legal rights from Mexican-Californians. After all non-royal Liechtensteinians still hold all the same (if not more rights) than voting citizens of democracies. They'd have all the same rights as before, but they simply couldn't vote. Because as a group Mexican-Californians are not improving the democratic outcome.

Simon C writes:

I have a question for those who favor restricting the rights of foreigners to travel to an work in the US. Do you think that US citizens should also be restricted from traveling to or working in other countries? If not, why not?

Andrew writes:

Hey Simon C,

I would think that most immigration-restrictionists simply want to maximize net welfare for current citizens. Their arguments have nothing to do with moral questions of whether it is equivalent to close the borders to incoming foreigners and to keep current citizens contained within those borders.

These types of morality plays just aren't going to convince anybody on the opposite side. In order to persuade those who favor immigration-restriction, open-borders advocates need to show that mass low-skill immigration into, say, Steve Sailer's neighborhood, is going to be a net benefit for Steve and his family. Most of the arguments along these lines tend to weak, saying for instance that Steve can now get cheap lawn care, or eat at convenient taco stands across the street.

Floccina writes:

BTW Blacks seem to have made a fairly good country in Barbados.

Floccina writes:

As a person might agree that unlimited immigration may ruin the country, but also believe that it is the right thing to do and so support it.

NZ writes:

Simonc C,

Andrew's comment was dead on, but I would also add that if other countries restricted US citizens from entering for travel or work, many American immigration-restrictionists would at least find it respectable or even admirable.

JW writes:

Bryan, would love to hear your thoughts on these immigration arguments:

http://www.nationalreview.com/agenda/347884/solving-igmigration-puzzle

Ken B writes:
What you call "catastrophe" is, by world and historic standards, a paradise
This is really weak, since Trun is talking about a relative change not whether Detroit ca 2013 is better than some village ca 1100. You could demolish half the housing in Detroit and still leave it a paradise by historical standards, but that would still count as a catastrophe.
Clay writes:

The Detroit issue highlights the disagreement: If you dig deep enough, you can not separate a preference for a thriving, successful, low crime city from racist ethnic group preferences. Yet as commenter Jeff says, Bryan seems to accept wide scale ruin and disaster in exchange for mass immigration.

@Alexandre, you are correct that in the US, foreign born status is correlated with low crime rates and high crime is correlated with poverty and unemployment. However crime, poverty, and unemployment are all correlated with ethnicity and caused by heredity based nature factors as well as environment/nurture factors.

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