Bryan Caplan  

Caplan-Ting Immigration Debate

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My Students for Liberty immigration debate with Jan Ting of the Center for Immigration Studies is now up.  Here's the teaser, here's the whole thing

Credit where credit is due: Ting was brave enough to debate before a hostile libertarian audience, and he's the least angry critic of immigration I've personally met.  Libertarians can learn from his courage.  Restrictionists can learn from his serenity.

But my compliments have to end there.  Intellectually speaking, Ting's whole talk is a textbook case of "misanthropy by numbers."  He never strays from these four misguided steps:

1. List as many negatives as possible.  Count how many complaints he has - and notice how he almost always leaves magnitudes to your imagination.

2. Studiously ignore all positives - or twist them into negatives. Ting even manages to lament the effects of foreign students' excellence in math and science!

3. Ignore all remedies other than exclusion, expulsion, and extermination.  While he expresses sympathy for immigrants, he never seriously considers any of the keyhole solutions crafted to handle his complaints without trapping foreigners in Third World misery.

4. Ignore the welfare of the maligned group, or the possibility that the maligned might have valid complaints against youAs I explain in the trailer, the fact that most of us care more about Americans than foreigners is a reason to calm down, put our feelings aside, and try to make sure that we treat foreigners fairly - just as we would do if we were judging a competition where our own children were the contestants.  Personal bias is an argument for acting against your instincts - not indulging them.

P.S. The Caplan-Ting Foreign Policy Debate makes more sense if you watch our immigration debate beforehand.  We did two debates back-to-back, and immigration was first, so there's a good reason why I tie the two issues together in the second debate.

P.P.S. If you think watching videos is an inefficient way to acquire information, here are the boiled-down written versions of my opening statements in defense of open borders and pacifism.

COMMENTS (37 to date)
James writes:

I wish Caplan had challenged Ting to defend his position that the well being of people who are not currently citizens is less important than the well being of current citizens. That seems to be at the center of most of these types of debates.

Ting repeatedly stated that this was what he believed and once mentioned Chinese philosophers having thought about it but I don't think Ting would expect anyone to accept either of those as a reason to believe this position is correct.

Cimon Alexander writes:

Just to be clear, the position of this blog is that the situation with regards to high levels of immigration in Sweden is a good thing, right? I just want the readers to be clear on what kind of outcomes are to be expected when they sign up for the kool-aid.

Ghost of Christmas Pasr writes:

Next time debate me. I can persuade any reasonably pragmatic and numerate person that unlimited low-IQ immigration is a terrible idea.

Daniel Schmuhl writes:

I think open borders in our current situation is the equivalent of libertarian suicide. Bryan should know better especially consider all he's read on IQ research.

Łukasz Rożej writes:

One of the keyhole solutions mentioned on the web page you link to is imposing tests of English fluency and cultural literacy. Does it mean forbiding immigration for those who don't pass the tests? Isn't it a restriction? Isn't it also morally impermissible?

8 writes:

Ting even manages to lament the effects of foreign students' excellence in math and science!

I have heard one argument against this: natives do not want to import a master class. This cuts to the main flaw of Caplan's arguments, which is that people are tribal and we often see that tribalism cut along racial and cultural lines. "Master" races or ethnic groups have frequently become the target of violence when society encounters major problems. Status is zero sum. Inviting lower and upper classes that will divide along racial and ethnic lines is a recipe for internal conflict, it adds more groups to hate the leading class.

Evan_S writes:
I have heard one argument against this: natives do not want to import a master class. This cuts to the main flaw of Caplan's arguments, which is that people are tribal and we often see that tribalism cut along racial and cultural lines. "Master" races or ethnic groups have frequently become the target of violence when society encounters major problems. Status is zero sum. Inviting lower and upper classes that will divide along racial and ethnic lines is a recipe for internal conflict, it adds more groups to hate the leading class.

So we have to restrict immigration so that racists don't get mad about people who don't look like them achieving?

S writes:
Count how many complaints he has - and notice how he almost always leaves magnitudes to your imagination

I remember your reaction the last time someone tried to calculate the magnitude of one of the costs of immigration. You thought he should be fired for it.

Julien Couvreur writes:

User gozxdesastros posted a good comment on YouTube which points out how in the market more customers is a good thing and services find ways to scale to the demand, yet somehow government services (such as roads, welfare, education, environmental protection) cannot.

Not accepting those movers as new customers would be morally wrong ("we don't want second class citizen") but accepting them would degrade service to existing customers.

Government services are supposedly beneficial (ie they bring more to society than they extract in taxes), yet doing too much of that and being too successful (more "customers") makes us poorer somehow.

Julien Couvreur writes:

I forgot to thank you and M. Ting for the debate.
He definitely did a good job representing the mainstream view. His composure and yours made for a very enjoyable debate.

guthrie writes:

Are quite certain the ‘outcomes’ you refer to are directly correlated with the immigrants? Is it possible that said outcomes can be reasonably attributed to other factors, and/or applied to native peoples?

That’s quite a statement. And if you’ve failed to persuade me here on these blog posts, what might that mean?

He does know better, which is why he advocates for open borders.

Keyhole solutions are not intended to be optimal, but ways to ‘nudge’ (to borrow a term) policy toward freer immigration. So your answer is, ‘it’s more moral than what we currently have’.

@ 8
We have a history in this country of dissipating tribalism (think of the Irish immigrants from the middle of the 19th century to name but one example). IMO, it’s a reasonable counter against that argument to say our egalitarian values trumps tribalism.

That argument makes me shake my head. On the one hand we have restrictionists like Ghost and Daniel proclaiming doom as relaxed immigration invites hordes of (non-American) idiots, while this argument suggests that if we only allow the smarties, race/tribe wars will certainly erupt. WTH.

Carl writes:

Ting did a terrible job. I would much rather see a debate with "Ghost of Christmas Past." Fundamentally the economic case for immigration hinges on understanding why some countries are rich and others poor. I believe a mainstream economist would answer that rich countries have "good institutions". If that is true, then it seems like imperialism and colonialism would be at least as beneficial as open borders.

guthrie writes:

Values such as 'private property', 'checks and balances', and 'rule of law' aren't 'institutions' per se, and aren't typical of imperialist regimes. I believe mainstream economists might be aware of this.

Bonus: these values are not diluted by immigrants who are drawn to the ‘rich countries’ by these very values.

FredR writes:
these values are not diluted by immigrants who are drawn to the ‘rich countries’ by these very values.

What about immigrants drawn to rich countries by all that money?

guthrie writes:

I imagine they'll start making it once they're here. You know, as long as they're allowed to contract with a willing employer (or more than one).

Max writes:

Ghost of Christmas Past,

Could you please provide a brief outline of the arguments against unlimited low-IQ immigration that you believe should persuade any reasonably pragmatic and numerate person that it would be a terrible idea? I'm skeptical of this claim but am delighted at the possibility of discovering something I've overlooked.

guthrie writes:

Interesting to note... both tacks of the restrictionist argument in this thread come from a 'civilization vs barbarism' axis of thinking (ht Arnold Kling). IOW different arguments using the same language.

Speaking for myself, my axis of thinking runs along 'freedom vs. coercion'. My impression is that the arguments in favor of 'status-quo or stronger' restrictions tend to favor rather extreme coercion by default. I imagine that my arguments might seem caviler or callous to the perceived threats against our vaunted and fragile institutions.

This means the bullet I must bite is that our civilization must be damned if it means people aren't free to peacefully move, work, contract, and live.

Your bullet to bite is that people must be damned if you imagine that their mere presence in any way threatens your concept of civilization, its institutions, or your ideals.

Andrew writes:

What are the chances the Democrats will enact your keyhole solution to political externalities of banning immigrants and their children from voting? If Republicans tried to do this, one can imagine the fun commercials painting them as racists trying to disenfranchise minority voters.

Arthur_500 writes:

Dear Cimon,
Please go to Sweden one day. It is a wonderful country. the place is beautiful. It is my homeland.
If you work in Sweden you will be required to learn Swedish and Swedish History and Customs. This is not when it is convenient to you but immediately at regular classes.
When your visa is up you will depart the country. Yes, they will find you and deport you.
Sweden is a socialist Country and very proud of it. However, you will find that they act more Capitalist than many in the United States. They are very protective of their history, their culture, and their prejudices. They will quickly say you should help poor black people and then help you to keep them away from Sweden. This is common among Liberals where they know what is "right" but just not with them.
Sweden may be my homeland but you see where I emigrated to. I jumped through the hoops and danced the dance. I am a proud, and honest, American.

guthrie writes:

Even a majority of Democrats seem to make a distinction between 'disenfranchised minorities' who are born here, and those who are born elsewhere. Most Dems, while concerned about militarizing the US southern border, seem to favor the status quo. Calls of ‘racism’ against GOP pols enacting that keyhole would be a non-starter, IMO.

Andrew writes:


There have been calls of racism against GOP politicians attempting to put an English language requirement in the current immigration bill. Why would adding a ban preventing all future immigrants and their children from voting not get the same chilly reception? Also, while I agree that Democrats care more about natives than foreigners, this only applies until the foreigners make it into the United States, at which point Democrats see them as potential Democratic voters and start posturing as their best friends.

D writes:

The issue can't really be honestly debated with a professional academic or in a live public forum, since one side, in order to make a strong case, has to bring up population/racial differences that persist over generations(i.e., likely genetic in origin). And we know that can't be done without risking one's reputation and career.

Debate someone like Steve Sailer or any number of commenters who've flooded your posts in the comments over the last couple of years.

Steve Z writes:

All the keyhole solutions amount to an invitation to debate imaginary policy instead of real policy. Nice for academia, or setting up a really boring GURPs campaign, but off base in terms of the real world. Even if there were the political will to enact them--there isn't--they would provide no reassurance: Laws passed by one Congress can be repealed by the next. It's far harder to deport millions than it is to change a law.

Delphin writes:

To be consistent Caplan should really be trying to export American solutions and institutions, to make Cairo more like ( for example) Austin, not to risk making Austin more like Cairo. But even faced with an airtight proof this was feasible he would not be, he has prior ideological commitments. One of those prior commitments entails welcoming even those who desire to destroy what makes Austin work better than Cairo with open arms. He routinely dismisses all arguments about the freedom costs or social costs of his policies.

guthrie writes:

I believe there is a measure of degree to take into account, as well as the disconnect between media players and the rank-and-file.

Relaxed immigration would present a threat to US Unions and would be resisted from that base (much like NAFTA was). The Dems have a real fine line to walk there, and I doubt most of their elected officials are willing to walk that line.

Again, it's just my opinion, but I believe the calls of 'racism' over this bill are merely window dressing... a bluff, if you will. If we see actual increased immigration, I say look for the Dems to change their public tune to fit more in line with how people actually feel.

Delphin writes:

Guthrie and bullets to bite:
OR we could try to actually look at actual arguments and not pretend this about who is more morally admirable.

Delphin writes:

Guthrie wrt your note tocimon. I suggest you research rape rates in Sweden, and compare Malmo to Geneva.
It's worth looking into crime rates in the Irish parts of NY 160 years ago too. Immigrants bring their values and cultures, and sometimes wewouldwish they wouldn't. That doesn't mean no immigrants. It does mean there are possible problems we should try to forestall.

guthrie writes:

I admit my statement might have been uncharitable. I apologize if it was. The fact remains, however, that to restrict a humans basic freedom of movement, and an employers freedom of contract, you *must* endorse coercion, and thus - to my mind - choose 'culture' or 'sovereignty' or 'security' over people. To me, this is the justification for Bryan's charge of 'misanthropy'. This is the adhesive by which the epithet sticks.

The argument I present is simple... I believe the warnings against 'crime' or 'poverty' or 'loss of culture' or 'welfare abuse', or any number of objections to be overblown. I have used these arguments in the past myself, and they have been obliterated. I've had to come 180 degrees on this subject. I don't believe they any longer justify State coercion and limiting freedom. Present me an 'actual argument' then and see if it convinces me.

re. Sweden, yes and then read Arthur_500's post of what it takes to emigrate to Sweden *just to temporarily work*. I don't know for sure, but I have a hunch that becoming a citizen of that country is magnitudes more difficult. Picking a particular crime rate and attributing it to increased immigration is faulty logic at best. Correlation does not equal causation.

Same with comparing crime rates historically. There's too many variables to pin such rates to *one thing* like 'immigration'. Rising population, increased regulation, xenophobic violence all play a part, none of which can be fully laid at the feet of 'immigrants'.

And as far as the Irish in America is concerned... you mean culture such as the music, which went on to influence both American Country and Blues (thus Rock 'n' Roll) and has been spread worldwide to the betterment of humanity? Yes... horrible them Irish and their culture...

Look, it's not like I don't understand the reaction of 'caution'. I get it. We don't really *know* exactly what will happen if we relax immigration. But exercising caution doesn't have to mean walling off the border and deporting (or shooting) everyone who doesn't look like us or who 'wasn't born here'. And this is what many who oppose immigration reform seem to be aiming toward. This is what I endorsed until Bryan and Dr. Henderson (et al) forced me to reflect upon my position. I realized that in reality I was a xenophobic and misanthropic shill, who attempted to use obscure crime stats and the collapse of ancient empires to justify my xenophobia and misanthropy.

So present me with an 'actual argument'. Chances are I've used it myself. Chances are it's not enough to justify restricting human beings and their movements or contracts with willing participants. But I'm willing to be wrong, as I was against Bryan's arguments here on this subject. What say you, good gentles who support restricting the borders? Win me back to your fold...

Andrew writes:


What is the solution to Friedman's complaint of the incompatibility of a welfare state and free immigration? It seems as if Bryan usually attacks this by citing international studies showing welfare going down as diversity goes up and proposing keyhole solutions. Regarding the international comparisons, this is equivalent to liberals pointing to Sweden, and saying "Look, having massive government spending helps your economy!" As far as the keyhole solutions go, as I elaborated on earlier, they are a farce, as neither political party has any incentive to use them. The Democrats certainly don't see anything wrong with more people using government programs or voting Democratic, and the Republicans will only drive immigrants further into the Democrats arms by bringing things up like blocking immigrants from using public education or making it illegal for immigrants and their children to vote. Also, as can be seen from the current immigration bill debate, any time the Republicans try to appear friendly to immigrants, the Democrats will always outdo them, and position themselves as immigrant's true friends.

Yes, it is easy to say "if you're opposed to welfare, just eliminate welfare, don't restrict immigration." However, unless you see the Libertarian Party gaining control of all branches of government, welfare isn't going anywhere, particularly if immigrants continue to overwhelmingly vote left.

guthrie writes:

I think you're correct in saying neither political party has much incentive to adopt keyhole solutions. Welfare on one hand and military expenditure and industry on the other are two sides of the same coin which propagate the current power structure. Those in power wish to keep that power, if not expand upon it. This is a considerable problem.

Combine that with regular folks' misconceptions (economic, cultural, and otherwise) and xenophobia, making the case for open borders is a rather daunting task.

Practically speaking, however, I think it's incorrect to assume and present the idea that non-citizens can easily gain from the US's welfare structure as it stands today. Having had to fill out welfare forms myself (food stamps, housing assistance), I can tell you that these forms are very clear that you must be a legal resident (i.e.: paying taxes) in order to garner any benefit from these programs.

IOW, it's already illegal for those illegally here to vote, for example. Education and Health Care seem to be the two areas where free-ridership can take place. I believe it's still legitimate for a libertarian to say that there are far bigger issues in these 'industries' than free-riding immigrants.

My solution (far, I'm sure, from being *the* solution, but since you ask...) is actually not quite mine, but an adaptation of Dr. Henderson's. I would delay citizenship for a certain time, say 15 to 20 years. The people coming here would be made aware of the risks, and would be expected to accept responsibility. Criminal offenses and chronic destitution would be worthy of deportation. Otherwise c'mon down... live, work, and better yourselves as you see fit.

PS. I believe the pervasive and expanding disdain for Government in the country has given Libertarians a growing opportunity for political inroads and success. Don't discount a Libertarian branch just yet!

guthrie writes:

As an addendum: most welfare programs are administered locally. I would allow local legislators to administer their funds to whom they see fit. If a community wishes to be restrictive, that would be an incentive for immigrants - and perhaps their potential employers - to re-locate to friendlier territory. The communities will then prosper or suffer accordingly.

Delphin writes:


The fact remains, however, that to restrict a humans basic freedom of movement, and an employers freedom of contract, you *must* endorse coercion, and thus - to my mind - choose 'culture' or 'sovereignty' or 'security' over people.

Agreed. Just like having laws against rape, the freedom to contract a paid assassin, cruelty to animals, public nudity, or eating hot dogs with ketchup on them, you need coercion. And laws may serve purposes other than maximizing the freedom of some individuals when that harms other people in indirect ways. So since we're dichotomizing, put me down as "pro-coercion", as you would quickly learn should you try to rape my child ...

guthrie writes:


So... *all* immigrants rape children?

After you answer that question...

Can the power to enact laws ever be abused? Are laws always rationally devised? Or are there ever cases of laws enacted as the result of superstition, or baseless suspicion, or any other irrational motives?

And then this…

What *exactly* are the 'indirect harms' you refer to?

And please... something concrete.

Using coercion to prevent striking people when one swings one's arms about is one thing. Enacting laws to prevent one from swinging their arms about when one's inside their home alone is invasive and an abuse of power… likely stemming from an irrational fear that you *might* cause *some* externality *at some point in the future* to *someone*.

I'm under the impression that Society can stand to allow people to swing their arms about in the privacy of their own homes... and for people to peaceably move about, live, and work where they see fit - *regardless* of where they were born. Delphin, allow me to reassure you... neither you nor your children are in danger.

Andrew writes:


Thanks for the response. To my eye, delaying citizenship for 15 to 20 years would create a huge incentive for one of the political parties, likely the Democrats, to grant citizenship to all of those immigrants to recruit new Democratic voters. In addition, if citizenship is denied for 15 to 20 years, would this include blocking access to any public service, such as public education, fire and police services, emergency medical care, etc.?

Picture an immigrant family with young children moving to the United States, would the children be denied all public services for 15 to 20 years, including public education? I just can't picture the government sending in the military to block immigrant children from entering schools. Another potential problem with this proposal, is that most immigrants will be nonwhite, and this will in effect create a two-tiered society divided along racial and ethnic lines. That situation does not seem desirable, nor sustainable, and would be ripe for an enterprising politician to promise to bring citizenship along with all of its benefits to all immigrants, much as is the case today with current illegal immigrants.

guthrie writes:

Thank you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness as well.

Perhaps, but your scenario could just as easily be turned around and see immigrants exploited by Republicans who wish to dismantle Union power. The machinations of the Parties does not disquiet me as much as it once did... they both seem to reach for power, no matter how it's attained, and damn the ideology if need be.

I have granted the free rider problem with education and health care. It would be my suggestion that, on the one hand, each immigrant would be made aware of the responsibilities and risks, say a similar education program as there is in place now, except paid for by the immigrant or their employer. Let us put the onus on that relationship (since it's a key to this argument). On the other hand, a given community, should they be more open to immigrant labor, would likely budget for the (marginal) increase in the use of public emergency services.

I have a problem with the 'two-tiered society' concept, or at least its use in the immigration discussion. One could argue we already have such a two-tiered society with American ethnic minorities. However, we can find African-Americans (for example) in nearly every social and economic strata of US society, so it can't be completely true. At least the question of 'race' can't be the whole story. The same goes for most any other ethnic minority. I have faith that if willing workers are allowed to contract with willing employers, the Society, the Culture, the 'Body-Politic' would find a way not just to cope, but to thrive. It's happened before, why not now?

My ultimate point is that we are smart and sophisticated (generally speaking)... we can come up with ways around these issues without resorting to coercion, intimidation, and deportation. It's entirely possible my ideas above might be insufficient and unoriginal, but hey, I'm just one guy! ;)

Delphin writes:

Guthrie asks

So... *all* immigrants rape children?

Can the power to enact laws ever be abused?
What *exactly* are the 'indirect harms' you refer to?
The proliferation of strawman arguments.
guthrie writes:


HA! Fantastic! Thank you for the chuckle!

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