Bryan Caplan  

The Fine Line Between Social Darwinism and Suicidal Compassion

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What Tyler Cowen Said... Scenes from the Class Struggle...
Are you a libertarian?  Are you tired of being called "hard-hearted"?  Then I've got a solution for you!  You'll still be insulted.  But instead of being condemned as "hard-hearted," you'll be mocked as "soft-headed."  All you have to do:

1. Take your hard-core libertarian writings on the domestic poor.

2. Replace all references to the "domestic poor" with "low-skilled immigrants."

3. Publish your "new" position.

My latest essay for Hoover, "Treating Immigrants Like Strangers," is a case in point.  I begin:

Immigrants are strangers, and we should treat them accordingly.

On the one hand, this means that we should consider all of the ways-good and bad-that immigrants affect us.  We shouldn't merely consider the fiscal effects of immigration.  We should consider the broader economic effects, including those on innovation and entrepreneurship.  And we should consider the political effects-how immigrants will sway our future policies and priorities.

None of this means, however, that we may ignore the welfare of immigrants.  They're strangers but still human beings.  No one is obligated to hire strangers, house strangers, or support strangers in the lifestyle to which they'd like to become accustomed.  When someone else offers to hire, house, or support a stranger, however, we are normally obliged not to interfere.  If you disapprove of your employer's latest recruit or your landlord's new tenants, you have every right to quit or move.  But to overrule other people's agreements requires a very good excuse.

These moral observations may seem obvious, but they have a shocking implication.  Our current immigration policies treat immigrants worse than strangers, far worse.  Existing laws do not simply make immigrants ineligible for (most) government benefits, or protect your right to refuse to hire or house immigrants.  Instead, existing laws prevent anyone in the United States from hiring or housing immigrants unless the immigrant has government permission.  This permission is very difficult to obtain, especially for low-skilled immigrants.

The upshot: to treat immigrants like strangers, we would probably have to drastically liberalize our immigration laws - not just for high-skilled immigrants but for low-skilled immigrants as well.  Denying government benefits to immigrants is fine; they're strangers, so we have no obligation to support them.  Denying immigrants the right to accept a job from a willing employer or rent an apartment from a willing landlord, by contrast, requires a very good excuse.

If I talked the same way about poor Americans, people would attack my view as a cold-blooded Social Darwinism.  But since it's about immigrants - especially low-skilled immigrants - the same position somehow becomes suicidally compassionate.  Sigh.  It's almost like people don't understand their moral obligations to strangers.



COMMENTS (52 to date)
Tom West writes:

Again, I think this all comes down to whether one considers your country as "owned in common" by its citizens.

If so, then the citizenry has a moral right to decide "who they let in" in the much the same way that joint owners of a mall may decide who they want to be a tenant (and for equally arbitrary reasons).

If not, then such laws are an immoral restraint on one's fellow citizen who may wish to employ immigrants as well as non-citizens.

I suspect that's the fundamental disagreement.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan,

Eventually, you are going to get Richwined over IQ and all this Open Borders stuff won't save you.

MikeP writes:

I think this all comes down to whether one considers your country as "owned in common" by its citizens.

I don't think so.

In particular, lots of virulent opponents of free migration are people who would not give up their proximate sovereignty lightly. E.g., they are supporters of states rights, they believe taxes are too high, etc.

If the country is owned in common by its citizens, then states rights are utterly moot: States are merely tenants on the citizens' property. And certainly if the country is owned in common by its citizens, the concept of high taxes is a complete non sequitur: If the citizens decide that taxes are X, there is no normative consideration that could rebut that.

No, ownership by citizens is nothing but a poorly thought out excuse, with no basis in moral or legal reasoning, for the fundamental basis of restricting migration: Raw protectionism.

Rob writes:

While I would love a considerable shift toward libertarian values in the world, it is simply not correct (in my opinion) that we have moral obligations to strangers.

There are legal obligations, and social expectations, human tastes and emotions, and then there are the laws of physics.

What Caplan calls moral obligations falls into the category of human tastes and emotions. These are not objective, just like aesthetic taste in art is not objective. I agree with libertarianism, but I disagree with its logical claim to moral objectivity.

cimon alexander writes:

Ownership rights in the proper metaphysical arrangement is not what confers legitimacy upon government - good governance does. This means creating a pleasant place to live that is likely to stay so for a long period of time. Often, this means economic and social freedom, though there is more than one way to govern well. And almost always this means more restrictive immigration policies than pure open borders.

If we are going to have rulers, then I want them to rule well. I don't want them to create nasty places to live in fealty to some invisible god of non-aggression.

cimon alexander writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation.--Econlib Ed.]

Steve Sailer writes:

[Comment removed for policy violations. --Econlib Ed.]

Bostonian writes:

"But to overrule other people's agreements requires a very good excuse."

Low-skilled immigrants are natural Democrats who will use the government to expropriate me. They are already doing so. I consider that a good reason not to let them in.

Evan_S writes:

Good post. If the immigration restrictionists were consistent, then they'd advocate the deportation of the American poor on the very same grounds that they oppose immigration. (And actually, this would probably be a comparatively less bad policy.)

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Social Darwinism, especially in this country, covers an enormous range of thought, including Progressive sociology of the Gilded Age.

For example, Lester Ward was Darwinian, but he was also a Progressive because he felt that control of the environment could influence evolution.

Aaron Zierman writes:

You state:

Denying government benefits to immigrants is fine; they're strangers, so we have no obligation to support them.

I'm confident that this is the key problem most people have when discussing immigration. Most libertarians have a fundamental problem with the welfare state as is and only see open immigration as exacerbation of the existing problem.

If, and it's a big if, we could actually do away with the welfare state as is, then I think far fewer people would have a problem with a drastically simplified immigration policy.

johnleemk writes:
Again, I think this all comes down to whether one considers your country as "owned in common" by its citizens.

This seems to me to be a good argument for rigorously debating under what terms citizenship ought to be granted. That's very different from debating under what terms foreigners ought to be allowed in.

The argument you're making seems to be that policy when it comes to admittance of foreigners needs to be governed by the most restrictive prevailing view. You seem to be saying that because of "common ownership", the interests of all "owners" should be held hostage by the opinions of the most restrictionist "owners". If you want to compare citizenship to shares in a business (a very disputable analogy), in the typical developed country, a simple majority of shareholders is all you need to sell ownership of the company. There's no holding the majority hostage to the whims of a minority -- even if the minority shareholders have very valid concerns. (And mind you, I am not saying that this is how governments should be run -- I'm just borrowing your analogy and taking it to its logical conclusion.)

Unless a foreigner is granted citizenship, there are no citizen-unique rights being diluted. (Unless you think the right to live, work, or study in a particular country should default to citizens and only citizens of that country.) The question is why the interests of those who dislike foreigners should automatically receive primacy over the interests of citizens who do like and/or don't mind foreigners. If I want to marry a foreigner, why do I need to ask all citizens for permission before I can live with my spouse? If I want to hire a foreigner or start a business with a foreigner, why do I need to ask all citizens for permission before I can work with them? Why are my interests held hostage by the most restrictive "common owner"?

(Now someone will surely say that opinion polling indicates a majority of people in your country don't want more immigration, and that's why restrictionist immigration policy ought to prevail. That's fine; debating restrictionist views with an aim to changing people's minds is something I'm happy to do. But this democratic line of argument only takes you so far. If the *only* argument in your arsenal is "A majority of people don't want it," you have a very very weak argument. If a majority of people did want more immigration, then would you accept liberal immigration policies? Or would you still insist that your views must always trump others', because the interests or opinions of the most restrictionist citizen should trump the interests of all others'?)

Low-skilled immigrants are natural Democrats who will use the government to expropriate me. They are already doing so. I consider that a good reason not to let them in.

This seems like a good reason to also demand the government ban the sale of automobiles to African-Americans, because otherwise they might drive to the polls and vote to tax you.

nzgsw writes:
Denying government benefits to immigrants is fine; they're strangers, so we have no obligation to support them.
If everyone in America lived by Professor Caplan's moral code, then I'd support open borders.

Unfortunately, in this country, a majority of voters believe that we're morally obligated (and therefore legally obligated) to provide government benefits to the poor, and so the idea that we'll be able to exclude poor immigrants from this system is a huge problem with this theory. And one that Professor Caplan continually refuses to address (aside from simply assuming it away).

MikeP writes:

Unfortunately, in this country, a majority of voters believe that we're morally obligated (and therefore legally obligated) to provide government benefits to the poor...

Apparently not, considering the 2 or 3 billion poor "we" don't provide government benefits to.

nzgsw writes:
Apparently not, considering the 2 or 3 billion poor "we" don't provide government benefits to.
I dropped the "domestic" from Bryan's example. My point stands.
johnleemk writes:
Unfortunately, in this country, a majority of voters believe that we're morally obligated (and therefore legally obligated) to provide government benefits to the poor, and so the idea that we'll be able to exclude poor immigrants from this system is a huge problem with this theory.

California's welfare reforms in the early 1990s and Clinton's welfare reforms suggest otherwise. Americans quite clearly don't have an issue with foreigners working in the US without being eligible for welfare.

Just ask any worker on an H1B, or an immigrant with a newly-minted green card, whether they can get unemployment insurance or Medicaid if they lose their job. Almost every form of federally-provided welfare benefit (SSI, TANF, SNAP, non-emergency Medicaid) is denied to immigrants unless they've held a green card for longer than 5 years. Social Security and Medicare are provided to people regardless of immigration status -- as long as their SSN is valid and they have paid the payroll tax for 40 quarters, AKA 10 years. If you have worked for 39 quarters or less, citizen or not, your payroll taxes have all been money down the drain.

So, Americans are quite clearly comfortable denying welfare to a lot of immigrants right now. Now, some states have decided to use their own money to extend some benefits to immigrants who don't qualify for them at the federal level. (I believe New York offers full-scope Medicaid to even recent immigrants.) But that strikes me as a very poor excuse for banning foreigners from living and working in states that don't extend such benefits.

MikeP writes:

I dropped the "domestic" from Bryan's example. My point stands.

No, it doesn't.

johnleemk goes into details. But, fundamentally, if this "moral obligation" can be limited to domestic poor, then it can just as easily be limited to citizen poor.

Chris H writes:

nzgsw writes:

If everyone in America lived by Professor Caplan's moral code, then I'd support open borders.

Unfortunately, in this country, a majority of voters believe that we're morally obligated (and therefore legally obligated) to provide government benefits to the poor, and so the idea that we'll be able to exclude poor immigrants from this system is a huge problem with this theory. And one that Professor Caplan continually refuses to address (aside from simply assuming it away).

So correct me if I'm wrong but the model of American politics you are proposing is a) most Americans want a significant welfare state for the poor, b) most Americans oppose open immigration, and c) most Americans are incapable of saying yes to welfare to citizens but no to welfare to immigrants. This model seems empirically rather flawed to me. First is the idea that a primary concern of the American public is a welfare state for the poor. If so we have a funny way of showing it given that pensions to seniors alone (including social security) dwarfs welfare payments and the majority of health expenses also go to seniors. A more likely model is that what Americans primarily want out of the welfare state is a secure retirement, and indeed it's proven easier to pass reforms of welfare than reforms of social security. This is important because immigrants typically come to the United States while young and many leave to retire in their home countries where their savings go a lot further (having $50,000 in retirement savings means a lot more in Guatemala than in Texas). Because of this even if immigrants do wind up being a net drain on government finances (though almost assuredly not on the economy as a whole) the effect is not likely to be apocalyptic.

Point b) is true but then makes me wonder why you would be so sure that Americans wouldn't be willing to restrict access to the welfare state to immigrants.

Which brings us to the all-important point c). I find this a strange assumption given that the 1996 welfare reform act put special limits on immigrants receiving welfare including legal immigrants. We've already done it once, why on earth would anyone assume we couldn't put such limits again?

I simply have not heard a convincing explanation for this kind of model of human behavior. Humans dislike those they consider out-groups more than those they consider in-groups. Immigrants are clearly considered an out-group given how much people want to keep them out of this country and how much they associated immigrants with crime despite the evidence against that. Sure many liberals will push for keeping the welfare state open to non-citizen immigrants but since when did liberals control American politics? They barely even managed to get Obama's health reform bill passed (and without a public option) when they had supermajorities in the House and Senate AND the White House. The majority of moderate and conservative Americans seem highly likely to be fine with welfare restrictions on immigrants. And just rely on status quo bias to keep citizenship obtuse and difficult to get and the immigrant welfare problem is almost entirely dealt with. These aren't implausible political outcomes, but in fact to me seem the most likely outcomes. I have a hard time imagining getting open borders passed without restrictions like that.

I'd even be willing to bet that most other developed countries, even those with stronger welfare states, would adopt similar restrictions under open borders given that there is correlation between the amount of ethnic diversity in a country and the size of it's welfare state. Given all this, the idea that it's politically impossible to adopt keyhole solutions like restricting access to the welfare state or to citizenship doesn't make sense to me.

nzgsw writes:
So, Americans are quite clearly comfortable denying welfare to a lot of immigrants right now.
We may be fine denying immigrants welfare, but as the 1986 amnesty and current efforts show, we are likely, in the long run, to turn those immigrants into citizens.
MikeP writes:

nzgsw,

In the long run, yes. My preference is 18 years of residence before an immigrant is eligible to be a citizen, and minor citizen children of immigrants are on the welfare schedules of their parents.

The amazing convolutions of immigration law often approximate the former. But both are needed to assure the reluctant that immigrants aren't coming to take our welfare.

nzgsw writes:
In the long run, yes. My preference is 18 years of residence before an immigrant is eligible to be a citizen, and minor citizen children of immigrants are on the welfare schedules of their parents.

The amazing convolutions of immigration law often approximate the former. But both are needed to assure the reluctant that immigrants aren't coming to take our welfare.

Unfortunately, the bill taking shape in the Senate right now has no such protections. Ted Cruz had amendments that would have created them, but they weren't even allowed a vote.

I have similar preferences as you do. I just, unfortunately, believe that my preferences have a near zero chance of being implemented (and not just on this particular subject, natch), and something rather worse is far more likely.

johnleemk writes:
We may be fine denying immigrants welfare, but as the 1986 amnesty and current efforts show, we are likely, in the long run, to turn those immigrants into citizens.

So is your complaint that foreigners are getting welfare, or that citizens are getting welfare? BTW before Clinton's welfare reforms that cut off access to most federal benefits for immigrants, the National Research Council famously calculated that the net present value of the average immigrant to the US government is $80,000 (in 1997 dollars), so even the pre-1996 generous welfare regime wasn't a net drain on the public purse.

Moreover, you cut out a significant number of people when you only allow citizens to claim benefits. According to the Pew Research Center, only 60% of immigrants apply for citizenship. For large-scale legalisations, the number's even lower: only 40% of immigrants eligible for citizenship under the 1986 legalisation actually applied for and received citizenship.

Given that there's going to be selection bias in who applies for citizenship, there's no reason to believe the public fiscal net present value of naturalised citizens is any less than the pre-welfare reform figure of $80,000. It's almost certainly more. So why exactly are we supposed to be worried about letting people who've lived in the US long enough to naturalise claim welfare benefits?

Ted Levy writes:

Rob says: "it is simply not correct (in my opinion) that we have moral obligations to strangers"

Given that Caplan is here speaking of the moral obligation merely to leave people alone, to not kill them or rob them, to not interfere with their voluntary intercourse with others, this is a striking claim on Rob's part. More than striking, actually. It seems to suggest we may treat strangers as sub-human.

nzgsw writes:

My complaint is that I don't believe the welfare state and open borders are compatible, and I have yet to see the open borders advocates make a compelling, realistic case on how we get to a world where we have open borders and a drastically smaller welfare state. History, political economy, and current legislative efforts don't seem to provide a good guide.

Can you make that case?

I've said repeatedly, I want to be convinced. But I haven't seen Professor Caplan even try to address these concerns seriously.

Evan_S writes:
My complaint is that I don't believe the welfare state and open borders are compatible, and I have yet to see the open borders advocates make a compelling, realistic case on how we get to a world where we have open borders and a drastically smaller welfare state. History, political economy, and current legislative efforts don't seem to provide a good guide.

Can you make that case?

I've said repeatedly, I want to be convinced. But I haven't seen Professor Caplan even try to address these concerns seriously.

I believe that Caplan has made this case before:

1.) There appears to be a link between ethnic homogeneity and welfare benefits. Nations that have a highly uniform ethnicity tend to be more generous disbursing welfare money (see the socialist and ethincally homogenous Northern European nations.) Caplan has attributed this to the view many hold that people who look like them are trustworthy and unlikely to cheat the system ("no fellow Dutchman would steal from me" is a way I believe he has phrased it.) On the other end, people view ethnic outsiders with suspicion, and are less likely to be generous with welfare benefits if they know a lot of it will go to those who don't look like them. Therefore, even if immigrants did tend to vote for more welfare benefits, their net effect could still be to reduce the welfare state because of the effect they would have on native voters.

2.) The large majority of immigrants are over 18, and therefore do not receive public schooling, which is one of the most expensive benefits provided by the welfare state.

3.) The average SECOND GENERATION immigrant is actually wealthier than the average native, and therefore presumably a bigger net contributer to the public till.

MikeP writes:

I have yet to see the open borders advocates make a compelling, realistic case on how we get to a world where we have open borders and a drastically smaller welfare state.

1. Start with your assertion: ...a majority of voters believe that we're morally obligated (and therefore legally obligated) to provide government benefits to the poor...

2. Let people know that there are 3 billion people who are poorer than anyone in the US that the government is providing benefits to.

3. Can you extend the umbrella of US welfare over all those people? Of course not.

4. But these people don't actually make any claim to US welfare: Some subset of them just want to be free to try to make a living in the first world.

5. Propose the grand bargain: The US will let the truly poor reside and work in the US so long as they can pay for themselves. To make this workable with existing expectations of welfare, the US obligation to provide government benefits will be limited only to the citizen poor.

6. Two Constitutional Amendments to make sure this grand bargain lasts!

johnleemk writes:
My complaint is that I don't believe the welfare state and open borders are compatible, and I have yet to see the open borders advocates make a compelling, realistic case on how we get to a world where we have open borders and a drastically smaller welfare state.
To recap how we got here, we started with and then went to:

1. Giving welfare to foreigners is a bad idea (actually, the US federal government doesn't give most welfare benefits to immigrants, and even when it did, immigrants were a net positive for the US government)

2. Giving welfare to naturalised citizens is a bad idea (actually only about half of immigrants naturalise and given selection biases it's not clear why naturalised citizens would be NPV-negative to the state, when immigrants are NPV-positive)

3. Ok, maybe both of the above lack factual grounding, but still, what proof do we have that open borders is compatible with the welfare state?

If the US maintains its existing welfare regime without any changes, I actually think it's totally compatible with open borders. Open borders doesn't require granting citizenship, or even green cards, for that matter, to anyone who applies. You could just give out work visas (with some upgrade path to green cards and/or later citizenship after the foreigner has demonstrated evidence of assimilation). Hardly anybody is bothered that people entering the US on H-class visas (work permits) are banned from collecting welfare.

Let's say expanding H-class visas doesn't fly and the US (or whatever country one has in mind) insists on granting only permanent residency (green cards in the US) to foreigners who want to come. Immigrants are still NPV-positive to the US. The US doesn't do any skills- or points-based test of immigrants, though it does screen them for risk of becoming a "public charge" (which is something I've never heard a single person complain about), and I see no reason to change that policy. Consequently, open borders will actually grow the US government's coffers. It's more than consistent with the welfare state.

(If you think about it, this totally makes sense: since the consensus estimate of economists is that open borders will double world GDP, it would be extremely surprising if the governments of rich countries see absolutely zero gains. Most of the gains accrue to the immigrants, yes, but hardly all; looking fiscally, it's not a zero-sum thing any more than international trade is.)

Milton Friedman was only partly right that the welfare state and open borders are incompatible. An *overly generous* welfare state is incompatible with open borders. Even before 1996, the US welfare state was not exceedingly generous to immigrants, and it's certainly not exceedingly generous now.

So let's stretch this and take an extreme case: Sweden. The poster child for restrictionist policies. What's the impact to their state fiscal burden? If the state generously guarantees each person a certain living standard (say, equivalent to income of $20,000 per year), that quickly adds up. But what does the data actually tell us? Well, here's one study calculating the lifetime NPV of the average immigrant to the Swedish state: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3440952?uid=3739256&sid=21102289369421

The lifetime NPV for the average Swedish immigrant is -$20,500 (only a bit more after adjusting for inflation, because this study is a few years old). If you assume the typical Swedish immigrant lives in Sweden for only 20 years, that's a cost to the state of just over $1,000 per immigrant per year. And that's for the poster child of ludicrously generous welfare states.

IMO, the risk of welfare and open borders being incompatible is overblown. In theory, it's a problem. But in practice, there's not a single example of the welfare state being overwhelmed by the fiscal costs of immigration, even when they are tremendously generous. And if the costs do turn out to be more than citizens are willing to bear, they seem happy to reform their welfare systems.

Restrictionist worries about welfare arise because of the focus on the lowest common denominator, the poorly-educated (i.e. less than high school or primary school education). But even under fairly open policies, these immigrants don't come in large enough numbers to bring down the average. This is because both open borders advocates and regular mainstream citizens are happy to forbid these people from coming if they are coming purely to exploit the welfare state, and because lazy foreigners are highly unlikely to be interested in uprooting themselves to a totally new and alien place.

guthrie writes:

@nzgsw,

I believe Bryan has suggested before that increased immigration would likely result in a reduced welfare state because the 'citizens' would be less inclined to offer public assistance in general if there is a greater chance that poor immigrants might benefit.

Daublin writes:

@Tom West,

Bryan was discussing the morals of the question. Your response is on the legality.

To continue your example, yes, it is legal for the owners of a shopping mall to exclude people for a wide variety of reasons. Nonetheless, such a decision would often be immoral, and it would be good if the people who frequent such a shopping mall were to advocate for what is right.

nzgsw writes:

Wow. Too much to read, digest, and reply to right now. I will note that trying to talk with all of you who appear to have significantly more time to dig up links and craft posts is intimidating, though I don't really appreciate the implication that I tried to move the goalposts (it's really more a case of making hasty responses and not adequately laying out my position).

nzgsw writes:

Wow. Too much to read, digest, and reply to right now. I will note that trying to talk with all of you who appear to have significantly more time to dig up links and craft posts is intimidating, though I don't really appreciate the implication that I tried to move the goalposts (it's really more a case of making hasty responses and not adequately laying out my position).

Tom West writes:

But, fundamentally, if this "moral obligation" can be limited to domestic poor, then it can just as easily be limited to citizen poor.

*Strongly* disagree. You assume the reason for welfare laws is to benefit the poor. I disagree. We have welfare because most of us do not wish to witness abject poverty. It also has the side effect of allowing us to feel good about our self-less nature.

MikeP writes:

We have welfare because most of us do not wish to witness abject poverty. It also has the side effect of allowing us to feel good about our self-less nature.

I absolutely agree with you. Note that I am making this argument from the hypothetical: if this "moral obligation" can be limited to domestic poor, then it can just as easily be limited to citizen poor.

I believe, as you apparently do, that neither welfare nor the prohibition of free migration are about morality at all. They are mostly about protecting oneself from visible poverty.

Michael_M writes:

There is a moral conflict here, but not in what has been stated.

I will cite Dr. Caplan's other work, including "The Myth of the Rational Voter", where he lists "anti-foreign bias" as a reason why economically efficient and/or beneficial choices are voted down by the electorate.

I would argue that this bias, which is simply tribalism by another name, is a primary reason why our welfare and immigration policies turn out the way they do. In Sweden, my "tribe" may be more mono-ethnic. In the poly-ethnic US, my "tribe" is my fellow citizens, more or less. In both cases, we work to support those in the tribe and exclude those outside. Protectionism in some ways is less self-interested and more tribal.

Where things become ugly is when Dr. Caplan's policies are justified on a morality based on intuitionism, his and Dr. Huemer's default position. As pointed out in the WSJ on May 31 in the Review section, new studies show that even children as young as five will find it more justifiable to actively harm someone outside a given group than within it. The article's author put it best:

We feel that our moral principles should be universal, but we simultaneously feel that there is something special about our obligations to our own group, whether it's a family, clan or country.

This implies that the welfare state and restrictive immigration are linked, because there are in-built biases in humans to support some and disadvantage others, when those others are not in our tribe.

So, which is it: an objective morality that claims that we owe everyone a minimum courtesy of not-harming them, or intuitionism, where our native, evolved feelings may lead us to favor our own and possibly actively harm those outside our circle? To say that we might fight our impulses is to flush intuitionism as a valid source of moral thinking.


MikeP writes:

This implies that the welfare state and restrictive immigration are linked, because there are in-built biases in humans to support some and disadvantage others, when those others are not in our tribe.

Is there an experiment that distinguishes this hypothesis from the other possible explanation for the welfare state and restrictive immigration -- namely, I don't want poor people around me because it makes me feel bad about not helping them.

guthrie writes:

Apologies, nzgsw, if I was piling on!

Mercer writes:

" not a single example of the welfare state being overwhelmed by the fiscal costs of immigration, "

California

"If you assume the typical Swedish immigrant lives in Sweden for only 20 years,"

Why do you make that assumption? There are millions of Muslim immigrants who stay in Europe for life.

johnleemk writes:
" not a single example of the welfare state being overwhelmed by the fiscal costs of immigration, "

California

Because immigrants are responsible for ill-thought-out union contracts and pensions? Blaming one factor for California's "collapse" gives restrictionist rhetoric a bad reputation. (Making it seem like California is collapsing is another such factor. While many things about California strike me as ridiculous or undesirable, I have been to real developing hellholes like West Bengal, Myanmar, or the Philippines. I have also been to California, many times. I cannot for the life of me see why people are so confident that California is no better than a third world country, when it doesn't take a genius to see that California in absolutely no meaningful way resembles a country mired in poverty.)

This isn't to say that individual states in the US might be net fiscal losers from immigration. They well could be. According to the National Research Council's 1997 study, the $80,000 fiscal benefit per immigrant decomposes into about $105,000 to the federal government and -$25,000 to the state. (These are lifetime NPV numbers, so the annual cost to a given state government per immigrant is more in the $500 to $1,000 range.) What's the solution -- making the federal government distribute some of those gains from immigrants to the states, or banning immigration?

Why do you make that assumption? There are millions of Muslim immigrants who stay in Europe for life.
To simplify a calculation of the annual cost to the state per immigrant. The lifetime NPV of the average Swedish immigrant is -$20,500. If you assume the average Swedish immigrant stays in that country for 60 years rather than the round and easy number of 20, then the per-year net cost to the Swedish state of that immigrant is not even $400. $400 per immigrant per year. Is that supposed to sound apocalyptic?
Hana writes:

I am surprised there is less emphasis in the conversation regarding the use of 'strangers'. Every parent has taught their children to beware of 'strangers'. Whether Bryan is right or wrong, is there any doubt that 'strangers' represent a threat. To embrace his thinking, we must all set aside the fear of 'strangers'. I grew up with a similar term, 'gaijin'. That fear may be real and is hard to break.

johnleemk writes:

Hana, Bryan actually explicitly uses that as his point of reference in the post he links to at the end of this post:

People in the Third World are strangers, but we still have a moral obligation to leave them in peace. Instead, we pass draconian laws forbidding these strangers to work for other complete strangers. And for what? To fulfill our fantastical obligation to maintain the wages of fellow citizens we don't trust enough to give our kids a ride.
We wouldn't let our children trust complete strangers. But we don't use that by itself as an excuse to interfere in the lives of complete strangers.
Hana writes:

@johnleemk

I appreciate your defenses, but my point is more general than Bryan's. When someone enters your community, you don't have the obligation to just let them alone, you must also recognize they may be a threat to you. Acknowledging your citation of Bryan's statement it does not answer the question of people's perceptions of 'strangers'.

Rob writes:

@Ted Levy

Given that Caplan is here speaking of the moral obligation merely to leave people alone, to not kill them or rob them, to not interfere with their voluntary intercourse with others, this is a striking claim on Rob's part. More than striking, actually. It seems to suggest we may treat strangers as sub-human.

No, it merely implies that there is no objective morality. It has nothing to do with the category "sub-human", which is not even well-defined.

If someone - like me - believes that people should leave strangers alone instead of coercively meddling with their affairs, that is merely a personal opinion or taste, not a universal truth automatically shared by all correctly thinking people.

There is no logical argument that can compell someone who disagrees. E.g. there would probably not have been a string of moral-sounding words that would have convinced Ted Bundy not to rape and kill people when he could and wanted to. This was not logical incapacity on his part, merely a difference to you and me in how his brain represented emotions and values.

In addition to this, you could probably find exceptions (which would convince you) to your alleged obligation to leave strangers alone: Does a policeman have an obligation to leave a mugger alone who is about to shoot you? This gets very arbitrary very quickly.

Dan writes:

European migration to America has created tremendous consumer surplus. What portion of that surplus was received by the native populations? Should their experience of ultimately suffering military defeat to immigrants to this land have any bearing on the question of immigration today?

I find great irony in Bryan Caplan's Euro-centric view of immigration. He claims great fondness for immigration but only as it concerns the history of the United States for the past 300 years and only as it has occurred under the governance of European descendants. The cherry on the top is he then disregards the essential cultural values that made it work!

There are reasons why the American experience with immigration succeeded. These reasons had to do with the faith, culture and values of a certain blend of Europeans who colonized the land and then created a nation with laws reflective of their common cultural values. Perhaps the time has come that we can deemphasize this culture. If so, what is the replacement and where is the empirical evidence that it will succeed?

johnleemk writes:
There is no logical argument that can compell someone who disagrees. E.g. there would probably not have been a string of moral-sounding words that would have convinced Ted Bundy not to rape and kill people when he could and wanted to. This was not logical incapacity on his part, merely a difference to you and me in how his brain represented emotions and values.
Are you comparing yourself to Ted Bundy?
In addition to this, you could probably find exceptions (which would convince you) to your alleged obligation to leave strangers alone: Does a policeman have an obligation to leave a mugger alone who is about to shoot you? This gets very arbitrary very quickly./blockquote>Are you comparing peaceful immigrants to armed robbers?
European migration to America has created tremendous consumer surplus. What portion of that surplus was received by the native populations? Should their experience of ultimately suffering military defeat to immigrants to this land have any bearing on the question of immigration today?
I'm not sure why you're conflating armed invasion with peaceful immigration.
There are reasons why the American experience with immigration succeeded. These reasons had to do with the faith, culture and values of a certain blend of Europeans who colonized the land and then created a nation with laws reflective of their common cultural values. Perhaps the time has come that we can deemphasize this culture. If so, what is the replacement and where is the empirical evidence that it will succeed?
Probably the missing piece here is that no open borders advocate I'm aware of desires the destruction of Western civilisation, nor believes it will happen under open borders.

It wasn't very long ago that Americans were extremely concerned about Jews, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, and Asians immigrating to the US and destroying their culture. And some time before that, I recall the founders of a certain republic were worried about monarchist and papist immigration -- though for some reason they never thought to ban monarchists or papists from immigrating. These facts alone give me pause whenever someone declares that mass immigration of a particular ethnic group is going to destroy long-standing institutions.

Rob writes:
Are you comparing yourself to Ted Bundy?
Yes. He had different emotions and opionions on which behavior he should choose, but this doesn't make him objectively wrong and me objectively right.

You can't logically derive an ought from an is, and you can't a universally compelling moral obligation from your personal feelings.

Are you comparing peaceful immigrants to armed robbers?
Yes. Both are strangers to the policemen who have not given him consent to meddle with their affairs. You could also replace the armed robbers with trespassers who merely go where they aren't allowed because the land is owned by others. The police will then remove them by initiating force.

Private ownership is different from national boundaries, but there is no objective logical reason why a policeforce can't enforce both, or only one, depending on the laws are codified, which is ultimately arbitrary.

Just because you disagree with a law, the law isn't objectively morally wrong and you objectively morally right. This is merely a question of taste and emotion, like vanilla over cholocate.

Evan_S writes:
It wasn't very long ago that Americans were extremely concerned about Jews, Eastern Europeans, Southern Europeans, and Asians immigrating to the US and destroying their culture. And some time before that, I recall the founders of a certain republic were worried about monarchist and papist immigration -- though for some reason they never thought to ban monarchists or papists from immigrating. These facts alone give me pause whenever someone declares that mass immigration of a particular ethnic group is going to destroy long-standing institutions.

Yep. And the U.S. effectively had an open-borders policy until during the late 19th century restrictions were placed on Chinese immigrants because these "coolies" were taking people's jobs by working for low wages. Fast forward a century-plus and the Chinese are one of the smartest and most financially successful ethnic groups in America. Yeah, good thing we kept a bunch of them out. Thanks government!

Dan writes:

There are two fundamental points / critiques against "Open borders" that proponents persistently and conveniently ignore:

(1) There are members of the native population who lose as a consequence of mass immigration. Native Americans definitely took one "for the team" of global humanity. In return they got their own designated KOA campsites and a license to gamble and smoke. Most would conclude they got screwed.

Corollary: There will be American citizens who will lose if Amnesty 2.0 is passed. No, they will not suffer the fate of native American Indians but their quality of life will suffer as they and their children are crowded out at schools, their communities and in the job market. It is a cruel joke for self-proclaimed libertarians like Caplan to argue that, at least in this case, such political minorities must "take one for the team" to allow Open Borders advocates to win.

(2) Open Border advocates assume there will be no tipping point in the national culture. Yet we have already seen tipping points in urban and state cultures that have resulted in greater poverty and expanding welfare rolls. Given the gravity of the question and given the growing empirical evidence that something is not right in the nation should we not require more than an assumption?

I suggest we examine the California experiment. How has the political, economic and social culture of that state changed in the past 40 years? Has quality of life in the state improved, declined or stagnated? What influence has mass immigration had on the quality of life for California residents? What conclusions might we draw from the California experience?

Instead of creating theoretical arguments in favor of theoretical immigration why not examine the facts as they really are and as they really exist?

Tom West writes:

I find much of the immigration debate beside the point. I suspect most of the immigration-restrictionist feeling boils down to a reluctance to see the societal changes that large-scale immigration would bring. If you have something you like (present society), don't change it! Same justification as for zoning and a host of other legislation.

This ties in with my initial point, which is if I believe I am co-owner, then I believe I have a right (through my vote) to express my desire to not see such societal change.

From this, arguments about morality, jobs, security, etc. are essentially simply tools-at-hand to express one's primary feeling.

One worry I do have is that forcing people to confront the fundamental immorality of non-open borders may well propel them farther into the Steve Sailer camp.

After all, if any restriction on immigration is anti-foreigner immorality, then why bother trying to salve one conscience with support for the levels of immigration we have now.

I am not at all certain that if we are morally forced to choose "all or nothing", the vast majority won't choose "nothing", and will now feel free comfortably enacting that view in legislation.

Sometimes conscience-salving is the best you can hope for.

nzgsw writes:

Thanks all, for the conversation. I will dig into John Lee's sources and some of Chris H's links this weekend (was that one stuck in moderation for a bit? I missed it at the time.)

One quick reply though:

I believe Bryan has suggested before that increased immigration would likely result in a reduced welfare state because the 'citizens' would be less inclined to offer public assistance in general if there is a greater chance that poor immigrants might benefit.
My skepticism of this theory is because it is completely at odds with my experiences in Los Angeles over the past 18 years. Jon Lee certainly makes a better case.

guthrie writes:

@nzgsw

I thank you for your thoughtful reply. I didn't see all those responses myself when I posted, and when I did, it really did feel like piling on!

I can understand that skepticism, actually. I lived in LA for 10 years myself from the mid-90's to the mid '00's, and during that time became a rather extreme opponent to immigration reform/relaxation of any stripe and would have fainted dead away at the prospect of 'open borders'.

I live in Wisconsin now, a state with a decently robust Latino community (nowhere close to what it is in LA, of course) and a rather relaxed stance on immigrant workers. For example, bank accounts can be opened with a Mexican ID card.

However, my views did not come around as a result of my geography, but by a thoughtful examination of my opinions (encouraged by the challenges set forth by Bryan, David Henderson, et al).

By way of explanation, then, I believe the suggestion I referred to follows this logic:
a) Most Americans oppose relaxed immigration
b) Most Americans do not live in a community which includes a high-density immigrant population
c) As a result, most Americans would be dis-inclined to vote for policies (or politicians who support policies) which provide welfare services to immigrants...
d) ... which results in the de-construction of portions of the welfare state.

As 'open-borders' does not equal 'instant citizenship', the new immigrants would not be given a chance to vote for said policies.

My theory is that there are other forces at work in LA in particular, and CA in general. That may not quell your skepticism much... I agree that jonleemk is better at making the case! Anyhoo, I hope it helps clarify.

Floccina writes:

BTW I would like it if you debaters would define what is welfare:

Government schools?
Social Security?
State universities?

Andrew writes:

@Evan_S,

For the three points you made regarding the welfare-open borders connection, could you cite a few state level studies?

1. It would be more convincing to know that, for instance, states with high levels of immigration, have lower welfare payments than the average state.

2. Also, is there a statistically significant difference in public schooling expenditures per capita for states with varying amounts of immigration?

3. In states with high levels of immigration, are second generation immigrants bigger net taxpayers than natives?

Thanks.

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